If you think your manuscript’s finished, it probably isn’t. How do we know when we’ve hit that literary “sweet spot” when we deem our work “perfect”? We can’t. We only think we can. Perfection isn’t ours to judge—that call gets made by friends, agents, and ultimately (hopefully!) readers.

If we hit our mark, we may have a hit. This is perhaps (but not always) the sign of a great writer. But if we don’t, then we’re simply not as wonderful as we’d like to think we are. It is cruel, but true. The hardest thing we writers must do is to weigh ourselves on the brutal scales that size up our work as either shoddy or pristine. This is why agents get to chuck our offerings back at us so callously, as though tossing a stray Spaldeen that erroneously crossed their path on the sidewalk. They can instantly tell the difference between professional and amateur, even if we wannabes can’t see this about ourselves. You’re either in their league, or you ain’t. Harsh words, but true.

Then there’s the matter of story. Personally, for me, great writing trumps a great story every time. It is the foundation underpinning all else—the plot, the story line, the characters. If a yarn captivates me, a scarf can have just about any pattern or shape. But if the fiber is tawdry or lackluster, the finished piece won’t win me over, no matter how skillful the stitching. The story is an author’s to do with what he or she likes. I didn’t care for the ending of T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, for example, but that did not change the fact that, in my opinion, this is a fabulous book, flawlessly crafted and totally engrossing. I did not especially love Thrity Umrigar’s narrative focus in The World We Found—I wanted her to take me to America so I could witness Armaiti’s final days! But as the writer, it is her prerogative to take me, the reader, on the journey she wants. The fact that I would have preferred to turn left where she turned right did not detract from the scenic splendor of our shared ride. Why not? Because Ms. Umrigar’s writing is utterly exquisite.

I realize that others may beg to differ—especially agents. Look at the Harry Potter series. Great stories, unexciting prose (again, just my opinion). We’ve got several elusive marks we writers must hit: Compelling (if not likeable) characters; story themes with broad appeal. We even have to look hot on the cover flap! I’m sorry, just give me good writing, any day. Humans have been telling their tales since prehistoric souls drew paintings on cave walls. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all been done before—there isn’t much new in the way of stories or characters. To me, the art form is the writing. The spark a skilled author can ignite in readers’ hearts with his or her singular voice—that is what is unique and special.

So, is my third manuscript (The Floater) ready yet? I should say not! It’s a long, hard road to picture perfect. You’ll tell me when I've arrived, not the other way around.