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ProAm Tips #17

Stages of drafts as I understand them:

Draft one: adrenaline.

You want to get your first draft on paper as soon as humanly possible. Never once in the history of writing has what a writer wrote first (there’s a tongue twister for you) been what appears in print. (Online, yes… but we’ll let that go. The age of insta-print is… well… it has it’s positive and negative side.) Never. not once.

You can’t and should NOT try for perfection the first time through. The first time is for getting all your thoughts on paper. Get ’em out of you and into the real world. You’re never going to get anywhere if you don’t make them manifest. Once you get them down, then you can move on.

A metric shit-tonne (it’s an industry term. Look it up. It’s scientific and shit) of books and writers have offered their advice on this subject, and I’m gonna add my words to the pile in hopes that you’ll pick something to believe in. It might even be ME. Right. Sure. Anyhow, here’s the deal:

The first draft is like carving an elephant. First, you need a rock or piece of wood that sorta, kinda, vaguely resembles the outline of an elephant. That’s your first draft. It’s gonna kinda sorta vaguely resemble an elephant. Er… novel. YOUR novel. Or short story, or novella, or vignette, or whatever. Elephant.

Draft two: embarrassment.

Your elephant sucks. It’s the worst elephant ever made. It should be embarrassed to exist. It’s godawful, and terrible, and…. wait. This part sorta, kinda looks like a trunk, right? If you shave this part down, and chip away a little…

hey. That could be an elephant. The trunk, anyhow. THAT part didn’t suck totally. And maybe, just maybe, this is a tusk? Shave that bad boy down a little, make it pointy, work on it a little…


Now you keep doing that until you don’t have a vague possible shape of an elephant- you have a rough approximation of an ACTUAL elephant. And not just a generic elephant. Yours is standing on its hind legs, or curling its truck back to trumpet (or call, or ballooo, or whatever it is elephants do, I don’t know. I’m a writer. I make shit up. Sue me.). Sand that shit down, man. Work it over. Keep going. Refine. Fine-tune. This is an elephant! It’s not an embarrassment. It’s not ready to, like, headline at the circus, or storm the Alps or anything, but it’s definitely starting to resemble an actual, hand-carved, real elephant!

Draft three: knuckle-down time.

Now you’ve got an elephant, but it’s all rough. Its detail is vague. It’s… well, it’s unrefined. So now, instead of trying to get an elephant shape out of the rock or wood or paper -mache, or whatever, you’re gonna concentrate on getting the legs right. The bend of that awesome trunk. The twinkle in those teeny little eyes. NOW is when you start making it look like YOUR elephant. Not just AN elephant.

Draft four and beyond: fiddling.

This is when you spend all your time on the little folds of skin behind the knee. The crinkle of lines around the eyes. You’ve GOT your elephant. You have it standing on your work bench, and you’re considering it from all angles. Does the skin fold naturally? No? Fix it. Does the trunk look graceful and free, or is it awkward? Fix it. Fiddle with it. PLAY with it. But you’re not doing gross refining now. Drop that 60-grit sandpaper. You’re on the 220 shit now.

You’re smoothing, and polishing, and getting it ready. You’ve got a pretty damned good looking elephant, and now’s the stage where you start to get it ready to stain and varnish, or polish (if it’s a rock) or whatever. Paint it. Or bring it to life, if you’re a wizard.

Sorry, my mind is wandering.

Hopefully, you get the point.

Draft one ain’t for making a pretty elephant. Draft one is for making a piece of shit elephant that you can reshape into a gorgeous sculpture. Into a centerpiece for your living room. Into something that you’re proud of.

Being proud of a first draft is cool. You finished something! Yay! Good on you! But you want to GET IT DONE first.

The moral is, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t go back and try to tweak it. Don’t consider the ramifications of this or that character, or whether this escape is too corny or that love interest is too generic. Get that fucking elephant on paper, man. Don’t worry about anything until you get the whole damned thing out of your head and into the real world.

THEN you’ve got a whole new challenge.

UNTIL THEN, don’t sweat anything.

Keeping in theme with the elephant parable, here’s another: how do you eat an elephant?

With catsup, of course.

No. Bad writer.

The answer is, one bite at a time. You eat a whole elephant one bite at time.

You see the point? Don’t worry about marketing your elephant until it’s refined and polished.

Don’t worry about marketing your elephant until it’s refined and polished.

Don’t worry about refining and polishing your elephant until it’s roughly shaped.

Don’t worry about roughly shaping your elephant until you have a vaguely elephant-shaped rock.

One bite at a time, kids.

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