Tag Archives: mistakes

Just Like Starting Over

This morning, we woke to a refreshed world. Heavy rain fell in most places last night, washing away the dust and dessication of the last few weeks, and the air feels lighter and clearer this morning. For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I’m wearing a too-tight hat made of red-hot metal, and a headache isn’t threatening to engulf me. It’s a nice feeling.

Because of all this freshness, several related things are on my mind this morning, things like: learning from the past and then leaving it behind, new beginnings, corners being turned and change being made for the better (hopefully, at least). Today’s the perfect day to think about things like this. The earthy, rich air is coming in my open window and the grass is sighing with relief outside, and everything feels new.

Image: flickriver.com

Image: flickriver.com

Nobody goes through life without making mistakes, or doing things that, on reflection, they would have decided against if they’d been given a second chance; everyone has done or said things which cause them to cringe with embarrassment when they creep into mind weeks or months or even years later. I am no exception, of course. Learning from your mistakes, allowing them to shape your future in a positive way, and eventually letting them go, is a very important life skill. I’ve always had trouble with the ‘letting them go’ part of this model; I find it very difficult, and always have. I tend to hold on to my regrets and my embarrassments, and over time they ferment into something more damaging, something which feels a lot like guilt.

Guilt can be a terribly corrosive emotion – I’m not even sure ’emotion’ is the correct word. Perhaps ‘force’ is better. It’s something which can erode a person’s self-belief and confidence, warping their ability to lay down plans for their future life, robbing them of any ability to move forward and keep going. I’m not talking here about ‘justified’ guilt – i.e. the natural and perhaps deserved guilt a person may feel if they commit a crime or harm someone else or break the law; I’m talking about the pernicious kind, the self-directed, self-harming kind, the sort of guilt that eats you up over mistakes made, things said in anger or in error, things for which you can’t forgive yourself. Things which you carry with you like a ball and chain. I think certain people are perhaps more prone to this sort of thinking than others; perfectionists, for instance, or people who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are carrying a burden of expectation, or people who are serious, and careful, and who like to be right. People, in short, who can’t deal with the fact that sometimes, they’re going to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that it’s just another part of life. There has to come a point, however, where this foundation-dissolving guilt is allowed to trickle away, and the person can be washed clean of it; that’s difficult, though, when the person can’t let themselves get past it.

When I make a mistake that causes me to be embarrassed by my own behaviour or when I engage on a course of action that I later regret, I tend to build a skin of forgetfulness over the whole thing; of course, like any skin, it’s vulnerable and porous and prone to being popped. I push away my mistake, I try not to think about my error, I don’t allow myself to deal with it rationally and come to the (inevitable) conclusion: ‘it wasn’t all that bad. What are you beating yourself up over?’ Instead, the memory remains, buried deep, ready to explode at any moment. Like a sore tooth or a niggling pain, though, the awareness of the bubble of guilt deep within me is always there. I might choose to ignore it, but I know exactly where it is. In that way, then, my attempts to forget it, to cover it over, to leave it behind, are all fruitless. It becomes the focal point of my mental life, and an insurmountable obstacle.

I’m not really sure why I do this. Perhaps I’m a bit of a weirdo.

Forgiving oneself, and starting afresh, are not always easy things to do – but they have to be done. You can live your life with a bubble of guilt and regret inside you, but you won’t take any risks, and you won’t do anything for fear of doing something wrong, and you won’t say anything at all for fear of saying something inadvertently hurtful or stupid or embarrassing – and what sort of life is that? I find it difficult to allow myself the space and compassion to make mistakes, to learn from them and atone for them, and to move on without the burden of them hanging around my neck, but as I grow older I am getting better at it. I’m trying to treat myself with more kindness and consideration, and trying to realise that I am going to make mistakes, sometimes, but that it’s perfectly all right. On a day like today, when the cooling rains have come to refresh my little patch of world and make it new, I’m going to make another effort to keep this lesson to the forefront of my mind.

A life of writing, where you are your own sole motivator, is a life incompatible with being handicapped by guilt and regret. You can’t keep moving forward if you’re afraid to move on, after all. It’s time to leave my regrets where they belong and allow myself the freedom to learn, and grow, and move into the future.

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Happy Thursday, everyone! It’s almost the weekend. Hang in there…

The Wavy Green Line of Death

I am tired today. I worked until midnight last night, because my husband went to bed early (like a sensible person). Instead of seeing my abandonment as an opportunity to perhaps read a book, or watch some TV, I grabbed the WiP and edited until my eyesight began to fail.

Image: someecards.com

Image: someecards.com

But, in a way, it was worth it.

Yesterday’s editing was brutal – it was a merciless slaughter of words. Line after line of useless text fell beneath the blade of my Green Felt Pen. (In fact, my word-thirsty Green Felt Pen may need to be replaced with the even mightier Blue Felt Pen later today, because I’ve nearly worn out the nib on Green the Destroyer, such is the swathe it has cut through the excesses of the WiP.) And, surprisingly, I’m learning that it actually feels good to edit. It feels good to re-read a paragraph or a page after I’ve cut lumps out of it, and realise that it now says exactly the same as it did before, but in fewer words and without doing all the work for the reader.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention (that is, if you’re a regular reader) that this edit is my seventh. Seventh. And I’m still finding things to fix. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve read the manuscript of this novel about ten times at this stage, and it’s only becoming clear in this edit that I’ve made a huge amount of rookie mistakes. Thank goodness for the all-powerful Green Felt Pen of Doom, then! Maybe the power is in the pen – that would explain a lot, actually.

Anyway. Let’s do a little round-up of Things I Have Done Wrong, in the hope it’ll help other writers:

Item the First: My book is narrated in the first person. This can pose tricky problems for me, because all I have to go on is my protagonist’s viewpoint. Yet, at regular intervals through the book, my protagonist describes for the reader how other characters are feeling. This, of course, is a no-no. It’s only striking me now how silly this is, and how badly it reads. People can make guesses at how others are feeling, of course, based on body language, tone of voice, and so on – but for a first-person narrator to say something like: ‘He looked at me, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He was so anxious. His heart was racing,’ is plainly ridiculous. (I have to point out that the sentence I’ve just used is most definitely not taken from my WiP – I wasn’t as silly as that. I’m just trying to give an illustrative example!) So, anywhere I’ve noticed my protagonist making assumptions about other people’s feelings which are not based on very clear physical cues, the Green Wavy Line of Death has been employed, and those needless words have fallen. And hurray to that.

Item the Second: I’ve also realised that my protagonist describes things in too much detail sometimes. If she encounters a machine, or a vehicle, or a piece of technology, she tends to go on and on about it, describing every last dial, switch, and piece of tubing. She’s not a particularly enthusiastic engineer, and she’s not a machine-nerd. These things are not out of place in the world she lives in. So, I ask myself, why does she go on about them for half a paragraph? It’s equivalent to someone in a modern novel taking fifteen lines to describe a washing machine, or a refrigerator. Unless the refrigerator in question was powered by a meteorite and made from solid diamond, or the narrator is a freshly-arrived alien, there’s no need to do that. Of course. What I’ve done – as, I’m sure, will be clear to you – is I’ve mixed up my own voice with my narrator’s. That is a shocking mistake to make. I’m fascinated by the machines and technology in this world, and I’ve thought deeply about them. I’ve done some research into steam-powered engines, and condensers, and propellers, and so on. So, when someone in the book enthuses about something which should be totally ordinary from their point of view, it’s actually me speaking, not the character. I’ve slapped myself on the wrist for this already, don’t worry. And slash slash scribble goes the Green Felt Pen of Doom.

Item the Third: One of the things I was most proud of yesterday was condensing six pages (or, approximately 3600 words) of descriptive exposition with a bit of dialogue into about 2.5 pages (hopefully, fewer than 1000 words) of pure dialogue, with a tiny bit of exposition. It was a scene which had bothered me for a while, but until yesterday I had no idea how to fix it. Eventually, I just ended up rewriting the entire thing. It’s an important scene, because in it, our Fearless Protagonist is learning things about her family, and realising how little she understands about them and what they do. But, as I’d written it up until yesterday, the scene was basically a lecture given by one of the other characters, both to the reader and my protagonist. Now, it’s more like a discussion – she engages more, puts things together herself (without having to be smacked across the head with things that are, actually, obvious), and I don’t feel the need to expand on every tiny detail. As before, with the overdone descriptions, I’ve sketched around things that would be clear and unremarkable to the character, and allowed them to gradually reveal themselves to the reader.

So, basically, this is what I’ve learned (the hard way): Don’t give your characters knowledge they couldn’t possibly have; Don’t confuse your enthusiastic, nerdy voice with theirs; and Don’t allow Captain Obvious to visit your manuscript and explain everything in minute detail. Smack him with the Green Felt Pen of Death.

I hope this has been helpful, and mildly diverting. Do let me know if you have any other editing tips, or if you disagree with anything I’ve said here. It’s all about the discussion, people!

Have a wonderful Thursday.