Saturday, December 24, 2016

Rules for Writers: Be Imperfect

Some time back I attended a writing conference that featured Lincoln Child as the lunch keynote speaker. Since he's a big time thriller guy, I was interested in hearing what he had to say.

One thing struck a real chord: "I'll tell you this so you won't make my mistakes." That made me think how often I've put a blog post up here (the entire category of annoy-me for example) in hope that you won't make mistakes.

But I also hear you in the comment column and other places say how hard it is to get this stuff right; how terrifying to think you're doing something wrong.

So, here's the best advice you'll ever get from me probably:

Make Mistakes.

Make LOTS of mistakes.
Give yourself a dollar for every stupid thing you do.

Now, why on earth would I say this?

Fear of mistakes leads to paralysis. If you're so afraid of making a mistake or annoying me that you don't query, or don't write, or don't finish, the result is the same: nothing.

Do it, even if it's wrong. It's not going to kill you, and (more important) it's not going to kill me if you make every mistake in the book and invent a few new ones.

Here are some benefits for making mistakes:

1. You'll develop a thick skin, cause you'll get a lot of rejection. Rejection will not kill you.
2. You'll learn what works (because you'll figure out what doesn't)
3. You'll have moved off the starting point, even if you're going in the wrong direction, and the reason to do that is:

Even if you're standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, opportunity can knock. You have to come out of your safe little cave for the opportunity meteor to hit you.

So, what kind of mistakes should you make?

1. Query everyone.
Forget that crap about honing a list and researching what agents like. Query everyone. If they say no, so what. Maybe just maybe you'll find an agent looking to branch out, looking for a fabulous new voice, looking for you. The cost of querying right now is damn near zero since you can query almost everyone by email.

2. If you don't hear back in 30 days, query again twice more.
Don't assume silence = no until you've tried three times. As more and more agents follow the loathsome No Reply means No, writers have no way of knowing if the first query was received. Figure three times to make sure.

3. If one agent at an agency says no, query the other ones.

4. Take your manuscript and your query letter with you
to every single place you might meet an agent. This does not mean you thrust said pages under hotel room doors, under bathroom door stalls, under lunch plates, or into handbags. In fact, you don't offer them up at all. But you're READY if someone asks.

5. Write what you don't know.

I once attended a panel sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and it was interesting to me that five of the six authors had created a protagonist in their own image. That's all well and good, but I'm much more interested in the people I don't see every day. The one author who mentioned her protagonist was a Pakistani terrorist was the author I went out and bought the next day.

Don't let fear of being wrong keep you from finding out how to write.

There are some mistakes you don't want to make of course; being rude is right at the top of the list.

The corollary is LEARN from your mistakes. It's ok to make them, it's GOOD to make them. It's not ok to make the same ones over and over again.

Thus this rule for writers: Be Imperfect

An earlier version of this post appeared in a different form and headline on April 13, 2008.


Megan V said...

Can it be? Is this the first comment? Well, thank goodness for early morning flights!

Happy Holidays to everyone!

May the new year be filled with mistakes, and may your holidays be filled with so much good cheer that you forget the mistakes you made this year.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Reading this on Christmas Eve, having only received a grant reject yesterday.

It hurts, but for a few months, there was the possibility someone might have given me writing money.

Maybe next week I'll send out queries to agents who haven't said they don't take Fantasy. Maybe my ms will strike one the right way.

(Though i am getting sick of the "this project is not quite right for me" line.)

CynthiaMc said...

Thank you, Janet. I needed this. I've been up since 3 a.m. doing laundry, cleaning, writing, journaling. I asked myself why I wasn't writing as much. Some of it is because I can no longer stay up writing all night and still do everything I need to do as a responsible self-sustaining adult the next day. Part of is I realized I no longer wrote with abandon the way I used to. Fixed that by writing a blog post yesterday straight from my heart and soul. It felt good.

Somewhere down my path I started listening too much to what people told me I should be writing instead of what I want to write (stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances doing things they never thought they could do).

This morning in the calm before the Christmas storm I looked at projects I abandoned but still nagged at me. I also sketched out new ideas that excite me. Hopefully at least one of them will make people laugh, make them cry, give them hope. Hopefully at least one will be what a good agent is looking for. But if all that happens is my kids have a collection of stories that say "This is who my Mom was and this is what she taught me," that may not be a bad thing.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas Eve and may all our writing dreams come true.

CynthiaMc said...

Dang it - thought I caught all the typos. But then again, the theme is about making mistakes, so I'm looking at is as supporting the mission. Where's my coffee?

Stephen G Parks said...

There are all kinds of Christmases.

It’s 9:30pm Christmas Eve here in Malaysia and we’re getting ready for my partner’s tradition, midnight mass. The couple next door are brawling, as they always do, finding only fleeting happiness together, but addicted to those moments. Sadly, it looks like tonight their addiction will go wanting. The elderly man downstairs rails against the Christmas tree, declaring it’s existence an affront to G*d. My partner struggles to wrap Christmas presents, my lifelong joy, her newly acquired, terrifying necessity.

Me? I’m having a Faith Hill Christmas, wondering if there ever was magic on this night, and if “childhood memories” aren’t reconstructions filtered through decades of TV specials.

It’s 9:30pm Christmas Eve, it’s 25c (77F), the coldest it’s been this year. At least 25c too hot for this Canadian. Still, it’s Christmas, and that’s enough for a smile.

There are all kinds of Christmases. I hope yours is magical in it's own way.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I got this one down. If there's a mistake to be made, despite all my best intentions, I have made it. I am guessing my book spread out all over my floor on XMas Eve mere hours before guests arrived will probably end up leading to some sort of disaster. Well, wishing the Reef a blessed and Merry Christmas in all our divine imperfection.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Thank you for this. I am trying to not be afraid!

Got myself organized a bit better this morning. I'm ready for my adult son and the kids' dad to spend Christmas Eve meal together. Spent yesterday with my parents at the Mayo Clinic for Dad's health issues. It was a fun day in some ways as staff, support and clinical, were more relaxed and talking about what they'd be doing during the holidays.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! A blessed Kwanzaa! A wonderful Boxing Day! for all the Reiders who are celebrating this weekend.

Theresa said...

Happy holidays, everyone.

Thanks for the inspiring advice today, Janet, especially as we're heading into a new year full of possibilities. Make mistakes. Paralysis over perfection is the worst thing that can happen, not rejection. Rejection means you're trying--and sometimes failing and sometimes with success.

Mister Furkles said...

Write what you don't know.

So relieved to read this. I'm working on a serial killer mystery. Three people had been identified as deserving murder. Now, I need not do that.

Really, traffic's been so bad lately, I was afraid they'd all get it before I got to them.

The larger problem: hiring on as a homicide detective in thirty days with no prior police experience. Does the NYPD take part-time temps?

Anyway, not to worry now.

Colin Smith said...

Another great re-post reminder! As I was making the batter for our traditional Christmas Eve British Pancakes (explanation on my blog HERE), I was reminded of the time I made diarrhea for supper. I make no claims to being a great cook. The food I make is generally food I alone will eat. There are maybe two dishes of mine that my family like: British pancakes, and Yorkshire pudding. The batter for both is essentially the same, so no wonder, eh? My wife is the cook of the family, and she sets a high standard that only my two oldest daughters can touch. One evening, she left me to fix supper. One of the things I had to prepare was refried beans. How can you go wrong with a can of refried beans? Well, if you don't know that you don't need to add water to them, you can go quite wrong. That was the night Dad made diarrhea for supper. And I never made that mistake again. :)

I totally embrace this rule. If you show respect to the agent, and don't wear your posterior as head-wear, you may not get any fewer rejections, but you're unlikely to go on anyone's black list either.

Happy Christmas to those for whom it's already Christmas! And I hope everyone else is enjoying their Christmas Eve. :)

Janet Reid said...

no on adds WATER to refried beans!
What kind of crazy talk is this?
You open the can, push contents of can into pan,
ignite heat, cook on low, stir as often as you
remember while you're doing the NYT crossword
puzzle, and/or grating cheddar cheese.

Heat till hot, put on plate.

I think you're getting unfairly blamed for something
that contaminated the contents of the can.

Oh served this on Carkoon, didn't you?

Never mind.

RosannaM said...

It is 7:45 am Christmas Eve morning and I am gearing up for a busy day of travel by car to visit family. This may be a challenge for several reasons. Our north-south freeway I-5 is never fun. A 2 hour drive can double for little reason. Plus yesterday the north part of the state got a significant amount of snow. Beautiful, but as our DOT doesn't budget much for snow, roads can stay impassable.

And we will need to avoid Seattle at some key times as the Seahawks have a home game. So we will take patience and Christmas CD's. Maybe some Harry Connick and my favorite Ally McBeal Christmas (some of you will remember the show-the CD is great, trust me) And coffee. Lots of coffee.

But it will be worth it as I will get to see the excitement of little ones, and sticky hugs of some of my family. The rest I will have to wait till New Year's to see. (which will require another drive up north-ack!)

Wishing you all a beautiful Christmas or other special holiday with hopefully your own version of family togetherness (furry ones included).

And here's to a 2017 that is filled with more successes than mistakes but I'm going to take an 'Action Over Perfection' motto and throw myself out there.

RosannaM said...

Sorry, can't help myself. Canned refried beans taste better with a little dollop of bacon grease melted in bottom of pan before adding said can. It thins it out a little and flavors it up a lot.

Note to self: if invited to Colin's house for dinner, check to see if wife or daughters are cooking before RSVP'ing.

John Davis Frain said...

I love a rule I can follow.

Make mistakes.

Happy mistake-filled holidays to all you Reiders. The best holiday stories always seem to start as mistakes. So remember, the moment you see a mistake happening, get ready to capture it for your WIP. And if there's not a mistake about to occur ... make one.

Have yourself an imperfect little Christmas.

BJ Muntain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BJ Muntain said...

Man, have I had a lot of practice being imperfect. I think it was because I was raised by perfectionists, and Someone up there thought I needed to see myself as less than perfect. And here I am today, surviving imperfection.

Tonight will be busy. First, Christmas Eve supper at my Mum's place. It was a custom we first started for my Dad, who was raised Ukrainian. We don't go all out and have the meatless 12-course meal, but we do have perogies and cabbage rolls and cabbage borscht. We used to have 'wheat' - aka kutya - which is a porridge-like dish, but my Dad and I were the ones who loved it, and I can no longer eat it (damn celiac disease!)... so I don't know if my Mum will be cooking it for herself and others to only have a spoonful or two each.

This will be our first Christmas without my Dad. I have a feeling tonight will be the hardest part of it. Even the gift opening tomorrow morning and the turkey supper tomorrow evening at my sister's won't be as much 'Dad' as tonight will be.

After supper, I get to sing at Christmas Eve mass. After a couple hours of vocal cord torture, back to my Mum's to set up the stockings and finish getting ready for the morning. Then try to sleep tonight before getting up early to get to my Mum's again for 7 am gift opening.

Wishing blessings to everyone this Christmas, especially to those who are missing someone for any reason. (((hugs))) and Joy to all!

Beth Carpenter said...

Without mistakes, there would be few stories worth telling. Peace and goodwill, everyone.

Colin Smith said...

Janet: Sorry, but refried beans are not part of my native cuisine. I'd never even heard of them until I came to the States. But at least I now know how to make them palatable for Carkoonians. With some added extras. Not bacon, I assure you. :)

Colin Smith said...

BJ and others for whom this will be a first Christmas without a loved one: A great "survival" tip I heard underscores the importance of communication. Don't wait for that awkward moment when it's time to carve the roast, and love one isn't there to do it, and everyone stares at one another, not daring to take loved one's place. Talk about it beforehand. Broach the issue before it becomes a potentially volatile situation. Emotions will be raw, but it might help start the healing and "moving on" process if little things like "who's going to do x now?" are resolved ahead of time.

Just a thought. I hope you are able to share joyful memories, and have a wonderful time. :)

Joseph S. said...

Merry Christmas, all

(And I've never added water to Refried Beans either. Mainly I spread it over nacho chips and cheese - P.S. - not recommended as Christmas dinner)

Susan said...

Stopping in to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah! Because of family matters, I volunteered to host Christmas at my house this year. Luckily, my mom is still cooking the Italian fish salad we eat for the eve, and I'll help her put together the antipasto we have tomorrow, but I have a newfound appreciation for all the work and energy it takes to making the holidays seem magical. On the plus side: my house has never looked so clean. Now if I can only keep it that way...

Cynthia: I went through what you describe a couple of years ago where I set aside what I wanted to write in favor of what everyone was telling me to write. I felt like a fraud and in truth, because I wasn't listening to my heart, I was. When I returned to writing what I love, it was like I could breathe again, and the words poured out of me. I, too, write about ordinary people living extraordinary lives in their own small corners of the world. For me, that's where the heroes lie. I think more stories like that need to be told...At least, I'm another person who's eager to read them. Don't give up on writing what you love. When you write what you love, you write what matters.

Happy holidays everyone!

Susan said...

BJ: I didn't catch your comment before, but I want you to know my heart is with you. I'm not ready for the day this happens--I don't think anyone is. It's why I hold my family a little tighter every chance I get. I hope you're able to enjoy your time together with your family and share those good memories. Sending warm thoughts and blessings your way.

Julie Weathers said...

Well, I'm down to the wire, as usual. I'm making rolls for dinner tonight since it was snowing too much to get out and buy Rhodes bread dough a couple of days ago. My car has tie rod problems, so I'm not pushing it this winter.

Anyway, I'm sure they'll be good. I used to bake bread for people for pity sakes. In between bread rising, I'm making two rope bowls and wrapping the last of the presents. I'm missing one from Amazon that needs to be tracked down.

So goes Christmas eve.

On the plus side, I will spend it with my wonderful son and his family and it is Christmas, the most wonderful season of the year. I am so thankful for the child whose birth we celebrate, my family, my friends, and my writing family here.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Listening to Gene Autry singing Rudolph while the rolls rise. That will put you in the mood.

I'll probably still hone a list. Sorry, it's just my nature. I see too many agents tweeting, "Why do people keep sending me fantasy. My guidelines clearly state I don't do fantasy. Stop wasting your time and mine."

Maybe I will knock their socks off, but the chances are I won't. I can't even knock the socks off agents who are actively looking for exactly what I'm writing.

I agree about writing what you don't know. It would be pretty boring if all we wrote was ourselves and our own little world. I want to be the one who takes the reader to new worlds and I want to be just as surprised the first time I see them.

And I've piddled around so long now the rolls are done. The recipe is pretty good. They taste like Texas Roadhouse rolls. It isn't quite the same recipe I used to use.

For those wanting to try something different, here's my recipe for peanut butter pie.

Poor Colin and the watery refried beans.

I miss the traditional tamales for Christmas Eve, but not the black-eyed peas for New Years. Though perhaps it's time I eat some of those damnable peas for luck seeing how the last few years have gone.

Well, time to spin a rope bowl or two. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all if I don't see you tomorrow.

Lennon Faris said...

Thank you, Janet!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!

BJ Muntain said...

Colin: No turkey tonight. I don't know if we'll follow the Ukrainian tradition of leaving a chair set for a missing loved one - maybe I'll see what my Mum is planning when I get there. Tomorrow, with the turkey? The turkey is always carved in the kitchen, before being brought out to the table. It saves a lot of bother that way. :) (I don't think my Dad was very good at carving turkeys, anyway. Neither am I, for that matter.)

Thanks for your thoughts, Colin and Susan. I'm wearing my Dad's socks tonight, hoping that means Dad will be watching. Good thing I'm wearing boots to church - striped socks don't really go with black pants and a sweater.

Hoping everyone has a wonderful Eve and a beautiful Day, if I don't catch you tomorrow. Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noel! Kristos Razdayetsya!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Janet! This is advice I definitely can't screw up.

And Happy Holidays to all of the wonderful Reiders of this blog, and to you, Janet. You make my days brighter!

And finally, in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I made a critical mistake identifying myself as Claire B. while commenting here. This name is already taken! My apologies! I am now officially Claire AB. Now my mistakes can be properly attributed.

Be well, friends!

Craig F said...

Yes, make mistakes. They are inevitable if you reach out for the spectacular. Stay in you box and you will not make mistakes or have the joy of learning from them. That is the best way to learn, it means something to you so you tend to remember it.

One mistake I hope to not see this year are writers who over-edit their manuscripts. It is possible to edit the magic out of your manuscript. The cold, grey light of day does not make you a better writer than the wan light of the moon. You wrote it that gritty to convey some life. Let it breath.

Best of the holidays to all, especially to those who have to grieve this year. With luck fewer will have to do that next year. I have mt fingers crossed.

Adib Khorram said...

I always love the Rules for Writers, and it's been fun seeing them again in updated form.

Merry Christmas!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

A busy day here at the sanctuary... feeding horses doesn't take a holiday.

Thanks, Janet, for the daily inspiration. I continue to be blown away by all that you give of yourself to all of us who hold onto the dream. Even more so to those of us who've had a doubt or two. I love the way you demand we knock it off, put our butt in the chair and write.

Happy Hanukkah! Merry Christmas! And Joyful Holidays. 'Cept, I gotta be honest and say that I believe in seeking "happy, merry, joy" all year long. HUGS to all...

Craig F said...

Tis the night before Christmas

People are screaming and shouting all over the house

The Playoff hopes were bought with such care

But they came crashing down with that %#@*%$# team of our town

Out in the street there arose such a clatter

I looked out to see that drunk

Once again took out our power pole

I was lucky to see him dash away, until he stumbled and fell

While the incoming sirens failed to ring in a Ho, Ho, Ho.

Noel (tell me now) said...

I have a list of your rules for writers hung up on my wall. Very useful, even in non-writing situations.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone. Here's hoping 2017 is better than 2016.

Ardenwolfe said...

Thank you.

Pam Powell said...

Thanks, Janet!

As you say elsewhere in your blog, Be Bold! Yes!!!

And a Bold and Merry Christmas to all!

CynthiaMc said...

Thanks, Susan - there are two of us!

CynthiaMc said...

BJ - Hugs. My dad died in November when I was twelve. Thanksgiving sucked. We were not in the mood for Christmas either. Mom used to put the tree up shortly after Thanksgiving. Then we had an idea. Mom's birthday was December 12 so we had an open house. I played the piano and we all sang carols and decorated the tree together. Sometimes it helps to add a new tradition.

roadkills-r-us said...

First off, big ol hugs to BJ and anyone else missing someone this season. I pray there are others loving you through it; loving others will help you, too. That's not a pressure thing on you, just something I have learned.

Janet, the CEO at my day job (a billion dollar company with over 1K employees) routinely reminds us that if we aren't making mistakes, we aren't taking enough risks. You can't get fired for making a mistake at this company. You might get fired if you don't learn and keep making the same sorts of mistakes, or if it's something you absolutely should have known better than to do, but at that point we're talking incompetence, not caring, or gross negligence - not just making mistakes. Everyone who's been there any length of time has made some. I've made a whopper. No problem; fix things and move forward, and we're all happy.

I already knew this principle, but it's nice to have someone in upper management reinforce it at work.

As for writing, one year I spent an hour every day practicing breaking the rules. As in, pick a rule and write for an hour breaking that rule. As you can imagine, this resulted in a lot of mistakes. It resulted in some of the worst drivel I've written as an adult. But I learned more from that than I had in any given year of trying to avoid making mistakes. I know that's a different set of mistakes than you were discussing, but maybe it will help someone.

JD Horn said...

I'm usually pretty good at being ready and rational, but when it comes to being imperfect, I take the cake.