It Sounded a Lot Better in My Head

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A Peek Behind the Curtain)

It was pretty early on in this blog that I wrote a story that I didn’t like. In that moment I had to decide whether I was going to publish it or not, and I knew that this decision would set a precedent for all future story posts. I decided to publish.

One reason was that I simply don’t have the time to be writing posts, scrapping them, and then creating entirely new ones. Another reason was that I started this blog specifically to get me in the habit of delivering on ideas instead of sitting on them forever. And finally, I wanted to represent all sides of writing in this blog, both the good and the ugly. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that everything that I write is good. Some of it, frankly, is very much not.

I do feel a little guilty about a person who takes time out of their day to read one of my stories and is then disappointed by it. I don’t know how to avoid that, though. Even the pieces I am most proud of I’m sure are disappointing to some readers. Of course if I were trying to sell something, it would be a different matter. Asking people to give money for something you know is of subpar quality is not only a bad business practice, it is immoral. This is one of the reasons why I do not try to monetize this blog in any way.

There is still one more reason why I choose to keep the lesser stories in this blog, though, and it is because they still have valuable lessons to share. Sometimes learning from a failure can be more fruitful than reaping the rewards of a success. And that’s just what we’re going to do today. Let’s take a look at why our stories are sometimes so much worse than we thought they were going to be, and what we can do to reduce this frustration.

 

Sometimes You’re Wrong)

I’ve already mentioned in the past how a writer can have a great idea, but will then struggle to capture it properly on the page. In this case the idea is still good, and it is just a matter of practicing until one can transfer from their mind to their work with a high degree of fidelity.

But sometimes that isn’t the case. Sometimes the idea you had is just bad, and that’s all there is to it. You might be able to imagine something and you might be able to recreate that something, but that doesn’t mean that the imagined joy you had in that something will be present in the reality.

Often we know what we want in life, but sometimes we don’t. The dessert that “sounded” good ends up making our stomach turn, the new toy we wrote Santa for is boring within minutes, and the clique we were desperate to join becomes a toxic influence on us. People make bad choice all the time, thoroughly convinced that they were good ones.

One of my side-hobbies is that I like to make small mobile games. I think of new game mechanics all the time, and just like my story ideas I’m certain that all of them are good. And sometimes when I first try to implement them I have the parameters a little off and I have to tweak them until they’re just right. And other times I keep tweaking them for hours before I realize there just isn’t any “fun” in any version this.

 

You Are a Combination Machine)

There is a simple reason why this phenomenon happens. Your brain is an amazing piece of work, capable of inventing new things constantly. And as I mentioned in a recent post, it most often does this by taking two separate ideas and combining them into one. Any two items, no matter how random or disparate, can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

Door + Turtle = …

  1. That could mean a giant turtle with a door in its shell that leads to a fantasy kingdom inside.
  2. It could be a small hole cut into the bedroom wall for a pet turtle to walk through.
  3. Or perhaps it was a turtle crawling across the doorway at the top of the stairs to the basement; and Mom didn’t see it when she slammed the door closed and sent him on a grand, final adventure…rest in piece, Chuckles.

The point is there are an infinite number of things to combine in this world, an infinite number of ways to interpret each pairing, and we humans prosper by being able to generate and appraise these combinations at tremendous speed. This sort of inventiveness has been critical for our growth as a species, and it turns out that this behavior is wired into our very biology! A study in 2006 found that whenever subjects were presented with a new experience that a portion of their brain lit up and dopamine was released as a reward.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306004752

This means that whenever you come up with that new combination your body makes you feel good for it. But in my experience this initial rush of excitement can be a poor indicator for whether an idea actually has value or not. It is good that I am thinking of new things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this new thing is itself any good. Some combinations are useless, no matter how we feel about them in the moment.

 

Prototype)

To make matters all the more complicated, sometimes the bad ideas appear like good ones, even from an impartial, objective point of view. The technology sector is full of devices (Zune, Google Glass, Betamax, Newton) that sounded like good ideas at the time but still flopped horribly.

Most recently I was surprised that I ended up disliking Hello, World. I thought there was good reason for it to be a success because it reminded me of my other tech-heavy, snarky piece Phisherman, which I am really quite proud of. But “close” to a good idea is nowhere near to being a good idea.

So how can you tell whether your idea is really as good as you think it is? Quite simply you have to test it. In the game industry there is a common understanding that you have to make a prototype of your new idea as fast as possible. The reason being that the sooner you are able to actually taste the reality of your imagination, the sooner you can truly discern its value. It would be pointless to spend months writing music and making art for a game only to then discover that its core mechanic is boring.

And it turns out that a story can be prototyped as well. Try writing an isolated chapter to see if it still speaks to you or not. Frankly one of the main purposes for this blog is to be a test-bed for all my ideas. I’ve been able to quickly and accurately pinpoint which ideas are hollow, and which are really going somewhere. I’m never going to put a thousand of man-hours into making a complete novel out of Hello, World, but I might for Deep Forest, Phisherman, or Glimmer.

 

A final piece of advice is once you discover that your latest idea is lacking, don’t waste time trying to “make it work.” If you try really, really hard, maybe you’ll be able to dress it up to the point that it looks “okay.” But why settle for “okay” when you could be putting your time into something that is effortlessly beautiful? Like I said above, our minds are coming up with new ideas all the time, a really good one is going to hit sooner or later.

That being said, I also don’t want to be guilty of not giving Hello, World enough of a chance either. Nor would I want to deny the closure to anyone who was actually enjoying it thus far. To that end, I will dedicate just three more days to writing out the second half of that story. Come back on Thursday if you want to see how it turns out, I promise it will only get stranger from here!

Going For It

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Imagine vs Do)

I wonder which gymnast commentator was the first to excitedly shout “…and he sticks the landing!” It’s become a staple of the sport, used to signify that the athlete has performed some particularly difficult dismount, and still managed to land with perfect finesse. In this sport it isn’t so much about how many flips and twists you can do in the air, it’s how many you can do while still maintaining your control through to the end.

This is “theory versus execution,” and “easier said than done,” and “not just talking the talk but walking the walk.” In so many circles of life people are far less impressed with what you can imagine, and more so with what you can actually do.

And yes, this applies to writing as well. The fact is, coming up with a great idea for a story is not that hard. Go attend any writer’s group and you will meet dozens of people who all have “great ideas.”  And it’s not that they’re wrong, either. Every person has a genius inside of them, and when they really set their imaginations to something the result is both exciting and awe-inspiring.

Yet very few of these would-be magnum opuses ever actually get written. It’s one of the greatest tragedies that so much creativity goes unrealized, so much potential goes squandered. And why does this happen? Well, “easier said than done.”

I’ve written about this before, the gap between imagination and execution. The talent is not in having a great idea, it is in being able to give a voice to it. We do not praise Da Vinci for having the image of the Mona Lisa in his mind, we praise him for actually getting it onto the canvas.

 

Failure and Fear)

I’m sure we can all think of experiences where an author has gone for something impressive and left us disappointed. Just recently I read a novel that had me cringing as the main character had a story related to him, one that was meant to be wise and profound, one that would compel him to action. And while the main character was nodding his head and expressing amazement at such “profound wisdom,” I was just rolling my eyes at such shallow kitsch.

Of course some authors may wish to avoid falling flat on their face like that. And so, if the story calls for a moment of grandeur they try cheat their way around it. They will say something impressive happened, but they don’t actually show it. I remember a film where the main character stood up to give a rousing speech at the film’s conclusion. Instead of actually coming up with something meaningful for him to say, though, the movie simply drowned out his voice with sentimental music and slowly panned past a row of people, all nodding as if they were hearing him say something very moving.

That’s hardly any better, and it’s quite possibly even worse. So what then? Well some authors will just avoid including anything meaningful at all. There’s no risk of flubbing an impressive sequence if there just aren’t any impressive sequences. Or maybe they figure out how to do one thing right, and then they just churn that out over and over with every story. It’s like that childhood friend who could draw Fred Flinstone really well…but only from this one angle and in one pose.

 

The Professional)

In my work-life these sorts of limitations are not tolerated. The software industry is ever-changing and ever-evolving. If you stand still and never stretch yourself, then you will not keep your job. Perhaps your work is poor quality, you will get feedback on that and you will be expected to improve. To improve you are expected to ask for training and put in the hard work to master that area. Once you have mastered that task, then the process starts over as you are expected to now take the next step.

Sometimes you see the moment of epiphany in a new developer’s eyes, the moment when they finally get it. Their daily work isn’t the software, it’s the improvement. We aren’t asking them to “do their task,” we’re asking them to “own their craft.”

That transformation is where the worker becomes the true professional. Steven Pressfield, a very accomplished author himself, explored this very notion in his book The War of Art. Here he explains that being professional isn’t about being paid, it is about being a master of one’s craft and not accepting any personal limitations. The professional author is a true artist of the page, one to whom creativity is both the means and the end.

If a professional writer found he couldn’t stick the landing he wouldn’t rewrite the scene to hide his weakness. He would say “well, I guess that’s what I need to learn next.” When the professional writer publishes her next book she doesn’t “play it safe” and just rehash everything she did before. No, each of her entries is a testament to how much she’s challenged herself, and how she’s grown to meet those challenges.

 

My Own Downs and Ups)

The second short story I published on this blog was called The Houses’s Finest Hour, and it was my attempt at doing an ambient piece. For the entire post I ignored characters and plot, and instead focused on describing a location, using all of the long and flowery sentences I could muster. I did it because I knew it was something I didn’t do very much, and I wanted to give myself a challenge. Well, I certainly succeeded in that regard.

It was one of the most difficult things I had ever written. I just wasn’t any good at it. I wrote and rewrote, and second- and triple-guessed every sentence. It took tremendous effort to post what I did, and frankly even then it still wasn’t very good. I knew it wasn’t very good, but it really was the best I could do then.

At that moment I knew I had found the next thing for me to learn. Throughout the entire year that has followed I have returned numerous times to this same task, not willing to let that freshman effort be my final word on capturing an atmosphere. Almost all of my work has involved scenery-painting in one form or another, and a few have even been built exclusively around it. Sculpting Light, Deep Forest, and The Last Grasshopper all represent milestones in my journey to improve in that regard. In fact, just two weeks ago I posted Washed Ashore, which represents my latest attempt at writing a piece that conveys a palpable mood.

I would say there is obviously still room to grow, and I still haven’t given my final word on that subject. But I have actually improved, and I am glad I didn’t try to shy away from a portion of storytelling just because I wasn’t very good at it initially.

 

Being able to pull off an impressive narrative sequence is, in some ways, what being an author is all about. It is a large part of what characterizes and defines all of the most celebrated writers. If you really want to make your next piece sing, you’re going to have to write that is hard.

That’s what I’m personally going to be doing with my very next post. In my current story I’ve already introduced our main character Taki, and established that he is about to engage in some sort of futuristic and dangerous racing competition. Now this particular sport is going to be central to all the rest of the story. So I really need it to be something that is exciting and original, somewhere that the reader will want to spend time. The reader needs to readily understand how this sport works, they need to be utterly captivated by it, and they need to be curious to know more!

If I fail in this ambition, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, the meat of the story is going to be taking place around the race track, so if that track isn’t an interesting place to be then the story isn’t going to be interesting to read. I’m flipping off the pommel horse and I may just fall flat on my face. But I’m all for the challenge. In fact I’m excited about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!