Monday, May 8, 2017

The Rubber Duck Method of Plot Fixing

Have you ever heard of the Rubber Duck Method of Coding?

There are offices where computer programmers, on their first day, are given, among other supplies, a rubber duck. It is to sit on their desk until its needed.

In the words of Arthur Weasley, "What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?" Why would programmers keep a bath toy on their desk, and why would they ever need it?

Let me ask a different question: How often have you gotten stuck on a problem and been unable to progress because you just can't figure it out?

Feeling stuck? Talk to the duck.

What? Maxwell, have you gone mental? No, I'm quite sane, as are the many computer programmers with rubber ducks on their desks. Because when you run into a problem, you can spend hours, days, weeks running it around in your head and get nowhere. Come on, writers, hands up if you have. If there were an audience here, I'd probably be seeing every hand up.

Now think about this: of all those problems, how many times have you solved it ten seconds after you started talking to someone about it?

Uh-huh.

And I'm willing to bet, many times, the other person in the conversation didn't even need to say anything. You could have practically replaced them with... a rubber duck.

Some programmers have used this technique to solve coding issues for years: talk to the duck, explain what you're trying to do, and you'll figure out your logic error. In extreme cases, they'll bring in other programmers and THEIR ducks until three, four, five people and their ducks solve the problem.

In the same vein, tell a duck your plothole, and maybe, while explaining why it doesn't work, you'll figure out what can fix it. Or, if you feel silly talking to yourself aloud, you can type it out like you're chatting with the duck. Compose an email to the duck on why your main character is being frustrating and dismissive with the love interest (epiphany: she's actually in love with her best friend) or how this secret door's mechanic is stupid and doesn't make sense (realization: Why not use a remote control instead of the classic 'pull a book' method?) If you've got writing buddies, they make fantastic ducks, because they understand, and they've brought their duck, too. I have never once encountered a plot hole that couldn't be fixed by talking to the duck. Sometimes the ducks are named Kat and Bobo, and they've got a duck named Maggie. But whatever the name and whatever the technique, it works. It always works.

And that, Mr. Weasley, is the function of a rubber duck.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dear New Novelist: About That Bad Review...

It's a difficult pill to swallow, but when you're done with your short story, your novel, your poem, anything, and you get it out in front of the world, not everyone is going to love it. Go take a look at your favorite book on Amazon or Goodreads. It's got 2 and 1-star reviews. My own husband can't stand Harry Potter (I married a hater? I know, right? But he introduced me to Terry Pratchett, so I can get past it.) There is no single book or story that's universally loved, and there never will be. Some people won't like the genre, others will hate the writing style or plot, and some will just be around to troll because they think it's fun to rile up fans. Inevitably, when you put your hard work out for public consumption, the day will come where you'll get... a bad review.

It's going to stab you in the heart, and how that makes you feel depends on you.

Maybe you'll feel like a failure, even if you have a hundred other reviews that are 4 and 5 stars. You'll pour yourself a glass of liquid comfort (wine, hot chocolate, one of those huge-ass milkshakes that's got a whole slice of cake on it), have a cry, and enjoy a good pity party.

Maybe you'll get mad. How dare they? Haven't they ever heard "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all?" How could they have never watched Bambi?

Or maybe you'll laugh it off, shrug, and go about your day. But no matter what you do, the words will still be there, circling around in your head, popping up unbidden like a Jack-in-the-Box and slowly eating away at you. 

You'll go back and read it again, and you'll notice something. Maybe they misunderstood what you meant in a scene they say they hated. Maybe they're talking about something that never happened, like they reviewed the wrong book. Maybe they're mad they bought the wrong book entirely. Whatever the reason, you'll read it through, and then, when you're done, your eyes will linger on the little option below it.

Reply.

Brake brake BRAKE. Slam those pedals to the ground and pray to God you're not hitting the accelerator, because this is where you need to STOP

It's time to talk about the Author's Big Mistake. That is, replying to comments. 

How are you supposed to handle bad reviews? Well, you've got three options:

1) Ignore it. After all, a handful of bad reviews don't cancel out the good ones. One person saying, "I didn't like it" is one person's opinion. Eventually, it'll be just one review among many, and if it's factually wrong or trolling, it'll probably be downvoted by other reviewers.

2) Kill them with politeness. "Thank you for commenting! I appreciate your honesty and will take your thoughts into consideration in the future." It at least makes you look like the bigger person, but it also opens you to conversation with them, which can lead to #3.

3) Try to argue your perspective. Or just argue. After all, writing is your business. Bad reviews will cost you sales, right? Probably. So it only makes sense to respond and tell them "No, see, here's where you're wrong. Please correct your review." Right?

Note: I'm being sarcastic. Have you ever seen what happens when a business responds to a bad review with negativity? It ain't pretty. And this applies to authors too. When a person leaves a bad review, if the recipient ignores it, then its just one review among reviews. Some people will read a bad review and not buy it. Others will read the same review and be convinced they need to try it themselves. In the end, it'll probably balance out.

But when the recipient responds with criticism of the reviewer, it gets out. The reviewer mentions it on their blog or posts about it on Facebook or on a forum, and then it's like a high school fight: everyone's gotta see it and get in. Then the reviewed has to defend themselves from the flood of negativity and voices going "Dude, stop" because they're wrong too, right? You have to save your business! Everyone has to see that you're not the bad guy! And then you're too far gone.

Even if you manage to avoid the flood of negative PR from responding defensively, you've still put evidence out there that you have thin skin, or that if someone doesn't like your work, they'll get spoken down to or yelled at. Your own bad behavior will cost you more sales, reads, or reviews than any negative review ever could.

So stop and look at that reply button. Sip your wine, tea, hot chocolate, or crazy-ass milkshake. If you absolutely must write a response, write it in a separate document, not the reply box. And then, when you're done, delete it.

Because no bad review could ever do as much damage to your career as you can do yourself with a reply.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Dear New Novelist: The Paycheck Isn't Always Worth It

Dear New Novelist,

Getting paid to write sounds amazing, doesn't it? That's a lot of our goals. Whether it's enough to live and work full-time as a writer or just enough to buy a pizza and maybe a celebratory milkshake, the fact is that we want to get paid to do something we love. So if someone came to you with an offer to write for them, for pay, why would you ever say no?

I got an email this morning. Right to my inbox. In summation, it said, "Write a blog post for us, and we'll pay you."

I should be excited! I've never been paid to write.

And I will continue to not be. Because while the idea of money for words is lovely, sometimes the cost isn't worth it.

To expand on that email's summation, the sender is a foreign wedding and prom dress website. They want me to write them a blog post, in German, advertising them, and if I make the post, share their banner, and advertise the blog post on all my social medias, they'll pay me $30.

I could be living out of a paper bag and I still would not take that offer. Because, new novelist, pay is not always worth it.

It's not worth surrendering your integrity or going against what you stand for if they want to pay you to write something you would normally never say yourself but must portray it as your own thoughts.

It's not worth loss of reputation and dependability if they want to pay you to become a walking spam advertisement.

It's DEFINITELY not worth the risk of malware to your readers or you.

Honestly,  not worth learning another language either, in this case. I know, like, three phrases in German: Ich bin ein Berliner, schmetterling, and schadenfreude. And you know, some random stuff about Heil and Fuhrers and a few insults I picked up in The Book Thief.

I am not even going to trouble myself with writing them a response, unless they're actually reading this blog, in which case, my answer is "No." No, I will not be your shill. No, I will not destroy my reputation across all my social media platforms for you. No, I will not waste my time with you more than sharing a few laughs with my friends at your audacity.

But thanks for the inspiration for the blog post.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reading for Research: Suddenly, I Understand Omni

In the latter quarter of 2016, I was slowly working my way through The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, sneaking a chapter here and there until a road trip encouraged me to finish. The chapters are short, so they were easy to sneak, and by the time the road trip started for me, the book was too engaging to put down like I had before.

If you don't know about The Book Thief (I know, you probably do, but I keep running into people who don't, so just in case. Bear with me. I'll be brief), it's a story about a young German girl living in Nazi Germany at the start of WWII. As the title implies, she steals books. The interesting this is, the story's told from the perspective of Death. It's used as a framing device, a character who has seen many stories, met many people, and is pretty much the world's greatest neutral force, becoming fascinated with this one girl he keeps encountering.

While I was trying to think of how to explain this choice of framing device to someone to whom I recommended the book, I realized it: this is how you write omniscient POV.

You don't know how long I've been trying to understand omni POV. I've tried studying it and failed. I've grasped the idea of it, but the overall puzzle eluded me. I had the pieces, but I couldn't put them together in a way that made sense. "There's a narrator and they know everything" just didn't work for me, especially as someone who generally writes in close perspective. But it finally clicked here, because there's literally a narrator instead of just some unnamed force telling a story. Imagine Death as a storyteller. If you sat down in front of them and asked for a story, what you will be told is Omni. Someone who knows everyone, who knows their stories and what happened, but maybe not necessarily their feelings. I actually get it now. I just needed that skeletal face to put that damn puzzle together. Thank you, Mr. Zusak.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Dear New Novelist: No One's Going to Steal Your WIP

Dear New Novelist,

Congratulations! You've hit your 50k on NaNoWriMo, or maybe you've put THE END on your novel. Either way, you've got a lot of words. You've worked hard on them, through easy bursts and head-bangingly difficult blocks. They're all yours. Now what? Well, you have a few options: if you're doing NaNoWriMo or Camp, it's time to validate; you can send it to some beta readers; or if you've done your editing already, time to submit it to publishers or agents.

"But wait!" you say, clutching your novel to your chest. "How can I possibly do that? What if someone tries to steal it?!"

Dear New Novelist, no one is going to steal your unedited, unpublished work.

Every year during NaNo, numerous newbies panic over validation or using the official word counter. "Who's doing the counting? Where is my novel stored so that it can be counted? What's stopping anyone from stealing my hard work?"

Answers: Absolutely no one, absolutely no where, and so many reasons.

The counting is done by a word counter not unlike your own word processing program's. It doesn't need to save anything anywhere. It just counts the words and dumps it, as if it never existed. Imagine if it saved a copy of every novel submitted every year. In 2015, there were 40,423 winners of NaNoWriMo according to WikiWriMo. Since 2010, there have been 254,342 winning novels. The site slows down enough on November 30th just trying to count everyone's requests without storage. If it were trying to pop it into a server somewhere and save it, the whole site would likely be rendered nonfunctional.

And not a single one of those novels was edited when it was submitted for validation. That's 254,000 messy chunks of coal with the potential to become diamonds, mixed in with people who submitted Lorem Ipsum because they handwrote their novels or used a typewriter, or people who scrambled their text out of the concerns listed above. Even if they saved a copy of everyone's novel, if someone at the NaNoWriMo Office wanted to steal your validated work for publication, they would have to read completely through every single submission to find the ones that are not fanfiction, that are complete (because 50k doesn't mean done), and that aren't filled with "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" 5000 times. Then, once they've isolated those that qualify, they'd have to edit it, because who has time for a deep cleaning edit during NaNo?

Plagiarists steal because they don't want to do the work, and editing is, to most writers, the least fun work of all in writing. What plagiarists would rather do, what they do, in fact, do, is take someone's published work and change a few words to pass it off as their own.

This is the same reason a beta reader isn't going to steal your novel, or an editor or agent. Because most likely, they all need work that a plagiarist is not going to want to do. Even if they did, there's no guarantee whatever the end result is will sell. Working with something already published, they know it's something that someone will buy.

Now, this isn't a reason not to thoroughly vet your beta readers, agents, editors, and publishers. Do your homework. For beta readers, use people you trust, not just the first stranger who offers. For editors, publishers, and agents, get reviews from other people, check Absolute Write's Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum and scour the internet for them. Be sure you're not sending your novel off to a vanity publisher who will publish your unedited book for thousands of dollars, or to an agent that will "absolutely get you published but first you have to pay this editor who just happens to be [their] husband." There are lots of scams and scary things to be concerned about out there in the publishing world. Someone stealing your incomplete or unedited novel shouldn't even be in the top 10.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Perfectionist's Guide to NaNoWriMo (Or How to Survive The First Draft Without Going Bald)


It's hard being a perfectionist writer. No joke. You all who fit the qualifications know what I mean. The urge to edit everything. The desire to make it right the first time. The need for every chapter, every scene, every word to be perfect.

That doesn't fly come NaNo time.

It's easy to read the rules and learn the guidelines. Easy to tell yourself "just write." And way, way easier said than done. After six years of NaNo and seven attempted novels, I've learned a few things about NaNo, first drafts, and not pulling your hair out when all you want to do is Make. It. Perfect.

1. Redefine Perfect on a Draft-by-Draft Basis

I think we can all come to a near-consensus on when our first draft perfection streak started: the first time a teacher, probably in middle or high school said, "This is a big project, so I want you guys to turn your first draft into me by next Friday." First draft? What's that nonsense? We'd been writing essays start to finish since our very first one. We'd perfected the last-minute, overnighter A+. Our first drafts are our only drafts. So we'd write up our turn-in-ready essay and make a few changes to dumb it down, give the teacher something to review. It really shouldn't have worked, but it did, and it ingrained in us the confidence that we don't really need to worry about drafts. We'll get it right the first time.

HahahahahHahahHAAHAHaaaaa

Thing is, though, a novel isn't an essay. There's a lot more room for error in 50,000 words than there is in 5,000. And when you realize 30k in that you have to completely redo everything because of a plothole you left in the third chapter, it's easy to give up. It's a failure, and we don't want to fail. Nothing less than an A, right?

The trick is to redefine "perfect" to the individual draft, to move the goalposts of perfection one draft at a time. Author Jane Smiley said, "Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist." Accept this as the gospel truth. The first draft's goalpost isn't "ready to publish," it's just "written." It doesn't matter if there's giant gaping plot holes. "No plot holes" is the goalpost for draft two. Or "no typos" or "no atrocious grammar" or whatever you want that second draft goalpost to be. Not "perfect perfect" though. That's at LEAST third draft, if not fourth or fifth.

2. Just Because You Wrote It Doesn't Mean You Have To See It

So you just wrote a 2,000 word scene and realize "this isn't working." You have to scrap it all. A whole day's writing, down the recycle bin. But before you hit that delete key, stop! You wrote that. And maybe part of it is salvageable or belongs in a different scene. Don't shortchange your wordcount or do something you may regret. Just hide it. You've got a number of options to make the bad text go away without actually going away forever.
  • Make the text white or use black highlight on black text.
  • Change the font to an unreadable one, like Wingdings.
  • Move the text to the bottom of the document, several pages down, or if you're using a program like Scrivner, to a separate file.
You may be able to think of other tricks to make your mistakes disappear. Whatever you choose to do, implement it, from single sentences to whole chapters. During the first draft, and especially during NaNo, don't just delete haphazardly. That's part of draft two. Write that on your goalpost.

3. It's Okay To Skip Around or Come Back Later

If you're anything like me, you like your perfect drafts to be written in one long swoop, start to finish, Chapter 1 to The End. You write a book just like you read a book. Maybe the thought of breaking it up gives you cold sweats. After all, how can you accurately write the scene where the hero finally meets the villain if you don't know if the love interest is there or not, or if there's a mentor figure the villain's supposed to kill that you haven't introduced yet so you don't even know his personality!

This is me telling you, it's okay. It's okay to skip that awkward conversation if you don't know how to write it yet. It's okay to jump forward to the end when you too happy to write the death scene. It's okay to come back later, whether it's a huge event or a name for a minor character. Leave yourself a note, highlighted yellow and surrounded by attention-grabbing symbols (I like to do [ADD ____]). You don't need the paragraph or scene or chapter to be perfect now, only complete later. And I'll tell you why. You don't complete puzzles by doing one row at a time, in order, right? You get the pieces and parts you can figure out first (the outer frame, the obvious, odd colored pieces, etc) and then use those to fill in the rest. You can do that with your novel. It's just a puzzle where you decide what the picture is.

4. You're Always A Winner

It can feel like if you don't get that purple verified bar, you've failed. You'll want to pretend you never even tried, to make November and NaNo have just not happened for us. We're perfectionists because we don't like failure. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, even if we do everything right, we just can't win. Maybe life got in the way, or maybe you lost your drive. Whatever the reason, you lost.

But you've also won.

Whether you finish November with 100 words or 49,999, those are words you didn't have before. You WROTE. You created something that didn't exist before, and you have the road paved to keep going. There is nothing stopping you from keeping going beyond November. You don't have to put down the story and never look at it again just because you didn't finish it in the course of one month. The "victory" goal of NaNo is 50,000 words, but the real goal of NaNo is to just write. Did you write? Congrats. You've won. What did you win? The right to call yourself a writer. Heck yeah, that's awesome. And what are a few colored pixels compared to that?

********

So, perfectionists, let go of your hair. November is coming, and you're going to write, and it's going to be just fine. Self-inflicted bald spots only lead to more stress. Scientific fact.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hello Tumblr!

I've noticed that I suddenly got a large bump of views coming from Tumblr and the Tumblr app, so I can only assume that one or more of my pages migrated its way over there. Welcome to everyone stumbling their way here from there! Please feel welcome to leave comments just to say hi. I should have an exciting update coming soon, so I hope you'll stick around.