National Novel Writing Month 2018

Today marks the two-thirds point of National Novel Writing Month (or, if you’re hip and in the know, NaNoWriMo). For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month is a worldwide event where participants sit down and try their best to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. The math works out to 1,667 words every day. Here, on day 20, people should be at a little over 33,000 words in their manuscript.

As I have since 2014, this year I help administer Stockholm’s assorted regional events. This sounds impressive, though it mainly consists of stuffing envelopes for the kick-off event and then helping either set up or clean up when I can, in addition to directing people who attend my own writing meetup to the NaNo website and the Stockholm NaNo forum and Facebook group. When the stars align, I help run the Halloween Head Start event, but the next one won’t be until 2020 (barring someone becoming fabulously wealthy and buying a house where we can host all of the NaNoWriMo things).

I also write, when I can. As I have since 2015, I’m rebelling by revising an older novel (one I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014) instead of writing 50,000 new words. Hopefully by this point I’m on track with my own goals, but since I’m writing this a few days ahead of the game, who can say? In case I’m not, and in case you’re not, I want to pass on a little pep:

It’s okay to fail at NaNo. It’s okay to miss the word goal, it’s okay to give up and decide it’s not for you, or that you hate your story, or whatever. There is an unrelenting optimism from official NaNoWriMo headquarters that can feel no less than oppressive at times, and so I’d like to take a moment and tip the scales back a bit towards neutrality.

It’s okay to hate your story, your characters, your writing, and even yourself. It’s okay to hate your NaNo so much, or the twee pep talks so much, or your fellow WriMos/the MLs/the cafe where you meet so much that you want to quit. It’s okay to quit, even.

Because you sat down and, for however long you managed it, you wrote a bunch of words that you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You declared that this was important to you and that you’d commit to doing it, and even dedicating one day to your craft is better than dedicating no days. This isn’t unrelenting positive thinking bullshit; this is math. One is more than zero.

The funny thing, though, about accepting that it’s okay to quit is that it makes it easier to not quit. Counterintuitive, maybe, but framing it as a choice rather than an obligation can make all the difference. It’s the same way that giving yourself permission to fail can improve performance. (See: the old writer’s block trick of deliberately writing something awful just for the sake of writing something so you can get to the good bits.)

Because if you’re quitting just because you don’t think you can win, you’re missing the point of NaNo. It isn’t hitting 50,000. It’s about prioritizing creativity and time for writing a little higher than you do normally. It’s about meeting people doing the same crazy thing as you, and who have the same crazy habits as you. It’s about making time in a chaotic and frankly terrifying world for creation and for quiet alone time. And that happens with or without 50,000 words.

Friday 5: More Questions About Buildings and Food

Smorgatarta

What’s the best layered food?

Lasagna, for me, is basically the only layered food. I may be Swedish, but smörgåstårtar (pictured above) freak me out.

What’s the best rolled food?

There are so many options, aren’t there? Enchiladas (and I would say burritos count, too), cannoli, gimbap, California rolls, kanelbullar…the list goes on! But for nostalgia purposes, I’ll have to say it’s a tie between cannoli and gimbap.

Gimbap: commonly confused with sushi, but actually not.

What’s the most recent cuisine you’ve tried for the first time from an ethnicity not your own?

I had some Turkish pistachio candy at a student’s house on Monday.

What’s a food that scares you?

San-nakji: octopus arms. While the octopus is technically dead by the time it’s on your plate, octopus anatomy means that the nerves in the arms and tentacles are still doing their squirmy, moving thing by the time they’re on your plate. The Japanese puffer fish won’t kill you if it’s prepared correctly, but even if san-nakji is prepared correctly, the very nature of the dish makes it a potentially deadly choking hazard.

What’s something you eat solely because it’s good for you?

Even the healthy food I eat, I eat because it’s tasty. The only thing I consume purely for health reasons are vitamins.

Review: Murder in Retrospect, or, Five Little Pigs

Appropriate that I decided to get back to my travelogues this week: the next book in the queue to be discussed here is what I read in the library that day: Murder in Retrospect!

A cover of Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs" featuring a small blue bottle, an artist's palette, and a glass of beer next to a brown beer bottle.

Author: Agatha Christie

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.96 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A young woman about to marry hires Hercules Poirot to clear the name of her mother, who was convicted of poisoning her husband some years ago.

Recommended audience: Mystery buffs

In-depth thoughts: As I mentioned before, this book was a selection for my Facebook book club. I was surprised to learn that many of the members had never read an Agatha Christie novel before, or even seen one of the innumerable screen adaptations! I went through a huge Agatha Christie binge in middle school. This was about the same time I went through a big band jazz binge as well, so I guess I was a little old lady in a 13-year-old’s body.

Even during my pubescent enthusiasm, I never tackled all of the novels and short stories. (Our school library only had so many books, after all.) Murder in Retrospect (or Five Little Pigs, whichever title you prefer) was one that I hadn’t originally read, so I was excited to read it. I had a nice afternoon in the Bethlehem Public Library doing just that: reading. I finished it in one sitting.

I still love a good Agatha Christie novel, even today, but I have to admit that this one was a little disappointing. There are lots of recurring secondary characters that make a Poirot novel what it is—Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp—and none of them make an appearance. The nature of the mystery also means that the bulk of the book is everyone repeating their testimony of the same day. This is, of course, part and parcel of any mystery, but because this is a cold case (or rather, an already-closed case), there’s nothing else for Poirot to go on, nor is there any sense of urgency.  Without any clues to inspect, without any banter with Hastings or Japp, and without the possibility of bringing the true murderer to justice, Murder in Retrospect is more repetitive and less fun than the Christie novels I read when I was younger.

If you’re a mystery buff, you can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie novel. Even a bad Christie novel is still pretty fun; I’ve always like Christie’s writing style just as much as her mysteries. The repetition in this story might be helpful for English students, but there is also the danger that outdated vocabulary might pose something of a hurdle.  (I can’t recall anything particular as I sit down to write this, but with a book initially published in 1942, I’m sure there are a couple of outdated vocabulary choices.)

Overall, I’m a completionist when it comes to writers I like, so I’m glad I read it. I don’t think Murder in Retrospect will be a novel I pick up again, though.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Day 6: Bethlehem, PA

After a busy weekend full of social activity and sight-seeing, I take it easy for the next few days at my parents’ house.  I spend my first morning back just putzing around the house and going through the books I had packed up four years ago (surprise, there are more that I can bear to part with!), and then I drive to Lost River Caverns to catch up with my old boss and coworkers and do some shopping. It’s busy, at least compared to what I would have expected mid-August, so my old boss tells me to just help myself. I must give off “I work here” vibes still; people ask me questions about how to get to the bathrooms or where things are.

The inside is all done up and it looks fabulous—so much better than when I was still working there—and I linger a while to talk to my old bosses and coworkers and some of the new shop ladies and guides. Everything is familiar despite the fabulous makeover and once again I miss my weirdo minimum wage retail job.

Next stop on the agenda is the Bethlehem library. I don’t bother driving in during Musikfest; I just wait for the bus (have I gone full European native?) and meander towards the library from the parking/bus hub. There’s no Amerikaplatz next to the library anymore, which I don’t like (fond memories of Tea Leaf Green and Royal Noise Brigade at that stage), but I suppose the library employees appreciate the new-found quiet. I pick out a book—Murder in Retrospect, or Five Little Pigs, which is my Facebook book club’s August choice—and sit down and read, and alternate my reading with checking Facebook and talking with friends on gchat.

A cover of Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs" featuring a small blue bottle, an artist's palette, and a glass of beer next to a brown beer bottle.

After I finish the book, I wander through Musikfest, grab a “Marga-mead-a,” and head down to Volksplatz to wait for The Skatalites. I sit through The Hillbenders, a bluegrass act, and enjoy them enough to buy an album as roadtrip soundtrack/thank-you gift for my ride up to Maine. I totally sneak a preview listen later and the album is way more straight country, and kind of worse, than their live performance. 🙁 For me, the highlight of that show was probably a high-energy cover of MGMT’s “Kids.” I had spent the whole day being sad and moody over leaving Austin, and that moment was the point where I started to maybe feel like not everything was a total garbage fire.

Then, after time to change sets and move the first rows of chairs out of the way, The Skatalites come on, and I dance my heart out. They do their cover of the James Bond theme and I get a powerful hit of high school nostalgia. I had listened to their version of the incomparable movie theme a lot in high school, but this was in the days of Napster and people being really ignorant and slapdash with labeling artists (“Wish You Were Here” by Oasis? Really?), so I was never sure if it was actually The Skatalites. I went into the show with zero expectations I’d hear that song, so it’s a nice surprise to hear that opening bass riff.

Later in the set they also do the theme from “From Russia With Love” and I wonder: is that a coincidence or a political statement? Other covers include “A Message To You, Rudy” and “Three Little Birds.”

I ducked out in the middle of an encore to make sure I could get a bus home, only: surprise! The late bus I thought was running wasn’t, so I dropped in at a friend’s instead. Not the most gracious way to make an entrance from across the ocean (“I can’t read bus schedules, Tesia, can I crash your guest bed?”) but friendship is magic! And I’m stopping by home to celebrate Tesia’s PhD, after all.  It’s not super late, but I still conk right out.

Friday 5: Dear Old Golden Rule Days

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

when did you last raise your hand to be called upon, to get someone’s attention, or in response to a “how many of you…” question? or heck, for any reason at all?

I probably did it to get the moderator’s attention at the last English Debate Club meeting I attended a few weeks ago.

When did you last have to do anything akin to homework?

Around a year ago, for Academic Swedish. Unless lesson planning counts, in which case: all day, every day.


when did you and your friends last go outside to play?

Me and friends? I guess the last time I was at a picnic, which was probably sometime last year. Me by myself? On my run yesterday.

how’s your penmanship nowadays?

Pretty good. Teacher skills, etc.

among stuff you periodically eat, what reminds you most of your lunches in the school cafeteria?

I don’t remember school lunches much except chicken nuggets and “French bread pizza.” The laziest, easiest thing I eat is boiled pasta with a dollop of creme fraiche and some roasted onions. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

Friday 5: Nonstrosity

What’s a good movie for October that has nothing to do with monsters or Halloween?

Back when I worked in South Korea, I spent a few months at a hagwon that was not a good fit for me. At all. I started in June, and by August I was starting to fantasize about tragedy befalling my family so I would have an excuse to leave early and go back home.

For real.

So for the first time in my life, I quit a job. And for the last two weeks of October, I was between jobs, free to wander around Seoul as I liked.

In honor of those weeks of freedom (and the amazing job I was able to take instead because I quit that one), I would say Little Miss Sunshine. Watching it with a friend was what convinced me to carpe diem and quit the damn job.

What’s a good couple of songs for October that have nothing to do with monsters or Halloween?

I kind of want to continue on my “two-week knockabout in Seoul” theme, so here are some selections from Korean indie musicians that I really, really like.

Danpyunsun and the Sailors, “Yellow Room”
Hyun Lee Yang, “Is Help on the Way?”
Floating Island, “Parade”
Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans, “Seven Year Itch”

What are some reasons to love October?

The foliage is gorgeous, but it’s not quite the grim winter wasteland that is November or December. There’s a nice balance between “still enough daylight” and “cozy weather.” Also, apples are in season! Apple crisp, apple pie, apple cider…

Radio stations sometimes call this month Rocktober, doing special playlists or giveaways in celebration of rock music. What would be a better rhyming name for this month, and how might it be celebrated?

I’m fine with it being Rocktober, but celebrating geology and rocks and minerals as well as rock music. Second to that, Schlocktober, and you celebrate by watching terrible movies.

What would be a good holiday to establish in October for those U.S. states not commemorating Columbus Day?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day seems a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature

The only reason I’m ever aware of the Nobel Prize in Literature is because a bookish friend of mind is the world’s biggest Ismail Kadare fan. Every year it seems like he’s short- or longlisted, and every year he seems to be denied. I haven’t read anything of Kadare’s, so I can’t really offer my own opinion on whether or not I think he deserves it, but I can be unimpressed with this year’s pick.

I’ve only read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro; it seems to be his most famous work, and it generally seems to be that an author’s most famous work is either their best or their worst. (The same is probably true for musicians and albums.) But it’s hard for me to take a book seriously when it has a plot nearly identical to campy 1970s science fiction/thriller movies, and in this case there was nothing about Ishiguro’s writing that elevated the plot beyond anything it was in Parts: The Clonus Horror. And at least Parts had Peter Graves in it! Even without reading any Kadare, I was rooting for him over Ishiguro.

Parts: The Clonus Horror Poster courtesy Group Films
Nobel Prize material, right there. // Image courtesy Group Films

Much like last year, where I was okay with giving the award to a musician on the strength of his lyrics (even though I was personally unimpressed with the musician himself), the academy has again left me underwhelmed with their choice. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’m sure I’ll be rooting for Kadare alongside my bookish friend—again—only to be (most likely) let down again.

Friday 5: Payday

From whom did you receive your first real paycheck?

When I worked at Gilman’s/Lost River Caverns, where I also learned to love rocks.

Among board games involving the exchange of money, which have you enjoyed most?

Do you exchange money in Life? I think you do. I didn’t have anything against Monopoly, but I think I actually finished more games of Life.

 

PayDay is the name of a candy bar consisting of salted peanuts rolled in caramel surrounding a firm, nougat-like center. How does it sound to you if you haven’t tried it, and how do you like it if you have? Is there a similar candy bar you like better?

I don’t like nuts in my chocolate, nor do I like peanuts or peanut butter mixed with chocolate. (Unpopular opinions!) Anything with caramel, nougat, and chocolate without nuts is just peachy keen.

 

When did you last do something nice for yourself just because it was pay day?

I went out and bought new bras. Ladies, I recommend making sure that you’re wearing the correct bra size. (In other words: if you’ve been fitted at Victoria’s Secret, or you’ve used that bizarre “add an arbitrary number to your band measurement,” measure yourself again.)

 

What person with the surname Day are you most familiar with?

I had a really hard time parsing this question at first; I took it to mean “Person With the Surname Day,” as if there were multiple holidays we observe in honor of people with specific surnames. Like, I had to read the question two or three times to understand what they meant.

And my first answer is, of course, Doris Day!

Review: Freshwater

Continuing in my streak of NetGalley books taking precedence over books I read earlier in the year, I really want to talk about Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater while it’s still, erm, fresh in my mind.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.41 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: We follow Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is also a human vessel for an ogbanje (or several of them?), through her childhood, university in the American south, and then adult life afterwards, as she tries to figure out who she is and to navigate through her relationships with the other supernatural beings who reside inside her psyche.

Content warning: There are moments of self-injury, sexual assault and abuse, a suicide attempt, and somewhat gory descriptions of a car accident and surgery.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works; readers interested in literary fiction

In-depth thoughts: My NetGalley copy is an ebook, but it’s times like these I wish I was eligible for receiving dead tree versions because I want to press this book into people’s hands and say YOU NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW. You can’t do that with an .epub file.

I was especially glad for Freshwater, I think, because right before I read it I had finished Ancient, Ancient, a collection of ostensibly Afro-futurism short stories that had way too much blurb hype on the covers for what it actually was. But Freshwater tapped into that vein of timeless urges (sex, death, blood, deities, demons) that Ancient, Ancient claimed to tackle and delivered a coherent, shining python egg of a novel.

The voice and language in Freshwater are captivating and distinctive, experimental without being alienating. This is the first book in a long time where I felt compelled to read more: after reading on the subway, I’d keep reading on the walk back to the apartment and even after I got home, standing in the doorway, coat and hat still on.

As the story deals with a lot of abstract concepts and Igbo mythology in lyrical, image-heavy language, it’s not an ideal novel for English learners to tackle unless they’re already at a reasonably high level of fluency. But if you are, oh man, Freshwater is so, so worth it. I can’t wait to read more from Ezemi.

Thoughts on TinyCards: The DuoLingo Flashcard App

Students of mine and readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the flashcard app Anki. It’s powerful and flexible and can be a huge help in memorizing new vocabulary or grammar patterns.

The one drawback to Anki is that it can be a little overwhelming to make your own decks. (This is why I’ve offered a few ready-made ESL ones here: phrasal verbs with “get,” a pronunciation deck with initial “H,” participial adjective practice, and phrasal verbs with “do” and “make.” More soon!) If you’re not the kind of person who’s already comfortable with markup language in other contexts, the card-creation interface might seem overwhelming. Even downloading pre-created decks can be a bit difficult if you don’t have good computer instincts.

The team behind DuoLingo has filled in that niche and set up TinyCards, which originally launched in iOS-only form in 2016. An Android version came out in April 2017 of this year, and I finally got around to trying it this week.

What is TinyCards?

TinyCards is a flashcard app from the same team behind DuoLingo. It’s available for iOS, Android, and in a web-based version. DuoLingo has released official flashcard decks for many (but not all) language trees on DuoLingo. (Availability might be tied to whether or not a particular tree is out of Beta.) You can also create your own decks, either for private use or to share with others. If you opt to share the deck you created with others, they’ll be able to see that you made it because your name and a small portrait of your user picture will turn up next to the deck when they search. (The official DuoLingo decks will have a picture of their mascot, Duo.)

Pictured are three official DuoLingo decks (Swedish, French, and Russian) and a user-created Korean one.

What do I like about it?

It’s very easy to create relatively flexible and information-dense cards. On one side you can include a word or picture; on the other side you include the target word and, optionally, extra information (referred to as “facts” in the creation tool).

TinyCards deck creation interface
Here are all the ways you can put together flashcards in TinyCards.

You can upload your own images, or you can search (in multiple languages!) a vast library that comes ready-made with TinyCards. I’m not sure what the source is: images uploaded by other users? Getty Images? whatever DuoLingo already has? An unexpected but very thoughtful feature is that within the card creation tool, you have the option to crop an image. That’s perfect if you don’t want to clog up your loading time with huge high-resolution pictures but also don’t want to manually resize images before you upload them.

It’s also easy to browse other decks and add them to (or remove them from) your own library as you like.

When you’re actually reviewing and using the decks, you have the option of selecting the “I was right” option to use if you get a technically incorrect answer, or of skipping a card you already know. The official DuoLingo decks also include the sound files from the DuoLingo course, so you get listening as well as reading. You also get hints if you struggle with a particular word (though who knows if that’s helpful or not). You also have the ability to report a card if it’s incorrect or inflammatory.

Since TinyCards is an offshoot of DuoLingo, it’s based on the same spaced repetition model, so it will visually signal to you how well you know a deck so you can decide when to review.

I’m doing pretty good in Korean Word Builder 1, but I need to work more on Korean Word Builder 2. And I’ve barely touched Russian.

That also means that TinyCards is free to use!

What don’t I like about it?

If you’re making your own deck, your only options are images and words. You can’t upload any of your own sound files (yet?), so if you want to study something outside one of the supported DuoLingo decks, you won’t be able to include audio. This is probably my biggest criticism. I find it immensely helpful to hear new vocabulary alongside seeing it.

To a lesser extent, if you want to use a deck that isn’t an official DuoLingo deck, you’re relying on the other user to actually know what they’re doing. It seems like an obvious statement, but it bears repeating. While you can easily report cards or even entire decks, I’m not sure what the protocol is on addressing reported cards or decks, especially since there’s no option for specific feedback or corrections. You can’t report decks on Anki at all, but shared decks can be reviewed and rated, so you can find out if a particular deck is broken or comes with mistakes.

The graphic for the spaced repetition review and learning new vocabulary (pictured above) is also ambiguous. I’ve studied all of the cards in Korean Word Builder 1; the yellow bar is telling me that I need to review. I haven’t studied all of the words in Korean Word Builder 2; the yellow bar is a progress bar. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have those two metrics combined into one graphic like that. Memrise, for example, will show you how well you know each lexical unit in a lesson, whether on the web or on mobile. TinyCards only addresses the “lesson” level, and each lesson can include multiple lexical units.

One of the most important features of Anki is that you can deliberately set how easy or a hard a vocabulary word was, which affects when it turns up again in the spaced repetition queue. The more difficult something is, the sooner you see it again. There’s no equivalent option in TinyCards: you either get it right or wrong. If you get something wrong a lot, you’ll repeat it in a practice session (and maybe even get hints), but I haven’t noticed words that I fail a lot repeating more often over the long-term. If there’s a secret sauce for bringing up the more difficult vocabulary more often, then it’s not working too well.

Verdict

For people who are too busy for Anki’s steep card-creation learning curve, TinyCards is an acceptable substitute. The simple, intuitive GUI makes it easy to create your own decks or to add other people’s decks to your own library, so you can get started right away. For people studying through DuoLingo, the official DuoLingo decks will feature the vocabulary from the lessons and help you retain the vocabulary that DuoLingo tends to brush over too quickly. But if you’re not using DuoLingo, or you’re already comfortable with Anki, TinyCards doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.