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

Red and Blue, Focus and Schedule

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

One of the significant challenges of writing is focusing on writing when we have to worry about schedules. We want to get words into reality, but we also have to ask if the book is on time, where the cover art is, etc. It’s hard to write when you’re worrying – and rare is the writer I’ve met who didn’t have concerns about time weigh on them.

I found a helpful perspective in the works of David Marquet. Previously I wrote about Marquet’s concept of Redwork and Bluework from Leadership is Language. It’s a valuable concept that humans work in two modes – Red (measured, time-based, measurable) and Blue (imaginative, non-linear, creative). Some of this applies to writing and worry – in a surprising way.

The act of actually writing is Redwork in many ways – putting words down following an outline or a direction. Bluework is the plotting, imagining, and outlining. In some cases, one may alter which kind of work they’re doing rapidly, but the division is useful.

Redwork may have a time component – you work for so long or deliver so many words – but it is not the time far into the future. Whatever limits and goals we set on our writing Redwork, those should focus us on the job at hand. Anything else is just disruptive.

The Bluework of writing – plotting, making timelines, etc. – is when we want to think of larger timeframes. That’s when you work out how you’re doing on your schedule or what the plan is. Bluework may be imaginative, but sometimes it takes imagination to figure out how to get a book out on time.

What I learned from this examination is that when I write, I focus on writing. If I worry about the schedule, I just focus on the writing all the more – almost like a meditation. There’s no time to think long-term, and that will just mess you up.

So now I’m working to save my worrying for when I’m not writing. If I get words down and words edited, I’ll always move forward. If I think about schedules during the Bluework of planning and review, I’ll be ready to figure out how to get to my goals.

Marquet’s idea of dividing up work into two kinds is useful, and it’s also useful to figure how they apply to various goals. I think I’ve got more lessons to learn as they apply to writing.

Steven Savage

Steve’s Update 4/13/2021

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Here’s what’s up with me!

A School of Many Futures is going great. I’ve managed to combine two chapters to really ramp up the sense of mystery and accelerate the story. Still good to pre-read start of May, so get ready!

Look for more from the Way With Worlds in May or June. The Natural Disasters book is outlined, so I can write it in May as a break. June is a good time for a release – and you may see some new cover designs!

The Seventh Sanctum rewrite continues. I’ve managed to find a way to streamline some code for generators with certain options that will, hopefully, save time.

To help you see what my overall plans are, check out the new Roadmap – https://www.stevensavage.com/roadmap

Steven Savage

Why I Wrote It: Organizations and Worldbuilding

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Ever heard of “the book you were meant to write?” Organizations and Worldbuilding is one of those books for me. It’s a book on how to write fictional organizations, and it exists due to two personal

I am an organizer by nature and by profession. I was always organized in my youth, always with a plan or something to do. I became a Project Manager, then an Agilist. Now, I not only manage, but I also speak and write on organization.

However, when you’re naturally organized and trained in organization, you see flaws. I’m used to seeing deficiencies in processes, institutions, and teams. That’s how I help people get better at what they want to do.

I also write on worldbuilding, and you can imagine what it’s like when I turn my gaze on fictional organizations. I see flaws in fictional organizations – not appropriate problems, but ones where they’re not believable.

My job is to help organizations and teams run because that’s simply not everyone’s specialty. In turn, that means people writing fictional organizations may need some help. So I figured, “hey, time to write another book.”

I used my specialty.

It’s not like there aren’t other organization-related tips in other worldbuilding guides. Guides to political structures, discussion of genres, etc. all touch on organization. My goal was to create a general guide for worldbuilders making fictional governments, companies, etc. Something to cover those not-specific but oh-so-important questions like “how the heck do these people communicate.”

It’s another one I’m happy with, but it has a special place in my heart – it’s uniquely mine. Perhaps I’ll revisit it, do a sequel, or expand it, but it’s doing its job for now.

Steven Savage

Those Old, Unfamiliar Places

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

To keep my sanity during the Pandemic, I take a drive to see places I used to go before COVID-19. I go past apartments I used to live in, stores I used to frequent, or parks I liked to hang out at. These drives remind me of what went on before and what can again.

If a place is safely outdoors, I may even take a walk. Vaccinated, double-masked, avoiding people, I pass silently through places I miss. If an area looks to be filled with people, or if I see reckless behavior, I avoid it. It hurts to avoid places I loved.

It also hurts me that so much has changed in a year or three.

Stores I knew are gone. Apartments have sprouted up in places I’ve never seen. New shops have opened with hope and caution. I’m passing through a world I know that is totally alien to me.

What happened? What is this place? Who are these people? Where did this place go? I want to know what happened, I crave the story of the year gone.

A joke passed among my anime-loving friends is that when we finally have conventions, it’ll be like an Anime Timeskip. Everyone will have aged a few years, everyone will be different. The metaphor is funny, but it also acknowledges there will be stories of what happened. There will be a narrative because we can talk and because we kept in touch as best we could.

The empty buildings and new places where I used to go tell no stories. I didn’t witness their shutting down or going up. I wasn’t able to say goodbye or hello. They’re tales I can’t grasp quickly, and seeking them may be risky.

I feel a gap in the way the landscape of my life changed. People need narratives, we need to understand why something is and what happened. We are also creatures of place and context, from a comfy den to a favorite coffee shop. But places and their tales are different after the Pandemic, and there are holes in the story.

So I pass by and through these old, unfamiliar places. I want to know, I want to understand, I want to connect. I cannot.

I am a masked a ghost haunted by the new things and dead years.

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

Steve’s Update 4/4/2021

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

Here’s what’s up with me!

A School of Many Futures edit continues – and thanks to those singing on to preread! Right now I’m finishing a deep edit of Chapter 3 (of 13-14), about to rewrite Chapter 4, and hope to get done at the start of May. One thing I’m expanding on is the role of education in a techno-fantasy setting. The characters may be teachers, but when their specialty is safety and supernatural dangers, they may be missing a few things . . .

For the Way With Worlds series, I’ve outlined the core of the first book in the Disaster series – Natural Disasters! I’ll cover 40 or so natural disasters, as well as “high-level” questions for worldbuilders. Expect to get some thought provoking questions on everything from settling land to how disasters shape landscape.

The Seventh Sanctum rewrite has gone into the more specialized generators with unusual control structures. I’ve inventoried them and now have to fit the architecture to work with them. Python and Flask make it pretty easy – the stress of the Pandemic does not. Still, not giving up – and inventorying the system will help me write a sequel to Chance’s Muse.

Still in on some giveaways

Steven Savage

Strange Days: Regretful Artificial Memories

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

Strange Days is one of those films more people have heard about than seen. “That cyberpunk film with Ralph Fiennes” is how I usually hear it summed up. Though this 1995 movie has quite a pedigree – written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow – it did not do well in the theater. When I saw it recently, I could see why; Strange Days is a mostly-courageous, mostly-creative film that mostly ignored popular trends.

Seen now, one can see the audacity, and though there are flaws of the “mostly” variety, there’s much to take away.

The Hollow Man

In 1999, right before the end of the millennium, ex-cop Lenny is busy selling the ultimate high – people’s recorded memories. A recording technology called SQUID, once meant for police work, now serves as a way to relive people’s experiences. A bustling underground in other’s lives emerged, and the sleazy-but charming Lenny is ready to make a buck.

When we meet Lenny (Ralph Finnes), he’s reliving the memories of a crime someone else committed – another high on a portable disk. We soon realize his entire life is trading memories, some contracted for, some sold, all with a market. He relishes his role as a merchant of dreams, even if a little bit of con and trickery is needed.

But Lenny’s life and joy are as false as his fake designer watches. When not trading for experiences, he keeps reliving his life with his former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). She’s moved on to live with eccentric but powerful music producer Philo (Michael Wincott), while Lenny keeps reliving the same days off of a disk. His life is just a loop of other people’s memories and his recorded ones.

The film explores Lenny slowly and has a rare quality – the courage to explore a concept. The SQUID is the only difference between our worlds, and our gateway to Lenny’s world is Lenny. By seeing his life – and his addiction – we get a natural feel for the impact of technology on people.

Of course, Lenny, is missing a lot of what’s going on.

A Small Man In The Big Picture

Lenny’s world is a small one of recordings, sales, and his two friends. Detective Max (Tom Sizemore, as charmingly sleazy as Fiennes) helps him with cons and provides information. Bodyguard and driver Mace (an incredible Angela Bassett) provides transport and muscle, as well as common sense. They also help him navigate the larger world – and his problems because Lenny is a damaged man.

The Los Angeles of the film is damaged as well and all too believable. Police brutality is a constant, and communities conflict. The murder of a famous Rapper on Philo’s label threatens to set the city aflame. One can almost understand why Lenny finds customers – who wouldn’t want to escape? Lenny’s own withdrawal and delusions seem entirely sensible.

Lenny may be trying to escape himself, but he can’t escape after consuming a random memory disk someone dropped in his car.

Hell Is Other People

The memories Lenny finds are of a brutal rape and murder of a prostitute in his circle – from the killer’s view. These scenes are disturbing, raw, and ugly – and pumped straight into Lenny’s mind.

Though these vicious memories are horrible on screen, they’re made more horrible by seeing Lenny’s reaction. We jump-cut between the POV murder and Lenny’s horrified expression as he cries and tries to make sense of what he’s living. We do not just see what is going on, Fiennes makes us feel what is going on and what he is experiencing.

Despite the disturbing nature of this sequence, the courage of the film is on display here. First, the film extrapolates how a sick mind might use the technology. We’ve seen Lenny’s customers buy sex or POV robberies, but now we’re forced to reckon with how far people may go. It’s not hard to look at this scene and say, “Yes, people would do this. Yes, they would pay for it.”

But just as – or more – courageous is the scene comes off as a critique of POV Slasher movies. Often these films put people in the shoes of the killer as they go about their gruesome business. Through Lenny – and Fiennes’s performance – he experiences the killer’s mind and how disgusting it is.

Lenny, the dealer of a modern-day electronic drug, has just had the ultimate bad trip.

An Erratic Path

The film follows Lenny, Max, Mace, and the others as they deal with the city on edge, the question of the murder, and their own problems. At this point, summing up the film is both difficult but would also spoil too much.

It would spoil too much because, at heart, this is a kind of murder-mystery film. It is the kind of movie – like a human memory – you have to experience to see the winding path and where it goes. Without spoiling, let us say it is like life – some things are dramatic when small, and some dramatic things turn out to be illusions.  Strange Days isn’t afraid to be messy or disappoint you appropriately.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in explaining the film is that sometimes the film overexplains. The film’s courage gives out in parts, where you don’t have slow revelations but large infodumps. These are not as satisfying, and I could easily give away huge parts in a few sentences – because that’s how the film does it.

The ending ends up both exciting and disappointing. There are believable ugly and beautiful plot twists, next to feel-good tropes and violence out of an opera. For all it’s courage, too many parts near the end seem contrived to be audience-pleasers. These parts are in stark contrast to the film’s, gritty, messy mood – Lenny’s world isn’t clean, and neither should the end of his tale be.

Seventy-Five Percent Courageous

Though I am critical of parts of the film, I have to applaud the sheer commitment to its core ideas for most of the movie. The film is willing to extrapolate on technology. The story is messy in most of the right splots because life is messy. There are elements that I cannot see people being brave enough to include today.

I may critique the film, but that’s because it only falters when it loses that courage that infuses so much of it. The film feels easy in so many ways, sprinting forward with its ideas horrible and wonderful, so when it trips, you feel the jolt. I’ll take courage most of the time over cowardice predominating.

None of my critiques are directed at the cast, who are uniformly excellent. Fiennes is absolutely believable as Lenny. Basset’s Mace is a real bad-ass. You can feel the cast’s courage, and indeed they carry the film when it’s bravery isn’t apparent.

Stumble Towards Greatness

The lesson that stays with me from the film is that in creativity, courage always beats cowardice. Even partial courage is better when it predominates. This film may not have done well at the box office, but it has been re-evaluated in time, and that validates the flawed bravery of the movie.

Much like its protagonist, the film is imperfect and has shallow moments, but it does keep going. If you don’t stop, maybe you get to a place that’s better.

Steven Savage

Steve’s Update 3/29/2021

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

First, the giveaways I’m in!

Now the update!

A School Of Many Futures: Finished editing to the halfway point, and with a good sense of it, I’m doing a final outline to guide my writing. Still on track to have it ready for pre-reading in May, and publish late August.

Way With Worlds: I’ve got the book on natural disasters partially outlined, and need to finish that up. The other books in the series (man-made disasters and general disasters) will come next. This should be a great themed “run” for my books and I want to get one out in May when the prereaders are doing their things.

Seventh Sanctum: I took a break and am back at it, reviewing code and starting to add the more “weird” generator configurations. Hang in there, because here we go . . .

General: Still considering the “pile of blog posts” books I have. I will get them out, but am debating how much to edit and cut. Maybe I need more prereaders . . .

Steven Savage

Why I Wrote It – A Bridge To The Quiet Planet

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

A Bridge To The Quiet Planet was my return to fiction. It exists because someone said writing genre fiction is worth doing, and I said, “I should do that.”

That’s it.

The author in question was Magen Cubed, best known for her Southern Gothic Series. Her story is about a monster-hunting modern himbo cowboy and his neurotic vampire boyfriend. Their misadventures include wild romantic hookups, monster politics, and a chihuahua. Honestly, Netflix should option this even if they may need some “fade to black” when things get steamy.

She wrote her thing, and her Twitter statements on the way genre fiction is open made me think about my writing. I hadn’t done fiction in years, and I suddenly had the urge to return.

I have written about worldbuilding for ages – it’s been a specialty of mine since my teen days. I’m fascinated by good setting construction, and it was a vital part of my previous fiction work. Even a decade-or-so break from writing fiction wasn’t a break from worldbuilding – I was the guy to bounce ideas off of, read beta editions, and so on.

But oh, her Tweets about why you should write fiction reminded me of how I missed bringing a world to write.

Then it began. Ideas began to come to me . . .

. . . I loved anime and video games, and specifically the techno-fantasy worlds where science and sorcery existed . . .

. . . but those worlds often never extrapolated on what this meant. Sir Terry Pratchett and Dave Barry came to mind, ideas to explore this world of gods and computers more closely . . .

. . . a pair of heroines began to evolve, one a kind of Hermionie (Marigold), and Mei Hatsume of MHA (Scintilla) . . .

. . . they lived in a world scarred by a massive war, as many fantasy novels have so many ruins they are post-apocalyptic . . .

. . . and the world valued stability, and that meant I threw in the schemes renegade god to screw things up . . .

And there we had my return to fiction. A Bridge To The Quiet Planet was a road trip where a bunch of modern fantasy tropes traveled to a planet-side graveyard for gods. I won’t spoil.

Thus I had a novel, my first in ages.

Overall I’m pleased with it. It’s a road trip story, mainly to have fun traveling through the setting and the implications of what one reader called “a typical fantasy world in the space age.” Though I would do parts of it differently, there are also elements I’m very proud of.

There’s also a sequel in the works – A School of Many Futures. I play with several tropes there (The Big Book Of Plot Secrets, Magical School Adventures) and go for a more complex mystery ala “Knives Out.” It’s harder to write than the first because I’m pushing myself to make a more complex, richer story.

The novel awakened my fiction-writing urges, so I decided to write at least three books in any setting. The truth is, I know I’ll be writing fiction for awhile – maybe the rest of my life.

All because of the right Tweet at the right time.

Steven Savage