My List of Writing Mistakes

A month or so back I was contacted by a reader and fellow writer who’d heard about my mistakes list that I keep in my writing notebooks. She wanted to know what those mistakes were. Today I thought I’d share them with you.

One thing I’ve finally figured out at 45 is that I’ll keep inventing new mistakes, even though I will slowly (too slowly, it seems) get wiser. I believe I’ve already mentioned that I always carry around a mini-pen and a small writing notebook, one that can fit in my back pocket, or even a smaller model (a Paperblanks Micro) that I can slip into a front pocket. You can find a link to my discussion of that very subject by clicking here, along with some photos of my favorite notebooks and size comparisons.

While on that recent vacation I mentioned yesterday, I found it handy to carry around the Micro notebook featured right up there. As my daughter rode and re-rode the Tower of Terror (once was enough for me) I sat on an uncomfortable stone bench and plugged away on an outline and had almost as much fun as she was having plunging up and down. It would have been just as much fun, if not for the bench. I love to write.

Hulk keep list too. Do Not Smash List!

But as to the topic at hand: I keep a running list of my hard-learned errors at the front of every new notebook, and I try to read through them every few days. Occasionally I graduate and remove one mistake  to make room for some new one I’ve discovered. There are always more to add. Some errors I haven’t made in a while, but used to make so regularly for so many years that they retain a place of honor.

Different writers have different strengths and weaknesses, and so I’m sure if every writer made one of these lists it would be a little different. Also, as this list has to fit in a pretty small space, and is really only intended as memory jolt for me, the entries are short and may come off as cryptic. With all that in mind, in the hope it might be useful, here’s what I have near the front of my current notebook.

  • Don’t be too quick to reveal the villain’s plan
  • Don’t excuse plot flaws with dialogue
  • Know what each character wants in the scene before you start
  • Keep a clear through line
  • Character interaction should move the plot
  • Background details can be revealed gradually
  • Know the difference between procrastination and incubation
  • Trust starting reluctance. There may be something wrong with the scene.
  • Character is action
  • 1000 good words = better than 5000 lousy words
  • Be in your character’s head and see through his/her eyes
  • Each character has his/her own voice
  • If you need to invent scenes for a character, maybe you don’t need her
  • Start with a gripping or intriguing moment
  • Get reader involved with characters before the huge plot arcs start
  • Play to your strengths — dialogue, character interaction, small cast
  • Trouble revising? Read sections out of order.
  • When you’re stuck moving the plot
    1.    Introduce character with info
    2.    Send in the ninjas
  • Don’t take readers to uninteresting places
  • One through line at a time
  • Give problem a personal connection
  • Know the villain
  • Identify what character wants and keep it that way unless you change it for a good reason

Also, Hulk Not Smash Puppy. List get too long! Make Hulk ANGRY!

First, to give credit where credit is due, I got the simple but profound “character is action” from the mighty John Chris Hocking, and the bit about sending in a character with information, or ninjas, from the wonderful game mastering section from the FATE powered Spirit of the Century by Donaghue, Hicks, and Balsera (a game mastering section SO fine that the book should be purchased by adventure writers who don’t even play games). My brilliant friend Sunny Hawkins is the one who coined the bit about knowing the difference between incubation and procrastination.

As for what it all means, I’ll explain some of the more esoteric bits in my next entry. I’ve got books to write.

16 Comments on “My List of Writing Mistakes

    • Hey Ferrett! Let me know what you think of that game master section. I really thought it not only one of the best “how to GM an adventure” essay I’d ever read, but of excellent use to adventure writers.

  1. When you’re stuck moving the plot

    Send in the ninjas

    I have a friend, Doyce Testerman, who lives by this philosophy. Wrote a blog post about it. He calls them “Genre Appropriate Ninjas” since you can then use it anywhere.

  2. Here’s one that, the first time I read it, struck me like an open-handed slap….

    “Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway

    Ow. That one still stings.

  3. This is awesome, Howard. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 I love that you keep these notes all in one place. I have them too, but they’re scattered on sticky notes everywhere…but the one that I keep coming back to is this: Stop trying to make everything all right for the character.

    I find that I’ll run into trouble spots because I’m so busy trying to get the character out of the jam and into a comfortable spot (because I like them!), but I’ve finally realized that when I arrive at this spot, it’s usually time to release the hounds.

    • Yeah, we can’t make things too comfortable for the heroes, or there’s no adventure.

    • Just because there’s a Hulk cartoon doesn’t necessarily mean you need to watch it. There have been a number of Hulk cartoons… perhaps some of them are glittering with brilliance (like big, angry emeralds) but I haven’t seen one yet.

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  8. Love the Hull Do Not Smash List. Recommend that you add pizza parlors to that list.

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