I have learned a great deal from making mistakes, though there are still mistakes I make now that I used to make some twenty years ago. Much like ‘writer fingerprints’ in terms of misspelled words, the same concept can resurface.
I have a bad habit of drawing attention away from the action with wonderful (or highly detailed) descriptions of something irrelevant. It used to be entire pages or paragraphs, now it’s mostly a sentence. I’ve done it multiple times though. Once, in trying to demonstrate the passing of time, I wrote two pages that I ended up tossing because it was irrelevant and didn’t move the action forward. I got so caught up trying to show the passing of time that I forgot that sometimes it’s okay to tell. Instead of writing about a guy having an event-free walk from one town to another, I should have leaped to the action. “Two days passed” or “After two full days of walking” or something along these lines. But no, I had to write two pages of walking, eating, making camp and internal observation. Yawn. For some reason this seems to be my thing; a mistake I am destined to repeat. The best thing about identifying this mistake is that I can now beware of it. I am positive it’s made me a better writer, because now I’m not afraid of moving from action to action. I thought I had to meander, that I was supposed to adhere to someone else’s writing formula. This particular skill does not belong to me, it isn’t part of my voice.
The most important part of making mistakes in writing is to have the attitude that you (as well as other writers, including those that are published) are always making them. This has two benefits; primarily it gives you the ability to forgive yourself, to show a little mercy. The second benefit is the experience they give you. All novice writers start with tabula rasa – a clean slate. It’s through making mistakes in writing that we find out who we are and where we need to grow. Spelling isn’t important. Grammar isn’t important. Spell-checks, editing tools, programs or people can help you with these. The story-telling itself is the important thing, and where you need to fix mistakes. Mistakes that sneak up on you into things like motivation, focus, action, execution, dialogue, the insertion of hooks, or when building tension. The list goes on. Then there are the rules; do this, don’t do that. The one that annoys me most is the modern writing rule to not use exclamation marks. It’s valid punctuation! A common mistake is point of view shift.
The best thing about mistakes is that you can learn from other writers mistakes. When reading a book, if something doesn’t work for you, why? Did the author use an obscure word that pulled you out from the story? Perhaps the author has an incredible character. Perhaps their dialogue is stilted. Perhaps you can’t associate with the main character or the scene feels flat or a hundred other things are getting in the way. Perhaps the action slooooows down. Whatever it was, it was a mistake that everybody missed, and your eyes and perspective was a fresh one they needed before printing. My point to all this, is that I consider every book – whether published or not – is imperfect. Some readers will find it flawless. Others will think there could be some improvement.
Most writers are terribly hard on themselves. Someone who loves their work a hundred percent of the time isn’t open to learning, isn’t open to growth. Once someone reaches that stage, where they feel nobody can offer them useful advice or improve on their work, that’s when they become a bad writer (if they’re not already). Of course I believe that you should love your work, that your story is worth telling, but don’t be blinded by it. A flawless manuscript/book is impossible. Writing is organic. There is no such thing as perfection. The craft of fiction is based on perception and perspective, you cannot master this.
This is why I love mistakes, the ones I see anyway. I’m not fond of the ones that I miss. But because I have the attitude that with every story I write my style becomes an improvement on the last, it motivates me to keep writing, and to forgive myself for the mistakes I find in eight year old manuscripts, or even two year old manuscripts, or even in that scene I wrote yesterday. I caught it, I fixed it, I understand where I went wrong, I (mostly) don’t make the mistake again (until I forget). But some of it sticks. And because I believe that no book is perfect, I have the courage to seek a publisher for my imperfect manuscript. I know when I’m ready to let my manuscript go, because there will come a point when the mistakes stop glaring at me and I start having to hunt for them. When that happens, it’s time to face the editor/publisher/agent.