Scaling and the Success of my First Story

One of the great things about CrossFit is that every workout is scalable. Can’t do 135-pound squat cleans? Reduce the load on the bar. Can’t do handstand pushups? Substitute pike pushups. It’s up to the individual (possibly in consultation with their coach) to determine the appropriate scaling, taking into account their overall fitness level, their skill and comfort with the prescribed moves, and the intended stimulus of the workout.

The upshot is that there should never be a workout that you can’t do, or that you can’t finish in the allotted time. Failure means you didn’t scale appropriately. Scaling workouts isn’t a precise science, but it is a skill that improves with practice.

I’m trying to apply that same principle of scaling to my writing in general, and these one-week projects in particular. If the goal is finishing, then not finishing means I didn’t scale appropriately.

As a negative example, two of my first” one-week” projects were IF (interactive fiction) pieces that took multiple weeks to create. Bad scaling.

I began with Murder on the Big Nothing and realized a time-traveling murder mystery was far too ambitious for a first-time IF project. That was the impetus for Secret Identity, a “minimal” IF, with just three rooms and a much simpler narrative. Good plan, but wrestling with the language/platform (Inform), plus playtesting and debugging still took a good 30-40 hours. A better plan would have been to scale back to a single-room or just deliver a design doc or a linear short story for adaptation. Something that could realistically be achieved in two to four hours, with a hard cap of ten.

As a positive example, I’ve been thinking of making a video of Jenny’s Revenge for a while. Scripting, casting, choreographing, rehearsing, shooting and editing the video in one week would be possible, but insane. Instead, I just wrote the lyrics, which took about eight hours over a couple of days. The script was even quicker, after the lyrics were done—another four hours or so. Notice that attempting both in one shot would have gone over the ten-hour cap. Yay, appropriate scaling!

So scaling can help with finishing things, but I think it can also help with beginning them. Barriers to exit are barriers to entry, as they say in the business world. If you know something is going to be difficult to complete, that creates enormous resistance to getting started in the first place. Scaling an idea down to its simplest incarnation can make it, not just manageable, but possible.

CUT TO:

The middle of my first semester at Stonecoast, working on a novel with my mentor, and absolutely in the weeds, second-guessing every decision. Another classmate [1] was looking for flash fiction and poetry for her third-semester project. [2] A thousand-word short story sounded blessedly easier than a novel, and I’d be helping a friend, [3] so I put the novel on hold to try and write a story I’d been carrying in my head for at least ten years. I’d been thinking of it as a 20-minute short film; to boil it down to a six hundred-word short story, [4] I had to jettison a lot of what I’d originally envisioned. I didn’t have room.

I cut scenes. I cut characters. I cut events. I cut everything but the central event, a total eclipse, and an amazing thing happened. The narrower the scope, the more the story came into focus. Scaling the story back made me concentrate on the essential. Once I arrived at that, it became much easier to write.

The result was Totality, my first published short story.

1. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is one of the incredibly talented students I was fortunate to overlap with at Stonecoast.

2. This was the first Art & Words show, which has since become an annual event. The conceit is to pair writers with visual artists. Each writer submits a short story, and each artist submits a painting, sketch or sculpture. Then each writer chooses a piece of visual art and writes a response to it, while the same artist creates a visual response to the writer’s story, and the pairings are displayed together. The process is incredibly inspiring. I participated twice, writing four stories altogether, three of which have since been published.

3. I hope it’s obvious that this was a rationalization, and I was looking for any excuse to abandon my novel-in-progress. It’s great to help friends. You should help friends. But when that help comes at the expense of your own writing, that’s Resistance talking.

4. One thousand words was the suggested limit, but I figured that no one would want to stand and read a four-page story. I struggled to get mine down to two pages, but six hundred words was the best I could do.

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