Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Everything Right Is Wrong


by Boyd Morrison

I’m averse to making mistakes, which probably stems from my educational background. I’m an engineer by training. In that profession, errors can have devastating consequences. Miscalculate the thickness of concrete walls, and a billion-dollar oil rig sinks (Sleipner A platform). Change the design of a single bolt, and a crowded walkway collapses (Kansas City Hyatt). Underestimate the effect of cold weather on a simple rubber O-ring, and a space shuttle explodes (Challenger).

So I’ve been conditioned to avoid mistakes at all costs. The problem is that I’m no longer an engineer. I’m now in the creative fields of writing and acting. In my new professions, mistakes are just fine. No one dies. Nothing is destroyed. In fact, mistakes are encouraged. That’s how you improve.

In writing, trying to eliminate mistakes is the mistake. Yes, there are objective errors that you want to avoid in a novel. Don’t put a safety on a Glock pistol. Don’t make your continuity and timelines inconsistent. Don’t change the name of a character halfway through. These are indisputable mistakes, and yet I have seen them all in novels. Bestselling novels.

In one of my own books, THE ARK, I explained that the elevators of a slowing airplane lowered to maintain altitude. Of course, this is incorrect. The elevators should go up to pitch the aircraft up. I’ve flown planes myself. I have a degree in mechanical engineering during which I studied fluid dynamics. I know that it was wrong, and I still made the mistake. No one—including my brother, who is a former Air Force pilot—caught the error until the book was in stores. No one died, and only one reader has ever brought it up (in fact, it’s the only reason I know the mistake happened). However, the error still bugs me.

What’s more insidious for a writer is the avoidance of subjective mistakes. We want to get everything right in a story: characters, plot, twists, literary merit, creativity, emotional resonance. We want the story to be perfect, and impatient people like me want it to be perfect from the moment we start typing it.

But it never is. It can’t be. Ever. I bet you’d only be able to come up with a tiny list of  stories that didn’t have a single thing you’d change. And even then, go look at the Amazon reviews for those books. You’ll find at least a few people (and sometimes hundreds of them) who don’t agree with your definition of perfection.

Voltaire is considered the originator of the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We’re afraid that if our story isn’t perfect, it won’t be good enough. The idea for a novel that we have in our minds never comes out on the page like we imagine. Sometimes we can’t write at all because we’ll be disappointed that it won’t come out perfectly formed on the first try.

What we have to come to terms with is that making mistakes is part of the process. That’s how we learn. That’s how we make art. My wife, who is sometimes frustrated when I delay delivering pages to her to edit, gave me a T-shirt for Christmas that says, “Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.” That notion can be freeing if you take it to heart. You can’t make it better if it doesn’t exist in the first place.

I’m getting more comfortable with making mistakes, but it’s a daily struggle. The lesson slowly worming its way into my head is that to fixate on creating the perfect novel results in creating nothing. So I’m learning to focus on the right thing: getting a story out that reflects my voice, where even the flaws and imperfections are unique to me.

22 comments:

  1. Great post,thanks for the insight. Recently I struggled over one scene for 2-3 days barely writing 500 words. I finally told myself to puke it out, leave it on the floor and move on. The result is far from perfect but I wrote 1,000 words and ended that scene.

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    1. hrm...good imagery there Mark. I do hope the vomitous effluence congeals well into a well moldable form of some kind. Even from puked up words we can sometimes pick up a number good reusable nuts and peas, and even some full sized bites of meat that can form a whole new meal.

      my days of ambulance humour are apparently still lurking in the back of my mind

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    2. One must have hope...

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  2. Good points, all. I'm one of those lucky (weird) writers who prefers editing to drafting, so "get it down" is easy for me. What gets trickier is knowing when I'm finished editing. Sometimes that has to be a matter of, "this is as good as you write. Get over it."

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    1. I like that. "this is as good as you write. Get over it."

      And I get it. Doesn't mean I'm not going to improve, I will, but I'll always be me. My voice. I'll never be Lee Child or even Brad Parks. But I'll always be a writer. So I'll get over it and get on with it.

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  3. There's the quest for perfection and then there's plain old getting it wrong. I'm with you Boyd (and Voltaire) that sometimes you just gotta puke it out. (and clean it up on rewrite). But factual errors are another animal. If you don't know guns, find someone who does. If you don't know forensics, don't try to fake your way thru a scene. And if you were born and raised in Michigan and still have loons hanging around in winter in your book, you deserve to get letters from fans telling you how dumb you are. (As we did in our book "Dead of Winter.") The nice thing about ebooks is that when we re-pubbed "Dead of Winter" we let the loons migrate.

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  4. It's funny about research. Some writers (even among the A list) aver that they fake as much as possible because, well, it's fiction after all.

    But you have to pick your spots. When I did my historicals, set in turn-of-the-century LA, I had to get the facts right. I had just read a low-grade historical taking place in LA in 1904 that posited a thriving film industry. I practically jumped out of my Angeleno skin! So I checked and double checked everything, going to primary sources whenever possible.

    Funny story: I heard from ONE reader (a phone museum curator) who said that ONE detail about an early telephone was wrong. That bugged me no end, and when I re-issued the series in digital, I was all ready to change it. Just to be sure, I contacted ANOTHER expert on early phones and found out, much to my delight, that my original detail was correct for a more expensive type of phone...which was the kind the character in the scene would have used. That's the sort of research that's really fun--the kind where you turn out to be right.

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    1. Yeah, I had that happen with a so-called gun expert who wrote to tell me I screwed up a rifle reference. I double-checked and he was wrong! BWahahahahaha! I wrote him back and was nice.

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    2. Guns are a point of pride for many. I really fear getting those details wrong, partly because, well, they have guns.

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  5. I TOTALLY relate to this post, Boyd. I'm a new writer and it has taken me more than two years to realize that perfection, while a lofty goal, isn't possible to achieve. I always want to get everything right from the first draft, because let's face it, it means less work later on. But that NEVER happens. EVER.

    I love Dana King's comment above: "This is as good as you write. Get over it." Only, as I still have a lot to learn about the craft, I would amend it to say, "This is as good as you write for now, but just because you're writing's not as polished as you would like it to be doesn't mean you should stop. Get over it and keep going."

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  6. Your post really hit home for me. Getting your facts right is a concern for every writer, but the subject mistakes are the ones that can paralyze you. The perfect is indeed the enemy of the good. I'll always strive learn, grow and improve as a writer, but I've found, like you, that trying to make the perfect book results in no book.

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  7. Oh the perseveration over potential mistakes has probably prevented more writers from committing to the final "send" and left them wondering if their work could have ever been published. And yes, yes, the mistakes, failures, and rejections have done more to fine tune my journey than most of my successes. Now, if I could move beyond the internal bashing I do with failing, I'd be even one more step ahead of the game!

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  8. I think you hit it spot on Boyd. When we try to hard to get it all right, someone somewhere always finds fault regardless, even when we get the facts right.

    Funny thing is sometimes I've been complimented on data that I know I totally made up, while other times I've been chided as making up stuff that I know for certain was/is absolute fact.

    For instance this Amazon reviewer:
    I get that a theme of the whole book...has to do with the cold, but the author routinely...references temperatures as low as -40 to -60 and below, which apparently don't strike the characters as that unusual ... if you're going to write a book set in Alaska, it may be worthwhile to do a little research first, especially on such basic facts as these.

    Uh, well commentater person...part of my research was living here most of my life and enduring those -60 and colder temperatures (including learning that taking a walk at -70 can cause sudden onset of excruciating pain in any dangly parts common to men..."Is it just me or is someone playing castanets in time to your walking?")

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    1. Did you ever use that castanets line in your book? You should have. :)

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    2. While I've not used it in a novel ... yet... I did use it in an off-BBC podcast that so far has been my best received in the UK. I did have a bit about piling your pee at -45f. It actually freezes as it hits the ground and piles up vertically. Very 'cool' experience to say the least. I do need to incorporate the castanet bit in a book though... fo sho... clakc, clack, clack...

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  9. It's nice to know I'm not the only one in this boat. Another analogy that comes to mind is learning to ski. If you don't risk falling down, you'll never get off the bunny slope.

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  10. I'm finding that if I didn't love learning, I'd be unable to function as a writer. Granted once or twice my research has forced me to abandon chapters or even entire story arcs because the story that works in my head is SOOOOO much fiction that anyone familiar with the topic will not only throw down the book in disgust but may also be moved to seek me out to cause bodily harm.

    I spent over a month working with two rocket scientists to get a chapter of Bastion just right on the science and after all that work still had not managed to reconcile my plot with how stellar observations actually work. The chapter, as proud of it as I was, is now officially gone, never to return.

    Of course when you're writing web-fiction you're in a totally different book. If you post something that's factually wrong, and it's also a plot point, there is no revision. It's out there in the wild as that chapter and you've got to live with it. You've got to get it right the first time or you find yourself 24 hours after posting a chapter getting an email saying "yeah... no Marine would send their crew chief off on a mission, like EVER" and make you wonder if it's worth a Ret-Con or not.

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  11. I think we should strive to be the best we can be. As a writer who is still struggling to let people read her work, I've learned to allow myself to write bad or get things wrong just to get it on the page. I was constantly editing while I was writing and not finishing. Now I just try to get it on the paper and I check the facts that will make the most difference to the story first. Since I am writing modern romantic suspense it is not as in depth as a historical or career oriented novel. As a reader all I can say is if you make me believe it. I will whether it is fact or fiction.

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  12. Great points Boyd,

    I'm happy so say that I gave up on catching every mistake early on and I actually love it when a reader gives me a heads up on something I've missed. I even went as far as to place this at the end of every new book;

    "...I also welcome any input as to mistakes I may have missed, not necessarily typos or grammar, as they are self-explanatory, but mistakes pertaining to procedures or content. Mistakes of this nature tend to pull the reader out of the story and make it less enjoyable. If you should find such an error please fire off an email in my direction. The beauty of e-books and print-on-demand physical books is that they can always be updated to fix such things. I’ll post the mistake on my website with full credit to the person who found it. If you wish to remain anonymous, that’s fine too, the help is always appreciated."

    So far its working out very well.

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  13. Awesome post. As an engineer myself, I, too, want to tinker and tinker and tinker, but have to push forward.

    And, hell yes on research. I subbed a flash fiction called "Suicide By State"

    -------------------

    The State wouldn't give me what I wanted. Jacked on meth for courage, I ran from the cops, but they wouldn't shoot me.

    Instead they put me in this cell and promised treatment and rehabilitation.

    However, they did give me this blanket. A cheap one with threads easily pulled from the weave. Three threads made a braid. Three braids made a strand. Three strands made a rope.

    Tie it to the upper bunk. When my knees touch the floor, it’ll be over.

    The State wouldn't give me death. However, they gave me a blanket. For a determined man, that's enough.

    -----------------------

    Well, the editor rejected it with a detailed note about how my method of suicide was unrealistic and unworkable and completely unbelievable. Um, I wrote it two weeks after it happened just like this in our jail. We have video. He could have just said he didn't like it. #yeesh

    Terri

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  14. Your wife is right about "getting it down," but then getting it right--or as right as you can, once it is down--remains a necessary objective. When I was in the classroom, I told my writing students (most of whom were future engineers) to think in terms of degrees of accuracy. A high degree of accuracy trumps a low degree every time. Insisting on perfection? No, but exercising rigor? By all means.

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