Making Mistakes Matter
by William Boyle
The other night I watched a small indie film from 2001 called Kwik Stop; it was recommended by a friend of mine whose opinion I highly value. Kwik Stop starts one place—a young actor headed to Hollywood and a young woman seeking to escape to anywhere share a meet-cute in a rural gas station parking lot—and you think you know exactly where it’s going, Badlands or True Romance territory most likely, but that doesn’t happen. The couple stops at a dreamy little dive motel, and the narrative shifts out from under us. I won’t give too much away about this underseen gem of a film, but I loved the way it subverted expectations and made no move that seemed predictable (failed schemes abound). It got me thinking about process and what I value most highly in art, that feeling of not knowing exactly where something is headed from minute to minute, or at least the tension that arises from not being certain if a work will go off course. You might give a certain writer or director the same tools as others, even the same characters or setting, but the ones that are most interesting to me will take you somewhere you never thought of going. It’s my feeling that this has a lot to do with making mistakes matter.
When I think about decisions I’ve made as a writer that have led me to those unexpected places, I think about sticking with mistakes. When you’re driving and you hit black ice, most folks grip the wheel and pump the brakes, when what you need to do is to remain calm and avoid overreacting. Yep, sometimes it’s true that a mistake means you have to go back and scrap the last fifty pages or that you need to reimagine something that’s taken a wrong turn, but often—if you don’t panic—a mistake can lead to a golden moment you might never have imagined otherwise. Watching Kwik Stop, I got the sense that writer/director Michael Gilio stayed with a couple of decisions that might have, at first, been perceived as mistakes and that they brought him somewhere new and unusual.
When I was working on my first novel, Gravesend, I don’t think I would have been able to express this idea as clearly, but no doubt I instinctually believed in it because I committed to a bunch of things I might’ve otherwise rationally bailed on. Back then, working without a net, I liked the chaos of such moments. In my most recent novel, City of Margins, I’ve learned to trust my mistakes and to try to make them matter, to evaluate them before throwing them on the scrapheap. Worst case scenario, as anyone knows: you learn from your mistakes. Best case scenario, as only those willing to take their mistakes seriously know: you find some undiscovered country, some rich vein of story you couldn’t have anticipated or imagined.
I had this experience a lot while working on City of Margins, the first book I’ve written that I plotted and planned so thoroughly but also a book where I allowed my mistakes to guide me, where I allowed them to steer me away from that outline into unchartered territory. I think of one of my characters, Ava, standing on a street corner at a certain point in the novel. To the left, that’s the way that’s mapped out, the way she should go, needs to go for everything I’ve built not to fall apart. To the right, who knows? In the moment, she goes against my wishes and turns right instead of left. At first glance, it’s a mistake and a dumb one at that, a diversion, an unnecessary complication in the name of narrative freedom and not feeling trapped. That is, until it’s suddenly not a mistake anymore, until Ava meets someone or does something that I didn’t see coming and lights up the story in a new way.
William Boyle’s books include: Gravesend, which was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France and shortlisted for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in the UK; The Lonely Witness, which was nominated for the Hammett Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; and, most recently, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself and City of Margins, all of which are available from Pegasus Crime. He recently guest edited the noir volume of Nicolas Winding Refn’s byNWR.com.