Give Yourself License to Try

There’s something I want to say, just in case there’s anyone out there waiting to hear it from a professional: it’s okay to play around with your manuscript and try stuff, even if it doesn’t work.

You’d be surprised by how many people write or type something and think they’ve created a permanent thing. Ideally, your words will be permanent in the form of a printed book someday. However, until you get to that stage, every single word you write is very malleable, deletable, inflatable, and very much alive.

I get questions along these lines ALL THE TIME:

Should I write in present or past tense?
Should I write in first or third person?
Should I include a flashback about my character’s dead mother/father/sister/goldfish?
Should I have more dialogue or description in this scene?
Should I work in one POV or in multiple?
Should I start my chapters with song lyrics?
Should my character go to the abandoned mine or the abandoned warehouse to encounter the flesh-eating zombies?
Should I write a prologue? (Hot topic. I’ll have to post exclusively on this at some point.)

Lots of these questions get sent my way. Lots of questions I can’t answer. Lots of questions you probably shouldn’t be asking anybody but yourself, since it’s your story and only you know the best way to tell it.

The liberating thing is, you don’t always have to know the best way to tell it from the very beginning. If you tell it one way–in present tense, say–and figure out that it’s not working…switch tenses. Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt. Yeah, it’ll take work on every single page and in every single sentence. Yeah, there’s the possibility that you’ll hate past tense even more than  you hate present tense.

But at least you you tried. At least you went into the lab and found out firsthand. You played around. You experimented. You really shouldn’t be afraid of burning through some words (a million bad words, in fact), even if it doesn’t work out. It’s true that you could spend months trying something–another POV character, for example–that totally bombs. And you have nothing to show for all that work you did. And your manuscript is still not right. And all the Ben & Jerry’s has gone missing from your freezer and you still haven’t caught the dastardly thief who broke into your house and stole it.

The only way you’ll know whether something works or not is by sitting down and doing it. You may, per the above nightmare scenarios, figure out that your idea was a pretty lame one. Or you may stumble upon something that makes your book richer, better, more like the perfect book that’s shimmering in your imagination.

The worst thing you can do is write words once and think you’re done writing them for good. Those words could be great words, sure. But there could be other words that are even better. The only way you can find the exact right words is by trying things, playing, letting loose.

Whenever you’re shopping for something really important, you have to try a lot of losers to find the winner. It’s no different with all the parts that make your novel come together (characterization, description, plot points, scenes, POV, voice, tense, etc.). So this is your invitation, in case you were waiting for it. Take the fear out of it and try the thing that’s been nagging at you, the thing your gut is curious about. Go ahead.

Remember, despite all the rejection, the creative upheaval, the ice cream binges, the end-of-publishing-as-we-know-it news…writing is supposed to be fun (at least most of the time). If it’s not, you might not be experimenting and playing enough.

It’s like people who don’t cook without tasting. Is my mole sauce spicy enough? Does it have enough chocolate? Does it go well with the chicken? Don’t just stand over the pot asking yourself these questions…get a spoon and dig in. If it’s not working, adjust or throw it out and try again. I don’t trust a cook who doesn’t taste as they’re creating, nor do I trust a writer who won’t experiment.

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  1. Kate B.’s avatar

    Thank you, Mary. I think I needed that invitation. :)

  2. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    I like the idea of relating writing to shopping. When I shop I make sure that what I am picking out to buy, I will want to put on right away when I get home. The same goes for my writing. If I’m not excited to share it with everyone then I make sure it fits just as good as those clothes I buy :) Thanks Mary!

  3. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    I’ve been there on that tense thing… it’s not pretty, but to change it all like that will make you a better writer. :)

  4. Jess Morrison’s avatar

    Hurrah! I can’t tell you how many times I get something down on paper and then, for some reason, think that it’s stuck there… or I get totally afraid to turn it around on its head. Maybe we’ve got some built-in loyalty to our first drafts (weird), or sheer laziness because it would take too damn long to make those changes consistent throughout a whole ms. In any case, this is definitely a well timed invitation, Mary – great message and another big thank you for posting.

    PS Seriously, who is stealing the freakin’ ice cream…?!

  5. Christine Fonseca’s avatar

    Love this post! Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Mary Jo’s avatar

    Love this! I ‘ll be sharing this post with my young writing students : ) Thanks!

  7. Olleymae’s avatar

    So true!! Sometimes it is really fun to stretch the brain muscles and try things from a different angle.

  8. Candyland’s avatar

    I NEEDED THIS TODAY. Thank you.

  9. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Yes, yes, this is something I have been coming to grips with throughout the whole revision process. When someone reads my MS, say a beta reader, they point out things (which I thought were brilliant at the time) that they don’t think work, and when they explain the reasons why I have had to delete whole sections because it really does make sense why it shouldn’t be there. Killing those babies! Yuck. Not fun, but it’s freeing when I do it. Like Mary said, I am more creatively challenged. And after those bad days of icecream binging (actually icecream isn’t my thing…but maybe it should be!) I can find happiness even in revision =)

  10. Katy’s avatar

    This is wonderful advice! Sometimes the only way you can tell is to make the changes and see how they work out. My manuscript has lived through multiple revisions including tense changes and POV swaps. It’s better today than it ever would have been if I hadn’t given myself permission to experiment!

  11. Robin’s avatar

    Thanks for the liberating post. I’ve gotten so caught up in the high-snobbery of writing and other writers that I feel like I’ve lost the love and fun of losing myself in another world.

    It’s reassuring to know other people second guess themselves, their plots, the POV, etc.

    Thanks again!!!

  12. Melissa’s avatar

    Actually, Mary, I do all my writing in wet concrete. When I’m done, it’s set in stone.

    Question: Should I write “Melissa was here” or “Melissa wuz here”?

  13. Elan Cross’s avatar

    You know how a blank page can be the scariest thing? Well, for me at least, a finished first draft is almost as terrifying. It needs work, cutting, twisting, shifting, purging. But OMG, where to start?? What to get rid of? What to keep, knead, and work into lump-free dough. (ok, no one needed a dough metaphor *rolls eyes*)
    I was too afraid to edit my first novel, and wouldn’t you know, it’s sitting in a dust-covered binder on a shelf I haven’t seen in years.
    Since then, I’ve gotten much better. I actually like revising now. (You can throw stuff at me; my skin is a carbon-enhanced polymer. And it tans!)
    Trying new things is scary. But so worth it, and way more fun than writing the same thing over and over:)
    Thanks for the push, Mary.

  14. Liesl’s avatar

    This is a great post and so true. No one can tell you how to do it and that’s one of the hardest parts of writing. You’re on your own.

    I wrote the first 75 pages of my WIP in first-person and then realized it was not right. Something was just off. I started all over again in third and I like it much better. BUT I don’t think those first 75 pages were a waste. They were like a deep character study and they’ve really helped with the rest of the book. It’s tough, but there’s a reason why they say kill your darlings and not your least favorite things.

  15. Liesl’s avatar

    This is a great post and so true. No one can tell you how to do it and that’s one of the hardest parts of writing. You’re on your own.

    I wrote the first 75 pages of my WIP in first-person and then realized it was not right. Something was just off. I started all over again in third and I like it much better. BUT I don’t think those first 75 pages were a waste. They were like a deep character study and they’ve really helped with the rest of the book. It’s tough, but there’s a reason why they say kill your darlings, not kill your least favorite things.

  16. janet’s avatar

    Great advice. It gives you the courage to add new stuff to your MS. But more importantly, it gives you the courage to cut.

  17. Alison’s avatar

    I like thinking of it as an invitation. Psychologically that is so much more …well… inviting than thinking of it as the hard (but necessary) work that revision always is. Thanks for the push.

  18. Liz H Allen’s avatar

    I needed this as well, thank you.

  19. Laura Marcella’s avatar

    I love experimenting with my stories. I try different tenses and POVs. Sometimes I stick with how I originally wrote it, but other times I’ve discovered something else worked better! It definitely shakes this up and keeps writing interesting when you try something new. :)

  20. Indigo’s avatar

    The title says it all.

    I’m 2/3 of the way into the first draft of my current WIP and can see where a few characters are not working as I intended.

    Usually I keep a notebook filled with changes I see as I’m going that need to be changed up and where, then keep plowing ahead. Basically for me it’s just getting the storyline out there and keeping an open mind there is room plenty of room to change up in the next draft.

    As you said nothing is concrete until it’s set in a book. (Hugs)Indigo

  21. Anissa’s avatar

    I just finished a complete rewrite of my story. Started with a blank Word doc and made it new, better. And it is. Now I have a 90K word manuscript (which needs some trimming) and a 45K word cut file. Plus the original 70K word manuscript. That’s a lot of words that went into making this story right. But I needed every one.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  22. Christina Bell’s avatar

    Funny you should post this now. My fourth graders and I just had a long conversations about finding a balance between knowing/following the rules of fiction and using your imaginative ideas. We used Picasso as an example of someone who could work within the art school perameters of creating portraits, but could also play with the rules in fascinating ways. Later that day, we saw the New York Times story about the Picasso that sold for 106.5 million. What timing!

  23. Kristi’s avatar

    This is so true. I’m having so much fun playing around with my ms and just added a new POV. At some point when I start querying, the process might not seem so fun, so I figure I’ll enjoy this time while it lasts.

  24. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Excellent advice, well summed up in the final sentences.

    When I was about 10 and learning to ski, my older brother got me going by saying, “The one thing to remember is that if you don’t fall down, you’re not having enough fun.” I try to remember that lesson in all aspects of life.

  25. Melissa’s avatar

    I did the same thing as Lisel. I wrote the first sixty pages of my manuscript in first person, then realized the book needed to be in third. I didn’t go back to the beginning right away, though. I just finished the story in third and ended up with this weird half-first, half-third person first draft. Since then, I’ve rewritten the beginning many, many times. There’s no end of revision in sight yet.

  26. Toni’s avatar

    Playing – Isn’t that what brought me to writing in the first place? The desire to run to my sandbox, with shovel and pail, to build a world of tunnels and toy cars and sticks and pebbles. If I could only tune out the censor in my head, the voice that says, “this will never sell, are you kidding me, this doesn’t make sense, this doesn’t sound like so and so’s book”, then just maybe I can build my world according to what feels right to me.

  27. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    Wonderful! I think I’ll make my husband read this so he’ll understand why I keep tinkering with my manuscript, even though it’s “finished.”

  28. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Greta, that’s how I feel. I was getting a ms ready for submission the other day and was rereading it before I hit print. He said, “What’s changed since you last edited it?”

    Unless you’re a writer, you can’t possibly understand the compulsion to move things around to see how they work somewhere else. I love editing, especially the big edits that can change the whole scope of your story.

    Fun stuff~ cat

  29. Joan’s avatar

    Nothing is ever written in stone . . . except for the Ten Commandments, but even they were rewritten after Moses smashed them. ;-)

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