Critique Groups and Fiction Editing

No matter how busy I get, I try to always make time for critique groups. I run the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup’s critique sessions*, and I participate in two private ones. While they’re a great excuse to socialize according to the Swedish model of “plan out your social calendar two weeks in advance,” I also consider them indispensable professional development when it comes to fiction editing.

"What I sing when I forget to make plans 2 weeks in advance with my Swedish friends" and a gif of a blonde woman singing "All by myself"
Post from the extremely relateable An Immigrant in Sweden tumblr. Screencapped because Tumblr’s embed code is a mess.

Most of my editing has been academic writing (scientific academic writing at that), which is its own linguistic kettle of fish; the good news for me is that by the time I get a paper, I only have to worry about the mechanics of the language. There might be technical jargon I have to parse, and judgment calls to make on whether a turn of phrase would be unclear to specialists (as opposed to the layperson), but those are details that tend towards the relatively objective. Few people read academic articles for fun; “style” here is about clarity rather than sparkling prose, and as long as the sentence says what the author intends, with precision and no ambiguity, everything’s good.

The absolute opposite applies to editing fiction (and, to an extent, popular non-fiction). Suddenly you’re in big picture land. Where do you start?

Critiquing, for me, is a way to edge into the shallow end of developmental fiction editing. It’s easy to say whether I like something, hate it, or just don’t care about it; it’s much, much harder to pinpoint why that might be. But being forced to do that on a regular basis (I’d say that three weeks out of four I’m meeting with one of my critique groups) makes me slow down and pay attention to writing and think about what works for me and what doesn’t. Other people catch things that I missed, too, no matter how many times or how slowly or carefully I read a manuscript. They ask questions I wouldn’t think to ask; I can take those questions and apply them later to other manuscripts. They challenge my suggestions and force me to back up what I’m saying with solid argumentation beyond “I just like it better this way.”

More ambitious freelancers than me would call this “networking” and I guess it’s that, too. Except that’s not why I do it; I don’t anticipate picking up a single paid project out of my critique groups, and I don’t know if I’d want to. But I’m fine with making my editor self publicly available, so to speak. It’s my equivalent of a free trial. If you like the preview, you can purchase the whole version!

*Full disclosure: I’m also a sponsor of this Meetup, which basically amounts to splitting the annual Meetup fee with the other woman who runs it in exchange for having my logo buried three clicks deep somewhere on our page. I don’t really benefit from you joining it or anything.

Friday 5: Vive le Difference

Fried chicken in paper boxes.
Image courtesy Brian Chan at Unsplash

What’s a food that tastes completely unlike anything else you can think of?

This one is taking a lot of thought. I mean, lots of things have a relatively distinct taste, right? Even if everything also tastes like chicken.

I imagine surströmming is singular in its taste. (I say that having never tried it. I don’t dig on fish.) I also have a hard time with the artificial sweetener Splenda: it leaves a distinctly coppery aftertaste that ruins anything it touches.

What’s a movie that’s completely unlike any movie you can think of?

Russian Ark  is a weird but surprisingly enjoyable artsy look at the history of the St. Petersburg Hermitage that’s all one long 90-ish minute shot.

Who’s a musician or band you consider completely unoriginal but whom you still like?

I think it’s a given that most popular top 40 bands and artists cleave to the lowest common denominator instead of doing anything groundbreaking, but most of the music on my phone is popular top 40 bops (and obscure international indie bands) because it’s good workout music.

Who or what are two people or things you keep mixing up with one another?

To this day I still confuse Silent Hill and Resident Evil (the video games, not the movies). No doubt there are countless celebrities that I mix up as well, because I’m not good at keeping track of famous names and faces.

What’s something you’ll do this weekend that’s different from your normal weekend activity?

Concerning the weekend after I’m writing this, there’s a small chance I’ll be attending the Japanese Flea Market in Sundbyberg. Concerning the weekend after this will actually go up (about a month later), it’s hard to say.

Radiance: Book Review

The June selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. I didn’t know it, but Valente was already on my book radar thanks to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Now I’m wondering if I can bring myself to read it.

UK cover of Catherynne M. Valente's "Radiance."

 

Author: Cathrynne M. Valente

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.77

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: In an alternate history, where the human race masters interplanetary travel at around the same time they figure out movies, a young woman disappears on Venus while shooting a documentary about a ravaged diving village.

Content warning: Some surreal gore here and there.

Recommended audience: Fans of postmodern literature, alternate history fans

In-depth thoughts: I wanted to like this one and I didn’t.

If I had to pick one word to describe Radiance, it would be “overindulgent.” The structure Valente chooses (or rather, the lack of structure) does nothing to contain this tendency towards overblown wordiness or direct us to an understanding either of events or character.

Take, for example, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like Radiance, there is a whole bunch of documentation (rather than narration), but in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, it all works to move the story forward and every single scrap in there contributes something to the story. Not so in Radiance. I quickly sorted out the bits that were most likely to move the plot along, read those, skipped the rest. At least the book is well labeled, which makes for easy fast-forwarding.

The other thing that makes Radiance overindulgent is the style. Valente’s writing is, as another reviewer put it, “high-octane purple prose.” It’s overwrought, it’s too much, and while I get it’s supposed to be an art deco gothic and therefore can be expected to be a bit much, it’s a bit much everywhere. It works in some situations (gossip columns, a few personal diaries) and falls flat in others (transcripts of conversations: actual human beings don’t talk like that).

There’s another layer to Radiance, or at least there’s supposed to be, about how the narratives of our lives and celebrity lives are constructed and so on and so forth, but it was just really hard to care because the writing and presentation is so distant from what it’s conveying that it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. It’s impossible even to know them, for the most part.

Valente is clearly a competent, if not talented, writer, but in Radiance she gets caught up in her own hype and it feels like no one around her told her “no.” As far as novels for EFL students go, or postmodern science fiction, there are better choices out there.

DuoLingo Updates Spring 2018

Any good app will be consistently updated, if not necessarily often. Bugs are fixed, security flaws are fixed, improvements are made, among other things. But DuoLingo recently made a fairly substantial change to their model in a relatively recent update.

Earlier, the visual cue for “mastery” of a lesson was the icon appearing in gold rather than full color.

 

This has been replaced with a “crowns” level in a given lesson.

Screenshot of the DuoLingo Android app.
RIP my 54-day streak.

Whether this is a better or worse model than the “golden” badges probably comes down to personal psychology. Some people will find it more motivating than the old model, and vice versa. What I personally find annoying is that there seems to be no way to test out of the crown levels (the same way you can test out of the initial levels). Really, DuoLingo, I promise that I’ve mastered reading and writing Cyrillic and Hangul. I shouldn’t need to sit through redundant, tedious review just to prove to the algorithm that “no really, I got this.” This was also true in the old model; you periodically had to refresh your levels even in the very, very basics. But it’s more marked here, I think. Maybe if you get to level 5 in a lesson, DuoLingo considers it “mastered” and you never have to review it again? I haven’t had enough initiative to find out, yet.

My big issue, though, is less with this change and more, after years of using DuoLingo in a variety of languages, that the SRS system underlying the app is surprisingly primitive. It’s static and top-down rather than genuinely responsive.

DuoLingo doesn’t atomize based on individual lexical units, but rather simply on its own lessons. While a given lesson will repeat a question you got wrong (and not let you complete the lesson until you get it right), the system as a whole seems to have no memory of what you’ve messed up over the long term, because it’s only keeping track of the last time you reviewed a particular lesson, not which words or phrases you consistent mess up.

Let’s say that I have a comfortable mastery of 60% of the words in a given lesson, struggle a bit with 30%, and then struggle a lot with the last 10%. A productive review session would focus on that 40% I struggle with and sprinkle the ones I’ve mastered throughout, both to maintain them and also for motivational purposes. That kind of data would be trivial to track: which words do I get right every time; which ones do I almost get, or forget somewhat frequently; which ones do I only get after repeated attempts or provide totally wrong answers for. It would, presumably, also be trivial to come up with an algorithm to prioritize future lessons based on that data. That’s exactly what Anki does when you choose “incorrect” or “hard” rather than “good” or “easy,” after all.

But a DuoLingo review session will simply be 60% “needless” review and 40% productive review (depending exactly on how your own mastery of a lesson breaks down). It’s a wasted to chance to review what actually needs reviewing, and it possibly borders on over-reviewing (which can actually be counterproductive!). The “weak words” that will be tested in the next review aren’t the ones you’ve gotten wrong in the past; it’s all of the material from whatever lesson in the unit has gone the longest without review. It doesn’t matter if half the words in that lesson are ones you actually know well.

The other problem is that simple review (that blue barbell in the corner) doesn’t seem to count towards any crown levels. The XP you earn at least counts towards your daily goal, so you can maintain your streak (a powerful motivator for many Anki users), but it seems silly to not connect those reviews to crown levels as well. But maybe this is simply a bug that will be addressed in a new update.

Friday 5: Aloon Again, Naturally

With which Looney Tunes character do you have the most in common?

I didn’t care much for Looney Tunes as a kid. The physical humor that’s inherent in the genre has never been my cup of tea. I’ll cheat and say Shirley the Loon from Tiny Toons.

Who or what are your metaphorical Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote?

I don’t think I have a Wile E. Coyote (I hope not!). But we all have a Road Runner, don’t we? Mine is a totally stress-free vacation. One day…

What’s up, doc?

That’s all, folks!

When did you last hear some opera music?

I listen to a lot of classical music while I edit and translate. That doesn’t usually include opera, since I find vocals distracting, but the Fidelio overture came up in my playlist yesterday.

What’s a good life lesson you learned from Looney Tunes?

You can’t always get what you want, and often when you do, it’s not as good as you hoped it would be.

How I Became a North Korean: Book Review

I’ve been interested in Korean politics ever since I lived and taught there in 2009/2011/2012. It’s an “automatic read” category of literature and books for me, which is why How I Became a North Korean was my first impulse library book in over three years.

The cover of "How I Became a North Korean" by Krys Lee

 

Author: Krys Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.5

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Danny, Jangmi, and Yongju are three young people unexpectedly caught up in the complicated web of North Korean refugee movement along the Chinese/North Korea border.

Content warning: There is an unwanted abortion that happens outside the story, and a couple of murders that happen right on the page, though not particularly gruesome or extended.

Recommended audience: Those interested in Korean politics and North Korean defectors

In-depth thoughts: The book summary promises a “found family” sort of story, which is one of my favorite tropes. The story doesn’t really deliver on that promise, however. The three main characters don’t interact all that much and their connection to each other, emotionally as well as story-wise, is tenuous at best. Nor does Lee really find a strong voice for each perspective, meaning that the different parts of the story and the different characters begin to blend together.

There is also the question of how much of a foreign language to include when you’re writing, in English, a story where no one speaks English. Some choices were the same as I would make, but some felt a little unnecessary. Of course, Lee is bilingual and I’m not—I really only know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the expression goes—so maybe her Korean/English bilingual readers would disagree with me.

Ultimately, the story moves along at a good clip and Lee’s writing style is fluid, so it’s a quick read. But at the end of it, I felt like I would have rather read an account of all of her research rather than the novel I had just finished.

Asymptote: April 2018

The cover of the April 2018 issue of Asymptote. A blue ink drawing of an urban landscape and a red ink drawing of a jungle landscape intersect, like a Venn diagram, in a purple tree with a bird sitting in its branches.
Image courtesy Asymptote

One of the online publications I subscribe to is the journal Asymptote.  It puts out quarterly editions (plus regular blog posts) that center on English translations of international writing: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and even art. Asymptote first came to my attention by way of the equally excellent (and perfectly named) Lit Hub newsletter. They aspire to be truly international in scope, it seems; the list of “original languages” you can search from is remarkable. My roster of publications that I’m supporting financially is currently full up, but if and when my budget allows, I’ll definitely be subscribing. The good news is that Asymptote doesn’t fuss with paywalls or otherwise restricting its content, so everything is free for you to peruse if you so desire!

Since I also think that short-form writing  is great reading practice for people who are short on time, I’ll link to some of my favorite pieces from the latest issue here. Or maybe you can just browse Asymptote’s archives yourself and see if there are any writers or stories from your mother tongue(s) that have already been translated!

Anyway, my favorites from the April 2018 issue!

There were two short stories I enjoyed a lot, Taklamakan Misdelivery (part of their special feature focusing on Korean literature) and Tick Constellations (part of the issue’s regular offerings).

As far as the reviews go, this take on Little Reunions made me really curious about Eileen Chang, a writer I’d never heard of before. The story behind how No Place To Lay One’s Head was nearly lost to time and then not is, on its own, a compelling case for making space for the book on your to-read list.

And finally, in nonfiction, Unhappiness is Other People may or may not be channeling Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” on the sly, but it’s raw and primal and relateable. And as the descendant of Poles who immigrated to the US from Galicia at the turn of the 20th century, I found the understated and matter-of-fact The Emperor of America nonetheless arresting (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Friday 5: Welcome to the Terrordome

A figure wearing a white bucket on their head, standing in the middle of a brightly lit concrete industrial setting with orange air ducts.
Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

What’s the scariest movie you’ve seen?

I don’t know about scariest as such, but the most unpleasant movie I’ve ever had to watch is a Japanese one called Blood and Bones. Every trigger warning ever for that movie; I actually had to hit pause a couple of times and take a break for something more pleasant.

In the same vein, Pan’s Labyrinth also messed me up. I went to see it with a bunch of friends on a Friday night, and afterwards the plan was to have a Dungeons and Dragons and beers session. Instead I just curled up in a ball on the couch without drinking or talking to anyone for the rest of the night.

I think the last movie thing that genuinely terrified me, though, were the TV commercials for Bram Stoker’s Dracula back in the 90s. I had nightmares about vampires for a solid week after catching a glimpse of that ad.

What most recently startled you?

I guess my alarm?

What’s something in your residence that’s frightening?

I have a postcard with art that I guess someone might find frightening but I just really like. It’s original art by a friend of mine, an altered photo she took of Buddhist statuary in Japan.

What kinds of social settings cause you anxiety?

Social settings where I’m not in charge of something or running something but where I just have to open-endedly interact with other human beings. So you know, most of them.

What’s something you are no longer afraid of?

I’ve 99% conquered my fear of getting hit by a car. As a kid I was terrified of blacktop pavement because I was afraid that cars lurked around every corner, waiting for me to step on the road just so they could run me over. (One summer when I was maybe 6 years old or so, I just straight up exposure therapy’d myself by running back and forth across the street in front of our house, as if proving to myself SEE NOTHING HAPPENED IT’S FINE.) I still get nervous crossing the street, but you don’t have to carry me across parking lots anymore!

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: Book Review

I can’t imagine a title more attention grabbing than one about badass librarians. And for anyone who loves books, knowledge, or the written word, the story of how a modern Library of Alexandria tragedy was avoided is something that gets you right in the gut.

The cover of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

 

Author: Joshua Hammer

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.47

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Abdel Kader Haidara, after years of careful negotiations and curation, managed to assemble a peerless collection of ancient Malian manuscripts, both Islamic and secular. But when Al Qaeda took over Timbuktu, the manuscripts—works of art in themselves that also advocated for religious tolerance and scientific curiosity, even in the 13th century CE—became a target of Islamic extremists. Haidara and other archivists worked hard to smuggle these literary treasures to a safety.

Recommended audience: Those interested in current events; those interested in Malian history; anyone who still despairs over the loss of the library of Alexandria

In-depth thoughts: The title suggests that the book will focus on the manuscripts and the mission to save them. In reality, the focus is more on the sectarian violence in Mali in the early 2010s. An extraordinary amount of detail about developments and actors in the political situation is provided when a simple summary would have sufficed. There are also fairly substantial histories both of Timbuktu’s history as a center of intellectualism and art and of Haidara’s treks across the Sahara to obtain these manuscripts, of course, but those feel a little more relevant to the topic at hand. I suspect that the lefthand turns into Al Qaeda’s takeover of Timbuktu are the reason that I kept falling out of the book and why it took me several months to finish.

Stockholm Kulturnatt 2018

A fortunate turn of events meant that a little over a week ago, I was able to finish my usual Saturday obligations earlier than usual and meet a friend in town to attend Stockholm Kulturnatt.

Even though Kulturnatt has been an annual event in Stockholm since 2010, this year was the first I’d heard of it. I’m glad I was able to make time this year, but I’m also a little disappointed at all of the years I’ve missed!

I didn’t know quite what to expect, except free admission to assorted “cultural events.” But I’d been thinking recently that I don’t really do enough to actually enjoy Stockholm (aside from my annual treks to Litteraturmässan), so Kulturnatten seemed like a good way to remedy that. I met up with a friend from Meetup, Thomas, with plans to meet other friends of his later in the evening. We queued forever, which seemed ridiculous since it was a free event.

“Maybe they’re counting heads for fire capacity?” I suggested.

“But the building’s huge!”

“Bureaucracy.”

As it turned out, the bottleneck that was leading to queuing was the clerk at the desk, explaining the evening’s program (a couple of lectures and a self-administered quiz) to visitors.

“Jesus, is this it? This is so awkward. Can’t we just walk past?” I asked no one in a low voice, but shuffled up to the desk to hear the presentation nonetheless. No ticket was given, no name taken, nothing. We smiled at the clerk and took the flyer and the quiz and then went on our way. A safe distance from the counter, we laughed.

“That was the entire reason for the queue. That was, literally, the most Swedish thing I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “People queuing because they’re too polite to just walk by. Oh, God. In Britain people would have figured it out and just walked past, given a little nod. Oh, Sweden.”

We had a wander around until his Couchsurfing friends showed up; a mutual Finnish friend of ours had been ahead of us in the queue and was off somewhere with her own friends.  The Army Museum wouldn’t have been my first choice, so I didn’t pay too much attention to anything (though I still learned about the S-363 incident, so that’s something); I was pleasantly surprised to see placards featuring wartime literature (George Orwell, All Quiet on the Western FrontBödeln). By the time the rest of the group arrived, Thomas and I had pretty much had our fill, so after confirming we’d missed the last lecture of the evening, we waited by the entrance for the Couchsurfers to finish the quiz.

The de facto leader of our little group, by virtue of her nerdy enthusiasm, wanted to go to the Nobel museum, so once she and the other Couchsurfer finished the quiz, off we went. Meanwhile, the Finn and her friends had since departed for the Finnish Institute without catching up to us—ships in the night. Thomas and I stayed with the Couchsurfing friends at the Nobel museum for just a brief moment; Thomas read the mood and came to the conclusion that the male half of the Couchsurfing couple was really interested in a date night with Excitable Nerd, so we broke off and made for SF Bokhandeln, with a pit stop at Storkyrkan.

“I’ve never been in here,” he commented.

“I don’t think I have, either.”

They were having a choral performance which I would have been happy to stay and listen to, but I also took the time to wander around a bit like a tourist. (I didn’t think to take any pictures, though. I guess not that much of a tourist.)

The interior of Storkyrkan in Stockholm, Sweden. The view is down the center aisle, facing a stained glass rossette. On the left hand side is a spiral staircase attached to a column, leading to a pulpit. The ceilings are high and vaulted; the columns are red brick. The seats on either side are empty.
Image courtesy Holger Ellgaard.

Such opulence and artistic finery surprised me in a nominally Lutheran church, and I said as much to Thomas.

“Yeah, that didn’t come until the Communists. They used to be Greek Orthodox or whatever before that.”

I thought of the occasional midnight Easter and Christmas services I had attended at my dad’s childhood Eastern Orthodox church, so much bigger and fancier than the Methodist church I had grown up with. “That explains it.”

We both had a chuckle over the prayer candles that now, in addition to (or maybe instead of?) the donation box, simply had a sign with a phone number where you could Swish your donation.

After a few minutes, we turned tail and headed for SF Bokhandeln. We were too late for any of their events, so we just browsed. I ended up picking up Hanabi, which I hadn’t seen the last time I was there. I also picked up a book for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club that I was having a hard time getting from the library. I’ve since started reading it and unfortunately I’m having a bit of buyer’s remorse. So it goes.

“I wonder how long it would take you, if you just sat down and tried to read the whole shop. Years?” Thomas wondered, picking up and putting down a generic-looking space opera book. “Like, this is the kind of stuff I want to have time to read, but I just end up reading the summary somewhere instead.”

“I mean, not all books are good books. Some are only worth the Wikipedia plot synopsis.”

Finnish friend had shaken her group and landed at a bar on Sveavägen and asked us to come join her. The weather was nice, so we capped off the night with a walk from Gamla Stan to Hötorget. So clear! So warm! Nothing like moving a few degrees’ latitude north to make you appreciate the shift in seasons. If this isn’t nice, what is? But it had been a long day for me (I was up at 6 am!), so after the walk, I bowed out of drinks and went home.

There were still lots of events that I wish I had attended (concerts, primarily), but for my first year at Kulturnatt and going in completely unprepared, I had a really good time. I’ll certainly be marking my calendar for next year’s, and hopefully a little more planning means I’ll get a lot more out of it!