Sunday, January 10, 2010

Anyone For a Game of Write-Sweeper?

I did some editing today, trying to get a novel ready for submission to agents, publishers, guys with unlimited access to Xerox machines. I'm not at a place where I can be extremely picky.

As is my want, I edited in sections; finish a chapter, take a break, start another chapter, realize that the first break didn't take and go ahead and have another just to be safe, go back to the chapter, wonder where I left my drink, probably lost it when I went on break better take another so I can go and find it. During these breaks I often pull up a game of Minesweeper and traverse the most deadly grid to ever come in a basic computer package.

I really enjoy Minesweeper, and I'll tell you why. (Oh, you will? In a blog about Minesweeper? You're too kind.) For one thing, Minesweeper is not editing. Quick digression, did you know that the term editing came from the Latin edi: meaning "thing which," an ting: meaning "makes your brain ooze slowly out your left ear?" You didn't? Well, I haven't heard any evidence to the contrary so... yeah, that's where that comes from.

As I was saying, pre-digression, I really enjoy Minesweeper and one reason is that you know when you've screwed up. There's nothing subjective about screwing up in Minesweeper, no "Maybe it could work," or "It's good, it's just not for me." No, in Minesweeper there is success, everybody's doing fine, and failure, the entire world is going up in flame! You have one chance, one. There are no namby pamby extra lives in Minesweeper, no hit points, no health regeneration. You hit that mine and it is game over.

So much of my life is subjective. My day job, which I actually do at night but it's the one that pays the bills, involves working with mentally disabled adults. We try to put as much structure into their lives as we can but each new day is a new game and the rules are always different. There are certainly mines to avoid in this work but you never know what will trigger them. One day asking a guy if he's ready for breakfast will get you the biggest smile you'll ever want to see, the next day the same question to the same guy will get a bottle of shampoo thrown at your head.

If the rules of that job are ever shifting, the rules of publishing are in a constant shake and bake and there's no little girl with a southern twang to help either. Publishers follow trends, agents follow publishers; one agent wants a query, synopsis and the author's life story and the next doesn't want any of that, just a photo and number where you can be reached confidentially. (Actually, that's probably a mine that you should try to avoid.)

I haven't even gotten to the text. Writing a story, be it short or long, fact or fiction, is one of the worst things anyone can ever do to themselves. There's no right or wrong, there's no final authority, you will never know if you have done something good or if trees are just being felled to satisfy your own personal hubris. People you love and who profess to love you back will tell you it's good, but just not their cup of tea. What, you were supposed to make tea too? What do they want from you?

This is why I want someone (Steve Jobs, if your reading this would be a wonderful time to start taking notes) to come up with a word processor which utilizes the function of a Minesweeper game. Feel free to take full credit for the idea, I don't want any proceeds, I just want the first program that rolls off of the assembly line. We will call it Write-Sweeper and it will function in this manner; when I make a grammar or syntax error, the words will blow up; when I use a sentence fragment that is not a part of dialogue or character driven narrative, the words will blow up; when I've written a sentence that, if there were any justice in the world I would be sentenced to death for ever putting down on paper, the words will blow up. I'm sure this means that I will be starting and restarting my project many, many times over but, when I write that 80, 90, 100 thousandth word and my book has come to a satisfying conclusion, if I can look up to the top of my screen and see that little smiley face guy proudly wearing his shades with that smirk of his face, I will know that my book is good.

And I will be pleased.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Preconceptions: More Than Just Cheap Wine and Faulty Condoms

Yesterday I posted question on a website asking people to think of five U.S. Presidents. I then went on to postulate that one of the five was almost certain to be Honest Abe Lincoln, even going so far as to bet that Abe made it into the top three. (I don't want to go into the whole point of the essay here though, if I do say so, it was a lovely piece of writing, choc-a-block with nouns, verbs AND punctuation and should you be interested, can be found here:

As it turns out, it was fortunate for me that I did not put actual money on this bet as only one person had Lincoln even in their top five. (The results seemed to skew towards more contemporary presidents, what that means may be explored in some later blog.) As a result, I have come to learn a rather harsh lesson; not everyone thinks as do I.

I try to be aware of my preconceptions. I know that I have a tendency to assume, unless otherwise informed, that people posses traits similar to my own. For instance, should someone tell me they'd recently given birth and give me no other details I would naturally assume that their new child was a white, somewhat dumpy male in his early thirties who was disappointed with the newer seasons of The Simpsons but not yet willing to write them off. (I'm joking of course, oh, but we do have fun, don't we? Yes, we do.)

But I do tend to assume. As a right handed person, when I see someone who I did not know was left handed writing with their left hand, I'm generally surprised enough to comment. "Oh," I typically say in the genial manner I have of saying thing, IT'S GENIAL DAMMIT, "you're a southpaw?" (I say "southpaw" because I'm a fan of the film Rocky as I have preconceived you are as well.)

But these preconceptions are harmless enough. I can't imagine someone being hurt because I think Lincoln is among their top five presidents or I'm surprised at their manner of writing. It's the other preconceptions that I try, and admittedly sometimes fail, to curtail.

For instance, I am not one to shy from profanity (The Hell you say? No it's true.) I believe that words only have the power that we give them and I refuse to fear language simply because it may invoke images of a saucy or unsavory nature. (Of course some words have a history which transcends them from simple communication to symbols of hate, pain, suppression and those I do avoid.) But I know that some people hold strong opinions about such words and I try not to use language which might offend them when other words will suffice. Like I said, I'm often unsuccessful in this endeavor.

I'm hesitant to invoke the name of Dr. Phil, I don't think he'll add a lot of credibility to my arguments and there's a reason I refer to him as a guilty pleasure (I mean really, where do they find these people and why are they all so willing to say this stuff on air?) But he has made one point that I find very accurate. It's all about expectation. To use his analogy, if I give you something to eat and tell you it's salty, even if it's the saltiest thing you've ever tasted, you can pretty much handle it. But, if I give you something and tell you it's salty and it turns out to be even mildly sweet, you're going to have a strong reaction because you were prepared for the salty flavor. We base our preconceptions on our experiences and then expect that everyone has shared these same experiences. As it turns out, not everyone grew up in a small, North Carolina town called Hayesville, been the second of four kids and spent much of their childhood very involved with their community theater. I know, I was shocked as well.

Ultimately, I guess I'm saying that I thought I had this whole preconception thing under control but, as my presidential inquiry pointed out, maybe I have a ways to go after all.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Just Because I Used a Word, Doesn't Mean I Meant It

I just got off the phone with my good friends at Charter Communications who are very concerned that I am receiving the optimum in Internet capabilities. I thought that was very considerate of them.

The snag we ran into during our conversation was that when I informed them that I was perfectly happy with my current Internet provider, the operator said, "I completely understand," before continuing with her scripted sales pitch (for that, I came to fear, was the true nature of her call.)

I repeated to her that I was happy with the service I had and she repeated, "I completely understand," before continuing.

Now, it seems to me that there would be a myriad of responses to an unwilling customer such as myself, and I must admit "I completely understand" is one of them, but I fear it is not the best. Perhaps something along the lines of "ah, but you haven't heard about this..." or maybe, "you may think you're satisfied, but you don't know about..." I may still not be sold on your idea, but at least I would be unable to refute your premise. Saying, "I completely understand" not even a partial understanding but a complete understanding mind you, and then immediately demonstrating that you do not at all understand, tends to undermine your argument.

This little Tet-a-Tet concluded with me saying, "Obviously you don't completely understand as you are still attempting to sell me on your package," which elicited a, "Well, I'm just trying to do my job," response before telling me that Charter appreciated what business I'm already giving them and then hanging up on me.

Now, without even going into the oddity of calling a person at his home, doing a terrible job at selling him your product and then yelling at him when A: he is actually an active customer with your company and B: the response he gave really didn't deserve your ire (I imagine she gets far more verbally abused on almost every other call), this was a very poor excuse for a social interaction.

One has to assume they don't expect people to whip out their checkbook every time they place a call. Do they actually train their telemarketers to talk over their customers with a gratuitous "I completely understand" when the customer tells them they aren't interested? And this idea that I should feel bad because I wasn't responsive enough when she's doing a job that I didn't hire her for and would, in fact, rather she not do. In the words of hack comedians everywhere, what's the deal with that? I imagine a bank robber being put in handcuffs shouting profanities at the police officer who says, in a voice suggesting he's fighting back tears, "I'm just doing my job, why you gotta be so mean?" (Yes, I realize that in this particular analogy I am, in fact, the bank robber. I'm okay with that.)

I guess the point of this particular ramble is that, if you're going to call me to sell me something I don't want, at least have a vague grasp of the meaning of the words that you use. Oh yeah, and just because it's your job, that doesn't actually mean I have to buy from you.