Using Shortcuts to Succeed

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Do you remember a game called Space Impact? It was an old-school spaceship war game one could play at least on Nokia 3310 if not on other cell phones as well. Another game I remember from Nokia phones, now the ones with a color screen, was Bounce where a red ball tries to get through a set of levels. Both games were highly addictive and I remember playing them over and over again, getting through the many levels and finally, finishing the last, most difficult level.

But what do these two games have in common except that they were both created by Nokia and could be played on Nokia phones?

They both had a magical four digit code that made you invincible.

The thing is, both games (but especially Bounce) required a good deal of practice from the player to get to the end of the game. Sometimes when I was feeling optimistic and motivated to complete the game with pure skill – but at other times I just wanted to play and focus on tactics instead of avoiding getting killed. When that feeling came over me, I decided to use the code that my friend had told me about.

(Fun fact: my grandmother still has a well-working Nokia 3310 with Space Impact on it so I can do a throwback to my childhood any time I want. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the code anymore so I’ll just have to get through the game with skill)

It was a great feeling – being invincible and able to complete the game without having to focus on not getting hurt or killed. That magical four-digit code was a shortcut to success, both in Space Impact and Bounce. But I also remember feeling that the winning at the end of the last level didn’t really feel like an honest, one-hundred percent win because I knew I had cheated. It wasn’t pure skill that got me through the game – the code did a good deal of the job.

Useful Shortcuts

There are many shortcuts in life that can be considered being extremely useful. For instance, finding the quickest route from home to the bus stop will help you save time in the mornings – give you a few minutes more to read the paper, drink your coffee, fix your hair and so on.

Another great shortcut is finding a lunch cafeteria with the best ratio between friendliness of the staff, quality of the food and length of the queue. This shortcut will save you time, energy and hopefully make your day better when you get to enjoy good food and nice service.

These shortcuts are pretty practical and make the daily life a bit easier. Even habits can be considered as shortcuts and they, if any, make the daily life more simple to digest. Shortcuts help us save time and energy on some things, and let us use that energy and saved minutes on the projects that require our time at the moment.

This kind of shortcuts are widely accepted, even recommended. Life is too short to walk the longer routes to the bus stop or deal with angry customer service. Instead, life is about doing what you enjoy, and if you can enjoy life a little bit more by choosing the shortest route to the gym or the restaurant with the best food – go for it.

But what about other shortcuts?

Creative Shortcuts

As I’ve become more and more interested in writing, photography and filmography, I’ve learned many rules or tips on how to create enchanting, well-functioning products.

For instance, in photography the two rules for composition are the golden spiral and the rule of third. They are widely used in photography and photos that use one of these rules tend to be perceived as good photos.

In filmography, one can find many rules that help to create visually pleasing content. Switching between three different frames (full shot, detail shot and something in-between), using the 180′ rule, the Hitchcock rule… All these things help the film become more interesting, pleasing to look at and enhance the storytelling.

And in the world of novels there’s the classic storyline, the hero’s journey. A simple storyline many films and novels follow that creates a familiar adventure, sweeping the viewer or reader into the story. Reading stories that follow the hero’s journey is almost always nice because it’s something we are used to – we know what’s going to happen, we just don’t know how and what all the consequences will be.

These creative shortcuts are effective and help create pleasing, easy-to-take-in kind of content. The way the products are formed feels familiar to us consumers and therefore we enjoy them. Similar shortcuts can be seen everywhere. For instance, in journalism and the newspaper world there are several rules/guidelines for creating headlines that trigger curiosity in the reader, or what are the best ways to structure the article so that the reader will read the whole news story instead of just the headline.

One might not think of them as shortcuts – they can be described as well-functioning patterns or as recipes with certain ingredients that guarantee your cake will rise in the oven. And getting to know these rules, these shortcuts, the recipes, help anyone to become a better creator.

But are this kind of shortcuts as accepted as the practical, life-simplifying shortcuts?

A Creator Using Shortcuts

Somehow it seems that almost everything today has some sort of hack, a magical four digit code that will function as a shortcut to success. Using the rule of third or golden spiral you can create intriguing photos; switching between three different frame sizes in a film keeps the tempo up and the viewer interested. A novel with a structure like hero’s journey will help one create a good structure and tempo that will make the book more pleasing to read.

To me it feels like everything is possible and you can create your own success – if you know the code. I realized this on a whole other level when I read an interview with the author Ottessa Moshfegh. Her successful novel Eileen was ”a deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher.” She hacked the system, found out about the four digit code, and made her writer dreams come true.

The interview made me realize that anyone can write a novel. Anyone can write a best-selling novel, as long as they know the recipe. And as a writer hoping to become a published author…

I feel confused. I feel a little bit disappointed as well. Aren’t published authors supposed to be true fighters, true talents? Aren’t you supposed to feel lucky if a big publisher wants to take your book under their wing?

Apparently not – because here’s someone claiming that anyone can write a best-selling novel and has actually proof of it, her own work.

Honestly, after learning this I’ve had some trouble feeling encouraged. It feels like I’m out there, on the battlefield with all these other writers, hoping to get published. But suddenly there isn’t only 200 of us – there are 2,000 writers, all trying to claim that same space as I am. And the one with the best ingredients, the best ability to take in that recipe and follow it, will win.

It’s like authorship isn’t anything as glorious as it used to be. Like children who learn that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy isn’t real – it feels like my belief in the glorious authorship has been broken.

Finding that Optimism

But the tone of this blog post is getting somewhat cheerless and depressing – so let’s get back to the intro of this blog post.

I wrote that winning Bounce or Space Impact with the help of the four-digit magical code didn’t make the victory feel like a real, honest win. It was more like thirty percent skill, seventy percent cheating. And I would like to think that the same sort of ratio goes for the creative content we produce. At least if we do it according to a certain type of shortcut/pattern/recipe.

The storyline in my first draft of Yellow Tails doesn’t consciously follow any tips, structures or recommended beats. I’m a pantser, planning as I go (although I’ve had the ending clear in my mind from the very beginning). I’ve felt the temptation to order books that give tips on good writing or help one structure the story in the best possible way, but for me it feels like I would be cheating. If I would start writing my book according to certain rules and guidelines, it wouldn’t be my story. Not entirely.

I might miss out on something for not taking in all the tips and guidelines. I might make it harder for myself to get my book published and actually making it. But for me, this feels like a road I’m supposed to take. The road where I do it the hard way and where I learn from my mistakes and, eventually, become the master of my own work.

Although, after saying all of this, I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with reading these guide books. I believe there’s a good deal of practical shortcuts that help one focus on the things that matter the most. But I don’t want to read them – not yet. Maybe I’ll pick one of the books up after reading the first draft for the first time after finishing it, if it feels like it. However, at the moment, I’m happy where I am. I’m satisfied with my own thoughts on how Yellow Tails should look like, at what pace it should go forward, how my hero’s journey will turn out and what the cover should look like.

What are your thoughts on (writing) guides and other helpful rules/shortcuts? What tips have you found useful or do you experience that the information makes you to create differently than you’d like to?