One of the things I'm constantly confronted with is how little I know. In fact, the more I study a subject or think about it, the more I realize there's so much more out there to learn and it's so much more complex than I had originally imagined. It can be daunting. I know a lot of people in science struggle with this issue. You go through life being a know-it-all, then you put in all this effort to get a Ph.D. In the end you feel stupider than ever because the process basically only taught you how very big the world is and how you will never completely understand anything - just the tiniest sliver of a fraction of knowledge, of which you get to claim "expertise."
But even if it feels quixotic, that doesn't mean I want to stop learning. This is one of the reasons why I love podcasts. About 50% of the podcasts I listen to are for pure entertainment (The Weekly Planet, Serial, Imaginary Worlds, Bitch Sesh, Death, Sex, & Money, This American Life, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast), but the remaining 50% I see as free learning resources (Fresh Air, Coffee Break Spanish, How I Built This, History Extra, Radio Lab, History Chicks, TED Radio Hour, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Call Your Girlfriend, On Being, Stuff Mom Never Told You, etc.).
This week I'm adding a new podcast to that list: Civics 101.
The Trump Administration's flagrant disregard and ignorance of the way the Federal government works is not just pathetic, it's fucking scary (and hypocritical as hell to criticize the Obama administration for executive overreach...).
In general, I'm interested in the news, government, and U.S. History. I also grew up in the D.C. area and both my parents have strong professional connections to the Federal government. My Dad actually is a Federal employee. My mom is a lawyer for a trade association and works on congressional legislation and enforcement. So just by osmosis alone and by asking my parents questions, I've learned a lot about how the government works. But it's a super complicated system! There are still so many things I don't understand.
To help fill in some knowledge gaps, I've started listening to the Civics 101 podcast. It's a great resource on all sorts of issues related to the U.S. government. In short 15 minute episodes, they explain things like executive orders, how the constitution can be amended, commenting periods, how supreme court decisions are overturned, etc. It's very helpful and I think EVERYONE in the U.S. could use a refresher on these topics. I know my government class in middle school was pretty inadequate for some of the constitutional questions that have been popping up on a daily basis since the inauguration.
If you're interested in the Supreme Court, I would also highly recommend More Perfect, which is a short podcast series done by the same people who produce Radio Lab. They choose interesting Supreme Court cases to explain and discuss, providing some much needed context and history for the way the Judicial branch works.
So if Trump is giving you anxiety, go ahead and try listening to Civics 101 and More Perfect. It's easier to fight against an autocracy (or an administration that would like to be one) if you understand what protections and subsequent revisions were put in place in the Constitution to defend against exactly this type of situation.
Consider this step 5 of my action plan to resist Trump and his cronies (or should I say Bannon and his crony Trump?) Get educated and know your rights.
I once heard a journalist say on the Longform podcast that good writers come from reading a certain number of words as a child. He didn't specify the number of words. All he meant was that if you read enough, particularly when the mind is still young and plastic, you almost can't help but be able to write to some extent. We learn from example. When you read, you're unconsciously internalizing patterns of words. And then when you write, you reproduce those patterns. I suspect this trend continues well into adulthood.
Which is why I believe you are what you read.
This is one of the reasons I'm not a fan of modern YA fiction, because I think the prose tends to be low quality, and I don't think it's good for young people (or adults) to internalize bad writing.
But if you are what you read, that has even bigger implications for people who aspire to be writers. Think about what kind of book you want to write. Now think of the books you're actually reading. Are they similar? Are you consuming a prose style that you would like to produce yourself? Or are they misaligned? Maybe you're reading books that you would never want to write.
I've often talked about my love of simple stories. It's just a personal preference. For instance, I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia a lot more than the Lord of the Rings, because I happen to enjoy clean prose and simple storylines more than the wordiness of epic fantasy. I like a character who has so little room or time to develop in the book that when they do change it has all the more impact on you. When Eustace Scrubb attacks the sea monster in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it actually means something, because there's so little time to dither about who he really is as a character. Or when Puddleglum in The Silver Chair stomps out the witche's magic fire, it stands out as this incredibly brave moment he has in the book. It's so simple, but it means so much more on the scale of a 30,000 word story than if the book had rambled on for another 100,000.
Yet when I sit down to write, I often catch myself producing these long descriptions filled with endless adjectives, or plotlines that go on and on. My writing has always veered towards purple prose - possibly due to some bad habits I was taught in elementary school, possibly because I'm a very visually oriented person. But I find reading those kinds of stories incredible tedious. I hate hyper description.
So what I am I reading right now? The short stories of The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr, which I would describe as highly descriptive writing done well. It's what a purple prose writer aspires to be. But even if it's well written, it's still not the style of writing that I wish I could produce myself. I naturally lean towards it, but I don't enjoy it. That's kind of messed up if you think about it.
Realizing this, I set The Shell Collector aside last night and found my old copy of The Horse and his Boy, one of my all time favorites in the Chronicles of Narnia, because I know that's the kind of story I would like to write myself. It's not middle grade writing exactly. I think almost anyone, of any age, could enjoy the story of Shasta and Bree running away to Narnia. It's just simple, and I like that. So I'm reading it again, for probably the tenth time, in hopes that it will help me to learn a different writing style from my natural tendency, particulalry for the science fantasy novel I've plotting in my head for several years now.
A few months ago I realized I wanted to write that story as if it were a cousin of the Chronicles of Narnia. Instead of attempting to write it as an epic, as I had been doing, I want to cull the story down to its most fundamental form. And to do that, I think I need to keep reading the kinds of books I want this novel to be. Honestly, it's even kind of fun to read a book with the aim of studying its method. I know what happens in The Horse and his Boy, so I can concentrate on the mechanics of the writing and hopefully learn from Lewis. Mostly this involves studying the length of descriptions, what kinds of words are used, how scenes transition, and the role of dialogue and even illustrations in the story. (I would love to have illustrations in my book.)
Have you tried this? Or have you ever noticed you're picking up bad writing habits from books you're reading? I saw this over the summer when I was writing part 1 of The Mistress and Master of Sparrow House, which was meant to be a fun little romp of story. At the time, I was reading Nick Hornby's Funny Girl, and decided it was teaching me this terrible habit of attempting to write comedic timing, so I had to put it down - and honestly, I think Sparrow House improved because of it.
Or sometimes if I'm spending too much time reading internet drivel, I notice my own writing starts to sound the same. This is something I want to avoid at all costs, which is one of the reasons why I resisted hooking up the internet to our house for so long. Ultimately, I caved when I started working from home, and now I'm struggling again with reading way too much of the unedited, unfiltered nonsense that is so typical of writing on the internet.
So let's read what we want to write instead. That's my new goal for the new year. Just read good books that I would be proud to write myself.
With that said, does anyone have a suggestion for a new book I should read if I'm interested in writing a more simple (i.e., not epic) science fiction/fantasy novel? I would love to hear your ideas.
Good morning kids, today's another episode of "Podcasts You Should Be Listening To."
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Love them, especially to get through my 2.5 hour daily commute. Who would of thought that a weird return of radio for the 21st century could be so awesome?
Anyway, I wanted to share a few shows I enjoy that are made by women because a) I am a woman, and it's always nice to hear about the world from non-male POVs, and b) these podcasts are so good I think they stand on their own in the top ten, independent of gender. Guys, take note. You want to understand women better? Maybe give these women a listen.
So here they are. 5 podcasts, by women, for everyone.
Call Your Girlfriend - Where you go when you want to listen to two super-cool feminists talk about the patriarchy, shine theory, periods, and spot on career and friendship advice. Staged as a phone-call between two long distance best friends, I'm obsessed with what the lovely Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have to say about the news and culture.
The History Chicks is hands-down one of the best history podcasts out there. Beckett and Susan research and discuss different women in history, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Josephine Baker, Catherine the Great, and so many more. I inhaled their back-catalog. There are so many interesting women who've lived in the world and the History Chicks make sure we know who they are.
You Must Remember This - Tales of old Hollywood and other strange events surrounding the movie-making business. I binge-listened to the Charles Manson series. I had no idea that so much violence stemmed from one fucked up guy's desire for rock-and-roll fame. Longworth has a knack for telling great stories about stories and the people behind them.
Sampler - Brittany Luse knows where to find the best podcasts and isn't afraid to tell you where to go to get them. I rely on Sampler to introduce me to new shows I'd never have thought to try out on my own. Totally essential. She gets me out of my internet echo chamber.
Death, Sex, & Money - Conversations about the tricky stuff we don't normally like to talk about. One of these days, the great Terry Gross (of one of my other favorite shows, Fresh Air) is going to retire, and Anna Sale is going to be her natural successor as the great interviewer on public radio. Death, Sex, & Money is sort of like This American Life, less twee, but just as awesome.
Yesterday was the kind of day that makes you wonder whether the world really has gone crazy. Now we can add the Belgian terrorist attacks to a long list of awful things that seem to happen on a weekly basis. When you look at the big picture, it really can seem hopeless.
I had to escape the news cycle. You can only hear so many sad and depressing stories before you reach your limit, knowing you're powerless to help anyone. So I put This American Life's most recent episode on my podcast app and listened while I worked on my reactor.
If you're a writer, or you just need to hear a story about how humans can be amazingly kind, you should listen to this week's episode. It's about a young boy who back in the 80's ran away from home in order to find the fantasy author Piers Anthony, and ask if he might live with him on his small farm in rural Florida. Anthony's response was maybe not what the boy was hoping, but it was exactly what he needed, and it was by far the kindest thing he could have done for this poor stray kid.
I used to read a lot of Piers Anthony when I was in middle school, and it was an escape for me too; escape from all the mean girl bull shit and isolation that I think a lot of us experienced during those early teenage years. The author notes at the end of many of Anthony's novels were a fascinating glimpse into what life might be like to be a professional writer. I knew that I'd like nothing better than to write all day, comfortable in in my quiet country life as Anthony seemed to be. That's still my wish today.
Anyway, like I said, if you're in need of a happier story to remind you that people really aren't so bad, or if you're a Piers Anthony fan, take a listen to This American Life episode #470, "Show Me the Way." It's really good.
It took me a long time to start reading non-fiction. Partially, I blame the way we were taught history growing up. Back then it was labeled "social studies" and was a somewhat incoherent mess of information. My teachers would use the class period to write an outline of the assigned text book chapter. We'd memorize the outline and regurgitate it on the test. It's really not surprising that I thought history was inherently boring given how we were being taught.
Much later, I had one excellent history teacher in high school (and one of my best writing teachers as well), who was the first to introduce me to the idea that history is really just a complex multi-arced story. He'd lecture at the front of the classroom, rarely writing on the chalkboard except to illustrate relationships between different events/people/processes. He was a natural storyteller and had no problems keeping a quiet classroom. We were all too busy listening to his way of making history into these incredible plotted episodes to think about misbehaving.
Only years later did I start to read historical non-fiction, so it took me a while to realize that my history teacher was not an aberration. A good historian is someone who is a both a driven researcher of primary sources and a good storyteller. Some of my favorite non-fiction books that exemplify these traits include Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder, and my current reading, Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by this year's Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Svetlana Alexievich. Yes, I am a little fascinated by the history of communism. It's also good research for my own book.
Lately, I've also been supplementing my non-fiction reading by listening to the history podcast, History Extra, from the BBC's History magazine. Each episode features an interview with a historian who discusses their recently published book of non-fiction. The topics are usually British-centric, and if they're not about British history, then they're almost always Western history, but regardless of the eurocentricism, I still enjoy listening to these excellent stories that just happen to be true (or as true as historians can determine based off research). Another history podcast I love is the History of Rome series. It's so good, but maybe I'm biased, because Roman history is probably my favorite time period. I guess now I just need to find a world history podcast now to round me out a little more (open to suggestions!)
Anyway, all of this is just to say that history contains a lot of excellent stories and characters that in some ways stand out even more than fictional variations because they were real. For similar reasons, I love historical fiction, though I have to be careful as I do have a tendency to equate historical fiction with fact. But don't you think King John (John Lackland) would make a great character for a book? Or Richard III?
Do you read much non-fiction? How about historical fiction?
You're in luck kids! I've got three more short stories I'd like to recommend. All three are science fiction/fantasy and all three are really good. Two of the three I listened to via the excellent Fantasy Scroll podcast. If you're not listening to your short stories via podcasts, you may want to give it a try. It's a nice change-up from endless NPR in the car.
(How to listen to podcasts: download or stream them directly onto your phone using the Podcast app if you have an iphone, or the Stitcher app if you have an android phone. It's easier than it looks. Use the search function in the app to find the podcast and then either subscribe or select which episode you want to listen to. Just think of it as on-demand radio.)
Hand of God by Erika Satifka, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
Some years ago, a massive hand appeared over a small town. It hovers there, doing nothing, yet it blocks out most of the sunlight and isolates the citizens from everything. Sounds weird. It is, but I think it works because the premise is cleverly balanced with the hyper-familiar as well: families, school, bullies, bikes. What happens to this Mayberry-esque town under the hand of god? It involves mushrooms, drugs, survivalism, and monsters. Loved it. So, so weird, yet you don't question what's happening. You're just like, oooh, tell me more about the little girl's drugs.
When the Dead are Indexed by Gary Emmette Chandler, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
This story is about a guy who goes to a museum exhibit. It's set in a future where there's a superior race of people, called the "SHI," which stands for "super high intelligence," and it's the SHI who have put on this exhibit. The narrator is not an SHI. He's just a normal guy, very humble, but excited to see the show. Unfortunately, he finds it completely disappointing. It's a little hard to explain this story because it depends almost completely on the narrator's arc: how his perspective of the SHI and himself changes after experiencing the exhibit. It's a great example of using narrative voice. I also liked the ending.
Broken-Winged Love by Naru Dames Sundar, Strange Horizons
A mother dragon hatches an egg and finds that her baby has a birth defect. Although she cares for the child, protects it from harm and harassment, she seems herself disgusted by the thing, repeatedly saying,"I didn't love my baby." This mantra keeps the story from getting soft or sentimental and provides instead a character study of a mother doing everything right even as she apparently feels no love for her offspring. Is she lying? Is she telling us the truth? Her offspring seems to feel love; clearly reciprocates that love. But maybe, she was only doing what he needed, regardless of what she felt. A sad, sweet story about the complexity of being a mother.
Hope you enjoy these!
I was listening to This American Life (one of my favorite radio shows/podcasts) on the car ride into work this morning, and in it they briefly interviewed a forensics expert about some evidence related to the assassination of the Israeli prime minister, Rabin. It was a very interesting story about conspiracy theories, but one thing that struck me was the description of the forensic expert's home lab. He was a ballistics specialist and so had his own microscope, trace analysis tests, firing range, tissue simulant - the works, all in the comfort of his own home in Arizona. Sounds like he's quite in demand for his expertise, so with that comes some money that I'm sure helped him to build his own lab and work independently.
In the phenomenal book, A Wrinkle in Time, you may remember that Meg's mother, Mrs. Murry also had a lab in their home. It was located in an old stone dairy that was connected to their house, if I recall. I believe she was a molecular biologist? If I were at home I would be able to check my copy. Anyway, the joke was that Mrs. Murry would cook for her family (mostly stews) using a Bunsen burner in her lab, I guess so she could work at the same time. Of course, that's a huge safety no-no (food and labs do not mix), but that's ok. It's just science fiction.
Until I started working in science, I'd never thought twice about Mrs. Murry's home lab, but now, oh man, that would be the dream, particularly as a woman. To do science at home and be able to take care of your family? That would be nice.
I thought Mrs. Murry's lab was just fiction. You have no idea how expensive it is to do research. The equipment usually costs at least $50,000. Often exceeding $100,000, say for a particularly nice microscope. The supplies cost several thousand dollars a month, as well. But I guess it's not total fiction if that forensics expert had a home lab too.
Anyway, just a fantasy of mine. A lab in a farm house, out in the country with lots of space for my dogs or maybe kids to play. Lovely.
One of the unfortunate parts of short stories is that it's harder to remember the author's name afterwards. When you've been reading a book for a few weeks, you've had more time to commit the author to memory. But when you finish a short story in less than an hour, it's natural to instantly forget who wrote it - even if you happened to love the work. That's kind of hard on talented short story writers who've put in the effort and written something brilliant...only to be forgotten? How can they build on that success if we can't find ways to even remember their names?
I've been listening to some great short stories lately on various science fiction and fantasy podcasts, and I wanted to share them with you so we can spread the word about these talented writers (and to help me to remember their names so I can keep an eye out for their next publications). In no particular order, here are three recent short stories that I really enjoyed and links to the podcast and written versions at their respective magazines.
Werewolf Loves Mermaid by Heather Lindsley (Lightspeed Magazine)
I loved the simplicity of this story. What happens when a werewolf and a mermaid fall in love? It sounds silly, but these non-human characters seemed so familiar and natural. These could be your friends, just falling in love, becoming a serious item, living out their years together - they just happen to be supernatural creatures. I think it was the strength of the writing that made this story work. In lesser hands, it would have been goofy, but Lindsley's got the touch and even pulls off some humor.
The Adjunct by Patricia S. Browne (Fantasy Scroll Magazine)
Maybe it's my academic background, but I could very much identify with this story in which an underemployed adjunct professor takes a job teaching an anatomy course to the demons in hell. Again, sounds silly, but you read it and you believe it. It's also a really good example of how to use specific, concrete detail (in this case, parts of the body), without getting bogged down in purple prose. Loved the ending too.
The Algebra of Events by Elizabeth Bourne (Clarkesworld Magazine)
This one is from the perspective of an alien aboard a colony ship that crash lands on a strange planet that is unfortunately inhospitable to the aliens' fluid body forms. It was the line, "I am 7.8% solid with grief," that sold me on the story. I liked the idea that different life forms might experience emotions in physically very different ways from us, even if it's more or less the same set of feelings. Very novel. Check it out, it really is quite compelling and sad. One note though, I don't love the production values on the Clarkesworld podcast. They use this weird audio filter to make it sound more futuristic, but it only makes it harder to understand the narrator, especially if there are other interfering noises, like the car engine or rain on the windshield. Maybe read the text version instead.
I hope you'll check these stories out and enjoy. Funny how they all turned out to be from women writers, totally random choice on my part :)
When I first started researching how to submit fiction to journals and magazines, one of the common pieces of advice was to read back issues in order to better understand what kind of work each market published. Although that advice was well-meaning, I think it also made me needlessly delay on submitting my work for a long time. "I haven't read all the back-issues!" I'd tell myself, "I'm not ready!"
Yes, understanding your audience is key to getting published, but no one who is balancing a full-time job, family, and their writing-habit could possibly read enough back issues for all the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. And if you have a literary bent, that's a whole extra genre of magazines to research. It's just too much to do.
Well, kids, I stumbled upon the solution the other day.
Did you know that many of these magazines have podcasts? Where they read their stories aloud? It's like having an endless book on tape of excellent short fiction, for free too. (Although I do think you should subscribe to your favorite magazines. They're generally inexpensive and it's a great way to support your peers.)
Here are the science fiction and fantasy magazines that I've been listening to lately (in no particular order):
I already listen to a variety of podcasts during my hour long commute. And now, I get to enjoy good science fiction and fantasy while simultaneously helping me to understand each market a little better. If you're of a literary mind (and even if you're pure genre), then you should listen to The New Yorker's Fiction podcast to learn from the greats of short fiction writing, like Cheever, Borges, and Gallant.
Frankly, it's been eye-opening. When you hear the kind of stories that are getting published in the magazines, well, let's just say I'm no longer surprised that mine have been getting rejected. What I have been writing and what gets through the slush readers (or what is invited) sounds completely different.
Based on this research, I've concluded that published authors write with more restraint than unpublished amateurs (like myself). They don't spend pages describing each setting in florid detail. The characters are usually more even-keeled, emotionally speaking. The stories tend to be neither excessively sad, nor do they try to be excessively funny. They sound more like an acquaintance telling you a story about something odd they saw the previous day.
So do yourself a favor, cheat a little, and just listen to the market of your choice via podcast if they have one. You'll hear the difference and it should help your writing and publishing chances. And hey, if nothing else, it's an entertaining way to get through a long drive.
Word Count This Morning: 794 - Novel
Have you ever noticed how that really expensive pair of shoes or the gadget that promises to change your life never really makes you that happy? You might get a buyer's high, but it never lasts. Lately, I've been trying to make a conscious effort to avoid falling into this trap again. I keep thinking of that juicer I spent good money on a few years ago. It's sitting in my closet right now. I thought it would make me feel good. I'd drink fresh juice every day. Yeah, well it's a pain to clean, loud, and takes up too much space. Or my Clairsonic Mia? What an overrated piece of junk. That was one of the dumbest, most expensive purchases I've ever made.
I buy this popcorn from the gas station on my way home from work, maybe once or twice a week. It's salty, satisfying, and at ~500 calories for the entire bag (which is pretty large), I don't feel too guilty treating myself to it as compared to alternatively eating a comparably sized bag of potato chips. I like to eat this stuff just as I start on my commute home, and turn on this podcast....
...The Weekly Planet. Two Australians talking comic books, movies, and more or less anything nerdy that strikes their fancy (a lot of Star Wars and Batman). They have a great repartee, better than most podcasts. I don't know how they don't have more of a sponsorship. I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I keep coming back to this one because I can depend on it for a laugh.
This blanket! This is the most expensive item on my list at $30 from REI, but I love it so much. It's just the right size. It's warm and fuzzy. And I use it all the time so the price per use ratio is low. I don't know why it makes me happy. Maybe because it does it's job and does it well. It's just a damn good blanket.
I got a Turbie Twist for Christmas one year (~$6 from CVS) and it ended up being my favorite present. I know I look really ugly in it, but it keeps my head warm after my shower. I don't even care that I look like an old lady in it. T seems to sense this too, so even though I can tell he doesn't like how it looks, he's never given me a hard time about it.
And of course used books are just the best. You can't beat a $1.50 copy of The Second Sex or The Right Stuff.
What random items make you the happiest and cost practically nothing at all?
Writing Streak: 0 days
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