Make New Mistakes
With a title like that, I'd better spellcheck this blog ... More than a decade ago I spent about five years working in-house as a General Counsel of a high-growth restaurant owner and franchisor, instead of working at a law firm. There were lots of interesting things about my in-house experience--from an office environment made up entirely of cubicles, to the greater camaraderie and feeling of family as part of team building a business (fast), to stock options, to doing undercover inspections of far-flung restaurants when traveling, to the company's annual golf tournament--an indoor miniature golf tournament for which each department constructs their own hole in the hallways and cubicles of their office-space (some were awesome and elaborate, but all were fun). An especially interesting item to witness was the effort management put into corporate culture, employee morale, and being an employer-of-choice in trying to attract and retain people. One of the things companies do in such efforts is to come up with mission statements and leadership principles and the like--which can be a lot of pretentious nonsense in many cases. But, amazing to me was that one of the core concepts that management truly believed in was "Make New Mistakes." The theory of such a slogan is not obvious or intuitive to many, but their notion was that if you keep making the same mistakes over and over, you clearly aren't paying attention to what you are doing and simply aren't learning from your experiences and the feedback you receive regarding past performance. That's straightforward enough, but the concept was NOT "Don't Make Mistakes" or even "Stop Making the Same Mistakes." When management said "Make New Mistakes," they meant it, because if you aren't making any mistakes, you are being too timid, you are failing to be creative and think outside the box, and you are shying away from risks and new ideas which have the potential to distinguish the company and its stores and products from that of the competition. I suppose even that encouraging message could have been so much corporate blather if some consultant had come up with it and sold it to management as cute and clever and employee-friendly, but the slogan was only used as window-dressing to cover up the typical power-structure of company reporting-relationships. The cool thing, though, was that management believed it. Because of this, people got to review projects and make comments on ideas and procedures outside their own department, events were held to help foster company-wide friendships, and power-mongers were (generally) discouraged. I actually participated in meetings where someone started to rag on another employee or department and instead of letting it happen or even simply admonishing the complainer to "stay positive," management interrupted to praise the criticized department or employee for making new mistakes, rather than just doing the same old thing. These incidents were pretty effective at shutting down complainers and undercutting corporate backstabbing. What's all this got to do with writing? Well, for one thing, it means that you should not chase fads and do the same thing that everyone else is doing. If you do, you might strike it rich, but you are more likely to be one of the thousands of broke, lonely guys that shows up near the tail-end of the gold rush only to find all the best places already staked out and many of the mines already played out. It also means that you should constantly challenge yourself as a writer and not just keep doing the same thing--same style, same genre, same length, same setting, same characters--over and over. Heck, some people will tell you cultivated sameness of genre/setting is the way to build an audience and a career and I respect that perspective, but even if you don't like (whether for reasons of writing interest or marketing) the idea of genre-hopping as much as I do, there are still plenty of things you can do to shake things up a bit in your writing. For instance, if you are a novelist, you can write short stories--ones that are entirely divorced from your novels or related ones that provide backstory to your longer works or give additional detail about some of the minor characters (R.T. Kaelin has done quite a bit of this kind of thing). A number of novelists (Anton Strout, for example) will write short stories set in the world of their longer works. You can also shake things up by shifting perspective--telling your next story or epic tale from the point-of-view of the villain or the sidekick or the love interest, just to give a different spin on things. Orson Scott Card did a masterful job of this by taking his classic tale Ender's Game and years and years later telling the exact same story (in Ender's Shadow) from the perspective of a different character. Definitely worth a read, both as a splendid novel and as a training/learning experience. You could also convert one of your stories into a screenplay or one of your screenplays into a novel. Such efforts can help you appreciate and strengthen areas on which you may need to work (e.g., dialogue, narrative description, too much reliance or internalizations, etc.). Even if you don't publish or necessarily try to publish some of these challenging changes, the exercise can be worthwhile. I've written a number of thngs (including my first novella) because I was challenged to write at a different length than my comfort-zone at the time and wanted to rise to the challenge. One of the reasons I really like the writing/critique group of which I am a member (The St. Charles Writers Group) is that it includes all sorts of writers of all sorts of writing in all sorts of genres, and I can see the value of those varying approaches and experiences in critiquing my writing. If nothing else, you simply want to make sure that you are improving as a writer. It can be too easy in these days of easy e-publishing to put something out there that still needs work, ignore the comments, and move on to the next project, but you should learn something from everything you write. After an early editor pointed out some head-hopping perspective shifts in an early work, I became much more vigilant about avoiding that issue (not just in reviewing for it during re-writes, but by affirmatively deciding before I write each scene from whose perspective it will be written). While not as much of an adverb-hater as some of my colleagues, a simple "Find" search for "ly" as I complete a work at least makes me be mindful of how often I use them. (A search for "that" at the end of each project can also eliminate many surplus uses of "that" word.) If you are making the same mistakes today as yesterday, you are not learning and growing as a writer. If you aren't making any mistakes (or mistakenly think you're not), then you are not taking enough risks and cultivating your creative powers. Go forth and make new mistakes. You'll be glad you did. Of course, one way for me to learn from my mistakes is for smart, savvy readers like yourself to read my work (at least some of it, but even better: everything I've ever written) and then to post honest and thoughtful reviews (to let me know what does and doesn't work and to let other readers know about what they should or should not read). You can find out about all of my writing atwww.donaldjbingle.com.
Don Thanks for your comments and reviews. Don