jessicasteiner: (Fangirl Moment)
I've been meaning to do a review about this for a long time, but the job is so large that it may require multiple posts to complete. Still, here is my first shot.

Holly Lisle's website is probably one of the biggest reasons why I've gotten as far as I have so far with my writing career. (The rest of it being composed largely of stubborn bloody-mindedness). She's an accomplished author, who now spends a large amount of her energy putting together and administering courses to help new authors like myself to learn what they need to know to hone and develop their craft.

How To Think Sideways is the main course, though there are satellite courses, as you can see at the bottom of the page. The courses are now available on an a la carte basis, though when I took the course it was a single package you had to buy all at once.

The courses are worth every penny. They are clear, in-depth and thorough. Most of the weeks involve filling out worksheets. Sometimes I find the courses to be incredibly time consuming, but once you've done the course the first time, you've learned some amazing skills, which you can apply again and again.

I heartily recommend anything that Holly Lisle puts out in terms of courses. Probably in the future I'll do specific reviews on various courses she's done. Right now I'm working through the How to Revise Your Novel course for the second time, as I edit OtherWhere. More to come.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
I have a really terrible headache right now, but I need to earn experience. So here I am, reviewing the sole reason why I'm not in bed. I know I normally review books, but this is worth making an exception.

I discovered HabitRPG through their Kickstarter, which just recently finished and which I donated to. The idea behind the website is that it uses videogame principles to help people develop good habits and get things done.

You can set up daily tasks to be completed, one-time to-dos, and other habits you want to develop by rewarding yourself every time you do them, or punishing you every time you do something you want to avoid doing.

Each time you complete a task, you earn experience. If you do something you aren't supposed to, or leave a daily task incomplete, you take hit point damage. You level up, and can earn gold, which you can trade in for rewards such as ice cream, or armour and weapons to customize your sprite.

The game is in beta and updates are happening very quickly. I've been having a lot of fun trawling the Trello board, voting on suggestions and taking part in the discussion. Now that the Kickstarter funded, a phone app is on the horizon.

To my slight surprise, it's really working! The variety of tasks I've put on there range from chores (doing the dishes) to writing related (finishing chapter 25 of Dale Shepard and the Bug Aliens from Outer Space) to health (taking the stairs instead of the elevator) and I keep coming up with more things to put on the list.

The fact that I'm writing this right now (posting on my blog is a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday activity and if I don't do this I'll take damage) is a testament to the fact that it IS working.

I highly suggest that you try it out. It's free and easy! There are so many ways it can be used to improve someone's life, I'm sure I couldn't list (or even think of) them all. I'll warn that it's a tiny bit buggy, in that sometimes I have to refresh a couple of times before it'll record what I've done. But I have no doubt that over time it'll become more reliable. And once the phone app is released, it'll be even easier to record my achievements without having to wait until a computer is handy.

Now I think I'll sleep.

Also, when you reach level 3, drop me a line with your userID and I'll invite you to my party Turn Write (also the name of my dead writing group, oh well).
jessicasteiner: (Solitaire)
I have some other reviews lined up, but this book suddenly came across my computer screen and then hit me hard enough I want to go out and get everyone to read it before my passion for it starts to dwindle.

How To Be a Whiny Beeyotch: 71 Writing Excuses Meet the Back of My Hand is a quick read (only 161 pages on Kindle) and every page is gold. At least, if you're a person who wants to write, or believes you want to write, which are not always the same thing.

The book is basically a list of 71 real excuses given to Mr. Morgan for why a person who wants to become an author, can't do it. And then why those excuses are bullshit.

While many of the excuses made me laugh at how silly the people making them are, #4, #5 and #6 were the ones that really got my goat. As I was reading those it was a lot of 'Oh...yeah. You're right' and realizing that I needed to stop kidding myself. I may literally print them out and wallpaper my office with them. I think anyone who wants to be a writer will find their excuses in this book, and will see that those excuses are simply nothing that should be stopping them.

I have two complaints about this book:

1. It's not long enough. There's about 2 pages of witty, pithy, sarcastic anti-bullshit motivational stuff for each of the excuses, and it was over far too quickly! I would have loved to read Mr. Morgan's humour for far more than a single evening. (Though I think I'm going to run out and get some of his other books, so there's that)

2. It's only available in paperback, or on Kindle, apparently. Mr. Morgan, if you see this, some of us have Kobos. I paid for it anyway, hoping that I'd be able to convert it to epub and read it on my chosen device, but it has DRM. Instead, I had to read it on my laptop, which sort of sucked. This, unlike #1, is a real complaint. But it's no reflection on the quality of the book itself.

So yes, go get it. It's only $3.50 or something on Kindle. It made me laugh out loud at many parts, and really got me feeling good about writing as well. I heartily recommend it.
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: (Constructive Criticism)
I'm back! The last couple of months have been crazy, between moving and trying to do NaNoWriMo (final wordcount: around 26,000, and I'm happy with that all things considered), but life is finally starting to settle down and I'm looking forward to a few days off work and a mental recharge.

While I was away from regular blog updates, I read Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story, by Adam Rex.

Fat Vampire is a book designed to appeal to my nerdy little soul. It's about a teenage boy named Doug who becomes a vampire, and has to cope with all the things that becoming a vampire involves - figuring out his powers, figuring out how to go to school and have friends and chase a girlfriend, while adjusting to his new life. The thing is, Doug is no Edward Cullen - he is a huge comic book nerd, with all the ostracism and awkwardness that means.

The first section of the book involves Doug and his best friend Jay attending - and trying to feed Doug - at San Diego Comic Con. It's pretty obvious from the book that Adam Rex has gone and knows exactly what it's like to be part of that world. It made me glee.

I listened to the audible version of Fat Vampire, available here.

The reader for the book was excellent. Kirby Heyborne had all different voices, even accents, and it was easy to distinguish between the characters.

One of the things that worried me for a long while was whether the comedy in the book would devolve into hurtful stereotypes and derision of the sub-cultures that I hold dear. However, the author remains both realistic and respectful, while staying true to the comedic tone of the book.

Overall, it was a funny, tragic, and interesting book. I loved the characters and the story, and would heartily recommend it to anyone, particularly someone who's ever opened a comic book or been to a fandom convention.
jessicasteiner: (Fangirl Moment)
Before I begin, I just want to warn that this will NOT be a spoiler-free review! I'm afraid I won't be able to review the book properly without giving away the ending. The spoilers will be under a cut, so if you want to avoid spoilers, be cautious while clicking and scrolling. ;)

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is a fantasy regency romance set in a world where it's possible to use magic to form illusions called glamour. The main character, Jane, is a skilled glamourist, but on the verge of becoming a spinster.

I haven't listened to as many audiobooks lately, but this one I did download from Audible.com (it's available for purchase here). It's read by the author, who does a great job. Mary Robinette Kowal is a puppeteer as well as an author, and so she's definitely got the skills and experience to voice her own book.

Romance is not a genre I generally read, but I gave it a chance because I wanted to support the author after listening to her on Writing Excuses for quite a while. But I really enjoyed it! The characters were engaging and I particularly liked Jane.

The thing that I most enjoyed was how realistically the author incorporated the use of glamour into the world. She really thought it through, and I loved all the tiny ways glamour affected how the characters lived.

I really just had one issue with the book, and that's under the cut )

It really didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book, and considering that I'm generally not a romance reader, I hope that this argues for it being quite a good example of the genre, especially as a debut novel.

I'm very much looking forward to reading the next book of the series, Glamour in Glass and in reading any of the author's future works!
jessicasteiner: (Fangirl Moment)
Alloy of Law is the newest instalment of the Mistborn series, a novella that forms a sequel to the original trilogy.

I listened to the Audiobook of this novel, which I got from Audible. It's read by Michael Kramer, who also narrated the other Mistborn novels, and whose performance I really enjoy. I'm especially glad that it's the same person, since there are some characters that reoccur, and that just wouldn't have been the same with a different voice.

The original Mistborn trilogy is set in a fairly standard medieval-level fantasy world, though when I say 'standard', don't think that it's anything but very creative. The worldbuilding is up to Sanderson's high standards, and the magic system is amongst the most interesting I've ever seen. The first book of Mistborn is a heist story, and I won't talk too much more about it to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that it's very worth reading.

Alloy of Law is set several hundred years in the future, in the same world, but a version of the world that has progressed greatly in technology. It's now in a sort of 'Old West' level of technology, with a steampunk flavour, but maintaining the thread of the story and the feel of what made the first Mistborn novels great.

I love the characters in Alloy of Law. Though it took me a bit of time to warm up to Marasi, I think that was probably by design. She starts off seeming like a non-entity, a stereotypical shy and retiring girl with nothing much to her, especially in comparison to the vibrant personalities of the other characters, but she eventually comes into her own. By contrast, the two main male characters, Wax and Wayne, are extremely charming right from the get go, and I could have gone on reading them forever.

The thing I loved most about the book was how Sanderson expanded on the magic system, and showed how the world and technology would be different with the presence of people who can burn metals and use ferrochemy. It was truly fascinating to see the progression.

Honestly, the only thing I'm unhappy with with this book is how short it was. I've heard rumours that there will be more books set in this time period, though I don't know how true those rumours are. If so, I'm really excited! I am certain there will be more books set further in the future, and I'm very much looking forward to those as well.

Overall, the book definitely lives up to the high standards set by the first three novels, and really doesn't lose the feel of the series, which was a risk with a whole new set of characters in a different time period.
jessicasteiner: (Default)
World War Z by Max Brooks (On Good Reads here) is a military science fiction book, set shortly after the end of a zombie apocalypse. Humanity has survived, and they are picking up the pieces.

The main character has interviewed a cross-section of people who survived the apocalypse about their experiences, and the book is presented as a series of interviews, with minimal narration from the writer.

I listened to the audiobook, which I would say is the absolute best way to read this book. It's fully-voiced, which made it a powerful experience to listen to it, to the point where I really think it wouldn't have the same impact if you were reading it in text.

I thought the portrayal of how the zombie apocalypse went, from beginning to end, was very realistic, and powerfully portrayed. By using the medium of interviewing multiple people, Max Brooks was able to present a wide variety of different stories, each one exciting and engaging, and set in wildly different times and geographic locations. This gave him amazing flexibility to encompass the scope of the zombie war tragedy.

There was a good mix of different cultures and locations represented. My one issue is the fact that out of all the people "interviewed", only two were women. After the first ten or so, with not a single woman appearing yet, I was really starting to get irritated by that. The two women who did show up were great characters, and I especially liked the fighter pilot. But it did irk me that there wasn't more of a mix.

That being said, overall, I highly recommend this book. I'm very curious how the movie is going to work, also, and I definitely intend to go see it.
jessicasteiner: (Constructive Criticism)
Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

In Catching Fire, Katniss, Peeta and the others have to deal with the fallout of giving the Capital a general 'fuck you' at the end of the first book. They are forced back into the games again, as the Capital attempts to contain the growing flames of a new District rebellion.

I read the ebook version of this book, as well. The ebook title can be purchased for around $10.00, so I guess the sale I mentioned in my review of The Hunger Games is now over. The audiobook is available on Audible for about $20.00, narrated by Carolyn McCormick.

This review may get a little spoilery about character motivations, but not so much about plot points.

Catching Fire is definitely my favourite of the three books (which I can say with certainty now that I've finished Mockingjay). It definitely doesn't suffer from "middle book syndrome" in my opinion, and is a solid story in itself that carries the overarching plot forward rather than simply forming a bridge between the beginning book and the ending book, as many second books do.

The new characters introduced in this book are strong and interesting, receiving good development. I especially liked Finnick, and the way one's perception of his character changes over course of the novel. Katniss also deepens her relationship with many characters that were in the first book, such as Haymitch and Gale. I also liked how her relationship with Peeta developed, as she struggled with her feelings.

Katniss has a really hard time trusting and loving others (except for Prim), and the reasons for this are understandable on many different levels. I like that her romance isn't simple. It's not just a stereotypical love triangle between her, Peeta and Gale, where she must choose between the two men in her life - there's every chance that she will be unable to choose either of them. This is something that I found interesting and compelling to read.

One of the things I love best about this trilogy is the realistic way that Collins portrays the horrors of being thrust into a war, especially its effect children, but on adults as well. The characters have dealt with trauma in a variety of different ways, and this is an important part of the plot. While it's not just unrelenting doom and gloom, the horror of not just having been selected to participate in the games once, and having to carry that memory forever, but to know that she will have to go back in, is sharply felt. This is not only something that Katniss has to deal with, but also most of the other characters as well, and they all react in different ways.

I really don't have anything bad to say about this book, so I'll round off the review there!
jessicasteiner: (Constructive Criticism)
I'm sure about a billion people have reviewed this book, but...tough. I'm doing it anyway.

The Hunger Games has been on my list of books to read for quite a long time - since before I got my e-reader, and long before there was a movie. With the film having just come out, I decided that it was about time to finally knock it off my list, so I could go to the film and fully appreciate it.

I'll do my best to keep this review spoiler-free. If it bothers you to know the basic premise or the names of characters, stop reading here.

The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy about Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who is chosen to participate in a horrific death-match against young men and women from around the world, as part of a sort of yearly Oppression Olympics held by the Capital.

I purchased The Hunger Games from audible with one of my credits, as well as getting the ebook for my Kobo, but wound up reading the ebook. I'll probably listen to the audiobook, too, but I haven't had time, and I read far faster than I can listen. You can get the audiobook here for about $20, which is pretty up there, but the ebook is sale on the Kobo site for only $0.99, which is probably a limited time thing. Amazon.com has it for $5.00 for the Kindle.

I found The Hunger Games to be a wonderful book. As far as pacing, it is a quick read. I devoured it in a day or two, and it only took that long because I physically didn't have much time to read. Suzanne Collins is very good at dragging you into the next chapter without letting you go, and every time I put the book down I kept wanting to pick it back up again.

Despite the very dark premise, there are a fair number of light-hearted moments and victories for Katniss, enough to keep the story from becoming overwhelmingly depressing. Yet the subject matter is treated seriously. The different ways the characters react to such violence and horror, essentially being turned into child soldiers, is varied and realistic. And the romance plot is important to the story without destroying Katniss' independence or reducing her to the level of a romantic heroine.

I found Katniss difficult to warm up to at first, as she comes across as slightly masculinized, having no interest in much outside of hunting, but I grew to love her and found her well-developed as a character. She is consistent, and also develops and grows through the book, and her struggles don't always show her in the best light, which is great.

I find it unfortunate that while there were a lot of great females in the book, such as her mother, her sister Prim, Rue, Effie, etc., and her relationships with them drive the book, their roles take a back seat to the strong speaking roles of the males in Katniss' life, such as Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, and Cinna. That being said, there is no shortage of strong females overall, and others may disagree with my feeling on this.

As for the ebook format itself, it was probably one of the best-formatted books I've read on my Kobo. I didn't have to fiddle with the font size, and it was nice that at the end of the chapter there was a page break, then the next chapter started halfway down the page, just like a real book.

I would heartily recommend this book, and I've already finished the second, and moved on to the third. Reviews for those will follow, no doubt.
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: (Save the World)
I devoured these two books one right after the other, so I'm going to review them together. As with the previous books I've reviewed, I downloaded them both from Audible, and they can be found here:

I Am Not a Serial Killer
Mr. Monster


These are the first two books in Dan Wells' debut series, and the third book, I Don't Want to Kill You is now out (and I'll be getting it very soon).

The series follows the life of John Wayne Cleaver, a young teenager with an obsession with serial killers and a diagnosis of severe Antisocial Personality Disorder. Living in a small midwestern town and struggling to handle normal teenage boy issues like girls, friends, school, and family problems, John also has to cope with the fact that he lives above a mortuary, and that a demon has started killing people all over town.

Did I say demon? Yes I did. It's an urban fantasy/horror series, though you wouldn't know it for the first several chapters of I Am Not a Serial Killer. It's got a very low-key supernatural element, which ramps up slowly before you - and John - become convinced that there really is a demon in town, not just a run-of-the-mill serial killer.

As you might have been able to tell from the first line of this review, I really loved these books. John is a sociopath, and an extremely well-researched one (I've researched the disorder extensively and I still learned a lot from this book about the symptoms and what it's like to be a serial killer). But somehow John is still a completely sympathetic character. There were times in Mr. Monster when I was truly afraid he was going to go over the edge and do something I couldn't forgive him for, but Dan Wells manages to walk the line perfectly, pushing that edge without letting John fall straight over it and stop being relateable to the reader.

John Allen Nelson narrated I Am Not a Serial Killer, and I found him a bit over-dramatic at times, but the book was so engaging and exciting that it really wouldn't have mattered if it had been read by a half-literate monkey. The switch to a different reader in Mr. Monster (Kirby Heyborne) was an adjustment. I had gotten used to John Allen Nelson, but by the end of Mr. Monster I was used to the new voice, and he continues for the third book, which is good.

Though John has a hard time understanding the people around him, making it more difficult to plumb the depths of the supporting characters, that only suits the style of the novel and what Dan has done by making this book from the first-person POV of a sociopath. I found it fascinating, and at times extremely disturbing, to be inside John's head. Yet I fell in love with him as a character.

I really have nothing bad to say about the books. If you like urban fantasy, and/or are at all interested in serial killers, I highly recommend these books. They are shortish, not heavy reads, with the kind of pacing that makes them nearly impossible to put down. I've been recommending them to nearly everyone I know since about three chapters into the first book.

Off to buy the third one!
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.
jessicasteiner: (Save the World)
The Way of Kings, the latest novel by Brandon Sanderson, is the first book in a series called the Stormlight Archive. The audio version is read by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer.

I downloaded The Way of Kings from Audible.com. The first thing that should hit pretty much anyone who picks it up is that this is a big sucker - a solid 45 hours in length. Those who have Audible memberships know that each month of a regular membership gives you one credit you can spend on a free book (as a student I've taken advantage of this a lot!) and The Way of Kings takes two credits. If you don't have that many credits, it's retailing for about $45, which is a sale price.

That might sound like a lot, and frankly it is. But on the flip side, for the price of dinner and a movie for two, I was listening to this book back and forth to school for a good month.

The Way of Kings is definitely an epic story with several intertwined storylines. Here's the publisher's copy:

Widely acclaimed for his work completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga, Brandon Sanderson now begins a grand cycle of his own, one every bit as ambitious and immersive.

Roshar is a world of stone and storms. Uncanny tempests of incredible power sweep across the rocky terrain so frequently that they have shaped ecology and civilization alike. Animals hide in shells, trees pull in branches, and grass retracts into the soilless ground. Cities are built only where the topography offers shelter.

It has been centuries since the fall of the 10 consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant, but their Shardblades and Shardplate remain: mystical swords and suits of armor that transform ordinary men into near-invincible warriors. Wars were fought for them, and won by them. One such war rages on the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin has been reduced to slavery. In a war that makes no sense, where 10 armies fight separately against a single foe, he struggles to save his men and to fathom the leaders who consider them expendable.

Brightlord Dalinar Kholin commands one of those other armies. Like his brother, the late king, he is fascinated by an ancient text called The Way of Kings. Troubled by visions of ancient times and the Knights Radiant, he has begun to doubt his own sanity.

Across the ocean, an untried young woman named Shallan seeks to train under an eminent scholar and notorious heretic, Dalinar’s niece, Jasnah. Though she genuinely loves learning, Shallan’s motives are less than pure. As she plans a daring theft, her research for Jasnah hints at secrets of the Knights Radiant and the true cause of the war.


Having finished the book, I'd say that's a pretty good summary. I'd also add that there are tantalizing hints of other storylines, told in Interludes between the main parts of the book. One of these storylines promises to be very important in the next book, which is the story of the Assassin in White, Szeth. He is probably my favourite character in the book, though Kaladin and Dalinar are tied for second, and I'm really looking forward to seeing more of him.

I understand from listening to Brandon's podcast, Writing Excuses, that there are some pretty extensive maps and illustrations in the book. It's the nature of audiobooks that you don't get the benefit of those pictures. To be honest, I do intend to pick up the hard copy of the book, partly so I can see them. But not having those pictures definitely didn't reduce my enjoyment of the book and I had no trouble understanding anything.

The only real beef I have with the audiobook is the fact that there are two readers. Kate Reading reads the Shallan chapters, and any other scenes that are from the point of view of a woman, which is a nice idea, but it's probably roughly a third of the book or less. Every time it switched from Michael Kramer to Kate Reading, it was a bit jarring to me. And it wasn't like Michael Kramer didn't have to read female voices in his chapters, so I'm not sure why audiobook recorders do this so often.

Even more annoying, there was one scene - just one scene! - where characters that were normally read by Michael Kramer appeared, but it was from the point of view of a woman. Kate Reading did a good job with the reading, but she pronounced some characters' names very differently then Michael Kramer had done. I honestly wish Michael Kramer had read the whole book, because it tossed me out of the story a bit, especially when suddenly SAHDius was being pronounced SedEEus. orz

Despite the two-voice-mispronunciation shenanigans, I thought The Way of Kings was a brilliant, gripping book. It certainly didn't feel like I was listening to it for a solid work week. It just flew by, and while normally I'll give priority to shorter things and mix it up with podcasts as they update before going back to novels, I couldn't wait to pick up The Way of Kings again each day and continue listening.

One of the things I thought was of particular note in this book: Brandon Sanderson handled his worldbuilding like a master. There is a hell of a lot packed into this book, from magical storms, to weird gravity-defying magic systems, to weird spirits called spren that are attracted to pain, rot, intense emotion, and other things. There are thousands of years of history, a dozen different humanoid races, and a host of bizarre plants and animals.

But Brandon doles out the information you need just when you need it, and leaves explanation for later when it's really not necessary. There are many times he mentions something - like shardblades or spren - and doesn't bother to explain what it is right then and there. Over time, the picture is built, and at no time was I confused because he left an explanation of some niggly detail for later.

He builds the world in a really subtle, organic way, until it seems completely real and vibrant, and without a single boring infodump. And in a book this long, with this much packed into it, it's a damn good thing.

I actually got so into it that when it was done, all I wanted to do was just flip right to the beginning and start listening again - which I actually did do for a bit, though I subsequently forced myself to put it down and leave it for later, because I have other things to listen to.

And those other things would actually be Robert Jordan's works. I've never really had interest in them, but now that Brandon Sanderson is writing the books, I'm willing to give them a try. Congratulations, Brandon - you've added a reader to Robert Jordan's epic instead of vice versa. I hope you're proud.

You can get the audiobook version of The Way of Kings by searching for it on audible.com or if that sounds too hard, just click the link here.

If you have a writing-related podcast that you think might interest me and which you'd like me to listen to and review, please drop me a line. You can leave a comment here, or email me at jessicabronstein@gmail.com

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Jessica Steiner

February 2016

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