Questioning Your Way To Solidity

(This column is posted at 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

A Bridge To The Quiet Planet: A Few Thoughts On The Final Run

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

All right, A Bridge To The Quiet Planet is out.  Done.  So it was a bit later than I expected, and the final run on it gave me food for thought.

WATCH SWITCHING BETWEEN SOFTWARE: I found some annoying artifacts from moving from one piece of software to another – there can be subtle differences.   I had to do some annoying search and replaces.

THINK OVER STYLISTIC CHOICES EARLY AND FOLLOW UP: You may make certain formatting choices – like bolding certain things (business cards or telepathy), certain uses of quotes, etc.  Make sure you’re consistent.  I found ONE case of not following my own formatting, and I nearly missed it.

DO A SERIOUS READ-THROUGH AND CORRECTION EARLY: I wish I did this.  Take, say, an early draft, and edit it as if it’s for print.  This will help you find your mistakes, issues, common problems, and get plenty of distracting tiny errors out of the way – so you can edit.

KEEP A LIST OF ERRORS YOU FIND OR WORRY ABOUT: This helped me a lot.  As I did my final readthroughs, I kept a list of suspicious things or choices I want to review.  This let me do some amazing fine editing easy because then I could globally search.

SEARCH AND REPLACE IS YOUR FRIEND IF YOU DO IT STEP BY STEP: Global search and replace can mess up your document (as we all know).  However going slow, reviewing EACH possible replacement (or doing it by hand for each found) let’s you avoid problems.  Also it acts as a second review!

YOU CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH: At some point you can’t edit forever.  So don’t.  Learn your limits.  In fact . . .

GO EBOOK FIRST: This is a trick I evolved from a friend.  Do an ebook first, and distribute it.  It gives you immediate feedback, then you can update the ebook quickly.  Go print a bit later (like I’m doing it 4-6 weeks later).

KEEP A “LIVE” DOCUMENT: A big advantage of going ebook first is feedback.  So I keep a “Live” document I’m always editing as a core, representative document.  That will become the print book – but if I find errors I modify all 3 documents (ebook, Print, Live) for later.

So lots of lessons to share.  I’m certain I’ll have more to share – I think I need to make a kind of writing checklist sometime!

Steven Savage

The Editing Challenge Of Forever

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

I’ve been busy editing A Bridge To The Quiet Planet lately.  And it struck me that editing is a strange thing as it’s never truly done.

First, you have mistakes you may want to catch.  Those are easy to find with modern tools, but finding all of them takes a great deal of effort.  You can worry over and over you may have missed something.

Secondly, you have those non-mistakes but choices you question.  This word or that?  This style or that?  Is this take a bit archaic?  These aren’t mistakes, but are questions of best choices.

Third, you just have all those things you could tweak.  Cut this scene?  Different opening? Is this still timely?

Editing is never done.  Ever, because you can always find new ways to do things, find new problems, miss something and look for it.  Worse, if you make some edits, you might have made new mistakes to worry about!

It’s a lot like coding, only your book runs in the brains of your readers, and each reader is different.

At some point you just have to stop editing.  At some point you have to declare done.  At some point you have to move on, or you’ll go crazy.  You have to stop editing.

I found the best way to do this is to set a standard for yourself.  Do X readthroughs.  Run a grammar/spell check at particular times.  Then, go on.

Go on, edit, but give yourself a break.

BONUS: An idea I got from Serdar is that, when you’re done, do a bounty on mistakes in your book.  Not only is that a great idea to get people to participate, it gives you a way to relax a bit . . .


Steven Savage