A Writer’s View: Big Damn Rocks

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

I’ve decided to start blogging my writing findings as I work on my first public fiction novel in ages, “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet.”  Returning to fiction was a bit tough – which surprised me.  I’ve written a lot of stuff over the last 40 years, but not much fiction the last 10 – but I figured all my editing, consulting, short stories, other works, and generator-development would mean I could dive back in.  Boy I was wrong.a

One problem that struck me is what I call “Big Rocks.”  My guess is you suffer from these too.

Ever have an idea, scene, or concept in a story that seems to just resist any change?  Something that seemed unavoidable no matter how much the plot or characters or scenes changed?  A Big Rock in your story is this immovable, immutable, thing that weighs your story down – and you just can’t seem to get rid of it.  Yet at the same time it restricts your ideas and dreams because you just can’t get rid of that Big Rock – it’s part of the story!


I found a huge, huge problem in working on my new novel is that I’d have these great ideas that I’d never get rid of or change as I’d become dedicated to them – meanwhile the story, characters, and setting had evolved beyond them.  I had all these Big Rocks I just wasn’t willing to get rid of, yet all my other great ideas kept running into them.

The solution was to ditch them.  If you have an idea that squashes all your other ideas, this dense ball that distorts the story like a weight on a rubber sheet, that idea is the problem no matter how great it is.

Art is a dialogue, a give-take, a cycle.  Something that stops that cycle by interrupting you constantly is not good.  You’re better off without it and you don’t need it.

We don’t need to cling to our Big Rocks, those giant ideas that limit us.  We need to keep the process of imagination going.  The Big Rocks are best broken down or walked away from – we may find we can make something better from their fragments or return to them with new insights.  Appreciate them, move on, and see what happens next.

– Steve

Vanguard: What Having A Shared Universe Is Like

yin yang puzzle

When Avengers: Age of Ultron came out (spoiler: he does’t look his age), some of my friends began commenting on an old photo on Facebook. The two-plus decade old photo was of a group of us who had been in a superhero-oriented writing project called Vanguard, a project we remembered fondly. Though long ago, the latest Avengers romp led to a burst of discussion of this past project – one worth exploring because it may inspire others to a similar creative endeavor.

Vanguard was a shared-universe writing project, akin to the fan-works like Elfquest Holts, or the professional works like Thieves’ World and Wild Cards. Part RPG, part collective writing project, everyone wrote inside one setting, a whole kit-and-caboodle superhero world of mutants and magic and more. Bimonthly newsletters (and eventually magazines) collected the tales, presented information, and gave us something to read – and be inspired by.

Or in short, 3 and eventually 30 people writing in the same world, with the same cast, for four and a half years of crazy fun. Also there was a mutant dolphin with a suit of armor and a shapeshifter who became the worlds least threatening dragon, so it didn’t lack for unusual characters.

I reflect back on it fondly, on the tales, the camaraderie, of what made it so . . . well, great. I love to see similar efforts, and have advised people on similar efforts over the years. Sometimes I even wonder if I’d like to start a project like it again.

But, if you wonder how it worked, and like the idea of building your own universe with a team, here’s how it went. Consider this my contribution to getting others to try something this wonderful.

Vanguard Had Two Daddies

Vanguard started at a comic shop, when my friend Dan, an imaginative fellow, and I discussed writing and comics. I mentioned how Elfquest fandom had founded “Holts,” writing about their own characters in the setting Wendy and Richard Pini had created. One thing led to another and that evening we came up with the idea of Vanguard – a diverse superhero team (Vanguard) assembled in the wake of a scandal that laid low a more “publicity-oriented” government team of superhumans.

The idea formed quickly.  People would create their own characters and setting elements, but also borrow others (with permission for more “intense” usage). Some characters and setting elements would be shared or designed by the group or the most qualified people. We’d create tales regularly and share them in a newsletter.

It grew with surprising speed.  We had it forged in rough shape in one evening.

We invited one or two more people, and then it just grew.  One friend would bring another. Gaming groups or groups from other newsletters would join via one member or another. We threw parties at conventions, we recruited. In the end it went from three people to about thirty in about two years.

If you wanted to join you submitted a character sheet (hopefully having read our world guide), and if that character was approved, you were in. I found the initial “character pre-screening” a good way to evaluate if people “got” the world. Some people (indeed, most people) just “got” the project and connect with it – and this screening is a way to tell.

Not everyone “got” the world. There were a few submissions that needed editing or were just egregious. Most, the majority, were pretty well done.  I’d say most of the cast could have carried their own series – because in the minds of writers, “their” characters were protagonists.

As you may expect, not everyone participated equally. There was a great difference in talent or time commitment. Some people came, some went. That’s the way it goes, no harm, no foul – we were having fun and growing our skills.

Though it may have been in a bit of a different form than we have in these internet days. Remember this was in the 90’s, and we had paper not pixels . . .

I Love The Smell Of Copy Shops In The Morning

Sure, a big endless creative jam sounds fun, but that jam has to produce something. Inspired by fan newsletter and shared-universe books, our goal was to produce materials that were organized and as professional as possible. A good, well-done “product” made it easier to enjoy, raised the bar, and of course didn’t look too shabby in a job interview.

We proudly produced the following:

A Bimonthly Newsletter – Then Magazine

Every two months (we’d intended every three, but that changed quickly) the staff would put out a newsletter of stories, columns, art, and more. This started as a simple 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ newsletter, but ballooned to a giant 8 1/2″ by 11″ magazine.

Keep in mind this was in the 90’s We had to get the files mailed to us, convert them, edit them, and get them into one document,

Then we had to format the document for printing and actually print it out.

Then we had to paste in the art.

Then we had to copy the whole thing.

Finally we had to mail the finished product out.

It wasn’t cheap (people paid about $20 a year), but it did produce a nice product for the technology of the time. Decades later I still have a pile of them on my shelves, and they’re pretty good for what is “pro-amateur work.” We also learned as we went, and you can see the improvement between issues – better formatting, better use of art, etc.  It was a hands-on classroom.

The editing and assembly I remember fondly. It was like a party, all those hours formatting, all the work, all the camaraderie. There’s nothing quite like those times. Part of what made this special was making the final product.

Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned, but the craftsmanship made a real difference. Anyone trying this today, in electronic format, should make sure it’s as well-crafted as any magazine. That makes you take extra care.

Character Guides

You have to know who was who in the universe, so the newsletter also contained character sheets, following a given template. We’d hoped to assemble a character-only magazine with art, but never got around to it. A shame, as things were damned imaginative.


If you ever wondered where I got my fanatic worldbuilding, this was the major influence on my attitude and approach on setting-creation. Editing the world together, checking for continuity, was a big part of making the project work. This also meant that we had to produce a guidebook so people understood just what was going on.  After awhile the editors probably needed it just to remember what was going on.

The guide was also updated every issue. New characters, new revelations, new organizations had to be documented.  A few times the act of updating the guide would make editors have a “oh crap” moment as we saw a mistake.  Then it was back to the author or to reread a story.

The guide was invaluable – and I liked the terseness. It wasn’t a giant Worldbook. It was a guide. It was enough to get going. You could pick up the rest reading.

I have to wonder how crazy we could have gotten with more time . . . today of course we’d have a wiki.  But I do like to imagine a giant hundreds-of-pages-guidebook . . .

So What Was It Like To Do This?

So we made superheroes and stories, edited and printed newsletters, and recruited. What was it like to do all this?

It. Was. Awesome.

Honestly, until you’ve done something like this, it’s hard to appreciate it. To this day I can remember so many wonderful moments, from editing in the living room of an apartment I shared with four people, or selecting paper colors for covers. I can remember parties and cosplay and jokes and readings.

It Was Creative. The ideas flying around, the stories, the cross-fertilization are something you have to experience to appreciate. Totally unrelated ideas and characters would come together to make something new and unforeseen. At our best we were all working toward something greater than ourselves or our ideas.

It Was Social. You met great people and made friends. You went to events and had parties. It was a creative endeavor that connected you. People with shared goals become closer and do better.

It Was About Achievement. We took this seriously, we did our best. It was fun, but it was also great to work really hard to do it right. The sense of achievement, of understanding how to set and reach goals, sticks with me to this day.

It Was More Than Many Media. During the time Vanguard was active, I think we paid more attention to it than any other media. Vanguard was “our thing.” Vanguard was what we wanted. All of the above made it more engaging than just some other TV show or comic – it was ours.

It Stoked Ambitions. Many of us had professional ambitions of some kind. Some made it some didn’t, but it stuck with so many of us. My writing today is at least 70% due to Vanguard.

It Was Addictive. Again, you have to do something like this, throw yourself into it, to appreciate it. It was wonderfully overwhelming. At times, I wonder if it was too much – then I think “nah, it was just awesome.”

And All Things Come To An End

Vanguard lasted four and a half years. Technically we went longer than many startups of today. But it came to an end.

Of course I wish it hadn’t, but all things have their conclusions. I could have seen it go on much, much longer, but it didn’t.

When I look back on the end, you could see it happening. Some of us were exhausted. Life changes kept coming at us. People questioned the directions things should go. Relations changed. It was a hell of an effort to keep it going at the best of times.

Bitter? No. It kept petering out until at a meeting some of us decided the end was nigh. But it happens.

There’s lessons learned. In fact, I’ll be analyzing now just how it was done and how to do it better in a column after this.

But let’s ask one more question.

Was It Worth It?

Hell yes.

The people you meet are great. The relations are great. Even scattered to the winds decades later members of the crew keep in touch, if in scattered ways or social media.

We all grew so much. It was educational. It was professional. It was amazing. You could look over those newsletters and see people growing as artists and writers and, well, people.

If you want to try a project for this I may warn you to “be ready” for challenges, but there’s no reason for me not to encourage you.  If anything, in an age of internet connectivity, a good shared-universe project could literally change the world.

Forward Into The Future

So, I’ve told you the story and sung the praises of Vanguard. If someone wanted to do their own shared-universe project – as many do now, much easier in the internet age, I’ll share my advice on it next week.

The technology has changed. The lessons? They’re the same.

Maybe even more relevant in an age of internet speed.


– Steven Savage