By Mark Stevens
Practice makes perfect.
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.
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.
Practice makes perfect?
Maybe it’s that practice makes pretty good: there might still be work to do.