Mistakes or simply outlandish writing behaviour?
by Sharon Ashwood on February 17th, 2010

One of the reasons I love cats is that they never make mistakes. If they’re prancing along the window ledge, misstep and do a belly flop to the floor, they pretend that they meant to do that, dammit. They pick themselves up, lick a paw, and sashay off to the next adventure. As an approach to life, I’ve met worse.

falling-cat1

In writing, one has to decide when a mistake is a mistake. I’m not talking about grammar/spelling/punctuation, because when two or more copyeditors are gathered together, there shall be clashing opinions, none of which coincide with mine. The real blunders come on a much larger scale, such as when the plot goes to pieces. I often have a terrific scene in mind and will commit all sorts of logic errors just to get there. Or, I write the book how I see fit and find afterward that the result appeals to me and no one else. Most often, I commit the error of overcomplicating things. I do like my subsubsubplots. I also like shades of grey. I don’t always care about how conventionally sympathetic a character is. I’ll take “interesting” over “nice” every time.

Hence, I do a lot of rewriting.

Why do these things happen? Pull up a chair, would-be writers, and learn from the error of my ways:
1. Think through a scene (and a book) before committing it to paper.
2. Remember your audience. Who are you writing for?

With regard to #1, an outline can look better in a notebook than it does in action. Once you’re into a story, it can become evident that your brilliant plot twist was the product of that third glass of Shiraz. Unfortunately, backing out of a bad idea and slashing gobs of pages is sometimes necessary. Or, you can take the cat’s approach and act like you meant it. After all, stories are all about the motivation. Convince yourself, convince the characters, and sometimes it all works out.

With regard to #2, know the expectations of your genre. I struggle with this because I dislike the entire concept of slotting books into pigeon holes, and yet that’s the reality of the marketplace. Trying to be innovative can work, but it can also mean rewriting the entire book back inside the genre boundaries to make it marketable.

A lot of this stuff I don’t regard as mistakes per se, but as choices. An author can choose to be commercially accessible or not. He or she can choose to adhere to today’s favoured structure of story writing–or not. That doesn’t make it bad writing. Much literary fiction goes in the opposite direction and is well-respected.

The down side of there being so many “how to” resources for writers is that the concept of right and wrong storytelling techniques has become firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the commercial writing and reading community. The debate over accepting first person point of view is a typical example. It’s not exactly radical stuff, but it’s been a hard sell with many readers. Experimentation is rare. Have we, as writers, followed “the rules” to the point where we’ve trapped ourselves?

3 comments to “Mistakes or simply outlandish writing behaviour?”

  1. 1

    You’ve hit a number of nails on their heads, Sharon, and I think the pigeonholing idea can be traced back to society’s desire to label everything — seems once we began classifying things we couldn’t stop: learning styles, personalities, work-types, writing genres…

    While “rules” can certainly have their place in helping to give us direction, I think we’ve allowed them to become more than guidelines. We’ve allowed them to define us instead of us defining them. And I don’t think we writers are the only ones who have suffered because of it (think of readers who stick obsessively to one or two genres instead of picking up whatever looks like it might be a good story).

    Perhaps it’s time for us to lift our collective heads from classifying the trees and take a good look at the whole forest again.

    Excellent and thought-provoking post, btw! :smile:

    Linda


  2. 2

    Sharon,

    I’m with you on the matter of experimentation. Sometimes it seems like the variety available on shelves has become homogenized.

    Love the kittie picture!

    Kim


  3. 3

    It’s “teh rulz” now because we don’t follow the rules anymore. Once again, we can thanks cats (lolcats) for showing us Teh Way.


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