Friday, 21 April 2017

Big Changes Coming: The Process

There are big changes to my digital footprint coming down the line. As I get closer to completing my latest first draft (a side project that is actually the one best suited to moving on to the next stage), I have been thinking a lot more about building my "platform" as an author. This concept of a "platform", sort of like a fan base, is ubiquitous to modern writing and publishing. It's especially relevant to self-publishing, which is the avenue I am 99% sure I will be taking with my work, barring fortuitous happenstance.

The mascot for The Process
I am sure I speak for many writers when I say I am naturally an introvert. I would love nothing better than to shut myself away in some refuge and write and have audiences magically appear and praise my work (and pay money for it too!) Real life writing simply doesn't work that way. Even writers going the traditional route with the backing of major publishers are expected to have built a platform through social media, participating in forums and conferences, and generally promoting themselves. So as a natural introvert, you can imagine how putting myself out there in a meaningful way beyond this semi-neglected blog is daunting.

This when I started thinking about what they call in Philadelphia, "The Process."

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Writing Prompt: Decision Point

This time we had a bit of a different writing prompt and got to take it back as homework. The prompt was to write about a decision you made in 200 words or less. The result is more personal than I normally write.

Courtenay Place. A warm autumn evening. I was having MSG-soaked noodle soup as drunken and well up for it boys and girls were filtering into the bar district. My main preoccupation was going home, battling a cold and tired from being out the night before. Sleep, precious sleep. Then I got a text from Joel, urging me to come out for drinks. I hadn’t shaved, wasn’t dressed for it and definitely wasn’t in the mood. But with job prospects slim, my Belgian pal might be leaving for home soon, so this could be the last week I would have with the best friend I had made since arriving in the country. We like to think our lives are storybooks and the most important decisions in our lives are foreshadowed as momentous.

But the only consequence I sensed was foregoing a couple hours of sleep. I entered the dim lit basement club and saw Joel chatting to a girl. Her friend was standing to the side, looking bored. Like a dutiful wingman, I swooped in and introduced myself to my future wife.

Now six years and two kids later, I always choose the extra sleep, but I’m glad for the last time that I didn’t.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Admiral and the New Historical Epics

I recently enjoyed watching the Dutch movie Admiral on Netflix. In its home country, it was originally titled Michiel de Ruyter, a name likely unknown outside of the Netherlands and military history circles. Given my interest in the subject, I had some familiarity with de Ruyter's story, so I was excited that a dramatization was so readily accessible to me. Being able to watch it was the result of an intersection between two technologically driven trends.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Review: A Spy in the House, by Y.S. Lee

A Spy in the House, the first book in The Agency/Mary Quinn Mystery series feels like a rarity in the realm of Young Adult fiction. Whereas virtually every other series of books you might find in the YA section involves either some form of magic or a futuristic dystopia, the books in The Agency series are a throwback. They are like Nancy Drew for modern times, though ironically they are set in the Victorian era.

A Spy in the House might also be considered a crossover novel. The writing is unflinching in telling of the exploitation and violence that stalked the lower classes and outsiders of Victorian England. It's also handled in a mature way that can appeal to both adolescents and adults. While Y.S. Lee's debut borrows heavily from some cliches (e.g. the orphaned heroine), she also takes it in some refreshing new directions, which I'll get into beyond the jump. Any attempt to simplify or categorize the book doesn't really do it justice, however. Quite simply, the story works because it is fun and engaging.

Lee uses her background as a scholar of Victorian literature to good effect in telling the story of Mary Quinn, a street urchin who is saved from hanging by a reform school. After progressing through the school to become a teacher, she gains the knowledge that the school is actually a front for a secret agency. Lee knows the particular expectations that Victorian society places on women.  So the agency carries out work that women have the distinct opportunity to do: to blend in, be unnoticed and unheard.

She offers historical details of daily life that flavour the narrative. She tries for a formalness in the dialogue without belabouring it. Though it sometimes errs a bit on the colloquial side, it strikes a fine balance between historical accuracy and accessibility. The author extends this crossing between the historical period and our time by having characters with seemingly modern sensibilities. This might feel like a cheat, but as Lee herself points out that this is fiction in the jacket notes:
If a top secret women's detective agency existed in Victorian England, it left no evidence - just as well, since that would cast serious doubt on its competence. The Agency is a totally unrealistic, completely fictitious antidote to the fate that would otherwise swallow a girl like Mary Quinn.
There were other aspects of Lee's writing that had more mixed results. It was nice to have second third person narrative POV rather than rely on the tried and true first person so common these days. However doing so early on in the story eliminated a potential source of mystery and tension in this second character. I also didn't get sense that Mary had a particularly major role in resolving the case, but that also seems in line with an agent's first mission and it will be interesting to see how active she becomes in later novels. The dysfunctional Victorian family at the heart of the mystery wasn't fleshed out fully, with somewhat nebulous motivations and reactions. The story also relied on some coincidence along the way, although the largest coincidence did not really affect the plot but added layer of motivation for the heroine.

The most striking aspect of A Spy in the House requires a minor spoiler alert to discuss.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Flash Fiction: 5-Minute Writing Prompt #1

I've been on a writing blitz lately, so I've been slack in updating this site, which seems a bit ridiculous, something I've only figured out now. So instead of trying to come up with other ideas to write about, I'll start sharing some actual writing!

The writers group I participate in starts out every meeting with a writing prompt exercise. Someone grabs a random book from the shelves of the library where we meet and picks out a page.  The first sentence of the page becomes our writing prompt and we have five minutes to come up with something. Every now and then, I actually come up with something coherent, so I'm happy to share it.

Today's writing prompt is the sentence, "That's the park."

Let's see what I came up with after the jump....

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Over-Research Trap

Having written earlier about the joys of historical documentaries as well as warnings from the past, it's natural that I've recently turned my attention to historical fiction, as both a reader (expect a new review soon) and a writer. While this may seem like something of a change from the fantasy I usually work on, it's something I've done in the past, and it's about a historical subject that I'm enthusiastic about and have studied extensively. It's a pleasure to dive into the research.

And therein lies the trap. It's something several friends of mine can attest to is a common obstacle when writing historical fiction. That is problem is over-research.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Learning from History, YouTube Style!

When times seem uncertain, I think one of the most useful ways to gain a bit of clarity is by studying history. We've now had several millenia of human history and stories from ancient history might seem, not to put too fine a point on it, ancient history. But the fact is, when something happens in the present, chances are a very similar situation happened in the past and usually on several occasions. The tricky part is figuring which example from history the present course of events is most likely to follow. Is the current state of the world most closely mimicking the 1930's, or is it the turn of the last century battle between the robber barons and the progressives? Or can we look to the late Roman Empire for guidance?

For my part, those are rhetorical questions. All I know is that Cars is a prophecy of the future. Yes, I am obsessed with that movie.

Ultimately, the more knowledge the better. And a great place to gain that knowledge in quick and digestible format is YouTube. With some warnings of course. I've written before about my love of finding documentaries on YouTube. There are certainly a lot of great history documentaries available there. But there are also a lot of weird, amateurish consipiracy nutjob docos too, though much of it little distinguishable from the History Channel's current Ancient Aliens lineup.

My advice is to search for and double check that the documentary is produced in association with one of the reputable TV channels, such as BBC, PBS or Channel 4, or even Discovery or History, if it's an older show.

But there's also another weird phenomenon I've noticed with these documentaries. History docs are not necessarily the most sexy material (try as it might), so some uploaders have resorted to using "porny" thumbnails as clickbait.