Thursday, September 27, 2012

ModPo - LIVE!

As some of you might know, I'm two weeks into the 10 week Modern Poetry course from UPenn, brought to us by the good folks at Coursera. This week, they tried something I've not seen yet in one of these courses: the first of their weekly life webinars. It took the same format - in this case a panel of an instructor and four graduate students discussing a poem, and opened it up to questions from the online student body via several avenues:

1 - A student could pose a question via a special sub-form of the online discussion group set aside just for this event. Someone was monitoring the forum live for interesting questions to pass on to the group.
2 - The same person was monitoring the Twitter hashtag #ModPoLive. She first noted a number of "role call" posts as people tweeted that they were watching the webcast, from the four corners of the world.
3 - Old school and low-tech. They had a phone line set up - what appeared to be a single POTS line or equivalent, to which people could dial in to Philly's local area code with a question. They in fact took some this way, which also gave students a chance to introduce themselves.
4 - Really old-school and no-tech. People could actual walk in to the Kelly Writers' House at the University of Pennsylvania and attend the discussion live in meatspace! This is about as analog as it gets, and another way to make it feel more like a "real" - or at least more traditional - event.

In person, there wasn't much in the way of visible technology. The participants all had wired handheld mics sitting on desk stands, all of which ran into what appeared to be a small mixing console. It was live-streamed onto YouTube with the familiar Google+ Video chat watermark. The audio and video quality were as clear and intelligible as for the rest of the course to date. 
Sadly for those of us taking Coursera courses because we work, the event was scheduled for 10AM on a Wednesday. Fortunately for me, I had a rare day off to pack for a trip,  so was home even if nit entirely able to focus.  This is another place where technology is our friend; I was able to carry the webcast around on my tablet while occasionally stopping by the desktop to check in on the forum or toss out a quick tweet. The webcast was also recorded - complete with the five or so minutes of down time at the front end - for those of us not able to be there live.

So what was the webcast like? Given the number of participants it felt more like a lecture than a truly interactive webinar, although they did a very nice job of integrating audience questions into the course's main theme of "openness" in meaning and interpretation of modern poetry. I even got one of my questions addressed. I'd asked about the stanza break between the lines "Grease is the way" and "I am feeling" in Rae Armantrout's "The Way". It might not have been a brilliantly insightful question, but was an element which I felt neglected in the discussion and a way in which Armantrout used the familiar in an interesting and non-familiar way (the first two thirds of the poem were made of "found language" - sentences borrowed from elsewhere, including three lines from the musical Grease). I ended my forum post by backing off the question a bit with an uncharacteristically self-deprecating "...or am I over-reading this". That was the part of the question they really dug into, beginning a spirited defense of "over-reading" - or at least of sincerely looking as deeply into a poem as one wishes to and being open to whatever one finds there. I'm glad to have sparked a discussion, and will certainly remember to express my opinions and questions more confidently in the future!

The next webinar seems to be scheduled tonight at 10PM. That's pretty close to my going-to-sleep hour, so there's no promise that I'll be there live to blog about it. Expect more of a full review of this course, including reflections on what I've learned, here in this space after it comes to a close in seven weeks or so.
And yes, I know this post is coming over a week after the event. Why so long? As hinted before, I was on vacation! Tune in later this week to hear about some of our adventures in the happiest place on earth.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Back to Brooklyn - an evening with the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers

I'm reviving my Flash Friday today with a quick piece I wrote for last night's BSFW meeting. Who's BSFW? We're a writing critique/support/social group convening twice  monthly in a strange and wondrous land known as Brooklyn. The third Thursday each month is short story critiques, and novels (cut into digestable chunks) on Sundays. As a short fiction writer myself, I particularly enjoy the Thursday meetings. In addition to some much-appreciated feedback on my own work, I find that reading others' helps me to think like a writer.

It's also nice to discuss writing and speculative literature in general with like-minded people. Before last night's critiques we had a spirited debate on whether it is appropriate, inappropriate, or even a moral duty to support a writer whose politics one detests by buying his books. In particular, should one buy Orson Scott Card's books or even subscribe to his online fiction magazine "Intergalactic Medicine Show". (For those with no idea what I'm talking about, Card is the author of many well-known science fiction books, including the much-loved Ender's Game. He's also a member of the boar of the National Organization for Marriage and vocal opponent of marriage equality). 

On one hand, our interactions with a living artist can affect his choices which, in this case, may be a good thing. On the other, the work should speak for itself and Card's early work had consistent messages of tolerance for the other. His later work, sadly, seems to be tainted by his growing bigotry. In defending her choice to participate in a Card tribute anthology, World Fantasy Award winner suggested a separation between the personal and political. She also pointed out quite fairly that, while he is an insufferable bigot, Card was also very instrumental in helping others better learn the craft of writing. (Lest you think Kowal doesn't care about the political, see here for her reaction to the almost-publication of a blatantly racist novel in Weird Tales).

After all the spirited discussion, we had time for sharp, insightful critiques of the stories submitted for this week as well as a few minutes at the end to read the results of our Flash challenge for the month. Brad gives us one of these for each session, and it's a neat way to get the creative juices going. This week's prompt was a photo, which I included in the text of the story below. Those of us who finished the challenge read our work aloud at the meeting; I've read it here for you to at least somewhat repeat the experience. I included the photo prompt within the story.

The Right Doctor
by L. Czhorat Suskin

She'd nagged about the snoring for months, but I held firm, always waiting for the right doctor. A doctor like my father or his father would have seen. No, not their doctors. Not an old man with shaky hands, but one like they'd seenin the day. A man with a firm gaze and a firm grip and honest tools of stainless steel. Doctors these days? Skinny kids with limp hands and limp wrists suitable only frail, plastic toylike things. Women, even. I got nothing against women - I mean, I wouldn't put up with her nagging if I did. Still, if someone's digging in my head, my nose, my body ... that should be a man. It just should.

I didn't even believe her about the snoring, but still, once I found the right doctor I went, didn't I?  That's just part of what a man's gotta do. Nobody can say that I don't listen to my woman.

I knew that Doctor Roberts was the right doctor from the first phonecall. Firm, calm voice with just enough of a smart-guy accent to let me know that I wasn't trusting my nose to some rube. His location was weird - I mean, how many docs run their clinics on the docks in a decommissioned submarine - but like I said, a man's gotta do what he's gotta do. With rents so damn high I'm surprised more docs don't try it. Maybe Doc Roberts will start something.

So I walk the last few blocks, past shiny new apartmnent buildings of glass and steel, past the meat-packing district turned meat-market, past rows of squat, honest warehouses turned lofts and hipster nests and fancy little stores. To one of the last honest corners of the city, one of the last almost-working docks, to the doctor's pocket-size ship, a floating clinic clad in honest grey steel.

The doctor was smaller than I'd exected, with a lean sharp face like a city rat. One of them types you can't really place. Maybe Pakistani or Indian or Arab or something. He lead me into a little room, a strong room, all painted steel bulkheads and bare floors and bare lightbulbs.

"Please pardon my humility of office. You know how it is. Real estate."

I took his hand. Slender but strong. He had a good shake. "Don't I know it. And this is great. Feels honest."

A twinkle flashed across his eyes. "To business then, shall we? You don't seem to me to be a man who likes to be kept waiting, beating around the bush. You say you have trouble sleeping? You snore, yes?"

"So my wife says. What can you do?"

After the usual looking, poking, prodding, he stroked that pointy chin of his and pulled a shiny stainless-steel thing out of a drawer. A long wicked-curved tube narrow and gleaming, trigger like a gun, gently contoured handgrip. He pressed it in, into my nose, past that deep place where tobasco sauce goes if you use too much of it almost to the back of my eyeball he squeezed the trigger and his face reflected in the stainless steel looked stretched looked reptilian and I heard the hissing from behind my eyes and the burning inside of my nose and the the burning in back of my eyeballs and the top of my skull no it didn't burn it froze cold blew through my nostrils cold like winter like the winter wind through the canyons of the city and it rushed through my head screamed through my head

and my breath froze and

and silence.

In the silence
I heard the trigger on his device click off.
The glide of a drawer.
The clickclickclick of his fingerjoints clickclickclicking open as he set it down

My breath was gone, leaving me silence. Enough silence to hear the click of the trigger and the drawer and his fingerjoints.

Silence enough to hear the voice of god. Whispering to me. His breath fills me now, feeds me now. He knows I did right.

And now, now that I have his voice in my ear - now that I found the right doctor I'll need not listen to her again. 


That's all I have for today. See you all next week!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Back to School (or why no book reviews lately?)

I've talked about AV, about writing, and about reading on here, but since April's review of Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamour in Glass there have been no new book reviews. There've been posts about my various AV training endeavors (with Crestron, Extron, and a trip way out west to meet the good people at Biamp), but that's just stuff; how things work and how to do them rather than stories, the best of which illuminate something deeper in the human condition. Have I taken two months off from reading? Been reading but neglecting to write reviews? Or is it something else?

As you likely guessed from the title, it's something else. I am slowly, perhaps belatedly, trying to make up for the weakness in the liberal arts part of my college education (I went to a school with an intense science, math, and engineering focus. Humanities classes were pretty much an afterthought). Why? First, a genuine love of learning. Second, I see it as a part of being educated, which is a good thing. It sets an example for my children of the value of learning for its own sake, and keeps me mentally agile by stretching parts of my mind that I would otherwise not use much.

A screencapture from PHI-181, of Yale Open Courses
One current stop is Philosophy 181 - the Human Condition from the good people at Yale Open Courses. Structurally, it's a lecture class in which reading lists are published online along with a video of the lecture. Production values are quite good, with crisp, clear audio and video quality more than adequate for its purpose. There does not seem to be a direct record feed from the room's AV system; instead,  content is viewable through a camera-view of what appears to be a front-projection screen. This gives the quality you'd expect; mostly intelligible, but visibly washed-out.

Reading lists, homework assignments and the like are provided in .pdf format. Students are, alas, on their own for actually acquiring the reading material and there is no interactive element; no grading of assignments, communication with instructor or staff, or anything else. As such, it's more an archive of a lecture course than an actual course. I had a strong "what you put in is what you get out" vibe from this, and so long as I diligently read the course material I feel that I'm learning something. Hats off to Yale for putting this online.
(As an aside, one of my last AV integration projects was the addition of tracking cameras to a lecture hall at another university. It uses a nifty system from the good folks at Vaddio which uses a fixed camera to follow infrared emitters on a lanyard presenters can wear around their necks. A control unit pans and tilts the tracking camera to follow the IR so the presenter is always in-frame. There's even an option to add a wireless lapel mic to the lanyard for either voice-lift or audio recording. I love seeing how the kinds of systems with which I work can intersect with my "real life")

Coursera's Cryptography Course
I've also been checking out some online courses from Coursera. These are even simpler technically, as there's no large-scale room system. Instructors have a camera, mic, and some kind of interactive touch-screen with annotation software. The majority of the lectures are just desktop slides plus annotations streamed along with the instructor's voice, although there's a Modern Poetry course which has a single camera with an operator who doesn't seem to realize that panning really fast makes people a touch seasick. Overall, they've done a nice job of fusing technology with content, and creating something that feels as if it's made for today's world.

I'll perhaps give a more complete review of the Yale course and the Modern Poetry course once I finish them. There are also, as always, more projects on the horizon. What's up with myself and others?

  1. After a longish absence, I'm back with the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers Group. Find us on the web, twitter, or Facebook. It's a terrific writing group, offering prompts, social meetings, and moral support in addition to sharp, intelligent critiques by some very talented people.
  2. The latest collaborative blog-hop challenge is over. See Nicole Pyles here  for the conclusion. I'm not as nice as she; I'd have given a less happy ending. 
  3. I've landed in a new spot in the AV industry! See my next pixels post for my transition to the consulting side of the world with the talented team at Shen,  Milsom and Wilke, and a good-bye to the hands-on part of my professional life. 
  4. A shout-out to Steampunk Emma Goldman, who'se contributing to A Steampunk's Guide to Sex in which a talented group of writers puts some "steam" into their "steampunk". 
That's all for now. More, as always, to come.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Guest Post - Feedback - Taking It - Giving It - Enjoying It

Hi everyone! Today we have something a a treat: a guest-post from the talented author Sophie Duncan. Thanks for visiting, Sophie!

Thanks to Leonard for hosting me today.

Feedback - Taking It - Giving It - Enjoying It

O feedback, glorious and treacherous love of my life.

Okay, so maybe that was a bit melodramatic, but any writer who says they don't love feedback is telling fibs. Any writer who says they aren't nervous about feedback is also probably not being totally honest either, because, like the Sword of Damocles, it swings above our egos ready to plunge down with the fatal stab of 'the one star review'. The old advice for authors never to read reviews is probably the best advice going, but, if, like me, you really can't leave well alone, then read on for my thoughts on the subject.

Your Writer Needs You

I'm both a writer and an avid reader, and since I have started publishing books, I have to say it has made me a more considerate reviewer. This doesn't mean I only put nice things in reviews, it means I actually think about reviewing a book that I have read. I don't need Amazon's auto-generated emails to ask me to go and review my purchases any more, I do it actively, because I know how much decent reviews mean to writers, especially those of us just starting out. I'm a Brit, I like to be nice, polite, it's the way I was brought up, so I don't go in for scathing reviews, but I do give what I hope is constructive criticism, i.e. I explain why I gave a book the rating I gave it. Naming no names in this post, but you can go and see my reviews on GoodReads and if you're interested, there was one book which I gave 3 stars because I liked the story, but the author's attempt to set the scene in Scotland with a university post-grad failed because he didn't know the university system in the UK and, it being a murder mystery, he also didn't understand the police system in Scotland. Neither problem stopped me reading the book, although, if I was reading it in company my companions sometimes got an 'OMG No!' or a 'Not Like That!' running commentary, but it was a fun read and I recommended he get a Brit Picker for his book.

I have also left a 4 star review for a book I didn't finish and, before you start stamping and yelling at me for falsifying a review, let me explain. I found the book by browsing Amazon, I tried out the book and I got a significant way through it. However, despite knowing on an intellectual level that the book was well written and engaging, I just did not gel with the story or the characters, but I knew other people would. I was not going to penalise the author because the book wasn't to my taste and I thought it deserved recommending to those friends of mine who I knew would enjoy it.

Then there are the books I genuinely can't stop raving about, I'll post far and wide to let all my friends and acquaintances know I'm in love with a set of books. If you've been reading my other blog tour posts then you may have spotted one such set of supernatural books, since I've referenced them a couple of times. I even wrote fanfic for them!

Reading Reviews

I don't expect authors to get in touch about my reviews, but if they do, I don't mind engaging with them, since I never put anything in a review I am not happy to stand behind, after all, I'm not a troll. As an author, I don't generally engage with my reviewers, not on places like Amazon and Smashwords, except for maybe 'liking' the odd favourable review :). I do read my reviews, sorry, for those of you tutting, I'm am no where near famous enough, nor do I have nearly enough reviews to engage that professional detachment I'm supposed to develop. I like reading a good review, it makes me feel good, it gives me encouragement. I also read the bad reviews as well. Only one has made me want to spit tacks, because, well, it wasn't about the book, it was an objection to the fact I included same-sex romance in the book, the person even said they liked the story, but still gave me a 1-star because of the 'gay sex' of which there was none. Now, there's a mechanism on Amazon for getting 'malicious' reviews removed, and I might have had grounds, but I stepped back, I took a deep breath and I did not get involved. And, y'know what, it actually turned out to be a good thing, because I then had a collection of reviews from other readers with various levels of support for the book pointing out how wrong that review was. So, lesson learned, it didn't stop me from reading reviews, but it did underline the fact that, as the author, I should leave well alone.

Sad Face

Since we're talking about reviews, I'm going to touch on the fizzling issue of fake reviews that raised it's head again recently thanks to the NYTimes article on the subject. For those of you who haven't read it, the article interviews an entrepreneur who set up a company selling reviews to authors for a price, e.g. for $1000 he would provide fifty reviews for your book. This is not a new story, fake reviews have been around for as long as the review system has been there (please don't try and tell me 'professional' critics can't be influenced), but the internet has provided a scale of fakery unparalleled in history. There are also author groups where authors can trade reviews, some which maintain that the reviews must be 5-star. I'm going to put my stake in the ground here and say, this kind of thing depresses me utterly. I'm not talking here about authors who read other author's work and genuinely like it (I'm one of those, I don't expect anything for my review, even if the person is my friend, I don't feel obliged to be glowing in my review), I'm talking here about money or favours (i.e. an equivalent good review) being exchanged for good reviews. It's deplorable, pointless and undermines the system of customer reviews.

Some commentators have been suggesting that this has broken the system to the point where it's useless, but I don't agree. There are always those who try to beat the system, skew it their way, money does talk in all walks of life, but I don't think that means those of us who want to be honest and share our views should give up. In fact, the more of us that there are, the better. I encourage every genuine reader who has liked or disliked a book to go out there and leave their opinion. It doesn't have to long, it doesn't have to be a glowing endorsement, it just has to be your thoughts. I know, as a writer, I'm always grateful just to know someone is reading my books.


Leaving behind stars and reviews, that is not the only thing feedback is about. I come from a fanfic background and one of the things I really enjoy is discussing my work with an interested reader. There's nothing quite like chewing over the cud of your characters' motivations and your plot decisions with someone who is willing to challenge them and ask 'why'. For a start, it's nice to know someone took the time to read the story and then for them to consider enough of it to actually want to ask questions, well, it's an ego boost and it's fun. It's not something I get a lot of chance to do with my published work, well, not yet, here's to hoping that sometime in the future I'll make some contacts with book clubs and the like interested in these kinds of exchanges. I think these kinds of conversations are useful for a writer, because, sometimes, a perspective comes through that you'd never thought of, which can all be grist to the writing mill.

So, may I finish by saying thank you to everyone who has ever left a genuine review. You are stars, you have the gratitude of writers everywhere. We are a delicate bunch, our egos appreciate the boost and our drives for perfection need the criticism. Thank you for sharing.

Thank You

Sophie Duncan

Sophie was born with the writing bug in her blood, boring her primary school teachers with pages of creative writing and killing her first typewriter from over use when she was thirteen. She began publishing her work on line while at university where she discovered the internet and fanfiction. It took another decade for Sophie to realise her long-time dream of releasing her own original fiction as an author through Wittegen Press.

Death In The Family (Heritage is Deadly #1)

Leaving a good London school with solid prospects, Tom Franklin has the world at his feet. Yet one thing has always haunted his perfect life: his dreams. When Tom discovers that the nightmarish images of dark places and even darker instincts are in fact repressed memories from his early childhood, he must face the heritage from his birth-father, a savage vampire known only as Raxos.

Realising his memories are his only hope of controlling his awakening instincts, Tom returns to, Coombedown, the sleepy, Cornish village in which he was born, unknowing that the night-breed in his veins will lead him into danger.

Death In The Family is a young adult, paranormal novel.

Death In The Family Literary+ Blog Tour Schedule:

Literary+ is a mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tive which was founded and led by Shen Hart. This is a time of evo­lu­tion and progress, the mar­ket is being opened up to e-books and self-publication. As a fel­low writer, Shen under­stands that self-publication is a hard and often lonely road. She started Lit­er­ary+ to bring together authors and related cre­ative spe­cial­ities with the goal of help­ing each other. With a tight knit, friendly and wel­com­ing com­mu­nity at its core, Lit­er­ary+ holds a strong focus on mar­ket­ing. As Lit­er­ary+ con­tin­ues to grow and evolve it will use inno­vat­ing, orig­i­nal and exper­i­men­tal mar­ket­ing meth­ods and schemes to get its member’s books into their reader’s hands.