Monday, 23 December 2013

How the Ubergroup works, for n00bs

What is this "Ubergroup" thing you keep rambling about, Jerry? Why, thank you for asking!

The principles of the Ubergroup are work ethic, positive attitude, teamwork and helping each other becoming better writers. The main benefits of the Ubergroup are a rigorous structure that provides motivation; devoted moderators that intensively monitor consistency, quality, and tone of critiques to ensure everyone gets a large amount of useful feedback; and friendly, active members that create a positive but not sycophantic environment that constantly challenges us to grow. The work emphasis is not on individual critiques but on round-table, conceptual discussion by multiple people who have read the entirety of each work.

Basic Ubergroup Structure: Everyone is assigned a team of 4-6 members. You will crit them every week and receive crits from them, then discuss everyone’s work. Your posted work is checked each Monday and your promised crits are checked each Friday. Please make your work visible to the entire Ubergroup—we can’t verify the quality of crits you receive if we can’t see them. Cycles are six weeks long, with an "off week" in between. You can join, drop out, or switch teams between cycles. Teams can also elect to continue uninterrupted through multiple cycles.

The Master Thread: Each week, I will post a master thread by Monday morning entitled "Cycle X, Week Y" with announcements and info for the week. Each team captain will reply to the thread with the status of every teammate and the links to relevant works. Your captain will create a team-specific deadline (usually Sunday night) to enable them to have the full roster prepared by Monday.

The master thread is an attendance sheet used to determine that the whole Ubergroup is meeting standards and to award Awesome Points for participation, teamwork, promptness, etc. It is every member’s responsibility to be accounted for by the team-specific deadline set by their captain, and the captain’s responsibility to account for the whole team by the master deadline.

There is only one rule: Don’t be an a**hole. You may be political, be politically incorrect, swear like a sailor, discuss adult subjects, discuss the contents of critiques, or whatever you like, PROVIDED you are respectful and mature about it. “Being an a**hole” will result in summary removal with no appeal. Every one of you is an adult, and no time will be wasted debating or delineating the basics of behaviour we all learned in kindergarten.

If you take any issue with another member, bring up it up privately to your captains, the mods, or me. We will do our best to handle it with equal discretion. The only time anyone’s behaviour may be called out in public is as in official final warning from me directly, after all other channels have been exhausted.

Your resources:

Your first resource is your team captain, a veteran member who is used to how things work. They’ll answer your questions and let you know if you’re missing anything. They also organise any customised plans of action for the team. If anything seems to be going amiss, your captain will do their best to head it off before it becomes a problem.

Your second resource are the moderators. Mods are all veteran members, chosen for neutrality and fair-mindedness, who keep an eye on teams besides their own. They’ll also gladly answer questions, but they specifically look out for failure to participate or comply with Ubergroup standards. If they see something, they will ask you (privately, via pm) to fix it, and report it to the other mods and your captain.

The final resource is me. I will also gladly answer questions, especially ones you can’t ask your captain—such as if you don’t get along with them, or want to switch teams without offending anyone. I also serve as the final level of enforcement. If participation or behaviour issues cannot be rectified by any other method, I am the final word.

Enforcement methods and timing:

Your captain will do their best to keep things running smoothly before there is a problem. If you are running late, need to skip a week, etc—tell your captain BEFORE the deadline. If you think you violated a social convention by accident—tell your captain BEFORE it comes back to bite you. Things handled pro-actively at this level are not considered real problems.

After a violation or missed deadline, the issue goes to the mods, who will contact you and your captain to try to get things sorted. The problem will be recorded and resolution attempts tracked in the mod group to ensure fairness—no penalty will be dispensed until a problem has been verified as consistent over time. There are fourteen mods, including myself, who can see and discuss all records, to ensure neutrality. If you need a special arrangement, just ask us! Almost all policies are flexible. The important part is spirit of the idea: work as hard as you can, communicate your needs clearly, and be respectful, considerate, and supportive. Almost anything else is possible within that, as long as you communicate.

At a minimum, you are always guaranteed at least one moderator attempt to contact you and at least one week to respond before a penalty is enacted. Depending on the circumstance, additional efforts may be offered, such as the contact attempts from multiple mods, an extended deadline, or a final public warning. If a problem appears unresolvable, or if you fail to respond, you will be removed from the Ubergroup.

There is one hard penalty for the one hard rule: A**holish behaviour is subject to immediate removal without appeal or explanation.

Team Types / working speeds:

“Draft team” – the default Ubergroup team. They post and exchange critiques on one chapter or short story (approximately 2-4k) per person, per week. This style of team is designed for people who are actively writing rough drafts and need encouragement to produce a minimum number of words per week. It is TOTALLY OKAY to post un-proofread raw material to a draft team. We are here to support you getting your work out consistently. We do not want you stuck in a rut because you are afraid to post.

“Fast track” - team exchanges critiques in the same manner, on a larger quantity (usually 2-4 chapters or 6-10k words) per week. This style of team is for people who have most of their first draft written and are able to take on a larger critique load in order to complete everyone’s manuscripts sooner. Basic self-proofreading before posting requested.

“Over-achievers” – intimate team of three members with complete first drafts. Members take turns being “featured” each week. The featured member posts approximately ¼ of their manuscript (20-40k words) and the other two members read the whole section and offer gestalt feedback. In turns, this enables all members to receive 2 complete reads of their manuscripts over the course of 12 weeks, or two cycles. Basic self-proofreading and self-editing before posting required.

“The Beta Team” – rotating team of 4-5 members per cycle. Members take turns being featured each week, and post their entire manuscript. The whole team reads a single entire manuscript in one week, like a published book, to facilitate round-table discussion. Manuscripts must be at least on their third draft – as in, must have been completely critiqued and gut-rewritten at least twice, proofread (by a copyeditor or service such as prowritingaid) and ready to send to agents. They must be of a standard marketable length (Under 90k, less for YA/MG. Fantasy, historical and scifi of exceptionally high polish may apply for a merit-based exemption up to 130k.) for their genre and age bracket. There is only one “main beta spotlight” manuscript for the entire Ubergroup per week. Although only the other 3-4 members of the current team are required to beta read, many manuscripts receive additional voluntary beta reads (if your pitch is particularly catchy or if you have built good relationships by voluntarily beta reading others.) You MUST complete at least one cycle in the Ubergroup on any other kind of team in good standing, or at least three voluntary out-of-team betas to be eligible for the beta team.

“The Query Team” – a rotating team that focuses on the submission package of query, synopsis, and first three chapters. You may apply directly for the query team with a complete, submission-ready manuscript. Incomplete manuscripts must have put through at least one cycle of the Ubergroup (so the opening chapters are not on a first draft.)

Special statuses:

Crit only - Members may take a week off from posting at any time with no penalty as long as the intent is communicated before the weekly deadline. Members may also be crit only for entire cycles.

Reserve – Part-time members who have completed at least one cycle in good standing and need to lower their workload, but wish to maintain affiliation with their team. They are required to remain in contact with their team. Each team has the right to decide individually how much reading/critting/discussion is required to maintain reserve status with them, and may elect to drop a reserve member if they feel participation has been inadequate.

Unaffiliated – Members who have completed several cycles in good standing and need to take a hiatus, but intend to return. An unaffiliated member has no team affiliation and no critique or discussion requirements. This is granted on a case-by-case basis and must be re-applied for by speaking directly to me once per cycle. All beta members are automatically eligible for one unaffiliated cycle immediately after completing beta.

Awesome Points are a game rewarding work ethic, positive attitude, teamwork, and helping each other become better writers. It's a hybrid between Hogwarts house points, "Who's Line is it Anyway: where the rules are made up and the points don't matter," and Calvinball. Points are awarded for things like being all in on time with submissions or crits and excellent discussion threads on writing relevant subject, but don't get too hung up on exactly what is worth what - it's variable, subjective, and meant in good fun. The unifying principle is that any time I see a team demonstrating mutual support and constrictive behaviour, you'll probably get points. The winning team receives their choice of books on writing craft, cookies, or anything similarly motivational.

Minor Housekeeping Things:
Please make your work visible to the entire Ubergroup. This is so mods can keep an eye on the quality of your crits. We cannot regulate what we cannot see. Similarly, we suggest keeping your discussions in-group and visible. We are not responsible for disagreements had in private venues such as other private scrib groups or skype chats.

Please turn off your reaction notifications. In the settings tab, under “When I react to a forums post,” select “allow no one to see.” With such a large and active group, the “group activity” tab is rapidly flooded otherwise.

If you have or need spare karma, contact Jennifer Todhunter. If you’d like to be part of the off-scrib contact list, contact Dawn Chapman.

The Ubergroup is not a democracy. Officially, I am the Tyrannical Uberlord of Everything. That being said, 99.98% of requests will be accommodated (switching teams, posting/critting at different rates, working or not working with other specific members, giving your team a goofy name, etc) so long as it is in the general spirit of improving as writers, good work ethic, and generally playing nice with each other. I only reserve the final word for cases of indecision or needing to break up disagreements.

Interested? Ping me on scrib with your genre, preferred workin speed, and elevator pitch to be waitlisted for the next cycle. We welcome all genres and formats. You will be contacted as spots open up on teams.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Art of Dramatic Writing

I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again: I am Lajos Egri's bitch.

The Art of Dramatic Writing is in widespread use as a textbook for college screenwriting classes, and I believe it applies equally to theatre and fiction. It is widely considered definitive and I highly recommend you read it if you haven't.

Here's the cliff notes:

1. Premise is the basis of everything. Premise is not a vague sense of "general theme" - it is the one sentence underlying message the whole book is trying to prove. Famous example: Romeo and Juiliet's premise is "True love defies even death." The premise is the roadmap, the direction I'm going. If my goal is to run a race as fast as possible, every step must be taken in the direction of the finish line, no meandering. If every word I say does not serve to prove my premise, I'm saying extraneous shit. If a book is written correctly, the premise should make itself obvious. If it doesn't, that's a problem.

2. Character defines plot. All actions must be based in necessity - they must be the ONLY possible thing that character could have done in that situation, given who they are. Never, never make a character do something because you've scheduled it to happen. A coward will not jump in front of a train to rescue a damsel because it is time to be a hero - a real coward will stand there and watch her die. If one wants to write a story about someone being heroic, one better create a hero first. If you don't absolutely believe that OF COURSE it had to go down that way because HOW ELSE could it have gone, I've fucked up.

3. Point of attack is knowing when the curtain should rise and when it should fall - not having any extraneous shit. Everyone has at least one climactic moment in their lives, but most of the reality-tv footage of the minutae needs to end up on the cutting room floor to have a concise two hour drama. The story begins right in the imbroglio and all scenes must exist to show the character-driven actions that prove the premise. If I'm not following both rules 1 and 2 for even a moment, it needs to go.

That is my writer's mantra: Premise. Character. Point of attack.

In addition to Egri, I like these two Scribophile academy articles on the subject of passive vs active voice and show vs. tell. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and to exchange feedback with other writers. If you'd like to exchange with me, head over to and join the Ubergroup.


Sunday, 8 December 2013

How to Write To Women on OkCupid

Repost today. Sadly, OKCupid has ceased to host the "journal" feature on which this article was originally posted, which also means the string of (literally hundreds of) reactionary comments are lost to posterity. The article is too good to vanish into the night, so I am republishing it here.

How To Write To Women On OkCupid

1.) Read my profile, and write a letter to me PERSONALLY, from scratch.

No form letters. We can tell. It's insulting. We won't bite.
Example: "Hey my name is Matt 25m livin in lakeview. 5'10 168 lbs brown hair blue eyes. I think I'm a pretty fun guy, I like to go out, have a few drinks, hang out party. I like sports, baseball hiking outdoors stuff like that LOL the one downside just to be honest i do smoke sorry if that bothers u anyway if you'd like to hang out sometime let me know."

First of all, you don't need to tell me your weight. It's amazing how many guys do this. What do you think I'm going to say?
"Oh, I only date MIDDLEWEIGHTS. It's a good thing you let me know you're a light heavy ahead of time."

I don't need to know anything about your physical appearance, actually - did you know your photo pops up by the side when I open your email? In fact, not repeating the generalized, key-word ridden summary of your profile is a really solid tactic. If I wanted to know that, I could click through myself. The above email is effectively a spam broadcasting of your profile.

Try to say something different, maybe personal? If you'd read my profile, you would know I especially don't care for "baseball, hiking, outdoor stuff LOL." Reciting them again just serves to prove that you couldn't even be bothered to read my profile. It makes me think you're not a real person, but a spam bot. Do you think every close-up picture of an ass that friends you on myspace REALLY wants to be your literal, actual friend?

Better example: "I noticed you really like Heinlein... what's your favourite book of his?"

It doesn't have to be some giant essay. I understand that when so many emails receive no reply, it seems a waste of time to compose lengthy, thoughtful letters. Don't. Overly lengthy letters can seem creepy and stalkerish at first, anyway. Just pick one personal trait or interest and make a specific comment, followed by a specific question to encourage reply.

2.) Say something ORIGINAL.

Example: "Hey how r u. u sound like a fun gal. well ne ways i'd like to get to know u so if youd like to know more about me or chat sometime hit me back. peace"

You don't sound like a fun guy. I don't want to know more about you.

You sound like a faceless, mindless, unidentifiable zombie droning "msg me... msg me..." I might as well make friends with the automated phone menu machine. Try to think of something specific that I would enjoy about you and suggest it.

Better example: "I've always wanted to learn tango. Do you swing? I'll teach you to swing if you'll teach me to tango."

P.S. Though it is excellent strategy to cultivate a hobby, such as social dancing, that a majority of girls will be eager to try with you, if you don't have any such catch-all party trick prepared, never fear. Search my profile for ANY interest we may have in common and suggest we do that. Failing that, suggest we do something goofy, non-sexual, fun and kind of ridiculous like building a pillow fort. If we have no common interests and can't have fun doing nothing in particular either, this is clearly not meant to be and you should move on without wasting your time.

3.) Don't compliment me.

Not on the first letter. Just don't. It sounds like senseless flattery, an overt, "Nice shoes, wanna fuck?"

Example: "WOW baby u r so hot just WOW."

Don't tell me I'm hot, cute, pretty, amazing, awesome, fun, sexy, interesting, or any generic positive trait to be sought in a mate. I know you want to date and/or fuck me. Why the hell else are you writing me on OKCupid? You have plenty of time to compliment me later, when you have given me a reason to care what you think. Most women can't be bought straight off the bat with senseless flattery. Those who do hoard compliments from any and every stranger are so insecure and neurotic you won't want to deal with it when their fragile ego explodes in a rush of jealous neediness after you DO fuck them.

Example 2: "I must say, you are a fascinating and intelligent woman. I would love to get to know you."
Even proper grammar can't save this one. It's still "nice shoes, wanna fuck?" dressed up. If you are smart enough to write in complete sentences, try putting some worthwhile content into those sentences.

Better example: "What kind of gaming are you into? I just bought a new Myst-type and was looking for some people to crack into it with."

Notice he avoided urge to say "That's so awesome that you're into gaming!" Just try to talk about something, anything, without actually blathering about how great it makes her.

4.) If it's not working, drop it.

Annoying her more is not going to make her like you. The moment you think it's not going somewhere, just drop it. Drop it early, drop it preemptively. I'm not saying be rude or give some ridiculous "I think we should stop talking," speech. Prolonging conversation by discussion how it should be over is ludicrous. Don't talk about how you should shut up, just shut up. You won't lose anything by being reticent. If she did like you, she'll send the next im.

5.) Use whole words.

The days of pay-per-text are over. You will not be charged if you go over 160 characters.

6.) Don't talk about what you are looking for in a relationship.

A necessary component of every relationship is mutually wanting one. It's putting the cart before the horse to start working out the rules of your relationship before you've figured out if you like each other enough to talk.

7.) Avoid sexual comments of any sort.

If I have to explain why, this "dating real people" thing is not going to work for you. Go buy a prostitute. Seriously.


Treat women like people, with personalities. Yes, sex and dating is a factor, but for the vast majority of people, it's not the first factor. Do something to make yourself stand out and give her a reason to want to talk to you personally. Take the time to observe her (hint: READ HER PROFILE) and actually discover if you have good reason to believe you'll get along: you will write far less emails, but you will get far more responses from those you do write to.

If you want a whore, buy a whore. This is how to talk to people.

Good luck.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

What is the air speed velocity of an unladen poo?

An unusual blog pimp: Brendan Pope, aka Tsaven, lives on some very strange and fascinating parts of the planet. He does contract work in weird locations like Antarctica or the Marshall Islands part of the year, and tours North America by motorcycle the rest.

He's more of a "facts" person than a "people" person, and an avid photographer, so his blogs are highly informational and glorious-image-heavy about subjects like doing research on climate change, scuba diving in the South Pacific, trying not to die while stealth camping in the Arctic Circle. And somehow, despite "not getting jokes and social stuff" - or probably because of it - he's managed to tell more fall-out-of-your-seat funny stories about bodily functions than everyone else I've ever met combined.

Really, what else can you ask for in a blogger? Crazy adventures, pictures of penguins, and poop jokes. All he's missing is videos of cats.

How many other people do you know who ride through Death Valley on a motorcycle, while coming up with this kind of engineering genius?
I realized something. When taking a dump in a pit toilet like this, if you know the exact time between the poo leaving you, and then the splat/plop as it hits the pile of poo below you, you can calculate the exact distance that your dookie is falling! This idea delighted me, so I timed it on my stopwatch and set about the calculations.

I ran into a snag, though. I don't know the density of poo, so I can't properly calculate it's air resistance, which would affect it's acceleration through air. And then it struck me that given the altitude I was at (almost 7,000 feet), the acceleration of the dookie by gravity might be slightly faster then it would be in a pit toilet at sea level, and I had no idea how to factor that in. *sigh* My great plans to calculate the drop of pit toilets through the country has been foiled.

This is the same fellow who, at eighteen, infamously peed on a spider.

okay so i'm standing in front of my toilet just as i'm starting to take a whiz, and all of the sudden i feel this tickling on my foot (i was barefoot). So i look down to see this GODDAMN HUGE FUCKING SPIDER that had just crawled over my foot and was heading right for my other foot! Seriously, this thing was almost the size of a tarantula! it had to be almost 1.5-2 inches big, IT WAS FUCKING HUGE!!!! I like FLIPED out and jumped back against the wall to try and not let that thing get at my damn foot! keep in mind i had just started to pee and one you start, you KNOW you can't stop, so pee is now going all over the place as i do this fucked up little dance to stay away from this spider, who now starts to panic and running around at this crazy hyper speed! then the goddamn thing starts running for the door, unfortunetly, i am between the door and it!

Maybe two seconds have elapsed now, so i've got a LONG way to go in this pee still, i'm trying to aim it somewhere at the toilet (it's missing), and now i've got this huge spider chargeing me! I don't know WHY i did what i did next, but i had to use the ONLY weapon that i had at my disposal, so i aimed my pee-stream right at the spider! i hit the fucker DEAD ON, and he didn't like that one bit, and made a direct 90 degree turn and headed VERY quickly straight for the wall with the radiator! I don't know what i was thinking, but i did my best to keep peeing after the thing, and then the thing pops out from the radiator RIGHT NEXT TO ME and tries to bolt out the door, and i'm like PANICING so i try and pee on him, but he like SHOOTS by me into the hall and i twirl around, for some fucked up reason, and TRY AND FOLLOW THE FUCKER!. So i'm like hobbleing after this spider with my jeans now around my ankles, hobbleing into the hallway with pee going ALL OVER THE PLACE and still trying to piss on this huge damn spider! this took all of about 7 seconds, from first tickle to me running into the hallway peeing all over the place, and then the baster runs down the stairs! it's about now that i finally ask myself WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING, standing in the hallway with my pants around my ankles holding my dick and aiming a stream of urin down the stairs, so i quickly hop back to the bathroom and finish what was left into the sink (it was closer then the toilet).

So now, with my pants soaked in pee, i'm standing there in front of the sink wondering WHAT THE FUCK I JUST DID! Now there is pee on EVERY SINGLE SURFACE of the bathroom, all over all the magazines, on EVERY wall, the floor is one big pool of pee, there's pee in the sink, on the mirror, probably on the ceiling, the whole basket of extra TP is now useless becasue of pee on it, my pants and undies are SOAKED in pee, the lower half of the front part of my shirt is soaked in pee, there's pee ALL OVER THE DAMN HALLWAY AND DOWN THE FUCKING STAIRS, and now the whole place reeks of pee AND THERE IS STILL SOME HUGE PEE-SPIDER ROAMING THE HOUSE SOMEWHERE!

So i just threw my cloaths in the wash, and i'm gonna take a really fast shower, then try to clean up this huge damn mess as i wonder HOW THE HELL AM I GONNA EXPLAIN THIS ONE TO MY MOM.

I'm fucked. And i smell like pee.

I firmly believe in stealing from his life whole-hog for the purposes of fiction; I can't make shit (har) like this up.

Brendan is currently living in Antarctica, working on Palmer Station. The job appears to be generally awesome and involves many penguins, but at least once a year, it requires him to fix something that involves direct contact with leaking and/or frozen sewage.

Check out his Antarcic blog for a painstakingly photographed account of what it's like living and working on the bottom of the world (don't worry, the majority of it does not actually involve poo.)

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The end? There is no end, son. (On constructing believable villains.)

Someone once said that darkness is necessary in order to see light. That doesn't even have to be metaphor: in visual art, you need negative space to throw focus on your main subject. In drama, you need a good villain to make your hero shine. I've found a main problem in a lot of manuscripts I've beta-read recently is that their villains aren't whole people with believable motivations. They're just daemon ex machinas who exist to do miscellaneous bad things to Our Hero.

No. That's never how it goes. No one sits in a tower, twirling a mustache, thinking of diabolical things to do for fuck's sake. They must have a reason to want to make life hard for your protagonist. Let's use Order of the Stick as an example. It's both a comic and a parody, so their villains should have every excuse to be cheap and cheesy - but they're not. They all have motivations.

If they're specifically a rival who is targeting your hero personally, there's some reason why their rivalry started. More likely, "evil" characters are just people with their own needs and agendas, and your protagonist just gets in the way. One of my favourite tragic arch-villains is Redcloak. He's the high priest of the goblin race - about as stereotypically "evil" as a character can get. His backstory, however, is that paladin "good guys" regularly make unprovoked raids upon "monster" settlements, slaughtering everyone in sight, because their skin is green and their teeth are pointy, which means they're "evil." It's just how adventurers build XP - otherwise known as ethnic cleansing. It's nothing less than a quest to stop the genocide and win equal rights to live in peace for his people that drives him, and turns him into a hateful super-villain who will torture any paladin he can get his hands on.

That's way more interesting, now, isn't it?

Then there's Tarquin, (aptly named after the Roman despot,) the Super-Villain to end all Super-Villains. His reason is simple and meta. There's always evil in the world, no matter how hard the good guys strive against it, so why not live well? Even when he's self-aware that he is evil for evil's sake, he has a damn good believable human reason for it: selfishness.

General Tarquin's Manifesto, aka the Bad Guy's creed.

 "The end of what, son? The story? There is no end, just the point at which the storytellers stop talking. Somewhere between 'villain of the week' and 'good triumphs over evil' there's asweet spot where guys like me get to rule the roost for years. [...] I was willing to make that deal when I thought it was going to be some random peasant schmuck taking me out, but now I see the big picture: It's YOU. [...] Think about it! An epic for the ages! Father vs son! One hero vs the force of an empire! They'll tell stories about us 'til the end of history! [...] That's the beauty of it all, my son. If I win, I get to be a king. If I lose, I get to be a legend. "

I've said it many times before, and I'm not stopping anytime soon: ALL good fiction is character-driven. Find out your villain's reason to do what they do. Even if it's just because they're sadists, something happened to make them that way. (Read up on the Marquis du Sade - sadism is anything but simple or uninteresting.) Hurting other people is frequently how people release their own pain, and audiences understand that. Let us know how your villain was hurt first, and then we'll understand him.

Then send him out there to crush his enemies and hear the lamentation of their women.

Audiences always think the villain is cooler anyway.