I’m averse to making mistakes, which probably stems from my educational background. I’m an engineer by training. In that profession, errors can have devastating consequences. Miscalculate the thickness of concrete walls, and a billion-dollar oil rig sinks (Sleipner A platform). Change the design of a single bolt, and a crowded walkway collapses (Kansas City Hyatt). Underestimate the effect of cold weather on a simple rubber O-ring, and a space shuttle explodes (Challenger).
So I’ve been conditioned to avoid mistakes at all costs. The problem is that I’m no longer an engineer. I’m now in the creative fields of writing and acting. In my new professions, mistakes are just fine. No one dies. Nothing is destroyed. In fact, mistakes are encouraged. That’s how you improve.
In writing, trying to eliminate mistakes is the mistake. Yes, there are objective errors that you want to avoid in a novel. Don’t put a safety on a Glock pistol. Don’t make your continuity and timelines inconsistent. Don’t change the name of a character halfway through. These are indisputable mistakes, and yet I have seen them all in novels. Bestselling novels.
In one of my own books, THE ARK, I explained that the elevators of a slowing airplane lowered to maintain altitude. Of course, this is incorrect. The elevators should go up to pitch the aircraft up. I’ve flown planes myself. I have a degree in mechanical engineering during which I studied fluid dynamics. I know that it was wrong, and I still made the mistake. No one—including my brother, who is a former Air Force pilot—caught the error until the book was in stores. No one died, and only one reader has ever brought it up (in fact, it’s the only reason I know the mistake happened). However, the error still bugs me.
What’s more insidious for a writer is the avoidance of subjective mistakes. We want to get everything right in a story: characters, plot, twists, literary merit, creativity, emotional resonance. We want the story to be perfect, and impatient people like me want it to be perfect from the moment we start typing it.
But it never is. It can’t be. Ever. I bet you’d only be able to come up with a tiny list of stories that didn’t have a single thing you’d change. And even then, go look at the Amazon reviews for those books. You’ll find at least a few people (and sometimes hundreds of them) who don’t agree with your definition of perfection.
Voltaire is considered the originator of the phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We’re afraid that if our story isn’t perfect, it won’t be good enough. The idea for a novel that we have in our minds never comes out on the page like we imagine. Sometimes we can’t write at all because we’ll be disappointed that it won’t come out perfectly formed on the first try.
What we have to come to terms with is that making mistakes is part of the process. That’s how we learn. That’s how we make art. My wife, who is sometimes frustrated when I delay delivering pages to her to edit, gave me a T-shirt for Christmas that says, “Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.” That notion can be freeing if you take it to heart. You can’t make it better if it doesn’t exist in the first place.
I’m getting more comfortable with making mistakes, but it’s a daily struggle. The lesson slowly worming its way into my head is that to fixate on creating the perfect novel results in creating nothing. So I’m learning to focus on the right thing: getting a story out that reflects my voice, where even the flaws and imperfections are unique to me.