The Seventy/Thirty Question

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

There’s a book called DIY MFA which argues you don’t need an MFA to be a writer.  Instead one needs to a roadmap to developing skills, analyzing writing, and networking.  A lofty promise, but one I felt the book fulfilled, though some of it seemed very “standard” to me.

After some thought I realized of course some of the book seemed simple and standard – those were the parts I already knew.  Perhaps seventy percent of the book was things I knew (if not always did), but the other thirty percent was invaluable.  I had to wade through seventy percent to get the thirty I never thought of.

It was totally worth it.

I think this seventy/thirty rule is why writing conferences, guides, and meetups can seem repetitive to many.  Must we have another discussion of grammar, of romance tropes, of cover design?  Why must we hear something that I or we already know?

I myself have had these experiences.  I was wrong.

Writer events and groups cover seemingly repetitive subjects because we all have different seventy percent (do know) and thirty percent (don’t know).  Some of us are operating at fifty-fifty, and others are at ninety-ten and unable to fill in that last ten percent.

As we share with our fellow writers, let’s have some compassion and remember we all know things – and we all have gaps.

That means if you do know something, then share it.  There will be people who want to learn from you, even on subjects you consider pedestrian or repetitive.  Your seventy percent is their thirty percent – and you might just be the person that explains the lessons to them in a way that sticks.

This also means neither you nor anyone else should feel guilty requesting or attending classes on subjects that seem basic or cover the same ground.  You have your thirty percent of ignorance and for others, there’s probably overlap.  Stand up and ask to learn because I guarantee you’re not alone.

Let me close with a suggestion.  Create a list of things you’re competent at as a writer and things you could do better at.  Ask what you can share with your fellow creatives – and where you can boldly ask for help.

Your fellows might not just help you and be helped, but learn about their seventy and thirty as well.

Steven Savage

The Good and the Real

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I adore a local family burrito place, and my love of their food provides a good lesson in media. Trust me here as I discuss the Good and the Real.

The first time I went there, I had a vegetable burrito. The burrito’s home-cooked taste was so intimate I, a cook, could taste the personal touch. It used pre-cut frozen vegetables, so I wouldn’t say it was that Good, because fresh vegetables would have added something. Yet I adored it because the home-cooked taste connected me to the cook there was a passionately Real experience eating it.

I connected to the cook just eating that burrito.

Later I tried the restaurant’s breakfast burrito, and it was a glorious taste experience I called ” an Egg McMuffin with self-esteem.”  It was the perfect balance of fresh eggs, the right sausage, beans, and cheese. This burrito had the homemade Real taste of the vegetable burrito and a choice of ingredients that made it just plain Good.

Sorry to make you hungry, but I found this a great metaphor for how we understand creative works.

Some works are Good. There is an unmistakable quality of work there, from well-shot scenes to brutally simple prose. There is craftsmanship there.

Some works are Real. There’s something that connects with you. It may trigger an emotion, it may help you relate to the creator. It’s not verisimilitude, it’s a sense of touching something connected and meaningful.

Not every media that is Good feels Real – and not everything that feels Real is Good. This division may explain why we have trouble debating quality works.

Some works that are Good don’t have the depth, the personal connection that makes something Real. They are well-polished, well done, and enjoyable, but they may not focus on deep connections. In my current anime viewing, I’d cite the supervillain office comedy Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department, which focuses on its target-rich environment of superhero tropes. “Miss Kuroitsu” focuses on mockery and doesn’t really want or need to focus on depth.

On the other hand, works can be Real, connected, but you may not call them “Good.”  The above burrito is an example. Sogo Ishii, the brilliant filmmaker, brings a punkishly edgy and passionate reality to all his works. Some of his films may not be “good” in the sense of craft or polished because he wants to pour passion onto the screen (Crash City being an example)

Sometimes you want to be Good. Sometimes you want to be Real. Sometimes you’re fortunate and get both.

The Good and the Real works have quality, polish, and deep personal connection. When you read Lord of the Rings, you don’t just have a fantastic adventure, Tolkein’s love of language drips off the page. When you watch Steven Universe, you have both well-crafted rapid storytelling and experience the passion of the series creatures. These are the works that echo throughout time.

The Good and the Real may not be obvious. I would put the Fast and the Furious series in both the Good and the Real. The films are Real in that everyone knows the goal is to be as crazy as possible, and we’re all along for the ride. But they are Good in that they pull off the increasingly wild ideas. When you see a Fast and the Furious movie, it’s both being in on the fun and marveling at how they pulled it off.

For you, is your goal to make a work that’s both Good and Real?   Or would you be best served by focusing on one over the other? What is it you want to do?

In fact, let me challenge you. Ask if your current work is trying to be Good, Real, or Both – and why might you want to change focus?

(Also, if you’re near me, I’ll tell you which restaurant to get those burritos at.)

Steven Savage

Seeking Appeal

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Many writers harbor that dream of creating the work everyone loves.  Many writers also have the dream of creating a work that connects intimately with others.  Finally, most writers find that reconciling these – let’s call them Broad Appeal and Personal Appeal – is a nightmare in practice.

Yet some works manage to have both Broad and Personal Appeal – let us call it Universal Appeal.  Those rare movies and books are things we all treasure, for we can enjoy them by ourselves and share them with others.  Some creators break through the barrier, and we wonder why (we’re not jealous, right?).

This issue has been going around in my head for a while.  My tastes for media have evolved lately, and I’m trying to understand them.  This Broad, Personal, and Universal appeal are whirling about in my mind, so join me in an attempt to understand my thoughts.

Thoughts On Broad Appeal

Media with Broad Appeal are those works that interest many people but may not be particularly intimate.  They’re enjoyable or insightful, but most of the audience doesn’t experience that connection that drives people to obsess over or plumb a work.  We’ve all had that movie or show where your reaction is, “yeah it’s good, nice to share that with others.”

Broad Appeal is not bad.  I would argue the near-endless Marvel Films tend towards the Broad Appeal category, but most are good to extremely well-crafted.  There is a place for Broad Appeal because it lets you share the experience.

I can understand why some people focus on writing things with Broad Appeal.  It makes money and you get lots of people who like it – and both are great!  However, it seems to take effort to reach that level of Broad Appeal, or one may crave the intimacy of Personal Appeal.

Thoughts On Personal Appeal

Media with the Personal Appeal are works that connect deeply with a set of people but aren’t “for everyone.”  The right audience has a deep experience because they truly “get it.”  I’m sure you’ve had that book or comic or show where you loved it but found it impossible to share.

Personal Appeal is not exclusionary.  It’s just that you have to be the kind of person who it’s made for, who connects with it.  Some stuff just isn’t for you – something I get to with my large library of philosophy, little of which I can safely say “yeah you’ll dig THIS translation . . .”

Personal Appeal seems to be easy for some people to write – create what you like or focus on a domain of specific knowledge.  Writing things with Personal Appeal also has an intimacy that is quite enjoyable, which I can say from personal experience.  Still, an author may want to have their work have a broader audience than they have . . .

Thoughts On Universal Appeal

Universal Appeal is that rare work that appeals to a wide audience and reaches people’s depths.  Everyone (or at least a lot of people) can enjoy it and feel a deep, inspiring, life-altering connection.  It’s the work everyone talks about and will be considered classic decades or centuries down the road.  For many authors, it’s the hope – getting paid and reaching people.

There are a few works I’d put in this area.  Historically, one example is the Tao Te Ching, the “life-changing evening read” which has reached people for aeons.  More recently, Lord of the Rings fits this category – I’ve been through multiple revivals in my own lifetime.  I’m sure you have others.

Universal Appeal is a challenge.  I don’t think it can be calculated or planned.  It may be something that just happens, and creators may just have to live with that.

Our Journey

I find I rather like this taxonomy.  It’d doubtlessly oversimplified, but it gives me ways to think about works for the future.

I hope this gives you things to consider – which means I hope it has Broad Appeal . . .

Steven Savage