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The Perfect 10…K (vs the 150K)

1129863_im_migrationThe discussion of the perfect manuscript comes up again and again in writers’ circles. I’ve eavesdropped on at least one a year since I resumed my writing journey. I suspect it’s one of the perils of being artists in the business world. Do we make art or do we make money? Why can’t we make both?

‘Cause it don’t work like that, m’dears. Maybe in heaven.

Anyway, somebody writes a book. Somebody loves it. Somebody hates it. It makes the NY Times best-seller list, but it stinks to high heaven from a literary perspective. Run-on sentences. Corny dialogue. Predictable plot. Heavens to Betsy, is anyone reading this thing or just buying it?

What do we glean from this? All readers are idiots? The author is sleeping with one of the NY Times’ list-makers? We’ve lost the ability to judge good writing? Oddly enough, it’s rarely that last one that comes to mind until it’s happened so many times we do begin to doubt our own sanity.

The problem with artists (and most writers consider themselves artists) is they care too much about the art. Every word must be perfect. Every sentence must be useful and beautiful. Every element must have symbolic meaning, down to the color of the curtains. On and on it goes.

On the one hand, I support the high ideal of maintaining the standard in regards to art. A story should be well-crafted, scintillating, tightly written and deeply touching. The reality, though, is not every story – even by the same author – is going to meet those standards. We can aim, but humans often miss the target.

Another reality is we rarely have time to do all that polishing when the primary goal is to sell the sucker to put food on the table. Writers often have day jobs, because few indeed are those lucky ducks who can live off what they write. In fiction, anyway. Lots of people make a living writing non-fiction. Sometimes the goal is do your best, hope it’s better than the rest, sell it and write the next one. The beauty part of this reality is most readers aren’t artists and won’t give you the kind of grief fellow writers will.

Finally, I want to point out my personal bias – the short novel vs. the long novel. Yes, you can polish the snot out of 10K, 50K, 90K word stories. You can make a mighty good stab at shining up a 100K word novel and experience a modicum of success. But when your word count reaches the 150K and above range, let me tell you, polishing takes a back seat to plotting, pacing, consistency and characterization. I’m not saying you should let us “big word” writers get away with sloppy work. Far from it. I’m just saying the balancing act involved in telling a “big” story well may not include symbolic meaning for curtain colors. Sometimes a curtain is there because a curtain is needed to smother a good guy or hide a bad guy. Who gives a rip what color it is? Blood’s gonna stain it red.

Writing is hard. Whatever type of story you write takes skill. The short story has its own pitfalls; so does the epic novel. Artists can admire and appreciate the level of skill necessary to write both well. The reader just wants to be entertained. Or educated. Or whatever it is that reader wants.

I guess I’m asking all of us artists to calm down and enjoy the fun side. Yes, it’s important to aim for a higher standard, but it’s not worth focusing all your attention on mistakes. After all, you move toward your focus. If all you look at is what’s wrong, that’s the only thing you’ll ever write.

If an author can tell a story that touches people, I recommend studying what worked for them rather than marvel at the literary mistakes. Not everyone is an artist, but a real artist can learn from anyone.

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About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn wrote stories for her own amusement for the next thirty years. When a job as a foster care caseworker became too stressful and a career with a floral trade magazine became too comfortable, her thoughts turned to writing an actual book. Success led to success, and she completed a second novel and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

One comment on “The Perfect 10…K (vs the 150K)

  1. Another thing to take note of on this topic, especially for aspiring authors: if some of the drivel we’ve seen can get published, we should have a pretty good shot too! As Robynn points out, it’s statistically improbable to polish up a long novel to the point where all the lessons learned in school or read in a how-to writing book can be applied. Not every single word can be given the weight it deserves, but if you make a serious effort, if you can make it good and be okay with letting it fall short of perfect, you’ll still do better than most of the manuscripts I’ve read.

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