• “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
• Evolution isn’t about survival of the fittest. It’s about survival of the good-enough.
• Good-enough means finding the right bar to leap over depending on your goals: it’ll vary for hobby writing, making a living writing, self-publishing, traditional publishing, etc.
• Most artists’ first work isn’t as good as their later work. Being good-enough means making progress over time.
When is a book done? When is it finished? When is it time to move on? There’s a quote I like that’s been attributed to people from Leonardo da Vinci, to Gene Fowler, to George Lucas that essentially says, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” And it’s true! We can always make more improvements to our work. We can always tighten up the language, or make one additional pass, or five additional passes. Eventually, you start getting diminishing returns for the amount of effort you put in. At some point, we need to move on from our projects, move on from the book we’ve been writing for 5 years, and try something else. The question is, when is the right time?
Evolution Survival of the good-enough
When I was a kid, I was taught evolution meant survival of the fittest. “Only the strong survive!” Turns out that’s wrong. If it were true, we’d all be super-humans by now, with evolution pushing us toward the perfect pinnacle of earthly perfection. Bill Nye describes evolution much better in his book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation: “It’s survival of the good-enough.” And it’s a continually moving bar. In previous epochs, good-enough meant surviving horrific disasters and a brutish life with no little knowledge about germs or other killers. However, good-enough has changed dramatically. For instance, diabetes used to be a death sentence but no longer is. It’s the same with other diseases and debilitations. Thankfully, the good-enough bar for survival has been lowering for years, and we can deal with things our ancestors couldn’t.
Tying this back to writing, the bar of being a good-enough writer has been shifting as well. No longer are writers only beholden to traditional publishers. Self-publishing is a huge new wave that didn’t exist in such quantities before. And many authors are finding success. For instance, the author Mark Dawson reportedly made $450,000 in one year for self-publishing. Now I realize he’s a rarity. But the fact of the matter is, good-enough has changed for being a successful author.
The question is, what’s good-enough for you?
Goal-Seeking Knowing what you want-finding the appropriate bar
The first step is to know what you want. If your goal is to be a NY Times best seller, you have to perform on that level. The good-enough bar for that is much higher than self-publishing. If you want to just have fun, you have to perform at that level (which is obviously lower).
For me, I want to be a successful author, meaning I make a living by writing. The nice thing about that goal it’s fairly open: I can break into traditional publishing (my preference as there’s so many more resources in traditional); it can mean self-publishing; it can mean a hybrid or something else. It could also mean using several pen names and experimenting with different genres until I get it right.
So what books are good-enough for my goal? Turns out there are a lot of options I can pursue. I’m considering self-publishing some books I don’t think will make it in the traditional publishing world. For others, I want to try traditional, and they’ll require a lot more work and an emphasis on querying/summary writing.
Good-enough applies story wise as well. We’ve all read books that are good-enough for entertainment but wouldn’t win any literary prizes, and that’s okay! It met our own expectations for what we wanted, even if it wouldn’t pass the bar in other settings. So you also have to ask what you want to do for your books.
Ever-Learning Revisited Getting better over time
Good-enough is also a growing process (see my other post Ever-learning). From artists, to writers, to musicians, to film makers, and everyone else, our first work is often not as good as our latest work. Why? Because we’re growing, we’re learning. For many artists, their first work was good-enough to get them started, or get them some subscribers or views or sales, but their later work is really when they shine. The same is true of authors. Our first work can be labors in process until we get good-enough to really sell.
This experimentation of seeing what works could mean writing in different genres, varying lengths, traditional and self-publishing, etc. One example for me is my first book. I’ve been working on it for years now, including hiring an editor, artists, etc. but no queries came through. I know I can make improvements on the book but I don’t want to be working on it for the next five years, so I’ve made the decision it’s good-enough for self-publishing so I can move onto different projects. For that book, it’s good-enough and it’s been a great experiment into the realm of self-publishing.
Raising the Bar Our brave new world
With ebooks and self-publishing flooding the market, it’s a whole new world. There was an initial wave of people who got big when self-publishing first came out, but the bar has since been raised. People expect self-published books to be better quality than what they were before. Authors have to use creative techniques to sell their books, and will need to develop even more creative techniques in the future. Again, it’s the principle of a shifting levels of good-enough. You need to willing to adapt to these levels and focus your writing on surpassing the bar you’re aiming for.
It all depends on what you want. How do you think good-enough will work for you? What is good-enough in your mind and where is the line for your writing?