The Art of Elimination

Sometimes projects get too big, deadlines get too close, creative disagreements happen, or for some other reason you’re either stuck, falling behind schedule, or both. In my experience, this often happens when projects become too bloated with half-cocked ideas and unfinished features. To solve the problem you must invoke a dark art, namely the art of elimination.

I love the expression “kill your darlings”. In three words, it perfectly captures what this is all about. We tend to look at our ideas as darlings, loved little entities to nurture and grow. We take pride in them, boast about them and even build things around them with the help of others. But most ideas are not as good as they seemed, when they first appeared in your head.

There is a reason why the painter sketches before creating the final piece, the writer produces several drafts, the director does alternative takes, the game dev makes hundreds of builds; all of this in pursuit of perfection. What is also true is that in nearly every project using an iterative approach, those last few iterations are about cutting the fat to focus on what is important.

This can be agonizing. I witnessed a film director barricade himself in the editing room for two days, because his film was 6 minutes too long for the short film competition he was entering. He looked like hell at the end of it, and the film did not win the competition, but he got it done and submitted on time. At the end of the day, getting it done is the first building block for actually shipping something.

Here is how I approach the art of elimination in any creative project.

First, focus on the high level. What is the story we are telling here? What are the top priorities we want to convey? Keeping this list short is very important. One or two items is ideal, and you shouldn’t go beyond four.

Secondly, split your project into parts. If it’s a novel, split it into story arcs or subplots. If it’s a game, split it by quests, meta-game or whatever makes sense. The idea is to have an overview of the logical building blocks that make up your project. Chances are, you already have that in some form.

Once the project is split into parts, it becomes much easier to see which parts take up the most space. Compare this to the list of priorities, and evaluate how they connect. How does each part further the priorities? If you find that something is non-essential to the priorities, it makes a good candidate for getting cut. Note that “space” in this context can refer to anything from playtime in a game to how much mental focus a reader spends on it in a novel – while not necessarily a specific number of words or minutes, these are good data points to use as indicators.

Identify the best candidates for cutting. If none are found, you are probably not looking hard enough. But if I take your word for it, the next step then is to dive deeper into each of the parts you have identified, and find individual components within these parts that might be axed, combined or reduced. This will invariably lead to more fine editing and polish, but likely also an overall tighter result, without outright reducing the number of parts.

Doing this may sound simple, but choosing what to cut can be extremely difficult. If there are several contributors, and you are left to make the decision, it is likely that someone will disagree with or be upset by your call. However, there is no point blaming the editor, producer, or whomever is enforcing the limitations causing the cuts (in my experience, a looming marketing deadline and launch commitments are the most common causes for cutting things at the last minute). It just happens.

Killing your darlings can suck, but it can also be liberating and open your eyes in a different way, to the story you are telling or experience you are building. It enhances the focus of your top priorities, which tends to also increase the impact on and retention of the target audience by making your story clearer and easier to understand. Editing is your friend.

One thing to watch out for when cutting content, is that sometimes what may seem non-essential in one context (say, the main plot line) can be essential in another context (like world building). Make sure you examine your project from multiple angles.

Don’t be afraid to cut boldly to see what happens. You can always save a backup without the changes, and restore if you think it was too drastic. If you have to kill your darlings, you may as well have fun doing it. Good luck!

Final Prophecy Update and Finishing Things

The second draft of my fantasy short is done. I’ve written about “The Final Prophecy” before, but I will add that finishing the second draft was tougher than expected. When I got to the last chapter and a half, I stalled. That’s usually a good sign, because the harder it is for me to finish something, the more I’ve loved working on it. So much so, I don’t want it to end. Luckily, I eventually got tired of procrastinating and went back to work.

The next step is more revision. Editing used to scare me, but now I see it as a chance to polish and tweak where needed – and in the worst case scenario spot a dud before I send it out into the world. Finishing the second draft is still a milestone worth mentioning, because this is the part of the process where I involve a few trusted readers. They are the Wise Ones who point out where the holes are, and the inconsistencies as well as the gems and the exciting stuff. Their feedback provide the setup for writing draft three.

There is also inspiration coming from the gaming campaign, I’m running parallel to the writing. We just finished running an adventure set a few years after the events described in “The Final Prophecy”, but in much the same location, and some of the questions posed by the players as part of our game, provided excellent fodder for the story. Details about the daily life, geography and mythology that had not crossed my mind before.

And it doesn’t end there. I recently read two excellent pieces that helped kick me back into writing mode. One is an interview with Stephen King by Neil Gaiman. The insight into King’s process and approach was highly motivating to me. Then I read Second Drafts are a Way of Life by Ryan Macklin, the timing of which could not have been better. Both are recommended reading to any writer.

Now I’m going to take a short break from the story, while I filter it out to the Wise Ones. And in the meantime, I hope to ride the wave of finishing things, and get my arcade iPhone game – Nebula Rescue – done and out the door.

English Scares Me (or Why I Need an Editor)

Yesterday, I tweeted that writing fiction in English is sometimes intimidating to me, because English is my second language (Danish being my first). I got a couple of responses, encouraging me to write about it, and to remember the wonderful writers that came before me, who also wrote in English though it was a second language to them. Joseph Conrad and Karen Blixen come to mind, not that I would otherwise compare myself to these masters.

When I write stuff like what you are reading now, I don’t think so much about my choice of words, sentence and paragraph structure and that sort of thing. When I write fiction, those are all very important elements of portraying characters, describing locations and setting the scene. That is when I am sometimes hit with the intimidation stick – it’s easy to feel like my vocabulary is too limited, or that my style is too heavily influenced by something else.

For writing my initial draft, I try not to let it hold me back too much. The important thing is getting the story down and try to make it hold up structurally. Second draft is where language starts taking a front seat.

Thinking about it, I realized that many native English speakers also struggle with writing, for very similar reasons. Maybe we all compare ourselves to those we admire, whether we want to or not. That might make anyone doubt their abilities. The only real answer I have come up with is this: use an editor!

Best case scenario, find a professional who knows what they are doing, and have them give you notes. You can point out what your exact doubts are, and they will keep an eye out for it. And they will point out stuff you haven’t even thought of. I have written books both with and without the help of an editor, and it just confirmed that having that extra set of eyes does make a huge difference.

I have met writers who say: I can’t afford an editor. I usually counter by asking how long it took them to finish the first draft. Often the answer is several years. My point is: if your story is important enough that you will spend years of your life writing it, it should also be worth a few bucks to have an editor help you polish off the details. Many freelance editors are surprisingly affordable and willing to negotiate (they know most writers aren’t exactly rolling in cash).

If you can’t find an editor you like, use your network – if you’re writing a science fiction novel and your buddy is a hardcore sci-fi nerd, by all means have him take a look – just remember that friends don’t always make the most honest critics, because nobody likes to potentially upset their friends. It helps if your friend is a writing pro of some sort, so they have an understanding of what goes into structuring and writing a story. Librarians, teachers and journalists can make for excellent editor replacements.