Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mistakes were made

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“The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes,” writes Kimon Nicolaïdes in his landmark book The Natural Way to Draw, “the sooner you will be able to correct them.” Which is good advice, and not too far from the famous observation, variously attributed but no less true, that a writer needs to crank out a million words, most of them lousy, before achieving basic technical competence. (I’m pretty sure that my first million words are well behind me, although whether I’ve achieved basic competence or not I’ll leave to you to decide.) And both aphorisms underline a point that I’ve learned the hard way from my own experience: any mature artistic production, or career, is really the product of countless unseen mistakes.

Proust, of course, put it best, but since I’ve quoted him on this before, I won’t cite him again here. Instead, I’ll just say that the idea that a work of art, or a life, is a sum of its invisible mistakes has proven itself true time and again, both in my writing life as a whole and in individual projects. Looking back at my career so far, I see a lot of things that I would have done differently. I wish I’d written more fiction, especially short stories, in college and during my first job. My first novel probably shouldn’t have been 225,000 words long. And I almost certainly should have been more careful when looking for my first agent, which resulted in a frustrating year of rewrites that ended with the two of us parting ways. But all these missteps taught me valuable things about myself and the business of writing, and I was lucky enough to make them in relative privacy.

Any good novel is the result of countless dead ends as well. As readers of this blog know, I’m an obsessive outliner and planner: The Icon Thief was thoroughly plotted and researched beforehand, and when I look back on my first page of notes for the project, jotted down something like three years ago, I’m impressed by how closely the result fits my original intentions. And yet that fit is something of an illusion. The novel was originally 180,000 words long; now it’s 100,000 words. The first half was enormously restructured and rewritten. Crucial plot points, up to and including the very last chapter, were altered and revised almost up to the submission date. Even the title changed. And it’s thanks to those wrong turns and deleted drafts that the final version ended up being so close to what I wanted to write in the first place.

Each day’s work reproduces this process in miniature. As I’ve mentioned before, I usually write a very quick version of an entire chapter each morning before drilling down for a polish. This is a luxury that Word affords; if I were writing by hand, my manuscripts would be nothing but a mess of erasures, crossings out, and insertions. (The few times I’ve used track changes to trace the evolution of a draft have been rather terrifying.) Nearly every sentence I write contains some horrendous mistake that would embarrass me if it ever ended up in print. But I take comfort in the fact that I have time to fix it, and that every decent sentence is built on a foundation of its unsightly predecessors. The result, hopefully, will be seamless. But without those mistakes, it wouldn’t exist at all.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2011 at 9:46 am

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