Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Habit's as Good as a Strength

We all have strengths we need to play to and weaknesses we need to make up for. In writing, my strengths are character and dialog - characters are always there when I need them, and all I need for dialog is to listen to them talk. My weakness is plotting. If I didn't have an audience to think of, I could happily follow these characters around listening to them talk and watching them live their lives all day long, whether it got me anywhere or not. Which has caused me to build up a lot of muscle in the art of Cutting to the Chase, for which I have neither natural aptitude nor inability.

In sewing, my only strength is patience. I have never been able to see straight lines, assess distances, or translate two dimensions into three; I'm not intrinsically interested in clothes much (though when I'm sewing I become more interested); my mind is apt to wander during the numerous tedious bits; and if I don't focus hard I will always, always put the bobbin in upside down. But patience and perseverance can make up for all that, eventually. I'm accustomed to pinning every pattern layout twice, to leaving several hours or - if the fabric's really nice and/or no longer available - a whole day between pinning and cutting, to ripping out the same seam many times, and so on. I don't enjoy all that, but sewing my own is the only way to get clothes to fit, so I do it. Eventually.

So today I was doing my second pinning of a complicated set-up involving two different patterns and one fabric, and I noticed something. I was pinning the patterns perfectly on-grain the first time more often than not; and when I folded two pieces that hadn't been folded before in order to shorten the waist, I was doing it freehand and finding, when I checked against a piece that had been folded the last time I used that pattern, that I'd done it perfectly first time.

This is huge. It meant I not only eyeballed the correct length, I got my fingers to perform the operation properly. I've finally got enough experience at altering patterns to fit my figure to skip a lot of the do-overs.

I was almost as proud of myself as I was the first time I realized I was leaving out all the scenes I'd have to cut later anyway during the first draft!

And, since I was still pinning and my back brain was free to keep turning up connections, I thought about this thing I've been doing on my sims newsgroup lately. People who get their sims into some sort of soap operatic pickle and are unsure how they want to proceed from there often solicit advice, and of course I'm never shy about offering it. My basic plan is always the same: a) pay attention to your sims' behavior and extrapolate from that what they would really do if they were people instead of pixels (this is essentially my approach to the plotting problem, too - plot is what the characters do, so playing to my strengths means letting them solve their own problems instead of trying to make them follow some plan of my own) and b)think about what would be most fun for you to play. Because after all, they aren't writing a novel, they're playing a game, and if they aren't having fun they might as well go wash dishes or something. I then will append some concrete examples of possible ways the game might go depending on circumstances, giving their situation the Garage Sale treatment.

What I realized while pinning was, that this is plotting. Rudimentary plotting, sure; but since most of the time I don't know much about the sim in question at all, and in no case do I have the intimate character knowledge on which I rely to make up for poor plotting skills, it really is plot work I'm doing, and moderately successfully, too. I never used to be able to do that without miring in a quicksand of Too Many Ideas, Too Little Logic, and I never mire anymore; though how much that has to do with improved plotting skills and how much with improved ability to apply the brakes before I lose control is a hard question. Not one that it's important to answer, either. The point is - I can do now what I couldn't do then.

I'll never be Agatha Christie, but I don't need to be. All I needed was to improve that skill to the point where I'm not hopeless at it anymore. And I've done it.

All it took was decades of practice, developing a habit of mind.

Just like lining up with the grain and shortening a waist.

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