Engineering practices in writing: Rubber ducking

I’ve had several scenes designated as “to sketch out” for long periods of time. There are some scenes I find very difficult to plot out on my own. Thankfully, I have John around to ask me questions about the scene, see plot holes I missed, and have me place everything that’s on the table, so I can go forward with new ideas. John and I are both software engineers, so the way we probe at, pick at, and try to debug a story is very much from that background.

If a scene is giving me trouble, I explain the scene sketch, sentence by sentence, to somebody without my knowledge of the rest of the book. I figure out a lot of problems and details this way. It’s the same principle as teaching: when you have to go through everything from other perspectives, you have to get to know your material, in this case a story, better. There isn’t always somebody around to go through the material with, though. An engineer in the book The Pragmatic Programmer carried a rubber duck around to explain things to, so the process is often referred to as “rubber ducking” or “rubber duck programming.”

me and some "ducks"
me and some “ducks”

My duck is not actually a rubber duck. It’s a stuffed animal or figurine. I rotate through them so they don’t get bored. I’m mostly a planner, so I rubber duck or talk to John at the scene planning level. I’ve also rubber ducked with the scene already written if I think there’s something missing or there is an issue. Then I go through the existing scene and try to explain why each sentence is there to the duck.


Some of the principles of my job carry over to my creative life. Have you found this as well?

Honeymoon reading

This morning I set out to New Mexico with John! There will be plenty of downtime and hanging out at cafes, just letting our brains unknot for a week. I’ll do plenty of reading, I’m sure. Here are some books that I’m thinking of getting to:

  • Aliens in the Barn by Kyndra Hatch. I’m partway through this, and I haven’t met such unique aliens in a long time.
  • Deep Indigo by Cathryn Cade. I’ve read the others in this series and enjoyed them, so why leave that incomplete?
  • Mission: Improper by Bec McMaster. The spinoff to London Steampunk.
  • Hell Squad: Cruz and Gabe by Anna Hackett, because I’ve read the later books and want to be able to fill in a few references.
  • Trapped with the Cyborg by Cara Bristol because I will read most any books with female cyborgs in them.
  • Seth by Eve Langlais because see above.
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I’ve tried to read this a decade ago but had some trouble with it. I think it’s important for me to read more about hypercapitalism and classics of cyberpunk.
  • You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty by Dave Barry. Dave Barry was the first humor writer I read as a teenager and I appreciate his talent for the absurd.
  • Devil’s Kiss by Zoe Archer. I love her adventure stories. This is a historical with some supernatural elements I borrowed from the library.

I said recently that I’m not great at “just being” and reading is a good balance between doing and being. Do you have any summer vacation reading plans?

Giveaway winners and wedding reading

The winners of my blog hop prizes are Jo Jones and Kathleen M. Thank you to everybody who participated! I’ll be doing more giveaways in the months to come, celebrating reading and my wedding.

There’s almost no prep to do for my wedding in four days, but I do intend to distract myself with reading (maybe some writing or reviewing, but I won’t count on it). I just finished up two books yesterday, but that “unread” list of books on my ereader is still more than 110.

I tend to cry at weddings. Family and community events make me all schmoopy. Right now I’m trying to think of my favorite fictional wedding scene in a book. I read a lot of romance, so you’d think this may be easy, but it’s all a blur. How about you? What are your favorite wedding scenes in books?

Other worlds blog hop

Other Worlds Blog Hop

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My work-in-progress takes place in what is currently Portland, Maine, several hundred years from now. When the United States fragmented, the Portland area, most of modern-day Maine, and parts of Vermont and New Hampshire consolidated into a city-state of the same name. Jet fuel is scarce, so most valuable trade is done via ships, and Portland’s primary industry is shipbuilding. Three mega-corporations (Corps) control Portland along with the municipal government: Harbor Securities, Michaud Dynamics, and Fairchild.

Picture of Portland's Old Port area
The Old Port in the modern era

Portland, Maine was named after the English Isle of Portland by English settlers. Before that, the Algonquian people who lived there called the peninsula Machigonne. Portland, Oregon was named for Portland, Maine when pioneer Francis Pettygrove won the right to name the town he and Asa Lovejoy founded on the Columbia River when he won a coin toss.

Why set a cyberpunk novel there? One of my assumptions when considering a future was that several large nations would fragment because governing that many people is very difficult to do with any nominally democratic process. I’ve been to Portland a handful of times and developed affection for the city: it was enough unlike Boston (where I lived in and around for almost ten years) that I thought it deserved its own place in my fictional future. A city, but not the Big City.

To celebrate summer and the blog hop, I’m giving away some SFR books:

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And don’t forget the Grand Prize on the blog hop if you haven’t entered already!
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On ebook ownership and community

I love ebooks. I love that they don’t get dust, that they weigh nothing, are easy to take with me and move houses with, and that I can change the size of the text for my twitchy eyes. There is something I’d change if I could about ebooks, though: the ownership model.

On Amazon, ebooks are licensed, not sold. When I pay Amazon, they agree to let me ‘use’ an ebook for as long as I abide by their Terms and Conditions (which let me loan out some books once for a period of two weeks). If they think I am in violation of such (whether this is true or not), they may close my account, and I will lose access to the books I bought via them forever. While it’s unlikely that this will happen, I want to buy a book, not rent it indefinitely. Kobo allows me to download a book without DRM attached. I now have a file I can keep backed up. However, their Terms and Conditions say “Customers may not modify, transmit, publish, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit, any of the content of any Digital Content, in whole or in part.” Again, even though I’m not so worried about things being disabled due to bugs, I still have very restricted use of the book.

Sometimes I want to loan out a book or give it away. Lending a book to a friend is a way of making a personal connection, and something I’ve enjoyed doing for decades. It’s a way I can share something. It builds community. With the rental-purchase model, I give up that connection and say that ownership of books is all to be mediated by a company. Which I say is not a person. Why don’t you just buy print editions, you ask? Lots of books I like are not available in print! With Amazon and All Romance Ebooks, I can at least gift a copy of an ebook. Throw money at the problem, I guess. But it my objections about eroding community stand.

I don’t think it’s in authors’, publishers’, or distributors’ interest to let me give a book away. If I thought boycotting ebooks until they changed ownership models would be at all successful, I’d do it. I’m willing to pay more in exchange. In the meantime, I’m going to start buying print books of authors I like and put them in the Little Free Libraries about town and donate them to library book sales. Plus loaning them to friends. I hope one day someone else can share the love of books sent out into the wild.

I don’t think a boycott would be successful because I assume I’m in the minority for what I’d be willing to give up to get ownership of my e-library. Would you pay more to own your ebooks?