Monday, February 29, 2016

Happy Leap Day!

It's Leap Day. It happens once every four years. Statistically, it's more special than your birthday or Christmas. It's my friend's birthday. (Hi, Kris!) The last time it happened, I was out for dinner with a friend. (Hi, Emily!) Now, I'm sitting at home having my first Leap Day drink in at least eight years. It's a joyous day.

Plenty of websites will give you the history of Leap Day. What I think is more interesting is how rare Leap Day is, a quarter as common as all annual holidays, yet it comes just as regularly. It's like waiting for an Olympics (specific to season) or a US Presidential Election. A day like today makes us ask: what else could be so rare? (As opposed to, say, literal leaping. Even among humans.)

Putrella the gigantic carnivorous plant doesn't bloom very often.

Poland doesn't do well in the World Cup very often.

Deimos just doesn't come along as often as Phobos.

Some events need to be cherished. Leap Day, you're one of them!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

February's Book: His Majesty's Dragon

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Fantasy (2006 - 353 pp.)

His Majesty's Dragon, the debut novel by coder-turned-author Naomi Novik, is exactly what it sounds like. The very short version is that the series (this is Book 1) takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, with this book occurring in 1804-1805, except there are dragons. Understandably, this is not garden-variety historical fiction. The good guys, for our purposes, are the British, who include Captain Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire.

My first reaction to His Majesty's Dragon, which may or may not be appropriate, is that the dragons are extremely cute. Laurence agrees, tending to Temeraire even when other riders do not and reading Temeraire books Laurence would not normally find interesting. Other dragons, like Levitas and Lily, exhibit a similar combined animal-humanness that remind us of whenever our cats talk. The bond between Laurence and Temeraire defines the book, and I suspect* defines the series. I also like that Laurence retains friends in the Navy, like Lieutenant-turned-Captain Tom Riley, so we can see the war unfold on a grander scale.

Novik nails her adventure theme and her battle scenes. The parts in between bring up the endless debate regarding whether "Show, Don't Tell" is literary gospel or merely a highly bendable rule. Novik is fond of telling anything besides the Laurence-Temeraire bonding moments, the Laurence-other characters bonding moments (don't look away, Roland), or the times when dragons very excitingly blast everything in their paths. Dragons are capable of fire, acid, supersonic roars, all sorts of claw and bite maneuvers, and anything else you could imagine from a creature large enough to have  an entire crew strapped to it. They are air forces 110 years before air forces. The way Novik calls them "the Aerial Corps", combined with the inherent social interactions of people living with highly intelligent flying lizards, make the book's flavour. I like her summaries of the interim parts of the book, but I could have gone for a few more man on the street pieces about dragon care.

Something I would have loved to have seen more of is a true prologue to the series of Temeraire as a baby. Although we see Temeraire's hatching, and his rearing up to gargantuan level, he is highly articulate out of the egg and enormous within weeks. It would have been nice to have seen dragons take longer to grow up, or at least be so addicted to having books read to them. I admit this is tough given the extremely short timeline the characters work with, but then maybe a few more pages could have been put into each month. I would read a 400+ page book in order to have more scenes of a baby Temeraire learning English and learning the value of books rather than having those qualities magically gifted to him.

*                    *                    *                    *                    *

His Majesty's Dragon fits into a recent explosion of dragon fiction. There are a couple non-literary examples that came to light for me almost immediately: hit movie How to Train Your Dragon and Sim City-meets-Pok√©mon world-building app Dragonvale.** Each of these franchises has different colours of dragons, each features dragons interacting with people in surprisingly benign ways, and each focuses on how the dragons are just so unbelievably adorable.

This brings me to a more extrinsic point: dragons may be causing the new Nature Fakers Controversy. In short, that early 20th-century literary debate was between the science-backed people who claimed that animals should be represented as realistically as possible and the sentiment-backed people who claimed that animals should be represented according to how they feel. This dispute was not limited to academic literature; Jack London was accused of, as one might say in 1906, nature fakery.

As someone who grew up reading Beatrix Potter in box set form, and who has only studied the sciences a little at the post-secondary level, I naturally side with the latter. Nonetheless, many celebrated figures disagreed with me, and even then-President Theodore Roosevelt*** gave his opinion on the issue. The issue was never completely resolved, although the science side seemed to win out... until the '80s happened.

This raises the question of whether legions of sickly-sweet dragons are suitable for young children. Are we making monitor lizards too desirable? This is an issue Barack Obama needs to address during his last year in office. With the 2016 election coming up, it truly can't wait.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2

*I haven't read any of the other books in this series yet. I suspect I'll read about one per year, given that the "Book a Month" format makes me relatively exclusive.

**Are apps italicized like books now? Is an app at the level of a book, rather than a "Chapter"? I don't know. It's a whole work, though, so why not.

***I consider Teddy to have been the greatest President of the United States ever. Admittedly, it's not for commenting on the Nature Fakers Controversy - more for mediating the Russo-Japanese War settlement and trust-busting - but still, you have to admire a President who takes so much interest in his nation's intellectual cultural debates.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on Jo Roderick's Penmanship... er, Writing Tips

Lately, I've been following Jo Roderick. He's kind of like a South African me who's more conventional, has published way more, and doesn't venture into the surreal territory I'm willing to engage on a whim. Back in December, he posted a particularly interesting blog entry called "10 Tips for Better Penmanship". It's an overall good entry, albeit not one about penmanship in the strict sense. It's a summary of writing errors commonly found in fiction and how he would fix them, which is far more compelling.

Here are my thoughts, in my sometimes-used style of analyzing every possible angle in backbreaking detail. For Jo's thoughts on the tips I cover, see the link in quotation marks above. Whenever the text looks comically different from the rest of this blog entry, that's his words, making them extra easy to track.

Tip 1 – Stop Repeating Yourself

Jo opens with a discussion of how often characters' physical descriptions are repeated unnecessarily and goes from there. This is something I've thought about a lot as an author who is (hopefully) good now but wasn't always that way. A funny example is Jo's quip, "it is probably safe to assume he retains the above-mentioned physique when the couple next makes love". Details mentioned once are assumed to persist until something changes them. I like that. I really, really, very much, so much so, to the end of the world, a million times over, the same way I like puppies, like that.

One exception: when there needs to be severe emphasis, or a character is going insane. Phrases I make up on the spot like "Johan, who was crazed to the point of insanity, said to himself, 'I murdered him to death'" have a certain charm. Then again, when isn't character insanity an exception to most rules?

Tip 2 – Can it Actually Happen?

I agree with the vast majority of this tip.  "Be wary of using terms and phrases that ‘sound’ correct, but aren’t." The example of someone throwing a car made me laugh. This is a time when it's important to distinguish between figurative language and sounding silly. Figurative language factors into many of my responses here, but when a character shouldn't be able to do something, it can't solve the problem.

Tip 3 – Stop Pressing Buttons

This is where I just barely start to disagree. I agree too much detail can bog down a story, such as when Jo says " the reader knows how to unlock car doors, put a key into the ignition, and that in order to drive the vehicle, he or she would need to be seated in the driver’s seat." However, that level of detail can enhance the story in some odd situations, such as:

As with most rules, what I like to say is "follow them unless you have a reason not to".

Tip 4 – Irrelevance

We're building off of #3 here, aren't we? One might even say this tip repeats #3, which, of course, violates #1. Nonetheless, I agree with Jo there are some key differences here. Pressing buttons can get specific. Irrelevance is more general...

...until it isn't.

This leads me to my least favourite literary convention: Chekhov's Gun.

Schchukin quotes Chekhov:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
I completely disagree.

What if the rifle is hanging on the wall of a proud gun owner? What if it's hanging on the wall of a loyalist to a forgotten cause, such as a United Empire loyalist stuck in the USA after ~1800 or an ex-Confederate vet during the Reconstruction? What if it's the owner's idea of style? While I admit I'm taking Chekhov literally here, there are many reasons to include a detail. Maybe it's simply a weird detail that perks up a visitor whether it is or isn't relevant.

Discussions of relevance make me feel like literature is a dialogue between Anton Chekhov (each detail must have purpose for the story) and Henry James (life should be described as it is seen). I side with James.

I'll pick at Jo's words here: "If a scene requires additional information, then as a reader, I encourage that you provide it." What does a scene ever require? When you walk into a room, do you think "What does this room require to become a compelling setting for a story?" or do you simply see the room? I think it's the latter. If you walked into someone's living room for the first time and saw a shocking painting on the wall, you'd comment on it at the time even if it never affected your relationship with that person. Then, I live in the moment as a writer rather than think about every story as being spun around a campfire years after it happens. Every book is different.

Tip 5 – Senseless Branding

In general, yes, using a brand to simulate reality doesn't work: " Throwing names of famous brands and clothing labels at the reader is meaningless unless they know what you are writing about." Well, yeah. I don't know whether this qualifies as "senseless", but I enjoy making my own brands for realistic-ish stories that convey how people perceive brands. As with any rule versus any reason to break it, "Why?" is the key question, which makes the "senseless" qualifier either a great idea or a cop-out.

Tip 6 – Don’t Break the Rules

Well... maybe. Jo's thesis is this: "Better yet, don’t break the rules, but rather learn to write more vibrantly." What if writing more vibrantly breaks the rules? To use a music analogy, what if breaking the rules resulted in something far more vibrant than anyone could have imagined? The problem with rules, and with breaking them, is you're never quite sure when breaking them was a good idea and when it wasn't. One of the only ways to know a rule shouldn't have been broken is if you've broken it inappropriately. Literature may be an example of the martyr effect, in which most business/books/etc. fail in part because of the inordinate pain in those who succeed.

The general rule is to obey the rules unless it's more beneficial to break the rule than otherwise. So... usually follow the rules.

Tip 7 – Avoid Speaking Tags

I have a rule for this one. It creates an exception to Jo's rule while also enforcing that "You cannot cough, purr, or sigh speech. If you are about to argue with me, try to cough out a line of Shakespeare, or purr an entire paragraph." I've done this. Most people have. The key is the length of the sentence. "Not this again," he sighed. One can actually sigh a sentence of this length. "I was so excited for you," she purred. Again, one can purr this phrase. Can you make the sound in the amount of time it takes for the sound to occur? That's what determines whether the phrase can happen properly. While you're writing it, say it. If you can say it, it's probably good. If you can't, it's definitely not. I certainly agree that sighing or purring 100+ words is something worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records. A smaller sentence is doable.

Tip 8 – Avoid Ambiguous Adjectives

"Don’t write things that cannot happen. For example, a door cannot swing on quiet or noisy hinges." This echoes #2, with which I agree. An exception is personification. Sure, quiet or noisy hinges can't swing. What if the hinges seemed to act of their own accord, to use a hackneyed phrase? It can happen.

Tip 9 – Perfect your Grammar and Punctuation

I agree with Jo completely.

Bonus Tip – Be consistent!

Yes, but no. Here's one of Jo's thoughts: "If character has to work late, and has a burdening amount of stress to deal with, don’t have her reclining minutes later, eating bonbons and sipping champagne. Unless there is a good reason or something has changed in the scenario, be consistent." What if the character is dying for a chance to relax before staying at work for the big night?

Although I love consistency in general, having a character act inconsistently can either take him/her out of his/her comfort zone or establish a sense of humanity. The ancient idea that fictional characters must act consistently is often either stretched beyond its natural boundary or adhered to so dogmatically that characters end up being far less realistic than real people. People act out of character all the time. I love seeing it in fiction, as it's a signal the author has developed a real person rather than punched out an archetype. Then, I'm a bigger fan of The Sound and the Fury than The Hunger Games...

On a final note, enjoy your writing, but please remember that creative licence doesn’t extend beyond the realm of reality unless you are writing fantasy.
I do like dragons ….

So do I! More on dragons in the coming days from me.

I understand this note wasn't about dragons, but I love dragons so I'm making it about them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Toronto Raccoon in the TTC's Court

Yesterday, a raccoon was spotted riding the TTC subway at Spadina station. That's adorable to begin with, but I especially like Carl Fernandez's tweet, linked in that story, that "Raccoon gets free metro pass!" Some might say raccoons should pay like the rest of us; others may adopt a social justice model saying that raccoons should receive free Metropasses due to their uniformly low income. (As opposed to residents of Raccoon Island, Ohio, who enjoy average household incomes a little above the US national average.) A likely better comparison is the lack of charge for dogs and cats accompanying their owners.

Raccoon rights are not as much of a laugher as you might think. Last year, a Quebec couple fought to keep a raccoon as a pet despite pleas from local wildlife authorities to surrender the animal. A summer 2014 poll suggested that most Torontonians want at least some raccoons euthanized, whereas more recent statements from mayor John Tory have ruled out the cull. In that same article, Tory discusses the use of birth control pills for raccoons. Human women, of course, have only had the pill available to them since 1960. According to that article, in referencing Ancient Egyptian birth control methods, "it turns out fermented acacia really does have a spermicidal effect." Maybe raccoons are best suited to an herbal method?

No matter what your stance is on raccoons riding the subway for free, you have to admit it's putting a smile on the face of the woman in the green Canada Goose jacket. Its purse inspection skills may rival those of the police.

(picture from CTV News)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


It's been a while since I've published short fiction. I swear there's a good reason. Nonetheless, here's a new short story - "Relinquishment", published on the Quora blog Three Minute Stories.

It's a 519-word story about someone who finds that one of the toughest decisions of her life may not be hers at all.

Fun fact: I originally wrote it on August 14, 2011. I feel like this is one of my Dubliners.

Note this doesn't appear on my usual Smashwords platform. More will be added to that at some point in 2016.