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.