Order and Chaos

In my post last Wednesday, I mentioned that, leading up to the climax of a story, every choice closes one door and opens three more.  That’s another of the things that makes The Middle the hardest part of a book to write – for me, anyway.  There are so many variables, an infinite number of ways to get the characters from Point A in the storyline to Point Z, and of course, any writer worth his/her salt wants to find The Best Way.

There is your first mistake.  Go with your instincts and don’t worry about whether it’s The Best Way or not.  If it isn’t, guess what?  You can rewrite it!  But often, I’ve written things in on impulse and trusted that there was some reason my brain wanted it in the story, only to find that the whole solution hinged on it or that it was the one thing that tied everything together in the end.  Also, many times I’ve written in something entirely useless and had to cut it, but the point is, you can cut something you don’t need, but if you don’t try anything out for fear it isn’t the right thing, you’ll stare at a screen all day and have no progress to show for it.

The difficulty in the middle of a story is that everything is in flux – as I mentioned last Wednesday, the beginning is a status quo and the end is a status quo, even if they’re vastly different.  In the middle, you have to create the chaos that demands change.  Except it can’t really be chaos.

It should seem messy to the characters, because when life gets demanding and we’re in transition, we feel like everything is up in the air, like things are beyond our control, and we don’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out or how best to rise to meet our challenges.  During times of major change, real people are plagued by these kinds of doubts and this sense of the unsure future.  Naturally, then, you want your characters to wonder what will become of them, how best to move forward, what’s really going on, etc.

But your plot cannot be chaos to you, the writer, obviously.  To you, there must be a clear direction at all times, at least one purpose for each scene, a reason behind every choice every character makes, and an overall structure to the “chaos” of the plot.  Simultaneously, you have to keep your characters in the dark, never forgetting that they don’t know what you know, letting them reach the conclusions that are logical to them based on the information you’ve provided them with through revelation, other characters, personal interests, or twists of fate.  They have to find everything out on their own, though – they can’t just Know to go to such-and-such place at such-and-such time to find the person they’re looking for…and you can’t get away with very many fortunate coincidences, either.  They have to make their decisions because those are the decisions this person you’ve written would make.

Dostoevsky’s character Dmitri Karamazov is the kind of guy who would lose his temper and humiliate a man in public, and he’s also the kind of guy who is sorry for it later, when he finds out how badly it’s affected the man’s little boy.  Thomas Hardy’s character Tess is the kind of woman who would suffer for her principles, in spite of an easy out.  Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff could’ve chosen to find happiness somewhere other than with Catherine, but he’s not that kind of person – he’s the kind of person who’d rather live in bitterness and spite and hatred for the rest of his life, as long as it meant everyone around him had to suffer for it, too.

Choose your characters’ basic personalities carefully – because even if you plan to transform a character, the choices they make before they change are going to be based on who they are to begin with.  A lot of the time, you need a character who is a certain way to carry off a certain plot.  I needed a stubborn, authority-hating, single-minded person to narrate my Erica Flynn novel – nobody else would’ve made the same choices.

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Pacing & Payoffs

On the subject of the middles of stories and novels, the foremost topic that comes to my mind is pacing.  The road of pacing is fraught with many perils, traps, meanderings, and pitfalls.  It’s one of the single hardest things to fix about any given part of a story, if it goes wrong to begin with.

Pacing, like most things, is a continuum with two extremes at either end.  Slow pacing is boring because the story drags out longer than necessary to get to any satisfying point(s) in the storyline.  Fast pacing is also boring, because too much is going on to take any satisfaction in the events of the storyline.  What’s the key in both cases?  A sense of satisfaction.

Before you can be satisfied with something, you have to start out by having a desire – take eating, for instance.  If you’re hungry, you eat something, and you feel satisfied if the meal is good.  If you’re not hungry, maybe you still have a craving for a certain food, and if you eat that certain food, your craving is satisfied.  If you’re not hungry and you don’t have any desire for a specific favorite taste, then eating is anything but satisfying – even if you eat compulsively, the whole point is that you are never satisfied.

So you have to make the reader want something from your story, to begin with.  That’s your series of narrative hooks, where you plant the seeds of interest, curiosity, questions that need answers, the wish for a character to excel or be crushed, etc.  Once you have that established, the trick is to give them payoffs along the way while simultaneously planting more hopes/wishes/questions in their brains for the story yet to unfold.

Some tips about middles, payoffs, and lead-ups:

  • Sufficient payoff for the amount of lead-up attached to the event or realization.  If you’ve spent the whole book leading up to this moment, then this scene is your climax, and you need to make it count.  If there’s been only a hint or two, this either needs to be an unexpected major turning point, or it needs to be okay that this scene is only a minor moment of satisfaction – a hint to your audience that you know what you’re doing and they can trust you to give them more.
  • If you’ve built this up as something important, it needs to alter the story and/or the characters in some way.  A big action sequence that leaves the characters and the story right where they were before the action is a waste of words and a waste of time.
  • A payoff scene should raise the stakes, change someone’s mind about something, reveal a new side of someone, alter the dynamics between two or more characters, move the plot or at least a subplot forward and/or link a subplot to the main storyline, and/or answer at least one question raised in the earlier part of the story.
  • Your protagonist must suffer to achieve his/her satisfaction.  There is no growth without pain, and there is no story without growth.  Readers want to root for someone who’s having a hard time and toughing through it the best they can.  The reader’s sense of satisfaction in the high points of your protagonist’s journey are only as strong as the severity of what the protagonist faces at the low points, and how well he or she bears that suffering.
  • Until you’re approaching your wrap-up, continue to raise questions, doubts, internal waverings, and so on as you write scenes to answer for the previous questions and doubts and so on.  Every choice closes one door and opens three more, as you head toward the climax.  The immediate lead-in to your climax is where that changes, where choices narrow and everything suddenly hinges on THE HERE AND NOW for your characters.
  • Give a moment, even just a line or two, of reflection after a big change, heavy action, heated dialogue, etc.  Make sure you give voice to the aftermath, the undertones of your characters’ feelings, etc.  After an argument with someone you’re close to, you may be angry, but there are raw vulnerabilities rattling around in your head that you normally ignore.  There’s emotional exhaustion.  There might be unexpected tenderness toward the person you’re at odds with.  There may be a battle in your head about whether to push the person away or whether to pull close to them again.  Bring this stuff out in your characters in these “aftermath” moments, and your pacing will be the better for it – your story will be deeper for it, too, and your characters more accessible and more “real” to the reader.

Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.

Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

Repetition & Context

This is my 100th post on this blog.  Happy milestone, blog!

And my content sort of goes along with milestones, or at least perspective shifts.  I’ve always admired writers who can repeat a phrase or an image throughout a piece, and have a fresh impact and a new meaning each time.  Well, I admire writers who pull it off.  When it’s overdone or ineffective, it’s just annoying and feels like the writer is trying too hard.

But I love it when the context alters or colors the meaning of a repetition.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is one fine example, particularly in Slaughterhouse 5, with the phrase, “So it goes,” with its often-depressing, sometimes-funny, frequently-both-at-the-same-time effects.  Chuck Palahniuk employs repeat phrases with transformational meanings in every book I’ve read by him, good examples being Invisible Monsters and Lullabye, as well as his best-known Fight Club.

It’s a technique often used in song lyrics, with the words of the chorus shifting tone based around the context of each verse, but the absolute masters of such lyrical games, in my opinion, are a pop band, actually.  Barenaked Ladies (none of whom are women, incidentally) have used plays on repetition throughout their discography, but the song that first comes to mind for me is Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel, which opens with the words:

Driving home to be with you
The highway’s dividing, the city’s in view
As usual, I’m almost on time
You’re the last thing that’s on my mind

As song lyrics go, this is also a telling and subtle characterization of a narrator and his attitude about his relationship, by the way.  Anyway, the rest of the song details his subsequent death on the highway, and after a few hints here and there within the death scene regarding things unsaid, the song closes with a multiple repetition of the line “You’re the last thing on my mind.”  And it means something completely different now.  I love it.  We’ve gone from simple self-absorbancy to existential finality in less than 3 minutes.  Beautiful.

Anyway, it’s a weapon to wield carefully, and probably only after enough training that you won’t hurt yourself with it, but when it works, it’s dynamite.

Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

The Hook

The Hook is a lie.  Let’s just get that out in the open right now.  Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel.  This is true.

The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement.  Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks.  You need a trail of breadcrumbs.  You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest.  You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story.  The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting.  These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact:  book = boring.  Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.

A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance.  An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”: 

(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity.  You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.

Drop hints.  Foreshadow.  Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes.  Throw in setbacks.  Raise doubts.  Bring up questions that will need answering.  Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more.  Build anticipation.  And make the payoff worth the wait.

A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping.  One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing.  In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view.  While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond.  Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden.  It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information.  And I thought, “A design hook.  Foreshadowing with hedges!”

I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising.  What am I giving a glimpse of here?  Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path?  Am I giving them too much, too soon?  I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.

And there you have it.  The truth about narrative hooks!  You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.

Existential Terror and Self-Editing

Rewrites.  Yeah, I know I said Wednesdays were going to be about marketing, and lately they keep not being, but the first step to marketing something is to have something that agents and publishers will want to represent.  So…rewrites.

It’s like pulling out your own teeth – it’s painful, frustrating, and messy, you’re not sure if it’s really a good idea, and it seems like the process will never end.  Unlike pulling out your own teeth, though, rewriting generally produces good results.

It’s interesting to examine the evolution of a story after you’ve had some time away from it to gain perspective.  Sometimes it’s funny to see how things ended up coming together, sometimes it’s frustrating that you ended up working in the wrong direction for a while and now you have to correct your mistake.  I try to think of rewrites the way I think of personal regrets – the things I like about who I am now would not exist if I hadn’t had the experiences I’ve had or made the mistakes I’ve made…nor would my book have come to this point of potential if I hadn’t gone down a few wrong turns here and there with it, finding a few surprise solutions along the way.

I don’t think there are many writers who don’t have a pang or two when they realize drastic changes are needed to a manuscript they’re mostly very happy with.  It’s hard to really believe that something you’re mostly very happy with could need so much work.  For me, it’s initially disheartening, then I’m irritated with myself for not writing it “right” in the first place, and then there’s a phase of infantile whining about not wanting to do the hard work of fixing it.  I suppose it’s a sort of grieving process for the words that will be lost in the process.  After all, we work hard to put those words down in the first place, and hone them to some semblance of perfection in the next few drafts, and yanking them apart feels like letting chaos spill into our carefully crafted manuscript and risking complete destruction of the story.  Of course we’re resistant to major changes to our novels!  All these delicate threads woven together, and SNIP, and now they’re all loose, and what if they never connect right again????!  Existential terror!

So how do you stop freaking out and rewrite with gusto and unabashed ruthlessness toward your own words?  First, you have to have three things in place beforehand:

  1. Separate copies of every draft of your book.  You do NOT want to alter your previous documents for a new major rewrite.  You’ll cut stuff and then realize you need it, make changes and then realize you need to refer to information that’s no longer there, and generally confuse yourself.  Also, you won’t be able to go back to the previous version and start over if your rewrites go terribly awry, which can happen.  Having the old draft is both a comfort and a practicality.
  2. A notebook and various ways of color coding stuff.  Trust me.  Or, if you work at the computer exclusively, a file for notes to yourself in a program with highlighting and text color capabilities.
  3. Coffee.

The point at which I shift from existential terror to excitement about rewrites is when I can really see how the story can be better.  I don’t have to have all the answers, just a clear view of what’s holding it back and some ideas about how to help it shine.  I think it’s vital, too, going into big changes, to have a clear sense of what you want the book to be, especially what you originally wanted, above all, for this book, right from the beginning, that made you want to write it.  In fact, I even wrote myself a note before I started the second draft of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, reminding myself what the heart and soul of the book was to me.  Many things have changed about the book…characters have come, gone, changed, etc.  Events have been cut, added, altered, moved around.  Tone has been tweaked.  Setting and concept have shifted or explained differently.  But the story is still what I wanted it to be all along – a crazy adventure with an un-self-pitying and funny protagonist determined to come back from the dead.

And it helps to see that, and know that no matter whether I cut or condense or reorganize, I can still keep the heart of the book in place, and that anything I change is just freeing the book up to be closer and closer to its full potential.  That is when I start to be excited about rewrites.

Oh, and I wrote this entry a while back about staying organized and maintaining structure during major rewrites.  This method has helped me more than I can express in words.

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

A History of Writing, Part II

Last fall, I wrote a post about the beginnings of my writing life, https://saradeurell.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/a-history-of-writing/, in which I said that someday I’d write a Part II about my adolescent writing projects.  So here it is.

I finished a 100-page book when I was about ten (it was a pretty trite fantasy about a unicorn slaying a dragon, and the only good thing to come out of it was a weasel of a character who played both sides against one another through the whole story).  Wrote a badly-researched ghost novel of about 120 pages, finishing when I was 12.  Then I went through a phase of writing completely ridiculous horror stories (probably because that’s what I was reading).

And then, at 14, I decided I wanted to be A Very Serious Writer.  I wanted to write sweeping, epic, heartbreaking novels that teachers would someday force their high school students to read.  So I started planning and building a world for the most complicated fantasy novel ever conceived of in the history of mankind.  (Incidentally, I tried to write that same novel again during NaNoWriMo last year, and it’s still too complicated for me to get my head around.)  I was 17 when I admitted to myself that I just wasn’t ready to write anything that BIG and decided to try my hand at a literary novel with only a few major characters instead.

My main hangups as a teenage writer were that (a) I spent too long trying to write a perfect first draft and skewed the focus of the plot as a result and (b) I took everything far too seriously.  I didn’t want to be funny, and I didn’t want to be fun.  I wanted to be profound – which is a problem if you’re only 17 and don’t have enough life experience to be profound, and also usually makes your writing (or at least your narrator) sound pretentious, which is, ironically, one of my own pet peeves with what I read.

I finished the rough draft after a grueling 4-year wrestling match against a main character who dragged his heels every step of the way, reread it, and realized with horror that “flawless” was exactly what my book wasn’t.  I wrote exclusively poetry and short stories for years afterward.

It wasn’t until I started working on The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn that I hit my stride and my modus operandi as a writer.  Everything clicked with the writing of that book.  Self-discipline, setting goals for myself and surpassing them, knocking out a draft in a reasonable amount of time, taking time to get perspective between rewrites, and rewriting ruthlessly…all that came with the process of writing Erica Flynn.

The moral of the post, I guess, is that writing is something you can really only learn by doing it.  And you aren’t wasting time by making mistakes, even if an entire manuscript is just one big tangle of mistakes.  Like anything in life, it’s only a waste if you don’t learn from it, if you ignore the lessons available to you within an experience, if you keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.  Keep trying new things.  Keep experimenting.  Try new methods.  Branch out.  Keep trying.

And don’t take yourself or your writing so seriously that it isn’t any FUN!  It’s a rare reader that dislikes fun, but there are plenty of readers looking for it.