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Why the Dirty Alley is Not a Bad Place for Writers


Years ago, I read a post that changed my first draft and editing mindset. I can’t find the original article, so I’m going to summarize it to the best of my ability.

The post was intended for the theater world and spoke about how a director enters a Broadway production.

Typically, they come in a back door from a dirty alley, climb up sticky stairs and through a mess of wardrobe and forgotten coffee cups and into backstage. There, the backdrops are held together with duct tape, the actress’s dress has a giant clothespin cinching it together in the back, and there is tape all over the floor telling everyone where to stand.

It looks like a barely contained disaster with exhausted team members running every which way and bumping into each other.

Then, you have an entirely different experience: how a customer enters a Broadway production.

The entrance is well-lit and beautiful, with extravagant curtains, uniformed ushers, golden archways and elegant gowns. Everyone is laughing and happy, and there’s an expectant hush in the air as someone leads you to your seat. You might have a champagne glass in hand and a velvet seat. As the lights dim, everyone sits forward in breathless anticipation.

From your seat, everything looks wonderful. Under the lighting, the actors glow. The orchestra music crescendos. As a customer, you don’t know if someone missed their mark, or flubbed a line, or didn’t stand in the right spot. You sit and laugh and enjoy the production without a critical eye out for mistakes.

Writing versus reading a book is a close mirror of that same experience. We often come into the writing industry having been in the customer seat for many, many years. We’re used to velvet ropes and tuxedos and enjoyment of the show – which is the approach and expectation we bring to the writing experience.

We expect seamless scenes that flow without countless rounds of troublesome edits.
We expect settings that burst from the page and don’t realize that duct tape is holding them in place.

We look at our cobbled-together first drafts and compare them to polished “perfect” final manuscripts and we don’t see the ugly histories and hard work and clothes-pinned-together mistakes because we are looking at them from a different lens.

A much kinder, more appreciative lens. A reader lens.

Books are not born perfect. Every one has its flaws, and the great ones are born from the late nights. The edits. The feedback. The deletions. The long hours of sitting and staring into nothing, trying to piece together the plot.

Do not judge your babies for their first steps into the world. Do not compare your work – first draft or final – against another author’s because you will never see them through the same lens. It’s impossible. You’ll always walk into your book through the back alley. You’ll always walk into theirs via the red carpet.

Know that, and you might find some peace and some confidence or, at minimum, some understanding and patience for your book baby.

I’m working on a gruesome one right now. I just finished the first draft and it’s got extra legs and arms, a plot that wanders more than my half-blind Yorkie, and a villain with a motive that doesn’t make sense.

But I know its potential. I know because I’ve been in that dirty alley A LOT.

Welcome in, it’s a great place to be and where incredible books are born.

Happy Writing!

P.S.  The upcoming Inkers Con 2024 conference offers dozens of brand new classes, Q&As, author discussions and more! Join us in Dallas or online!