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How Your Brain Is Fooling You – Evaluating Ideas

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Sad faceDon’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing… I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times… The first draft of anything is shit.
– Ernest Hemingway

All accolades to the master and all that but Hemingway is quite wrong. The first draft of anything is glorious.

That’s because the first draft isn’t the one you set down on paper. It’s the one you see in your head.

The first paper draft of anything is shit, but the first glimpse of your idea, the first vision, is amazing.

See, what happens when we get an idea is that we very rapidly judge it: is this idea good or bad. This happens on an instinctive level, and is why we act impulsively. “Oh, I’d like to eat a cookie.” “Good idea!” “Why am I fat?” That’s us, acting in “reaction mode”. We get an idea and we react to it, carrying it out.

Inspiration IdeaThe opposite is also true: “Oh, an orphan with a mysterious past gets an invitation to attend a wizards accademy.” “What a crap idea.” “Who’s Harry Potter?”. We react to our ideas emotionally, judging them based on our preconceptions of what is expected of us. That’s a very basic human trait allowing us to spot that hungry lion in the bushes and start running before we even realize we’re in danger. It’s also something that stops us from destroying the social structures surrounding us by censoring our words and actions (for what happens when we lack that censorship, take a look at the common stereotype of Tourette syndrome or your average frat party). Unfortunately it also stops lots of great ideas, but that’s a whole different can of worms.

So what’s this got to do with your first draft or first prototype sucking or not?

Consider what happens when we think that an idea is great. We’ve just come up with the idea. We’ve evaluated it: Great idea! Now we’re a tenth of a second into our thought process of fleshing out the idea and we’re full of very positive emotions about it.

Now something interesting happens.

Shells patternEnter our ability to pattern match. We come up with one idea, we feel positive about it, we expand it. We’re not expanding the idea linearly. No. We’re jumping from one idea to another without making a connection between them. Harry doesn’t lose his parents under mysterious circumstances, goes to live in a closet, meets a mysterious owl, reads his invitation and so on. Harry, in our chain of linked ideas, goes from mysterious past to wizards academy. Everything else is still in “fill in the blanks” mode. But that’s OK since our brain can pattern match from one part to the other. We’re skipping the stuff in between and seeing the whole. But since our mind is full of positive emotion (the “idea rush” if you want) the stuff in between gets filled in not with blanks but with positive blanks – we see the glorious, fantastic, amazing whole without any blemishes. And the parts we might see may be glorious, fantastic and amazing but the parts between them will, by force, be otherwise.

You can’t have a novel that’s uniformly high tension, high stakes, amazing words etc. (Ok, you can if you’re Roger Zelazny or Jack Vance). You can’t have a game that’s entirely tense, where the player’s are always active, where everyone is on their toes no matter their skill level. That simply doesn’t work – you need the slow downs, the downtime, the exceptions that allow the reader or player to lean back and rest for a while or you risk burning them out (which is why the TED conference organizers show funny dog videos between sessions). But those parts aren’t quite as glorious as the highlights that you see in your chain of ideas.

Ok, you’ve had your idea. You’re full of the glory of it. You might even manage to produce the entire work while being idea high. And what happens? You look back on it, read it, playtest it and you spot all those weak parts, all those parts where your skill couldn’t quite match your vision, or just the parts where rest is necessary (or you spot that you missed those parts and your game is all break neck speed and no strategy).

And suddenly your glorious idea falls to pieces. You no longer see the highlights spanned by glory. You see the entire progression of steps from high to low to high. And suddenly the first draft sucks.

Ernest Hemingway with shotgunBTW, Hemingway loved to mess with beginning writer’s minds. Most of what he said is pure BS, such as only writing standing up (photos of his study are preserved, including the position of his typewriter). That part of rewriting the opening 50 times? Sounds great, lots of work. Unless he was the world’s fastest typist by several orders of magnitude he would not have had the time to write as much as he did, not to mention drink, fish, womanize and boast, if he kept rewriting stuff 50 times.

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