Letting Go, Take 2

 

An editor colleague just asked what to do about a client who’s written a very good novel but wants to keep revising and revising and won’t start querying agents or publishers.

There’s not much you can do, I said.

Aside: “Letting Go,” take 1, was prompted by a similar query. It took off in a somewhat different direction. I suspect that writers and editors never stop dealing with this stuff.

The word “perfectionism” came up.

As a recovering perfectionist — often a recovering-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth perfectionist who wonders if she’s recovering at all — I know a few things about this. Perfectionism can mean that everything you do has to be perfect before you’ll let it out of your sight, but it can and often does mean more than that. Perfectionism is a way of maintaining control. If I do everything right, I won’t get fired, my lover won’t leave, my kids will turn out perfect, and my novel will get made into a top-grossing movie and the world will swoon at my feet.

It often doesn’t work out that way. Deep down we perfectionists suspect this. Deep down we know that once something leaves our hands, the outcome is out of our control. So we don’t let it go.

Which is what I suspect is going on with the novelist who can’t stop revising, mainly because I’ve known many writers over the years who can’t let go of their work. They tell themselves the work isn’t done — they need to do more research, or do one more draft — and nothing anyone tells them can persuade them otherwise. The problem isn’t that the work isn’t done, it’s that the word “done” isn’t in the writer’s vocabulary because “done” means s/he has to let go.

For writers, here is where it gets tricky. Letting go means you’re putting the outcome in the hands of person(s) unknown. Persons who don’t know you and don’t have any particular reason to wish you well — unless, of course, you’ve produced the sort of work that might make lots of money. The overwhelming majority of us have not done this. Competent agents agree to represent only a small fraction of the manuscripts they see. Many of the ones they reject are very good or better.

In other words, if “failure” to you means rejection by an agent, or by a dozen or a hundred agents, your fear of failure is completely justified.

So is your fear of success. Fear of success is the flip side of fear of failure. They both have deep roots in the fear of letting go. Say you do get an agent, the agent sells your book, and there’s actually a book on the market that has your name on the cover. To you it’s a huge deal, as it should be, but most of the world — including your friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances — is going to say, at best, “That’s nice,” and move on.

Am I telling you to give up? Of course not. Read on.

Here’s a little parable: A kid finds a new butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis. The kid pulls the chrysalis apart and helps the butterfly get out. But the butterfly’s wings aren’t fully developed. It cannot fly. Moral of story: It’s the struggle to get out of the chrysalis that strengthens the butterfly’s wings so it can fly.

I like this little parable even though some people turn it into a rationale for never helping anybody out. I like it because it applies so well to writing and other creative endeavors. In the struggle to create, we not only become good writers, we also figure out what we want to do with our writing. We create a path forward for ourselves and develop the courage to follow it.

For many of us, this involves seeking out and sharing experiences with other writers. We become better writers, yes, but we also develop two crucial skills: the ability to dissociate ourselves from our creations, and the ability to sort through other people’s comments, edits, and critiques and decide what works for us. In the process, we learn about the many options for getting our work out into the world.

To complete a book-length work without doing this — well, it’s like finding that the road you’ve been on for years ends in a precipitous drop. Or maybe like opening the door from your dark room and being blinded by the light outside.

The very first line of this blog, back in “The Basics,” was “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

I believe it.

In that same post, I quoted two of the truest things I’ve ever heard about writing. I believe them too. Here they are again.

”I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.”
Alice Walker

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Marge Piercy

What’s The Most Important Lesson You’ve Learned: Words of Wisdom From Our Readers

An array of excellent advice here from readers of the Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors blog.

Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors

About two weeks ago, Ruth and I asked you to send in your best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing fiction. I am very pleased to say that nearly every day since my inbox has had wonderful messages from our many readers who were glad to send along their knowledge. Below you can see their comments, as well as wonderful pictures of them and their books. On behalf of the folks here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, we would like to thank you for your awesome contributions.

Here’s what our readers had to say:

AMZDEBBYCONRAD8 (1)

Write the story you want to write.  Be passionate, follow your heart, and ignore what others are writing.  Just be you.

Debbie Conrad

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Spell check. Spell check, spell check, spell check. After every draft, spell check. After every writing session, spell check. There are going to be things you missed, even if you think you haven’t…

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Reviewing Isn’t Easy

Most of my writing time over last weekend went into an 1,800-word review of a nonfiction book. Monday was the deadline, and Monday I emailed it in to my editor. Editors love it when writers deliver their stuff on time. Trust me on this. They also love it when writers turn in copy that’s well organized and properly punctuated. Trust me on that too.

I’ve done plenty of reviewing over the years, mostly of books but also of local theater performances and the occasional concert or album. Reviewing is hands-down the hardest writing I ever do, which is why I don’t do much of it these days. My other writing has pushed it to the side. I regret this because I think reviewing is important and because I’m pretty good at it.

Reviewing is important. An author or performer puts the work out there, and the reviewer enters into conversation with it — a conversation that includes not only the work and its creator(s) but also the potential audience for that work.

Perhaps most important, reviews let prospective readers know that a book is out there and whether they might be interested in it.

So a review is like PR — free publicity for the book?

In some ways yes, but in other ways very much no. What reviewers write can persuade people to buy the book, but we aren’t part of the production team. Our job is not to persuade people to buy the book or put it on their to-read lists. Our job is to help them make up their minds.

What distinguishes reviews from back-cover blurbs and other promotional copy is that reviewers come to the work from outside. We haven’t been involved in the writing, editing, publishing, or promoting of the book we’re reviewing.

So what’s a review anyway?

Good question! “Review” covers the vast territory between a blurb and the kind of literary criticism that appears in academic journals. A review can be short, long, or somewhere in-between. It can be written down or delivered orally. Usually it describes what the book is about, provides some context — for instance, mentioning the author’s previous works, if any, or recent publications in the same field — and offers some clues as to whether the book is worth your while or not.

Beyond that, it depends — on the reviewer, the review medium (radio, blog, webzine, newspaper, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.), and the intended audience.

My writer friend wants me to review her book. Should I do it?

No. A thousand times no.

Personally I think your writer friend shouldn’t even have asked you. She’s putting you in a terrible position.

Since you’re in that terrible position, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I tell prospective readers what they deserve to know about this book before they buy it?
  • If I give my honest opinion about my writer friend’s book, will we still be friends?

Of course, if you decline to review the book, the friendship may hit the skids anyway — see what I mean about terrible positions?

If you’re the writer with a forthcoming book, don’t do this to your friends. If your friends write well and want to help out, enlist them to write jacket copy, press releases, and brief synopses for your website. If they’re published authors themselves or have other useful credentials, they can write one of those signed blurbs that appear on the back cover of a print book or in the opening pages of an ebook. No one expects these things to be written by an impartial reviewer.

So what’s “impartial”? When is it OK to review someone’s book?

Good reviewers think about this a lot. We discuss it with other reviewers. In many fields and genres, authors, editors, publishers, and reviewers mingle on a regular basis, in person and/or online. Many of us wear more than one hat. We know each other by reputation even if we haven’t actually met.

Smart authors and publishers, including self-publishers, keep an eye out for reviewers who would be a good match for their books. Authors, especially self-publishing authors, may contact prospective reviewers directly. It’s up to the reviewer to say yes or no, and saying no to someone you know is not always easy, especially when they press you to come up with a reason. (Note to writers: Please don’t do this. It’s OK to take no for an answer. Last month I reblogged this excellent post: “Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers.” Read it and pass it on.)

How close is too close to write an impartial review? Here are some recommendations. You’re too close —

  • If you’ve seen any draft of the manuscript before it was published. If the author is in your writers’ group or workshop or writing class, you’re too close. If you were a second or third reader, you’re too close. If you critiqued or edited the ms., you’re too close. Possible exception: If you heard the author read from the novel in progress and had no prior relationship with the author, you might not be too close.
  • If you have any professional connection with the publisher, paid or unpaid, staff or freelance. This goes mainly for small presses, independents, and self-publishers. With huge trade-publishing conglomerates and even mid-sized university presses, it’s easy to be several arm’s-lengths away from any particular book.
  • If you’re more concerned with the author’s feelings than with telling prospective readers what they deserve to know.

What about when a book you’re asked to review really sucks?

Forgive my bluntness here, but this is the elephant in the booksellers’ marketplace so let’s not pretend it isn’t there. Some books really do suck, and some of those sucky books are written by people we know and like. You shouldn’t be reviewing books by your friends even if those books are stupendously good and in the running for major awards, but what if you get roped in to reviewing a book that’s really bad — as in, you really don’t think anyone should be wasting their time and money on it?

If you’re working on assignment from a book blog or other review medium, and whoever made the assignment has no personal connection to the author, this usually isn’t too hard. Explain that you don’t think the book is worth reviewing. Ask for another assignment.

If you do know the author, it’s a lot more difficult. You can try procrastinating. Some authors will catch on: Endless procrastination translates into “I really don’t want to do this.” Others won’t. In such cases, if you don’t say something, one of those elephants is going to take up residence in your relationship with the author. Saying something is hard. This is why those elephants aren’t on the endangered species list.

There is almost no good reason to review a really, really bad book, especially when that book is a first novel or a self-published book. If it doesn’t get reviewed, the book will probably sink with nary a trace. This is the best scenario for all concerned, though they probably won’t see it that way. The big exception is when the bad book is written and/or published by someone from whom we’ve got good reason to expect better things. In these cases, readers deserve to be warned off.

Slashing a bad book to ribbons can be fun, but it can — and should — leave a very unpleasant aftertaste. Don’t do it.

 

Write for a Living?

I just finished a long and demanding editing job, right on deadline. For the last 10 days or so, it’s been taking up seven or eight hours of every waking day. I’ve learned over the years that my daily capacity for demanding word work is about seven or eight hours. Beyond that my brain goes on auto-pilot.

deadline miracleWriting and editing aren’t the same, but they both qualify as “demanding word work.” Over the last year or so, I’ve managed to maintain a pretty good balance: edit for five or six hours a day, write for up to two. The writer grabs the first two hours after waking, my absolute best creative time. (I’m an early riser, but my internal editor tends to sleep late. I’m also easily distracted by the events of the day once they start unfolding.)

So for 10 days or so, I’ve neither blogged nor worked on the novel. My writing has consisted of a few emails and the occasional post to Facebook. This is scary. The further I get from the practice of daily writing, the more certain I am that I’ll never get back to it. My writing, I fear, is like a fire in the woodstove. If it goes long untended, it will go out.

If only I didn’t have to work! I think. If only I could write for a living!

The same thought has probably crossed your mind. Maybe more than once. Maybe whenever life — specifically your paid job — gets in the way of the writing that you’d much rather be doing. Sound familiar?

When time-pressed writers imagine writing for a living, or at least writing as part of their job, they often aren’t thinking about going into journalism or academia. They aren’t thinking about writing lengthy reports for think tanks or government agencies, or how-to manuals for computer software and hardware. They definitely aren’t thinking of writing ad copy and jingles, although this may pay better than most of the other possibilities.

The fantasy is usually about making a living writing what we want to write. The big attraction is getting paid to do what we want to do.

I get it. Most of my life I’ve been able to make my living doing work that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that seems useful to other people and sometimes even the world at large. It has nearly often involved the written word — but it’s rarely involved writing. During my several years working for a weekly newspaper, I got to write pretty much what I wanted to write — stories about interesting people and events — but my job description was “editor.” Editing has been my bread and butter, and occasionally my beer and chocolate, since the late 1970s.

If you’re determined to write for a living, or even for a substantial chunk of your living, I know I can’t talk you out of it. I’m not going to try. For sure some writers manage to do it. If you look closely, though, you’ll often see that other factors are helping them stay afloat economically: maybe a partner with a well-paying job, maybe a trust fund, maybe gigs teaching writing in one way or another. Take a hard look at your own resources before you even think of quitting your day job.

Think about this too: For me to make my living as a freelance editor, someone has to be willing and able to pay money for what I’m selling. The same goes for writing. The money coming into your checking account has to come from somewhere. It may come from a publisher. It may come direct from readers who are dying to read your books. It may come from newspapers, magazines, or online media that want to buy your feature articles and maybe send you off on assignment to write more.

These things are not going to fall into your lap. You’re going to have to hustle — to do all the research and self-promotion necessary to reach those willing and able to pay for what you’re selling, then to persuade them to part with their money. While you’re hustling, you probably aren’t writing what you what you write. You’re writing proposals, synopses, query letters, and press releases. Is it starting to sound like a day job yet?

Here’s another question: How often do you spend your hard-earned money on other writers’ writing? How often do you take a chance on a novel by someone you’ve never heard of? Will you do it for $9.99? for $2.99? for free? What would make people who’ve never heard of you take a chance on your book? This applies to attracting agents, editors, and publishers as well as to engaging individual readers in the emerging online marketplace. Perhaps even more so: If an agent, editor, or publisher takes you on, s/he will wind up investing far, far more than $9.99 in you and your work.

The real bottom line here is that if you want to make a living writing, you have to write what people are willing to pay money for, and you have to keep doing it. You’ll have deadlines that can’t be blown off. Your fallow periods and blocks will become even scarier than they are now because they’ll threaten your livelihood as well as your sanity and your sense of self-worth.

Writing, in short, will become your job.

And it may well get in the way of your writing.

Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers

Having been at various times a reviewer, an anthology editor, a newspaper features editor, and a few other things, I think this is excellent advice for any writer who is trying to get another writer to do something for free. Online, offline, anywhere!

All I Have to Say

Hello, everyone! It’s me again with another author advice post. Warning: This post isn’t for everyone. If you’re an author who finds etiquette posts tiresome, this post isn’t for you. If you’re already an expert on book marketing, this post will probably seem pretty basic, but I hope you’ll read on and add your advice in the comment section. This post is for people like me – people who came into the writing world with limited social media knowledge. It’s for people who didn’t realize book bloggers existed until they were told to go out and promote their book. If you’re intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of contacting reviewers and bloggers, or if you’ve sent requests to bloggers and only received a lukewarm response, this post is for you.

  1. DO read the blogger’s FAQs, Policies, or Submission Guidelines. Each blogger is different. Some bloggers want you to contact them by email. Others have…

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Selling Books at the Artisans’ Fair

Sorry for long silence — I’ve had deadline-itis in a bad way.

This past Thursday’s deadline wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t a rush — not until I turned it into one by spending 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday at the Thanksgiving Artisans’ Fair. Along with three other local writers, I was part of “Writers’ Row.” (I blogged about the fair in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories: “A Saner Way to Shop.”)

So I was selling my novel, The Mud of the Place, and my colleagues were selling their books, and it dawned on me that, hey, not only had I written my book, I’d edited at least one of each of theirs.

This made me happy. These books were all good before I got hold of them, but I was proud to have had a hand in making each one a little bit better than it would have been otherwise. Editors are even more invisible than writers. Usually we finish a job, wave bye-bye, and never see the book or paper or story again. It was downright satisfying to see the finished books on display and hear people talk about them.

Not to mention — I know those books inside and out, love them all, and have no qualms about encouraging people to buy them.

vineyard cats smLynn Christoffers is a wonderful photographer. Cats are her favorite subject, so Cats of Martha’s Vineyard was a natural. But she did more than photograph a hundred cats. She interviewed their people and turned those interviews into a book. I’m a chronic dog person, but I still think it’s cool.

cover scan smShirley Mayhew moved to Martha’s Vineyard as a young bride in 1947 and has been here ever since. Her personal essays, collected in Looking Back, not only chronicle a quietly remarkable life; they provide a window into the last six-going-on-seven decades in this particular place — a place that’s often seen from the outside but rarely from within.

Cynthia RiggsMURDER ON C-DOCK cover sm took up mystery writing at age 70, after a career that included writing for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian, running a ferryboat company on the Chesapeake Bay, rigging boats on Martha’s Vineyard, and raising five children. The 11th book in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series is due out from St. Martin’s Press in the spring. The previous ten were all for sale on Writers’ Row, but pride of place went to Murder on C-Dock, which is hot off the press (official pub date isn’t till next month) and which I copyedited. It begins a new series, drawing on the author’s 12 years living on a houseboat on the Washington, D.C., waterfront. It’s got such a stupendous cover that I’m determined to hire the artist, Elizabeth R. Whelan, to do the cover of my novel in progress.

Cynthia, by the way, contributed “On Being Edited” to this blog back in October. Her account of an Edit from Hell has been viewed more times and received more comments than any other Write Through It post. Good! I’m here to report that to my mind Cynthia is an ideal client: she writes well, takes her writing seriously, and appreciates careful editing. She also hosts the writers’ group that both Shirley and I belong to.

Writers usually work in isolation, so face-to-face contact with readers and prospective readers is exhilarating. It can also be exhausting: The Artisans’ Fair was busy from the time the doors opened at 10 till they closed at 4, which meant we were “on” for six consecutive hours. This is why I didn’t come straight home, go for a walk with the dog, then buckle down to editing. My brain needed a break.

At odd moments I wondered if we writers really belonged among the weavers, jewelers, leatherworkers, printmakers, and other crafters who work wonders with media more tangible than words. For sure no one objected to our presence, and all of us had a great time. My life is pretty much devoted to words: writing them, editing them, reading them, reviewing what others have written. It’s a little disorienting to be reminded that words aren’t everything, that creativity comes in myriad forms, and that there are plenty of things that words just can’t do.

 

UKL’s Challenge

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. Ursula K. Le Guin has been high in my literary pantheon for a very long time. The other night at the 65th National Book Awards, Le Guin was honored for her distinguished contribution to American letters. In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.

And here is The Speech, as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience. Thanks!

Thank you, Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

 

On Being Edited

Being both a writer and an editor, I get to listen to writers bitching about editors, and to editors bitching about writers. I’ve been known to blow off some steam myself, sometimes wearing a writer’s hat, other times an editor’s. On the whole, though, I wish writers and editors would spend more time listening to each other instead of just bitching to their colleagues. So a few months ago a friend of mine, the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, was on the receiving end of an Edit from Hell. (I saw the edited ms. As an editor, I was embarrassed. As a writer, I was outraged.) I asked if she’d be willing to write about the experience for this blog. This is what she wrote. — SJS

By Cynthia Riggs

Is it always the writer who’s being unreasonable? Or could it be the editor?

After ten books and the deft editing of Ruth Cavin, the doyenne of mystery editors, I and my eleventh book were turned over to an editorial assistant in her first real job out of college.

I understand the heady feeling of a first editing job. The more changes an editor makes, the better, right? That will show how conscientious one is. It takes a while for a new editor to recognize that less is more.

The paper manuscript for my eleventh book came to me through the mail, along with a two-page letter from Jane Doe (as I’ll call her). “I think if he [the serial killer] murders a few less people — perhaps 5 instead of 11,” she advised me, ” it would make the murders more meaningful.”

I promised myself to think about it.

stetOn to the manuscript itself. I am accustomed to electronic editing, so in order for me to work with Jane’s extensive comments, I transcribed the first 64 pages of her penciled notes from the paper copy to my computer. Once I got that far, I decided I’d better stop there and write my own comments. The first 153 edits took me up to page 58. Of the 153, I accepted three and rejected 150. I explained each and every one of the 150 I rejected.

She changed ellipses to em dashes, added adverbs, such as “said dismissively” and “snorted derisively,” confused its and it’s, turned sentences around, had my characters react in ways unlike them in past books, and, in general, trashed my manuscript.

Should I, the writer, be teaching Jane, the editor, how to edit?

The last straw was on page 58. Jane had changed my sentence, “The Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse, even one in this condition,” to “Even in it’s [sic] condition, the Steamship Authority would require a passenger ticket for the corpse.” (Actually, the Steamship Authority is in pretty good condition.)

That’s where I decided to quit.

Now, I’m not an inexperienced writer. Or editor. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. I was tutored by editors at the National Geographic Society, where I worked for a time, and wrote two chapters in one of the NGS books, which I also edited. I was editor of the Marine Technology Society Journal, edited and wrote for Petroleum Today, the quarterly publication of the American Petroleum Institute, and have more than a hundred published articles and short stories to my credit. I have been teaching writing for 13 years, since Jane was ten years old.

There are things an editorial assistant in her first job can tell me that I can profit from, but not when she hasn’t read any of the previous books, doesn’t know grammar, doesn’t know the basics of copyediting, and is rewriting my work so it sounds comfortable to her.

We editors often can get defensive about a writer’s rejection of all the work we put into improving a manuscript. But more often than we editors like to think, the writer is right.

  * * *

Cynthia Riggs. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Cynthia Riggs is the author of the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, whose protagonist, the indomitable Victoria Trumbull, is based on Cynthia’s mother, the late, equally indomitable Dionis Coffin Riggs.  She recently launched Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries, a lively blog about her life at Cleaveland House, which has been in her family since about 1750.

 

Letting Go

Recently a colleague posted to an online editors’ forum: “How do you tell a client who keeps tinkering to just stop?” Her client’s tinkering was not improving the manuscript. In some cases it was making things worse.

Her client was having a hard time letting go, and with good reason: letting go is hard. Off the top of my head I can think of several excellent manuscripts that are languishing in their authors’ desk drawers or on their hard drives because their authors can’t let them go.

The subject has been on my mind lately because I’m in the process of making an ebook out of my novel, The Mud of the Place. The print version came out in 2008. My final draft was a Word file. The proofs were in PDF. Plenty of corrections and tweaks were made on the proofs. My first step was to transfer all of them to the final-draft Word file. Now I’m proofreading the Word file from which the ebook will be created.

In proofreading mode I’m looking for typos and stylistic inconsistencies. I am not looking to change or rearrange any of the words. Yes, a few times I’ve paused at a word and thought that another word might be better. But I want the text of the ebook edition to be identical to that of the print edition. If I find an error — a genuine, bona fide error — I will fix it.

But the time for tinkering is past, long past.

The urge to keep tinkering is often a sign that Perfectionista is gripping your shoulder and scaring you half to death with her what-ifs. What if you’ve left something out? What if you’ve made a mistake? What if your whole book is a mistake? What if everyone hates your book? What if everyone thinks you’re stupid?

Sometimes Perfectionista keeps you from writing. Other times she wants you to tinker endlessly with what you’ve already written. Whatever she’s up to, the way to loosen her grip is the same: Lower your standards. And no, that doesn’t mean “do shoddy work.” It means that no matter how much tinkering you do, your work is never going to be perfect — and even if it is, someone‘s not gonna like it. You can’t control what anybody else thinks.

Letting go takes practice. You’ve got to have confidence in your work — that takes practice too. If you’ve been sharing your work in a workshop or a writers’ group or with readers who’ll give you honest feedback, you’re well on the way. Sharing your work, after all, is a kind of letting go.

Deadlines can be a big help. When the clock or the calendar says you’re done, you’re done. The train is leaving the station and your story’s on it. When you see your story in print, a few hours or days or weeks later, you probably see something you would have done differently, but the chances are excellent that it’s fine as is.

Especially if you have a good editor acting as your safety net.

And one last thing: It’s easier to let go of one work when you’re hard at work on something new. The new story or essay or book probably won’t leave you much energy to obsess about the one that’s ready to leave home. Kiss it goodbye and move on.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.

Not ready to let go: The late Rhodry (1994–2008), right, and his buddy Rosie.