Questioning Your Way To Solidity

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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

My Personal Agile: Value

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

I’ve been talking to a few people about my personal use of Agile (specifically Scrum) to be productive.  So let’s get to the next step: thinking about work.

It may seem strange to say your first step is thinking different – it sounds kinda fuzzy doesn’t it? But it’s it’s a core part of Agile methods, and a core part of doing better. How you think about work affects how you do it – or if you do it. Agile is not just some techniques or some airy philosophy – it’s a mindset.

First up is learning to think about value.


Value is something talked about in Agile a lot. The first Agile Principle is:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

Substitute software for, well, anything. Substitute customer for whoever your target audience is – including yourself. Your goal in doing anything is to do something of value for someone.

If there’s no value, well the eight Agile Principle states

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.

So if something isn’t worth it why do it? Exactly – don’t.

If there’s no one to do it for, don’t do it.

But, that means you have to learn to think about the value of work you do.  I’ll cover more of that in the next section when we look at breaking down work.

EXERCISE: List the top five things you want to get done in ife. Write down in order which is the most important to the least – and no item can be of equal importance to any other (this is force-ranking). What do you learn doing this?

EXERCISE 2: What was the last thing in life that you did that really didn’t need to be done. Why did you do it? How much time would you have saved not doing it?

Value And My Personal Agile

So why is value so . . . valuable? I mean you can guess, but let’s peek behind the curtain.

  • Thinking about value tells you why something should be done – and you can figure out if it’s worth doing.
  • Thinking about value tells you how important something is – and how you should prioritize it. Good productivity – and Agile especially – requires you to know what’s important to do. That helps you organize.
  • Thinking about value tells you who wants it – and that’s the person you want to talk to for guidance and feedback.

The first part of work is knowing why you’re doing it – or why you shouldn’t.

I hope that helps you think about work better. Because next step we’re going to talk about how you break work down – and find its value.

– Steve


Steve’s Agile Life: Size Affects Pursuit Of Value

(This column is posted at, and Steve’s Tumblr)

Let’s talk Sprints and organization. If you’re new to my whole “Agile Life” thing, this is me using Agile (specifically Scrum) to make my life more productive and less stressful. Sprints are periods in Scrum used to choose – and do – work. It’s not linear planning, more “I can get X done in Y period.”

So I’m doing Scrum for my life, and my sprint is a month, not the traditional two weeks. I do this because my life has a monthly cadence, with monthly meetings, events, and the like. This also means I focus on value differently than if, say, I used two week sprints or the even more (insanely) daring one week sprint.

I have a larger timeframe, so I focus on more kinds of work (stories that deliver value) because I both can do more and have more to do. Thus where a two-week sprint might have me focusing on a generator, a monthly sprint may bring in more projects and work.

Because of my sprint size, I focus on value differently. I deliver multiple, unrelated kinds of value – where a smaller sprint may mean I focus on fewer kinds of value, and those are probably related. I’ve wondered if this dilutes my ability to focus, but also see some advantages.

Here’s an example:

  • In the first two weeks of every month I have three professional meetups – maybe four. These meetups each take up an evening.
  • If I have a monthly cadence then these big blocks aren’t as big a deal as I can fit tasks around them or just do some later. I have adaptability, but work might be diluted.
  • If I have a two-week sprint, then I have to think more of what to accomplish in that time, working with those “block.” of time. I’ve got a bit of a tighter backlog, but the focus is on specific value. For instance maybe I’d make these two weeks even more “business” and do studying, etc.

So smaller sprints means a narrower focus on value – and an opportunity to focus. Why not, I wonder, go by two-week sprints, and these “business blocks” could be enhanced if I also used that time to do studying for certifications, etc. However . . .

. .. this is also my life. That has a few complications:

  • Some work is very hard to “block” like writing. That’s intellectually exhausting, and though I’d like to try, I’m not sure I’m going to, say, write an entire book in a two week block.
  • This big picture lets me adapt easier because there’s more room to shift around. Because of the monthly cadence, I tend to “step on my own toes” less.
  • My “life” commitments are a bit more variable than work. When’s the last time your boss suddenly visited and slept at your place?  OK, don’t answer that.

Your life may be different, so you’ll have to find the sprint cadence that works for you. However, you might be surprised.

If you’re a Scrum Master or Coach, these “life Scrum” and “life Agile” experiences are valuable to develop empathy. By using these techniques in your life, you literally live them and live the roles of all members – Scrum Master, Team Member, Product Owner. Because of that, these experiences are burned into your brain in a visceral manner – next time your team debates value and sprint size, you’ll remember what it was like.

– Steve