Life Update: the First Day of Spring

It’s officially spring, and I couldn’t be happier about it. This past week was a doozy—a difficult end to a difficult winter.

The Thursday before last, the hot water heater in my rented home experienced a critical failure. I came downstairs at 3am to find a stream meandering it’s way through the laundry room. I won’t get too into the details here, but no hot water tank meant that we had no hot water or heat. The last blast of winter in these parts happened to coincide with our plumbing dilemma. It sucked.

The next 7 days were filled with as many visits from technicians as it became clear that not only was the hot water tank busted, but its exhaust system was dangerously inoperative. I’m buggy about using natural gas at the best of times, but finding out that the system in our home had been dumping exhaust into our walls for the past two years was brutal.

The system is now fixed and (aside from needing to mend the insulation and drywall in the garage) the excitement is pretty well over. Anyone who’s had a landlord during a home-related crisis knows that the road ahead is not a smooth one, but at least it’s a road with a reduced risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I’m doing my best to quell my anxiety in the aftermath and perform self-care. Today, the weather is decent enough to have a window open. This weekend past, I built a worm bin for composting kitchen scraps. I got some soil on my hands and the smell of humus in my nose at a garden show. I deep-cleaned the parts of the house I do have control over. And I’ve been busy writing: new scenes for my novel ‘Steep’, letters to penpals, journal entries, and now here on this blog.

Sometimes staying busy is the next best thing to happiness—and it’s easier to stay busy in the spring—so here’s to the vernal equinox and the warmer days ahead.

A Writer’s Life for Me (Writer Tag)

Hi-diddle-dee-dee..

I’ve seen this kicking around on youtube and a few blogs so I thought I’d join in the fun. No one tagged me, but I’m going for it anyways because I’m a scoundrel with a complete disregard for the rules.

I’m not sure who started this tag (if you know, please let me know) but here are the questions as I’ve seen them laid out:

What kind of writer are you?

I’m still figuring this one out. I write mostly science fiction and fantasy now, but I used to be really into crafting horror and adventure stories. Short and long form both have their benefits and drawbacks, but I’m beginning to prefer the expansive playground of the novel over the microcosm of shorter fiction.

When did you start writing? What made you want to try?

I’m not sure what made me want to start writing. It’s just something I’ve always done. It makes me happy, and keeps my brain from picking itself apart, so I’ve never really questioned why. I’ve written fiction for as long as I can remember. My first story (which I’m pretty sure is still kicking around in a box of keepsakes somewhere) was dictated to my Mum after I drew the illustrations in highlighter and crayon and was, if I correctly recall, the star-crossed tale of two mice trying to make it back to one another after inexplicably being abducted by humans. I was two.

In grade school I filled cahiers with adventure stories set in Aztec ruins or wildly advanced submarines, and wrote a LOT of horse fan-fiction. I really loved horses. And sea trenches. Never combined the two, surprisingly (and thankfully). Highschool and early adulthood was all about horror shorts: urban folklore with a lot of moody lighting where everybody dies in the end. I’m glad to have outgrown that phase.

I first started to try writing professionally (still trying, folks) a few years ago, and it’s been a fun, (and only slightly harrowing) adventure. I’ve kept trying because I think I’m capable of making it work as a main source of income, and I’ve continued to love it despite the intense self-doubt that doing this seems to bring—and that says something.

What inspires your stories?

Sounds trite, but… everything? Life?
Science articles, news stories, true crime, friends, family, my pets, dreams, museum exhibits, public transit, food, history, walking, mythology, music, video games… Everything has a narrative, if you look hard enough, and every person is interesting in their own way.

I guess when you boil it down, the answer is other stories.

What themes do you like to explore in your writing?

I don’t know that I intentionally inject themes into my writing, for better or for worse, but some common ones that seem to crop up like weeds are death, family conflict, friendship overcoming all odds, and animal intelligence.

Are you a Pantser, Plotter, or a bit of both?

I’m not a huge fan of these terms, as I find their binary limiting as a descriptor of how the creative process works. I think that any creative process requires both structural support and room for exploration in the moment to create something that is interesting and can hold an audience’s focus. I also think that there are many ways that these two tools of creation can be expressed, and the space between them is difficult to define so, short answer: a bit of both.

Where are you at in your writing journey? Querying? Agenting? Published?

As far as prose, I’m currently working on my nth revision pass of my 5th(?) novel, none of which have been published. I’m also writing short stories and sending them off to paying markets, but no acceptance letters yet. I’ve had some comics published through small presses that I wrote and illustrated, but that was years ago and I feel weird still trucking that out as an example. Looking forward to querying my current MS and would love an agent at some point.

Have you ever entered any writing contests? Finalled? Won?

No. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think that a lot of writing contests are a bit too much like a lottery? I am absolutely not down for paying to submit my work somehere, and while there are some good free-to-submits out there I would far rather send my stories out to paying markets. Contests seem like working for exposure, and that just doesn’t seem like a worthwhile pursuit to me.

Who are your writer heroes?

Oh. So many. Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Terry Pratchett, Nnedi Okorafor, Jeff VanDermeer, Margaret Lawrence, Dorthea Brande, Stephen King, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman…

Have you ever been to a writing conference?

Nope. I’d love to attend a Clarion-style workshop one day.

Top 3 tips for newbie writers?

I’m breaking the rules and posting 4 (I repeat: a scoundrel):

  1. Write short
  2. Write a lot
  3. Read widely
  4. Finish shit

 

Some of these were answers to questions that I hadn’t considered before, or at least not well enough to put into words, so it was a fun exercise. Actually, it felt a bit like doing one of those throwback “20 questions” lists from grade/high school that probably contained enough information to hack my bank account, and while you won’t get the name of my first pet or the city my father was born in out of me, I could probably be persuaded to do another tag in future.

If you have any suggestions on a fun writing/reading tags, let me know in the comments, and happy writing.

 

 

YouTube Roundup: 6 Creators That Brighten My Day

This past week saw me mostly sleeping while I nursed a serious bout of bronchitis. I think my cat was awake more than I was, but when I was awake I watched a lot of YouTube in an effort to lift my dismal mood. I thought I’d share with you some of my regular go-to channels for content that makes me smile.

Books and Pieces

Elizabeth loves science fiction and her enthusiasm is contagious. With a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre and a high level of taste, her recommendations are sure to include a new favourite for just about any SF fan. She updates weekly with book reviews, anticipated titles, and hauls.

 

The Brain Scoop

Hosted by Emily Graslie and currently based out of the Chicago Field Museum, this SciShow title is chock full of interviews with professionals of the life-sciences and profiles of unusual species. Educational, humorous, and featuring the odd dissection video—I relish anything and everything the Brain Scoop puts out.

Jenny Mustard

This Swedish blogger talks minimalism, vegan eating, and creative pursuits, sometimes with her partner David. She’s inspired me to eat healthier and buy less, and when you add her weekly podcasts to the mix there’s plenty of inspiring media coming down the pipe. Between  Jenny’s feminist outlook, beautiful eye for detail, and quirky sense of humour, I always end up a little happier than when I started watching.

Just Between Us

A (semi-autobiographical?) comedy show by Allison Raskin and Gabby Dunn about two odd-couple besties living in LA. There are narrative shorts as well as couch interviews/chats and both are equally enjoyable. It’s updated twice a week, and always works as a pick-me-up.

Ask a Mortician

Death-positive activist and badass Caitlin Dougherty updates weekly with informative videos about cultural issues pertaining to death and dying. It’s funny, thought-provoking, and educational.

Cool Ghosts

Quinns and Matt of Shut Up & Sit Down talk video games, and it’s delightful. I don’t have the money/equipment to play a lot of newer games, and the Cool Ghosts channel lets me experience games vicariously and laugh while I’m doing it. If you like board games, be sure to check out SU&SD as well—brilliant stuff.

 

I’m on the mend now and looking forward to getting back to my regular schedule on the blog as well as life. If you have a favourite YouTuber that brightens your day, let me know in the comments below, as I’m always on the lookout for new channels.

 

Making 2017 the Year of Rejections

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
Sylvia Plath

Rejection has been on my mind a lot lately. First there was this article by Kim Liao where she suggests that new writers aim for 100 rejections a year. There were the podcasts by Mur Lafferty wherein she talks about rejection as an inevitable, even desirable, part of being a working writer. As Calvin’s dad would probably say about rejection: “It builds character.”

I’ve been writing short stories and novels with the eventual intention of seeing them published for a few years now, and in all that time I’d only seriously focused on getting accepted as a measure of success. I was submitting infrequently and timidly, and the sting of a rejection letter was enough to scare me out of trying again for months. I was still writing, but nobody else was reading it, and eventually I retracted into my shell so far that I stopped submitting entirely. Even though I knew that rejections were part of the process, I hadn’t considered that they are progress in and of themselves.

A caveat. I have a pretty fervent anxiety disorder that likes to thrash me around with fair regularity. My inner voice loves to tell me—usually loudly and repeatedly—all of the ways that I’m a failure and that my work is garbage, but here’s the thing: I’m tired of listening to that voice.

Now, it’s not like I can turn my anxiety off, but what I’ve decided is that I’m going to just do shit anyways. I’m going to submit stories no matter how much it terrifies me. I’m going to collect those rejection letters as proof that I am a working writer. As the wise woman Carrie Fisher once said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident.”

Here here.

Rejection might hurt, but maybe it’s a good hurt. It’s taken me a few years to finally get comfortable with the idea, but it’s been a valuable lesson: you can’t succeed by not trying, and getting rejected means having tried.

So here’s to rejection, and here’s to Calvin’s Dad telling us not to give up.

character_building

Image from Calvin and Hobbes (January 1989) ©1989 Bill Watterson

 

A Luddite’s Case for eReaders: 8 Reasons I’ve Embraced Digital

I love using my eReader for so many reasons.

Bear with me – I realise that I’m so late to the party that the decorations are on the kerb, but for the first decade of the eReader’s commercial availability, I had zero interest in using one.

Traditional books are just so tactile. I love the smell, the feel, the heft of holding a bunch of paper and ink in my hands.  I love the beautiful colours and typography that a well-designed book brings to my shelves. I love the whisper of pages as I rifle through a hardcover, and the satisfaction of progressing from cover to cover. Reading from a screen, no matter how ‘paper-like’ it appeared, was just about the least romantic way to consume a story that I could imagine. I wasn’t opposed to other people using an eReader – using one just didn’t appeal to me. It seemed like the difference between an mP3 and a live concert, or at least an mP3 and the warmth of a tube amp.

Last summer, I borrowed my Mum’s eReader out of curiosity, and it was only a matter of months before I decided to shell out the cash for my own device. Here’s are eight reasons why I chose to incorporate eBooks into my daily life.

1) There’s a library in my pocket.

I’m impressed by the sheer convenience of being able to tote around 300+ books in my purse. To someone who brings two books to the doctor’s waiting room (just in case I change my mind about my first choice) a portable library that takes up less space than a single trade paperback is pure gold. Not having to worry about running out of reading material during a two-week vacation last fall (or spending hours deciding which books to pack) was a luxury I’d never before experienced. Five stars. Would recommend.

2) I can tread off the beaten path.

With the success of digital publishing and hybrid authors, sometimes a book just isn’t available in a hardcopy format. Digitally published short stories and serialised novellas are a growing market. Buying an ebook for half of what a paper copy would cost (or less if I can catch a sale) also allows me to take some risks, and to support indie authors.

3) It expands my access to the public library’s collection and eliminates fines.

On top of their stellar print collection, my local library boasts an amazing selection of eBooks and other digital media. Using an eReader means that I can get popular titles more quickly, try out random stuff free of cost, and find titles that I can’t get elsewhere. I’m also notorious for letting borrowed material accrue hefty fines. Borrowing digitally means that I don’t have to think twice about what’s due – when a digital loan has expired, it’s automatically returned. For me, that’s money in the bank.

On a side note, I have a lot of anxiety about bedbugs, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve cracked opened a library book and had some stranger’s food crumbs fall out over my sheets. The sterility of borrowed eBooks eliminates that anxiety.

4) STATS!

I love personal data. I can see how many pages I read per minute and how many hours I’ve read that month, and that’s as good as candy.

5) A myriad of font and formatting options.

This isn’t a feature I would have imagined myself using, but I’m a slow reader and a larger font increases my speed. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s nice icing.

6) I can read articles away from my computer.

I hate reading at my desk, and so my TBR list for online articles was growing outrageously long.  I can now automatically sink my device to the app I save my articles to and reference them later from the comfort of my sofa.

7) I can read my own stuff.

I still do most of my work at a desk but sometimes I just want to read my manuscript through without being able to change it. It allows me to see my work in a way that a reader might see it, and gives me a fresh perspective that I just can’t get in Scrivener. I don’t own a printer and the library is a bit of a hike, so having an eReader fills that niche for me.

8) It takes up less space.

I don’t identify as a minimalist, but I am trying to pare down on the sheer amount of stuff that lines my walls. Earlier this month I wrote about culling my personal library, and a big impetus for making that cull was being able to incorporate eBooks into my collection. There’s something to be said for having beautiful objects around one’s home, but having the option to buy a book that doesn’t take up any physical space has been freeing for me.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love print, and I have no plans to stop buying hard copies of certain books, but what I’ve learned over the past 6 months is that there is a place for digital and analogue in my collection. And so long as the words meet my eyes, I don’t really care how they get there.

My Favourite Reads of 2016

2016 was a pretty good year for me, both with reading and general living, and while I didn’t finish as many books as I’d hoped, I did read some really good ones.

Here are 5 of my favourites, with links to their pages on Goodreads in case you want to look into them further:

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Short, original, and beautiful, Binti was a great read. Okorafor works all kinds of unexpected magic with the science fiction and fantasy genres, and I’ve yet to be disappointed with one of her stories. She builds worlds that are both believable and unreal, and writes characters that are likeable despite (and often because of) their flaws. Although Binti reads well as a solo book, I’m pumped to read Home (Binti #2) when it comes out later this month.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

I haven’t shut up about this novel since I read it last February. It’s a brilliant work of speculative fiction that explores American slavery in the antebellum South through the eyes of a modern black woman inexplicably sent backwards in time. The writing is breathtaking and the events are heartbreaking. I’m inclined to suggest that this would make my list of Swiss-Army recommendations, and I think about Dana and her experiences regularly – sure signs of a great book.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Funny and bittersweet, this novella tells the story of two sisters with a sinister secret and an unconditional love for each other. I was surprised to find myself reading it for the first time this past year – and happy to experience it without having the plot spoiled for me. How I went two decades as a Jackson fan while skipping over this, I’ll never know.

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kakfa

While the Metamorphosis is open to a myriad of interpretations, I quickly saw shared aspects of my own struggles with mental health and depression in Samsa’s condition. It’s a morbid and darkly funny look at how families deal (or don’t deal) with tragedy, and considered a classic for good reason.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

I loved the setting, I loved the plot, I loved the Crakers, and I even had a curious fondness for Snowman. It read like a short story despite being 400 pages, and the ending was deliciously ambiguous. The payoffs, the technology, the bizarre dystopian/post-apocalyptic setting, were all wonderfully fun to read about and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the rest of the trilogy.

I hope you had some gems grace your shelves last year, and here’s to more great reads in 2017!

 

 

How I Culled My Library with Ruthless Precision (And You Can Too)

Books are among my favourite things and I’m a packrat at heart. This means that my homes have always been overrun with reading material – books piled on side tables, spilling from the shelves, and tucked into corners like Easter eggs.

I’ve been more and more interested in experimenting with minimalism lately – or at least a version of minimalism that suits my family’s lifestyle. We’ve been ridding ourselves of clothes, media, and furniture that we don’t use/need, and I’ve got to admit: it feels as good, if not better, than getting something new. Honing my belongings down to only the useful and beloved has freed up more space for living and given me a better appreciation of the items that I choose to keep.

We have two large bookshelves in our home, and they were full to the brim. That meant that new books were stacked on the sideboard, on the couch, on the coffee table – I’d even brought home a smaller bookshelf (and then another) that I crammed into the bedroom. You know, for more books.

It was an impressive, and overwhelming, collection.

I decided to cull as many books as was needed to fit my collection onto only the two big shelves in our home office. I rounded up every book in the house and then asked myself a few questions, book by book. Here’s how I decided what made the cut, and what you might ask yourself if you’re wanting to do the same:

1) Does this belong to me?

People know that I’m an avid reader and so I get loaned a lot of books. I made the decision to remove anything that doesn’t belong to me –  whether I read it or not – to be returned to its rightful owner. As much as I appreciate someone lending me a book, and my own good intentions to read it aside, if it’s made it onto my shelf then I’ve had it too long.

2) Is this something that I enjoyed?

If the answer is ‘no’, then that’s easy. Only keeping books that we enjoy, or plan to enjoy, makes a collection unique to you. To me, there’s little sense in keeping anything in a personal library that doesn’t speak to its owner. I believe this across the board – from novels to cookbooks to reference material. If it doesn’t feel good in your hand or make you happy, chuck it*.

3) Is this something that I plan to enjoy/ Is this something that I will enjoy again?

I have a lot of unread books in my collection, and some of them were just not appealing to me anymore. Some were gifts or impulse buys. Some interested me at one time but have since fallen completely off my radar. If it’s just taking up space, or aspirational, say goodbye.

If reading it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you have no emotional attachment to the book (or its contents) then let it go. I culled quite a few books that I’d enjoyed as airport reads, 3-star ARCs, and novels that I had once loved but since outgrown.

4) Is there someone in my life who might enjoy this more?

I have some beautiful kids series that I don’t see myself ever rereading. They’re good books in good shape: wonderful candidates for being re-homed among my friends or family. This is not a call to saddle your loved ones with crap you’re too guilty to throw away – only if there’s something in your collection that someone special to you might genuinely cherish should you consider passing it along as a glee-maker.

5) Is this something that can be easily replaced?

I owned a generic, paperback copy of Mario Puzo’s the Godfather. I reread it every few years, but there was nothing special about the particular copy on my shelf. It’s an easy book to find, be it at the library, borrowed from a friend, or at almost any second-hand bookstore. I donated my copy, and when and if I want to read it again, another will be readily available.

6) Can I replace this with a digital copy?

There were a few books that I would like to read again but that I didn’t feel particularly strongly about having as a hard-copy on my shelves. Classics, especially, are easy to find as inexpensive/free ebooks. Some of my old, scruffy paperbacks were just asking to be replaced with digital copies, and doing so freed up valuable shelf space.

7) Is this something I can replace with a nicer copy?

If there are beloved stories in your collection that you can afford to upgrade, don’t be afraid to do so. My copies of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman, are from three separate editions. I picked them up second hand. One of them is a different size than the other two. The cover art is nothing special, and the books themselves have all seen better days. Even though I love the series, and will read it again, I donated the copies I had with the plan of replacing them in future with copies that match one another and have cover art that excites me.

It’s still a big collection, but winnowing away the chaff has made the real treasures shine. It’s also changed my mindset about what I actually need to keep going forward. I’ve gotten rid of the secondary shelves and the entirety of my library can now be found in a single room, which makes choosing a book easy and enjoyable. Letting go is hard, but I think it’s a great way to start a new year of learning and reading.

* I realize that with school, or certain jobs, there comes the necessity to keep some books that don’t make us happy. That is, of course, a different story, so chuck accordingly.

Image credit: original image by George Gross, and has been cropped