The Elephant Technique

The Elephant Technique

Or How Not To Lose Your Momentum During NaNoWriMo (And Beyond!)

I do not take credit for the technique I’m about to show you. That belongs to Chris Baty, creator of National Novel-Writing Month and author of No Plot? No Problem! In this book, he does a much better job of describing the following, but hey you’re here now so you might as well keep reading.

The Elephant Technique is what you use during a very specific type of writing, where you’re just writing to clear your head, to get all the words out. It’s not pretty, it’s not concise, and most of all it’ll probably make your skin crawl to re-read it. But afterwards, you can say you have it down on paper – that story, that scene, that chapter that had been stuck in your head. And probably, you used this technique.

Distractions and You

Like most writers in the 21st century, you most likely realize that getting distracted is much easier today than it probably had been for Ernest Hemingway less than a hundred years ago. Hell, even writers fifteen years ago couldn’t get WiFi most everywhere they went. But that’s the killer part about writing nowadays: being connected can be so great, and so bad for the modern writer.

This is especially a problem for any writer participating in NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNo. When you’re suppose to write at least 1,667 words every day, time is both your friend and enemy. For me, having a time limit makes me write, going back to when we wrote for ten minutes at the beginning of AP Comp class in high school. But this isn’t high school; this is squeezing writing time where you can, between work and school and family and errands and chores and holidays and previous engagements.

Here’s your thought process when you write. Tell me if I’m wrong:

  • Writing happily along, music blaring in headphones, beverage of choice nearby.
  • Your character is about to land at LaGuardia airport for Plot Point. You have them get their bag, hail a cab, and start their drive into the City. It’s their first time in New York and you’ve never been. You want to describe your MC seeing the city skyline for the first time as they cross the bridge.
  • “Wait, there’s like a dozen bridges in New York. Which one are they crossing?”
  • You minimize your word processor and pull up Google. Google tells you that not only are there bridges, but tunnels too. Wikipedia tells you it depends on which borough you’re trying to get to. There are upper levels, and lower levels, and depending on the traffic, the skyline is usually blocked.
  • You skim the articles. You didn’t realize there was so many determining factors. But you want to get it right, so you muddle through.
  • While you wait for the History of the Lincoln Tunnel to load, you open a new tab and check Facebook. Oh, your friend from high school posted something funny.
  • You pause your writing playlist on Spotify to watch their ten minute compilation video of cats eating weird things.
  • You reach for your drink of choice. If it was hot tea or coffee, it’s now room temperature. If it was iced, the ice is now melting and leaving a mess on your desk. Better remedy that.

And just like that, you’re not writing anymore. Hell, you’re not even at your desk. Maybe you try to back to writing at some point between those distractions. But your thoughts linger: What does it look like to be stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn bridge? I should tell High School Friend that video was hilarious, and that it reminded me of a different video – I should share that video. This playlist is too sad/happy/intense/boring all of a sudden; I’d better change it. I can’t drink lukewarm tea! If I don’t get this glass out of here it’s going to leave a water ring.

Raw Writing At It’s Finest

The Elephant Technique stops what the above describes: you getting distracted while writing. And it happens at the very first bullet point: when you realize you don’t know the name of the bridge they’re crossing.

Now, it’s more than that: you also don’t know how to describe it, where it empties into in the City, how far away from LaGuardia airport it is. But this is for the writing sessions in which you’re writing this scene for the very first time, or raw writing as I heard it called. Raw writing has a lot of flaws in it; empty plot points, wooden characters, pointless dialogue. But it’s the most important stage of writing because it’s the very first draft. Without it, you’d have nothing to edit, to add to, to clean up.

So yes, it’s usually a hot mess. But that hot mess is no longer in your head, is it? Now it’s something you can pull up and tweak to your liking. That’s saying something.

Knowing that this technique is for raw writing in which you don’t have all your descriptions and plot points and foreshadowing planned out (unless you’re a planner on par with Monica Geller), take a breath. You’re not going to know everything about this bridge right out the gate. You just won’t. Because who knows if you’re even keeping this scene two or three drafts down the line. The important part is that your MC is getting to New York for the first, right? Not the name of the bridge, at least not yet.

The Technique

So, let’s go back to the original thought process:

  • Writing happily along, music blaring in headphones, beverage of choice nearby.
  • Your character is about to land at LaGuardia airport for Plot Point. You have them get their bag, hail a cab, and start their drive into the City. Maybe it’s their first time in New York. Maybe you’ve never been. You want to describe your MC seeing the city skyline for the first time as they cross the bridge.
  • “Wait, there’s like a dozen bridges in New York. Which one are they crossing?”
  • You don’t know, so you just call it the Elephant Bridge.
  • You continue writing with your playlist blaring, you beverage still hot if hot or iced if iced.

Instead of extensive, mind-numbing research, write “elephant”. Whenever you find yourself stalling to think of a name or an adjective or literally anything else, make it elephant instead. It’s going to feel incredibly silly at first, but I don’t think it’s healthy to take yourself too seriously anyway.

Alternative words to use instead of elephant:

  • Kumquat
  • Gnome
  • Beluga
  • Spatula
  • Chartreuse
  • Cantaloupe
  • Jupiter
  • Blunderbuss

The more uncommon with whatever story you’re writing, the better. My stories will never have actual elephants in them, hence calling it the Elephant Technique. Use your own discretion. I’ve known other writers to use symbols like &, %, @, as well as curse words. If you use symbols and participate in NaNoWriMo, just know that the word counter will not count them, which is why I always prefer actual nouns. The more unusual the better, as long as they act like the placeholders that they are.

Editing with The Elephant Technique

Here is the best part about this technique: when you are ready to finally do that time-consuming research, you have a built-in system to find each term you elephant’ed. Just use control + c (or command + c) on your word processor or editing software and find each elephant you inserted.

Now that you have a completed story, you have the luxury of doing that research for each one. What color did you want to make that horse your MC rides in chapter two? Now you can look up the names of colors. What did you want to call that convenience store they stop into buy cigarettes? Without the time crunch of getting the story out of your head (or NaNo, or Camp), you can take your time and make sure whatever you elephant’ed is properly addressed.

It Isn’t For Everyone, But When Is Writing Advice Ever?

Or anything that has to do with an art form, for that matter? Advice is one part ideas from other people, and two parts knowing how it works for you, if at all. I know that I have trouble with keeping my momentum while writing, so the Elephant Technique works well for me. If you don’t find yourself distracted easily, and can go from writing to Google to writing again to Facebook to writing again, that’s honestly very impressive and I’m quite jealous. But some people need a little help with staying focused.

What word would you use for this technique? Do you already use a technique like this, but a little different? I’d love to hear about it!

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