Dishonor Your Idols Respectfully

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

Serdar wrote on how one gets outside of copying influences to find your own way.  He shares his own experiences, and it’s a journey you’ll appreciate.  In turn, I want to share some of my most formative experiences because they’re about learning what doesn’t fit you.

When I returned to fiction with A Bridge To The Quiet Planet, Sir Terry Pratchett’s was the obvious influence.  Whereas he took on fantasy and cultural tropes, I evolved a fantasy setting into the information age, exploring what that said about both the genre and people.  Combined with my love of worldbuilding, it was a romp through a techno-fantasy world, more serious than Pratchett but also reveling in deconstructing tropes.

When my editor got back to me, I realized I also came off wordy as hell.

Now, Sir Pratchett can be pretty wordy, so the influence is evident.  The thing is, what worked for him didn’t work for me – I worked better with a tighter style.  Sometimes you grow out of an influence by finding what parts fit you and what doesn’t – if one doesn’t fit, throw it out.  Sir Pratchett had to decide to do his own thing as well, and it worked for him.

(As a note, I have revisited Robert Aspirin, my early “funny fantasy” influence, and his tight prose may help me out in future writing).

My second formative experiences as a writer started with Agile Creativity.  I was getting tired of Agile being so bog-standard IT stuff, or seeing applied half-baked to writing or art.  I decided I’d write a book applying the core of the Agile Manifesto to creativity in general.  I was going to explore hardcore Agile and hardcore creativity and do both right.

It got several sales, including one bulk order, and for a time was my most-requested presentation at conventions.  I’ve had very good reception on it, and take great amusement that it uses Agile standards, while being for cosplayers, artists, and so on.

This only led to ideas for other books on Agile, which I’ll be working on in 2022 and possibly 2023.  These will get into the psychology of writing and Agile, and another that let us say will have an attitude.  I stepped away from multiple, stale (to me) influences now I’ve got more places to go – and take my audience with me.

What can I say?  I’m an explorer, I’m the guy that gets weird as a way of doing things better.

Don’t fear giving up on your influences, or winnowing them down, or saying “screw it, I’m doing the opposite.”  Those moments are a critical part of growth as a writer.  I can assure you every influence you have probably had many similar moments, and that’s how they became good enough to influence you.

Honor your influences by deciding when to stop listening.

Steven Savage

Questioning Your Way To Solidity

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

Fiction is a canvas upon which you can do anything, and that’s why its limiting. When you can do anything, you have so many options you become paralyzed.

My friend Serdar talks about this, by comparing it to how many brands of Toothpaste we have:

“Choice paralysis is, as you can guess, a major issue in creative work. Because you have complete control over what you put into a story, that can manifest as being stranded between too many choices, and you end up in a Toothpaste Meltdown, goggling at the screen and drooling into your keys.”

He goes on to analyze how the choices you make are best shaped by what fits the story you want to write, and asking the right questions. This is something I see (to no one’s surprise) in my work using Agile methods.

Agile methods are obsessed with asking “what is valuable for the customer/end user/etc.” The basic idea is find what’s important, rank things in order of the importance, and start from the top. If you’re not sure, then you have to ask more questions about who your audience is, what they want, etc.

That one word, Value, helps say so much.

In my recent work on my novel, A School of Many Futures, I started a massive edit after getting editoral, prereader, and my own feedback. What helped me was asking what chapters, scenes, etc. did anything for the audience. The result shocked me.

  • Two chapters merged into one, moving the plot along.
  • Several scenes were thus combined, making them richer and snappier.
  • An entire sub-subplot and mini-character arc emerged from the above deeply enriching the overall story.
  • A cat who appears perhaps twice, became a useful way to exposit (hey, people talk to cats).

All because I asked what matters to the audience. What had value, to them.

This doesn’t mean I shirked on worldbuilding – this is me. It just meant that I found a way to tell the story, in the world, that worked better for the reader. I violated none of my obsessively detailed continuity, I merely found which option told the story best.

So next time you’re stuck with the “toothpaste conundrum” in your writing, ask what your audience wants and write it down. Then sort these ideas in order of what is important to them. Start from the top and go through your list.

Even if the audience is just you, you might be surprised at what you really want . . .

Steven Savage

Fly My Chaos Monkeys, Fly!

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

I recently attended a talk by Si Alhir on Agility and Antifragility. I’ve discussed Agile many times, but Antifragility is a concept I deal with less. Antifragility is about being more resilient and adaptive, and can be a trait of a person, group, or organization. Si’s presentation was very relevant to our current lives and led me to some thoughts.

In Si’s concept, a way to become Antifragile is seeking and creating deliberate challenge. By being challenged, a person or institution becomes more resilient. Both you and I have had experiences of pushing ourselves, but within a framework of safety.

Most people I know who are resilient and creative challenge themselves. Being able to push oneself to grow – but not be harmed or overburdened – is a skill. It is also an ill-defined and ill-taught skill to judge by the overstressed people I’ve known.

But there is a helpful metaphor to challenge us (sorry) to see this Antifragility differently.

This idea of “Antifragility via challenge” made me think of the Chaos Monkey of Netflix fame. This software would randomly create problems on their network, allowing them to find flaws and build workarounds. The company had forged a challenge to their complex systems to keep them on their streaming toes.

Giving something a name is effective, so now I can ask the question, “what Chaos Monkeys do I need?” I can also ask you, my reader, the same thing – what challenges would help you?

I invite you to ask if you need a Chaos Monkey or two in your life. Your Disorder Primate may be pushing yourself to write at a different time. Your Mayhem Chimpanzee may be deciding to focus intensely on one subject more than you do. You may find you’ve already unleashed plenty of Havoc Baboons instinctively.

I also invite you to ask if you need any more Bedlam Simians right now. We have a Pandemic that is more of a Chaos Kong than anything else. It may be time to tell your personal Chaos Monkeys to go settle down for a while as they’re not required. The disaster of the moment is keeping us all very busy, thanks.

Every Chaos Monkey has its time.

Steven Savage