As a writer, I go through phases. There are times that I’ll sit down and spend hours on end working on something, and sit around about ten times longer not writing, only thinking of writing, and watching YouTube videos about it, and getting jealous and angry at my peers for producing something, only to eventually justifying my lack of productivity by convincing myself that writing is dumb and only naïve and delusional people do it, which isn’t necessarily wrong but <ahem>… So lately, I’ve been giving myself exercises hoping my writing will improve.
Full disclosure: I think I’m a terrible writer. However, I do believe that hard work pays off. I heard a quote recently by [some guy] that said, “hard work trumps talent any way.” That quote made me feel better.
I’ve been following game design a bit. Extra Credits has a great series where they talk about how to become a game designer. They’re targeted for the beginning designers whom they give bits of advice to. In almost every game design video they feature, they carry one common axiom: Think small, think simple.
For example: A designers first game should be nothing more than ten seconds of a character moving across the screen. Think of the very first level from Super Mario Bros. That could be the entire first game. That’s it. That’s all a designer should do for the first game. The second game, expand.
The more I thought about these design principles, I thought about how I could apply that axiom to my own writing: Think small, think simple.
So I gave myself an exercise. I went back to the very, very, VERY basics with writing. I decided use the most basic elements that make a story function as an actual story: A beginning, a middle, and an end, so set forth by Aristotle. I didn’t even think of the details in the story. I picked up a note book and wrote out some numbers, a 1, a 2, and 3, vertically, as if I was writing a list, and I filled them in. Two followed one, and three followed two. I was going for the simplest, most unsophisticated story possible. Here’s what I came up with:
- Guy goes to girls house.
- Girl hear’s a noise and gets scared.
- Guy investigates and it turns out to be a cat. Later they eat cake. And have sex.
And that’s my story: It begins, there’s a conflict, and later it’s resolved and there’s a happy ending. (Bam!) I condensed it all into a single page. I was not going for an epic story here. Although, this is also where some pretty cool things happen.
Anybody who’s taken an English course knows that stories are jam packed with themes, and other such literary techniques. Even creative writing classes pay very close attention to the techniques of the great literary figures, and then judging the student by those works. (Seriously, creative writing courses, stop expecting your beginning students to aspire to Hemmingway, and then punishing them for not, you fucking sadists.) And there are always some very obscure themes that students find in works, such as Joyce’s use of the color brown in “The Dead.” I can’t speak for others, but I remember as a creative writing student, trying to work on my own fiction, I became overwhelmed with the thoughts of trying to write my stories with all the necessary elements that “great” fiction consists of. I’m so caught up in trying to write allusions and themes that I can’t put many words down without giving up in a fit of anxiety.
But here’s the cool thing: After writing my page long story, I found that the themes presented themselves. Likewise, the characterization presented themselves. I didn’t have to plan it out at all.
Some of the themes I found were those of overcoming fear, improving one’s self to be the best they could become, and overcoming adversity. Even though it was so short and simple, those themes were present, it was a short and simple story, but like I said, they presented themselves.
Recently I tried this exercise again but applied it to a longer piece. This time I gave myself I gave myself a page for each part: A page for the beginning, a page for the middle, and a page for the end. The plot this time: A guy moves into his apartment, the guy goes to a bar to meet a girl, and finally he gets rejected and goes home feeling better about himself for trying.
Now, since this is a longer story, just a couple pages longer than a single page, it’s a bit more sophisticated, and there are more details to be drawn out, and more complex themes. Now, again, this is not a novel… But if only it was! I’m still working on it, since, like I said, I’m a terrible writer. But once it’s done, I’ll share it, and perhaps get more writers cred.
My next piece will be much longer than that. Maybe I’ll give myself about five pages per section; a longer beginning, a longer middle, and a longer end. But again, All the details that a beginning writer such as myself would be concerned about simply present themselves. All the writer needs to do is allow themselves to present the story as true to themselves as they can. Let their weirdness come out, or their shyness, or their anxiety, or their shallowness, or whatever it is about them. Don’t worry about being great, just worry about making the work speak for yourself.