October 25th, 2010

A few posts ago I used the term "premature optimization" to describe the condition of making something perfect before you know if you'll actually even need it. A nice concrete example of this happened during a sixth-grade art class of mine. Yes, I'm going back that far, but I think it's worth it.

I had chosen to draw a picture of an animal. It might have been a raccoon, but I don't rightly remember. At any rate, I drew the rough outline of the head and body, then began drawing one of the eyes. This eye was highly detailed. I spent hours and hours on the exact shape, outline, light glint, and the close surrounding features, like the raccoon's fuzzy face.

When the project was complete I had a brilliantly-drawn eye set in the middle of a rough outline of a raccoon's head and body. This is what happens when you ignore (literally, in this case:) the big picture.

I do this with writing all too often: focusing and getting hung up on the most minute details without paying attention to the larger story. I've run otherwise good ideas right into the ground using this technique. This isn't how stories are written (he said, as if he were an expert on story writing). It's more like working in clay: throw a lump down, shape it, take a look, shape it some more. Gradually flesh out the details, evenly, and with the appropriate amount of focus and effort at each stage.

I had a breakthrough this week while writing. Let's say I had three story sections: A, B, and C. Section A was finished. Section C was well-thought-out, but completely unwritten. Section B was needed to bridge the two, but was giving me fits. It was one of those sections that sucks the life out of you, getting hung up in details that are vastly disproportionate to where you are in the writing process.

So I stepped back. I looked at Section B and realized it was really nothing more than: protagonist meets person X, accomplishes task Y, and comes away believing idea Z. In the final book, this may wind up being two paragraphs or six chapters. I don't know yet. And I don't have to know yet. All that matters is that X, Y, and Z happen. I can figure out the rest on the next pass. And, if it does turn out to be two paragraphs, I shant have wasted the time writing six throwaway chapters on it.

As soon as I did that ("insert X, Y, and Z here") everything started flowing quickly again, as it should, and I'm only sorry I didn't do it sooner. In fact, little parts of Section C are also utilizing this technique and I love it. The story is flowing very quickly and all of these little IOUs can be easily paid off once I see how they fit into the bigger picture.

Give it a shot. The time you save just may be your own.

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