jessicasteiner: (Bad Writing Day)
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most of the podcasts I listen to are about writing, but some are nerdy, and others are about science and future prediction.

And all of them are staffed almost entirely by men. There's one female on Writing Excuses, and she's wonderful. Some of the podcasts I've listened to have had women who are on once in a while, but not reguarly. There is one writing podcast I know of which is run by a woman, and that's Mur Lafferty's I Should Be Writing.

To be honest, I listened to Mur's podcast once and it didn't grab me. I intend to get back to it and try again, because I know it's held up as one of the best of the genre, but right now I don't listen to it.

I'm not saying I don't like listening to males! But the nerd world is no longer as male-dominated as it once was. There are lots of female writers, female fans, and female scientists.

Where are they? It makes me sad.

Does anyone know of a science, nerd, or writing podcast that is done by women? I'd love to check them out.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
Everyone knows that a story needs to have conflict. In fact, every single scene in your story should have conflict. Conflict is the main point of a story, and if there's no conflict in a story, then there's no story.

But knowing that, if you're like me, then you have a hard time sometimes figuring what constitutes conflict.

Conflict isn't just about having a fight on every page. If your book is filled with scene after scene of people arguing with each other, it'll get boring. Conflict is about your character overcoming an obstacle in their path.

Conflict is when a rainstorm stands between a lover and their date, and they don't have an umbrella.

Conflict is when a character desperately needs money to achieve their goal, but doesn't know where to get any.

Conflict is when a character is tempted to do something they know is wrong, but it'll help them to accomplish something great.

Conflict can be internal or external. It can be with other characters, or with natural forces, or with their own conscience.

A good shoot-em-up battle is fun, too.




Listen to my interview on Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing! I talk mostly about Mortis Unbound, and Star Trek.
jessicasteiner: (Fangirl Moment)
I was going to write about something else today, but then I listened to the latest Writing Excuses episode and I felt I had to comment on it.

Writing Excuses is a fabulous podcast about writing that I have talked about before. Generally the episodes are short and snappy, it's full of great and useful tips for aspiring writers, and the authors are all experienced and talented. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in becoming a professional author. It's not only enjoyable to listen to, but useful.

In Season 8 Episode 8 the regular hosts, as well as Dan's brother Rob Wells, talk about their personal experiences with mental illness and the general pervasiveness of mental illness amongst creative people generally, and writers in particular. Oddly, it's an upbeat and hopeful 'cast, not depressing in the least.

I personally have not suffered from depression, anxiety, or self-harm, or any other mental illness, but my wife is clinically depressed and so are many of my friends. I also deal with people who suffer from mental illness every day at work. I know very well the stigma that exists in our society, as well as how difficult it is for people to face their own condition and to get useful help.

The other day I played a game called Depression Quest, which I think who is not currently working through their own depression (it can be very triggering to people who are untreated and suffering from depression at the moment) should play immediately. It's a game created in order to help people who don't have depression to understand what it's like for people who suffer from this condition. Having spoken to other people who played it, it seems to accord well with people's experiences, and to really validate the experiences of people who have dealt with depression.

We all need to understand that anyone can get a mental illness, just like how anyone can get cancer. It doesn't make someone weak, or mean that they are a bad person. It doesn't mean that they are dangerous. Any person you know could be suffering silently, afraid to tell people or reach out for help because they fear the possible reaction. This only causes the problems to get worse.

I think it's a very courageous thing that they did in this podcast, talking about their experiences openly and without shame, and I salute them. Thank you.

Also, I am very curious about these standing desks they talk about. I have a really hard time integrating my writing time with having a full time job (as I was mentioning in my last post) and incorporating exercise just seems almost impossible. Yet I know my own mood and energy are hugely improved if I exercise, and that has a positive cascade effect everywhere else. Ugh.

Maybe I should suck it up and try dictation while I walk around or something. I'm sure I'll just feel self-conscious or what I write will be terrible, but I've never actually tried it.
jessicasteiner: (I Write Therefore I Am)
Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the last two months have been pretty terrible for my writing productivity, and my blog productivity.

Things I've accomplished:

1. A huge amount of lawyering work, making no dent in the ever-rising pile on my desk in my office.

2. My very first multi-day Supreme Court trial. Which was as stressful as you might expect. Which is extremely. I didn't get any writing done for the week before, or the actual week of, the trial.

3. Getting so deathly ill from the flu, that I discovered the downside of working with my wife is when she gets even sicker than I am, and then there's no one healthy to work. Especially since I had that trial I mentioned. Remember the ever-rising pile? Yeah.

Thankfully, my Mom flew back from Arizona and worked while Miko recovered and I worked a trial.

Counteracting the guilt is a few facts:

1. I am only 3 chapters from the end of the first draft of Dale Shephard and the Bug Aliens from Outer Space. This is definitely the fastest I've finished a novel. I normally wind up taking months off at a time, which makes it take a long, long time. But I started this novel in November, and now I expect to get it done in early March.

2. Soon (probably this week), I will be doing an interview about Mortis Unbound at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, one of my favourite writing podcasts. I'll announce and link when it happens! I'm very excited and slightly nervous.

3. I started editing OtherWhere, my technothriller murder mystery about an MMORPG. And it doesn't suck so far. Also exciting.

I really hope March is less crazy than February, January, and heck, December were.
jessicasteiner: (Default)
I'm finished the bar exam! And so now you may have a review. I'm hoping to post a little more regularly from now on, since I've been released from the chains of pre-lawyer servitude, as a friend of mine put it.

As I was studying, I was listening to a podiobook by Travis Heermann named Heart of the Ronin. I found the podcast on iTunes, but you can also find it here on his website, and I just finished it yesterday. The book is currently out in hardcover as well.

Heart of the Ronin is a historical fantasy novel set in 13th century Japan. It follows the story of a young ronin - a masterless samurai - named Kenishi as he seeks his fortune, battles an oni, and falls in love with a beautiful princess. There is political intrigue, starcrossed love, and a myriad of the amazing and unusual creatures that populate Japanese lore. It is the first of a series, and the second book, Sword of the Ronin, is yet to be released.

Considering this is a podcast done privately by the author and not by an audiobook publishing house or something of that nature, it's quite professionally done. The audio is clear, the music is appropriate, and the book is divided into good bite-sized chunks that are easy to manage and generally end on a cliffhanger that leave you wanting more. Danielle Steen does an excellent job of the voice acting - better than some professionally-done books, actually. Far better than some.

The book itself is a very good first novel. I've always been fascinated by Japanese culture, and I can tell that Travis did a lot of research into the culture and life in Japan at that time, as well as the mythical creatures that populate his world. It's interesting to read a book by an American set in Japan, particularly one that pays homage to their beautiful and exotic culture, without screwing it up.

The book grabbed me quickly and I found it an easy read, with exciting battle scenes, a compelling and tragic love story, and interesting characters and plot. The action slowed a few times, and as someone familiar with Japanese folklore, I could occasionally predict what was going to happen with reasonable accuracy. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, since it didn't tie up all of the loose ends. It didn't just leave things open for a sequel, but made that sequel mandatory - on the other hand, that guarantees that I'll be reading Sword when it comes out.

Kenishi is an engaging main character with a lot of sympathetic, good qualities, without being devoid of flaws. The book is enjoyable without being fluffy - there are definitely some harsh themes and gruesome deaths. I also liked that the female characters were given good treatment. The princess in particular is strong both physically and mentally, yet doesn't cross the line into becoming unbelievable for her time period and culture. I think Travis walks the line carefully between turning her into a Mary Sue and making her a strong female, and does so with reasonable success.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I would definitely recommend Heart of the Ronin to anyone who enjoys samurai, fantasy, or historical au fiction, or who is curious or fascinated by Japanese culture.


If you have any podcasts or audiobooks that you think I would enjoy and which you would like me to review for my blog, please send me an email with a link to jessicabronstein@gmail.com
jessicasteiner: (Fangirl Moment)
I've been meaning to do this review for a while, and as there's some timeliness to this, I'm buckling down to get it done today. Apologies if it's a little shorter than my usual offerings - I write the bar exam in a little over a week!

Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing is a fun little podcast that focuses specifically on the science fiction genre. Generally the episodes involve an interview with an author or other professional in the field, as well as some topical discussion.

Discussion is generally interesting and current, focusing on good topics, though sometimes I feel like confining their discussion to science fiction is a bit limiting. Still, it's nice to see discussion focused on sci fi, since fantasy tends to overshadow this genre quite often these days. Science fiction was definitely my first love, so I appreciate listening to people who share my interest in the greats like Isaac Asimov.

The interviews are professionally executed and they tend to ask good, thought-provoking questions that generate interesting discussion. The guests are often new writers that I haven't heard of before, so it's great to get an introduction to their work.

Moving into the reason why I've chosen to take some time out from my studying schedule to write this review, there are two reasons.

Firstly, and most time-sensitive, AISFP is running the Summer of Sci Fi Contest, along with two other podcasts. It's a trivia contest, and is easy to do and a lot of fun, and would constitute a great introduction to three podcasts, including this one. If you win, you get free books!

The deadline for the contest is July 22nd, so I highly recommend clicking the link at the beginning of this review to get all the info. I've already entered, though, so probably you're not going to win :|

(It's a random drawing, ignore me and enter)

The second reason is that AISFP is doing a funds drive this summer to replace some equipment and assist with the con circuit so they can do more interviews. I'd love to see this podcast continue and continue to get better, so please listen and if you like what you hear as much as I do, please go ahead and donate. It's a worthy cause, in my opinion.

If you like science fiction, I hope you give them a listen.
jessicasteiner: (Constructive Criticism)
I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast Writing Excuses, and it sparked a lot of thoughts that I wanted to write about. The topic was "Episode 6-1: Can Creativity be Taught?", and I thought that by and large I agreed with what they said, but I have my own thoughts to share.

First of all, I have a strong belief that all people are creative. People may not think they are creative, either because they've mis-defined creativity, or because of some other reason. But I don't think it's possible to be a human being and not be creative.

Despite what many people seem to think, creativity is not correlated with intelligence. For example, my material grandmother began showing signs of Alzheimer's Disease the year before I was born. By the time I was old enough to retain memories of her, she was pretty far gone and incapable of a lot of simple tasks. Yet the first, and strongest, memory I have of her is helping her with her rug hooking.

She would ask me for certain colours of yarn and I would pull them out of the package and give them to her, and she would place them on the weave. The rugs she created during this period are strange, abstract, geometric, and beautiful. There are flaws to them, where she failed to make a circle perfectly round, for example. But the creativity of them is self-evident. They are not merely bits of yarn placed randomly. They are not quite like anything created by any other artist, and isn't that the essence of creativity?

I think that many people believe that they are not creative because they can't imagine themselves succeeding in the particular creative area they're thinking about. For example, a person who has never written a story, and rarely reads, and hasn't really applied themselves to coming up with story ideas, but has a strong belief that writers are very creative and associates creativity with the ability to come up with great story ideas, would say they were not creative.

In the Writing Excuses episode, the boys seemed to confine their definition of creativity to exactly this fallacious view. They stated they intended to talk about teaching creativity, then talked about teaching people to write and come up with story ideas.

Now, it is a writing podcast, so discussing how to increase one's creativity with the written word is definitely a place they should have gone. And to be fair, Howard did mention cooking as a creative pursuit and basically made the point I'm making now. But, it was a bit of an afterthought and rather subtle. I would have liked to see them take a more sensitive approach.

I think if they wanted to really help people who thought they were not creative, they would have made this point first, to help their listeners to realize they are, in fact creative. Once a person realizes that they sew, or cook, or solve problems every day at work, perhaps they can more easily accept that they can take this skill and apply it to other pursuits.

But I don't want to rag on them. It was a good episode. I just want to go a bit deeper.

So if everyone is creative, why do people tell themselves that they're not?

The first reason I already mentioned, which is defining creativity incorrectly. When you strip it all away, creativity is the act of problem solving. Sometimes that process involves figuring out how to take a few shapes on a big piece of tissue paper and turn it into a garment that will fit you. Sometimes it involves taking a customer and figuring out a way to satisfy them with a product or service you provide. Sometimes it involves combining elements into new concepts and answering the question "What might happen if Pride and Prejudice had zombies?"

All of these things are acts of creativity.

The second, related reason goes back to a topic I've discussed on this blog before: fear of failure.

People place "creative people" on a plane higher than "regular people". They look at their favourite singer/writer/artist and say "I could never have come up with THAT" and think that means they are not creative. The knowledge that they couldn't have independently come up with the same idea tells them that if they try to "be creative" they will fail and come up with something inferior, or nothing at all.

But see, it's okay that you couldn't have come up with that same idea. If you did, it wouldn't be creative. No doubt, you would come up with something different - and that is creativity.

Sure, some ideas are better than others, but all you really need once you start coming up with ideas is the perseverance to keep thinking until you come up with a few good ones, and the - very learnable - skill of recognizing the good ones when they appear.

So, good news! It's actually pretty much impossible to fail at creativity unless you deliberately try. Don't you feel better?

But while it's impossible to learn creativity (because no one needs to), it is possible to learn to be more creative than you are, and to access your creativity at will.

There's another limiting belief that people have around creativity, and that is that creativity only comes with that flash of inspiration. If you don't have that omg! moment, you are not creative at that moment and cannot produce anything.

This is so not true. People don't sit around at work waiting for a flash of inspiration. They take that phone call and solve that problem. They pick up that assignment and do it. So why is it when we're talking about writing or some other artistic pursuit, people quite often believe that they can't do it unless they are in that mood of pure inspiration?

I don't for a moment deny that inspiration exists. It's one of my favourite things, in fact. There is nothing like the flow of words that happens when you wake up at 3:00 am with a character's words on your tongue.

But the stuff I write in between those moments is still writing. It's still creative. Sometimes, it's better writing. It can just sometimes be harder to get going without that spontaneous flash drowning out the little voice in your head saying "this is hard, this sucks, why don't I do something else now".

There are a couple of things I do to promote my creativity. My secrets, you might say.

And I'm going to share my three secrets with you now.

1. Take care of yourself

There is no doubt that it's harder to get the juices flowing if you're hungry, tired, and cranky. This isn't because of some magical, insidious muse labour strike. It's because your brain isn't as good at working and solving problems when it's not working very well! So eat well, exercise occasionally, and get some friggin' sleep.

You don't have to be in a place of perfect health to be creative, but the better off you are, the less you'll have to work to get going. I know for myself, the more stressed out I am in life, the less I am able to write. All through law school I would completely dry up during exams - this is natural.

2. Write something.

You might laugh. Writing something is the idea! But you can't think of the first sentence! Everything you write is crap!

That's okay. Write something down. Write anything down. Write about the colour of your socks if it will relieve that intimidating expanse of white word-processor screen in front of you.

It's amazing how many times I've stared at the screen for ages going "I have no idea what I want to write" and then finally just started writing whatever came into my mind first and discovered that it was the first line of the scene I wanted to write, and it flowed from there.

I did that with this blog post, in fact, after a week of sitting with a few point-form notes in a draft and no idea what I was going to begin with. Now I'm 1300 words into this post and I've been writing steadily for the past 40 minutes.

It works. Try it.

3. Think about writing. All the time.

The more you write, the more ideas you will have. The more excited you are about what you're writing, the more you'll think about it and come up with more, creative ideas. Keep a notebook with you, or have your phone handy with the memo app. Keep a little recording device in your car.

Make up stories about the people you see on the train, or in the mall. Look at newspaper headlines and speculate about what they might mean by Mystery of missing Edmonton lawn solved. Listen to news shows about science, current events, and social issues.

Constantly ask "What if...?"

You'll have more ideas than you know what to do with. That's creativity.
jessicasteiner: (Procrastination)
Another oldie that I dug up out of the depths of the iTunes Store, The Secrets is a podcast by Michael A. Stackpole, whom some may know as an author of a bunch of Star Wars universe novels. The general topic was writing, and in particular giving writing advice to new writers who likely hadn't been published yet, or were early in their careers.

It ran from 2005 to 2008 and went through several incarnations over the course of those years. Unfortunately, some of the early episodes seem to be lost, and I had to skip a few more right at the beginning, because he insisted that you needed a copy of one of his original novels (I think it was "A Secret Atlas") to follow along or the episodes wouldn't be of much value.

I have to say, shameless as it might seem, I understand why people try to do this sometimes. Considering the podcast itself is a marketing tool, I'm not going to put someone down by using it as a means to promote other products. But of course there are two practical problems with this strategy.

First, there's really no guarantee that I'll even be able to access the book. Since I came along years later it could be - and probably is - out of print. Furthermore, the book might not have ever been available in this market if the listener is from a foreign country.

Secondly, if I'm listening to the podcast as I'm walking across campus, I'm not going to be sitting there with a book in my hands, prepared to take notes. Though I might be able to manage it while sitting on the bus, it limits the places and circumstances where I might be able to listen to his podcast, thus raising the chances that I won't listen at all.

In any case, despite this bumpy start, Mr. Stackpole does give some good advice on a number of topics for a couple of episodes, then the podcast really comes into its own around episode 17. At this point, he begins to develop a system called a Novel in 21 Days, which from what I understand he eventually turned into a book which is available for sale on his website, and which he still uses as a teaching tool.

Novel in 21 Days takes you through a brainstorming process from developing a single character with a few characteristics into having a pretty complete outline for a draft in 21 simple exercises. I haven't actually sat down to try this yet, but I thought it sounded like a great supplement to some of the processes I already use, and I will definitely be incorporating some of these exercises into my novel planning process. It seems particularly good for developing well-rounded and interesting characters in just a couple of steps, and that's something that I've found lacking in other outlining processes I've learned from other writers.

After the Novel in 21 Days episodes, Mr. Stackpole tries a few other different formats, and then there is a rather long hiatus. When he comes back from the hiatus, it seems that his perspective has changed. It's now 2008, and he had lost several of his writing contracts due to difficulties in the publishing market. I think he became quite disillusioned with New York publishing, and starts to talk about alternative means of making money with writing, without relying on the big publishers. He gives some really mind-blowing suggestions, which I actually want to talk about separately in another blog post, probably the next one after this one.

Overall, though Mr. Stackpole tries a lot of different things and not all of his experiments are complete successes, I would recommend this podcast as one to listen to if you are a new writer. He gives some really solid advice not only about various topics useful to people who have never been published before, but delves into areas that most new writers have probably never thought about before.

The main example is how much time he devotes to advice about how to sustain and plan a career, and deal with the hits and career choices that may come not just after the first novel is sold, but after the sixth and beyond. He is a career author who has to carefully plan and use creativity and business sense to sustain his career or else find himself without money to pay his bills. He talks about diversification, about the market, and about alternative means of making income without relying exclusively on the classic model - a model which is becoming increasingly obsolete.

For an aspiring author like myself, some of his discussions were a bit disheartening. And yet, the advice he gives is valuable, and reminds me that even if the New York publishers fall and big box book stores close, people will still write stories, and people will still want to read them, and a new model that allows one to still have a career can be developed.

I definitely recommend his Novel in 21 Days (episodes 17-24) to new authors, and his last 4 podcast episodes for anyone who wants to make a career in writing. There's solid advice in the others as well, and if you've got the time to plough through them all, I would recommend it.

If you've got a podcast about writing that you think I should listen to and review, please drop a comment here or send me an email at jessicabronstein@gmail.com
jessicasteiner: (I Write Therefore I Am)
I recently delved deeply into the iTunes store looking for more writing-related podcasts, looking for more to add to my repertoire.

One of the ones I downloaded is Tor Podcasting, which was a series of 12 author interviews done in 2008 by Tor Books, a Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher that you've probably heard of. The interviews ran from between 5 and 15 minutes, though the longest podcast was a little over 30 minutes.

So yeah, it's an oldie, from 2008 and only ran for a year. But the short format appealed to me and I always love listening to interviews from authors. You never know what tidbits you might pick up, so when I saw it I just downloaded them all and listened to them basically in a long marathon.

Doing it that way is a different sort of experience from listening to something week-by-week or month-by-month as new episodes come out. It tends to make both the virtues and the sins stand out more starkly.

To be honest, unless there is a particular author that you personally enjoy, I'd recommend that you just pass it by. The interviews were sometimes fun and good for a smile, but they were definitely entirely promotional and contained little meat that I could use for my own writing. Listening to 3-year-old interviews of authors I'd never heard of talking about their brand new books that are likely now out of print wasn't all that interesting. The interviews were very informal and not super-penetrating, so rarely did anything really jump out as highly insightful or moving.

The exceptions were the last three episodes, which were quite good. Brandon Sanderson did a two-part interview talking about his books, and Orson Scott Card did the last one. These episodes were a completely different format from the earlier ones, a sort of long monologue without interruption. The editing was, at times, quite choppy - you could often tell when two parts were edited together. But since I actually cared about these authors and had read their work, I was interested enough in the subject to listen closely for the entire thing.

I don't want to harp the series' failings or anything, but I do want to critique one last item that I think was pretty, um, odd. And it's entirely possible that this coloured my experience of the entire series.

The very second interview was with Whitley and Anne Strieber, a husband and wife author team that I admit I'd never heard of before listening to this podcast. Apparently they wrote the novel that was turned into movie The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 as well, so they're pretty successful.

The interviews were going on rather normally, forgettably but vaguely interesting, and then it took a rather bizarre turn. I distinctly remember the interviewer asking something along the lines of there being an interesting "event" in the author's past which shaped his books, and Mr. Strieber proceeded to explain all about how he was abducted by aliens back in the 80s.

Okay, I don't judge. I'm an open-minded girl, and it's entirely within the realm of possibility that he's not nuts and he actually was abducted by aliens. I don't really care if he was abducted by aliens - that's not really the point of bringing it up. It was quite interesting to listen to this, though I sort of finished out the episode feeling like my mind had been blown.

And the next podcast wasn't an interview at all. It was a recording of an address Mr. Strieber had made to a convention of alien abductees.

Again, I don't judge. But here's the thing: By the end of this episode - only the third episode in the series - I was really wondering what kind of podcast I was listening to. Wasn't I listening to a series of author interviews talking about their books? Is Tor Books a collection of people who get together and commiserate about their alien abduction experiences? Was I going to be hearing other mindblowing personal wacky stuff in all of the subsequent interviews?

Of course, I didn't. All of the others were quite benign.

I don't take issue with Tor deciding to interview Mr. Strieber and ask him about his alien abduction experience. But I think that it would have been a lot better if they had waited until at least 4-5 interviews in before doing that one. It's a matter of trust, I think, and what kind of impression one is giving one's listeners.

A new listener will grab the first couple of episodes of something to try to get an idea of what to expect for later ones. If you start off a podcast saying you're going to talk about sales techniques, and in the second episode you suddenly start discussing government policy on abortion, people are going to wonder if the podcast is really about sales at all.

I think if the Strieber interview hadn't come so early, and then been followed by what almost seemed like a promotion specifically of this alien abduction sub-culture, I would already have known what kind of podcast it was. Even if those episodes still blew my mind - which I'm sure they would have - I still would have had reason to trust that the next one would be back to the usual subject matter. It would have been a very interesting interview, but no reflection on the podcast as a whole.

As it was, I seriously considered just moving on and listening to something different instead of moving on to episode 4, because I was no longer sure of what I had in my hands. I'm glad I stuck with it, at least because of the last few interviews, but it was definitely... twilight zone... there for a bit.

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Jessica Steiner

February 2016

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