A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
* * *
I re-posted the image above on Instagram a few days ago. Don’t we go into any new project (or year) with a vision in our heads that often doesn’t quite mirror the mess that ultimately spills out?
We might have a vision for a totally jacked stallion, lead-penciled rippling muscles capable of leaping straight at your face if they wanted to. We try our best to pull out what’s in our head and shape it into something that could run wet and sweaty off the page.
And then—oof—what we end up with in first draft is something a not very talented preschooler might produce.
My own first drafts are like that: littered with typos and half-written phrases, like I’m typing with mittens on. Embarrassing.
In that Instagram post… I felt seen.
But the more I thought of it… the more I changed my mind about the Embarrassing thing. The more I thought: So what if the first draft isn’t much to look at? I started to feel like a court-appointed advocate for untalented preschoolers everywhere.
Sure, it’s easy to mock the lack of craft in that first draft. It’s easy to feel the shame in it.
But then again…
At least the untalented preschooler tried.
At least they got it down on paper.
At least they took the first step.
And it kinda looks like a horse?
The more I thought of it… I couldn’t help but wonder: But what’s the second horse look like? Or the third? Or the seventh?
* * *
The Queen’s Gambit has been a huge hit for Netflix, breaking records for the most viewers ever for a limited-run series.
The series felt groundbreaking, too: The subject (chess!). The way it turned worn Hollywood tropes on their heads (a little girl wanders into a creepy orphanage basement *without* getting murdered!).
The ’50s clothes. The mid-century modern vibe. The wallpaper, FFS. (Haven’t seen it? Skedaddle to your couch. Trust me.)
The Queen’s Gambit seems to have sprung out of nowhere.
But, in reality, it took producer Allan Scott more than 30 years, 8 directors, and 9 rewrites before Netflix nibbled. And in a uniquely cruel 2020 twist (because 2020 = arsehole), Allan watched the Netflix premiere from a hospital bed while recovering from Covid.
Also, Allan is 81.
You can interpret his story as a metaphor for persevering. (Inc. did.)
You can also interpret it as a metaphor for chess itself—for playing the long game.
Or we could interpret it as a 2021 love letter to the horse.
Because the part of the story that’s most important is what Allan actually did and didn’t do in those 30 years.
Allan Scott acquired the rights, created the first draft of the script… and found no takers. But he did not throw up the shrug emoji and shelve the project.
And Allan did not simply wait for three decades for someone to notice him or buy into his vision.
No, he absolutely did not, friend! Instead, he spent those 30 years reworking the horse.
He drew the first horse. Then redrew it. Then drew it again. And again. And again. He drew that horse…
* * *
Have we ever meant “Happy New Year” quite as much as we do at the dawn of 2021?
Yet, we’re also starting 2021 a little unsure what it will bring: 2020 blindsided all of us, and we can’t quite relax just yet, can we?
So it’s hard to know what to say to you here as a way to welcome you and me and all our creative souls to the new dawn of 2021.
Maybe that’s why I keep thinking of the horse.
Here’s my wish for you this year: Forget 2020 to the degree we all can. That nincompoop of a year is gone; we’ve bolted the door behind it.
Onward to 2021. A new start. A fresh page on which to draw a new horse—however you define your horse for yourself.
It doesn’t have to be a Queen’s Gambit-sized. The point is: Make 2021 the year we celebrate the preschooler’s horse.
See it as that most wonderful and worthy part of the process: To everything that’s ever been worthwhile there’s been a first move, a first step, a first draft. (First hoof? LOL)
Be it a chess game.
A blog post.
Or a brave new year.
Thanks for this. You’re right about 2021, so unsure, so frozen, unable to move forward! Is it winter or PTSD, doubt or discouragement? Anyway, this is useful, a reminder to keep scribbling, who knows where it will go.
The first step is always the hardest. It can seem overwhelming when it comes time to start transferring the story from head to paper. Writing the first draft is one of the most difficult stages in creating a novel and a serious obstacle for many.