If I shoved you through the doors of a commercial brewery and said, “make some beer!” would you have any idea where to start? Would you be overwhelmed by the towering shiny metal of the brew kettles? Would the verdant pounds of hops intoxicate you with their heaven-scented mystery? Would you try to make a beer, even if you didn’t really know the process or how to use the equipment? And if you did, how good do you think the beer would be?
Now, imagine I did the same thing, but you’d been homebrewing for a few years. You may not have experience with the tools and ingredients on such a large scale, but you’d at least understand how beer works. You’d know that you needed to crack the grains and get them sparging, as the wort is the soup stock of your new brew. You’d know that you needed to decide what and how many hops to use for bittering, and then which to add later in the boil for aroma. You’d have a much better understanding of what was going on, and there’d be a chance you’d make a beer that people actually wanted to drink.
If I shoved you into a chair in front of a computer and said, “write a novel!” would you have any idea where to start?
Now, imagine I did the same thing but you’d been writing short stories for a few years.
It’s our nature to think big
I think if you’re dreaming at all, you’re dreaming big. You’re thinking of all the wonderful splendor that your potential might manifest as: riveting novels, acclaimed works of nonfiction, successful innovative breweries, a work environment where flip flops are not a faux pas, but a deliberate and encouraged style choice.
And as a direct result of thinking big, we act big. We draft huge plans for ourselves, for our careers, for our lives, even if those drafts are little more than theoretical scribbles on a post-happy hour cocktail napkin. We imagine our lives as they could be, filling in the holes with success shaped ideas. There is a certain pleasure in being wrapped in the warm, down blanket of future-thinking fantasy.
So we try, from the onset, to do big things. Writers try to go from zero to epic SciFi space drama, homebrewers try a Flemish Red for their very first beer. We aim high, probably too high, because the challenge and wonder of something new drives us. We get drunk on our own potential, our own dreams of what we can accomplish.
But when expectation falls short of reality and our dreams run out of gas 10 miles before the next Wawa, we feel disappointment. We’re confused as to why our novel reads like a Jarlsberg hunk of plot holes, why our beer tastes like band aids and dirt.
But our nature is also cumulative
There is a reason we don’t teach children to read by handing them a copy of Anna Karenina and saying, “good luck, kid.” We have to build our skill sets a bit at a time; win a ton of minor educational battles to win the knowledge war. You’d never expect a surgeon to be able to remove a tumor on her first try, with no experience except some stuff she saw on YouTube. So why do we expect to be able to write full length books with little or no training?
I’m certain there are some people out there who are an exception to this rule, who can, almost by magic (or raw talent) drop out a novel on their first try that is of ridiculously high quality. But for most of us (me included) that’s just not how it works. As much as we want to be the exception, the one who finds the genie bottle, the one who wins the lottery, chances are we’re not going to. We’re those unlucky saps who have to do all those labor intensive things like study and practice.
When we practice, we could keep aiming very high, firing that cannon at all those stars, hoping against hope that we might hit one. Or we could be a bit more realistic and aim for something a few thousand light years closer.
Go small or go home
If you want to brew beer that sells, start by homebrewing. Start with simple recipes, so you can learn what makes good, tasty beer, regardless of the ingredients or equipment.
If you want to write books that sell, start writing short stories. Start with single characters and tight narrative arcs with a focus on sentence structure, grammar, and tension.
Because smaller is easier to digest, break apart, experiment with. A five gallon batch is a good sample size to test what kinds of hops to use (and in what combination) or how a certain temperature during mash can affect a finished beer. A short story is a perfect place to try a new setting or structure or kind of dialogue.
Instead of committing a ton of time and resources to something you’re not sure will work, try it on a smaller scale first. If you nail it, awesome; you’ve learned how it works, and can always scale it up. If it didn’t turn out so well, even more important lesson learned.
Starting small let’s your practice your art on your own time, by your own rules.
Remember: Jim Koch started Sam Adams with a small batch of Boston Lager in his kitchen. George R. R. Martin wrote short stories for years before the Game of Thrones (ASOIAF) series.
They went small so they didn’t have to go home defeated. They went small to teach them how to go big.