How (not to) deal with technological problems.

Have you ever had to deal with a ‘help desk’ for a technical issue?

If you have, you’ve probably dealt with what I call a “Script Monkey”. A Script Monkey sits in a cubicle all day long, hooked to a phone. Their job is to deal with people who are having issues with their devices, or their Internet connection, or some other technological problem. Their tool for doing this is…The Script.

The Script is a set of instructions handed down from On High (meaning from someone who actually might know something about the system/device the Script Monkey is dealing with) that walks the hapless user/caller through a series of steps that should solve a certain problem with the device/system.

The Script will typically have several scenarios listed, the most common problems that caller will have, and by walking the user through these steps, the Script Monkey can often solve a problem…without understanding a single thing about what they’re doing.

You see, Script Monkeys are usually paid as little as possible. They don’t need a technical degree, or even even to be terribly ‘tech-savvy’, they simply need to march through The Script and Solve The Problem.

Unfortunately, The Problem isn’t always in The Script. Take my dealings with a Virgin Mobile Script Monkey, for example of how badly such an approach can go….

When I switched to a ‘smart’ phone, my shopping requirements were simple: I needed good coverage, a cheap device, and a cheap plan. I had had a ‘dumb’ phone from another carrier, but their reputation for supporting ‘smart’ phones wasn’t terribly good at that point (and the phones they supported were, frankly, crappy). So after looking at all the different devices on sale as ‘pay-as-you-go’, I chose a Virgin Mobile device, The monthly cost wasn’t terribly high, and the service coverage was decent, but the clincher was the price of the device: about a third less than the next cheapest handset.

Once I was connected, I had few complains. My calls/texts went through, and I (usually) had service when I needed it, so on the whole I was satisfied. But when I bought the phone, it was keyed to a specific data plan…and that was my Achilles Heel. After a couple of years of service, Virgin decided they would no longer support said plan and gave users the option of changing to a different plan, or buying a new handset. Not having the money to spare to buy a new phone, I opted for Plan A. I shouldda knowd betta……………..

To get a new plan and get it activated, one must deal with a Script Monkey. Script Monkey has a set of steps that they walk through once the customer has made up their mind about which plan they desire. Step 1 is to cancel the old plan. Simple, right? Step 2 is to activate the new account connected to the old device…which means telling the device that it no longer is connected through the old plan and doing a partial reset so it can connect to the new plan. Step 3 should be to make sure everything before has worked and, if it has, to give the customer a mindless congratulations and send them on their merry way.

You note I prefaced Step 3 with “should be”. That’s because in my case, when they got to Step 2, my device did the disconnect from the old plan, started the partial reset…and froze. It came to the point where it was attempting to start all the different services offered, and that’s where everything crashed-and-burned. It went no further, even after a half-hour wait…and here is where the problem of with using Script Monkeys came to the fore. Upon being told that the phone was frozen, Script Monkeys (yes, I dealt with more than one of them) first instruction was to tell me to go to the Settings screen on the phone. HELLLOOOO!!!! What part of “It’s frozen.” do you not understand? First Script Monkey kept trying to tell me I should still be able to get to the Settings screen. When I made it abundantly clear that this was impossible, he passed me off to Script Monkey #2…who proceeded to tell me to do the same thing! I will admit, Script Monkey #2 at least had an idea of what had gone wrong: my phone normally connects to my home wifi network, and to do the sort of reset Virgin Mobile needed to do on my phone, the phone needed to be connected directly to their network. But he was convinced that I could somehow persuade my frozen phone to give me access to it’s commands so I could disconnect it from my home network.

Once I knew what the problem was, the solution was simple: leave the house and walk far enough away that the phone could no longer connect with my home wifi. It was a solution Script Monkey could have suggested to me fairly early on…if he’d known enough about such things. As it was, I ended up having to ‘read between the lines’ and solve the problem by myself.

The phone? Yeah, after a few stuttering tries, it connected up to the new plan and worked fine. It’s got some ‘features’ I do not like…especially the ‘premium’ voice mail service that looks to be a subscription-based service that gains me nothing while making the operation of taking a voice mail more difficult. But yeah, it works now…no thanks to Script Monkeys. Because if a problem isn’t in The Script, then Script Monkey might as well be sailing in the area of the old sea charts where they’d write “Here be monsters”. I’d hope that companies like Virgin Mobile would think about such problems and hire people who at least had an inkling of how their system/devices work…but people like that don’t do minimum-wage. So we, the customer, will continue to be stuck dealing with people who are trying to fix our problems while knowing little more about them than we do.

Ain’t greed grand?

“On Writing”, a post script

Earlier, I wrote about my efforts to solve a problem I was having with my writing. That problem, the suggestion that I should ‘show’ more and ‘tell’ less, has haunted me for some time now. On the suggestions of several fellow writers, I got hold of a copy of Stephen King’s “On Writing” and set about reading it.

It took me slightly less than a week’s worth of intermittent reading to get through Mr. King’s work, and having finished it, I can make several observations. One is that my earlier statement that “On Writing” contains 101 pages of Stephen King telling us about his life is wrong…it’s actually 128 pages. When you step back and realize that, at a total page count of 288, Mr. King devotes nearly half of his work to telling the reader about himself, that does not promise a lot of revelations on the actual craft of writing.

The book doesn’t do anything to disappoint that assessment.

Oh, it’s a decent read, and there are several nice tips in it, but for the real nuts-and-bolts of taking an idea and shaping it into a finished novel, it leaves a lot to be desired. King even admits as much towards the end, so I’ll give him credit for honesty (he is also honest enough to admit he might have gone a bit overboard on the ‘life story’ aspect of the book). But beyond learning that like me, King doesn’t outline, and that he listens to his characters and tries to write their story, not his, I didn’t learn a lot.

I won’t say don’t read it, because as I said, it is a decent read. But if you want to learn how to solve any problems you’ve found in your writing, look elsewhere.

So….sometime next week, I’ll be moving on to another tome on writing suggested to me, “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”. I hope this book will help me both see what I am screwing up, and how to best correct the problem.

What can I say, hope spring eternal.

My little town

Carswell’s Corner was the type of small town where the city government loved to brag about how ‘fiscally responsible’ they were. What they meant by that was that when the city government did something, it usually did it on the cheap.

It wasn’t always that way. In old photos, black and white images fading like the memory of the time they portray, Carswell’s Corner was a thriving town. The laid-brick main street, a thing of geometric beauty by itself, is lined with businesses, and every parking space is occupied. Now, the only way to recognize the street is by the store fronts. The buildings still stand, but all but a handful sit empty. It’s a rare day when more than half of the parking spots are occupied. And the street? The beautiful brick pavement is still there…you can see it any time the city decides the asphalt atop them is too beat-up. Then a huge machine that roars like a demented mad scientist’s monster flails the asphalt with revolving chains, chewing its way down to the immortal brick base. For a short while they bask again in the sunshine, still geometric and beautiful despite the battering inflicted upon them by the violent stripping process. Why not, some well-meaning citizens ask, bring back the brick street? Why not use that as other town do, as a tourist draw? Too expensive, they’re told, far too expensive…and the city buries them again under more cheap asphalt.

You noted that I used the term ‘usually’ to describe the town government’s approach to its civic duties. That was not by accident. There are certain projects where the city feels that money is no object. Like the tax break they gave to the huge national discount chain store…and the money the city poured into building new roads, sewers and laying water lines. The project, everyone was told, would ‘revitalize’ the town. But faced with a nationally-supported store moved in, the mom-and-pop stores that had been the life blood of downtown had been forced out of business. A few people asked about this, but they were treated like village idiots and quietly ignored.

Then there was the new grade school. Like the city government, the elementary school district liked to brag that it, too, was ‘fiscally responsible’. So for decades, they kept one old school open, adding onto it so many times that only the upper floor and the odd corner could be seen. Time and regulations proved to be an enemy that could not overcome. The old school, built when asbestos was considered safe, had been granted numerous waivers, but state officialdom had finally issued an ultimatum: remove classes from the structure, or face the loss of state funding.

Few people mourned the closing of the old school, least of all those who’s kids had to tread those asbestos-floored corridors. What few had expected was the proposal for the new school. Twice the size of the existing building, with all the modern amenities a parent might want for their child, it was a grand replacement. What those parents did not expect, and their children were shocked by, was the decision to build the new school about as far away from the old one as was possible.

The new school would set on an open plot of land nearly two miles away from the old, with the nearest house almost half a mile away. Those who asked why this location was more suited for a school, given that there were several plots of land near the existing school that could have served the purpose, were also ignored.

But long-term residents of Carswell’s Corner already knew. It was no coincidence that the people who owned the property the ‘big-box’ store was built on were the same ones that owned the land the new school was constructed on. They knew the ‘fix’ was in, that the ‘leading families’ of Carswell’s Corner had once again profited from the government they almost openly controlled.

You hear people tell horror stories about corrupt city governments of Chicago or New York City, but they know nothing about corruption. Real corruption, the sort of ‘buy any sort of ruling you want’ crooked government that makes people cynical about government, exists in small-town America. In all the places like Carswell’s Corner that exist all across the nation.

Let me tell you a few tales of Carswell’s Corner, the citizens who populate it, and their lives in a true den of government iniquity.

Take, for example, the adventure of Jack Simms and his dog Snow……

“On Writing”

I recently asked some of my writing acquaintances for advice on a problem I have found in my writing style. My problem is that, at least in feedback I have gotten on my first novel, I ‘tell’ too much and ‘show’ far too little.

So, I put the question to my fellow writers: Where can I find advice on this?

It is said that if you ask five Irishmen a question, you’ll get twice as many answers, plus a great deal of gratuitous advice and general observations. That is a good approximation of the response I got to my question.

There was one thing that several people did point to, and that was a book. The book in question is “On Writing” penned by Stephen King. This book was cited as the definitive tome on the art of writing. So, with one clear point of agreement, I went to my local library and, after renewing my card, asked them to request a copy of said book. It took about a week for them to get it, and somewhere along the line, some sort of confusion sprang up (I was supposed to be notified by email that the book had arrived…and I found out it was in by going to the library to ask how much longer it would be before it arrived), but it got here at last. So, with book in hand, I walked home wondering what insights I might garner from the mind of a major author.

Well, roughly halfway through the book, the answer is “Not a hell of a lot.”

This is no monstrous, coffee-table-crushing work. If you count the “Book List” at the end, it spans a grand total of 288 pages (four of those being taken up by said list and its preface). What has slowed me down is the fact that King devotes 101 pages (yes, over 1/3 of the book), to tells us of his childhood, early writing days and struggles with alcohol/drug addiction.

I know that our lives shape us, and that a hard life can shape us in ways unexpected…but is this much detail necessary? Would not something simple and direct, a ‘less is more’ approach, be better? I hate to have to say it, but in reading King’s description of his life, the impression I got was less of a man trying to explain what had shaped his writing style, and more of a general breast-beating, ‘Look! I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, and you can too!’ manifesto. It’s nice, but not terribly helpful in making the conveying the point of the book: to pass along tips on how to write better.

I will keep reading it, and it is starting to show me some useful things. I guess if I recommend this work to another prospective writer in the future, I’ll have to remember to advise them to skip past the first 101 pages and get right to the meat of the work.

A Review of “The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id”

“The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id”

Aaron J. Lawler

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Release date: Nov. 6, 2016

Reviewed copy: 268 page octavo-sized paperback

Aaron Lawler’s novel is graced with what has to be one of the longest titles I have ever encountered. That said, the story he tells may need such a gigantic title to encompass it.

Mr. Lawler introduces us to FitzGerald ‘Fitz” Faraday, a somewhat ne’er-do-well teenager, his best friend, a teen who’s reputation is even more checkered than Fitz’s, and the new girl in town who can’t quite decide how to react to Fitz. He also introduces us to his friend/mentor, the eccentric Oliver Crowley, former professor of parapsychology and a man convinced he can make thought itself physical. Crowley’s efforts are nearing a culmination, and Fitz is aiding him as a gopher and occasional lab assistant.

But Fitz is more than just a spare set of hands to Mr. Crowley. The reclusive researcher has realized that Fitz has a gift, the ability to see things others can’t, and he believes that Fitz could be the perfect conduit for proving his ideas. Unfortunately, Crowley’s former associates, people who are intent on keeping his research from reaching fruition by any means necessary, have noted his continued activities. Their arrival at Crowley’s house is witnessed by Fitz, who has agreed to take his best friend on a surreptitious tour of that same house. Making a stealthy entry, Fitz and his friend witness Crowley’s murder by his former associates, and learn of their plan to frame another teen, one with a violent past, for the crime.

Fitz decides to learn the secret to Mr. Crowley’s plan to make thoughts into reality, and in the process, he hopes to free the teen falsely accused of murder. With his friends, he succeeds, only to draw the murderous attention of the people who killed his mentor. There is a final, fateful confrontation, and an ending that leaves the reader wondering if there is another book in the offing that will continue the tale.

I do have a few nits to pick with the story. For one, I am unsure whether “The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id” is intended to be a ‘young adult’ novel or not. Whether it is or isn’t, there are several instances in the story where a knowledge of modern slang comes in handy to understanding what the characters are trying to convey. There are also a few instances where words are missing or misspelled, not enough to really distract from the story, but definitely enough to be annoying.

So, did I enjoy the read? Yes. The story line keeps the reader moves along, and while the finish leaves you wondering if there is another book to come, it is fulfilling enough to satisfy. Would I recommend it to others? I think I would, but it might depend on what the person who asked likes to read. Some people will enjoy the characters and love their journey. Others, especially those who are annoyed by some of the compound-word slang used by modern teenagers, might find the level of use off-putting. As with any reading experience, what the reader is looking for is often the final arbiter whether they will like the story or not, but I give it a positive review.

What makes you a writer?

I recently attended a gathering where the Midwest Writer’s Institute (aka the UW Madison Writer’s Institute) was discussed. All of those who attended were fulsome in their praise of the event, and it does sound like something I would enjoy going to.

Then, of course, someone had to spoil the discussion by stating that, by attending, they were showing that they were ‘serious’ about their ‘craft’.

Excuse me, but that seems to say, by implication, that those of us without the money to attend are nothing but a bunch of dilettantes.

When I heard this vacuous statement, it rankled more than a little bit. I had always heard that the term ‘starving artist’ was something of a badge of honor. As someone who gets through every month by the skin of their financial teeth, I come very close to qualifying for that appellation.

For me, the indulgence I grant myself in the literary line is attending the Printer’s Row LitFest. I doubt any of the folks who nodded their agreement to the silly statement about the Writer’s Institute would understand it, but even on this event, I watch my pennies. I don’t spend the time and money to drive into Chicago, then shell out more cash to pay for parking. I take the cheaper route of driving to one of the UP West Metra stations, where weekend parking is free. From there, I catch the train into downtown for the princely sum of (at least last year) five dollars. Once off the train at the Ogilvie Transit Center, ‘shank’s mare’ carries me the eight blocks to the event and back. Lunch is the cheapest thing I can find, and my shopping is usually limited to $20, $40 if it’s been a particularly ‘fat’ year.

When I priced it, attendance at the Writer’s Institute started at $179, and that doesn’t count ‘extra events’ like pitching to an agent or getting pages of your manuscript professionally read and critiqued. As if this wasn’t expensive enough, most of the people who go stay in Madison, not a cheap prospect in and of itself given the three day length of the event.

For me, the basic cost of attendance, plus a room, would feed me for a month, possibly a little beyond. So while I might be close to being a ‘starving artist’, I hope my fellow writers will understand if I chose to not actually starve so I can have the ‘honor’ of attending this event, or the upcoming Chicago Writing Institute. Perhaps you might think me ruled by my belly, but an empty stomach rarely makes a good writing companion, at least in my experience.