Jul 29, 2016

Gotta Catch Them All?

Have you tried Pokemon Go yet? I gave it a go, just to see what all the fuss is about. Okay, it's kind of fun, but I found it interferes with conversation too much when walking with friends, and when I'm on my own I'd rather think about my next story, so this one's not for me. I'll keep the app on my phone, though, in case my niece and nephew want to play.

I do like the idea of games utilising augmented reality, and it opens so many possibilities for cool stuff. I'm thinking of trying Star Walk (an app that lets you explore constellations) next, but right now it's still too light out to see any stars. 

Jul 27, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 2

Last week we began by reading some of Whitman's writings about war before and after the Civil War. You can see how his experiences changed him and his writing. There's a difference between imagining something and actually experiencing it firsthand. This led to an interesting discussion about whether you can write authentically about something you only imagined. Especially for a speculative fiction writer, this is a valid question. Sure, you can do research about medieval sword-fighting techniques, even put on armor and get whacked with a sword, but you can never personally experience fighting a dragon. A lot of the time you try to take some experience you've had that might in some emotional or physical way resemble what you're writing about and use that. And try to do a lot of research, of course. For the story to feel real, you have to develop a knack for faking the small but crucial details that help sell the story. I feel that many fantasy and science fiction writers do this quite well, but does the subject matter mean their stories are less real than stories set in the real world?

We also talked about the anxieties writers and artists face when turning disaster and death into art. It's a sensitive subject. What if you hurt people? Trigger anxiety and bad memories? Is it disrespectful to use a disaster or even someone's personal tragedy for story fodder? Depends on how you do it, I guess?  Most people don't want to bear witness to the madness that is the world today, but we're forced to. It seems like every week there's another shooting or terrorist attack, and the war in Syria and the refugee situation make the headlines almost every day. A lot of the time writing about death is the writer's way of making sense of what happened. Speculative fiction as a lens gives some distance. Maybe we fantasy and science fiction writers have it easier in that regard?

The writing assignment had us write about disaster while using some kind of constraint, like doing it in sonnet form, because many experimental and modern writers turn to traditional forms when writing about loss. An interesting and challenging exercise.

Lots to think about.

What about you guys? Any thoughts?  

Jul 25, 2016

Iceland: Part 2

Here we go: more adventures in Iceland, as promised. These are the Dverghamrar, Dwarf Stones, which were formed when lava cooled in seawater. This place gave me a strong Labyrinth vibe for some reason.

Here's a glacier (Vatnajokull?) up close and personal. 

You have to respect the glacier. Here's what can happen if you don't. (Sorry about the bad pic.)

I think it looks like a huge block of liquorice ice cream. 

Loved the black sand. It's really something. 

You can't really see it in the pictures, but the sand sparkles in the sunlight like there's bits of gold mixed in it. 

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon was amazing, too. 

You can see the glacier in the distance. That's where the icebergs come from.

Here are some of the beautiful Icelandic horses. I've only ridden a horse once, but I'd love to go horseback riding with these guys. They were so friendly. 

This is Dettifoss, the waterfall that appeared in the movie Prometheus. (The best thing about the movie, frankly.) They filmed it from the other side, so it looks quite different here.

This is Namaskard. I could only handle the stench for five minutes. Interesting, but you'd need a gas mask to enjoy it. 

A crater lake.

This was my very favourite place on the tour: the Dimmuborgir, "dark castles."

The lighting was bad that day, but these are really something. It looks like a natural citadel full of caves and crevices for nasty things to hide. I was half expecting orcs to come pouring out of the caves at any moment. 

I'll leave you with Godafoss, another beautiful waterfall. The name means "Waterfall of the Gods," and the story goes that when Iceland converted to Christianity, the people threw the statues of the old Norse gods in the waterfall to show their commitment to the new faith.

Iceland is a beautiful, magical country. If you like outdoorsy activities, you'll love it, but you can see it comfortably from a tour bus too. Just wear warm clothes and respect the environment, and you'll have the trip of a lifetime. 

Jul 24, 2016

Stranger Things

Just finished watching Netflix's new show, Stranger Things. I'd describe it as The Goonies meets The X-Files. Go watch it, it's fantastic.

Jul 22, 2016

Whale Watching

We also went whale watching on our trip to Iceland. I had never seen a whale before, so this was really special for me. 

We saw two humpback whales really close up; one was only about ten meters from the boat!

 Our tour was at Eyjafjord, where they had a 99 % success rate.  I'm not sure of the name of the company, but it's good to have an experienced captain, otherwise you can't get this close. They also made a point of not following a whale too long so it wouldn't get stressed out.

Jul 20, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster Week 1

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster, the free MOOC from the University of Iowa, starts this week.

I read up on Walt Whitman, and he's actually kind of fascinating. Born in 1819,  he was an American poet and journalist. His sharp pen and outlandish opinions about things like women's property laws and labor and immigration issues got him in trouble many times, costing him multiple jobs. He also passionately opposed slavery. It's speculated that Whitman was bisexual or homosexual; he denied it, but who wouldn't in the 1800s? His main work is Leaves of Grass, a poetry collection that pioneered free verse and shocked his contemporaries with its sexual content.

During the American Civil War, he worked as a volunteer nurse, and the course will be focusing on his wartime poetry, prose, and letters and how he wrote about all the horrors he witnessed; but this is a writing course, so the point isn't only to learn about Whitman, but to explore the ways of writing about loss and disaster. Sounds interesting, doesn't it?

There's still time to sign up if you're interested...

Jul 19, 2016

Drabble Time!

Just a quick heads-up: one of my drabbles is up at SpeckLit today. If you want to check it out, clickety-click here.

Jul 18, 2016

Iceland part 1

I just got back from a trip to Iceland, and it was amazing. Volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs; it's truly the land of ice and fire. 

We did the Iceland Complete circle tour because we were nervous about driving in a foreign country, but you can also rent a car and do the tour on your own instead of joining a tour group. Some of the roads were a bit rough but not too scary, so next time I think we'll rent a car. (Yes, next time. I'm already dreaming of going back...)  

This tour gives you a little bit of everything, which is nice, but a lot of the time you could have stayed at a place for a lot longer and not run out of things to do. 

At the start of our visit we took a special bus from Keflavik airport to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal bath and spa. It's very popular (for obvious reasons), so it's good to book ahead. They store your luggage while you bathe, and you can rent towels, bathrobes, flip-flops, and even a swimsuit there.
We lucked out with the weather, as you can see. The water is really warm, like a hot bath, but even in the summer, Icelandic weather is quite cold, so it wasn't a problem. When you're finished bathing, the same bus company has buses going to Reykjavik, so you don't have to go back to the airport. 

The surrounding area is quite barren, with lava fields all around. My friend said it looks like Mordor, and I think she's right. A lot of the scenery felt like it could have been straight out of The Lord of the Rings movies. Did you know they also filmed Game of Thrones in Iceland, the scenes that happened beyond the Wall, I think.

When our tour officially started, we got to see geysers at the Geysir geothermal field. The water's boiling, so you have to be very careful walking around. The guide said that the ground shifts and if you go off the path it can suddenly give way and you'll be up to your ankle in boiling water. Ouch!

So many beautiful waterfalls! This one is Gullfoss, the golden waterfall. 


You could walk behind the waterfall!

We stayed overnight at Vik. These are the Troll Stones. There's a legend that trolls were trying to drag a ship ashore, but then dawn came and they turned to stone, and that's how the stones were formed. (I don't know why the ship turned to stone, too, but you can't be nitpicky about mythology.)

Countryside around Vik. They had some nice hiking paths on the hills we'll definitely try next time. 

I have so many photos that they didn't fit into one post, so stay tuned for part 2 next week!

Jul 16, 2016

Medieval Smackdown at Turku Castle


It's tournament time! This weekend knights have taken over Turku Castle to compete for the Finnish championship in medieval combat sports like jousting, sword fighting, skill at arms, and buhurt (that's the one in the picture. It looked fairly painful, but the name's got "hurt" in it, so . . .).  

They had some lectures about medieval combat on Friday, which were really interesting. I took pages and pages of notes, 'cause let's face it, I'll be writing about knights at some point. 

These modern knights study their craft from medieval manuscripts and try to use gear that's historically accurate when they can. The suits above are modern, of course, but the armour in the shots above is real. This is as close as you're going to get to seeing medieval knights fighting. For a fantasy fiction writer, this is a golden opportunity for research. 

Wouldn't it be cool to have a writing course with these guys as the special guest stars? I'd love to have them recreate a fight scene I wrote and tell me how I could make it more realistic, like a write-the-fight-right kind of deal, but with more swordplay. Hmm . . . Maybe the powers that be at Suomen tieteis- ja fantasiakirjoittajat could make it happen? For Worldcon, maybe? Pretty please, with dragons on top?

The tournament will continue tomorrow if you're in the Turku area and feel like watching a bunch of guys (and gals) whack each other with swords.

Jul 15, 2016

Book Recommendation: The Works of Leena Krohn


Leena Krohn is a Finnish writer of speculative fiction. Her work is beautiful and strange and always surprising, so if you like weird fiction, you should definitely check her out. Tainaron: Mail from Another City, a series of letters sent from a city of insects, has been available in English for a while now, but a collection of her work was released last year, including some of her novels and short stories. Her work veers towards literary fiction, but don't let that put you off; this is the good kind of literary fiction, thoughtful but engaging.

I started reading one of her books, Hotel Sapiens, a story about people living in a hotel run by sentient machines on an apocalyptic Earth, and just fell in love. Then I picked up DreamDeath, which is also awesome. The protagonist is an anesthesiologist with insomnia, who works at a cryopreservation facility called the Freezer, the local hospital, and also DreamDeath, a euthanasia facility where you can go out with style. Dreams also figure into the narrative as she reads the dream journal of her great-great-grandfather (not sure about how many greats are in there).  We also meet some of her clients, who all have different reasons for wishing to die or to live forever. Then there's the real world that's crumbling into chaos and cruelty. It's an exploration of life, death, and the quest for immortality, but engaging and readable, not as heavy as you'd think from the subject matter.

I love how the books are structured. It almost feels like they're composed of short stories that explore different aspects of the theme and then all tie together in a greater whole. There's a delicious irony about her characters, like the blind ophthalmologist, or the anesthesiologist with insomnia, and some of the characters are just plain weird, like the shadow that leaves its human and lives on its own.

The real irony is that many of her books are out of print and hard to find in Finnish, while the English ebook is available to everyone. I've had Tainaron in English for a while now, but it felt wrong to read the translation when I could read the original. I actually lucked out, because I recently found it at a second-hand bookshop I popped into on my way to the library for said book. It was meant to be!

If you want something different, Krohn is definitely that. I just hope the power of her work isn't lost in translation. Have you tried something of hers? How was the translation?

Jul 13, 2016

Writing Exercise: Getting to Know Your Protagonist


Here's a writing exercise from K. M. Weiland's online course. This is from the first module and geared towards helping you figure out your character's lie. I tried it out on the protagonist of my current WIP, so I'm omitting anything too spoilery.

What misconception does your protagonist have about herself or the world?
-                       she thinks she'll only get approval for accomplishments (in a job she detests deep down) and that nobody really cares about her for herself 

What is she lacking mentally, spiritually or emotionally as a result
-                       someone to really talk to
-                       love
-                       professional fulfillment
-                       security
-                       empathy for others

How is the interior lie reflected in the character’s exterior world?
-                       she’s basically a XXX
-                       she was badly scarred by childhood experiences and being forced to XXX
-                       she’s not living, she’s surviving

Is the lie making her life miserable as the story opens? How?
-                       she can’t let people in, and hides behind sarcasm and bravado. The one friend she has, she can’t fully open up to.
-                       She does what she’s told, but she just wants to get out
-             She rebels against XXX and has to deal with the consequences
-                       She can’t see how XXX is making a difference in the XXX. She doesn’t care enough to take sides or to talk XXX out of XXX. She doesn’t want to risk losing her chance at XXX, even though it might cost the lives of the people she cares about

What event will make her uncomfortable in her lie?
-                       the power play resulting from XXX
-                       XXX's danger vs loyalty to XXX.

Can you use qualifiers to narrow down the focus of the lie?
-                       She thinks that she’ll be happy if she’s XXX, and XXX matters more than people

What are the syptoms of your character’s lie?

-                       sarcasm, inability to let people in, a hard exterior, a cold attitude towards suffering, lack of empathy, tendency to solve things with force instead of talking things out

That's mine. Go ahead, try it out on your protag? Did it help?

Jul 11, 2016

Writing Course: Mastering Character Arcs with K. M. Weiland


I'm doing K.M. Weiland's course Mastering Character Arcs to Write Stories That Sell over at The Digital Freedom Academy, and I thought I'd share my experiences.

You might have noticed that I'm a big fan of Weiland's writing books and her awesome writing blog. They've helped me a lot. I don't do detailed outlines, but I do map out my stories using the same checkpoints as she uses on her Story Structure Database. (I figure if the bones are there, then I can do whatever I want with the rest.) I've only been writing for three years, so I'm a relative beginner, and even though I've studied character arcs and how they interact with plot, I still have a lot of work to do on building believable characters. I want my characters to feel like real people, that's the most important thing, but I'm still struggling to make plot and character arc really resonate on a thematic level: you know, when everything just lines up perfectly. So that's what I'm hoping to learn, as well as levelling up on my character-building skills in general.

The course cost 299 dollars. In my experience that's about the same as Writers Digest University courses go for, so a bit pricy, but not impossible. The content you get for the price is eight modules broken down into multiple lessons (the first module of seven lessons took me a couple of hours to complete, just to give you an idea) that go through the process of building character arcs step by step. Positive, negative, and flat arcs get their own modules, as well as a FAQ section, theme and character arc, and marketing. There are also writing exercises. Weiland uses videos on her site, and the lessons are in video form here, too, but you can download the PDF file for the lesson and the exercises. There's also a comments section, where you can ask Weiland questions about the lessons and see what other people have asked. There isn't that much interaction with other students, but for those of us with full-time jobs, it's nice that you can go at your own pace. The down side is that you don't have to hand in homework and you don't have deadlines, so it's pretty much up to you to do the work.

Here are some things I learned from the first module:

- the most common mistakes writers make are creating a character who doesn't have the seeds for change in her from the beginning of the story and making the plot and the character's struggle separate

- for incorporating theme, it can be helpful to think of the plot as a metaphor for your character's struggle (Wow! I'm definitely trying this out!)

- at the start of the story, the character tries to fix what's wrong with his life by attacking a symptom of her lie instead of the lie itself (You know, the lie the character believes vs. the truth and the thing she wants instead of the thing she needs.)

- you can break the characteristic moment into pieces to illustrate different sides of your protagonist

In my opinion, the course is worth the money, especially if you're new to writing and not familiar with the subject matter. This will save you hours and hours of banging your metaphorical head against the story wall. You'll probably get there eventually, but this can help you avoid writing stories that are fundamentally flawed and to fix the ones that don't quite work. If you can't afford the course, don't worry: you can check out Weiland's posts on story structure and character arcs on her site for free to get the basics.

Jul 8, 2016

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Here's a poem to start your day right. You can't go wrong with Shakespeare.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

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Let the bird of loudest lay 
On the sole Arabian tree 
Herald sad and trumpet be, 
To whose sound chaste wings obey. 

But thou shrieking harbinger, 
Foul precurrer of the fiend, 
Augur of the fever's end, 
To this troop come thou not near. 

From this session interdict 
Every fowl of tyrant wing, 
Save the eagle, feather'd king; 
Keep the obsequy so strict. 

Let the priest in surplice white, 
That defunctive music can, 
Be the death-divining swan, 
Lest the requiem lack his right. 

And thou treble-dated crow, 
That thy sable gender mak'st 
With the breath thou giv'st and tak'st, 
'Mongst our mourners shalt thou go. 

Here the anthem doth commence: 
Love and constancy is dead; 
Phoenix and the Turtle fled 
In a mutual flame from hence. 

So they lov'd, as love in twain 
Had the essence but in one; 
Two distincts, division none: 
Number there in love was slain. 

Hearts remote, yet not asunder; 
Distance and no space was seen 
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen: 
But in them it were a wonder. 

So between them love did shine 
That the Turtle saw his right 
Flaming in the Phoenix' sight: 
Either was the other's mine. 

Property was thus appalled 
That the self was not the same; 
Single nature's double name 
Neither two nor one was called. 

Reason, in itself confounded, 
Saw division grow together, 
To themselves yet either neither, 
Simple were so well compounded; 

That it cried, "How true a twain 
Seemeth this concordant one! 
Love has reason, reason none, 
If what parts can so remain." 

Whereupon it made this threne 
To the Phoenix and the Dove, 
Co-supremes and stars of love, 
As chorus to their tragic scene: 


Beauty, truth, and rarity, 
Grace in all simplicity, 
Here enclos'd, in cinders lie. 

Death is now the Phoenix' nest, 
And the Turtle's loyal breast 
To eternity doth rest, 

Leaving no posterity: 
'Twas not their infirmity, 
It was married chastity. 

Truth may seem but cannot be; 
Beauty brag but 'tis not she; 
Truth and beauty buried be. 

To this urn let those repair 
That are either true or fair; 
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

If you're scratching your head and wondering what you just read, here's an analysis from the Guardian.  

Jul 6, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: The Bird is the Word

Let's look at names of birds this week.  

You probably guessed which one we're doing first: mockingbird. The earlier form was mock-bird, so mock + bird.  "Mock" comes from Old French mocquer "deride, jeer." The word mock is of unknown origin, maybe from Vulgar Latin muccare "to blow the nose." It was apparently a derisive gesture. (The word sounds a bit like "mucus," doesn't it?)

Here's a personal favourite: Raven comes from Old English hræfn from ProtoGermanic khrabanaz, from PIE root *ker-, imitative of harsh sounds. (Also he source of Latin crepare "to creak," for example.) You can hear the raven's croak in that, right?

Here's another one: eagle comes from Middle English egle, through Anglo-Norman and Old French from Latin aquila, which might be related to aquilus "blackish, the colour of darkness." Cool, right?

The word bird is an Old English word of uncertain origin, but I did learn where the expression "to flip the bird" comes from. It's slang from the 1860s, originally give the big bird meaning "to hiss at someone like a goose." It was kept alive in vaudeville slang, but the middle finger thing came to play only in 1960s. The gesture is much older though. According to etymonline.com, the anatomy section of a 12th century Latin bestiary in Cambridge describes the middle finger as that "by means of which the pursuit of dishonour in indicated."



Jul 4, 2016

Reading the Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red background
Image from wikipedia.org

Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and it became a huge success, winning her the Pulitzer Prize. A classic of American literature, this has been on my reading list for a long time. Somehow I had the idea that the book would be a tough read and really dark, and it is, in a way, but I was surprised by how engaging it was. The writing is immensely readable and immersive, and Scout, the first person narrator, immediately sympathetic. And Atticus Finch is my new hero.

The book handles the heavy subject of a false rape accusation and racism with a firm hand, mostly leaving judgment to the characters while the author doesn’t lecture. The only part where I felt she was laying it on a bit too thick was the scene in the classroom where the teacher talks about how the Nazis had no reason whatsoever to hate the Jews in a horrified tone and some time before we saw her acting racist at the trial.

The first person narration works well, mostly, but at times Scout seems a bit older than her years. The parts where Scout wasn’t actually present and the narration slips into a flashback from another character also feel a bit jolting, but these are minor quibbles.

Mockingbird feels like an important book in how it handles social issues, racism, class differences, and gender roles, but its heart is in the warmth of Scout’s relationship with her brother and her father. Even the minor characters come to life, and a lot of them aren’t what they appear to be, Boo Radley in particular. The vivid descriptions of life in the South during the Great Depression are beautifully done; you can almost taste the crackling bread and smell the camellias Jem ripped up. 

A major theme is the loss of innocence and the realisation that there is no justice in the world. Jem takes this particularly hard, and feels like he loses faith in the goodness of people. Is it futile to fight a battle you can't win, even if it's the right thing to do? Maybe that's what makes it important?  Sometimes it's scary and takes a lot of courage. Not all of us are as brave as Atticus. 

Over the course of the story, Scout learns to put herself in another person's shoes, an important lesson in compassion. It's an uncomfortable thing to do, because sometimes it reveals things about you or your loved ones that you don't like or are ashamed of. That's one reason why reading is so important; it lets you climb inside someone else's skull and see what his or her life is like, and that changes you.  I get why this is a book that kids have to read at school.

A great book, one I'll probably re-read many times. 

Classics read: 28/100