Eating the Elephant
edited: Tuesday, November 20, 2007
By Kathi Macias
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2007
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One of the most common mistakes made by new writers/authors is trying to "eat the elephant" all at once, instead of one bite at a time....
ďEating the ElephantĒ
by Kathi Macias
Have you ever made the mistake of asking an eight-year-old what a movie was about? I haveóand the results were brutal. Nearly an hour later, as he finally wrapped up his nonstop, blow-by-blow report with ďAnd thatís what it was about,Ē my eyes were glazed over and I was bordering on comatose. All I could think of was, I just asked what time it was; I didnít want to know how to make the clock! Honestly, a simple ďIt was a story about a dog named SnickersĒ would have sufficed.
Eight-year-olds, however, have not yet learned to focus. Their attention span is still somewhat akin to that of a housefly, so I knew it was pointless to try to explain to him that I simply wanted a one-line synopsis of the movie. Better to cut my losses and make a run for it before he started telling me about the sequel.
But are adults that much different? To be more specific, are writers that much different? We should be. In fact, we must be if we are to be effective communicators. But are we?
One of the most frequent problems I see in working with writers is a desire to ďeat the entire elephant.Ē Iím sure youíve heard the saying that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and thatís a great way to approach writing. For instance, if you want to write a story about your family vacation to the Redwoods, you need to stick to what actually happened on that trip. You should, of course, include enough information about your family, the scenery, the weather, and the magnificent trees to bring your story to life, but you donít have to write an encyclopedia on trees in general. Or, if youíre thinking of writing about a particular spiritual experience you once had, you donít write an apologetic on the entire Bible. In other words, successful writing is about finding and keeping your focus, unlike the eight-year-old with the limited attention span who rambled on about the movie because he wasnít able to formulate and express one clear thought. In essence, he was trying to eat the entire elephant in one big bite. Writers often attempt the same thing, and it simply doesnít work.
Now, if I were to ask you for a one-line synopsis of your current WIP, would you be able to give it to me? If not, then I would ask another question: Do you really know what itís about?
Think about it for a moment. If we canít summarize our WIP in one line, chances are we arenít clear on the theme or purpose of the piece. How then can we expect our readers to figure it out? Itís not that we donít want to make them think; all writers have an underlying message that we want readers to chew on for a while. But we also want them to be clear on what that message is.
Every well constructed object, whether a 25-story building or a brief magazine article, must begin with a firm foundation. If we lay that foundation in the beginning and then effectively and systematically build on it, weíll eventually come full-circle, ending up right back where we started, standing upon the firm foundation that supports the entire manuscript and leaving our readers with a clear and satisfying takeaway thought.
I realize this may seem a bit tedious and elementary, but as a 35-year veteran of the publishing world, I find I still benefit from coming up with a foundational statement before beginning a piece. It keeps me focused as I write, and it cuts down on the amount of rewriting I have to do after finishing my first draft. Besides, unlike the eight-year-old who tried to eat the entire elephant in one sitting, Iíve learned that one of the many benefits of limiting myself to one bite of pachyderm at a time is that I then have all those other bites left over to use as future foundations for additional articles or books.
Learning to find and maintain focus in writing is a win-win situation, not only for those of us who devote our lives to the proper use and arranging of words, but also for those who choose to read them.
Happy elephant eating!
*Adapted from THE TRAIN-OF-THOUGHT WRITING METHOD: Practical, User-Friendly Help for Beginning Writers by Kathi Macias (AuthorHouse, 2005, 2007).
www.authorhouse.com or www.kathimacias.com