How many times have you screwed up your writing? Once? Twice? A hundred times? A thousand times? Counting all the times you’re screwing up this very instant and the times you intend to screw up in the future. . .infinity?
EVERYONE SCREWS UP.
This should be printed in big, bold letters at the top of every sheet of paper, every typewriter, every keyboard, every pencil and pen. It should be something all writers sit and stare at all day long as they mull over their novels. It should be something you could get tattooed on the insides of your eyelids so every time you start thinking you’re the only hopeless loser in history to fail so abysmally at the impossibly simple task of writing what you know needs to be written—all you have to do is close your little eyes.
But until that particular tattoo becomes a realistic possibility, let’s talk about the lessons to take away from your ghastly, nightmarish, soul-destroying facility with failure. Shall we?
- Writers get to erase
- Nobody can tell how many times you’ve erased
- Plots are endlessly adjustable
- Characters can’t rat you out
- Settings always look as good as new
- Dialog gets more interesting as it gets more disjointed
- Actions are always replaceable
- In imaginary space, no one can hear you scream
Why, yes. Yes, we do. And we leave no trace. Painters don’t get to do this. Neither do sculptors, woodworkers, theater actors, live musicians, or jugglers. Not to mention dentists, surgeons, emergency rescue teams, air traffic controllers, pilots, deep-sea divers, venomous snake handlers, stuntpeople, firewalkers, or bungie-jumpers. You know what job I do not want? The guy who has to dangle off a wire from a helicopter to save some window jumper from a tall building when a bug flies into the pilot’s eye. Now THAT job would suck.
But in writing I get to make all the mistakes I like. I can write a zillion words based on a complete fallacy, I can make my characters wooden imbeciles, set stories on a moronic cartoon set, make the action about as swift and decisive as custard pie. I can be simply atrocious at this!
And so long as I learn from my mistakes before I get around to trying to publish, nobody will eeeeeeeeever know.
Not only do I get to hide my mistakes, but I get to do it an infinite number of times. Screwed up my protagonist’s personality? Fine. I’ll fix it. Made it even worse? Fine. I’ll fix it again. Made it even worse? Fine. I’ll fix it again. Wound up with a half-witted three-armed ignoramus bully with delusions of racial superiority who owns far too money, which they use solely to support the sweatshop and advertising industries, and signed them up for a red herring political organization for brainless gorms that accidentally managed to name itself after a particularly vivid sexual innuendo?
No problem! I can keep nothing but the character’s name. In fact—I can even throw out the name.
And I never, ever, ever erase all the way through the paper.
Yes, but what if it’s my plot that sucks? What if I started off with a mind-numbingly boring first chapter I didn’t know was supposed to be a hook, switched gears to backstory that makes mind-numbing look interesting, rambled on for five chapters covering my cliche-ridden survivalist manifesto, filled the next twenty chapters with rude observations about my reader’s personal hygiene, and ended lamely on nothing in particular when I realized I don’t know how to write a novel?
It’s okay! All I have to do is think of what story I’m really, super-duper interested in telling. Then I ask myself, ‘Yes, but what’s the point?’, backtrack from there a few major steps, and launch into it at a random startling place.
And if it turns out I’m not all that interested in telling that story after all—so what?! I can go out on the back porch, scratch my heinie on a post, hawk a loogie in the rhodies, and belt out Don’t Cry for Me, Agentina until the neighbors throw shoes. Then I can come back indoors and turn it into the story of how I totally humiliated myself at the rodeo that time, only I can say it was my sister who did it, not me.
It doesn’t matter! Plots are made of unbreakable elastic.
And those characters I used the first time—well, the first dozen times—while I was trying to figure out what story I really wanted to tell? The only creatures on Earth who know the truth about all this?
Completely mute except for the words I put into their mouths myself. Hear that incoherent screeching in the distance? Hear how it gets all mumbley when I put my hand over it?
Yeah, that’s me. Stifling my characters. Even in a court of law, they can’t bear testimony against me.
I used to set all my stories in invisible settings. I was too lazy to go find out what anyplace actually looked like, so I just dropped my characters down wherever I wanted and let them start talking. I let them do things, too, so long as it didn’t rely on anything in the setting. And I didn’t even know I was imitating Hemingway!
But even when I made my settings ridiculously impossible—they call it an “anachronism” when you let your Druids smoke cigars—and even when I went out later and found out how impossible I’d made it, I still got to take out the impossible stuff and insert the correct details later, and it looked like I’d done it that way in the first place.
Sometimes I still do it that way just to amuse myself.
And sometimes I write and rewrite the same dialog over and over again, trying to get it right, taking it apart and putting it back together again, hammering it to bits, until it sounds like the characters are having totally conflicting conversations all in the same room at the same time over the same table.
You know what I’ve discovered? Dialog sounds a whole lot better that way!
I even leave out the actions. Randomly. Whenever I’m too sleepy or bored or preoccupied clipping my fingernails to think up anything worth writing down. Or, worse, sometimes I use actions I know perfectly well are trite and unbelievable (never “hips that beckon,” but sometimes pretty darn close), just to fill up the space.
Then when I feel like it, I go back later with a thesaurus and try out different words in different orders without even considering what might work best—“slapped/kicked/slid across ice/fingered greasily/dashed past and back again/yodeled like a Swedish tenor/baked in a steak-&-kidney pie.” Sometimes I do it with my eyes closed. That’s how little attention I sometimes feel like paying.
That’s also how the characters in my stories wind up doing things that really make each other sit up and do a double-take.
You have total and complete freedom to vent the frustrations of writing on your story. Go ahead and take out on it everything that’s ever happened or not happened to you, tear out its heart and jump up and down, savage it like a bulldog.
Try it. Yeah. Nobody made a peep, did they?
I love this craft.
No matter how badly you screw up your manuscript, it’s okay! So long as you’re one of those 6 Personality Types Who Will Succeed as Writers.