Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Five Writing Mistakes Worth Making

I came to life as a writer after working as a research scientist. One lesson I brought with me was humility. No matter how elegant and pleasing your theory is, Nature’s answer may be, “No, you’re wrong.”

Another lesson was Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Most of the best discoveries began with an error (penicillin) or a “failed” experiment. For the former, new knowledge follows if you pay attention and work to understand what happen. For the latter, you find out what doesn’t work. On a deeper level, the best surprises happen after the researcher mutters, “That can’t be true.” 

Try something you’re sure to make a mess of. Getting out of your comfort zone stretches your imagination and your craft. If you haven’t tried it, write in the point of the opposite sex. Compose an epic poem or song lyrics. Write a fight scene or a sex scene. Develop an argument for a point you disagree with. 

Do the work with integrity, bringing everything you have to it. You don’t have to submit it anywhere. You should make notes afterward about what you learned and how you felt.

Let your character lead you into a dark alley. When a character takes a story into a wrong direction, let him or her keep going for a few scenes. See what happens. At a minimum, you’ll know more about the character, but sometimes you’ll find a new angle for your story.

Write too fast. Jettison punctuation. Put down the wrong word. Write nonsense. Let it flow until all that’s left is your own distinctive voice. This is not for publication, it’s for self-discovery, so charge forward.

Submit a manuscript you think is wonderful even though it isn’t. In the days before electronic documents, this would have cost you money. Today, you can test the reactions to your story with a dozen editors and have a dozen more to send revised versions to. And even a form rejection is feedback. A manuscript that sits on your hard drive will never have any perspective but your own.

Write something you’re not ready to write. I think this idea from Stephen King. Often stories do have their own times, but it’s also possible that hesitation isn’t fear rather than a need for ripening. And any story you are not ready to write is more likely to be wonderful than one that comes with no effort.

This list is far from complete. Many of the most important mistakes are made inadvertently. To have those opportunities, you need to spend a lot of time at your keyboard. Recognize something that did not go as you hoped it would. Move past the frustration and discomfort of making a mistake and accept it. Analyze the situation. And learn the lesson.

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