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  • K. A. Tate

Help! My Story Won't Come Out Right!

If you've landed here you're either bored to death or desperate because you've tried, more than once, to get this story of yours out on paper but every time you do it's just awful. The worst garbage ever written. No one would read it. You don't even want to read it.

Sure. Welcome to writing.

For some reason people who aren't in a creative field seem to think that those of us who are just come out of the womb knowing how to do this stuff and that we're perfect at it every time. No, it's a learned skill and we're perfect at it in the version you see. There were others before. Some of them were pretty embarrassing.

Those would be the early drafts of everything I've ever written. I'd go so far as to say everything every writer has written. No one likes their first draft. At all. There might be a few lines of gleaming treasure in there, but mostly it's crap. Which brings us to your problem. You're not treating your work as drafts. You're expecting glory right from the jump. That kind of thinking will stall you out. So quit deleting your attempts (I know you have been), that's step one. Your first draft will be utter trash. Great. Let it be.

Think of your first draft as a jigsaw puzzle you dumped out of the box. You're going to solve that puzzle, get it organized, get things lined up with the picture on the box (the one in your head), but you can't until you dump all the pieces out, and when you do it's a big mess so you have to start sifting through the pieces, find a starting point, figure out what goes next. Maybe you need to get the border pieces down first (outline) or maybe you'll start from a corner and take off (you just start writing), but no matter how you do it, you need that pile of pieces in order to find the starting point of what's going to be a much bigger picture. Your writing is no different. Your first draft is 'the pile'. Put 'the pile' away for at least two weeks. Don't peek. Two months is better, but this is your first time and it'll be hard.

Your second draft is that part where you're flipping pieces face up and sorting them by color to get a good look at your options. It's also where you choose what piece to start with. At this point in the process 'begin at the beginning' works fine, but you'll likely want to change that in later drafts (stories that start in the middle, or even at the end, are more interesting to read). Don't get married to anything in this draft, just get it as pretty and organized as you can. Put your nicely arranged pieces away for at least two weeks. Two months is better.

Your third draft is where things will start to finally begin to look like what you'd had in mind when you started this nonsense. And by now you might think it's nonsense. But you'll keep going anyway. In your third draft you're putting the pieces together, getting the puzzle almost all the way filled in. It's almost finished, but there are still missing pieces and you can't find them anywhere. Put the mostly finished puzzle away for two weeks, but you know by now that two months is better.

Your fourth draft is your first real opportunity for a final draft. It's almost all there, but it needs a few more pieces and hey, mom found them under the sofa, yay! Now you tighten your manuscript up, clean up any overwriting, typos, that sort of thing, That's not to say the fourth draft is the final draft. It can be, but for me it's often not. Don't be afraid to experiment and rewrite in different ways. You'll surprise yourself and your work will get better if you do. Once you're happy with this fourth draft, even if you've decided it's your final draft, put it away for two weeks, but two months (or more, I like four for myself) is going to serve you a whole lot better at this stage.

Never ever delete a draft. Be a digital packrat when it comes to your writing.

I'm going to tell you a story about a story that almost wasn't. I started a novel some years ago and stopped pretty early in. It just wasn't going the way I wanted and I realized I didn't want to write it the way I was. So I put that file aside and started a new one, writing the novel the way I wanted. That aborted start sat in that folder untouched for years. One day I needed something quick for submission and started going through my old files opening ones I didn't remember. One of the files was that aborted novel attempt. I'm glad I didn't delete it because that aborted attempt turned out, with a little fine tuning, to be a story that made finalist in a rather big deal literary contest I can't mention yet (and could, as of this writing, still win). If I had deleted that early attempt, and had I been in the habit of doing so I certainly could have, I would have never realized I threw away a potential award winning story. Delete nothing. You won't always recognize treasure the first time it passes your view.

For each draft a new file.

Start a new file with every draft. Name it "StoryTitle Author Draft1" or however you need to do it, just be consistent and make sure you start a new file for every draft. Drafts are rewrites, not edits. You will edit your drafts, and you'll likely be copying and pasting excerpts between and around drafts, but they should be discrete documents or again, you risk losing treasure you don't recognize at the first. Every draft will likely contain something that will jumpstart new work. Don't throw out inspiration. In addition, saving old drafts means a visible measure of progress in your skill as a writer. And on those days when you don't feel like much of a writer that kind of thing can be a handy reality check.

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