Scrubbing the Grand Canyon Dam with a Toothbrush

By Mark Stevens

Practice makes perfect.

Yeah, right.

I’ve been practicing this fiction thing for 30 years. Perfection? I can’t see it from here. A bit of joke, don’t you think?

What is perfect when it comes to storytelling? You can put together a bunch of perfect sentences, but you don’t necessarily have a perfect scene—or story.

I’ve been thinking about perfection because right now I’m editing. Again.

I’ve been asked to clip 5,000 words from my next mystery, which I thought was lean and mean at 102,000 words. (“Hey, man, it’s perfect.” “Hey, man, I’m done.” “Can’t get any better.”)

Think again, sucker.

Going through the manuscript at this stage, for me, is eye-opening.

And eye-bleeding.

I’ve been through it 50 times, maybe 100. Another 10 or 15 friends and critical readers have read it, pointed out mistakes. A professional editor (on my dime) has been through it. In addition, I made a ton of fixes based on a reading by a professional editor who works for my new publisher. That’s two professional editors, if you’re counting.

And then the search for those 5,000 “extra” words began—5,000 words that will soon meet the grim reaper: the delete button. “Get out of here, it was nice having you during our fat phase but you are no longer needed in diet mode.”

And I’m still finding mistakes.

Not borderline, debatable issues. No. Real mistakes. Things that your third-grade teacher would circle and that would cost you points on your grade.

I wonder about perfection because, at this stage, I’m scrubbing the Grand Canyon Dam with a toothbrush. That is, I’m up close and personal with every syllable. I quibble about each word, each sentence. I’ve discovered my true inner talent: I’m a master at redundancy.

But the slow-crawl approach is not the way it will be read. Most readers will motor right along (I hope). I’m currently reading “Alex” by Pierre Lemaitre and it’s so good that my reading pace is probably Mach 2 compared to my prop-plane pace for editing. But I’m not reading “Alex” for mistakes; I’m dying to know what’s going to happen next. I don’t care about his word choices—just give me the damn story.

So there’s different levels of perfection and this goes straight back to how you write.

Did you come here thinking I’d have the answer to this little conundrum? Whether to concentrate on the big macro story in the sky or sweat the details down on Planet Dictionary, Thesaurus and Rules of Grammar?

Of course it’s both. But, it’s worth thinking about—and recognizing that there’s all sorts of levels on which your story works.

Or doesn’t.

Practice makes perfect?

Maybe it’s that practice makes pretty good: there might still be work to do.


Mark StevensMark Stevens is the President of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

You can learn more about Mark and his novels at his website. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Patricia Stoltey
Blog Editor
Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, was released November 2014. Dead Wrong was a finalist in the thriller category for the Colorado Book Awards. Visit her blog at

5 thoughts on “Scrubbing the Grand Canyon Dam with a Toothbrush

  1. You are so right, Mark. I feel as though writing/revising/editing is the neverending story in itself. As long as we keep trying, we continue to learn, frequently change our habits or process to conform to changing conditions/trends/demands, constantly raise the bar for ourselves (or have it raised by our editors). It’s a journey without a known final destination..

  2. I think this is so very good. It is about both, a lesson I’ve been learning over the last several years. And maybe the larger lesson for me, it’s not personal. Deleting, changing, editing, critiques– they’re not personal. You’re right– what I love when I read is the story, the art. But getting there takes a lot of precision crafting.

  3. Mark,
    I love it! “I don’t care about his word choices—just give me the damn story.” That’s so true!!That made me giggle really hard inside. You nailed it for me. I feel that way a lot when I read and no matter what, I always have some type of word choice issue in my WIP. Should I learn to stop banging my head on the desk and just accept it? Mistakes? There wouldn’t be erasers on pencils if there weren’t any. Interesting that a writing tool would have such a handy feature, don’t you think?

  4. I can really relate to this… I always find something, no matter how many times I’ve revised or reviewed anything I’ve written. Now, in the querying stage with one manuscript, I hate reading it because I inevitably find something I want to change… and I guess to me that’s the answer: the writer in me will always find something to perfect. It’s the nature of the craft.

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