Expansion, Contraction, and Failing Faster

In Homer VS the Sea-Thing our up-and-coming minotaur wins his first match of the tournament. Maybe Homer will fight the dwarven champion to keep dwarfs bound to the treaty that limits bloodshed to table-war.

This chapter used to be 9,000 words long, and now it’s half that. Taking the effort to cut it in half hopefully improved the clarity and pacing. I can’t speak for every writer, but I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of having a High-School professor setting a page-limit (“between five and six pages” or something like that), and having trouble condensing all our ideas into so much text. I would argue this issue is fundamental to writing and, in general, creativity itself.

At UC Santa Barbara, I was a mathematician in the College of Creative Studies. I took the College’s first actual class on creativity where we learned how the creative process often follows a pattern of expansion and contraction. In the first phase of solving a problem, we connect disparate ideas to produce a variety of solutions. In the second phase, we examine those solutions and choose the best to consider further. We repeat until satisfied, alternating periods of generative spit-balling and selective reconsideration.

You can’t shoot down a bad idea unless you have the idea first. You can’t delete text until you have text to delete. First write it down, then get it right. It’s a lot easier to say “this scene didn’t turn out like I wanted” than “how should this scene go.” Fail faster.

For example, I’d like to recall the process of writing and rewriting this chapter.

First I expanded: I wrote 206 pages about a minotaur who plays war games. I never knew what would happen next in the plot, but I hit a nice rhythm and let plot points surprise me.

Then, in the process of rewriting, I arrived at this chapter. I copy-pasted 9000 words from the original file into a new file. I skimmed the chapter as it was, and, with the benefit of hindsight, it was easy to notice plot points which were never important to the story, or scenes which could be cut. The table-war between Homer and Ebi Anago was near-fatally convoluted (I didn’t know how I wanted Homer to win, so I included everything I could think of), and I surgically extracted hundreds of words to save it. In total I contracted the text by a third.

Then I expanded again. I knew eventually Centaurs would be important to the plot, so I added a scene where the gang passes through inspection entering the wild wastes.

Then I contracted again. I read the section more thoroughly and cut unneeded words and sentences. Sometimes I switched sentence order to ease the transitions from subject to subject.

This is really just a pretentious way of saying that when you edit text it can only get longer or shorter, but I still appreciate the notion of expansion and contraction. It’s a license to put words on the page even if they’re not perfect right away, knowing that you’ll circle back to beat them into shape later. It’s a license to cut anything with impunity, knowing if you’re overzealous you can fill in the gaps on the next reread.

Anyway, I hope your NaNoWriMo goes well, if you’re into that. Fail faster, fix it later!

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