Good morning! Ready to start a new week? Visit Jo for your Monday Morning Warm-Up, and then come back here. Today, we’re going to talk about mistakes. 🙂
So far, we’ve been doing a lot of free writing here at Teachers Write summer camp, but eventually, we’ll all want to dive into revisions on one project or another.
Guest author David Lubar joins us for today’s Mini-Lesson Monday, “Fixing the Inevitable Mistakes.” David is an author and game designer. He’s published about twenty books for kids and young adults, including HIDDEN TALENTS and the Weenies short story collections, which are super-popular with reluctant readers.
Fixing the Inevitable Mistake
During school visits, I often tell students that whether I’m writing a book or programming a video game, I spend 90% of my time fixing my mistakes. Granted, the percentage is slightly lower for writing than programming, and writing mistakes have never caused a book to hang or crash, but it’s a basic truth of anything I do that I will make mistaks. We all make mistakes.
Some are specific to ourselves. In the heat of the first draft, I’ll often write “it’s” for “its,” though I know the difference. I use “a couple of” far too often. I’m sure you have your own pet mistakes. But then there are those mistakes we all make, the inevitable ones. I’d been planning to discuss several of them. That’s why I proposed the title, “Fixing the Inevitable Mistakes.” But as I started drafting this, I discovered that I’d made a pair of my own typical specific mistakes – getting over ambitions and forgetting my inherent laziness. (I also didn’t quite absorb the significance of the “mini” portion of the task. So, in brief (though it already appears too late for that to be true, highlighting another specific mistake in that I tend to get wordy and ramble off topic), we’ll look at just one inevitable mistake. But it’s a perfect one for this mini lesson.
First, consider the following excerpt from an early draft of my novel, Dunk. To put it in context, one character has just loaned some video tapes (yeah, it’s an old excerpt) to another character, to help him prepare for a performance that is several weeks away.
“Let me know when you’re done with those. I’ve got plenty more.” He walked out, closing the door behind him. “Remember, we’ve only got three weeks.”
See if you can spot the large problem with this scene. Find it? Basically, one character has continued talking after he closed the door. Unless it was a screen door, that just doesn’t work. Why did I make this mistake? Because I had an afterthought. Our brains don’t work in linear fashion. We think about things, build on them, expand our ideas, and discover ways to flesh ideas out. We write, for the most part, linearly. I might possibly have stopped and inserted the extra dialogue where it belonged, but in the heat of creation, I never even noticed that the last line of dialogue was out of sequence. I suspect the mistake survived at least one or two revision passes. (I’m an alumnus of the many-quick-passes school of haphazard revision.) Eventually, I spotted the mistake.
Here’s the thing. We all have afterthoughts. And they occur at nearly every level of writing. (I’m pretty sure my subconscious is constantly working on many aspects of my current work in progress.) Afterthoughts are inevitable. We add words to sentences. I walked out of the room quickly. The “quickly” occurred to me at the end. It could be moved. But, in this case, it would be better to replace the whole phrase. We add sentences to paragraphs, as we saw in the first example. We add paragraphs to chapters. And we add chapters to novels. (It’s even possible to add novels to series as an afterthought, but let’s not take things quite that far, today.) Just to show what a hot mess of unsequenced garbage a professional writer can spew in a first draft, here’s a paragraph that wanders all over the place:
Once the car left the parking lot, the girls started talking about college. Teri and Mom were planning a trip in a couple weeks to look at schools in PA and upstate NY. Our high school let juniors take four days off to check out colleges. Jennifer was a senior. She’d already narrowed her choices down to Bloomsburg or Pitt. Lana mentioned her plans. So did Vanessa.
And here’s how it looks after the various afterthoughts were reunited with their co-workers.
Once the car left the parking lot, the girls started talking about college. Jennifer was a senior. She’d already narrowed her choices down to Bloomsburg or Pitt. Lana mentioned her plans. So did Vanessa. Teri and Mom were planning a trip in a couple weeks to look at schools in PA and upstate NY. Our high school let juniors take four days off to check out colleges.
It was only after writing the part about the school policy that I realized I should tell the plans of all the characters. But the fix was easy enough. The task is rarely difficult. Mostly, it’s just a matter of cutting and pasting. Sometimes, things need to be tweaked after they’re moved. And an afterthought might partially repeat previous information, so you might have to trim things a bit. The trick is to pay attention to what you wrote – not what you THOUGHT you wrote. Much of revision boils down to seeing what is actually on the page. And one of the ways to see what went wrong is to be aware of specific mistakes, such as leaving afterthoughts where they fall, as opposed to finding them their proper forever home. Like unintentional word repetition, or breaks in viewpoint, afterthoughts become much more visible when you put them on your mental checklist.
Note from Kate: I had mixed feelings about running a piece about revision so early in the summer, but so many of you have shared your worries about your quick-write and first drafts (“It’s crummy!” “Everyone else is better at this!”) that I thought it would be good to see an author’s messy process and relax, knowing that all of our early drafts are rough ones.
There’s no need to get revising just yet, but I thought for today’s writing assignment, we could all do a short piece that I sometimes used with my middle school students as they were evaluating pieces, getting ready to revise.
Choose a piece of writing that you’ve done – something that’s not super-polished – maybe a draft of your work-in-progress or one of the Teachers Write prompts you did earlier this month, and answer this question:
If your writing could talk back to you, what would it say about its own strengths and weaknesses?
(My current work in progress had a little talk with me this morning. “My dear Kate,” it said, “I am so fat with your meticulously researched details of 1850s Maryland that I am simply moving too slowly under the weight of all these historical riches. When you revise, you’ll need to put me on a bit of a diet, keeping the best and getting rid of the rest. Also, you forgot about weather. I need rain, some wind, and at least one decent thunderstorm. Everything will look different in the lightning at night.”
If you’d like to share your writing today, feel free to leave a paragraph or two in the comments!