Lookit here: Have You Heard the Good News?

In my home town of New York City, we are fierce about our First Amendment rights (and don’t ever get us started on the Third—affordable housing being what it is in this city, that forced quartering of troops thing really gets under our skin). Maybe I couldn’t get my word out on privately-owned mass media, but there was nothing stopping me from taking it directly to the People.

[mantra-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]The revelation won’t be televised.[/mantra-pullquote]

What better way to do this but in the time-honored tradition of street-preaching in Times Square? After all, The Breast of Everything isn’t merely about a talking breast; it’s about a talking breast that starts a new religion!

On matinee day, I loaded an old messenger bag up with business cards, made sure I had my lawyer’s number on speed dial and headed for the subway. My first stop was the Toys R Us on Broadway. No point spending big money on a wireless mike—unless, of course, I’d find a tube of neon pastel plastic more embarrassing than the act of yelling the gospel according to Mam on the streets of New York.  The WrapStar model seemed eminently practical, or at least harder to drop or have yanked away by an angry mob, and had a refreshing lack of sparkly bits.

When I was a kid, there was always a single revival-style preacher in Times Square, a skinny guy with a big voice, wearing a black suit so old that what wasn’t worn to grey was shiny as patent leather. Maybe there’d also be a couple of guys with sandwich boards, and sometimes Moondog would wander by from his usual spot in front of Black Rock. These days, since the area has become a pedestrian mall, there’s a lot more competition for curbspace.

You Are Not the Only Person on the Planet (poster)

Today, the area is a parking lot of footsore tourists, iced lattes and unlicensed cartoon characters. At 5’2, I disappear into this kind of crowd. I scrounged for a folding cafe chair that felt stable enough to stand on and, when I found one, I climbed up, flipped the on switch and let fly with my very favourite Mam-ism: You are not the only person in the Planet!

Too right. I was immediately drowned out by a pair of steel drums, a team of kids break-dancing for spare change, and an ambulance siren. I was also getting dirty looks from a small but determined group that had wandered up from Union Square with placards in support of the people of Turkey. Most discouragingly, the crowds around the TKTS booth were more interested in the opportunity to sit in a studio audience or grabbing discount passes to a comedy club than in paying attention to any of us.

It occurred to me that I was around the corner from the NY home of a religious movement that, not so many years ago, had been in a similar position to mine. They no longer have to give away free L. Ron Hubbard classics from a folding table in front of The Church of Scientology, but the precedent cheered me. Prudently far from their door, I chose to open with Mam’s words from the Beltane Confluence (Chapter 7): “Greetings to all who honor Nature!” Nobody stopped me, but no one heard me, either. It was a miscalculation on my part. It’s really hard to have a revival meeting without the crowd and West 46th is pretty quiet right now. The only thing playing is Motown the Musical, and either the toy mike wasn’t strong enough to read over the soundtrack bleeding out the doors or the people filing in just didn’t care.

So I went north a few more blocks to The Book of Mormon and waited for the desperate smokers to come running out during intermission. It wasn’t a big crowd. There aren’t as many smokers left as you might think, and no one else wanted to leave the nice air-conditioned theatre for the city sauna. The few who did come out were really getting into it. I thought I was making some headway, until I started handing out cards and they realized I wasn’t a member of the cast.

I finally gave up and headed home. It turns out that I don’t have what it takes to be a religious leader. That’s OK. I’m only a writer, after all. And it was certainly an interesting marketing idea.

World Enough, and Time

I haven’t updated this blog in far too long.  Two months.

In the blog-o-sphere, where you are advised you must feed the feed almost constantly in order to cultivate an audience, that’s more like eons too long. Even with my far more modest goals (once or twice a month seems plenty to me), two months is  bit much. The problem has been, as it often is for me and for most people I know, time.

Simply stated: if I’m blogging, I’m not writing.  Yes, I know blogging is writing. But the hour I’m using on this post is an hour of not working on the novel that is already a good three months behind schedule (and I’m talking about the amended schedule at that!), the novel that will probably not, after all, be finished before I take my annual inspirational break to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November.  Every social network post and tweet eats away at the time I have to work on that novel. So does cooking and cleaning. Getting a haircut. Balancing the checkbook. So do all the little things that have to be done in support of the work that’s already out in the market. And then there are the thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing things: spending time with friends; going on vacation; taking a walk in the park.

Every hour needs bargaining.  What do I have to do? What will cause more problem to postpone than would be worth the pause to handle? When is the time lost far outweighed by the benefits—and vice versa? Which is the better value?

And so, Dear Reader, there’s been a two-month gap in this blog. I had to make a choice. And if you’ve missed having more frequent posts, let’s hope that the book that ate up that time turns out to be something that you’ll (someday) enjoy reading.

An Agile Mind

Like most writers of fiction, I spend most of my waking hours in a job where I’m doing something else. In my case, I write user assistance materials for software (yeah, that’s right; I write “Help.”) And since you ask, no; I don’t have a technology background. This is a career I wandered into, under the heading “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (thank you, John Lennon)  I’ve learned by doing; and by listening, watching, reading and asking questions.

There are always new challenges to keep me on my toes. But imagine my surprise when the latest challenge turned out to be an old friend.

The shop I work in is in the process of adopting the popular “Agile” approach to software development. Right now we have a kind of coach in house, to shepherd us through the transition to this new work culture. Since Agile is all about cross-functional collaboration, even I’m included in the training exercises. I’ve been training with the Product Managers, which is great for me because I rely on their documents to do my job.

Last week, our coach introduced us to the “User Story,” a method for looking at the various elements that might be needed in a new piece of software. The User Story is a simple statement of a task that a particular user might want to accomplish. In fact, we were told to make it so simple that we could write it, using a felt-tip marker, on one side of an index card. The other side of the card is for specific features that make it possible to perform the task. The Story stays simple, because it will ultimately be grouped with other Stories to become the “Theme”of the software product.

Experienced project managers and business analysts are more used to looking at either the very big picture or the very very small.  Given the practice example of a piece of banking software, my coworkers came up with broad statements like “as a bank customer, I want an online portal so that I can do my banking any time, anywhere” and followed up with long lists (taped to the card) of all the specific buttons and tables that would have to be included for every possible banking experience.

What I wrote was: “I want to move a specific amount of money from savings to checking every month,” and the back of my card had only the details that supported that one activity.  The coach was astounded.  How had I, the one with no training in gathering software requirements, written such a good User Story the first time out?

Simple. What he calls a User Story, I call a scene. Think of a film. Each individual scene in a film has a specific goal for at least one of the characters. Actually, the same thing applies to narrative fiction as well. Some writers start at the beginning and work straight through to “The End”, but others (and I think we’re in the majority) set down our scenes. And if you’re powering through the idea for a new story, you may very well be jotting down notes for your individual scenes on index cards (or virtual cards).

It turns out software development is learning what artists already know. You work on the small pieces, and the big picture takes shape when you string them together.  It’s an approach that works in a lot of areas of life. No one ever listens to artists, but now that technology has taken the idea and blogged it and certified it and meta-tagged it, maybe it’ll spread. So don’t be surprised in the next few years if you start to hear about Agile Government or the Agile Diet.  When you do, remember: it’s just another common sense approach to breaking down a problem; and the writers were there first!