Gaiman’s First Law

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.” – Neil Gaiman

I’ve heard several versions but I like that one the best, so there you have it. My copies of the Gimme Shelter anthology arrived today, and I have to say, they look awesome. Bright cover, tight binding, well laid out – quality stuff, no question. Of course, as I suspect many authors do, I flipped right to my story and read through it. It sounds narcissistic, I know, but I bet my fellow authors out there are nodding, and probably not for the reason you might think. It’s not an ego trip, exactly. It’s more because deep down, no matter how many times you’ve been published, part of you never quite believes that it’s really happened again. That someone else thought those silly ideas from your head were worth the effort and expense of putting down on paper and showing to the world. We skip to our stories to tell ourselves Yep, it actually happened. And if we’re being really honest, it’s always accompanied by a big, goofy grin.

Of course, in the midst of the joy of a new publication Gaiman’s First Law crept right up and socked me. I found a sentence structure mistake almost immediately, which made me wince, but even worse, I found a continuity error later on, and I actually groaned out loud. Let me make one thing very clear before I go on: Neither of these mistakes should be attributed to the anthology’s very capable editor, J.R. Blackwell. Truly. Both of them land squarely in my court, because in my infinite authorly wisdom I decided to send her an “updated” file about 2 hours before the absolute final publication deadline, and both mistakes derive directly from some harebrained last-minute changes I made. Not to mention that I assured her I had gone over the story thoroughly before sending said last-minute changes. So I don’t want anyone to think that the fault lies in her, or the stars – just myself. Blame her and I guarantee you will answer to Dr. Mercury for your slanderous falsehoods. Trust me, not the best possible outcome. So keep the blame on me where it belongs. Got it? Groovy.

That said, there are few things that make an author feel quite so low as realizing what you sent out isn’t quite so perfect. Of course the trick is that it’s never perfect, really. Even it’s grammatically perfect and devoid of continuity or character lapses, even if it’s polished to a technical and artistic shine and beloved by fans the world over, speaking as an author you will never see it that way yourself. There will always be tweaks, be turns of phrase you wish you’d handled better, descriptions you could’ve juiced a bit more, you name it. Like the painter who sees the single errant stroke or the composer who hears the lone errant note, that tiny imperfection – real or imagined – will never go away.

As I’ve gotten older and possibly more experienced at the writing business, I’ve come to see this as more of a positive than a negative. Having read and given feedback to hundreds of writers as an editor and a professor, authors who don’t feel this way at least a little bit tend to produce pleasant but fair material at best, and self-satisfied train wrecks at worst. A bit of agony over the possibility of imperfections is a vital part of the creative process, I think. It keeps an author honest, keeps them searching for ways to improve their work, even if it’s just a single descriptive word here or a single rephrased statement there. That’s what Gaiman’s Law is really about, I believe – it’s not just about finding actual errors (though it often is), it’ about seeing things you wish you could have done better, the things that might not seem to be errors to anyone else but feel that way to you.

Of course, the other part of this obsession with improvement is the maturity to know when to step away and call it done, and accept whatever imperfections might remain. I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts, but I think an artist who cannot let go of their work is one of the saddest things in creation. In my time as a professor I’ve seen a half-dozen notebook novels, spiral-bound wonders packed with plot and character and history and maps and sketches and every other element to bring a fabulous world to life, yet so-called because I doubt those words will ever leave them. The authors, uniformly and without exception, always tell me that the story “isn’t ready yet.” I hope that some of them will finally make the leap but I know that most of them never will, just like the garage band whose album is never ready, or painter that never shows their work. Part of being a professional or even a dedicated amateur is knowing when you’ve honestly done your absolute best, handing it away and moving on to the next project.

It makes those errors just a little easier to live with, in the end.

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