Welcome to the State of Flux. Population – your book.
A book is not finished until the day it’s released. (Well okay, a bit before that, but let’s say until the day the “Go” for publication is given.) At no point before it’s submitted to publishers or agents can it be called finished.
Before submission you will get to a point where you’ve made the book as good as you can. You can say you’ve finished your editing phase. But that doesn’t mean the book is finished and it won’t be for a while yet. It might be rejected and you might want to make some changes before you submit elsewhere. It might get a revise and resubmit rejection and you decide to make those revisions. But even if it sells, you’ll be expected to make changes for the publisher. If you have come to regard your manuscript as “finished” that’s going to be tough. The words feel fixed in place. Varnished over. Edits with your publisher will be heart-breaking. You’ll feel as if they are asking you to mess with perfection.
But, newsflash, your book is not perfect. It’s not perfect after you draft it. It’s not perfect when you submit it. And this is the kicker – it’s not perfect when it’s finally released either. That’s because perfection is an illusion in the arts. What is a “perfect” book? Or poem? Or painting? Song, movie, comedy sketch? Is it one that matches the vision in the mind of the writer? Have you ever written a piece of work that does so completely? Nobody has. All art is a compromise between the vision of the artist and the skill of their execution. The gap gets smaller the better the artist, but never vanishes.
The great Spanish painter Goya made a small sketch in his old age, regarded by some as a self-portrait, showing an ancient, long bearded man, walking only with the aid of two sticks. Beside it he wrote the caption “Still learning.” If as great an artist as Goya didn’t regard his work as perfected yet, the rest of us might as well give up on the notion altogether.
Perfectionism is bad. It is the curse of many writers. Of course we all want to do the best work we can, but it’s easy to slip from that into wanting to make the MS “perfect”. Since it never can be and you or a beta reader can always find something to change, perfectionism can turn into submission avoidance. Just one more polishing pass…
So abandon the pursuit of perfection. It’s not attainable and it’s not required. Publishers are not expecting to find perfect stories when they read submissions. They will never say “fire up the presses, this is good to go!” before they’ve assigned you an editor and done several rounds of revisions. You have to be open to doing those revisions cheerfully, for the sake of not only your relationship with the publisher, but also your own sanity. It helps in that process if you are still thinking of your book as a work in progress, not a fossil!
Your book is a work in progress even as you click that Send button to submit it. However many times you, your critique partners or even a paid editor have gone over it. But don’t despair. Note that important word. Progress! Release day is the destination and when you get the point you feel ready to submit, you have completed an important stage of the journey. You aren’t there yet, but you are that much closer, thanks to the hard work you’ve put in.
Only on release day can you say it’s finished.
And there’s always a second edition…