I wrote a draft of Calvin. I thought it was perfect. For about a day.

I rewrote Calvin. I thought it was perfect. This feeling lasted for three days.

I rewrote Calvin. This time it seemed perfect for a whole week, long enough for me to think it was ready for my editors’ eyes.

I sent my perfect manuscript to my publishers April 2014. I waited for them to write me and say it was perfect, that this would be the first book in the history of publishing that would skip the editorial process and go straight to copy editing.

Instead I got a four page letter saying everything that still needed work. Not just little things. Big things. As I read the letter I knew my editors were right. They were right on every point, in fact.

Over eight months, and several more editorial letters each the size of a packet letter, each one as right as the one before, the book slowly improved. Eight months after I thought it was already perfect, Margaret and Shelley finally said it was done. Not perfect, but done. A negotiated done.

I gained ten pounds birthing that book, as I often do with books and babies. I gain weight because I have to eat to medicate myself while I am enduring the discomforts of revision, while I am chopping out hundreds or even thousands of words, while I am recognizing over and over that perfection is not my destiny. I eat carrots at first, and then I progress (or regress) to crackers with cream cheese, and finally I hit rock bottom with cupcakes and chocolate and chips. I only crave things that start with C.

While I am eating and working, I try to think it will be worth it. This book will be for somebody. This book, this time, will matter. This book will be my first perfect book.

But then my mind is plagued by a recurring image: I am standing by the Grand Canyon, right at the edge, and in my chubby arms is a stack of all my imperfect books. One by one I throw them over the edge. One by one they fall into the silence, fall and fall and fall, and you can’t hear anything when they hit bottom. They don’t flutter or scream or cry out when they are thrown over the edge. They die meekly. Sometimes I fling the book and laugh. Sometimes I let it droop out of my hands and into the abyss, and I weep in a pretty, non-mucousy way.

Am I feeling sorry for myself?

Yes. Yes, I am. I spare you the trouble.


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14 responses to “perfection

  1. Oh, Martine. This post is perfection. Many hugs and kisses your way–both because I feel this pain too and because I miss you so very much.

  2. As you have been known to say on many occasions, ha ha ha ha ha ha. Why is this so funny when it’s all too true? I think one of the hardest truths our students learn is that this revision process thing doesn’t actually get easier over time. You get better at catching lots of small stuff but “perfection” just gets more elusive — because you want MORE of it, I suppose. Ah well, the joy is in the doing. There, now it’s your turn to say ha ha ha ha ha ha…

  3. Martine Leavitt

    ha… ha… ha… Sadly it’s sounding more like a cough than a laugh. But it’s reassuring to know that even Tim Wynne-Jones can understand.

  4. louisehawes

    C is for carrot. Without that carrot of perfection dangling in front of us, would we writers ever plod a single step more? Or is it perfection? I’m among the world’s worst housekeepers, organizers, planners; I don’t aspire to perfection on any other front. It feels as though that dream of being the world’s first non-negotiated, un-edited book, is about being understood. Received. Loved. I’m speaking for myself here, Martine, and for the one inside me who shuddered she resonated so with what you’ve said. Thank you.

  5. kmquimby2014

    Tim Wynne-Jones beat me to it. One of VCFA’s best gifts to students is that truth: revision is not easy. Equally valuable is knowing that even when we are miserable, we are in the best company. We may not love the misery, but we do love the company.

  6. I love you, Martine! You so perfectly (perfectly!) summed up the feelings we all wrestle with. Yes, and the food cravings, too. All those chips and cupcakes for the muse. They are offerings to propitiate the goddess of creativity. The next time you are doing a book I will send you another C delicacy for your ravenous muse: Caramels Covered in Chocolate and sprinkled with Crinkles of sea salt. (My foods all start with “P”: popcorn, peaches, pizza. I think we should have a Muse-Foods Potluck at the next rez.) xox

  7. Martine, thank you so much for this timely post! I am in the midst of revisions on my MG novel, faced with a seemingly endless field of wildflowers and every flower is something that needs my attention – some aspect that needs to be addressed, improved upon, considered, or perhaps even…ACK….hurts to say…cut! But this is revision. This is the process of making the book BETTER. Perfect? No, never…no matter how much we wish or want, right? But better. The best it can be. The best that my agent, my editor and I can make it. And while the flowers seem to expand in all directions, forever and ever, I know that they are flowers. They are beautiful. They are there to make my book bloom. No, revision is not easy…revision is where the hard(ER) work comes in.

    And the cliff…I’ve been going through a series of picture book submissions with different houses where it seems like every manuscript goes to an editorial meeting only to find that they just did, or are doing something in the vicinity of what I’m offering. This very morning I felt like I was standing at that cliff with an armload of wonderful picture books, my babies, books that editors liked enough to want to buy, only to find that they’re not leaving the nest…that maybe they ought to fly off that cliff. But like you said, they’ll make no noise. No flutter, scream, or cry. No. I’ll keep them safe and I’ll keep them ready. They will find their time and they will find their place. In the meantime? I will keep writing and revising and maybe, just maybe…..I’ll have a cookie or three.

    Thanks, Martine! Miss you all!

  8. I loved reading this. Not only did it ring true for how I feel every time I write something, but I heard your voice as I read it and I needed a dose of your wisdom! I have turned in quite a few edits to Zuli and each time I think it is brilliant and then my agent gives me pages and pages of reality….I mean revisions. I deflate for a day or so, then the ideas start coming and I get excited about it again because I know it’s going to be better. I’m so glad that I’m not alone in this crazy ebb and flow of emotions that come with writing.

  9. Patrick Downes

    What an image, Martine, your books falling. Falling until they remember their wings. They land with all their pages spread and shivering. Nothing like a thud. Not one dies.

  10. Martine Leavitt

    I work with the most beautiful people on the planet. Thank you for your wise and wonderful comments, all.

  11. 7lizards

    Everything Martine says or writes makes me want to keep writing.

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