Tuesday, February 25, 2014

It's Not Rocket Science

"It is poison -- rank poison to knuckle down to care and hardships.  They must come to us all, albeit in different shapes -- and we may not escape them -- it is not possible -- but we may swindle them out of half of their puissance with a stiff upper lip." - Mark Twain

"It's not rocket science to make a movie." - Katie Aselton

"I've never thought of acting as rocket science -- you put on the costume, get your hair cut, and that's it, really." - Marc Warren

"It's not rocket science.  It's social science." - Clement Mok

"Rocket science is tough, and rockets have a way of falling." - Sally Ride

"Rocket science has been mythologized all out of proportion to its true difficulty." - John Carmack

It should be noted before I get into the nitty-gritty of this post that most of the above-quoted people actually have no true experience to tell them what rocket science is actually like.  Specifically, the last two, Sally Ride and John Carmack, are the only ones who have "done" it, one as a Stanford-earned physics PhD who became both the first American woman and the youngest American astronaut to leave the Earth's atmosphere (and who did all that back when it took an entire refrigerated room full of beeps and tapes and whistles to do what one iPad can do today) and the other as a college dropout game designer who co-founded a commercial rocket company that won a couple of prizes before going into "hibernation" over a rocket crash.


So I say the phrase "it's not rocket science" too often.  I know I do, and I apologize, in advance or after the fact as appropriate, to everyone who feels that I've snubbed their careers/lives/expertise.  Like, I'm really sorry.  Honestly.

Still, it's not rocket science.

I've studied rocket science.  I then used that knowledge to help create a laser-based weapon system at Los Alamos National Labs.  Later, I was studying rocket science at the graduate level with a group of "kids" (e.g., recent physics baccalaureate degree graduates) the day the Mars Climate Orbiter smacked up against the side of the red planet due to a units mismatch.  Rocket science can, in fact, be hard, and complex, and really rather scary.

Years later I caused an uproar by telling my team at a college where I worked that medical terminology was "not rocket science."  I'm sorry, but it's not.  It's important.  It's challenging, too.  But it just doesn't strike me as having the same complexity as rocket science.

The same applies in other areas.  Graphic designers of the world, I meant absolutely no disrespect when I claimed that making a cover image is"not rocket science"  Yes, it's challenging.  Yes, the tools used in the process have a steep learning curve; I'll agree with that wholeheartedly after spending the better part--or worse part, depending--of three or four weeks getting over parts of that curve.  But hell, my HP-15C had a steep learning curve.  Everything that's important in life has a steep learning curve. 

Women?  They have a steep learning curve, right, men?

But they're not rocket science.

No, they're more challenging, but that's a whole different topic.

Editing?  I should probably relent there, since the English language is far more complex than physics in its variety and number of laws.  But that's probably why I love it so much -- it's better than rocket science, to me.  We had a junior ("cow") year class in English, the first half of which involved learning to proofread.  I excelled so much that I, a physics major, was at the top of the class at midterm. 

So, you put a cat in a box and close the box, and then you press a button that has a 50% chance.....

So, you have a ship that is traveling along at velocity X, and the wind resistance is Y until X rises to the point that the fourth power term takes over, and then it's exponentially greater.....

So, commas go wherever a natural pause is indicated, except for when dependent clauses are separated, or else....

It's not rocket science, this linguistic thing.  But it's every bit as fun.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

When Too Much Help Isn't Enough

"Opinions are like assholes, honey.  Everybody's got one, and everybody thinks everybody else's stinks." - Home for the Holidays (1995)

So I blew it.


You'd think, given the lessons I've learned (and blogged about) related to soliciting feedback, that I'd be better at doing it.

Apparently I'm not.

So--what have I learned about soliciting feedback?

  1. Be specific.
  2. Be clear.
  3. Expect/value opinions that don't agree with yours.
  4. Don't give feedback on feedback unless you want to end the feedback.

That was why, this time, when I sent off requests for beta readers for Elf Queen, I was very specific and clear with what I wanted, and I expected to read negative feedback.  What I ended up getting was pretty awesome, then, all things considered.  It was, in fact, perfect, and precisely what I needed. 

Yay, well done!

And then there was the other night.

I put what I've been working on for the Elf Queen cover up onto FB and asked for "feedback from my wonderful Facebook friends."  I did, in a comment immediately below the post, point out that the artwork had been done by Jessa, and I thought (without really thinking about it--you know what I mean?) that that would imply sufficiently that I'd like people to pretty much stay away from critique on the art.  Because what I was looking for, really, was feedback on the placement of the various design elements.

But did I say that I was seeking feedback on the placement of the various design elements?  Nope.  My bad.

I tried to wait it out, not giving feedback on the feedback as it came, but I knew that Jessa could see the comments roll in, too.  I stepped in a couple of times and told people that the image was pretty much exactly what I had asked for.  I felt bad doing it because I knew it would squelch the commentary in general.  Better that, though, than sitting through an episode of Jessa-bashing.

One really interesting thing to get out of the session was that nobody really complained about the parts I'd have expected to hear about if they'd sucked.  Specifically, nobody mentioned the fonts I chose, or the sizes, or the placement, or their colors.  Nobody even slammed me on the effects I used.

Hmm.  Must've been at least okay, right?

Or, maybe not--my professional graphic design friend said it looked "indie."  I got her to 'splain what that meant, and it finally made sense--text on the image without some sort of effect added to it.  That was okay; I had something in mind.  Granted, it took me a week of evenings experimenting to get it right, but now--I'm happy.

Still, point made and taken.  From now on, I shall always follow my four key points on soliciting feedback.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Five Stages of Writing a Novel

As much as I learned over the years, I still don't recall a lot of specific antics that occurred in the hallowed academic halls at West Point.  Yeah, of course I remember a few.  For instance, I remember being shaken awake from a puddle of my own drool after submitting the engineering assignment I'd worked on for 48 straight hours.  I also remember that time in Russian class when the cute-as-hell classmate of mine fell asleep so hard she hit her cute little button nose right smack on the cute little wooden desk top, and since I sat right next to her I had the honor of drawing a cute little target for the desk's future nasal use.

Nope, I'm still not sorry for that, if you're reading this, Cadet *redacted*.  That was pure comic genius.  Even the professor enjoyed it, though of course he couldn't break decorum and laugh.

I also, for some strange reason, remember most of my plebe psychology class.  In general collegiate terms, it was one of those general education "psychology for the student who doesn't give a crap about psychology" classes, but the professor in this case made it rather enjoyable.  Um, somehow.  I don't remember what she did, specifically.

She was pretty.  Very pretty.  Cut an awfully nice form in those officer greens.  I remember that much, of course.


Psychology--right.  Anyway, I vividly remember learning about the five stages of grief.  I doubt I could list them off the tips of my fingers today, but they were there, and when a human being experiences loss, he or she must go through each of them in turn.  Oh, we all have our own ways of dealing with each stage, but the immutable law of human grief is that we must all deal with each stage, or else we swell up like a prickly ball of emotional hazardous waste (my term, not the professor's--she was pretty, did I mention that?).

I think writing a novel is like that--not the pretty part, but the other bit about stages.  I have no idea why, of course, other than the fact that both processes strike directly at our core emotions.  Other than that fact, though, the two sets of circumstances are very different.  For one thing, while I suspect most psychologists agree that there are five stages of human grief (which works out conveniently to one per finger on a human hand) nobody on the Internet can seem to agree on how many stages there are to writing a novel.  One site says there are fourteen, one says ten, and one lists a mind-blowing twenty two. 

I say there are five.  You might categorize them differently, but I, personally, am drawn to the simplicity and memorability of one stage per fingie.  So, having now gone through this process four times, here is my enlightened take on the five stages of writing a novel:

Stage 1: Pure Optimism

In Stage 1, the era of unbridled optimism, you generally have yet to write a damn word.  Maybe you have, and that word (or short phrase, even) is what will be called The Title right up till you realize how badly it sucks as a book title.  Doesn't matter, though.  You have The Idea, and you know that you're the only person ever in the history of the entire world to be fixin' to write this idea down on paper in the way you're fixin' to write it.  The Idea is, thus, going to make you millions.  No, billions.  You'll be able to retire like JK Rowling did and write in whatever genre you want to, and at that point people will buy your other books no matter how crappy they may be.  In short, you got this one, man.  Everybody else can just sit back and watch the genius at work.

And thus, you sit down to write, and after a short while you enter....

Stage 2: Pure Pessimism

Some say it happens at about 20,000 words, while others say 30,000.  With me, this stage seems to pop up consistently right at 23,000 words.  By that point you've written everything good there is to write about The Idea, and you realize that, if you didn't outline, you should have, and if you did, then the outline is all screwed up.  Whatever the case, at this point in the book you're realizing that: a) writing a novel is hard, and b) you really don't possess any sort of supernatural skill level at it, and c) writing a novel is really damn hard.  It's never, ever, ever going to get finished, you could swear in an oath on your own handwritten blood, and you might as well take the words you've already written and replace every one of them with a big ole' all-caps bolded and underlined instance of the word "DUH."  For variety, you'll just vary the number of Hs you use in each one, and that'll make your new work just a skosh more interesting than the pap you've already created. 

Stage 3: Extreme Self Doubt

Those few energetic/resilient folks who make it through Stage 2, whether thanks to NaNoWriMo, an extreme arrears on the mortgage, consuming vast quantities of alcoholic beverages, or any combination of the three, must now go through Stage 3, the realm of self doubt.  I mean, yeah, you did it.  You got to the point where you could write "The End" at the end with a mostly-straight face.  But it sucks.  You know that it sucks.  It's a small consolation to know that the first draft of every novel ever written sucked, honestly.  This one isn't War and Peace, nor is it The Great Gatsby.  It's your baby, man, the culmination of weeks or even months of effort in making The Idea into something tangible.  Your baby, right there in your hands, and you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it reads like a million drunk monkeys had just managed to prove that no matter how long they banged randomly on a million keyboards they actually could not produce anything worth reading.

Damn those monkeys.

Stage 4: Pleasant Companionship

There are only two ways out of Stage 3.  One involves the digital equivalent of a toilet flush, while the other involves the hardest work known to man: revision.  You know, killing your darlings, over and over again, and if you haven't done it before you have no idea how hard it is to hit the Delete button on your favorite passages.  Yet Delete you do, over and over, taking the ugly duckling you initially created and slowly, painfully sculpting it into the amazing swan it will some day become.

It will, trust me.  The more you revise it, the more you think about the structure and the wording and the voice and the plot, the closer you'll come to Wordvana.  I've blogged before about the latter times of this stage, in particular, and described it in many pleasant terms.  "The work sings to you," I've said.  "You start enjoying to read it, even aloud," I've said.  It even *gasp* starts to resemble the book you envisioned in Stage 1.

You might even, as I have, employ the services of a professional editor during this stage, and that is a good thing to do.  Another set of eyes can help you identify darlings you didn't even realize needed to be cut down in their prime.  Another opinion can help you see that in the second act your heroine behaves completely out of character.  It will, in fact, shock you at what another professional will help you discover about your own writing.

You might also engage the assistance of other readers.  Beta readers, I've called them.  As I've pointed out in other articles, the first time you do this will be really damn confusing.  You'll hear "I love it" and "I hate it" and "it was too wordy" and "it wasn't descriptive enough" all day long.  The trick is to take each bit of feedback for what it's worth--which, in all cases, is definitely a large quantity, but in terms of quality there's variance depending on the point of view of the beta reader.  You know: "You can please some of the people some of the time, but..." and so on.

Yet--here's the trap of Stage 4: it's not ready.  You think it's ready once the prose starts a-singin' to ya.  Woo hoo! you want to shout.  You're ready to wrap it up into query letters and send it to agents.  But don't.  Trust me, I know.  If you're still reading the prose and thinking "woo hoo," it's not ready to send out.  You haven't been through the final stage yet, and you need to.  You really, honestly, do need to. 

And that, by the way, brings us to:

Stage 5: Hatred and Loathing

I haven't read Cataclysm in years.  I wanted to; I picked it up again to do another little revision on it, just 'cause, but I got a few pages in and wanted to throw it against the wall.  It's not that I don't love the book.  It's not that the words didn't at one point sing to me.  It's not that I'm not proud as I can be of the prose so contained.

No, it's that I don't ever want to read the damn words ever, ever again, not so long as I freakin' live. I've read them enough, thankyouverymuch.  I'm sick.  I'm tired.  I'm sick and tired of them.

And that's when you know it's ready.

So anyway, those are my five stages of writing a novel.  If you can think of a different way of dividing the process up, I'd love to hear it.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

An Evening With Charlie Brown

You know how we all have some stories from our *ahem* younger years *ahem* that, while we shouldn't share them in public, they're too funny not to share?  This is one of those stories for me.  I've told it in person numerous times, and it hit on me now, as a way of recovering from the curse-fest that was the fairy story, that I should record the tale on here as one that is a) PG-rated, and b) entirely true.

One of my most successful periods as a teacher came about as a result of actions that were, for the most part, entirely to the credit of other people.  One of my better students approached me and suggested that we form a student chapter of a national IT organization.  About all I remember actually doing was saying "okay," and that launched a rather brilliant epoch.  A group of mature, highly engaged students took charge, helped by the liaison from the professional agency (a man whose friendship I still cherish today).  We won awards, we brought home trophies.  We crushed the local state college.  It was beautiful, man.

It was during our first national trip, in fact, when I got an experience I'll never forget.  Thousands of IT students converged on Atlanta for the national conference, hailing from some of the most prestigious schools in the U.S.  We, the Alaskan contingent, sent teams to compete in all sorts of nerdy competitions: database design, web site design, coding, and so on.  That's all stuff that makes an IT guy like me get weak in the knees.

The least nerdy competition was the scavenger hunt, and it was also the only part of the event in which I, the faculty mentor, could take part.  It was a blast!  The first thing we did, of course, was set up a router inside one of the hotel rooms and get seven or eight laptops a'whirring to find solutions to the questions posed.  I know, I know, it probably violated the hotel's Internet use policy, but hey, everybody else was doing it, too.

It didn't take us long to zero in on the easy ones.  Closest Waffle House: check.  Certain kiosk at a nearby mall: check.  Then we hit the biggie: take a picture, the item commanded, with Charlie Brown.

It turns out, in hindsight, that we should have looked on the campus of the community college that was sponsoring the event, because it apparently sported a large statue of the entire Peanuts gang.  Why the Peanuts members are immortalized as a statue at a community college is something I've never bothered asking, but there they are.  I guess, anyway.  I never actually saw it.

You know how sometimes people get questions wrong on tests because of ambiguity?  Well, if you're a teacher, you know that.  It's really quite easy to ask a question and think that there's absolutely no way for someone with half a brain cell who's been even partially awake in your class could not answer A, and then have three quarters of your class answer B because, if you look at it the way they do, B is the better answer.


Yeah, what I'm getting to, slowly but--well, slowly--is that there are multiple ways to interpret "Charlie Brown."  At least, there were in Atlanta, at that time.

It turns out that back then (I just researched it for this post, and it seems the venue closed down in 2010) there was also a fairly well-known night club named Charlie Brown's Cabaret.  No, it wasn't named after the cartoon character who Lucy keeps from kicking a football.  Instead, the facility was named after its founder--or rather, his--er, her--or, whatever--stage name.

You see, Charlie Brown was an internationally-known drag queen.  Still is, from what I can tell, only now he--she--dangit, what gender-specific pronoun do you use for a drag queen?--the performer is 63 years old and only does an occasional show on the side.

At the time, though, apparently Charlie Brown was The Stuff if you were interested in cabaret drag shows in the Atlanta area.

We weren't.  We most definitely were not, I should add.  Lovely gay friends I may have, but I most certainly do not wish to watch any of them flounce about in a dress.  Nevertheless, down we went in a cab to central Atlanta, the three of us--the faculty mentor, the club president, and one of the club officers--taking one for the team, as it were.

(and when I say we went down, I mean downtown.  'k?)

The cab dumped us off at the "gates"--police barriers is more like it--to Backstreet, a downtown hangout that felt like a place that three IT dudes from Alaska should definitely not be.  Luckily for us it wasn't very busy yet; after all, we were there at the "IT Guys Party" time, which I have to suggest is generally a few hours prior to any other party times.

Hey, now, I was--still am, at heart--an IT guy.  It's my party and I can cry if I want.

*ahem* So, anyway, because it wasn't very busy, Charlie Brown's place was easy to spot and get to.  Boldly we walked up to the door and greeted the bouncer, and then we realized that nobody had figured out how we would introduce the subject of our visit.

"We need a picture with Charlie Brown" didn't seem right.  I mean, who walks up to the front doors of a venue and demands photographs with the celebrity?  We'd discussed it a little on the rather long cab ride there, and the assumption was that several groups would've already beaten us there.  Surely the national club would've discussed this with the star before sending people for pictures, right?

The guard/bouncer/ID checker guy stared blankly at us.

None of us had any idea how to broach that subject.  Hell, none of us had any idea how to broach any subject when entering a drag venue.

Luckily the club president was with us.  A big man, he hulks over my mere six feet.  He looks like he's descended directly from the great Viking chieftains, too, and one gets the idea being around him that "fear" isn't something he's been guilty of feeling often.  Besides, he's been happily married for years, and to a beautifully impressive woman who looks like she shares his ancestry and would bench-press anybody who dared suggest that her husband was into--well, um, you know--that stuff.

Our Norse god took the lead, explaining the club, the scavenger hunt, and the chief goal for our visit.

The bouncer walked away chuckling.  After a minute or two he came back and explained that Charlie Brown was amenable to our plight, on one condition.

We had to stay for the first act, at least, of the show.

Yeah, okay.  Like, how difficult could that be?

I kept wondering how we'd managed to be the first team to get there as we were led back to the star's dressing room.  There, we got to snap several awesome photos while we chatted with one of the world's premier drag queens.  It was--actually, it was pretty awesome.  He's a great guy, and the conversation, short as it was, proved both pleasant and engaging.

Then we watched the show.

For the record, none of us had any idea what to expect.  What we got proved wildly entertaining, though.  Charlie Brown's act consisted of both music and comedy, and the insults he hurled toward some of his audience members--the Georgian "peaches" and us Alaskans, included--were as funny as they were priceless.

The first act was so good, in fact, that we stayed for the second.  That was when the mental injury was sustained.

See, the second act was sort of topless.  The performer strutted out onto the stage in a slinky silvery dress, and then as--still don't know which pronoun to use--sang, the top of the dress came down to display.....

Yeah, breasts.  Breasts with pasties, so it wasn't completely topless, but they were bared breasts nonetheless.

I've rarely been so conflicted.  My eyes were entranced; it's not often that they've had such perfect specimens of womanhood displayed to them under the glare of spotlights.  My brain, meanwhile, recoiled.  Those are amazing breasts brushed up against That's a dude dancing topless

Ow, ow, and ow.

I have no idea how the rest of the show went, as it was quite early in the silver-dress act that the three of us Alaskan IT guys decided that we'd gotten everything we'd come for, that and just a little too much more, and so we ducked down and fled from the building.  We washed our minds out with as much alcohol as we could consume that evening, but it didn't help--I still occasionally close my eyes only to see that glimmery silver dress, halfway down, and what it contained.

Oh--and no, we didn't win the scavenger hunt; as I already pointed out, that was the wrong Charlie Brown.  We did, however, win a certain amount of infamy, thanks to the pictures we submitted being shown early and repeatedly within the slide show at the awards night dinner.

It ended up being entertaining as heck to one of the club members, who it turned out was gay and fell out of his seat laughing at our expressions upon seeing ourselves on the big screen with Charlie Brown himself.

I suppose that even I learned something on that trip to Atlanta.