Current Works in Progress

Monday, April 9, 2012

Flash Fiction: Once Upon a Time

“Well it figures, doesn’t it? It just bloody well figures.”

Larry sighed as turned slowly in front of the mirror, trying to see himself from every angle. The jet black of the jacket set off the gold highlights in his wings, his hair was styled perfectly; he was one dapper looking fairy. He twisted his shoulders to look at the back of his ensemble.

“What was I thinking?”

He’d panicked, no ifs ands or buts. He’d panicked and now he’d be a laughingstock, and he really had no one to blame but himself.

It had happened yesterday when Susie Farnsworth, a centaur, had asked him if he was going to the senior prom. He’d said that of course he was going and then she’d uttered those five fateful words - “Save a dance for me”, before trotting off to advanced math class. A dance. Dancing. There would be dancing at the prom. Larry hadn’t the first clue how to dance.

He’d panicked. He’d cut out of school and headed downtown to one of the seedier districts where you could buy just about anything, and for cheap. Cheap was all Larry could afford. He’d bought a spell from a nasty old Hag that, she'd assured him, would teach him how to dance while he slept. Before bed he’d dutifully read the incantation and performed the gestures exactly as the Hag had described. He’d even managed to swallow the entire noisome potion that she’d given him for “extra potency”. And then he’d gone to bed.

If only he’d read the label he’d have known that the Hag had given him the wrong scroll.

When he’d woken up in the morning, there it had been, apparently happy to see him. He’d had to cut a hole in his trousers just to put them on. Now here he was, with his senior prom just two hours away. He still didn’t know how to dance and he looked ridiculous. Never mind the prom; he couldn’t even go out in public like this.

For goodness’ sake, who had ever heard of a fairy with a tail?

*   *   *

My entry for the Once Upon a Time flash fiction contest over at Yearning for Wonderland. Exactly 350 words (point of pride, there). Just out of curiosity, did you see the tail coming, or were you thinking something else?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

So, You're Moving to China: Personal Space

Dear Imaginary Person,

So far I've told you about some of the smells and sounds you'll encounter when you get here, and it's true that both of these sensory assaults can take some getting used to. You can rest easy, though, in the sure knowledge that you will get used to them. There is something else that I should tell you about, and it's something that you may never get used to. Knowing about it ahead of time might prepare you to better cope with it, though, so here it goes; Chinese people stand really close to you.

You might think I'm having a laugh, or making a bigger deal than I should about something that doesn't really matter very much, but I'm as serious as a heart attack about this. People here stand entirely too close to you, close enough that you can smell what they had for breakfast three days ago, and it will drive you batty. Your idea of personal space is tied directly into the part of your brain that decides whether to run away from someone or tear out their throat, and different cultures have a different idea of what constitutes that space. Canadian personal space is more or less as far as you can reach without stretching; if I can easily put both of my hands on you, you are in my personal space, and I am in yours. Chinese personal space seems to extend to the end of the eyelashes, or occasionally to the end of the nose.

This plays out in a number of ways in daily life here. When lining up for things (if you can get people to line up), you will step up to the back of the line a comfortable distance from the person in front of you. One of two things will then happen. Some people will assume that if you are standing that far away from the next person you aren't actually in the line and they will push in front of you. They may well actually push you; remember - eyelashes. Some people will realise you are also in line and will step up behind you. You will feel their breath on the back of your neck. They will make glancing contact with your clothing. You will be convinced that they are trying to pick your pocket (they might actually be trying to pick your pocket - that happens a lot). This only happens when there is a queue though, so don't worry over much as it is next to impossible to get Chinese people to line up for anything.

The more common way you might experience this is with friends and co-workers. I can recall several occasions when I was walking down the street with a friend and I had to tell him that if he continued to walk that close to me I would have no choice but to punch him in the head. He was a close friend - we shared an apartment for a couple of years - but he was walking with his arm in almost constant contact with my arm and every time I widened the space between us he immediately closed it. The sidewalk was otherwise empty, so there was no reason for such close proximity aside from his idea of personal space differing so drastically from mine.

This is another one of those differences where Chinese folks will tell you it's because there are too many people in China. The thing is, outside of the bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen the population density isn't any higher than in many western cities (where people don't crowd each other unless there is no other choice whatsoever). Here they crowd each other even in otherwise empty spaces. Habits are funny things, unless they are other people's habits.



Saturday, April 7, 2012

Writing Friday: How Useful is deviantArt?

The Beginning Part

Last September I made a decision to seriously pursue my dream of becoming a professional writer. One of the things I thought would be helpful was to find an online writing community to take part in. My reasoning was that I'd been away from writing for quite some time and it would be good to get feedback from people who had no vested interest in making me feel good about myself. Also, given that I live in a city of about 1 million people where fewer than 30 or 40 people are fluent in the English language and only 2 of us can claim it as our native tongue, maybe I wasn't as fantabulous with the verbiage as I thought I was. As my ability in French attests, language skills atrophy with disuse.

So, off I went to the internet, in search of a critique group. Google provided me with the names and addresses of several, and I ended up joining deviantArt. This turned out to be a reasonably good choice, although not a permanent one. While deviantArt has some qualities that are invaluable for a beginning writer, the site was not originally designed for writers, it's focus has never been and never will be writers, and eventually anyone who is serious about writing professionally will find it outlives its usefulness relatively quickly. 

Out of the short list of candidates, I chose deviantArt for two main reasons; it is free, and it seemed friendly. Also, while most of the other groups I found dealt solely with novel length works, deviantArt is more suited for shorter pieces, and I didnt want to get involved with a novel just yet. You don't want to start off your first swim in a years with a cliff dive and a trek across the English Channel, no matter how good a swimmer you think you used to be.

As I mentioned above, there are a number of great things about deviantArt. It is free although you can pay for additional features that, while somewhat useful, are not actually necessary. Also, it really is friendly. Possibly as a result of feeling marginalized by the visual art folks, the writing community on deviantArt is one of the most open groups of writers I've ever met. The level of snark is so low, in fact, that I was tempted to check for a pulse on several occasions.

The Middle Part

The main reason for joining a writing group is, of course, to get feedback on your writing. There are a number of groups on dA that encourage their members to critique each other's work; The Written Revolution, and litPlease come to mind as standout examples. There is also a fully functional "critique" system that allows you to critique someone's work in a separate section from the general comments as well as assigning ratings to various aspects of the work. This used to be a premium function, but I believe it is currently available to everyone. Even when it wasn't, critiques can be left in the comment section without too much difficulty.

The writing community, in addition to being almost snarkless, is also fairly active. There are always contests and prompts and chat events and any number of other activities going on. At least, it seems that way. Once you start to dig a little deeper, though, you notice that most of the activity is being generated by the same 10-15 people week after week, with varying degrees of engagement from the rest of the members. And this is where we come to the negative side of dA as a writing group; outside of the small handful of stalwarts the rest of the members are pretty useless.

At first I was quite excited by the sheer volume of content being posted to the more active groups. As a reader, I was thrilled by the chance to sample so many up and coming writers. After the first few weeks I'd completely changed my tune. The vast, vast majority of the writing posted to deviantArts writing groups is poetry; angsty, poorly written, adjective laden, free verse poetry. The remainder is mostly fan fiction (again, mostly of poor quality) with the occasional gem of an original work of prose buried in the dross.

Given the quality of the writing going on there, I shouldn't have been surprised by the quality of the critiquing. It is awful. I would frequently write critiques 2 or 3 times as long as the piece I was critiquing; analysing line by line and making suggestions for word choice, structure, pacing, character, dialogue, and in some cases very basic things like how punctuation works and the difference between they're, their, and there. The critiques I got were mostly along the lines of "This is really good! :P :D lol" and if the piece was longer than 500 words or so I was lucky to get even that as very few people will actually read anything that long. This brings us to the other downside to deviantArt as it pertains to the serious writer; age.

I think the average age of the users on dA is about 15 with the fat part of the bell curve resting snugly between 13 and 17. I don't know about you, but I'm 37 years old. The things I have in common with most of the dA writing community are mostly of the "we're both bipedal, carbon-based life forms" variety. The vast majority of the time I felt like I was teaching a high-school English class only, instead of it being normal students with one or two hippy-dippy, reality impared cornflakes, the whole class was hippy-dippy, reality impared cornflakes. The kind of students who say things like, "No one can define art." and "I write free verse poetry because I don't believe in rules. Shakespeare didn't follow rules.", and "You can't critique my poem because it's about how I feel.", and "Who cares about spelling? Stop being a grammer natzi." Sigh.

The End Part

In spite of the bad poetry and the lack of meaningful critique, I truly did enjoy my dA experience. I say did because I've more or less withdrawn completely from my involvement there. I just don't have the extra time to spend on something that won't move me closer to being a professional writer, and I've accomplished everything on dA that I'm going to accomplish. I met a handful of wonderful people, some of whom I'll remain in contact with outside of dA. I confirmed that I'm at least a better writer than the vast majority of high-school students, and I developed a few story ideas that might even turn into readable novels some day.

The take away from all this is that if you are a writing hobbyist, or you just aren't quite ready to make your play for publication, deviantArt is awesome. It's a friendly, safe environment to give your writing chops a workout and practice your craft. There are groups that provide writing prompts and contests and a sense of community. If you are serious about writing and have professional aspirations, however, you might want to look elsewhere. Where, I haven't quite figured out yet.

My deviantArt profile is here, but you can only read my "deviations" if you're a member; first rights and so forth. 

Do you have any experience with online writing communities, either paid or free? Any suggestions for sites to avoid, or recommendations for places to go? Give the world a heads up and let us know in the comments below.

Ps. In case you were wondering, someone told me I should have headings if I want people to read my blog because no-one likes a "wall of text" (except people who read books, I suppose), so I put in some headings. Do you like them? They also said I should have a bullet list, but I didn't have anything I wanted to shoot at and I wasn't feeling list-y.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tech Wednesday: The Asus Eeepad Transformer

Hi there. 

Welcome to Tech Wednesday here at the blog. Normally I'll be using these tech posts to round up and comment on any recent technology stories in the media, but I thought I'd write today about my Asus Eeepad instead.

About 6 months ago I was faced with the necessity of replacing my laptop. If you'll recall that was smack-dab in the middle of the release of a whole gaggle of new android tablets. Now I have to admit that even though I really really wanted to have one I never thought seriously about buying a tablet. I love the idea of them, as I love most new gadgets, but I just never saw how one would be of any real use to me.

I'm a classic function over form guy. Whenever I look at buying a new device I make a list of all the things I need it to do, all the things I would like it to do and, as I do my research, all the things I didn't know it could do but that I now look forward to it doing. If I end up with more than one device that satisfies all of my use criteria, I consider which one looks nicer. Now, I have a decent desktop system that takes care of my computing needs at home, so my list in this case was focused strictly on my computing needs while on the go.

What I Need (after the break)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Album Review: Dia Frampton's "Red"

Hello, and welcome to Music Tuesday. 

As you may have heard, I enjoy a program called The Voice. One of the things I like most about it is the way it promotes people with unique or unusual voices. Season 1 of the voice had several such performers; Xenia, Nakia, Dia Frampton, and Rebecca Loebe come to mind. Dia Frampton, who placed 2nd in season 1, recently released her debut album (sort of) "Red". Today, I review that album.  

I say that "Red" (available on iTunes) is sort of her debut album, because even though it isn't her first album, it's probably the first one you've heard of. Dia and her sister Meg have recorded 4 albums and 6 EPs already under the name "Meg & Dia", and have spent the last 7 years or so touring to promote those albums. It's not even her first album with a major label; "Here, Here and Here" was released under Warner Bros.. This is, however, her first album with a significant amount of publicity behind it, and so it seems appropriate to consider it as a debut album.

Keep reading for a track by track analysis.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

So, You're Moving to China: The Nose Knows

Dear Imaginary Person,

In my last letter I told you about the sounds of China, and how the first thing I noticed here was the noise. The thing about living in a noisy environment is that you pretty quickly develop selective hearing. After a few weeks you don’t even notice most of it any more. Except for the street washing trucks*. And the laowai** comments. You always notice those. No, what has really made a lasting impression on me are the smells. Food smells, street smells, the smell of animals, the smell of people, the smells of construction and manufacturing, and every so often the smells of natural, growing things. China is a land of many smells.

For example;