Monthly Archives: October 2010

Pitch or synopsis?

Writing a novel is hard. Imagine writers’ shock when, after finishing their masterpieces, they find the hardest tasks are yet to come: writing the pitch and the synopsis. One of the first challenges is understanding exactly what is being requested.

A pitch is used to entice the reader/listener to want to read the book. Think marketing pitch. Think copy on the back of the book. The pitch generally does not reveal the ending, and it can be a variety of lengths:

  • A logline is 1-2 sentences. Usually <25 words. It’s the “TV Guide” or movie poster hook.
  • The elevator pitch is a sentence or two longer than a logline. It’s a short paragraph — what you could reasonably say to someone in an elevator ride. Reasonably. 3-4 sentences.
  • The standard pitch is what’s used in queries and face-to-face pitches. General guidelines are 1-3 paragraphs and <250 words. Critical information to include in the standard pitch is the protagonist, the antagonist, the motivation or goals of each (which should reveal the conflict), the central obstacle, and the STAKES.

I, personally, find it critical to consider both the external plot and the emotional story when putting together a pitch. The agent or publisher has to know what HAPPENS — plot — but they also have to care — emotion.

A synopsis is a complete summary of the story, including the ending. It is not a pitch like you’d include in a query. However, it’s also NOT just a recitation of plot events: this happens, then this happens, and then that happens. Its job is both to engage the reader AND to describe the story and how it unfolds. Like the pitch, the synopsis can vary in length and complexity.

  • The most commonly requested length of synopsis is 2-3 pages doubles-paced or a single page single-spaced, which is generally just enough space to introduce major characters, setting, the main character arc, and the main plotline. Minor characters and subplots generally aren’t mentioned at all.

My personal rule of thumb is that in a 2-3 page synopsis, I don’t mention more than 3 or (max) 4 character names, because the reader loses track. Other characters, if they’re critical can be mentioned by a more general description such as “Marlie’s mother.”

  • A mid-length synopsis is 5 pages or so and goes into more depth than the more-typically-requested 2-3 page synopsis. It still is not a chapter-by-chapter recounting though.
  • The long synopsis is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. It can run 15-20 pages, but it’s usually asked for only by publishers and only for proposed books (such as the next two books in a series).
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The Myth of “Purely Positive”

One of my Facebook friends linked to a post I wrote on Karen Pryor’s site back in 2006. I reread it for the first time in a long time and thought it would be good to repost it here, because it’s just as true today as it was then. It is, perhaps, more true now, because there are are so many people drawing arbitrary lines in the sand over labels.

Earlier this month on the ClickerSolutions mailing list, a list member used the term “purely positive,” and another member asked what that meant. That began a lively discussion about the myths and misconceptions inherent in this term.

The meaning of “purely positive” tends to vary according to who is using it. Some clicker trainers use it as a sort of marketing tool, perhaps to indicate that they eschew corrections and attempt to stick with positive reinforcement as much as possible. Traditional trainers use the term as a slur, similarly to how clicker trainers use the terms “punishment trainers” or “pain trainers.”

How, you might ask, can “purely positive” be a slur? It sounds like a wonderful label! It would be, except for two minor complications: “Purely positive” does not exist, and the term is laden with mistaken, half-true, and untrue connotations.

First, the term implies that clicker trainers use no aversives. Extinction and negative punishment are both used by clicker trainers, and BOTH are aversive. Extinction is every bit as aversive as punishment, sometimes even more so. So even trainers who try to avoid negative punishment still have an aversive element to their training if they’re using extinction. All aversives are not created equal. Some are mild and some are severe. Whether the aversive is due to something being added, something being removed, or something just not paying off does not determine the severity of the consequence.

In the class Pax took in Nov/Dec, the instructor wanted to teach dogs to recall instantly, even if another person was playing with/distracting the dog. She taught this traditionally through collar corrections. She set the dogs up, and if they didn’t respond to the recall cue, the owner was to give the dogs a sharp correction. I taught it differently. I instructed people to pet my dog, and then one second after the recall cue… no matter what Pax did… to stand and turn away. We could even practice that without the dog!! There was no decision making there; they heard the cue, counted to one, and then turned away. If Pax chose to stay with the person when I called, he found that all the fun attention went away. No point in that! My solution was just as punishment-based as the instructor’s was, but there was no fear, pain or intimidation. Instead, the reinforcer the dog wanted (attention) was tied to his behavior.

Second, the term “purely positive” suggests that clicker trainers are permissive, that we just ignore unwanted behavior and pretend it doesn’t exist. That is blatantly untrue, at least with any trainer with any skill and knowledge. There are many, many ways to effect behavior. Clicker trainers eschew methods that rely on pain, fear, or intimidation. That still leaves a whole world of possibilities open to us.

Third, the term implies some black and white dichotomy that simply doesn’t exist. Training is a whole lot of gray. It’s incorrect to assume that because clicker trainers concentrate on positive solutions that all clicker trainers stick to only positive solutions. All clicker trainers are not of one mind. Each trainer has made his own decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable to him. Some use NRMs; some don’t. Some say “No” or make “buzzer” sounds; some don’t. Some use mild physical punishers like sprays of water or citronella or noise-related booby traps; some don’t. Some use negative reinforcement in various fashions; some don’t. Some use some of the above in real life but not in training.

As one list member eloquently noted, clicker trainers must stop using the term, because it is, due to these misconceptions, hurting our credibility. As she said, “No one trains by positive reinforcement alone. No one always, in all their dealings with a dog, avoids all possible aversive experiences. Minimizing them is one thing. Not directly employing them to instruct is one thing. But implying there is some kind of purity turns this into a religion, and a pissing contest, consciously or not.”

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Snuggly (and brilliant) puppy

River was snuggly this morning. Not sure why, but three separate times he crawled onto my lap, nibbled on my fingers, and then tucked his head onto my shoulder to nap. It was painfully sweet. If he weren’t so big (and I didn’t have work to do), I’d have loved to let him stay there.

Took a break in the middle of the morning and, since we’re having a break between storms, decided to take him outside into the front yard. Remembering how hard it was to get his attention out there a couple of weeks ago, I decided it would primarily be for his exercise, and I would just reinforce his recall now and then.

This was a different puppy. He heeled — and I mean perfect head-up heeling — all the way to the front gate and back. He broke off to do a little exploring, and I was able to cue some beautiful recalls. He even swung himself into heel position a couple of times. I let the big dogs out with us for a two minute run, and each time the three dogs got as far from me as they could, I cued River’s recall — and he came galloping away from them back to me. (Twice the big dogs came thundering back too!) That’s a 30 yard recall away from some pretty powerful distractions!

Only thing he didn’t do well was stay. I tried just once or twice — figured there was no reason to focus on it right now, since it wasn’t in my original plan. I can bring him out later, assuming it’s not pouring rain, and work on stays.

I’m really glad I have this area and the pastures. The dogs don’t get much access to them, so the distraction level is fairly high. They’re also fully fenced and private, so I can train off leash. It’s excellent practice when I can’t get into town or to PetSmart to practice in higher distractions.

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I think we’re FINALLY making real progress on the housetraining. Yayyyy. I was beginning to despair that it would never happen. Now that the deck has been rebuilt and the dog door is more puppy-friendly, River is going in and out of it regularly.

Now that he’s big enough to get on and off the bed by himself, he’s even taking himself out at night — or trying to. LOL. I don’t trust that completely and follow him down to make sure he goes alllll the way out. When Pflouff was a puppy we built a channel between the stairs and the dog door to ensure she kept moving, and so I think I’ll start doing that with River.

Sincerely — you have no idea how relieved I am. He’s not housebroken yet… I certainly haven’t stopped suggesting he go out several times a day, and I’m still getting up several times during the night… but I’m finally seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel. (Please, God, no trains. Can’t. Handle. A. Train.)

In other news, River has been to three puppy classes now, and he’s doing fabulously. I’m so proud of him. I get comments about how calm and sweet he is. Sweet, yes, but the “calmness” is from careful reinforcement of calm, relaxed behavior. He’s really doing a fantastic job of focusing on me during class — for a 16-week-old puppy attending his first round of puppy classes, I mean. We have a lot to learn, but it’s progressing little by little.

He’s doing well with sits, downs, recalls, go to heel, down on a mat, and walking (a few steps) in heel position. We’ve introduced “stay” over the past week or two. It’s still shaky, but it’s improving. I really want to emphasize “stay,” because it’s the foundation of impulse control. He needs to learn that giving up what he wants earns him even better things — that patience REALLY pays off. I’m not ready to introduce big distractions yet. First I need to get just the distraction of me moving and jumping and acting silly really solid. Then I can have both me and Jay acting silly. Then I can add things like food on the floor, toys bouncing around him, and toys being thrown. Being able to hold a sit while a retrieve object is thrown (or shot!) is a foundation behavior for field training.

It just occurred to me that I haven’t invested an afternoon on “Crate Games” yet. (That’s because the first session really is two or three hours long. I don’t focus on things I ENJOY for that long!) Crate Games will really teach him basic self-control though, and the lessons can be generalized to other situations. I need to get on that!!

The other thing we’re working on, though just a little, is backchaining the retrieve. River is a retriever, and he has an excellent, instinctive play retrieve. But the formal retrieve is something different, and I want to teach it right. I have decided to get the take solid on a bunch of different types of objects before I really progress the training. That could be a mistake — I don’t know. But I do know I want the take and give to be really, really solid and really, really generalized.

So, overall, things are going well, and I’m happy. River is growing like a WEED, and his temperament is every bit as sweet and gentle as Pax’s is. I love my little boy.

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Farm update

I love our little “farmlette,” but it is definitely an ongoing project. We’ve been here six years, and we’ve tackled projects a bit at a time as we can afford them. Most of the projects have been outside, not so much “making it pretty” as improving the form and function with mud control, fencing, clearing, etc.

When we first bought the place, I took photos. Last year, shortly after our fifth anniversary here, I took the same pictures over and compared them. We’ve done a lot! You can see those pictures (originals compared to five years later) here:

We just wrapped up our projects for 2010. In previous years we’ve focused on improving the property. This year we worked on the house itself. The biggest project of the year was work on the sunroom.

When we tore out the side deck last year our contractor found a fair amount of rot at one outside corner of the sunroom. This year we asked him to fix that and to replace the cheap, horribly energy-inefficient windows. While doing that work, he found the room — an addition on the home — was built on a… subpar… foundation, so he had to add that to the scope. Since the source of our basement leak was in that area — and exposed because of the foundation work — we also had him fix the leak and install french drains underground on that side of the house. Oh — and we discovered during the project that the room had no insulation underneath, so our contractor added that plus a vapor barrier.

Here’s a picture of the sunroom now. The paint isn’t even because it isn’t paint — it’s primer. I’m not going to paint the sunroom until I paint the whole house, and I’m hoping not to do that until we replace the roof. (It’s a hideous green color, which limits my choice of exterior paint colors.)

We’re ecstatic about how it turned out. The room used to be unbearably hot in the summer, but this year it was the same temperature as the rest of the house! Hope that’s true this winter too. We’re also thrilled to have gotten the leak fixed, the foundation sealed, and the drainage installed. We also replaced the gutters on the house this year, and the contractor thinks that plus the drainage work should have completely resolved any flooding in the basement. We’re supposed to have a bad winter this year, so I guess we’ll put that to the test!

Another project we did was rebuild the deck off the back of the sunroom. The old deck was a nightmare. It wasn’t even with the door, so you had to step down a non-standard, too-high distance from the house to the deck. It had no railings, and the stairs were just temporary, non-standard steps we added when we trashed the side deck.

Here’s a picture of the new deck. It’s medium sized — just right to add a couple of chairs and a small table.

It has a lovely view of our pastures.

Oh, in those last two pictures you can see some new gravel we put down this year. That area was heavily trafficked by the horses, and the drainage was bad, so it got terribly muddy. That was probably the last of the mud control we’re going to have to do.

The last big thing we did this year was work on the front porch. When we took out the side deck we found rot — a lot of rot — in the support posts under the front porch. The more our contractor got into it, the more rot he found. Just about the only thing that wasn’t rotted was the floor itself. He replaced the support posts and built central stairs, but as you can see from this photo, we haven’t come close to finishing it.

Part of the reason it’s unfinished is because I’m not sure what I want to do. Finishing the porch will be part of a complete redo of the front of the home, so until I have an idea what the front should look like, I don’t want to do major finish work on the porch.

So that’s pretty much all we did on the house this year. Next April we’re planning to FINALLY gut the basement. The goal is to take it down to the studs so we can see exactly what’s in the walls. Then we’ll prioritize what needs to be done. Things to do include:

  • Bring in propane.
  • Rewire so it’s capable of handing 21st century power demands AND hardwire in a large generator.
  • Move the hot water heater.
  • Install duct work and a heat pump.
  • Change the layout.
  • Change the stairs.

And that’s all in addition to sheetrocking, painting, decorating, and furnishing!  Yeah. We’re going to be working on that project for several years.

Finally, here are some River photos. He turned 16 weeks old yesterday. Still isn’t housebroken. We put the dogs outside for a couple of hours this evening so we could go to dinner. When we got home I went in the back and opened the dog door. While back there, I asked River if he needed to pee, and sent him into the grass. He declined, and we came inside. He walked to my desk and peed on the floor.

I am at my wits end. I have NEVER had a dog like this. I don’t know what I’m going to do. He is a dream dog — perfect — other than this, but that’s like saying Ted Bundy was a great guy except for the little serial killer issue.

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