The Care and Feeding of Ugly Duckling Drafts

Many writers talk about “Shitty First Drafts,” to use the term coined by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. These are your horrific first attempts at your story. They’re hairy with adjectives, and stumble about on improperly placed limbs. I like to call them “ugly duckling” drafts because, despite their deformity, they are merely good works in their infancy.
I used to believe I did not write these. In recent times, I have discovered the extent of my error. Here are five lessons I learned on how to bring ugly duckling drafts to maturity, which may be of use to you as well:

  1. Write action, trim description. Action is the currency of your story. Your readers may forget your paragraphs of prose poetry on an ancient horn’s carvings. They willremember what your characters did—because that is the story. Description works best riding on the trail of action, so marble your action and description like meat and fat in a good steak.
  2.   If you must describe at length, make it sound like action. Writing figuratively allows you to make things incapable of action come alive. We already say that vines coil and patterns flow, so let your imagination play with the possibilities. Start by turning gerunds back into verbs: “His steep forehead sloped into a thick brow,” instead of “He had a steeply sloping forehead and a thick brow.”
  3. Give your characters something to do.Even bit characters should make themselves of use. This goes double for characters who usher us into the story. The first draft of my novel-in-progress opened with a beleaguered priest waiting in the rain. He waited for three-quarters of a page. When I showed the passage to an editor, the opening failed to capture her attention. She recommended that I give him something to do. I followed her advice, and his plight became far more interesting. Conflict drives stories, and conflict dies when characters do nothing.
  4. “Omit Needless Words.” E.B. White said it best.
  5. Weed out the cliches. Avoiding trite phrases and tropes is difficult on your first draft. But second and third drafts grant you the benefit of hindsight. Now is the time to chuck those old chestnuts and try something more lively. If you feel your story requires a scene that would be considered cliche, ask yourself aspects of that approach are important. Then find another scenario that fulfills those requirements. If you cannot, then cut everything not essential to the task.

Nothing is novel about these suggestions. I suspect that ninety percent of what we know about the craft of writing is old news. The remaining ten percent is unique to every writer, and we must each discover that for ourselves.

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