Practicing Making

I’ve talked about how everything you make is  a step towards making the next thing, which is a nice sounding aphorism but recently I’ve found a lot of people with big, ambitious projects. Big ambitious projects are fine if you’re the kind of person who likes doing it, but I find they tend to work against what I think of as good creative practices.

I’m going to use an example here and I know you’re reading this and I don’t want you to be called out, but let’s say your project is a three book series. It’s going to be big and epic and you have visions of these multiple titles and again I am not calling out you, person who is reading this. I am just using this as an example.

The point is, if your project is three books, then it gets really hard to practice. The three books need to be done before you can look at them as a ‘complete’ project, and the sheer time investment in that kind of thing is immense. This is true if your project is a Fire Emblem game or a plane simulator or a video series on the history of the circus. These are not bad things to want to make, but they are all big, and as a direct necessity it’s hard to practice them.

It’s especially hard to practice them if you only want to try doing them.

This is something we sometimes call ‘scope.’ It’s a term used somewhat generically to refer to how big a project is, a sort of idea for how far back you have to be from the project, metaphorically speaking, to get a look at all of it. A short story has a different scope to a short story compilation and a short story compilation a different scope to a novella and so on and so forth.

I recommend the first thing you try to do is make something small. And sometimes, when I recommend this on twitter, someone will try and step up and speak in defense of big projects, which is well-intentioned ‘both sidesing’ but I think it’s actively harmful, bad advice. If you want to work on a giant project and only a giant project, you’re setting yourself a task that’s very hard, possibly impossible, and that means any progress at all feels like no progress. That’s something that depression loves to encourage, a sort of deliberate pursuit of nihilistic failure. It’s numbing.

Sometimes you pursue the giant project because you believe in yourself that much. That’s cool, but it can also be hiding a fear of failure. After all, if you write a short story instead of a book, what if that short story isn’t good? What do you do if you write a short story and you don’t like what you wrote? Or worse, someone else doesn’t like what you wrote? To that I say, hey, were you in a gifted program in school?

Another reason for the giant project is because sometimes you don’t appreciate what’s involved. I can give some numbers out there but people with scope problems often don’t appreciate how to examine or understand scope. If your dream is to write an animated series, you should start by getting involved in animation.

“But I can’t draw!”

So what? Get involved in learning how animation works. Study the topic, look at how animation goes together, learn about things like frame rate and cells and the kind of work scope required for a large project like an animated series. Learn about what a script looks like. Look at storyboarding. Every big complicated project owes some of its origin to a smaller, less complicated version of itself; animation comes from storyboards that come from scripts that come from treatments.

Make the smallest things you can, because the smaller it is, the easier it is to do it again. To practice. To practice again. To keep practicing, because the process of making something big is to make many small parts and to make something good is to practice until you know what good is.

My method, the method I recommend, the method I teach, is to make the smallest possible thing you can consider ‘a thing.’ Then when you’ve made it, you’ll have insight into what you don’t want to do, or why you don’t want to do it that way. And then you make the next thing.

With that in mind, make the first thing something you can make easily enough to get to the next thing.