Is Any Story Ever Really Perfect?

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Writing the perfect novel

How do you know when a novel – or short story, for that matter – is finished?

At what point should you stop tinkering, put down the quill, lean back in your overstuffed armchair and say to yourself “Right, done! Now to publish”?

The greatly-missed Iain Banks once said:

Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.

You can hear the years of experience in the quote – there speaks a man who learnt the hard way. Because, of course, we all want to publish the most perfect book we possibly can. And we’re artists, so there’s always a different way to express something, a fancier adjective, a more elegant turn of phrase, a slicker exposition…

Is any piece of art, no matter how great or small, ever truly “complete”? Take Van Gogh’s famous cypress trees. Can’t you just hear him thinking: “That little one’s still a touch too wibbly. Maybe if I just straighten the top out a bit…”?

Just a bit too wibbly?We could carry on and on endlessly refining and honing and tweaking and fiddling and generally faffing until finally deciding that we’re satisfied, by which time either someone else will have told the story already or we’ll be sitting in a nursing home staring at wobbly trees and regretting our procrastination.

I’m in a quotey sort of mood today, so I’ll let Mr. Oscar Wilde sum that up for me:

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.

Recognise that syndrome? Yep, thought so, me too.

So ladies and gentlemen, assuming you take the advice of Mr. Banks – and frankly, it would be rather daft not to – crack on and get the story finished.

Then, take a breather, stand back and consider whether finished means finished. Before you reach the joyous moment of committing your beloved manuscript to publication there is a serendipitously symmetrical series of checks you should run through pre-flight. Please watch this short safety demonstration before checking for anything you may have overlooked:

Structural

1) Consistency & plot holes
2) Chronology
3) Pacing (or “enter late, leave early”)
4) Story arc
5) Conflict
6) The End

Stylistic

1) Characterisation & dialogue
2) Repetition
3) Showing and telling
4) Grammar and spelling
5) Active versus passive
6) Adverbs & adjectives

Hmmmmmm…

Over the coming series of posts, I’ll be delving into each of these aspects in more detail and sharing the insights of a first-time novelist who has fallen into every elephant trap you can imagine. This will be no mere series of theoretical pontifications, oh goodness me no! This will be knees-scraped and mud-covered from scrabbling frantically out of every one of these well-camouflaged pitfalls.

Now for two pieces of good news:

  1. You will already have dealt with far more of these than you think you have, either consciously or subconsciously;
  2. Everything that remains can be taken care of during one read-through of your full manuscript.

Thereafter , it’s largely a matter of adding and removing commas.

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18 thoughts on “Is Any Story Ever Really Perfect?

  1. ‘This will be knees-scraped and mud-covered from scrabbling frantically out of every one of these well-camouflaged pitfalls.’–I love these kinds of posts. Can’t wait to read what’s coming!

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    • I think it’s a struggle every writer has, there’s always the temptation to do just a little bit more… Letting go of something you’ve worked on and immersed yourself in for so long is always going to be difficult. “I must make sure it’s perfect!” 😀

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  2. I just got my first novel back from my copyeditor. Been writing it now since May (break over Christmas to write some sic-fi and clear out the cobwebs). Sometimes, I read scenes and feel like I’m just shifting words around. Sure, I have a focus now – weaving in some things to hint more comprehensively at deep character and removing a few simple plot elements to make things a little more streamlined – but I do still feel like there will soon come a point where I have to stop tinkering and put it out there. I’m self-pubbing – a whole different can of worms after the Author Earnings report, so at least I can get it out there quickly once I’m happy it’s ready (after a few beta readers have pulled it apart for me).

    So I agree – I don’t think it ever can be perfect. You progress as a writer every time you write. The first page vs the last; the first novel vs the most recent. You improve and so does every aspect of the craft. I read Velocity by Dean Koontz recently, then picked up something he wrote in the 80’s – the difference was startling. Velocity was written nearly 20 years later and so, what did I expect? That Koontz was going to stay the same writer all his life? ‘Course not.

    So, back to editing…

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  3. LOVE IT! You are so right, it’s AWFUL and basically novel-suicide to edit as you go. I am finally getting over the feeling that I must write perfectly the first go-through. NaNo has helped a lot with that. 😉 I am to the point now where if I get to a spot in the first draft where I am stuck, I simply do something like [insert more action/description here] or even sometimes [XYZ War] or [blah blah blah]. Lol. And then I move on. It’s really a relief to just keep the story going and know that I will have plenty of time to fix it all up later. I have a feeling I will need more than one round of edits to fix my major issues (considering my world-building still has major holes) BUT … who knows. I’m not worried about that yet, will cross that bridge when I come to it!

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