Friday, November 30, 2012

Firefox Crash-and-Burn Syndrome

My love-hate relationship with Firefox is slowly shifting toward mostly hate. One reason: About every 7 to 10 days, I get a sudden crash where Firefox disappears except for the above dialog. Sometimes the Details button doesn't work. Making me wonder if Mozilla will even get the Crash Report after all.

Clearly, in a situation like this, Firefox is crashing after an unchecked error. (Otherwise why does Mozilla need a complete Crash Report? Why not just get the error code? Answer: There is no error code. The program doesn't know why it quit.) My strong suspicion is that AJAX-intensive sites like Gmail and Twitter are running the program out of memory. Constant client-server AJAX chatter from endless polling is an invitation to memory leakage. (Plus see this post.)

Someday I'll switch to Chrome 100%, but the way I work now is, I use Firefox for business-related browsing and Chrome for personal surfing. I like keeping them separate. I'll continue to use Firefox until the sad day comes when we part company forever. At that point, maybe I'll send flowers and a short, poignant good-bye note. Never to be seen again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How much have you written in one day?

This survey is  CLOSED.

Results after 1,336 page-visits:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pro Writing Aid: Ready for Prime Time?

There's no shortage of online "readability checkers" that claim to show how readable your text is via this or that metric. But few online tools (especially free ones) attack the readability problem with as much gusto, or in as many ways, as Pro Writing Aid.

Sadly, that's pretty much where the good news ends. My test-drive of Pro Writing Aid didn't find it to be much of an aid. But I give the creators an 'A' for effort. They're on the right track, at least.

The way the tool works is, you paste a bunch of text into PWA's online form and click the Analyze button. About ten seconds later, you'll see a summary report, with a column of links down the left side having names like:
  • Overused words
  • Word cloud
  • Sentence variation
  • Grammar
  • Adverbs/passive
  • Sticky sentences
  • Clichés and redundancies
  • Repeated words and phrases
  • Phrases summary
  • Diction
  • Vague and abstract words
  • Complex words
  • Alliteration analysis
  • Pacing
  • Consistency
  • Sentiment
  • Time
  • Dialog
  • Homonyms
You can click on any one of these to see potential problems highlighted in your text. Unfortunately, "potentials" outnumbered actuals quite a bit in the testing I did. (I used several pieces of my own writing for testing, as well as sample chapters from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. You'd think the latter would've thrown a lot of flags and warnings, but oddly enough, "it warn't that terrible bad.")

Different writers will get different mileage from this kind of tool, so go ahead and try it yourself: You may very well find it useful. For me, it was like using a spellchecker in that I spent the vast majority of the time dismissing things that a computer would flag as wrong but that a human would know were right.

The Adverbs/Passive tool was puzzling. It flagged every adverb (including every occurrence of "only"), but highlighted few or no instances of passive voice in any of the five writing samples I tried (each sample averaging 1,700 words).

The Word Cloud feature makes pretty pictures but is otherwise useless.

The Overused Words report flagged 47 instances of "it" in Chapter 3 of Huck Finn, saying that about 26 instances could be removed. In point of fact, I couldn't find any instances that warranted removal.

That's not to say the Overused Words report is useless. But as I say, it tends (like many of the other tools) to report far more false positives than it reports good catches.

A fundamental problem with utilities of this sort is that they don't make allowances for the (huge) differences between dialog and narrative, in a piece of text that contains both (such as a chapter from a novel). The reason this is a big problem, obviously, is that spoken English is quite a bit different from written English: It's different as to vocabulary, diction, syntax, word length, sentence length, sentence variety, pacing, use of clichés, constructions based on slang, and probably two or three dozen other particulars. You can't treat dialog and non-dialog text as one and the same thing. They're distinct. What works for one won't necessarily work for the other. I saw this when I passed a piece of dialog-intensive sample text through the Pro Writing Aid analyzer and noticed many more flags in areas of spoken English than in areas of expository English.

Another potential problem with utilities of this type is that they make no distinction between writing aimed at adults and writing aimed at children or young adults. (Or for that matter, writing aimed at a professional audience vs. writing aimed at a lay audience.) It would be nice if there were a way to specify the intended age group for the writing sample in question, so as to get an age-appropriate readout of things like diction and "sticky sentences." 

Long story short: Pro Writing Aid was a disappointment, for me. But I recognize that it might well be a boon to others. So by all means, try it out yourself. And let me know what you think.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Evil Writing Prompts

  • Write a query letter and ten sample pages for a novel about the dismal state of the publishing industry and send it to two hundred literary agents.
  • Write a synopsis for a time-travel vampire romance set in the fantasy kingdom of Twillador and hand it out to every speaker at a writer's conference.
  • Write a query letter for a young adult novel called H. Finn, about "a boy, a raft, and a runaway nigger." Sign it S. Clemens, and send it out to 100 literary agents. Publish the rejection letters in a blog.
  • In your latest manuscript, do a global search and replace, putting the name of a well-known literary agent in place of your novel's villain's name, then send it to publishers that deal with that agent.
  • Include the first ten pages of Flowers for Algernon as a writing sample in a query letter. Send to 100 agents, claiming you are a mentally challenged adult seeking representation, and mention that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires them to write you a detailed, personalized letter back, lest you sue.
  • Create a fake newspaper clipping about your unfinished novel, scan it, and paste the image directly into a fake bio. Hand it out at writer's conferences.
  • Using Google Translate, translate the first ten pages of your novel into Hindi, then have Google Translate translate it back into English. Use the resulting hysterically mangled text as your writing sample. Send it under an Indian pen name to your least favorite literary agents.
  • Find the personal e-mail addresses of ten literary agents who accept snail-mail proposals only. Send each one a Word attachment containing the full text of Moby Dick and include in the subject line "REQUESTED MATERIAL."
  • Write 25 queries containing 25 random sentences and send them all to one literary agent, from 25 fake e-mail accounts.
  • Write an e-mail marked "URGENT" to fifty literary agents, claiming you have gotten offers of representation from multiple agencies for a work you never submitted to anyone. Use weird fonts and font colors.
  • Write a fake interview with yourself in which you talk about having won fake awards. Include the interview's URL in queries sent to fifty overseas agents.
  • Come up with 25 fake "Praise for" quotations to put in the front of your book. Be sure to quote dead authors. Include with your manuscript.
  • Write your own first page for a (real) bestselling book that's on the shelves now. Print it out. Go to the bookstore, find that book on the shelves, and paste your first page over the first page of the book.
Disclaimer: Folks. Folks. This all meant in jest. For heaven's sake don't actually do any of this shit.