Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Aiming to deliver excellence




Last week, I took my daughter, mother and sister to a local cafe. I don't often eat out but this was a special occasion, because my sister was visiting all the way down from Cairns and even my mum hadn't been up into the Adelaide Hills to visit me for several years. We wanted to give them a good day out.

Our cafe experience began well. My mum and sister had frothy lattes and cappucinos brought out piping hot and straight away. I suggested to Emma, my daughter, that we ought to start using the cafe's vouchers whenever we find them in our letter-box, as it was such a lovely place.

However, time began to drag. The hot drinks were finished and still they hadn't brought out my soup or the bowl of wedges we'd ordered. Eventually, my sister went over to remind them. In another ten minutes, we had our wedges, which were obviously the type tipped straight from a plastic bag and deep fried. The question, "What took them so long?" hung between us. They obviously didn't have to peel the potatoes.

There was still no sign of my bowl of soup. We'd finished the wedges. My sister and daughter decided to keep shopping. I went up to the counter and the girl cried out over her shoulder, "Yeah, your soup's coming," in a flustered manner. At long last, they brought out a shallow, luke-warm bowl. I decided it was just OK. Perhaps if I'd had it as a starter before the potato wedges, when soup is meant to be enjoyed, I might have said it was yummy. I guess the cafe thought they'd delivered what we'd ordered but by the time I left, my mind had done a sharp turn-around. I won't be going back there again, no matter how many vouchers they shove in my mail. They didn't realize they'd lost a potential regular customer.

I am well aware that the same thing can happen to authors of books. Readers, like customers, have put aside valuable time with the hope of enjoying what we have to offer. They deserve for their reading experience to be as great as it possibly can. When I write a novel, I like to think of it as a 'service' as well as a 'good.' I know that if it's slipshod and rough around the edges, readers have a perfect right to say, "I'm never going to read anything else by her." Knowing that a lot of the excellence is in the finishing touches, I try to do the following.

* Go through paragraphs to make sure I don't use the same word more than once in the same cluster of sentences. If I can't think of an alternative word, I get out my Thesaurus to find one. It's worth the extra time taken.
* Make sure there are no unnecessary tags such as, 'he said' or 'she asked' when it's obvious from the context who is talking.
* Carefully evaluate every sentence to make sure the story actually requires it to help carry it along. If it doesn't, out it goes. In writing, less is definitely more.
* Weed out extraneous words such as most adverbs, and also lots of waffle such as, "When he got out of bed..." or "he nodded his head" (what else would he nod?)
* Change the syntax every so often, when the order or arrangement of words in sentences may make even the slightest difference. Even in this blog post, I changed, "perhaps if I'd had it before the potato wedges as a starter when soup is meant to be enjoyed" to "perhaps if I'd it as a starter before the potato wedges, when soup is meant to be enjoyed." Isn't that just being pedantic? No, I really think such fine tuning makes a difference to the reading experience.
* Try to make sure not too much about a character is being revealed before it should.
* When it comes to descriptions, use all five senses wherever possible without making the slabs thick enough to disrupt the flow of the story.
* Make sure an editor gives it another thorough going-over (and if I've done all the above, which is really only the tip of the ice berg, I know editors and publishers appreciate it.)

I'm sure I could think of more, but that's enough for the point I'm making today. None of us want to be perfectionists, as we can't be perfect anyway. There are always things in a manuscript we may miss, but this cafe experience reminded me how important it is when we commit ourselves to writing with an attitude of pursuing excellence. When I say that I want my readers to get the enjoyable reading experience they hope for, I really mean it. There have been many half-hearted people who say that they'd love to read my books but never get around to it. When people actually do choose to invest the time, I want to do all in my power to make sure they won't regret it.

Paula Vince is the award-winning author of 7 novels. She is a homeschooling mother who lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills with her husband and three children.

22 comments:

  1. i know my books won't be perfect because I am not perfect, but I am learning and trying to do my best.
    I do have a WIP (last years Nano) I kept the secret of what the Male main character used to do, until the Female main character found out. that was great, as it keeps the reader guessing.

    But Excellence is why were rewrite, review, edit again and again, to try to make it as perfect as can be. So people will read our books again.

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    1. Hi Mel,
      Yes, there's a big difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. Your WIP sounds great.

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  2. Great post Paula. A timely encouragement to strive for our best and always deliver.
    I like the quote, 'Excellence is not a skill. It's an attitude.'
    Clearly absent in that cafe, but not in your writing. Blessings :)

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    1. Yes, Dotti, I agree with that quote too. The people at that cafe didn't even seem to notice anything amiss. At least we can learn something from them.

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  3. Excellent point and advice. I've read that we should consider that we have a 'contact' with our readers: for their investment in time and money(?), we are obliged to deliver the goods in accordance with their reasonable expectations. This can require a measure of compliance with norms, such as not jumping genres in the middle of a story.

    Methinks my biggest difficulty at the moment is not revealing too much about characters too early. I'm drafting the initial chapters of a novel, and I just want to get the background stuff out of the way so I can get on with the meaty bits. I know that's bad form. I'm probably lousy at keeping secrets, too.

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    1. Peter, yes, their expectations are reasonable. I've come across the sort of 'genre jumping' you mentioned. About your quest to not reveal too much about characters, yep, I'm sure we can all put our hands up and say we've been there too. At least we can go through with a fine tooth comb afterwards and address the issue.

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  4. I agree Paula. We should aim for excellence in anything we do, especially when it will benefit someone else. Blessings. :)

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  5. Paula - good points, and a good reminder. As a respect to the reader we really need to not waste their time with poor quality work.

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    1. Amanda and Asta,
      Yep, I think you've both summed up the basic message perfectly.

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  6. Paula, great post! Thanks for your reminder of why we write and why we strive for excellence for His glory. And I hope you've found a new cafe that provides excellent customer service :)

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    1. Hi Narelle,
      At least we happily walk past that cafe, in retrospect, knowing we are not missing much :) I was pleased to say that of 2 impromptu sit-down meals I had that same week, the McDonald's breakfast I had for my son's 8th birthday was way up there.

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  7. After doing customer service at tafe it was a subject in the course infact I did it in both cert 2 and 3. cert 3 we had to go into a business and then critique it as if we were a mystery shopper. Your experience is something we learnt it would be worth emailing or writing a letter to the manager explaining how long you had to wait for the different courses, how they were not as warm as they should be and the attitude of the waitress and at the same time say how you appreciate the hot drink that was delivered quickly.

    With books I can see how the same can be said. I admit mostly if the book hasn't grabbed my by the second or third chapter I rarely will finish it. I had one last year I was meant to read for review, its not my favourite genre and I really didn't want to read it but the author had a way of making me feel bad if I didn't accept a review copy. I started it and I just couldn't get into it. I have told her its not my type of book but she still wants me to read it. I keep looking at it and I just dont want to read it. I think in this case it was the author being to persistent that has put me off.

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    1. You know, Jenny, I think I'll do just that. Knowing how customers feel certainly couldn't hurt. I hope you manage to get the review written at last. Perhaps you won't need to read the whole to get a feel enough for it to write one.

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    2. I cant get past the first couple of chapters. maybe I will try again in a few weeks

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  8. Great post, Paula. It's just not writers who should strive for excellence. No matter what other area of work we do or live, it should all be for His glory. And I agree with Ausjenny, it's important to review others' work. How will they know how to improve if no one tells them. Thanks for the reminder. Blessings.

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    1. Hi Laura,
      Yes, those small details make a big difference. Whether or not people can put their finger on what gives the edge, I believe everyone can sense and benefit from it.

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  9. I agree, Paula. I cannot start a new project until I know I have done everything possible to improve the one I am working on. It's important to give our very best and work hard.

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    1. Rose, I think that if we try to just move in, we find it hard to move past a scattered sort of feeling in our heads, don't you? And we feel more personal satisfaction when we've given something our all.

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  10. YES and Amen! Thanks for that great reminder cum advice as I'm now editing my third book in the Watermark Women trilogy. I wrote it some time ago and after looking at it afresh, I'm checking out on many of those excellent points you listed.
    I also liked your comment about the big difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. Sometimes I wondered whether I was being obsessive, but now I can breathe easier!!!

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    1. Hi Rita,
      I'm looking forward to the second Watermark Women book, let alone the third! Good on you. I'm glad you enjoyed my 'checklist' of sorts.

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  11. Great post Paula. Many thanks. I fully agree that as Christians we are called to Excellence in every sphere of life. And as Christian writers we are also called to excellence. I have a diffiuclty in that I often want to keep refining my work over and over again .... and at some point I realise I have to stop and send it in. I do love the refining part of our task - it feels very satisfying to me to try to change my work from passable to better to excellent!
    Thanks for your tips which are very helpful,
    Anusha

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    1. Hi Anusha,
      Yes, the 'letting go' part is the subject of another blog :)
      Learning to like the refining part is something I've trained myself to do, so it's great that you've always enjoyed it from the start.

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