Tag Archives: serdar

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

The Creativity Paradox Revisited

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

My friend Serdar commented on my issues of the Creativity Paradox recently. I focus on the issues of creative paralysis, fear, miscommunication, and safety, but he had some insightful words on Creative Paralysis.

Creative Paralysis is when you have too many choices in a creative effort – something i’m sure we’ve all faced. Creative efforts are fueled, in part, by coming up with ideas, so the very act of creativity can paralyze you.

He calls out the famous toothpaste paradox and notes that:

“If you go shopping and you see 40 varieties of toothpaste and you have no idea how to distinguish one from the other in a meaningful way, you just stare at the shelves in front of you for minutes on end and have no idea what to do next.”

Now if you’re me, this is where you stick with a brand, but that brings in the issue of safety, and I’d like to get back to this whole toothpaste thing.

Serdar notes that the problem is that you don’t have a way to distinguish toothpaste from each other in a *meaningful* way. In his own programming efforts, he’s seen people creatively paralyzed and his answer is to “pick what is personally relevant to you.”

I’d note that this in turn comes back to something that I bring up in Agile and Agile Creativity a lot – the importance of value. When you’re planning, creating, evaluating you have to be able to evaluate the *Value* of something you’re doing. That lets you decide what to do, what not to do,a nd what to just toss the hell away.

When you have creative paralysis, you’re not evaluating value.

So when you face this paradox, try these things:

  • Take the list of whatever creative options you’re trying to choose from.
  • Force-rank them in order of the value provided – no item can be of equal value to the other. If you have to write down the value.
  • As painful as this can be, quickly you’ll see things fall into place because you’re starting to think “what really matters.”

This may help you but also uncovers an issue with many creative ideas – we want to value each inspiration equally. We can’t. We have to make choices or we make no choice and do nothing. All inspirations may be equally interesting, but they’re not equally interesting *for our goals.*

– Steve

The Work That Reinforces Also Weakens

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

 

My friend Serdar has a fascinating response to my column on the Agile Manifesto for creatives.  Focusing on my calling out overdocumentation, he sums things up amazingly well:

Back when I started working on Flight Of The Vajra, that mammoth space opera epic thing o’ mine, I wasn’t in the habit of assiduously documenting the contents of my stories for reference. If I couldn’t fit the whole thing in my head, my thinking went, it was my fault. Then I discovered Dostoevsky’s work notebooks and decided to stop being silly and start keeping track of everything. And thus was born my use of a wiki as a receptacle for all things related to a given project — characters, plotting, storyline, locations, red herrings, MacGuffins, veeblefetzers*, etc.

The trap with such things, as I quickly found out, is that you can spend so much time planning and documenting the project that it becomes tempting to use that as a substitute for writing it. In which case you’re not dealing in fiction anymore, but something more akin to tabletop RPG modules.

(Emphasis Mine)

I’ve played a lot of RPGs and games.  I love worldbooks and guides.  I enjoy fan wikis.  However, reading Serdar’s comments made me realize that it’s possible to take documentation concepts from one form of media and apply it to another inappropriately.

RPG books, character sheets, wikis, etc. can teach us great documentation skills, as well as different forms of documentation.  However, if one is not careful, one can take the methods and skills from one form of media and try to apply them to another where they don’t do any good and may harm the work.

Case in point, Serdar’s example of overdetailing something so much that you’re not writing, say a book, but a module about the book’s world – which may keep you from writing the damn book.

This is a danger that creatives face, and I think it’s a more modern creation – we have so many documentation methods and tools at our disposal, we may over-use them or use then inappropriately.  We end up wasting time with unneeded documentation and documentation forms that keep us from writing the story or creating the comic or coding the game.

A good creative has to be selective in what they document and how they do it.  By all means get diverse experience, try different methods, indulge your skills – but pick what works. Don’t go overboard with documentation you don’t need.

This is extremely hard for me to admit as a worldbuilding fanatic, but you can overdo documentation or do it wrong.

Let me leave you with a metaphor a co-worker used (which in term he derived from a Scrum training event) – optimal miscommunication.  You don’t have to say everything to say enough, and it’s better to leave things out to help you communicate what’s important.

Or as I put it, better to have 80% of what you need documented and it’s all useful, than have 120% of everything documented and then have to figure out which of the extra 20% you don’t need.

– Steve