Learning from Mistakes and Progress

When I was in the army, the battalion commander required that we brief him on the “ups and downs” of our training.  We had to come up with three good things about training, as well as three bad things.  Two problems immediately materialized:

1. They required three ups and three downs.  We couldn’t just leave the downs blank or have only one.

2. If we recorded any downs where we made a mistake–i.e., “instructor was not prepared”–well, the briefer was lucky to return with their backside in tatters.  The battalion commander would demand accountability, wanting to know why this happened, and who was responsible.

We ended up using the weather as a down a lot.  It was supposed to be a lessons learned, but the only thing the battalion commander’s reaction taught us was to not tell the truth.

I’ve been reading a book called Innovate the Pixar Way, and the author talks about how Pixar encourages discussion over mistakes, and also over successes.  The book suggested companies come up with five things they’d do differently on a project, and five things they’d do again.  I thought this was a great idea for book projects.  These are from my urban fantasy, which I’ve learned a tremendous amount from writing.

Five Things I Would Do Differently:

1. Keep all materials in one notebook.   When I started the book, I was looking for a better system for the research materials.  I happened to pick up David Fryxell’s book, Write Faster, Write Better, and he described a method of organizing materials–one folder per chapter.  I could easily find the materials during the first draft.  Then came the revision.  I shuffled chapters.  A lot.  The context for the research materials was completely lost.

2. Don’t letting running too short be my primary focus.  I was really frustrated with running short, so I decided to break the chapters in half to get an artificial increase.  I had a lot of chapters that were 5-6 pages, and even some with 3 pages.   When I did the synopsis, it was painfully obvious that there were structural issues because of this, and I had to put the chapters back together.

3. Identify all the beginnings of subplots.  Since I tend to forget they exist, I’m probably going to have to wade through the first draft and find all the hints of them.  Not quite sure how I will approach that one yet, but it’s on my list.

4. Do a broad outline somewhere during the second draft to see a high level story view.  I can’t outline during the first draft stage where I need to be really messy, but during the revisions, I need something to help me get a better handle on the overall story so I don’t have as much revision.

5.  Stick with one file for the entire novel.  When I started writing it, I used individual files for each chapter.  Frankly, it made work harder for me.  My chapters shifted in revision, and it was hard figuring out what was what.  Then if I deleted or combined a chapter, I’d have to go through each file and change the name.  Way too much work.

Five Things I’d Do Again:

1.  Make a quick reference list of the character names.  I had trouble remembering a couple of the names, and this made it so much easier.  I didn’t have to spend time scrolling back through the book to find the last use of a name to get the spelling.

2.  Write a 30 day first draft to get the bones down.  Because I didn’t have time to think about what the story should be about, I wasn’t restricted in what I came up with.  In fact, I put a scene in that I thought was neat, and it turned out to be a major piece of the entire story.

3 .  Identify what makes the story special (and it wasn’t the plot).  This was an anchor to the chaos of the first draft and the revisions.

4.  Use omniscient viewpoint again.  This was a great viewpoint for me.

5.   Absolutely no outline for the first draft.  I didn’t do one for this book, but I took an outline workshop in hopes of solving process problems I’ve had.  Instead I learned that I need the freedom to color completely outside of the lines during the first draft.

Do have anything you would do differently and things you would do again?

6 thoughts on “Learning from Mistakes and Progress

  1. What a fantastic exercise! thank you for sharing. I think I am definitely going to do this for myself. I’ve been having a horrible time finishing a second project and I think identifying the things that worked well for me the first time around will really help!


    1. It was a really eye opening exercise. I did it on another project that ultimately flopped, and coming up with five things I’d never do again and five things I would do put it into a very different perspective. Instead of pointing fingers or looking in the wrong direction, it brought focus back to where things can be improved.

      I also could see where it might be used to prevent repeating mistakes. When I went from my second book and started on a third (later abandoned for the reasons that follow), I started getting crits that made me realize that I was repeating exactly the same mistakes. Doing a five and five review might have changed that.


  2. Pingback: 2 Things. No, 5 Things. Well, Really 10 Things. « I Picked Up a Pen One Day…

  3. In so many ways, we learn as we go! I keep a small journal for each project, a place to jot down notes and ideas, character traits, plot points, locations. It’s a handy way to keep track of things, particularly if I’m not at the computer.

    Clicked over from Blood-Red Pencil, enjoyed browsing here.


    1. Mine literally is a spiral bound book–mainly for research notes and working out story issues. I’m also thinking of adding the submissions at the end, rather than trying to do a spreadsheet.


  4. At the moment, I’m tearing apart a finished manuscript. Rearranging stuff, cutting lots, adding in big and small stuff. On this go-round, I’m doing a brief summary of each chapter, including character names. Before I started the re-write, I had to do this summary of the old book so I could find things that I wanted to move and insert elsewhere.

    Straight From Hel


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