Advice for Hosting a Digital-Industry-Focused Book Club
For the past year, I’ve been running a book club at Scotiabank about digital product and design. It’s been a lot of fun, and here’s what’s worked the most.
For the past year, I’ve been running a book club at Scotiabank about digital product and design. It’s been a lot of fun, and here’s what’s worked the most.
Writing can be a daunting prospect for many people, and the way that the internet has changed both how we write and how we read can make it even more so. But the realities of the modern marketing world demand writing that’s user-friendly and easy to understand. What’s a verbophobe to do?
Well, a good place to start is by reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. I’ve been writing for years in the context of websites and content management, and this is one of the most concise, thorough, and welcoming guides to online writing and editing that I’ve come across.
What really makes this book special is that it follows its own advice. All throughout, one of the most constant pieces of advice in it is to write in a friendly way that’s similar to how you would talk – and this book does that! A lot of writing and style guides take on a more authoritative tone, and sound intimidating as a result. This one doesn’t.
Nicely Said also imagines building a website from the ground up. It even uses an imaginary small business as a recurring example throughout the book of how to write and organize a website: Shortstack Books, an independent bookstore.
As the book discusses the process of doing research, writing mission statements, creating a wire frame, implementing consistent vocabulary, and even writing error messages and terms of service pages, it uses the example of Shortstack Books as its frame of reference. Although it’s a familiar technique, it works — it grounds the advice and keeps the topic from getting too abstract.
The book also includes case studies from several online companies like Etsy and Google, and provides several examples of good and bad web copy so you know what to do and what to avoid. What makes my particular editorial heart sing is that there are multiple chapters devoted to the topic of revision and workflow — processes that ordinarily strike non-communication-types with dread.
The only problem I have with Nicely Said is that it takes for granted the way the web works in 2013 and 2014. This book risks sounding dated very quickly.
However, that’s a small caveat. This is an extremely useful resource for people in a variety of contexts, like web developers and designers, not just writers and editors.
It’s been about two years since I decided to transition to freelance work. However, it’s been a bumpy road. I’ve taken on contract work that took time away from doing freelance work. In some ways, I’ve decided to focus on writing posts on here not about what I do for others, but about my own personal interests.
Lately, I’ve been trying to re-examine the choices I’ve made. Some of those choices, like freelancing, are things I’m still happy with. However, I’ve realized that I really need to try and move my blog beyond book reviews and talking about tea (both of which are quite fun, I admit!) to discussing things that other people want to learn or know more about.
What this means is that over the next few weeks and months, regular readers of this blog are going to see a bit of a shift in what I’m talking about.
I’ll still talk about books and publishing, and write the occasional book review on here if the mood strikes. I’ll still talk about pop culture, geeky things, and things that make me think.
However, I’m also planning to discuss in more depth the things that I’ve learned about the kind of business that I’m trying to run, and also talk about the projects I’m working on. In other words, I’m trying to make my blog more of a personal/business hybrid, instead of a personal one alone. My goal is to do roughly one post a week, alternating between discussing personal topics and professional ones.
Here are a few things I’m planning on talking about soon:
This may not be the most exciting-sounding stuff on the planet to the people who have followed my posts in the past, but I figure that being honest about my thoughts and discussing upcoming changes in public is the best thing to do.
I hope that this leads to some good things. And I hope that you readers like it too.
Sometimes walking around your neighbourhood is one of the nicest things there is. Depending on where you are, you can escape from the everyday by going down a choice side street. If you’re feeling a bit more sociable, perhaps, you can just chat with your neighbours.
Occasionally, though, those walks turn into something deeper. You might be with a friend who’s been part of the community for a long time, and knows stories you don’t. You might notice an interesting sign or faded storefront. You might even have had your memory jogged by visiting an archive. It’s those sorts of moments that Stroll focuses on.
Shawn Micallef is one of the Senior Editors of Spacing magazine, a publication devoted to culture and architecture in Canada and Toronto specifically. Stroll was originally a series of columns published by Eye Weekly (which then became The Grid TO, which then unfortunately shut down last week), and is an in-depth look at Toronto’s history and development as seen through its streetscapes.
Each chapter of the book discusses a different neighbourhood or stretch of road in Toronto, from the Beaches to the Rouge to the hydro corridor on Finch, and does so from the perspective of one just walking around. Micallef’s observations are interspersed with those gleaned from long-time residents and historians. Interesting things about the city’s history reveal themselves when seen through the lens of the humble flâneur – ravines and highways are just as important as the now-iconic view of the waterfront. Each chapter also comes with hand-drawn pictures and maps of the locations in question by Marlena Zuber. The back cover also comes attached with a hand-drawn pullout map for more context.
I think part of what makes Micallef such an incisive viewer of the city is that he didn’t grow up here, like I did. He approached Toronto with the sort of exploratory eye that only someone new to a place can bring. It also helps that he came to the city right around the time it was really starting to undergo renewal and/or gentrification, and got to see some of the last glimpses of the past before the condo towers started going up. As someone who has lived in Scarborough my whole life, that’s not the sort of view I’ve had access to. Also, I was away at university during part of this transformation, I think.
That doesn’t mean it’s a light, read, though. I found it difficult to read more than 4 or 5 essays in a row. It actually took me about 2 months of nibbling to get through it all. The stores and architects and important dates become a jumble after a while. Is this the best way to think about history? Perhaps not. But it seems this book is best taken in at a slower pace. Considering that all of the walks are “strolls” rather than “jogs”, perhaps that’s a rather fitting way to look at things.
Note: This review contains spoilers.
Jevick is the son of a pepper merchant on the island of Tyom, one of a remote group of islands to the southeast of Olondria, a vast and powerful empire. Unlike almost everyone else around him, Jevick is literate. He had a tutor, an Olondrian exile, brought in by his father. Enchanted by this knowledge – by the sound of Olondrian words, by the idea that they last long past the limits of human memory, by the images they conjure, by the idea that life is so much larger than the islands themselves – Jevick yearns to visit Olondria himself, and leaves as part of a trade run as soon as he can after his father’s death.
Life in Olondria is intoxicating, and Jevick soon gets caught up in the whirl and bustle of urban life. However, after taking part in the Feast of Birds, he is soon haunted by the ghost of Jissavet, an illiterate woman from his homeland. His quest to learn and record the story of this woman turns him into a pawn between two rival factions fighting for both power and control over the written word. In the end, Jevick has to face the results of that struggle – what should people value? The book, or the voice? Flesh, or parchment?
Up until very recently, I didn’t know about the concept of “orality.” I knew that there were cultures with oral traditions, but I didn’t really think about how they differed from ones with literal traditions. When you think about it, though, writing is a big deal – it makes things more tangible yet more remote, somehow. It makes things objective.
When I started reading A Stranger in Olondria, I was fully expecting the plot to champion those ideas without question. I’m a writer – it says so right there in at the top of this page – so I naturally place value on literacy and the benefits it conveys. Of course, that’s because I’m a product of my culture, and because I occupy a somewhat privileged position within it.
Samatar (and I really should have known this going in) approaches these questions from a far more nuanced perspective. In the end, the value of the written word is affirmed, and Jevick even becomes a tutor in his own right. But also in the end, the positions of the two cultures are flipped – it is Jevick’s homeland that becomes a haven for the written word, and Olondria that reverts back to a more oral culture.
The thing is, because the book is told entirely from Jevick’s point of view, we only experience that culture second-hand. We are as ignorant as he is about the workings of Olondria’s religious and political structures, and because the book contains no glossary (a meta move, perhaps?), finding direct analogues between these structures and those of the real world is difficult. Throughout the book, I was frustrated by a sense that Jevick, although an interesting character in his own right, was a small corner of a much larger tapestry. I kept on wanting the book to move from a close-up to a wide angle, so I could appreciate things in greater context.
Given Samatar’s aims in the book to interrogate how the advent of writing changes people and cultures, I think her choice to focus on Jevick alone also interrogates the contemporary fantasy reader’s idea of how a second-world book should behave. Fantasy books have been getting longer and longer, and their scopes have been getting wider and wider. They are now more likely to span continents and multiple cultures than they have been in the past – the fact that A Game of Thrones is a widely-acclaimed TV series when such a thing would have been unheard of perhaps even five years ago is a testament to this. In contrast, Jevick’s journey is blatantly small-scale. It’s like seeing the world through a telescope.
So in many ways, A Stranger in Olondria made me struggle with and reassess my expectations. In fact, for a long while, I was wondering how on earth the whole story would pull together. Because while the prose of the book is beautiful – it’s lush and sensuous, full of unusual imagery and vibrant colours and textures – Jevick himself is a pawn, pushed and shunted about. A great deal of the plot hinges upon his ignorance of Olondria’s religious struggles. It’s only in the final third of the book that it really starts cooking with gas, when Jevick finally has a chance to hear and record the story of Jissavet, the woman haunting him.
And oh, what a character Jissavet is. Where Jevick is a clay vessel, waiting to be filled by Olondrian words, Jissavet is the kiln, testing and hardening Jevick’s resolve. She challenges him, mocks him, helps him, probes him. Her story shows that she’s always done this to others, throughout her entire life. In fact, her vehemence that her story must be told is a natural extension of this, born of the exclusion she faced throughout her short life as a woman of low caste on her island – born without an external soul, according to the local hierarchy. Her quest to reach Jevick and make him her amanuensis is thus both a repudiation of her culture and physical proof that souls and words are the same thing.
I finished A Stranger in Olondria on a morning in May when the sun was shining and the breeze was gentle. I sat on the porch, then went out for a walk to the lakeshore and let the wind scour my face. All throughout, thoughts tumbled inside my head. What is a soul? What is the value of writing? What duty do we owe to others, especially those that we’re culturally taught to ignore? How do legacies start? I still don’t have the answers, but I think this book can help others get there.
Note: spoilers ahead for both this and the previous volumes. You have been warned.
Saga is one of those stories where I gobble the installments up like goldfish crackers — chowing down on handful after handful, aware that I’m nearing the end of the current supply. And then, when I do hit that end, I think to myself: that’s it?
When I read volumes 1 and 2 last year, they were so fresh and inventive that they kept me in a perpetual state of delight. I would make assumptions about the world of the story only to have those assumptions upended, like so:
Part of the fun of the first two volumes was seeing my SF reading protocols get tossed up and hurled at the wall to see what would bounce off and what would stick. Of course, there are the human elements of the story — Hazel’s retrospective narration, the amazing single-page panels used for emphasis, and Marko and Alana’s love story at the heart of it all.
But the third volume dispenses with a lot of the stuff-to-the-wall-throwing and instead tries to force a confrontation between all of the various parties at play — Marko and Alana’s family vs. Prince Robot vs. Gwendolyn and The Will and Slave Girl/Sophie. At first, I was looking forward to these confrontations. But then they got cut short and resolved too easily to be satisfying, like when Gwendolyn finally came face-to-face with Marko, her ex-fiance. I felt like this story was promising me I would climb Mount Everest, only to drop me off at the base of The Alps instead – still cool, but not as an extreme a trip as I was promised.
There’s a definite sense of table-setting coming into play with this volume. You’ve got the introduction of the journalists chasing the clues that the government has hidden about Alana, Marko, and Hazel; the introduction of The Will’s sister; the kind-of-tacked-on burgeoning romance between The Will and Gwendolyn; and the introduction of The Circuit, some kind of underground entertainment network that’s really an open secret.
This is all part-and-parcel with the fact that this is an ongoing series. The end is probably far away, since Brian K. Vaughan has stated that it will run longer than Y: The Last Man, which ran for 60 issues. My bet is that in the coming issues (which resume publication this month), Marko and Alana will join The Circuit and use their broadcasts as a way to inform the world about their relationship (and their daughter) by framing it as an anti-war allegory. But that is just what I want to happen. Staples and Vaughan have been very good at confounding my expectations so far.
That said, there are moments of beauty and grace in this volume, like when Sophie/Slave Girl and Lying Cat (Oh my god, can I tell you how much I love Lying Cat? I even have a shirt with her face on it!) share a moment on a hillside, with the former telling a series of truths and then a lie, only to have the latter interrupt with her trademark exclamation. Or when Marko’s mother, Klara, shares a conspiratorial moment with Oswald Heist over a board game. There are so many good moments here.
The problem, to me, is that these things are moments, not the sustained awesomeness of the opening volumes – the first of which rightly won the 2013 Hugo for Best Graphic Story. On it’s own, I would give Saga Volume 3 only 3 out of 5 stars. In context with the preceding volumes, though, I’m bumping my rating one higher. Here’s hoping that the next volume will get over the bump in the rode that this volume represents.
Stories are living things. As they grow, so do the creators behind them. Most of the time, this change is imperceptible because it happens page by page and panel by panel. But sometimes, sometimes, you get the opportunity to see that growth as it happens.
Like, say, when you read a single-volume collection of an awesome, epic webcomic that was originally published over the course of six years.
Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels is a wombat. Not only that, but she’s lost. She hit a pocket of bad air while tunneling, and got so turned around that when she unexpectedly emerged from the floor of the temple of Ganesh in the backwater town of Rath, she did so with relief.
Unfortunately, that tunnel was much longer than anyone expected. Rath is far, far away from home, and it appears that someone, somehow, had been planning for that tunnel to be created for a long time – someone who wanted to escape into the world above-ground. Now Digger and her new-found companions – including an outcast hyena, a child made of shadows, a shrew-turned-pirate-turned-professional-troll, and a traumatized monk – are entering very dangerous territory involving prophecies and undead gods.
And, oh yeah: there are the usual fantasy elements like oracular slugs, winged librarian rats, and vampire squash. All quite normal, really.
Digger first appeared on my radar back when I was in university. I’d heard about it through another comic – I think through Bruno by Christopher Baldwin. At that point, it was only a few chapters in, and once I hit the paywall for the comic, I didn’t go any further. Despite that, it still occupied a place in the back of my mind. Talking wombats! Hyenas! Gods! Really foreboding, distinctive black and white art! How would the title character, a lost (but eminently pragmatic and capable) wombat, return home?
I let that question stew in my head for years, only for the comic to reappear on my radar with the 2012 Hugo nomination slate. I was delighted when it won, as I had fond memories of the opening chapters. But it was really a recent episode of the SF Squeecast that spurred me to buy the whole thing.
God, there’s so much to love about Digger. It takes all of the best aspects of Jeff Smith’s Bone – the black and white art, the relateable main character, the epic mythology, the length – and piles on deadpan humour, pathos, even more kick-ass female characters, and such difficult-to-address topics as…
That last one is a bit of a joke, of course, but the others in that list are true. What does it mean to believe in a god? How do you show respect towards the dead if paying that respect involves doing something against your nature? If people avert their eyes to avoid addressing a bad situation, are they any less to blame when that situation gets markedly worse? Vernon touches upon all of these issues and more.
That said, there are other places where the comparison to Bone isn’t so positive. Neither comic quite stuck the landing, I feel. In particular, with Digger, the final confrontation with the antagonist happened much more quickly than I expected. Also, the motivations and actions of the secondary antagonist (Captain Jhalm) were underdeveloped: I never truly understood why he felt that his course of action made sense.
However, against the rest of the book, those are smaller concerns. What’s really valuable here is that this is a compressed time capsule of years upon years of work. All stories are like that, but few stories show that progression so linearly – you can see it in the change of Vernon’s drawing style, as she moves from a style that’s scratchy and linear to one that’s more fluid. It’s like watching a river find its own particular riverbed. And it’s definitely worthy of a Hugo.
About 2 months ago, I wrote a post about how much I enjoyed drinking tea. I framed it then as a lark, a bit of humour. But it’s surprising how complex this topic is once you learn to break out of the world of supermarket bags. Saying you like white tea is similar to saying you like white wine: a good start, but nowhere near specific enough. Riesling or Chardonnay? Bai Mu Dan or Bai Hao Yin Zhen? And even a question like that only skims the surface – the manner and location of the harvest matters just as much as the cultivar.
This is something that Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties covers in depth. Written by members of the Camellia Sinensis Tea House, this book is a guide to understanding tea in all its variety, from type to location to tasting methods.
Interestingly, rather than giving a breakdown of teas according to type, book instead divides the topic up by history and region. Chapters talking about the history of tea cultivation lead into ones about tea tasting, production, and culture according to region. This is then followed up by a brief section about the art of tea tasting and a (rather disposable) chapter containing haute-cuisine recipes. A look at the science and nutrition of tea closes out the book. Overall, it’s a well-rounded discussion of the topic.
However, I feel ambivalent about this book. It tries to split the difference between discussing tea as a product and tea as a status object, which are wildly divergent approaches. I wanted to learn more about the various cultivars of tea, and which flavours are associated with each cultivar. But the writing often reads like it was meant for the kind of lifestyle magazine you’d find tucked into the back pocket of an airplane seat. This is especially true in the one-on-one interviews with various tea testers and growers that are sprinkled throughout the book. The questions are softballs (“What is your favourite tea?”) and the answers sound calculated to offend as few people as possible (“In each family of teas there are varieties of a superior quality. They are the ones I prefer.”).
This feeling is reinforced by Tea‘s coffee-table aesthetic. The photography, layout, and production quality are all lovely, and I recognize that a book like this needs a strong aesthetic impact. However, I think it would have been a more satisfying reference guide if it included the following:
There are some fascinating tidbits in the corners of the text that I’d love to read entire books about, like the speculative bubble surrounding sheng pu’er and the colonial background behind Indian tea production. There is an awful lot to learn about tea, and I’m just getting started. But I really wanted some more meat than what I actually got.
Ad Astra wrapped up just a few days ago. Now that I’m fairly sure I haven’t gotten con crud, I’ll tell you all about it! Although I didn’t take part in any panels or do any readings, I had a blast. Here’s a breakdown:
There was a lot to choose from. I’ve learned from past conferences and conventions not to pack my schedule too tightly, but it was so hard to resist. I think I attended about 10 in all, most focusing on aspects of writing and editing fiction. Highlights include the three I attended where Anne Groell was a panelist, the “Mission Unfilmable” panel with James Bambury, and the “That Drives Me Crazy” panel with my good friend Andrew Barton. All in all, I was pretty satisfied with what I attended. I also live-tweeted a number of the panels with the #AdAstra2014 hashtag.
I only attended two readings this year. One was a regular reading, but the other one, well, that was something special. More of the (somewhat NSFW) specifics are available on Michael Matheson’s blog. But let’s just say that the combination of fan fiction, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Shakespeare, and Harry Potter that was on display that night was a legend in the making. I really hope that a reading like that becomes an institution at Ad Astra and similar cons.
If there’s one thing that conventions are good for, it’s parties. My husband and I attended a few, most notably the Doctor Who tea party on Saturday afternoon, and the Bundoran Press launch party for Strange Bedfellows the same evening. We entered raffles, got pictures taken in front of a green screen where you could choose a digital background (I chose the classic Tardis interior and wore the 4th Doctor’s scarf), ate cookies, and had some tea (which was somewhat middling, unfortunately).
That night at the Bundoran launch party we got to hear several authors read, including Andrew Barton and Robin Riopelle. Riopelle’s reading, in particular, was amazing, which brings me to…
I bought lots of books at both WFC 2012 and last year’s Ad Astra. This year, not so much. In fact, I bought only 3 books! One of which was Robin Riopelle’s debut, Deadroads – her reading was so emotive and engaging that I couldn’t resist. Interestingly, this book is one of the first ones published by Night Shade Books after their incorporation into Skyhorse Publishing. It’s comforting to know that despite its financial issues, this press has continued publishing quality fiction.
Aside from that, I did make some random purchases, including this little guy knit out of yarn:
Let’s just say that the next time I have some Earl Grey, I won’t be doing so alone!
The masquerade was on Saturday evening at the same time as the Bundoran launch, so I didn’t get to see the amazing costumes in play. However, people wore costumes all weekend, so I am happy to present to you possibly the most awesome video I have ever filmed:
Yes, that is someone dressed up as Newt from Pacific Rim (with arm tattoos drawn on in Sharpie marker!) doing contact juggling a la Labyrinth. You’re welcome.
A few weeks ago, I read an old article by Jo Walton on Tor.com about reading protocols for SF. I’ve been aware of the concept of “reading protocols” for some time, but this article, simply by giving that concept a name, has been very useful.
Since then, I’ve wondered about how exposure to one genre affects one’s perceptions of other, different genres. Put simply: how easy is it to switch from one set of protocols to another? Are there shortcuts you can use to learn new protocols quickly?
That’s what I wanted to know when I read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. Part history of the genre, part inquiry into detective story tropes, and part memoir, this book seemed like the shortcut I was looking for. Like speculative fiction, mysteries often follow a set of conventions that provide the reader with familiarity, comfort, and structure. Also like speculative fiction, mysteries have tropes that typify the genre to outsiders yet are seen as dated and stale by insiders. Space aliens don’t carry ray-guns anymore, and the butler didn’t always do it.
So, what have I learned about detective fiction from this book? Lots – mostly that my own perceptions about it are indeed out of date. I learned that “Golden Age” mystery novels often sacrificed plausibility in favour of ingenuity. I learned about how the post-war climates of the US and the UK contributed to making “hard boiled” and “murder mystery” fiction such divergent subgenres. I learned that the “Watson” figure long ago transformed from a walking exposition receptacle into something more nuanced.
Most surprisingly, I learned that “Golden Age” mystery was relatively welcoming to women writers. James devotes an entire chapter to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, examining their differences, similarities, and legacies. In contrast, it’s hard for me to think of four female science fiction writers (even ones who relied on male pseudonyms like Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr) who wielded such influence during SF’s own Golden Age, although I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Has this book given me all of the necessary protocols to appreciate detective fiction on its own merits? I doubt it – there are large parts of my brain that need to be rewired to fully appreciate the intricacy of the genre. But this book is as good a start as any.