Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hyperbole and a Half (Review)

Saw a copy of the newly released Hyperbole and a Half book in the airport bookstore and immediately bought it even though it weighs the same as a brick (and I don't mean the red brick bricks, but one of those giant fancy patio bricks you use to hold up your bookshelves before you are well off enough to buy real bookcases) and would be an enormous pain to carry around, not only on the plane, but for the rest of our vacation. I thought, "this would be a fun read on the plane" and better than working on the paper that was due the instant I got back from our trip, so I impulsively bought it.

I did not, however, get to actually read it on the plane. I stupidly carried it out in plain sight (well, I had the backpack and carryon in my hands already, along with my passport and boarding pass, so what else could I have done in the fourteen seconds between buying the book and rushing to the gate?) where anyone could see it. And Tigana, my 15 year old, said "What's that?" And I probably could have said, "It's a dissertation I have to read for next Monday", and everything would have been fine, probably, but instead I stupidly said, "It's a book by this guy with a great website" (which incidentally shows I wasn't really paying attention because it is by a woman and—turns out those drawings are autobiographical drawings of a woman, not an alien unicorn) and Tigana said, "Okay, I'll read that on the plane instead of The Glass Menagerie, which sounds like a perfectly reasonable decision for a high school kid to make while on vacation. Except, you know, it meant I didn't get to read it on the plane which had kind of been the point.

Two flaws here: first, planes are small confined spaces where people are crowded in very closely together and if one starts laughing hysterically, and banging one's head against the window in the window seat, other people are inclined to turn around to stare and/or glare at you. We were surrounded by babies and toddlers, but nobody was glaring at them, because everyone, including the babies and toddlers, was too distracted by the teenager who apparently suffered from intermittent fits that would cause her to bash around uncontrollably in her seat. Second, Tigana's little sister sits beside Tigana on planes and you cannot tell a ten-year old, "It's nothing, go back to your Archie comic" repeatedly when what you are reading is causing you act like a crazy person. So eventually Tigana had to read portions of Hyperbole and a Half to Kasia which is not entirely a good idea, role-model-wise, when several of these stories are in fact autobiographical explorations of the author's childhood. And the stories of adulthood are definitely not always appropriate for 10 year olds. Probably not 15 year olds, or anyone, really, but Tigana read Kasia the stories about the dogs, which is fine, except that they describe two of our own dogs perfectly.

Anyway, it's that kind of a book. The backcover testimonial for the book is from the author of Let's Pretend This Never Happened which is on my to-be-read list but I haven't actually got around to reading yet, but which the rest of my family found very funny, only now they agree thatHyperbole and a Half is way funnier. Falling-out-of-seat-even-though-you-are-still-wearing-the-seatbelt funny.

Except for the chapter on Depression, which Mary read and said it didn't seem even remotely funny to her, but which struck her as the best, most profoundly accurate depiction of depression she has ever come across in print. And which she told Tigana to keep handy for whenever one of her friends was suffering depression so that Tigana could understand what they were going through. I have to say that I also found that chapter really helpful in understanding what it is like to be depressed, though I did, you know, laugh a lot. [The other book I usually recommend to people trying to understand what it is like for their depressed significant other is Alicia Hendley's A Subtle Thing which provides a lot of insight but is, um, well, really depressing to read. (Probably why Alicia's other book, Type which is a brilliant YA about a society that sorts kids by their Myer-Briggs results, sells way better....)]

So stop whatever you're doing and buy Hyperbole and a Half right now. If you don't love it, I will personally refund your money.

Okay, that last bit was a lie. I maybe got carried away there. Actually, if you don't find it funny, I will just respect you less as a friend. But pretty sure you will like it, that's what I'm saying.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

SF Canada Bookstore

Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy for 2013 (also links 2012 if missed last year's) http://astore.amazon.ca/sfca-20 If you know SF/F readers, give Canadian for Xmas!" I have to say, that's a nice looking collection of books. Considering that back in the 1970s, when I was first starting to think that there might be Canadian SF authors, I could only identify about two dozen books...that's not a bad annual output! Does a Canadian proud.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013 Update #1

Coming up on November, so NaNoWriMo time again. Here is an interesting set of posts on whether it is better to plan out one's novel in detail, or to just start writing and see where it goes.

On planning: http://theaccidentalnovelist.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/weekend-workout-prepping-fo-nano-or-not/

On just going with the flow: http://theaccidentalnovelist.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/nanowrimo-2014-team-pantser/

I'm usually some combination of both. I often have an idea that has been perculating in my head for years, often decades, where I have daydreamed various scenes here and there while walking the dog or shoveling snow. So I have a general idea of what the novel is about, who the main characters are, and where the novel is going, but with really only fragments of scenes here and there and big gaps between. No real structure or outline. So NaNoWriMo is a chance to get what I have down on paper and to see if I can connect the dots. The end result is often very different than where I started, and I occasionally write myself into corners by writing blindly; but on the other hand, I often generate new scenes and characters I would never have thought of if I were using a disciplined outline. By writing myself into corners, I force the protagonist to come up with a way to extricate himself, which I would never have thought of in an outline, because I would have known better than place him in that corner in the first place, if I had had a plan. So my hero is much cleverer and a much faster talker than he would have been otherwise.

It's true that I have had to cut whole sections of the novel that haven't worked out, because by going in that direction I precluded something that I realized had to come in later for the novel to work, or that went against character, or otherwise didn't work out. But at 2000 words a day, I could afford to dump a ten or twelve page section and try again; whereas if an outline had called for that scene and it had taken me a month to write, I would be far more reluctant to give up on it, persisting to the point of such frustration that I might be tempted to abandon the whole project as undoable.

I'm also quite a slow writer and tend to write longish novels, so has taken me two to three NaNoWriMo to get first complete draft. Now is the time for outlining, to make sure that I haven't lost track of any of the bits I started with (I lost two of the main characters there for awhile, and had to go back an account for their absence) and that everything works logically. I was actually surprised to find that my subconcious had indeed planted many of the clues in early chapters to foreshadow the unfolding of the mystery, even though I had had no idea what that mystery was when I set out.  So having a first draft, I can go back and get a plan for the revision; I can use what my subconscious provided as raw data and use the resulting outline to tighten everything up so that the structure really works.

Or at least, that's the plan.  Come Friday I start work on my new novel (opening scene clearly in my head, though getting that scene down on paper is a whole other thing) so will have to see how far on the back burner the previous novel gets pushed.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013

Well, gearing up for NaNoWriMo for November 2013. Not hopeful I will achieve a lot, given that I am both teaching and editing during November. I will feel too guilty if I work on my own novel when there is a significant stack of others' manuscripts languishing on my desk awaiting my editing. But I routinely daydream/work on the opening scenes of this novel as I go to sleep each night, so would like to get those down on paper, so I could move onto the next set of scenes without fear of forgetting the details of what I have so far. We'll see if I can achieve a modest goal of say, 10,000 words. That ought to cover the protagonist's arrival and first night at his new command, at least.

I started this novel when I was in grade 9, so that's over 45 years ago. Current version is probably somewhat different than the original: for one thing, book now starts in the middle, and uses flashbacks for the slower original opening chapters. But basic concepts haven't changed. Ironically, hero is 64, which I thought was pretty innovative back when I was 15 and tired of all the coming of age fantasy novels that dominate that genre. Now of course, everyone will just assume I made the protagonist that old because I am myself coming up on that age. So funny. Hopefully, I am a somewhat better writer than I was at 15, but still like the cast of characters and world building from back then. Just now I maybe have the requisite skills to actually get my ideas down on the page.


Friday, September 06, 2013

On Becoming a Scientist

So after her rant against Canadian history yesterday, Kasia (my almost-10 daughter) said that she wants to grow up to be a scientist. "Dad, for my 13th birthday, instead of a horse, I am thinking now that what I'd really like is if you could arrange for me to visit a scientist's lab where I could learn how to be a scientist. Could you do that?" Um, yeah, I could. And I'd like to officially note that today is the day she first decided to be a scientist, so that we have that down in writing for her biographer.

Native Content in the Alberta Social Studies Curriculum

When I was one of the researchers on the Decore Report, an examination of the portrayal of First Nations in Alberta Social Studies Curriculum back in the late 1980s, we identified four problems: (1) discussion of the native people disappeared by turn of last century...there were the dinosaurs, then the natives then the explorers...and that's it for native content. As if no native contributed to WWII or hockey or whatever, so forget about 'em. When we complained to guys who wrote the textbooks on WWII or etc that there was no native content they just looked at us like we were crazy and asked, why would we have native content in book on WWII? (2) a lot of the content that was there was racist--e.g., Champlain's description of how Iroquois lived makes kids shiver with how primitive they were, but of course, Champlain's point was that these were admirable traits and ideas that the French should maybe adopt--but kids miss that Europeans were that primitive in Champlain's time too, because material not placed in context for them; (3) whenever there was First Nations content, it was THE SAME CONTENT over and over and over. At first I thought it was a deliberate attempt to bore kids into ignoring Native cultures, but quickly realized it was laziness. Authors looking for a picture of a teepee for their chapter would choose the first one they came across, rather than take their own or look around, and apparently they all used the same photo service. The result is that every mention of First Nation content is Jerry Potts-- and the same photo of him every time-- and the same one teepee. How could kids not be bored by the message that there are four Natives worth talking about and only 11 photos of Native content? And (4) what we came to call the 'dancing minority trick' which was that any time authors wanted to show First Nations or Ukrainian culture or whatever, they inevitably did so by showing said minority in traditional garb, dancing. And I understand that if you are looking for a picture of a Ukrainian or a Blackfoot, then a guy in a suit doesn't seem like much of a photo, even though that's what they actually look like. If you want someone who looks Ukrainian then doing the dance in traditional garb is the photo you use, but the message that kids get is consequently really distorted. Because First Native culture isn't just teepees and dances. But kids only ever get the superficial stuff about teepees and dancing around a campfire, not the deeper stuff about spirituality or different ways of looking at the world etc.

The situation has improved somewhat since then, but while the blatant racism is gone and the absence of First Nations content after 1900 is gone, I think we may still have the problem with the dancing minority trick and the repetition of the same limited material over and over again.

And now we have another variation of #1, which is the intrusion of native content...the need to get authors to stop ignoring First Nations after 1900 led to Departments of Education having to say, "include First Nations content or else!" to textbook writers, and that was a necessary and good thing, because authors writing about WWII discovered that there were First Nation's heroes in both WWI and WWII worth writing about, once they thought to look. So that worked out. But now that "First Nation's content?" is one of the items on textbook checklists, publishers are sticking it in whether it is relevant or not. So, I'm re-editing a series of biographies on Canadian PMs from another publisher, and in the middle of a discussion of this or that PM, there suddenly appear a couple of pages on native people of that era...and it's just kind of inserted at random. Not, "what was this PM's policies on First Nations?", but just sort of, "Meanwhile, back on the reserve..." What the hey? And of course, these fact pages are the exact same 'facts' as in every other book...creating mind-numbing repetition to turn kids off any possible interest in First Nations. Head:Desk. So nice try, but no cigar.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

On Canadian History

Kasia (my almost-10 yr old): "I finished my report for Canadian history."

Me: "That was fast. What did you write on?"

Kasia: "How I feel about Canadian history. " Hands me an 8.5X11 sheet of paper covered on both sides with a continuous row of "Z"s.

Point taken.

But the thing is, Canadian history is actually really interesting. Fascinating piece on Albertan Two-gun Cohen this morning on CBC morning a case in point. After listening to his story, interviewer asked, "How come we never heard of this guy before? It's a fantastic story!" And the journalist essentially shrugged on air and said, "it's how Canadians teach history: they leave out all the interesting characters".

Drives me crazy.

My students never found Canadian history boring, but then the story of confederation is one of bribery, booze, and backstabbing when I tell it. And McKenzie King! Who could find King boring? How cool is it to find out that Canadian foreign policy was dictated by his dead mother (via a psychic)? "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription" is one of the great bafflegab statements of all time. And compare King's handling of the Bing scandal with say, Watergate. And what other world leader stole stones out of Buckingham palace for their private estates as King did with Kingsmere?

I'm telling you, Canadian history is engrossing if you actually know any of it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Flight of the Illynov

I should probably mention that I finished the first draft of Flight of the Illynov in April, and am awaiting feedback from my first reader, who will tell me whether the novel is worth revising, or whether I should just start on my next novel and trust that I will get better with practice. Once I hear back, I will likely take another six months making necessary revisions before sending it out to a developmental editor who will undoubably ask for extensive revisions. So not quite done yet. But at least I have actually finished the first draft, which is itself a milestone.

The fake cover above is from Pulp-O-Mizer, a way too much fun website that allows anyone to create convincing Pulp SF covers. (The web resolution version is free, but you can also pay reasonable prices for high resolution images on coffee mugs and t-shirts and so on, so tempted to go for a coffee mug of this one.) The pulp SF cover is probably appropriate for my novel which is essentially a 1950's-style space opera adventure. If I haven't mentioned it lately, I started this novel 39 years ago, when I was still reading SF from the 1950s and 60s so its part of a genre that is essentially 40 years out of date. Three-quarters of my potential readers have either passed away or switched to large print biographies by this point, so probably a waste of time from a commercial point of view, but I chose the simplest of the 12 novels currently in my head for my first try.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Impending Retirement

I should probably mention here that I am taking early retirement from my position as Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge, June 30, 2013. Partly this is due to my increasing interest in my other career as editor (for Five Rivers Publishing and as a freelancer at SFeditor.ca) and writer; partly it is thanks to the university's offer of an attractive retirement option (an incentive bonus plus a post-retirement contract that combined works out to about 80% of the salary for about 20% of the work for the next three years....); and partly reflects the fact I am, you know, getting old.

(Retirement incentive plans make a lot of economic sense for the university, because now that there is no mandatory retirement age, some of my colleagues are staying on well past age 65. Current collective agreement allows professors to collect standard raises for a total of 35 years, and merit increments as long as they are earning them, which often translates to quite significant salaries for these individuals. They could, for example, hire three assistant professors right out of the PhD program (i.e., young, current, and energetic) for the price of one of me, and probably four for the price of some of my older colleagues. So offering us a package to promise to go away, represents significant savings, especially if they just replace 2/3 of present tenured faculty.

In my case, I will officially retire and start getting my pension in July; and I will teach two courses a year for next two years, then one course the third year, to slowly taper off...this gives them time to find a replacement, and gives me time to get used to not being a professor. But I also love that it gives me time to transition into full-time editor/writer. Teaching was only 40% of my regular workload, the rest being committee work (20%) and research (40%). So teaching two courses a year frees up about 80% of my time for writing and editing, so I can continue to build that business into a living wage. I'm pretty happy about that.

Not entirely coincidentally, I have finally finished the first draft of my novel. I have explained to Mary that once I have edited the manuscript, publishers will beat a path to my door and I will thereby effectively double my retirement income, and that consequently she need have no fear about her now being the sole income for the family. Oddly, she does not seem reassured....

As it happens, today I got my assessment from my Dean on my last two years as a professor, and was pleased to find that I was rated as "Excellent" for teaching, and "Outstanding" for research. So, nice to end on a high note, rather than, say, waiting until they had to have security escort me out the door -- because I was no longer able to find the way myself.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

1st Poetry Publication

I am so proud this morning that my poem, "The Beginning Poet" has been published on the CZP website. It is my first poetry publication!

Funny story: I wrote this about 18 years ago but could never find a suitable market for it...then CZP, famed horror publishers, announced that they wanted to mark National Poetry Month by publishing Horrible Poetry...so naturally I submitted three of my poems. (They have since clarified the call for submissions to mean horror and dark fantasy genre poetry....but, you know, still shitty.)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kiwanis Festival and A New Composition

Tigana, who turned 15 a few days after, took four firsts, a second, and a third in the Kiwanis Festival this year, and was selected to represent Lethbridge in the Provincials in May in her category. Here are her singing performances:

Sabben Crudelle

To Lo Sai

I was very pleased with her progress, especially given that she had had to switch music teachers in January. Since starting with her new instructor, Janet Youngdahl, she has made incredible progress both in her performances and in her understanding of theory.

She also did very well in recitation. Unfortunately, the video for my favorite piece didn't come out: the opening lines got cut off. In this one she missed a couple of words, though I like that she was sufficiently smooth that the two missing words were not immediately noticeable:

Emily Carr's "Doctor" from The Book of Small

Coincidentally, the same week, Kasia (age 9) composed a song, which I then pestered her into performing for your viewing pleasure:

My Best Enemy

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Nanowrimo Summer Camps, etc.

I have a couple of times tried to write during National Novel Writing Month, but November is a busy time of year for me, so I've only managed to meet the 50,000 word quota once. Now, The Office of Letters and Light has introduced Summer Camps in April and July. By complete coincidence, my wife had organized a 21 day writing retreat for me in late April and early May, so I had already planned to devote much of April to my own writing. Synchronicity demands that I therefore sign up for the April Camp Nanowrimo.

I probably won't take advantage of many of the writing supports offered by Nanowrimo, as I suspect the various forums would serve more as distraction than stimulus, and also because I'll be away on retreat and therefore offline for most of April. But I really appreciate the daily deadline implied in the word counter and the calculation of how many words one has to do each day to make one's target. The summer camp has the advantage of allowing one to set one's own target. I think I need about 30,000 words to finish off the first draft of my first novel, so that's what I am aiming for. Once I finish the first draft, I can grind away at editing at my leisure.

So am really looking forward to April, though that puts a lot of pressure on rest of March to clear the decks by finishing everything else off.

Meanwhile, I currently have five short stories (around 23,000 words in total) in circulation; target is to get another seven out before New Year's for an average output of one a month. As usual I am behind, partly because of usual responsibilities of job and family, partly because I had taken on way more editing jobs than I had proper time for. But these great manuscripts keep dropping into my lap, and it is very hard to say 'no'. My publisher has insisted on taking some of these off my hands before my slowness ruins the press' reputation for promptness, but I have been equally insistent on keeping some of them to myself, being convinced that only I can see what needs to be done to have them realize their fullest potential. So at last count, I have six science fiction/fantasy novels on my desk that I have to get to before I start on my own work. In my view, it's not fair to hold up others' writing careers to attend to my own writing. Once I can send their work to press, or at least off my desk and back to the author for the next round of rewrites, then I can turn to my own work with a clear conscience.

I did get three nonfiction pieces out this year as well, but those count for the day job so fall in a different category in my mind. I gave a co-authored paper at a Miami conference and took "Best Presenter" award; I had an article published in Obsolete Magazine I was rather pleased with, and I have another one sitting with a new journal, so will see how that goes.

At some point, will have to manage to work in some leisure reading. Someone asked me about my favorite reads for the year, and the trouble was I really hadn't read anything other than the books I was editing. Some of those were very good indeed, and I wanted to recommend them, but couldn't really until they are published. (Indigo Time, The Runner and the Wizard and My Life as a Troll come immediately to mind, but there are a lot of great books that come across my desk. Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine was absolutely brilliant, for example, but I didn't get to edit that past the acquisition stage because it basically didn't need anything, either because it was already thoroughly edited when originally released by Tor, or just because she's just that good. (Why Tor never reprinted it is a complete mystery to me: the damn thing had sold out even before its official Canadian book launch, so that ought to have told them that there were more sales to be made....Not that we're complaining! More for us!) So I certainly get to read a lot of great books in my editor's hat, and increasingly they are by my favorite authors (Dorsey and Duncan, for example) as our press grows and attracts bigger names. But sometimes its nice just to read a book without going into editor mode. Though, if I'm honest, there is nothing better than being an editor, because whenever I hit something in a book I don't like, I get to change it....

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Higgins Update

So we signed the papers to officially adopt Higgins.

Mary liked Higgins right away, but was reluctant to confirm the shift from fostering to adoption because Higgins had a few issues at first. He bit me, for example, deep enough to require a quick trip to emergency, and he bit Tigana on the neck, and we couldn't keep Kasia from constantly putting her face an inch from Higgin's teeth because she had gotten so used to Jackie, our other dog, who would never bite her under any circumstances. But I discounted my bites because I definitely deserved to get bitten (I was behaving stupidly with a new dog) and after Mary calmed down when Tigana was bitten, we were able to reconstruct that we had heard a yelp before the dog bit her, so we're pretty sure that Tigana must have accidentally hurt him, either by unknowingly leaning on some part of him that was under a blanket, or perhaps scrapping him with her dagger-like nails (teenager!). And it was not a serious bit, so under the circumstances showed a lot of restraint.

Higgins was a bit tentative about us at first too: besides the usual adjustments to a new home, he was from San Deigo and here I was dragging him out for walks in 40 below weather, so pretty sure he was looking at me with a "why are you torturing me like this?" expression. The weather is milder this week (unseasonably so) but I think Higgins will be okay if it gets colder again. He has been working hard to figure out the new routines and he already trusts me enough to come sit on my lap, so no worries about further biting, unless one of us does something careless again. The one problem with Higgins is that previous owners seem to have trained him not to growl, which is of course extremely stupid because you want a dog to warn you off if you are provoking him to bite. Higgins gives no verbal warning, so we have to constantly watch for body language. But he seems generally relaxed with us already, and gets along with our other dog really well, so we are satisfied he will fit in. Our dog now.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happy 10th Anniversary

Just realized that January 15th was the 10th anniversary of this blog. So I probably should have done something specialish on the 15th....

But well...who blogs anymore? I get relatively few readers and fewer comments here, whereas if I post something random on Facebook, I'll often get 20 comments within the hour.

Not that Facebook is doing that well, either.... My students are abandoning it for timblr or even pinterest (people go to Pinterest less frequently but browse it longer). And Twitter, of course. I mostly try to avoid Facebook et al during the day, lest it suck the time out of my life, but I do check Facebook and Twitter on my phone whenever I have to kill time waiting, e.g., picking up the kids from school or standing in line at a good restaurant. I find typing on my phone a pain, so I mostly just read what others have to say, take note of current trending issues among my friends and colleagues, or take advantage of the clipping service Twitter can be. A lot of my Twitter feed is course-related, people tweeting about breakthroughs in science and technology I can refer to in my cyberculture course, for example. Turns what used to be dead time to productive use.

I notice I'm not alone. In line at Cora's the other day, all but two of the thirty or so people in line were on their smartphones. Made me wonder if people are more patient than they used to be--no, I mean, more tolerant of delays and waiting because they can do something productive, or productive-like, while they are forced to wait. I suppose it actually makes people less patient in the long run, less able to deal with periods of forced inactivity. I know I go slightly bored now when I forget my phone or have to hand it over to the 9year old to keep her entertained in line. Research from PEW a while back commented that 26% of Americans said they could not manage without their cell phones. I never used to get bored because I could always write the next scene of my novel or etc. Now I read Twitter.

Constantly amazed at how many people have no idea how to use Twitter. So many authors just tweet the same "buy my book" line every few hours. That's not information, that's spam. I delete such people immediately from my feed; when Twitter suggests new people to follow or someone follows me, I often take a look, but as soon as I see self-advertizing, I move on. The occasional tweet about a book launch is okay, because I might want to know what they are doing and if not, I can ignore the occasional commercial. But repeating the same tweet over and over is just stupid. So many authors I respect seem to do this. But the authors who get to stay in my twitter feed are the ones who tell me interesting stuff. Things they've notice in the paper or books they've found by other people or the research they are doing for their book that turned up some interesting fact, or something funny. Those are people worth reading. Don't care about whether you are having coffee or a bath, don't care how your cats are doing, don't want to hear about your neighbours unless you can make it funny.

The funniest guy on Twitter is Tim Siedell @badbanana. E.g., "If we do mint a $1 trillion coin we should intentionally make a mistake on it so it's worth even more to collectors." or "Going to a concert tonight. Doors open at 7pm, according to the ticket. That's a pretty impressive opening act." Brilliant stuff. I bought his book.

So I mostly blog now to keep track of stuff for myself, an on-line diary. I'd do more entries but the best source material is about the kids, but unfortunately they are now old enough to read the blog, so I mostly can't write about the really good stuff any more. Still, life in the old blog yet. Hopefully.