September 2009

Dear Lily

by Suw on September 30, 2009

Dan Bull’s Dear Lily, [an open letter to Lily Allen]:

Best bit of activism I’ve seen all year!

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Reading aloud

by Suw on September 23, 2009

I have always loved to read aloud. (I think it’s something to do with loving the sound of my own voice. Arf.) When I met Kevin, I was delighted to find out that he likes reading aloud too, so we frequently read to each other before we go to sleep. I love it. It’s a great way to relax before nodding off.

But reading aloud (and listening) also changes one’s relationship with a book. I can skim a tedious book when I’m reading silently, but reading aloud forces each word into the spotlight. For some books, that’s a wonderful thing. For others it’s the worst thing you can do to them.

Two of my favourite authors are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Both of them write books that are a joy to read aloud. Sentences flow off the tongue. Scenes hold your attention. Chapters leave you wanting more.

Reading aloud takes a longer than reading in my head, so I have a lot more time to consider what I’m reading. When you’re reading a good book aloud you can savour the atmosphere for longer. When you’re reading a bad book aloud, every flaw is like a slap to the face with a wet haddock. You can’t escape tedious, run-on sentences because you have to say every damn word in them. Unpronounceable names trip you up and constantly repeated tropes become exasperating.

Some of the worst books I’ve ever read have been probably made worse by the fact that I read them aloud. Neal Stephenson’s Cobweb, written with Frederick George, gets the medal for Worst Book Ever. It is tedious in the extreme with excruciatingly long sentences and scenes that just don’t make sense. Kevin and I didn’t even make it to the end of the book. The killer was a scene in which the main protagonist was playing American football, running with the ball down the field whilst having a flashback which not only went on for so long you forgot it was a flashback, but also revealed the death of a key character. In a flashback. Honestly.

As we progressed through the book it became clear that there were two voices. I would hazard a guess and say that the really, awfully dreadful bits were written by George, with the more interesting pacey stuff written by Stephenson (they seemed more like the other books of his I’ve read). But as we read, I became decreasingly interested in finding out what happened next and it got to the point where I was actively avoiding reading. We called time-of-death at page 280.

The worse series of books I’ve read aloud were – and god, I know you’re going to hammer me in the comments for this – His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The first, The Golden Compass, was ok, but I wasn’t thrilled by it. As the books went on, though, I found it harder and harder to read them out. Again, clumsy writing that tripped your tongue and multi-clause sentences frequently forced me to reread bits, often more than once, until I could figure out where the stresses were and what the hell he was trying to say.

Add to that characters I found it hard to sympathise with, affected speech that was very distracting and a level of preaching not seen since the last time I was (oh the irony) in church and you have a deeply unsatisfying read. Pullman’s pomposity is second to none and I found, at times, the only way to get through it was to put on a silly voice. Or take a break and read something else.

We did at least finish His Dark Materials, even if we only finished the third book through an monumental effort of will. Having invested so much time in the other two, I wanted to know how things ended. Annoyingly, it turns out. I just pray that they don’t try to turn the whole trilogy into films.

I don’t think either Cobweb or His Dark Materials would have felt so bad if we weren’t reading them out aloud. I probably would have just speed-read them and not bothered about missing any minor details. They would have remained bad books, but they wouldn’t have been such painfully bad experiences.

Just for contrast, we went straight from Pullman to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. And boy, what a contrast. It was so easy to read that often we’d find we’d been reading for an hour or more. This was “Oops, you do realise it’s 1am?” territory – a place I’ve only ever been on my own, never with another coming along for the ride. The Graveyard Book is a lyrical, joyful read. The words follow one another naturally and easily. And it was over far, far too soon.

All this to say… no matter how long it takes, no matter how raw your voice gets in the process, read your book aloud before you publish it. It’s a really great way to get a different perspective on what you’ve written and to, quite literally, stumble over problematic phrasings. Reading your book aloud should be a fabulous experience, not purgatory.

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Finally spotting the blindingly obvious

by Suw on September 22, 2009

Sometimes, I get stuck on projects and have no idea why. Then, like a log jam suddenly freeing up, I have an idea that sets everything flowing again.

I’ve been stuck fast on Revenge of the Books of Hay for longer than makes me happy, mainly because I hit a structural problem that my brain just couldn’t quite wrap itself around. I felt as if I had more backstory than story and the backstory also had a slightly different tone that make it feel as if the backstory and the story were really two different stories.

Talk about missing the blindingly obvious. If it feels as if there are two stories… then why not just split the thing in two and write them as separate, but related, stories? Not exactly rocket science.

Thinking about it a little bit more, though, I realised there are at least five related stories, possibly more. Having split them out, I now have 13k words in the first story, 7.5k of the second, 1.5k of the third, and 2.5k of the fourth and an idea for the fifth. And I’m very excited about actually working on the stories like this. It feels right.

So that’s good, that’s a problem surmounted. I’ll now focus solely on the first story, which I want to rewrite and get into Book Oven within the next couple of months. It needs quite an overhaul, I think, as it lacks structure, but I am sure that I can sort it out now that it has clearer boundaries.

The other aspect to this is that I want to publish each short story as a stand-alone project. Now, i could do it just as a PDF, but I rather like the look of what Robin Sloan is doing with his novella project. Robin is using Kickstarter to gather enough backers for him to be able to print up his 30k word novella, which he’s aiming to finish by 31 October. (If you haven’t read Robin’s short story, Mr Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store, you really should.)

I’ve thought before about using a service such as Kickstarter, Pledgie, ChipIn, or Fundable as a way to fund various projects that I had in mind. I thought about trying to fund research into the way people use Welsh on the web, or to explore the attitudes and experiences of women in tech. But, as per my earlier post, I’d have to confess that those are Yetis. I never did them not because they aren’t good ideas, or that the community might not see enough value in them to pay for me to do them, but because my heart wasn’t really in it. Deep down, I knew they were Yetis.

My heart is in this though! I love the idea of doing a small, artisanal book that would be a gorgeous thing, the sort of thing you’d really want to have in your house. In fact, I’d do a matching set, with a new book for each story. Like Robin, I’d have different levels of support, so you could spend as much or as little as you wanted. Robin’s packages go like this:

Pledge $3 or more
DIGITAL PACK. Get a PDF copy of the book and follow along with behind-the-scenes updates.

Pledge $11 or more
PHYSICAL PACK. All of the above, plus get a physical copy of the book. (The more people who choose this level or higher, the better the book is for everybody!)

Pledge $19 or more
SINCERITY PACK. All of the above, plus your book is signed, and it comes with a little surprise.

Pledge $29 or more
PATRON PACK. All of the above, plus your name (or secret code-name) is listed in the acknowledgments.

Pledge $39 or more
SUPER OCCULT VALUE PACK. All of the above, plus get three more copies of the book (for a total of four), so you can give one to a friend, donate one to the library, leave one in a coffee shop with a line of hexadecimal code scribbled across the title page…

At the moment, the Sincerity Pack is the most popular. Robin has managed to raise more than double his initial goal of $3,500 with the pledge currently sitting at $8,714 from 334 backers. The pledge closes on November 1st, if you’re interested in supporting him.

Taking a step like this is a big motivation to write the very best story you can. An e-book can be quietly updated with amendments and corrections, so there’s always that nagging sense that you can go back and fix things if need be, but a book is forever. And a gorgeous book demands the very best words to go in it.

All I need to know now is how much it will cost to do a lovely artisanal little book and just how artisanal I can get whilst keeping the price reasonable. Any printers out there want to help me out with answering those questions?

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Book Oven update

by Suw on September 18, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned Book Oven, the publishing start-up that I have been working with, but great progress has been made behind the scenes. We have removed the need for an invitation, for one, so you can now just pop along to and sign up without any sort of code or other invitation shenanigans. Yay for open doors!

We’ve also addressed something that was really bugging me: you can now invite someone directly to your project. This makes creating your team so much easier. You just go to your project, click on “Invite to Project”, then “Invite someone new to Book Oven”. If your new collaborator accepts they will automatically become a member of your project team. Nifty!

Now those of you who have been with Book Oven from the early days may not have noticed that we had to restrict new project uploads for a bit so that we could deal with some bugs. Those restrictions have now been lifted, so anyone can create a project and upload their content. This means you can take full advantage of Bite-Size Edits to get your stuff proofread as well as enjoy our new(-ish) paragraph-by-paragraph annotations.

Annotations are, by the way, fab. If you go to your project and click on a chapter heading, you’re taken to a reader view which will allow you to leave comments on each paragraph. This is great for leaving feedback more complex than “You’ve spelt ‘misspell’ wrong”. Anyone who can read your project can annotate it, so you have more opportunities to gather feedback from your readers.

We’ve got a new Browse & Read page, where you can see what public projects have been uploaded and, gosh golly, you can read them too! You can tag projects, so if you want to search for some “crime, fantasy, tentacle porn”-tagged fiction, you can. We can’t promise you’ll find any though. If you do stumble across a project you like, you can choose to Bite-Size Edit it, and it alone, from the project page (provided it has been sent to Bite-Size Edits, that is).

As if that wasn’t enough, we’ve created a simple messaging system that allows you to send notes to your contacts and project teams. It’s very basic at the moment, but you can rest assured that we have Great Plans Afoot for making the social aspects of Book Oven a lot more sophisticated.

This new release is a major update with lots of really good new (or improved) functionality. We’re still in alpha, of course, so there are bound to be bugs and things that don’t work as expected. In that case, you can pop along to our User Voice feedback page, which now has single-sign on so you don’t need to a separate log-in, to let us know what’s gone wrong and what features you’d like.

I have to say that I’m really proud of all the work that the Book Oven team has done whilst I’ve been busy elsewhere. They’ve done sterling work and it makes me eager to finish my draft of the Book of Hay so I can really start using Book Oven with intent!

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Yeti shaving and the project kill file

by Suw on September 16, 2009

You know about yak shaving, right? All those countless little tasks you tell yourself you have to do before you can get started on the thing you really need/want to do?

“Oh, I would start writing my new book but I need to buy a nice pen and a notebook first, and then I need to rearrange my workspace and do some filing and buy those books that are going to help me with my research… then, once all those things are done, then I can start writing.”

I just realised today that I’ve spend much of the last, oh, several years Yeti shaving. Yetis are the really enormous projects that you embark on because they make the yak so small and insignificant that it hardly seems worth thinking about, let alone shaving. Yetis, when prepared for shaving, drive out all thoughts of yaks because they just take up all the available space in your brain. Even the bits usually filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Yetis put off the act of putting off doing the thing you need/want to do. Yetis are yaks to the power of ow-my-brain-hurts.

My life is infested with Yetis. They have been creeping quietly up on me for years and I didn’t even notice. They’re so big – and some of them are very cuddly with soft fur that I can bury my face in – I could barely comprehend them. I couldn’t see them for what they were.

I’ve been thinking for some time now – about two years, I think, but it’s hard to know – about the direction I want my life to go in. I knew then and still know now exactly what I want, but I was so overwhelmed with Yetis that I didn’t know how to even begin to start moving in the right direction. There was always a Yeti in the way, blocking the path.

Some of those Yetis were important. Some of them were enjoyable. Some of them were necessary. All of them were used by my subconscious as reasons to not attempt to make progress.

Well, I’ve had it with Yetis. I’m putting them in my project kill file. My intention over the next few weeks is to assess every project that I’ve started, expressed an interest in, or got in the pipeline. Even projects that are just a twinkle in my mind’s eye. All of them will be dragged out into the harsh sunlight of the summer we never had and examined, head to foot. All of them will have to answer this fundamental question:

Does this project help me become an author? Yes/No.

Anything that can’t answer Yes goes in the kill file. Everything that can’t answer Yes goes in the kill file. Everything.

This means I am going to have to shut down some projects. I’m going to have to disappoint and let down some people. And for that I am truly, truly sorry. It’s not that I don’t love the project, love the idea and desperately with all my heart want to see if through. It’s that I just don’t have a long enough life-span to do everything I want to do and I’ve spent too much of it trying to do everything, and thus actually doing very little. It pains me that I am going to kill off half-finished projects. But they have to go.

Someone once said that if a writer isn’t writing, it’s because she isn’t reading. I’d like to amend that to:

If a writer isn’t writing, it’s because she hasn’t got her arse in the seat and isn’t tapping away at the keyboard.

In order to do that, I need to have enough mental space to daydream, to work through plot points and character arcs, to read and to write and to edit. So bye-bye Yetis. It’s been… hard work. But trust me, I’ll be better off without you in my life.

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New directions in time for Christmas

by Suw on September 12, 2009

I’ve had a little time lately to have a play with some of my jewellery-making supplies and whip up a few more items for my shop on Folksy. I thought I might try something a little different to my normal line, so I did a few sets of earrings and then some necklaces that use natural seed pearls.

I love real pearls and sometimes I wonder if I should go a bit more up-market and use real pearls and sterling silver clasps. I’m not sure if using the faux pearls and plated fixings put people off, but at the same time the cost of buying real pearls and sterling silver fixings up front, not knowing if you are going to sell the item, is quite a risk. But if people are more interested in the real thing, then I’d be more than happy to do it.

This necklace uses the seed pearls and the pendent is a lovely glass, foil-centred heart:


This one also uses the real pearls, along with a gorgeous orangey-red crystal pendant:


After that, I ran out of real pearls, so I used some 3mm glass pearls and a Swarovski crystal heart:


Now for a few earrings! These are all glass pearls and, where used, Swarovski crystals. Again, these are silver plate fixings, but sterling silver can always be arranged.





Those aren’t all of the earrings, but they give you a sense of the main styles that I’ve been playing with.

Hopefully we’ll see an increase in sales in the run-up to Christmas. This year has been not so great for sales because of the recession (almost everyone on Folksy has had the same problem), but I’m hoping for an uptick.

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