After this month’s series of posts on common mistakes authors make with plot–everything ranging from plot holes to not making the “big” moment big enough–I realized that writing mistakes can be a scary thing for a writer, especially a fledgling writer. And I wanted to address that.
We writers should all, of course, strive to make as few mistakes as possible. To make our stories, our grammar, our style as solid as possible. But that doesn’t mean we have to fear making mistakes.
Writing mistakes can be positive experiences. No, seriously…. They’re frustrating, and discouraging, and for that reason it’s important to find a community of writers to support you through the tough times. But equally important is remembering that your writing mistakes can be something to be thankful for.
Believe me, I have my share of awful writing saved on my hard drive. And here’s why I’m proud of it:
YOUR BIG ERROR MIGHT ONLY SEEM LIKE A MISTAKE.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a scene, thought “oh my gosh, that is awful and I can do nothing with it,” and then been moved to more deeply contemplate my characters and their choices. That contemplation sometimes helps me realize I had things right all along (for reasons I never realized), and if I didn’t…. well, I’d rewrite.
An example from my work: (MINOR SPOILER ALERT ATTACHED. Nothing serious revealed, but still….)
In my novel “The Crimson League” I wrote a first draft of a rescue scene that felt all wrong. As soon as I finished the getaway, I knew in my gut what the problem was: the rescue had been far, far too easy.
The bad guy would want the rescued man dead. And even if my scrappy group of rebels managed to save their guy, they had just done so with far too much grace and simplicity.
My gut instinct: rewrite the scene from scratch. But then I thought, no. No, this sorcerer-villain Zalski, he’s pretty crafty. A real manipulator of people’s actions and emotions. Maybe the rescue was easy because…. Maybe this rescue could play into his hand somehow, so he wanted it to happen?
And BINGO: what I thought was a total disaster turned into a small part of a more complex series of events I hadn’t even realized existed. In this case, a “mistake” turned into a real win for my story.
YOU WON’T COMMIT THE “BIG MISTAKE” MORE THAN ONCE.
I can pretty much promise, if an error is big enough and disastrous enough…. If it disrupts your progress and creative process enough…. You won’t find yourself in that place again.
Writing the last novel in my Herezoth trilogy, I had pure swill after 100 pages and started over from scratch. I was annoyed, but I knew what I had done wrong.
I had pushed myself when I shouldn’t have. I was focusing on words, words, words, and writing every day, and thus making myself continue down a track that I honestly knew wasn’t going anywhere.
I was rushing things. When my instincts started whispering that maybe I could benefit from taking time to plot the story out, I shut them down. Now I know to listen to my instincts, believe me. I know to listen to that little voice. (I just can’t get it confused with all the characters screaming at me all the time!)
MISTAKES CAN CLEAR YOUR PATH FOR YOU
I think I tell this story in “Writing for You,” so some of you might be familiar with it, but it’s really poignant to demonstrate this argument.
In the last section, I mentioned how I rushed that start to the last novel in my trilogy. That’s one major reason that draft was pure swill. The other reason?
I hadn’t let enough time pass between where book two ended and where book three began. I needed to let YEARS more pass.
The thing is, I was determined to write a series of four books. I would never have realized that I needed to combine my ideas for books three and four, and set the action in book four’s time period, without trying and failing to get that original book three off the ground.
I don’t look at those months of writing as wasted time. They were just part of the process. They made me realize that my original idea wasn’t working while simultaneously highlighting for me what would work.
When I started over, I was able to jump right into book three’s true story. No planning, no agonizing over characters or details. I just KNEW what the story was supposed to be.
Writing that “failed” draft was all the prep work I needed. I found myself so stoked to get going on what I knew would be something special, that I hardly let throwing out months of work and thousands of words get to me. I could sense I was moving on to something better and more exciting than that first draft could ever turn into.
MISTAKES ARE SIMPLY PART OF THE PROCESS
We writers and creative types tend to be perfectionists. And while it’s good to shoot for improvement and to put your best work out there, “perfect” isn’t attainable where fiction is concerned.
Mistakes and errors of all kinds are part of the writing process. We all stop and start, all backtrack, all think we have it figured out only to realize we took a wrong turn two chapters back or that passage we thought was brilliant actually needs a serious tune-up.
Writing fiction is a test of perseverance and self-acceptance as much as anything else.
- If you don’t accept that you will get things wrongs, you will never get a draft down.
- If you aren’t prepared to confront mistakes, you’ll get so frustrated when you make one you’ll be tempted to give up.
- If you can’t take yourself and your mistakes lightly, and love them as reflections of who you are, you will be embarrassed of your writing and never share it with anyone.
The mistakes can drive us nuts. Believe me, I know. But don’t ever think you’re the only one who makes them, or that they imply you are a failure as a writer. Just fix them. Start again, or start on something new, if you can’t fix them (or aren’t willing to put in the work to fix them.) Just keep writing.
The mistakes don’t define you as a writer unless you let them do that.
So, what do you think about writing mistakes? Have you experienced any upsides to your errors? How do you keep a positive mindset and embrace the difficulties and “failures” of your writing?