The Only Perfect Novel There Is
I just finished my latest novel, and it’s perfect.
Not perfect perfect, of course. It’s honeymoon perfect. It’s sunny, flag-fluttering, best-wave day at the beach perfect. Which is to say, it can’t last.
I finished the first draft early last month, and then spent a couple of weeks cleaning it up, fixing problems, making it do pushups and sprints, getting it in tip-top shape to send off to my early readers. These women are wise and kind and so darned good looking (and are hopefully taking a few minutes off from inking up my “perfect” manuscript to see these compliments to their wisdom and beauty).
I sent it to them on a Sunday night, and since then I’ve been as giddy as a 4-year-old in red-sparkle shoes. It’s not that I don’t love writing. I do. And I wasn’t getting sick of my characters, as sometimes will happen, or anxious that the whole thing wasn’t working. It seemed to be doing just fine. To me, anyway.
I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Good Willing Hunting. Will (Matt Damon) is explaining to his therapist Sean (Robin Williams) that he isn’t calling a girl he really likes because right now, in his mind she’s perfect. If he gets to know her a little better, he’ll start to see her flaws which will ruin it. Sean replies, “Maybe you’re perfect right now. Maybe you don’t want to ruin that.”
Nope, I definitely do not want to ruin that. However …
Yesterday, a friend told me that she’d started reading one of my previous novels. “I loved that Deirdre acted out the whole Harry Potter series for Kevin,” she said. “She wasn’t good at the normal caretaker stuff, but there were little ways that she really connected with him.” Kevin is her nephew, but his parents are gone, and she and her elderly aunt are his guardians.
There had been no acting out of Harry Potter or any other kindly auntie behavior before my early readers got to Deirdre. “She’s too harsh,” they told me. “She almost completely ignores him.” They wanted some softer edges, some unexpected bright spots.
As her creator, I’d thought Deirdre was pretty spot on as she was—cold, angry and determined to have things finally go her way. “She has every reason to ignore him,” I tried to explain. “She’s desperate to get on with her life, and no one was there for her when she was a kid.”
My fairy god-readers weren’t having it, and they were fairly unanimous in their appraisal. That’s when you really have to buy your return ticket from fantasy-land and start accepting your story’s imperfection—when everyone agrees there’s a problem.
So I added touches of color and warmth—not many, mind you. Deirdre was practically raised by wolves, and that still shows. But what she got, thanks to my wise, kind and highly attractive early readers, was dimension, and it’s a huge improvement.
As much as I’m enjoying this temporary delusion of perfection, I am deeply grateful that anyone—much less the amazingly insightful group I have—wants to read a hundred thousand of my words, and then spend time gently explaining to me what isn’t cutting the mustard. Every story requires that kind of careful outside scrutiny, and yet not every story gets it. Even in the publishing process, editors now spend much more of their time shepherding books through the labyrinth of packaging, marketing and sales than marking up drafts during the work day. An editor at a major publishing house recently told me that actual editing happens in her off hours, nights and weekends. She doesn’t get paid for the time she spends doing the thing that her title ostensibly means.
This of course makes those early readers even more important. As we now hear all the time, every story has to be at fighting weight to have a chance. No more showing up at your editor’s door bloated with extra verbiage or slowed by confusing plot threads.
Even after your pals have read the early drafts, and your editor has gone through it to the best that her time allows, and it’s sitting on a bookshelf somewhere, there are always those little nagging things that crop up. My first novel came out over 5 years ago, and I still occasionally think of something I wished I’d done a little differently.
There really is no such thing as a perfect novel … except perhaps now. It’s the best that I alone can make it, and in my mind it’s just right. For these last few weeks, I’ve been in a blissful solitary state with my creation. But soon I will have company, and thankfully they will have their say.