Mastery Through Mistakes

If anyone would like to participate in a guest blog, I’m curious how many people would like to share how they balance research, outlining and editing with writing “daily.” The focus of this post will be my current struggle with that, and the gem I came across in Dwight V. Swain’s, Techniques of the Selling Writer, which helped, I hope, solve my problem. I bought Techniques in preparation for getting my edit back from C.L. Dyck, anticipating a lot of her advice coming from this, one of her favorite books on writing.

Chapter One surprised me. To be honest, I’m not all that interested in reading books on writing any more. I’ve read a few, taken a few workshops, yada yada. I’d rather be writing. I’m the same way when it comes to research, outlining, etc. I get really impatient. More on that in a bit. So, Chapter One surprised me because he starts talking about how there are many philosophies on writing, but it is our job to decipher what feels right to us. Yes, learn how and why it works for others, but more so, how and why it works for you. Swain says, “Though rules may shape your story, you yourself must shape the rules” (p. 10).

Swain has some great words on feeling driving the story. He says, “Skill… is simply a tool to help convey feeling” (p. 10). This really captures my method of story telling. I study skill when I read fiction, watch television and movies, take classes or read books on writing, and critique and receive critiques from others. But, I don’t really study skill so that I can master any of the parts of story telling, like becoming a master outliner or a renowned third act executioner. I study skill as if I were a bee buzzing from flower to flower because I like it, and along the way pick up the pollen I need to continue. Okay, that was a little lame of an analogy, but did you know Bumblelion was my favorite stuffed animal? Yeah, I said it. And I still have one. My wife bought one for me.

The point is, I don’t study skill from method to method in order to perfect each one, but because by putting in the hard work to really understand each one, I know that it will come natural in the future, and my stories will improve. I’m sort of backtracking here from the last paragraph, because I remember some tough times in C.L.’s critiques, where I was trying to really understand lessons on clauses, personification, and Lane Diamond (who was punching his own lessons into the other side of my ribs) with paragraph rules and how to make clear use of pronouns. I wasn’t hopping from flower to flower there, I was leaping, weighed down by exhaustion. I still don’t get all that, but I’m sure my writing shows if I were to compare the old to the present.

As I fought to apply learning these rules by writing and writing, I distanced myself from the direct examples of critique and began critiquing myself as I went. There are still some sentences where I’ll need help, but I can see improvement and comfort as I craft my sentences. My voice is growing and I’m having fun telling better stories.

Now, I’m at an interesting bypass. All of my stories are either waiting on edits or publisher acceptance–well, except for one, but the publisher acceptance/decline of a related work sort of makes me pause before I keep going. As you may remember, I’m building a Deals with the Dead, Hebrew zombies in Iowa series. I’ve requested a few books on Indian tribes in Iowa and feel the need to outline and research to see where the series is going–big question: Does it have to end in Israel?

My question is how I am supposed to keep pumping out new words when research, outlining, and editing are so heavy on the scales of present work? I could just write a thousand throw away words on a new series, but I already have a Sci-Fi and a Zombie series going, it would seem wise to put all available words into that.

I could work on daily exercises. Could. As I finished Swain’s first chapter, I was tickled by his words, “Most potentially successful writers have little patience with such [exercises],” (p. 20). He asks, “How do you master all the varied techniques? By writing stories. Which is to say, by being willing to be wrong.”

I understand I’m kind of mixing messages here between developing craft and balancing writing with preparation, but I believe they both fit because I’m struggling with both at the same time. I want to be a great writer as soon as possible so that I can quit my job and not have the distractions and time sinks. This means I need to gain skill as efficiently as possible with every day I get.

So, what’s my conclusion from this rambling? I am going to try and write 750 words a day not needing an outline or research and allow myself to be wrong. I can work on that stuff in the time I have after getting my words in, but I know I’ll grow the most by writing stories, not learning the ins and outs of Iowa’s Native American history, or agonizing over an outline for hours and getting little done.

We’ll see how this works. I’ve got more words to write. I might make mistakes, but so do all the masters.


After writing this, I hit my 750 word mark for the day and received an email from Writers of the Future contest, telling me my story was judged and earned “honorable mention.” I guess that’s a good thing, and it means I have another story to look over and send out.

About Timothy C. Ward

Timothy C. Ward is a Hugo nominated producer for Adventures in SciFi Publishing, who has been lost, broke and surfed with sharks on the other side of the world. He now dreams of greater adventures from his keyboard in Des Moines, Iowa. This summer he released two novels: his second Sand Divers book, Scavenger: A.I., where two parents use an ancient technology to fight a reproducing A.I. while trying to resurrect their deceased infant; and Godsknife: Revolt, an apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss.

2 comments on “Mastery Through Mistakes

  1. Good thoughts Timothy! I am in the middle of this balancing act. Not to mention all the other demands on my time… Usually, I get the basic idea/outline and maybe a little research for the story and then hit it hard and fast like during NaNoWriMo and then I start the research and filling in what the story needs. But I’m learning everything is a season and what has worked in the past isn’t working now and who knows what I’ll figure out now and whether or not it will work in the future.. It sounds like you got a great plan going for ya! Hope it works out. 🙂

  2. I get really frustrated with the editing push/pull. I have a short story that needs resubmitted, a novel to finish rewriting (and then giving another proofread), a blog to keep up, and regular teaching duties besides. Plus, moving apartments, which means my current place has to actually be very presentable so potential tenants can see it
    I’m definitely a leaper–I like to flit from writing theory to writing theory, and integrate what works for me. I get annoyed with people who press “craft” too much over living life and developing story through creativity and closeness to the heart of God. That’s when I step back and read a few passages from “Walking on Water” (Madeleine L’Engle) or “Write His Answer” (Marlene Bagnull). Or just go for a walk or read some Scripture.

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