Saturday, June 9, 2018

PulpRev: The Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good

So Ben Cheah, Castalia House author and Warboss of Steempulp, recently made a post comparing pulp greats like Robert Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs to modern Japanese light novels, and you should absolutely go read it. He brings up a lot of good points, including the difference between showing and telling, and does a good job comparing light novels to some of the pulps we are all familiar with by now, or should be familiar with by now. He also gave my podcast a shoutout, so I'm obligated to return the favor. 

Not that I wouldn't, given what he said in his post lighting my brain on fire like it did.

The post has a multitude of good points, but there's something I'd like to hone in on and elucidate for a bit. This part:

The best I can say about trash light novels is that they are adequate. Like the pulps of days gone past, they are cheap, widely available, published quickly, cheerfully ignore genre conventions, and are written at an acceptable standard for their target market.

In this is a lesson for PulpRev: you don't need to produce perfect stories from the get-go; you just need to write stories that will interest your audience. And do so quickly.

With that said, PulpRev cannot settle for mere mediocrity. Churning out garbage is all part of the learning process, but if we keep improving our standards we're bound to git gud. However, if we just rest on our laurels and content ourselves with churning out low-quality trash forever, we're not doing ourselves any favours.

 The point I want to focus on is " don't need to produce perfect stories from the get-go..." 

This might be a bit contentious, but I'd say that you don't need to produce perfect stories at all. Allow me to explain.

No story is perfect. Period, the end. This is something you need to accept if you want to be a writer. Every single story ever written has flaws. Nothing is perfect. 

Even going back and reading the pulp grandmasters that we so presumptuously sit at the knee of, we can see multiple problems that it turns out aren't really problems at all. Don't misunderstand me, these errors (in a perfect world) shouldn't have made it into these stories. They should've been caught and either edited around or written out. However, these stories are still good.

This is what I mean by the title. It's an old saying that, "The perfect is the enemy of the good," but here I want to make it clear what that actually means.

Are the Conan stories perfect? No, they are not. And this is coming from someone who idolizes Howard and strives to learn everything I can possibly glean from every single story of his I read. There are echoes (words repeated too often), he has a tendency to gloss over descriptions, and he sometimes builds up a conflict only to have it end with no great resolution that pays off on the build up.

Robert E. Howard was not a perfect writer. If he was he wouldn't have gotten so many rejection slips from magazines he sent his stories to. I think I'm bleeding as I type this, but I shall soldier on.

Any craft that you can name requires practice. You can go to grandmasters of literally anything, and if they don't tell you that there's still more they can learn, they're bullshitting you. Blacksmithing, poetry, food preparation, writing, all of it. There is always more to learn.

And this is where "the perfect" being the enemy of "the good" comes into play. 

I used to work in a pizza shop. If we'd spent every moment agonizing over whether every single pizza was "perfect" we'd never have gotten any other work done, let alone actually made any pizza. Sometimes this led to fucked up pizzas, but more often than not they were "good enough."

This is something I think the PulpRev needs to grasp hold of as we've moved beyond just talking about how great the old pulps are and onto actually creating our own material. Nothing, and I need to stress this, nothing that you create will ever be perfect.

For a recent example from my own catalog, the story appearing in Cirsova #8, Slavers of Venus. When I sent that off I was absolutely certain it was the best story it could possibly be. When Alexander wrote me back to accept the story he said it was just what he was looking for.

But, when I go back and re-read it...

I don't precisely weep bitter tears, but by god there are a lot of things in that story that I'd change from a technical standpoint if I could. Turns of phrase, repeated words, lines of dialogue, all kinds of changes I'd make to that story if I had the power.

But the great thing is I don't need to.

That story was "good enough."

Ride with me before you assume I'm so far up my own asshole I can't see daylight anymore.

When I sent that in, I'd gone over it with what I thought was a fine-toothed comb. I was certain I'd corrected everything that could possibly be corrected barring a total rewrite. It was as good as it would get, so far as I was concerned. 

And when Alexander got it (I don't presume to speak for the man, I have too much respect for him, but I'm going to intuit his thought process if I may), he read it and thought something along the lines of, "This isn't another loincloth-clad barbarian sword and sorcery story! This is honest-to-god sword & planet fiction! He went over it before he sent it in, I'll just touch up the obvious typos and print that shit!"

And you know what? If Alexander liked it enough to print it, it's damn sure good enough for me. Would I change stuff in it? Abso-fucking-lutely. No question. Am I disappointed that it ran that way in Cirsova Magazine? Abso-fucking-lutely not. In no wise. My story got featured in my favorite magazine, and I couldn't be prouder of that fact if you paid me. 

This is what I mean by the perfect being the enemy of the good. You think I get someone to proof those stories I post on Steemit? No way in hell, beta readers are expensive. I write the stories and I post them. If they're not good enough, someone'll let me know. This happened with Fire On The Bayou, and hasn't happened since. But the overall point is, as unvetted as those stories are, I still post them. I still put them out there.

Because I think they're "good enough."

If you attempt to make your stories perfect, they will never, and I mean never be good enough to print in your eyes. You will forever be focusing on some bit of minutia that isn't quite up to your standards. Rewrites and editing will be a process that goes on forever, and then when (if) you finally get the story up to snuff, you'll go back and read it six months on and think, "God dammit. I did it again. I flubbed that little thing. I could've done that differently. I could've phrased that better. God damn me to hell for being a shit writer."

Because of thoughts like this, so many stories never get published. Uncountable reams of fiction moldering in someone's basement or attic have never seen the light of day because it wasn't "perfect" when it never needed to be. 

Your story doesn't have to be perfect.

And focusing on making your story perfect is not focusing on making it good enough to print. If I'd been focused on making Slavers of Venus perfect I'd have never sent it off to Alexander and never gotten it in Cirsova. Trying to make your story perfect traps your writing in editing hell from which it may never recover. 

Yes, your story may have spelling or grammar errors. Yes, it may have echoed words. Yes, it may have clumsy phrasing. But at a certain point it's as good as it's going to get, and you have to do something with it. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should never seek to improve. We should always be looking to the great ones who came before and paved this road to learn better paving techniques. We should constantly be evaluating what we read and integrating the effective and evocative language they use into our own writing.

I am in no way saying that we, as writers, should rest on our laurels and be okay with turning out crap fiction like the shit that wins the Hugos nowadays. If you've done that you're well and truly stagnant and you deserve to be destroyed.

But accepting that nothing will ever be perfect is an important step on the road to becoming a professional writer. You can edit, and edit, and edit, but at a certain point the work is "good enough" and you can send it in for publication or publish it yourself. Coming to grips with the moment where you've gotten a work as good as you can possibly get it is vital, because otherwise nobody would ever publish anything.

Robert Howard sent in manuscripts to all kinds of publications that rejected him and sent his stories back. He thought they were "good enough" and got shot down. He had work to do. In this we can take a lesson.

We all have work to do. Some of us more than others. But if you don't fuck up and bloody your nose, you'll never learn. Without rejection notices, authors who are serious about publishing their fiction cannot grow. We need to each develop our own technique for writing and make ourselves the best writers we can possibly be. 

But there comes a point where good enough is good enough, and trying to make your story perfect will just ruin it as well as your chances of acceptance. Either through missing deadlines or sheer indecision itself. And I'll leave you with this last little bit of encouragement.

If I can get published, so can you.

You just need to realize when a story is good enough, and let go of trying to make it perfect. Because the perfect is the enemy of the good, and if you strive for perfection you will never be good enough. And if you're never good enough you'll never go anywhere. 

So get good enough. Attempt to perfect your style and writing, but realize where the line is between pedantic editing and simply being good enough to print. 

I should mention this screed doesn't mean "Turn in garbage to magazines you want to be printed in." Refine your craft. Practice. Get better. Git gud. Eventually writing you thought to be utter trash will be looked at by people who sign paychecks with a discerning eye as more than good enough to grace the pages of their publications.

Don't try to be perfect.

Try to be good enough.

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