Over Christmas break, my ten-year-old daughter and I competed in our first ever The Twelve Days of Chess Tournament. This isn’t an event you’ll find online or at the local community center, but a friendly competition I dreamed up to spend more one-on-one time with her apart from her three siblings. It also seemed like a great way for us to improve our games. After I took a 5-0 lead, however, my daughter lost interest and our Twelve Days of Chess fizzled like sparkling cider left on the counter after New Year’s Eve.
How did our fun-time become a thing of dread she wished to avoid? For starters, she hadn’t played in a while and the rust showed, but more importantly I failed to establish proper expectations and to lay the foundation of practice ahead of time. Practice is the draft and the tournament the polished edit. By initiating a competition without the essential practice, I fostered unrealistic expectations that stymied her growth and sapped her interest. I never should have called it a tournament.
This draft-and-edit scenario isn’t an abstract concept related to chess, but a repeating pattern in the world around us. The finest gem you ever saw didn’t come out of the ground that way - its cut-and-polish required the eye of a master revisionist to imagine the stone’s potential and shear away excess to make it gleam. Likewise, no sculptor ever managed to directly quarry his art from the earth. As Michelangelo put it, “Every block of stone has a statue inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Michelangelo knew what he was talking about: the block of marble from which he carved David previously had been worked by two sculptors (for different projects), but they gave up on the stone, deeming it unworkable. It took the imagination, vision and patience of Michelangelo to uncover the masterpiece within.
Writing and sculpting (and chess tournaments, for that matter) share much in common. Beginner writers often fall to error striving for perfection in the first draft, grinding their creative locomotives to rest, or worse, derailing the engines into ravines of no return. The first draft is the time to set ideas to paper, and little else. In this earliest stage of creativity, we must not allow (to paraphrase Voltaire) the better to become the enemy of good.
Drafting is the stage where we press through the snowy forest to the camp. Editing is the stage where our legs grow heavy treading through drifts, and the oak branch whips our wind-burned faces, snapping shut our watering eyes. Think of the draft as the armature the writer builds, upon which to hang fang and fur.
Below, I offer three draft-and-edit examples from my own collection of short stories, The Lost and Found Journal of a Miner 49er, Vol. 1. In these three examples, the edits are less about overhaul than finesse, but we will see that nuance makes all the difference.
The first example comes from the gunfight scene in The Purse of Earrings. (I have underlined major changes in the edited portion for easy comparison):
The first edit tunes “suffice it to say” to the narrator’s voice, where ‘’’tis enough” works better. The second edit shows the gunplay rather than tells it. Using verbs like ‘whipping,’ ‘draining,’ ‘strobing’ and ‘crackling’ animates the passage and engages the reader’s senses. Finally, the phrase “drifted up” replaces “could be heard,” properly grounding the sentence in the active voice. This final edit also evokes a doleful conclusion to a heinous act. Note that I’ve dropped two descriptors from the draft (e.g., “baby-faced” and “company of the Mexican army”), since they are used earlier in the story and here add nothing to the reader’s experience. In fact, the extra syllables slow the passage when a faster pace is needed.
The second draft-and-edit example comes from the crossing-the-threshold scene in The Lost Continent of Horatio Swanfire, where the reader gets his first clear look at Captain Humdinger:
This passage contains only two edits, but the alterations result in stronger reader engagement. I use the first edit to correct an error-in-terms from the draft, changing “mast” to “sail.” One opens sails, not masts, but as I wrote the first draft I did not concern myself with perfection, only with writing precisely enough to know what I meant. The final edit also adds more sensory description to flex the reader’s imagination. After “lurching the ship forward,” I add, “he bellowed into the burst of seafoam.” If I have crafted my edits effectively, the reader now sees, hears, feels (and perhaps tastes) the setting from the single phrase “burst of seafoam.”
The final draft-and-edit example comes from the call-to-adventure scene in Merqueen of the Mississippi. Here, the would-be explorer Benny Waltz finds his calling on the Mississippi River:
This longer passage required editing to slow the pace of the story, siphon the reader into the magical setting Benny experiences, and, once again, add sensory depth. First, I change the generic (split) verb phrase “made up” to the more precise verb “stroked.” Second, rather than telling the reader about “music drifting off balconies,” I show what it was like, “with strains of trumpets, trombones and saxhorns billowing off their swag-splayed balconies.” For some other point in the story, this description would be too much, but it works here because it establishes the necessary mood and tempo for the reader to feel what Benny felt, and to align the reader’s desire (e.g., to see more) with Benny’s. Finally, I complete the edit of the draft by tweaking the arrangement of colloquialisms to shore up the narrator’s voice.
A misconception shared by many beginner writers is that writing comes easily to successful authors, or that some people are “gifted.” The only “gift” any writer ever got was a desire to write well. But don’t let’s confuse desire with writing acumen, as the two reside in separate categories.
The question is: how well do you want to write? Explore that question during editing, not drafting. Critics regard Hemingway’s high school prose as pedestrian; his celebrated, published works resulted from tireless editing. In fact, Hemingway believed one must read over and revise each work a minimum of 100 times! How many writers, do you suppose, revise their works 100 times? Very few. And how many Hemingway’s do we have with us today? Again, very few. Or, to quote Michelangelo, “Trifles make perfection; and perfection is no trifle.” Or elsewhere, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
If the work Hemingway and Michelangelo describe seems hard, that’s because it is! Such is the price of any worthwhile endeavor—not just writing and sculpting, but also developing the character of our children. Investing time in the hobbies of our children should be counted among the great works. Hobbies serve as workshops—not so much to perfect crafts or hone athleticism as they do to perfect and hone character. As the Good Book entreats us, ‘Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart’ (Galatians 6:9, NKJV). Whether our children grow to become the next Bobby Fischer, Gabby Douglas or C.S. Lewis is beside the point. What they blossom into apart from their hobbies—by exercising imagination, vision and patience—is the true reward. These are skills they will apply in every arena of life.
As King Solomon wrote, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1, NIV). As writers, we must remind ourselves that there is a time for drafting and a time for editing. As parents, we must remind our children that the better begins with the good; otherwise, in frustration, they may abandon their workshops, thereby discarding the marble that contains the David.
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After years of battling misguided academics for intellectual control of the Cody Kirschenbaum journals—recovered from the Grand Canyon in 2013—selected entries will be released to the public worldwide in January 2018.
To reach as many prospectors as possible, The Lost and Found Journal of a Miner 49er (Vol.1) will be available in paperback, hardcover, e-book and audiobook formats!