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On Getting Things Wrong

Image: Jordan Sanchez

The other night my other half asked me how the scene I'm writing at the moment is going. It’s going ok, I told him. I was tired, but I'd written the number of words I'd intended to write, tension was building, events were unfolding, things were mostly going in the direction I expected them to go in. This should have meant that it was going well. But.

I think I'm writing the wrong version of this scene, I said. And that's ok, I added. I think I'm meant to be writing the wrong version of this scene.

I assumed he’d think I’d gone insane, but he didn't. He actually nodded. My other half is not a writer as such, but he spends a lot of his working life writing all the same, and finding answers to huge, complicated questions. He started talking about how when he's working on a big report, he finds that it's an almost impossible leap to go from nothing to the right thing. Often you need to write the wrong version of something, he said. And that gives you a leg up, so the right answer is not so far away.

A lot of the scenes in my novel have been around, in one form or another, for a long time. Sure, they've been shifted and merged and condensed and expanded and transformed. But they're not new. This scene is. And it's a climactic, important scene. The chances of me getting it entirely right the first time around were always low.

But if I let myself write the wrong version, I can use it later on as a scaffold for the right version. Once I've let some time pass, I can reread it with fresh eyes, unmarred by that weary evening I spent fighting off a headache and trudging out words after the preschooler went to sleep, sure I was getting everything wrong that it's possible to get wrong and several other things besides.

Usually, even a scene which needs an overhaul still has moments of potential, and when I go to rewrite it I’ll write with the old version open in one window and the new one open in another (which is one of the things I love most about Scrivener). I’ll steal all those moments, those glimpses of the thing I am meant to be making, and if they fit, I’ll weave those glimpses into the new version of the scene. Other times the wrong version isn't particularly wrong at all; it just needs some tweaking. Other times the wrong version is even more wrong than I thought it was, and I’ll leave it open in its window just so I can completely ignore it while I write an entirely new version. But even the fact that I have something to ignore seems to propel me forward faster, because I'm not making something from nothing. And for me, making something from nothing is always the most difficult part.

I will write action which stumbles, dialogue which doesn't ring true, scenes which fail in all the ways it is possible for a scene to fail. And I will write on days when I can hear that failure ringing in my ears with every word I write, but I will shrug that failure off, and I will write all the same. Today, like all the other days I work on this draft, I will do my best to put aside the need to pull perfection from nothing. I'll let myself write the wrong thing, the right thing, the thing too tangled to distinguish as either until later. I'll let myself write something that fails if I need to, so that I can transform it later into something which succeeds. Today I'll let myself write badly, if that's how the words are coming out. Because bad words are better than no words. And because without letting myself write badly, I cannot let myself write at all.

I am writing the wrong version of this scene. And that’s ok.

Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. So true! Great post! :) And this reminds me of my favorite writing adage: writing is rewriting.


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Item Reviewed: On Getting Things Wrong Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin