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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The Wheel of Virtue

In Homer and the Griffon Aria sells her dragonling to humanity’s royal beast-master and meets Queen Anthrapas, ruler of the human race. She’s escorted by Sir Jameson, a military recruiter.

A military recruiter doesn’t do much in this fantasy world where war is replaced with board-games. Jameson just dresses up in armor to inspire people to register as game-pieces. A new recruit has gnomes take their notes, then leaves knowing he’s done his civic duty. His avatar might be fighting for humanity even while he’s asleep!

In my first draft, I wasn’t quite sure what Sir Jameson’s purpose was. I added him because I thought Aria needed another character to bounce off; Homer doesn’t talk at all, and gnomes are sorta robotic. I actually added two characters in my first draft, but now I’ve elided them together into Jameson.

Currently, I think Jameson is a Watson-type character. Sherlock Holmes is a genius, so the reader needs Watson for Sherlock to explain things to in layman’s terms. While Aria, Homer, and the gnomes understand table-war, Jameson doesn’t, so the other characters have a reason to explain things to him, and, simultaneously, the reader.

I’ve heard amnesia is a common trope in fiction for the same reason. If the main character doesn’t remember anything, then they know exactly as much as the reader! Homer, the total newcomer to this strange world, fills that niche.

Still, I don’t want Jameson to be a boring tag-along. I already mentioned YuGiOh is a tongue-in-cheek inspiration for The Minotaur’s Board-Game, and while I’m glad to write about a fantasy-world revolving around geeky hobbies, I don’t want useless, annoying cheerleader characters like those who follow Yugi all day.

A third-wheel character like Jameson can benefit from the Wheel of Virtue. I’m absolutely butchering this idea, but the way I understand it, the Wheel of Virtue a helpful way for me to think about how characters should act. Says Noel Carroll, “some… art can function and is designed to function as a source of moral purposes,” specifically a delineation between vice and virtue. If a novel is meant to convey a message about a particular virtue, it’s helpful to have a cast of characters which accounts for a spectrum of possibilities along the gradient from virtue to vice. A story whose message is “Greed is bad, charity is good” could benefit from characters who are very greedy, a little greedy, a little charitable, and very charitable.

If the novel explores multiple virtues, we can imagine a Cartesian plot of characters on the axes of virtue and vice. If you want your book to convey a theme about virtue X versus virtue Y, say for example, “greed is bad, charitably is good, and also Star Wars is better than Star Trek“, each character should express a unique combination of greediness/charitably and fandom affiliation. This lets the text show the reader how these qualities intermingle.

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Says Carroll, “In literary fiction… these comparisons and contrasts… prompt the audience to apply concepts of virtue and vice to the characters, thus exercising and sharpening their ability to recognize instances of these otherwise often vaguely defined or highly abstract concepts.”

In The Minotaur’s Board-Game I think the relevant “virtues” are physical strength, intelligence, and political power. These three attributes separate characters nicely: some characters are strong (Homer, Jameson), some characters are weaker (Aria, Anthrapas, gnomes, elves). Many characters are intelligent (Homer, Aria, Anthrapas, Stephanie, gnomes) because the story demands it, but they showcase different kinds of intelligence (Homer is mute, Aria is manipulative, gnomes are mechanical). But neither strength nor intelligence make someone politically relevant. These feel like linearly independent attributes.

So Sir Jameson should occupy an untouched area of the virtue-wheel. Let’s make him strong, and not terribly intelligent, but his patriotism for humanity gives him just enough political clout for Aria to leverage. In that respect he’s sort of a human version of Homer. I think that gives him a great vantage-point to be the perfect Tristan: a third-wheel character who just gawks while the real protagonist, Homer, wins table-war.

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The act of actually plotting characters on a virtue-wheel might be a little anal-retentive, but the idea itself is a handy device for conceptualizing what kinds of characters are necessary to complete a narrative and convey a theme. If nothing else, I hope it helps me keep from accidentally populating my work with duplicate characters; if any two characters occupy the same role, it’s often easy to smush them together into one franken-character and maintain thematic integrity.

I hope you enjoyed reading my weirdly analytical thoughts on fiction-writing! I sure enjoyed writing it.

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PS. Another applicable virtue might be Age, or Experience. Anthrapas is sort of Aria’s “evolved form,” so to speak.