Can Do Better: Why ‘Best’ Is Not Good Enough.


Do you remember being told as a child that ‘you can do better’? Do you recall how that made you feel – encouraged, perhaps? Despondant? The other day I posted an oft quoted phrase on a well-known media platform and asked for comments. What I didn’t say was WHY I was interested in the feedback. This is the reason.

Some years ago a young person experienced severe self-doubt over school-related performance, which compounded already very low self-esteem. In the course of therapy, this person was told, ‘The enemy of the best is the good enough.’ Devastated, the young person interpreted the quote to mean that only the best is good enough. 

Redoubling their efforts, the young person excelled in their chosen subject at university, only to suffer a complete breakdown as a result. Despite attaining academic excellence, they never felt that they had earned the accolades they had been given, because ‘good enough’ wasn’t ‘the best’.

Subsequently, when the young person recently heard the phrase again, their reaction was one of dismay – much to the surprise of the person who quoted it. And this is why.

The person explained that, during the Second World War, Soviet commander General Zhukov had applied the well-known phrase to the availability of Soviet tanks compared with those of the German army.

The Soviet T34 was fast to manufacture, easy to drive, quick to manoeuvre and reasonably well armed. In the face of such opposition, the German army reacted by producing tanks that were far superior and massively over-engineered. As a result they could not produce enough of these gold-plated versions to outgun the Soviet tanks. In this instance, it was the number of tanks that counted, not the quality. As General Zhukov said, ‘The enemy of the best is good enough.’ 

Hearing this, the young person thought about it for a while and then, looking up, said, “I have spent my life thinking that in order to be accepted at school and to be of value to society, I had to be the best, but no matter how hard I tried I could never be perfect.”

To this young person, the phrase meant the opposite of its intended meaning. 

Throughout childhood and into adolescence, young people are exhorted to try harder, do better, never accept ‘good enough’. A quick search online of the word ‘encouragement’  came up with dozens of images of high-achieving children and advice on how to improve their educational outcomes. Few showed alternative concepts of success. Even where parents are given tips on how to raise a child to be kind, helpful, and resilient, the values placed on these virtues rarely filter into systems used to gauge results. Effective parenting – and by default, the competence of the parent – is itself judged by the success of the child. Attainment is measured in scores and grades, goals set and targets met. By the time they reach adulthood, many people are wired and primed to respond to similar phases in the way the young person did – not in terms of being encouraged, but with raised levels of anxiety at the implied criticism. How many of us recognise the anxious child within ourselves, the one who feels they don’t deserve praise, who ‘must do better’? 

As a society, we want our children to strive and to make the best of the opportunities offered to them. Empty praise is just that and does nothing to encourage individual expectations. But there is also an undercurrent of cultural unease in the way children are raised that speaks of a fear of featherbedding young people and which says that praise will undermine effort and therefore performance. Raise the bar, make them work for it. But the bar is also a rod used to beat under-achievers. 

Attainment is a matter of societal and individual viewpoint driven by a history of ambition and fear. We are all the victims of these pernicious attitudes and the perpetrators. Only by recognising the effect of our inherited perspective towards success and the language that surrounds it, can we modify and change the way we approach our children’s future.  Our best is good enough.

How Practice and Experience Improved One Author’s Craft.

Can practice and experience improve an author’s craft?As I write this I am about a quarter of the way through the first draft of my latest book. It is the eighth I’ve written and the third in The Tarnished Crown quartet. If numbers add up to anything you might expect the process to become easier with time, but does it?  In my case the answer is yes. And no. I’ll deal with the yes first.

Since embarking on my first novel, Mortal Fire, in 2009, I’ve encountered many slings and arrows along the way; but I’ve also seen positive changes in the way I approch my writing. As an aidemémoire for those moments of doubt, I’ve come up with an (admittedly) incomplete list of the benefits garnered from years of writing:

  • Understanding how novels work in my genres of historical fiction and romantic mystery-suspense takes much of the gueswork out of plot and structure. This has come with experience and being open to learning and refining aspects of the craft.
  • I’ve developed my own written language style. I didn’t know what it was before I began my first novel, but I do now. That’s a plus. Writing increases confidence in your own unique voice – the one that identifies your work as, well, yours.
  • I know what to expect of my writing journey. Since producing my first book in the euphoria of ignorance, I now realise that size really does matter. A 350,000 word book is not going to appeal to a publisher no matter how well it is written. My books are still long, but they are now within the range of what is acceptable for historical novels.
  • I have an idea of how long it will take me to produce the next volume. I reckon on the first draft taking a year – give or take a few months for moving house, Christmas and other such eventualities.
  • I’ve worked out what daily routine works best for me and plan my schedules accordingly. Emails get answered in the morning, then it’s  gardening, cooking, or household maintenance (DIY, restoration, cleaning) all before early-afternoon. From then onwards I write until at least 7pm and woe betide any interruptions or interruptors.
  • Over the last decade I’ve concluded that editing is preferable to writing the first draft. I like to have the backbone of the story done before fleshing it out and adding the details that provide richness and depth. The first draft can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride, an adrenaline rush before relaxing into the second draft.
  • The subsequent books in a series tend to be easier to write because the fictional world and its inhabitants have been established already.
  • It has been a real eye-opener working with publishers and seeing the world from their perspective. They are the ones producing and selling your books, so it helps the relationship if you have an insider’s view on what sells, how books are marketed and how you can help the process.
  • Marketing and self-promotion – ah, yes, two things writers are urged to embrace with all the enthusiasm of a convert. I have yet to conquer social media and I confess I’d rather be writing than Tweeting, but I am working on improving my understanding of such things. I have already learned a tremendous amount, made many good friends, and sold books to readers across the globe who enjoy my work. That can’t be bad.

So much for experience helping with aspects of writing a new book and all that goes with it, but what continues to be tricky?

The actual slog of writing is much the same whether it is your first, tenth or last book. It requires mental effort, discipline and, not to put too fine a point on it, bum-glue. Yes, without dedicated time at your desktop or with your quill, that book will not get written. Accept it and buy a decent chair that supports your back.

The snakes and ladders of writing are just the same whichever book you write. You start off on an anticipatory sprint, slow down to a jog, before mooching about in the mire in the middle. Pulling yourself out is tough, but once over that hump and peering at the finishing line, you’re almost there. N.B. Write that down and remember it for the next book you write. There will always be ups and downs – plough on.

For many writers, including me, self-doubt is the elephant in the room. Learning to open the door and invite it to step outside is the one thing you can do for yourself.  Recognise the doubts, analyse them for what they are, and then give them the boot.

Looking back, I’m struck not by how much easier writing each book has become – and it has – but the confidence that has grown out of tackling each new project. In a note to myself, I must remember that and, before embarking on the next novel with all those snakes and elephants, repeat the words made famous by Chief Dan George in the film  The Outlaw Josey Wales:

                             When in doubt I must ‘endeavour to persevere’.