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January 26, 2006

Making Mistakes

"Can you be dressed in fifteen minutes?"

Not exactly the romantic invitation one hopes to hear from one's husband of twenty-seven years, but the University of Pittsburgh basketball team was playing Notre Dame,  Go to fullsize image and my husband's date cancelled at the last minute.  A banker, my husband maintains business relationships with guys (and a few women, so don't get your knickers in a twist) by taking them golfing, to sporting events and for an occasional cheap sandwich, depending upon . . . well, criteria I probably shouldn't get into here because we'd like him to keep his job. (It has health benefits, and we all know the true secret to any writer's success is a spouse who has a job with health benefits.) On that fateful night, I was his last resort.

I'm usually up for a new experience, so I graciously accepted. When we arrived at the game, I discovered I was one of maybe one hundred women in an arena that seats over 12,000. And I believe I was the only person in a sea of navy blue who wore pink.

I hadn't been to a basketball game since high school when I had a crush on . . . oh, let's call him Matt.  At the time, I didn't care what the score was. I just liked watching--uh, Matt in his little shorts as he participated in a big drama that involved a lot of shouting, sweat and flaunted testosterone. Plus I wanted to keep an eye on Michelle, the cute cheerleader with the yard-long ponytail who, I heard it rumored in algebra class, was Matt's first choice to be his date to the junior prom.

But at the Pitt-Notre Dame game, I found myself actually watching the basketball and marveling about many things. One young man missed an easy lay-up, and his home crowd . . . booed him. Now, if he had been most kids, he'd have collapsed center court in a miserable heap of destroyed self-esteem. But this plucky young fellow immediately put that mistake behind him and charged up the court to snake the ball away from a very determined Notre Dame player (Quinn--he's fabulous) and I found myself reflecting that a hoops player must forget his mistakes and move on. Fast.

It's a lesson that I, as a writer, need to act upon more often than I do.

As you know (because I've whined about it incessantly here for weeks) I'm working on the first draft of my WIP. Every day, I must consciously stop myself from going back and fixing things in the story. The beginning of this manuscript really sucks right now, and I desperately want to go back and clean it up.

But if I start revising right now, I'm afraid I'll lose my momentum and never finish the damn thing--or certainly not by my deadline--so I plunge ahead with the first draft. The shitty first draft.

Sure, it's full of mistakes, but I'm trying to press on because of the momentum thing.

Biggest mistake I ever made: (I've made bigger ones, but this is one I'll admit to.) Long ago, a stranger telephoned little me in my podunk town in western Pennsylvania and asked if I'd be interested in writing interactive, theater-style murder mysteries for a cruise line.

Yeah, right. Would you have believed that story? Why would Big Name Luxury Cruise Line call me, a Harlequin romance writer among hundreds of Harlequin romance writers? I mean, we're not exactly talking Joe Papp or Sue Grafton, y'know. Chances were better for Ed McMahon to legitimately appear in my driveway with a minivan full of balloons and a check for a million dollars. Figuring it was a scam, I politely turned down my caller. He was persistent, though, so I grabbed my Rolodex.  I remembered that my friend Lisa had written some interactive murder mysteries for her community theater (and I had bought a slumber party version for my kids from her--it was a big hit!) so I referred the caller to my friend.

Well, you know how the story ends. The offer wasn't a scam. Lisa wrote a perfectly wonderful interactive mystery, and the cruise line bought it and even asked if she'd sail with them so she could be a part of the first performance. It was a huuuuuuuge hit. They asked her to write more, and pretty soon Lisa was cruising all over the world directing murder mysteries before the midnight buffet. Mind you, her mysteries are better than anything I could have come up with, so I don't begrudge her a tiny bit.  She's been to China on a cruise ship, and she deserves that reward.

I thought a lot about what lesson I should have learned from that experience. And I've decided there wasn't one. The karma was Lisa's. So I've let it go.

                               Go to fullsize image

Writers must learn from our mistakes. To become better at our profession, we struggle every day to turn our failures and our paranoia into better stories, better prose, better marketing, better success. But sometimes we just have to let a big fat blunder roll off our backs.

If somebody starts booing from the stands, for example, you can't take it personally. (Can you tell? I'm trying to finish my book, and at the same time, the reviews for my March release are starting to see the light of day. So far, they've been very good. No booing. But I'm trying not to look over my shoulder. Instead, I'm trying to get that shitty first draft on paper.) You have to move on.

What was your biggest mistake? I mean, one that you're willing to share? And have you been able to let it go?

Before you ask: I did not go to the junior prom with Matt. Michelle did, and they had their baby before graduation.

Bullet dodged, huh?


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It seems much easier to list the mistakes that we did not make--not having sex with that naked 15-year-old girl with the great breasts and screwed-up head when we were a little older than we should have been; not doing cocaine with that bunch of drug dealers with whom we had just become acquainted; not permitting mentally handicapped siblings to decide without our input whether they might have children that we would end up having to raise--than it is to list the biggest mistake, especially if we are reasonably happy with our station in life.

For example, a big mistake was blowing off three years of high school and 3 1/2 years of collge, but if I had worked in high school or college, I would not have ended up at law school, or at least the same law school, and I would not have met my wife, who turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Big Mistake: Dropping out of high school.
Bigger Mistake: Getting married at seventeen.
An Even Bigger Mistake: Not buying stock I just *knew* was a goldmine - it quadrupled within three months.
Biggest Mistake: Letting fear control my decisions.

These are the ones I'll cop to in this forum. Did I put them behind me? Sort of. I got my GED, worked hard, wrote a book, got it published, wrote another, got that published, too. Still writing, so I guess that whole drop out/no college thing worked out. Would have liked to go to my prom, though. I'm still married and we still have lots of laughs and sex, so that seems like it's okay. Would have liked to have had more life experience first. The stock - well, sometimes you have to know when to pull the trigger, and I got scared and wimped out. I guess I've put it behind me. Sort of. The fear, though, remains. I guess the hardest lesson I've had to learn from them is that they'll probably always be with me.

Like Josh, though, I look at where I've been and where I am, and all the bad stuff doesn't seem so bad if it's what brought me here.

I'll mull over Big Mistake doing carpool today. Meanwhile, may I just say that this is why basketball--and baseball, not to mention tennis, swimming, and skiing, but especially diving beat hockey as a spectator sport? The costumes in hockey suck. Wait--THAT may be the biggest mistake I ever made: agreeing to a hockey game on a first date. (going to one, not playing in one.)
Now, boxing on a first date? That turned into a long-term relationship.

But, Harley, I went to a hockey game on my first date with you-know-who, and it's turned out great. Going to another hockey game tonight, as a matter of fact. So no knocking hockey, dudette! Boxing? Yuck.

Nancy, what I always say about first drafts (the Don't Look Down Draft as Jenny Crusie calls them) is Embrace Your Crap. Love it. Easier said than done, but I'm like you. If I start editing, I'm sunk. Refer to my current ms. that has taken me over a year to get halfway through!

As for big mistakes, I won't go into detail because it's too long a story, but let's jsut say I wished I pulled my head out of Denial Land six months before I did.

Me, I'm a hockey fan. We are mourning the loss of Mario Lemieux this week. Except hardly anybody is noticing because...well, do I need to say it???


You want hockey? Here is a letter to the editor in yesterday's Philadelphia Daily News:


What's going on with the woman wearing nothing but the mink coat, which she keeps flashing at Simon Gagne at the Flyers SkateZone in Voorhees, N.J.?

I thought this is a family place - why wasn't she arrested for indecent exposure? Doesn't she have anything better to do?

Is this why our Flyers had a four-game losing streak, because they couldn't concentrate, no thanks to naked woman with the mink coat. Do us a favor, have her arrested so the Flyers can start winning. Good grief!

Robert F. Schaffer, Philadelphia

Link (not sure if sign up is required):


Ms. Nancy, for Pete's sake, put some clothes on under that mink coat and let the poor boys concentrate on the game! Yeesh. (Except when the awful St. Louis Blues are in town, then, please, flash away.)

Oh, wait, mea culpa. The Flyers...that's Philly. So it's not Nancy doing the flashing in her mink, which means it's likely that Lisa Coutant woman! The almost-a-video-vixen. I knew it.

Okay, I have to ask this question: if you thought the cruise ship thing was a scam, why did you refer the call to your friend, Lisa?

Should I be reading between the lines, here?


There was a contractor on a job and he'd just poured a concrete slab which had a bit of a wave to the side instead of the line being perfectly straight. My husband noticed it and pointed it out and the guy said, "Yeah, we don't charge extra for that." He knew that ultimately the mistake was going to be completely hidden and unimportant when the rest of the structure was built. It wasn't going to affect form or function of the final product, nor would it have any affect on aesthetic. He could have been made to break out the concrete and re-pour to create that perfectly straight line, but it would have cost a lot of money and time and slowed down everyone else on the project for no real benefit.

First drafts are like that. There are going to be mistakes and imperfections, and we have to remember that to stop and tear it apart and rebuild from scratch to get back to the same essential place where we were when we started is doing us no good. I make a note of what the mistake / imperfection is and keep going. Now, if the mistake has me building a boat and what I meant to do was build a skyscraper, then yeah, you gotta rip out and correct. But other than that, if I meant to build a boat and it's not great yet, not quite floating (to stretch a metaphor), I keep moving, as fast as I can, knowing I will then be able to see the boat, see the holes in it and have the skills to fix everything and make it float and, hopefully, look beautiful doing so at the same time, where no one can see the mistakes getting there. (Easier said than done sometimes when I'm up to my knees in water, bailing and repairing, wondering why in the hell didn't I want to build a nice, quiet little house instead of a racing boat, ya know?)

Biggest mistake? Getting married back then. Thinking that all my misgivings were just a case of nerves. NOT trusting my instinctive voice to hear that when you have misgivings on that level, they're usually worth listening to.
the marriage lasted, well, I knew i wanted out within a year, and left before the 2nd anniversary because i could not face another anniversary.
Since that day, I've trusted those instincts a lot more. Ahd have made myself listen had when the little waring bells or voices start going off; they've not been wrong since.

First of all, Nancy - podunk? We'll talk later.

Now - biggest mistake? Hmm, it's either getting married at age 21 to the first man, ya know, or not killing him when I had a clear shot at a slam-dunk self-defense argument.

See how I tied that into the basketball story there? That's because I've been sitting in the Jury Pool today with some of the dimmest bulbs on the Pittsburgh front porch, and my brain is mushy.

My biggest mistake was not working hard when I was at UCSD. I did not graduate even after 5 years of classes( but hey! I'm awesome at jeopardy!)

Oh well, on to bigger and better things. Currently in second qrt at local jc to become a nurse. I just got an 85% on my first A&P test this qrt! That's higher than any of the grades I got in A&P last qrt. WOOHOO. I do still have a brain.

I revise as I go along. I can't help myself. I will not leave a section until it is, to my mind, in publishable form.

This worked for me quite well on the first book. There were very few revisions.

Now we'll see if it holds up for the new one. Who knows, I may come back crying. LOL.

Rob, I do that, too. I cannot write without editing as I go along, always tweaking endlessly until I feel like I've got something polished by the time I'm done. So my first drafts are really more like later drafts. It works for me.

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