by Gayle Lynds
This is the best writing advice I ever got.
Learning to write well is like climbing a greased pole. You make a couple of feet of progress (exhilarating!), but then you slide back a foot, or more (groan!).
In the beginning I was climbing and sliding, climbing and sliding, having difficulty finishing some projects because I sensed something was wrong or I just didn’t know where to go with the story. And of course one blames oneself for not being smarter, more talented, more industrious. Truthfully, one feels like a failure.
In those early years, my mentor was Los Angeles Times literary critic Robert Kirsch. Yup, the one for whom the Los Angeles Times lifetime achievement award is named (I was one lucky beginner!). I still can hear his growly voice advising me: “Make many mistakes now. Later on, when you’re publishing and getting noticed, it’s a lot more embarrassing.”
Oh, boy. He turned out to be so right: A few years later I changed an automatic pistol into a revolver in one of my novels, and then forgot I’d done it. So in a later chapter, I screwed a sound-suppressor (AKA: a silencer) onto it, but you can’t screw a sound-suppressor onto a revolver and make it work!!!! Sigh. My editor and copyeditor missed it. The book was published. Readers noticed and emailed me. I’m still apologizing for it.
And that brings up the question of how I finally did manage to write ten published novels, win some awards, hit bestseller lists, and still make such a whopper of a mistake?
Well, it’s partly Bob’s fault (or success, if you will), but it also dates back to a writers’ party for beginners. I was in a funk, drinking cheap red wine as were my fellow partygoers who were also in various stages of feeling sorry for themselves. (If nothing else, we writers are dramatic.)
I was people watching, looking for ideas for characters, thinking about the story I was working on, and trying to figure out a plot. Well, truthfully, I was also eavesdropping (it’s okay if you’re a writer, or a spy). That’s when I heard something that kinda made sense….
I sidled closer to a couple of older men.
One was an overworked stay-at-home dad who’d recently abandoned a professional career so he could focus on housework and kids, which meant he’d have “time” (sure, right) to write The Great American Novel. The other had been writing off and on for a decade but had never managed to finish a single manuscript (it happens, folks, alas).
These were my people!
So the first guy (the dad) advised the grumbling second, “I hear you. But in parenting class we learned anyone who does stuff can fail, but that doesn’t make them failures.” He poked the chest of his friend. “We’re not failures.”
They talked on, debating the merits of creative pain and whether it might actually spur one to write better (i.e., the myth of the talented artist starving in the attic before being good enough to be “discovered”). Meanwhile, around me the partygoers distilled into shapeless swirls of color, and their voices seemed to fade….
Ahhh, I was having an epiphany. (“Epiphany” is writer talk for insight, which I had recently learned.) I remembered Bob Kirsch telling me to make a lot of mistakes, to try things, to experiment, to fail. And now I’d just heard a fellow writer explain that things we do can fail, but that doesn’t make us failures.
I’d never looked at failing that way. I’m not a failure!
This became an important turning point for me. Over the next several weeks I found myself wrestling with my life, not just the writerly parts, but LIFE, and I began to see that people who do things and want to succeed, have to be willing to fail along the way.
I remembered something the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” He didn’t mention success or failure, just get your act together and try.
Have you ever heard of a successful new car going from first draft into production? No, of course not!
Since then, I’ve considered everything I do to be a prototype. Draft after draft is no longer failure. Prototypes are necessary to achieve anything, to be successful, from creating winning race cars to writing good novels.
May all you writers, readers, and human beings out there enjoy your drafts — your “failures” — as steps toward your goals. Thank you, Bob Kirsch.