Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Giving good feedback

Neil Gaiman has a quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” When I first read that, I didn’t understand it at all. Since embarking on crafting usable feedback for my good friend and partner-in-pen Becky, it’s make more and more sense to me.

It’s a rare thing to read a book that is exactly what you would have written, if you had written that book. You might have had the protagonist make different choices; you might have used more (or less) figurative language, you might have incorporated more teddy bears. Whatever the case, a lot of the joy and value of reading a book that is not your own comes from those things that you would have done differently. It gives you a different perspective on something you feel you know.

When you have the opportunity to critique a work in progress, and your goal is to give actionable feedback, I think the hardest thing is to not try to force your critique-ee to do what you would do. Although sometimes it feels true, it is not accurate to say that yours is the only right way to do a thing. When you say “I wouldn’t have used this word here,” think to yourself, “Is that because this word is being used incorrectly, or because of my personal aesthetic choices?” If the word is used correctly, then that’s a good sign that you’re projecting your personal narrative voice onto the project you are critiquing.

When you’re picking out perceived problems, and you suggest a solution for it, you run a high risk of becoming attached to your solution. If your critique-ee decides to keep it the way it is, or change it in a different way, you may be inclined to take it personally, or even be disappointed that the “story you want” isn’t getting written. (Tangent: this is why I don’t understand commissioned stories. How could it ever be exactly what the commissioner wants? /tangent.)

As a critiquer, I am absolutely addicted to giving suggestions. I have found that I can’t not give suggestions, most of the time. If I see a word or phrase that bugs me, I leave a comment like, “reword this. Maybe something more like this?: [ . . . ]” I do that because I’m worried that if I don’t leave a suggestion, the full meaning of my criticism won’t be clear. Will she think I mean it’s awkward, or that the words don’t mean what she thinks they mean, or that they convey a different message than she was going for? I could say “reword for clarity / definition / mood” but... my tendencies are to suggest solutions. And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. The key, very important thing, is to not become attached to my suggestions. For that purpose, I try to give not-great suggestions that get my meaning across. Something to point an arrow in the right direction but not push the author through a portal that leads to the destination.

One way to keep yourself in check when giving feedback, if you’re finding yourself trying to rewrite the story in your own words, is to always leave your feedback in the form of a question. “Did you mean to make so-and-so sound like an asshole here?” “Is this the definition of this word as you understood it?” “Are you sure giraffes are adding something to this scene?” “Could you be using more teddy bears?” And so forth.

I think it’s very important to be criticized, as a writer. You don’t spot your own biases and erroneous beliefs if no one calls you on them. You never have a reason to think about things differently. It’s incredibly hard not to have your feelings hurt by critique, but even so, it’s possibly the best tool in your belt. You’re so, so lucky if you have people in your creative circle who can give good, meaningful feedback. As a person receiving criticism, it’s important to take what they say into account. But, to paraphrase the Gaiman, they don’t know exactly how to fix it. Only you can write your book. As givers of criticism, it’s important we remember that.

So, if something doesn’t work for you in the WIP you’re critiquing, sometimes a vague “this doesn’t work for me because…” is plenty. Sometimes a person wants to find their own way up the mountain; they just have to know the mountain is there.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"All Lives Matter": why you are not a special snowflake and that response is still inappropriate

Hey guys. Can we talk?

I am not a person of color. Unless “pinkish” is a color. I don’t think it is. Anyway. I recognize that I have no personal connection to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, being a white girl of inordinate privilege. However, I am an ally. I know that there are better researched, more eloquent, more personal, more experienced articles and blogs out there about this subject, but I thought I’d come from my unique point of view: the layman’s explanation of why “All Lives Matter” is not an okay response to “Black Lives Matter.”

Here’s the thing. When you hear “Black Lives Matter” and earnestly respond, “Yes, but all lives matter,” we (the public at large) know you mean it exactly the way you mean it: sincerely, fervently, and equally. However, what you don’t understand is, when someone is saying “black lives matter,” they are not talking to you. They’re not trying to convince you.

When you say, “All lives matter!” there is something in your head that says, “I understand that a politician saying this would be inappropriate. But I mean it.” But, contrary to what your mom says, you’re not a special snowflake. When anyone says that, they mean it sincerely. They’re not misrepresenting their personal feelings. But their feelings—your feelings—don’t matter. Your insistence that all lives matter makes it crystal clear that you haven’t had to experience a Black friend or acquaintance dying at the hands of a correctional or law enforcement officer.

The response “all lives matter” to “Black Lives Matter” is exactly analogous to the “Not all men…” / #YesAllWomen twitter phenomenon of last year. Yes All Women was not asserting that all men are rapists. As women, we are completely aware that not all men are rapists: we have boyfriends, brothers, fathers, sons, and friends who show us that every damn day. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there are a large enough number of rapists in the world to make all women nervous about being alone, in public, at night.

And here’s a point of interest: I am not nervous. I have never experienced sexual harassment or assault on the scale that apparently a majority of women do on a daily basis. I don’t know, maybe where I live is exceptional, but I count myself lucky. Still, my experience doesn’t matter. My good fortune is the exception, not the rule. So, who is going on twitter and making sure that everyone knows that, ’well actually, not all women…’ going to help?

Uh… men. That’s who. And in the specific example of sexual harassment, assault, and rape, men don’t need help. Even men who aren’t part of the problem don’t need help. They are not in danger. They are not at risk. They are not losing anything as a result of this movement.

Let me put it a different way. You are part of a marginalized group. I am not asking you to imagine a hypothetical situation in which you are part of a marginalized group, I am stating the true fact that you are part of a marginalized group. You belong to a demographic that is either currently having its rights eroded or have in the past had its rights eroded, and the fact that they are protected now was the result of a no-kidding war. You are a woman. A non-straight person. A non-cisgendered person. A person of color. You are childless/childblest. You are a nursing mother. You are unemployed. You are homeless. You are overworked. You are underpaid. You have no health insurance. You are a veteran. You are Christian. You are Muslim. You are atheist. You are neuro-atypical. You are an ex-convict. You are disabled. You belong to a movement by right of who you are. Imagine, you are at a get-together of people like you. The police come in and start shooting. One of them says, “No one cares. You’re just a bunch of <insert demographic here.>” You say, “My life matters!” He snaps back, “All lives matter.” You go on Facebook and say, “The cops shot us! Our lives matter!” and your friends, family members, acquaintances, coworkers, and former college roommate’s boyfriend scream at you, “All lives matter!”

In short, if this is not your movement, don’t stand in the way just because it doesn’t apply to you. Saying “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter,” you’re standing up for the people who don’t want things to change. You’re saying, “We don’t need to address this. Carry on.”

When you assert that all lives matter, as a direct response to “Black Lives Matter,” you are saying, “I’m not racist. I believe you matter! I also believe that everyone else matters too.” But. Listen closely, allies. With the ears attached to your heart. If you believe that Black lives matter. Equally. As much as everyone else’s lives matter.

Please. Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut. And. Get. Out. Of. The. Way.

Because the people who have the power to take Black lives don’t agree with you. Because law enforcement officers, correctional officers, judges, legislators, politicians, and newspeople have systemically oppressed and ignored Black lives since Black people arrived on the shores of this continent. When the BlackLivesMatter movement is talking, it’s those guys that they’re talking to. So you shouting “All lives matter!” is, quite literally, interrupting a conversation you’re not a part of.

You are free to feel impatient and frustrated that this “has to be a thing.” You are free to believe that All Lives Matter is a relevant sentiment. But if it’s a belief you sincerely hold…

Keep it to yourself.

If you wish to initiate a conversation, or hell, an argument, with me about this, feel free to DM me on Twitter or Facebook.

Any long, ranty, hysterical, or hateful comments will be immediately deleted. I welcome reasoned, respectful disagreement.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Learning new things =)

In the past, I have had bouts of feeling... extremely static. Like I have itchy feet—I don’t know what I want to do, but I know I want to stop doing nothing! These bouts can be really frustrating because most of the time, I’m not doing nothing. I’m just doing more of the same. I can’t put my finger on what I want to do; most things sound really unappetizing. What do I want‽ I yell at myself.

Finally, after much mental wiggling, I figured it out.

When I feel like that, I’m longing to learn something new. Something creative, preferably. A new craft, a new skill, a new technique. My brain is tired and wants to stretch its atrophied muscles.

In the spirit of learning new things, I’ve been going through the Python Codecademy course to learn how to program. I’m 90% of the way through it, apparently, and it’s come... fairly easy to me, so far, but the farther I get the more respect and awe I have for people who got a degree in this nonsense. You have to tie your brain up in corkscrew-knots to think through the logic, and once you have something that works, your brain unwinds and you don’t understand what you just did. But hey, it works, don’t look at it too closely!

I have been wanting to learn to program for a long time now. I learned PHP well enough to automate math problems, which was what I wanted it to do. But since I’ve been unemployed and struggling with being functional, there is a project that is near and dear to my heart that none of my code-savvy friends have the time or bandwidth to do for me: An Android app.

In its conception, Next is a to-do list, but it’s much more than that to me. It would be a time- and energy-management tool. It would help me keep things the right “size.” It would help me reclaim my agency.

Okay, I’ll go through why it would be special. (See, I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start, haha!)

  1. User makes a list of what they need to do.
    1. User makes a short-term to-do list.
    2. User makes a long-term to-do list.
  2. User arranges things in priority-order.
    1. User organizes things in terms of what is most important to them to get done.
    2. User organizes things in order of what has the closest deadline.
  3. If there are explicit deadlines for a task, user assigns those deadlines.
    1. This can be used for appointments, too.
  4. User customizes settings.
    1. What kind of encouragement does the user want to receive?
      1. Text messages, notifications, social media, calendar events.
      2. Message a friend/SO/family member to ask them to send encouragement.
    2. How frequently do they want to be “encouraged”?
    3. What escalation of encouragement do they want?
      1. User-written affirmations / encouraging messages.
      2. Developer-written affirmations / encouraging messages.
    4. What kind of recognition does the user want for completing a task?
      1. None, congratulatory message, social media integration.
    5. Choose the level of urgency for each item on to-do list.
      1. One task may require frequent, escalating encouragements, while another may require a more low-level reminder schedule.
    6. Specify down-time.
      1. After a specified time of day, notifications go away, encouragement messages stop, and the pressure is off.
  5. When settings are finished, list is “finalized.”
    1. The list becomes a little obfuscated; at this point the user is passively discouraged from altering it.
  6. The next thing on the list becomes a notification in the user’s notification bar.
    1. The notification cannot be swiped away; the user must consciously deactivate Next or complete their to-do list to vacate their notification bar.
    2. The notification can be interacted with via “snooze” or “mark as complete” buttons attached to the notification.
      1. “Snooze” will move the item in question below the subsequent item on the list.

Uh, so, that’s it in a nutshell. It’s enforced baby-stepping, but not as baby is it could be, which is a little unfortunate, but I suppose a user could get that kind of granularity by having user-written “encouragements” that read “Stand up,” then 30 seconds later, “Put on your shoes,” etc. It will hopefully stop a to-do list from looking overwhelming, because, well, you only have one thing to do!

But that kind of integration is the sort of thing I’m not going to be able to jump right into, not least because programming for mobile is kindof a bitch. Right now I’m a little bit beyond “Hello World” and about aeons before making a duck that won’t run into the side of the pool. (A digital duck, people. I’m not God, or a mother duck. Geez.)

And, if you were going to ask, yes, this is avoidance behavior. Shut up.

How about you, gentle readers? are you learning anything new? Let me know in the comments. Ciao for now!

Word count: 3,776 (ເ)