Isolation Update & Quarantine Activities

I surprisingly have not posted in a while despite being cooped up during these crazy times. I am officially working from home for at least the next several weeks and I thought I’d share a bit about how I keep myself entertained.

20200324_095258.jpgSince I am still working, the only additional time I now have for other interests is taken from my lunch hour and the lack of commute time. I don’t really miss commuting to work (even though I did turn that into a positive chore by using the time to listen to audiobooks or Ted Talks). My wife and I are staying home as much as possible and everything has been going great. She recently convinced me to shave my beard since she has never seen me clean-shaven. We are both impatiently waiting for it grow back. The cats are loving having us home all the time. Honestly, I think I am the new favorite piece of cat-furniture.

To be honest, for good or bad, my lifestyle has not changed much since locking myself away. I miss hanging out with friends, seeing my family, going to movies or out to eat, and a bunch of other things of course, but life goes on.

 

So what have I been doing to stay sane/entertained?

Well, I’m continuing to read a lot. My book-buying habits that border on tsundoku are proving most beneficial during isolation. I have plenty that have been in my TBR pile for a long time and I currently don’t have the option to go buy more books so I can focus on the books I have and need to read.

Tsundoku

Though I am working on the books I own, it is nice knowing I can still remotely access books from my local library. I have not done so yet. However, this does not mean you can’t. I use the Libby app which lets you access audiobooks and e-books. So if you are staying in and need a new read, see if your local library can be accessed via Libby or a related resource. My uncle is sending me a copy of Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, so that will show up in a few days and be added to my large stack of books.

I have finally gotten around to editing this blog. At least, all of my stories and book recommendations. I am about 3/4 through this process and have a little less than half of the stories remaining. Anything titled A-R has been completed. I hope to finish the rest this week. Feel free to peruse what I have. Hopefully my stories can entertain you for a little while. All of the book recommendations are done and (hopefully) no longer have minor typos. I have also re-assigned them for easier access and better “related post” suggestions. Once I finish editing my blog content, I plan to focus more time on actually writing some new stories and working on my book. I still hope to have a completed manuscript by my next birthday (February).

Outside of writing and books, I have started a replay of one of my favorite videogames; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I haven’t found a game that a lot of my friends want to play online, but I still speak with them every so often when we are online at the same time.

I’ve been watching some shows. I still watch a show every Monday with a friend. We are just watching remotely via video. My wife and I plan to watch the second season of Altered Carbon at some point. We have plenty of options when it comes to movies and television. I plan to take more courses on MasterClass, which is having a two-for-one sale on their all-access pass. Find a friend and check it out if you’re interested.

We have been cooking a lot more. This is great because I am eating a lot less fast-food, take-out, and larger meals. I doubt I’ll lose any weight since I cannot go to the gym during this time and I still like to eat cookies or ice cream every so often, but my cooking skills now have their time to shine and I can be creative with what I make. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m not a bad cook. Yes, I know I can workout at home, but I know I won’t. However, I will likely do some yard-work as the weather finally warms up.

Luckily, technology has, for good or bad, made things much easier to find entertainment or connect with friends during these weird times. Work still takes up a decent amount of time, but I’m lucky that I still have a job and can work remotely.

I hope you are safe and well, and responsibly avoiding unnecessary public interactions. I hope we can all return to a form of normal when this all passes and I hope that it passes before too long. For now, we will just have to do what we can to minimize risk and look out for each other. Remember to breathe and know this too shall pass. I think this whole thing is helping us realize what is important, and hopefully we can make positive changes when this all ends.

Now, what have you been doing to keep yourself busy? Do you now have more time than you did before? If so, what cool things have you been doing (or what have you been doing instead of the cool thing you still plan to do)? I’d love to hear what you have been up to.

5 Books About Writing

I am a writer and therefore will every so often pick up a book about the craft. Below is a list of books about writing that I have read over the past several years that I found informative, inspiring, and insightful. I could give entire lectures about writing and all the different things I’ve learned through a formal education and my own individual studies, but I’ll save that for the classroom. For now, I hope you consider these books if you are a writer, if you like interesting things, or if you simply like any of these authors in particular as most of the books listed include biographical content. This is not surprising because writing is a very personal thing and everyone has their own approach and methods, which is why I picked up bits and pieces from most of these books to build upon my own habits.

About WritingThe newest book on the list is About Writing: A Field Guide For Aspiring Authors by Gareth L. Powell. This little pocket book is filled with insights about everything from beginning the writing process to how to build a following and market your published book. It has a bunch of useful tips about social media, outlining a novel, tips for attending conferences or conventions, and overall how to be a present-day author. Gareth is a powerhouse of positive energy and I highly suggest you follow him on Twitter for daily inspiration. I also recommend keeping this book on hand to pick up from time to time and review whatever part of the writing journey you are currently on. One thing I’ve taken into my own practice is Gareth’s suggestion about how to outline a novel. I may end up tweaking it a bit to better suit my needs, but it is proving immensely useful so far.

On WritingThe second book is the first book on the craft of writing I ever read and the first book I had read by this author. The book in question is one of the most popular: On Writing by Stephen King. I picked this one up shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree and felt the need to keep educating myself on the craft. Admittedly, it has been a minute since I’ve read this book, but I do remember a lot from it. First, this book is split basically into two parts. One half is focused on King himself giving some background to his journey as a writer and the other half is about the craft. Both are incredibly interesting and worth your time. One thing I have always kept with me from this book is King’s habit of always having a book on hand no matter where you are. I’m not sure why this particular thought stuck with me, but he was right that you should always keep a book on hand because you can get reading in with all the “in between” time we have in life. Waiting in line for coffee? Read a few pages. At the doctor? Read some more. Nowadays you can do this with your pocket computer if you prefer an ebook and have the willpower to stay off social media. Physical books don’t have distracting apps. I think I may need to give it another read soon since I have grown a lot as a writer and a person since I last read it.

Elements of StyleNext is another “classic” on the craft and another small, pocket-sized book. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This is a craft book specific to the actual grammar and syntax and overall use of language and it is useful for writing in general and not just creative writing. It is a great book that can help you bolster your writing and form good habits, but like all the others, it isn’t a rule book. It may be the closest thing to one, but writing is again personal and you have your own style. This is simply one of the better resources to help you stay away from rookie mistakes and improve your prose. I think King mentions this book in his own and had some comments about Strunk and White’s thoughts about adverbs.

Zen and the Art of WritingThis next book I happened to discover while perusing the shelves of my local library. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This book was such a fun find. I was surprised to find so many great essays about writing that were simply inspirational. I plan to get a copy of my own to have on hand because you can pick this book up and read any essay and get that spark to start a story or continue whatever you are working on. He has such a great way of reminding you what a joy and privilege it is to write. Any self-doubt will disappear as you read. He definitely puts the zest and gusto into his thoughts about the craft. Bradbury wrote one thousand words every day since he was a kid. I’m hoping I can build a habit like his, to write every day so I am always progressing toward my goal of finishing a novel or short story. I’m still working on this though. I don’t need a thousand words. For now, any amount will do. I just need to build the good habit.

ReflectionsReflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is another collection of essays. This collection contains a large amount of biographical content about Diana and several essays repeat the same small tidbits about her life as they were written over the course of her career. She led a very interesting life and had some strange things happen to her. You’d almost think she were truly a witch. A good-natured one though. Did you know she had C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as professors? It does contain a lot of practical advice about writing, the market, agents, editors, and publishers. However, a lot of what she is describing is from a few decades ago and much has changed since then. I’ve no doubt some of the changes were due to her influence. Many things haven’t changed much at all unfortunately. The literary landscape may have changed since the writing of the essays, but she has plenty of relevant information in this book, especially about writing for younger audiences.

I have many more books on the craft I still want to read and many more I’m sure I will discover in the future. The next on my list I already have lined up and plan to start soon. Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. I also want to read Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood. If you have a book about the craft of writing that you like, let me know with a comment. I’d love to find more. Perhaps I’ll write another list about another set of books on writing. For now, I’m going to get back to work by sticking with Rule #1 from Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules for writing which is simply: Write.

8 Rules of Writing_Neil Gaiman

My First AWP Conference Experience

This past week I attended my first writing conference. The AWP Conference was held in San Antonio this year (AWP stands for Association of Writers & Writing Programs). There was a concern about travel and a confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus in/near the city just before the conference was set to begin. This ended up causing a lot of people to withdraw from the conference. It was my first time, so I did not know quite what to expect. Many of the panels I wanted to attend ended up being canceled. There were plenty that weren’t and the cancellations actually allowed me to attend the book fair more often (which I am really glad I did). Before I vomit my entire experience onto the page, I’m going to give it a bit of structure.

I was hesitant to attend the conference. Not so much because of the virus though (which has become a large concern). I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure if I really belonged with this particular group of people. But how could I not be sure I’d fit in with a bunch of writers? I am a writer. Well, even within the world of writing there are cliques and niche areas and different conferences for different types of writing. AWP consists, in my opinion, largely of academic writing, poetry, nonfiction, and reality based fiction, historical fiction, and pedagogy. I like to write a lot of speculative/science fiction and fantasy. Both of which still hold a stigma within the writing world despite becoming massively popular. So I wasn’t sure if I’d fit in with this particular crowd. I’m happy to say that I was wrong…mostly. There was very little at the conference specifically toward genre fiction, but I was surrounded by writers. Many of whom loved science fiction. Most did not write it themselves, but they appreciated it. I mainly wanted to know what it was like being in a building with thousands of other writers. I met many cool people and ran into a few former professors of mine. Admittedly, I did have a second reservation about going to this conference. Part of not knowing what to expect included not being sure if there would be a lot of academic snobbery or large egos. There were a few, but there were many more down-to-earth people who enjoyed all different areas of writing and entertainment. It’s really a great crowd of people.

Being my first time, I did over-prepare a bit. I built a schedule of events that had me in panels all day long. There were so many that it was hard to just pick one for each time slot. I really enjoyed most of the ones I did attend. There were a few that were canceled and I knew about ahead of time, which let me go to a second-choice panel, while others were canceled without notice. But again, this let me attend the book fair which I will talk about shortly. What I didn’t realize when making my schedule, was that most seasoned attendees only go to maybe three panels per day instead of a full five. It can be difficult and tiring attending so many but I wanted the full experience. The panel topics ranged from starting a project to teaching writing to what to do once publishing your book and everything in between.

The off-site events that happen in the evening are often sponsored/hosted by literary magazines or writing programs and often include a reading of some sort. These are really fun, relaxed events and great ways to meet new people. I highly recommend them even if you end up burning the midnight oil. The conference is three days and you need to make the most of the entire experience. My last day, Saturday, I attended an event described as simply “come have a drink and talk about books, no readings, etc.” and of course I was in. It was hosted by the Ashland MFA program and I met many of the current and prior students who are a fantastic group of people. This ended up being one of the highlights of my trip.

The book fair. The AWP book fair is an incredible experience. From talking with people there, I came to realize that this particular conference was about 2/3 of the previous year and many people talked about how it was much more relaxed and friendly. Apparently things can get a little overcrowded and everyone was enjoying not being packed in the aisles and actually having time to have actual conversations instead of passing comments with attendees. The book fair holds a ton of literary journals from all over the country, writing programs, publishers and writing services (such as editors), among many others. I bought a set of metaphor dice which I thought was a super cool idea and I look forward to using them. Most journals and books are discounted from normal prices and you can get great deals on subscriptions as well as books. I met Ted O’Connell at a publisher’s booth that was selling his debut novel K. I’m looking forward to diving into it. I also met an upcoming historical fiction novelist, AJ Wells, who is currently finishing his masters degree in Alabama (I can’t remember which university, sorry AJ). Keep a look out for his work in the future. In a nutshell, the book fair is probably the best part of the conference and you can spend all day in just that area. There is a day pass for the book fair on Saturday only, so if the conference is held in a city near you, definitely hit up the book fair to see all the cool stuff. The pass is usually $5 and it is definitely worth it.

There is so much to talk about but at the same time it’s difficult to describe such an experience. I am glad I attended. I will be attending next year since it will be in Kansas City, which is not far from where I live. Next year will also give me a better idea of what a full-fledged conference looks like (hopefully). It was definitely a silver lining that it was a smaller conference for my first time, but I’m interested to see it in full force. Even though it was a great time and I was surrounded by fellow writers, I still felt a little out of place. I did go by myself and I think going with a friend would greatly improve the experience. Overall, I believe it was a good step for my introverted self to go. I would recommend any writers who have not gone to see what it’s about at least one time. At the very least, I was inspired to keep working on my writing and I look forward to the day I get my first book published.

Solaris

SolarisSolaris by Stanislaw Lem is strange to say the least. The premise is intriguing and I must admit I greatly enjoyed the first half of the book. The second half stalls a bit and gets a little abstract, but overall I think the book is interesting enough to recommend.

Written in 1961, it is a science fiction novel that takes place on a distant planet called Solaris, where the ocean covering nearly the entire surface is discovered to be a sentient life form. We follow a psychiatrist, Kris Kelvin, who travels to the station hovering in the planetary atmosphere. The story takes place in a distant future where humanity has thoroughly mastered space travel and the planet of Solaris is a still unknown entity. A rare, inexplicable puzzle still yet to be solved.

The book itself is an interesting thought experiment that imagines a planet-sized life-form while also delving into what it means to be human; physically and mentally. As I said, the first half really drew me in and made me want to discover how and why the events were taking place. Of course, I had to then finish the novel and the second half was good, don’t get me wrong, but it left me wanting a bit more.

This book has been adapted into film three times (1968, 1972, 2002) with the most recent staring George Clooney. I have not seen any of the adaptations, but I may check them out eventually. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a new adaptation especially since there are many elements that remind me of movies such as Sphere, Alien, or Sunshine. The premise is great enough that I don’t think Hollywood will leave it alone.

The book is approximately 200 pages so it is a fairly quick read. I first heard of this book from a student who was reading it for a class. I then saw it again mentioned in a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin who discussed a few other of Lem’s books which I do want to read. I think Lem has a good writing style and, from what I have read, he has interesting ideas that encompass psychological or philosophical ideas. This alone makes me interested in reading more of his work. It helps that he is able to frame the ideas around an interesting narrative.

Happy Reading.

All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot SeeAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was published in 2014 and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This was one of those books I had seen on bookshelves the year it came out and a few subsequent years where the title caught my interest but I never picked it up. Since it had caught my interest, once a colleague recommended it to me stating it was “the best book he had read last year,” I picked it. I finished it yesterday.

This book is beautifully written. Hands down, it is one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long time. The use of language alone is enough to recommend it, but the story is also compelling. Two young lives impacted by the eruption of war. A young girl, blind and led by her father as they flee their familiar home in Paris. A young boy, orphaned in a mining town and left to fend for his younger sister until his curiosity and aptitude with radio leads him into the German forces as the war progresses. Their lives are connected by invisible waves dancing in the air as their lives careen into the unknown. Despite the interesting characters, I found I was kept at arms length from really getting to know them. I think it was the formatting of the book that led to this. The book is over 500 pages long, but broken into chapters averaging three pages in length. The changes in perspective and the story spanning a decade made it seem more like watching a play than getting into the heads of the characters and experiencing their story alongside them. We are bystanders. Perhaps this is best considering the situations they are in, but I almost felt like I wanted more of a connection with them. The main characters at least.

Doerr definitely did his research. History, locations, technology, and even biological studies of specimens, everything is brought together to bring a rich experience. I think one thing that captured my attention was the descriptions of the radio. We all likely use radios every day, or phones, without knowing a single thing about how they actually work. We take it for granted and because of this I think Doerr is able to bring a magic to it within this novel. Of course, this was before television and the rapid growth of technology that we all have known nearly our entire lives.

Though this is a work of fiction, I think it does a great job of showing how the war changed the lives of the citizens of Europe. Outside of losing loved ones and friends, and living in uncertainty not knowing if they would eat each day, the story is a glimpse inside what it would have been like for both sides during the occupation of France and beyond. It also briefly shows how those changes influenced their lives after the war.

The story feeds off of, and in turn contributes to, the nostalgic time before the technology we know so well. Even though the conflicts of the second world war were horrendous and attribute to some of the worst things in the history of humanity, there is still a sense of simplicity during the first half of the recent century. This could easily be the distance of time between now and then. Daily hardships are also hardly mentioned in history lessons and it is impossible to know how life really was before our own experience.

Yes, the war is a topic many people don’t find interesting because of the terrible things that happen, but this book focuses on our two young characters. I can’t name either a protagonist or antagonist because this is not a story with plain right or wrong (despite us knowing much about the war itself and having our own sense of good and bad). This is a story about life, the wonders it contains, the difficulty of existence, and the choices we make. It is about survival and how to live after the danger passes. It demonstrates the fickleness of life and how unfortunate things happen to good people, and how good people can combat the ill-intentions of others.

I spoke with the colleague who recommended this book to me last week and told him I was about halfway through. He carefully told me that he thought the ending was “appropriate,” and now that I have finished the book I must agree with him. The ending is appropriate. I will leave you to take that as you will.

Happy Reading.