Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How to Work

This should sound familiar.  A moment of inspiration hits, and the idea forms that you should create something:  a new world and the gazetteer to go with it, a new set of tables, a deep and wide dungeon or a fortress full of critters and traps.  The project is exciting.  Settling into it is fun.  You're full of anticipation for the end result.

But a few days set in.  You've put in a score of hours.  You begin to see how big a project this is.  You keep at it a week or more longer, and feel good that you've made headway ... but every new feature you add seems to lead to more features, and more and more, and the whole time the thing is getting to be a drudge.  You try to keep at it but you're legitimately bored with it now.

You put it down, thinking you'll come back to it, and you never do.

I've just finished a big project, and I know this feeling very well.  Believe me, the same effect comes when you work on a novel, even when you write it as fast as Nonowrimo wants you to.  I love the beginning of a project, and I love the end of a project, but I hate the middle.  At the beginning, everything is new and interesting, and I've never tried this before and that seems really different.  At the end, I can taste the finish, and I find myself relishing the labor as I get the last details in place.

But the middle ... oh, the middle.  God, what an awful thing is the middle.

I have a couple of strategies that work for me to get me through the middle parts of a project.  Some of these might help with the boredom of working on a project that never, ever seems to end.

1)  Even a little bit of work is a good thing.

Let's start from the moment you put the project on the shelf.  The real killer, as we know, is that you don't pick it up again: in part, because it still seems immense and impossible to finish; and in part because your last memories of the project were of how boring it was.  You convince yourself that you can't finish it, and you don't want to finish it.  So there's no point in working on it at all.

... So you don't.  You leave it on the shelf, and shudder mildly every time you think about it.

It would be nice to have it finished.  Oh well.

First thing, you've got to stop thinking about the end of the project.  There's a surprising thing that can happen when you pick that project up again.  Though you think it can't be finished, once you start in on it again, ostensibly to just work for an hour or so, you'll get interested.  For a few days it will offer some of that fascination that got you started on the project in the first place.  You'll have a few new ideas, you'll implement them, and the project will progress for awhile.  Yes, you'll get bored with it again.  But if you pick it up every few months or so, and give it a couple of days each time, you'll start to see it develop.  In time, it won't seem impossible any more.

2)  Don't restart!

I cannot stress this enough.  I really, really can't stress this enough.  The true project killer is the never ending urge to think that restarting a project makes it better.  It doesn't.  It just covers the same ground you've covered already, in a different way.  It only seems better because its NEW.  But soon it won't be new, you'll tire again and you'll have accomplished nothing but a circle.

When you pick up that project again, you've got to remember how you looked at it the first time.  If you have a new idea for an old project, incorporate it.  If it can't be incorporated in the old thought process, it really isn't as good an idea as you think it is.  Good ideas are flexible.  If you have to kill all the work you've done before to make your new idea happen, you're in a condition of delusion.

That's very, very hard to believe, I know.  Would be artists dwell under this delusion all of their lives.  They never finish a book, or a symphony, or a play, because over and over again they romanticize the conception of beginning ANEW.  And that's all they ever do.  They begin.  And begin and begin and begin.

What you must do is train your memory to grasp that which excited you last month, or last year, and see why it isn't actually the junk you think it is now.  You have to trust yourself.  You were a pretty bright person last year.  You had great ideas.  Now give yourself some credit and figure out now how to make that other person's great idea work.

3)  Stagger the steps.

If its a BIG project, there will be a multiplicity of stages that can be worked upon.  For this I have to give an example.

My mapping and trading system requires a number of stages for it to come together.  To make the map, I needed the elevations for the hexes.  Once I had those elevations, I had to add them to a hex map.  There needed to be cities, and the size of the cities had to be determined, so I research the cities.  The cities then need to be added to the hexes.  After this the map can be made.  Then the roads on the map need to be drawn.  The roads on the map determine the distance between trading cities.  A map has to be made of those distances.  A spreadsheet recording the distances is created.  What the trading cities produce has to be researched.  The various things have to be organized on a spreadsheet.  A spreadsheet that fits the distances between the cities to the products produced by those cities gives a scarcity for products in each city.  That scarcity is applied to a table that determines the prices of materials and services.  Pieces of equipment are calculated according to how much material and service is required to make them.

Each stage along this journey (each sentence above) is a different project.  I don't try to research every city in the world before adding some of them to a map.  I don't try to research every product made everywhere in the world before grouping them on a spreadsheet.  I do a little of this, and then a little of that.  When I am bored with researching cities, I make some maps.  When I am bored with maps, I calculate some distances.  When I'm bored with calculating distances, I create pieces of equipment.  Then I go back to earlier stages and work on those.  Steadily, by tackling the sections of the project piecemeal, I make progress.  A little here.  A little there.  And Italy gets finished.  And India gets finished.  And so on.

4)  Have many projects going

And of course there comes a point when I am sick to death of everything to do with trade in toto.  So I go work on monsters.  And then I work on upgrading spell descriptions.  I work on character background generation spreadsheets.  And then I work on figuring out treasure distribution.  And so on.  And because I don't throw out the baby as I go back to these projects, they get a little more complicated.  They get a little deeper.  They evolve a little more.  They grow.  They get BIG.

5)  Identify things you've never worked on, and give those a try

This is perhaps the most important.  You've got to try to solve problems you've never tried to solve before.  Not because you will necessarily succeed, but because problem solving it like working a muscle.  The harder the problem, the more you get out of your failure.  The attempt will cause you to reconsider how or why other things you've thought couldn't be done, CAN be done.

Failure isn't important because you learn from failure.  Failure is important because, with repeated failures, you get used to failure and it ceases to be a threat.  "Okay, it didn't work.  Yeah, so?  Of course it didn't work, look what I was trying to do!  But now, if you think about this thing I was trying, and you apply it to this other thing ..."

You can spend all your life ripping yourself up because you failed something.  But hell, you fail enough things and failure will no longer stop you from doing anything.  You get used to it.  You adapt.  Then you overcome.

If you find yourself in a position where you're thinking, "Shit, I can't do that," you've let failure get the best of you.  It's important to come to a place in your head where you think, "Shit, I can't do that now ... give me a bit, and I'll try something else."

So try.  Try and don't backpeddle.  Don't restart.  Switch around with what you're doing, and try to see the big picture.  Do as much as you can and shrug it off when you're bored.  The time will come when you know you'll pick up that project again, when you're in the mood.

This is how things actually get finished.


Oddbit said...

Pretty much explains my project faults perfectly. I think perhaps what I need to do is also maintain a list to help me track my multiple projects...

JB said...

Some sound advice.