Exploring Mistakes

First drafts never come easy. They rarely turn out exactly how you’ve planned them, if you’ve even planned them at all. The other day, fellow pantser and Pub Crawler JJ posted about endings being one of the most challenging things for her, and offered useful advice on how she deals with the inevitable wall blocking her way to the goal.

I’m the total opposite. I always know my endings. I know from the start how everything will turn out, which characters, if any, will die, and what kind of world order will be in place. If I don’t, then I have no will to write. I can have the perfect world constructed, but if I don’t have an ending to suit a story, I may as well have never created it.

But this far from makes things easier, nor does it make them necessarily harder. It’s just a different way of writing. Beside my shining, glittering, golden ending is a looming pit of darkness in need of filling. It’s true, the edges are faintly lined with tentative opening chapters, and there are some generic filler ideas peeking through the gloom, but mostly it’s a pit of darkness.

The most effective method I’ve found to defeat the pit of darkness is by making mistakes.

This is something we’ve all heard before: You’ll never learn until you’ve made mistakes. And it’s usually followed by sagely uttered words about knowledge gained in how to avoid them. But here’s an idea. If you’re writing your first draft and you start making mistakes, don’t fix them. If you’re in a place where your ideas aren’t set in stone anyways, you have nothing to lose. Explore the notion that the mistake you made is actually the right answer.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few months ago, I was writing a wedding scene. I was writing it out of sheer desperation because I had no idea how to progress the story even though my ending looked so beautiful in the distance. The bride had recently lost her parents under suspicious circumstances, and was unhappily getting married to a man who employs her very close family friend. Naturally, this family friend will be present at the wedding. The bride needs all the support she can get, especially since she’s pretty much getting married against her will. The family friend hates the groom despite working for him, but will be there because he knows that the bride will need a friendly face in the crowd. Let’s be honest here; the only reason this character exists is because she needs an ally.

It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized I’d totally forgotten to include him in the wedding ceremony. And the reception. And all the subsequent scenes of the bride feeling abysmally lonely. In other words, a character whose sole function of being a person’s support system collapsed into a heap of moot possibilities.

I couldn’t believe my stupidity. I mean, this guy was best friends with her father. He’s known her since she was born. This was going to be his shining moment. What the frak was he doing that was more important than the wedding?!

I was about to go all the way back to the beginning of the event to start writing in cameos heavily featuring trivial exchanges and encouraging smiles when I started thinking…

…What was he doing that was more important than the wedding?

That one mistake, followed by that one question, ended up giving me enough fodder for ten thousand words of new plot and created a conspiracy theory that will last me the entire story.

I can’t even imagine the story anymore where the family friend is present at the wedding. I can’t stop the eye-roll when I think about how useless he was. And you have to be a pretty damn useless character for a writer to forget about you completely during a scene where you should be excelling at your purpose.

This is what I mean by making mistakes. Rather than fixing them, explore them.

Obviously, some mistakes lead to plot holes, and this way of writing is mostly beneficial to people who don’t plan details. But even so, it’s easy to get stuck on a concept just because you feel you have no choice but to keep it. In some ways, committing to these kinds of mistakes is the equivalent of murdering your darlings before they’ve even been created. Sometimes choices are hard to come by. Other times the imperfect human memory hands them to you so elegantly you think you made the mistake on purpose.

In any case, next time you realize you’ve made a huge error, try to think of its possibilities before chucking it. You may have subconsciously created a better situation for yourself.

After all, most great things are discovered by accident.

        

10 Responses to Exploring Mistakes

  1. Ashley Norris Sep 6 2013 at 7:55 am #

    I did this too! In my manuscript, I left out a pretty important supporting character. I asked myself the same thing: why wasn’t he in the first few chapters? Maybe he was doing something nefarious? I didn’t correct my mistake and by brainstorming the possibilities instead of scraping the first draft, I created a great plot twist!

    Thanks for posting! I’m glad I’m not the only one who forgot to include a major character!!

    • Biljana
      Biljana Sep 6 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      Oh man, HOW gratifying was it when you figured out how to use it? I started dancing around when things fell into place. In some ways, it feels even more rewarding (though probably falsely so haha) than planning it because you don’t have to go through the nightmare of starting over. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      • Ashley Norris Sep 6 2013 at 7:33 pm #

        It was extremely gratifying! It does seem a little more rewarding actually. Had I incorporated the character in the beginning, as planned, I would have cut off several possibilities down the line. Although, not having to start over is enough to make anyone dance around! Win/win? I think so…

  2. Deborah Kreiser Sep 6 2013 at 11:32 am #

    What a great post! I think we should avoid focusing too intensely on getting stuff Absolutely Right in the first draft, and let the characters progress in an organic way. After all, writers are creative people, and there’s lots going on in our subconscious. If we suppress it too much, the creativity won’t make it into our books.
    p.s. I first read the title of the post as “Exploding Mistakes.” Slightly different meaning!

    • Biljana
      Biljana Sep 6 2013 at 7:24 pm #

      Agreed, suppressing the subconscious gets a person into a rigidity that’s hard to break away from. And now I’m kind of regretting not having named this post Exploding Mistakes!

  3. Susan Elizabeth Sep 6 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    I had a similar experience recently. I decided to add a character into my story to move one section of the plot along. She worked, but didn’t quite fit because I didn’t know what her motivation was for being around. I started asking myself why she was there and why she was involved with this small town’s mystery and after an hour of scribbling she had a much bigger purpose in the story. Even better, she was able to bring to light several things about a major character that I was having trouble bringing off the page. Everything happens for a reason, right?

    • Biljana
      Biljana Sep 6 2013 at 7:25 pm #

      Definitely. That’s just solid character building, right there.

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