Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 11, 2011

Finding an online critique group

Today, I decided that I might be about ready to start shoving my baby birds out of the nest. That is, I’m ready to start sending my unpublished stories out into the wide, cold world again, hoping to find them good homes where readers might enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

I don’t expect to make much money doing this, but I do want to experience the thrill of acceptance and recognition that comes with being published in an actual magazine. I know I can do it, because I’ve done it before.

Naturally, I need to get them all out, dust them off (metaphorically speaking) and edit them. That’s where the title of this post comes in. I’m a decent editor, and I’ve got my wonderful wife, who is always willing to be my first reader. However, there comes a point where any author wants to have someone else read his or her work, someone who isn’t related to him or her, someone who will tell him or her with completely honesty what they think.

Enter the online writer’s critique group.

Several years ago, I was part of a group called the Writer’s Workshop at ChristianWriters.com. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of that online community and the feedback I got there for my writing. However, I eventually left the community for a couple of reasons. First, I felt that ideologically, it was a bit too constraining for the kinds of things I wanted to write. Second, even though I got some good feedback, it ultimately was from too small a pool of writers and wasn’t specific enough in some ways for my needs. The way the critique system was set up was too free-flowing and subjective, which meant that many critiques ended up being less than helpful.

Another group I joined a bit later was ReviewFuse.com. That one was much better, and its critique system was (and is) one of the best I’ve seen on the internet. In fact, the only real criticism I might have for them was that there were too few “serious” authors there in their ranks and the pool of available critics was too small. I still have a free membership with them and may eventually upgrade, but I’m holding back to see if they grow some more.

Today, I decided to give another online writer’s community I’d heard about before another try: Scribophile. This community works on a similar system to Review Fuse (and other groups) by giving you “points” according to how many reviews of others’ work you do, which you can then spend on uploading your own work for others to critique. Scribophile, however, has a much larger community than Review Fuse, so there’s a much larger pool of potential “serious” writers who have experience with writing at a level that is publishable by book and magazine publishers. Since I have the goal of being published on a regular basis in the larger royalty-based publishing world, these are the kinds of people I want reading and critiquing my work.

I’ve gotten really good feedback on my stories so far from the first two communities I mentioned. That feedback has been invaluable for keeping me encouraged and moving forward, as well as helping me improve what I’ve written. However, I think it’s time to take things to the next level, so to speak, and enter a larger pond.

Admittedly, it’s not quite as comfortable, but that’s fine. I need to get used to being the small fish, if I’m serious about wanting to be published in the larger “mainstream” publishing world.

Again, the point is not to be published, but to be read, to have my voice heard and recognized in a very large world. I’ll keep posting here on my experiences at Scribophile as I try it out.

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Today, I ran four of my short stories through I Write Like’s online analyzer and came up with some interesting if varying results.

Apparently, one of my short stories was written in the style of William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame), two of them were written like Chuck Palahniuk (whom I’d never heard of before I got compared to him), one of my short stories was a bit like Harry Harrison’s work (the guy who wrote Make Room, Make Room), and finally, and most surprisingly, I got compared stylistically to Gertrude Stein.

Really?

Turns out there is something to all of this. After all, the story that got compared to William Gibson really was written in cyberpunk style. That was my short story “Soul Mule,” a favorite of mine that I hope to get published someday soon. Though I didn’t intend to do so when I wrote it, I can see some resemblance in it to some of Gibson’s work.

As for Chuck Palahnuiuk, I have no idea. I think “Woman is Cipher” and one other were both compared to his stuff, though since I’ve never read anything of his before, I couldn’t say. My story “Faery Lights,” a tale of two men stranded on a station on the ice moon of Enceladus, seems to compare favorably to the style of Harry Harrison, who wrote the novel (Make Room, Make Room) which became one of my all time favorite movies–Soylent Green (starring Charleston Heston). So I’m happy to be compared to him and to William Gibson.

It’s the Gertrude Stein one that gets me. That one feels really random and contrived. I’ll admit I haven’t read much of her work, though I did read a lot of what Hemingway felt about her in A Moveable Feast. Can’t say she came away with a favorable image in my mind.

Anyway, I did some digging and it turns out that even if you type random gibberish into the analyzer, it will give you an author that it compares you to. For example, one guy typed in nothing but a string of z’s and it told him that his writing was similar in style to Douglas Adams. Now if I weren’t a Douglas Adams fan, I guess I could see that, but there were other similar examples. Different people who tried out the analyzer by putting in nothing but random strings of letters produced results of different authors. One guy even put in a passage from Mein Kampf and it told him that his writing resembled Kurt Vonnegut’s (okay, maybe I can see that one).

I think that the analyzer works, to a degree. However, the programmers would have done well to create a program that was smart enough to recognize situations when someone wasn’t even typing in real words in a real language (maybe it could somehow have at least an English dictionary integrated into it?) I recognize that the program isn’t meant for serious writing analysis, but just a way to have some fun and to see how your writing style compares with others. Overall, I think it does that passably well, analyzing things such as word length and vocabulary to come up with reasonable results in many cases.

Posted by: mlawrencekey | August 7, 2011

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m re-reading this book after having blazed through its 800 pages earlier this year. It’s safe to say I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Equal parts pastiche of the gothic novel and exquisite fairy tale/fantasy done in the style of George MacDonald, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell hooked me almost from the beginning and kept me enthralled to the last page.

Set in the early 19th century, the novel follows the story of Mr. Norell, a Yorkshire gentleman who attempts to single-handedly revive English magic, which has fallen into obscurity after 200 years of no true magicians practicing it. After two dramatic demonstrations of magic (one of which sets into motion a chain of events that weaves throughout the books’ narrative), Mr. Norrell rises to become a celebrated magician in English society and achieves his goal of helping the British government fight in the war against France.

Enter Jonathan Strange, a second magician, as different from the stuffy and scholarly Mr. Norrell as can be imagined. The remaining two thirds of the novel focuses on the interaction between these two protagonists and their struggles to define the content of English magic for the future. In the background in the beginning but coming more and more to the forefront as the novel progresses, looms a struggle against a powerful and malevolent fairy prince. All of the different threads tie together nicely as the novel concludes.

This book sets an intriguing stage, with it many footnotes about the history of magic and Faery, but it sticks to the rigid style of the gothic novel, making the end result even more fascinating.

Like other readers, when I finished it, I immediately wanted to start reading it again. I hope that Susanna Clarke publishes a sequel or two.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | June 26, 2011

1 Reason among 57 to love Waco

I wrote a short blurb about Sanger Heights and why I like this older neighborhood in the heart of Waco, Texas, then sent it into the Wacoan magazine (admittedly, I was kind of hoping to win the iPad you could win if you sent in an article on why you liked Waco).

Well, it got published. Here’s the link if you’re interested. 

Posted by: mlawrencekey | April 10, 2011

Review: Spin

SpinSpin by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intriguing premise that kept me interested until the last page. I got this one via an ebook giveaway sponsored by Tor a couple of years ago. Gotta say, good idea on their part. I got hooked on Kage Baker’s Company Series that way, and the same thing is liable to occur with this one, too. I want to read the followup books to this first in a trilogy. What happens? Well, it’s complicated, but suffice it to say, one night the stars disappear, and within the lifetimes of three characters, events occur that will change the world forever. Humanity is brought to the brink of extinction, then to a future that no one could have imagined.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | March 30, 2011

Review: Veracity

VeracityVeracity by Mark Lavorato
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A strange post-apocalyptic book which explores the nature of humanity, as told through the eyes of the leader of an expedition sent to wipe out all of humanity’s last traces. Parts of it feel like "Lord of the Flies," and its philosophy and underlying assumptions were disturbing, to say the least. I’ll admit I found it to be pretty depressing, overall, though there were brief glimpses of hope here and there.

The prose was decent, but not great. I think it was Lavorato’s first novel, so he can be forgiven for that much. I did enjoy sections of the novel, particularly a few encounters with an elusive primate known as "the Creature," as well as the protagonist’s relationship with the raven. Overall, however, the characters felt unreal somehow, and I felt little real connection with or understanding of any of them.

I might be interested in some of Lavorato’s more recent works, as he certainly showed a lot of promise in this one, but I can’t recommend "Veracity."

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Over Christmas, I built  treadmill desk for the treadmill my wife and I share. We both use it during the day when we have computer time, so we can multitask getting a little exercise while we work on different projects. We only have it set to around 1.5 mph walking speed so we don’t kill ourselves, but over time, it adds up to calories burned and is way better than sitting behind a desk or on a couch all day.

In the picture, from left to right, you can see my Kindle, my composition notebook (the cheap kind you can buy at the grocery store) for journaling and creative writing, my LaCie key-shaped flash drive, my laptop, my coffee and water bottle, and a manuscript I’m editing for a friend. So, I keep busy, but it’s a good kind of busy.

What does your work space (writing or otherwise) look like?

Posted by: mlawrencekey | March 10, 2011

Living as a Global Nomad

I spent most of the first 18 years of my life in Africa. Until I reached high-school age, I lived in a country the size of West Virginia called Togo. After that, I went to boarding school in a country several hundred miles to the west called Côte d’Ivoire. When I graduated, I went to college in Texas for four years, worked for a couple of years after that, and then, when the opportunity first arose, I took a job that sent me back overseas again–this time, to the Middle East. And that’s where I’ve been ever since, working as an ESL instructor and freelance writer.

I’m a global nomad. A wanderer without a place that I think of as home. I embody the saying, “Home is where you hang your hat.” And I’m raising five more little global nomads. Fortunately, my wife and kids also love living globally.

When I was growing up, being a third culture kid (see definition here) was a bit unusual. But the times, they are changing. We elected our first global nomad U.S. president a couple of years ago, and several of the members of his early cabinet were also TCKs, having spent a significant part of their growing up years in other cultures and countries. As our world becomes more and more globalized, more and more kids will grow up or spend significant time in cultures other than their passport countries. Being a global nomad is becoming more normal, which I think is a good thing.

Why?

• Global nomads understand other cultures almost instinctively. They understand how we are all connected and can build bridges. Our world needs more people like this, to build peace and relationships between nations and cultures.

• We’re highly adaptable. You can send us nearly anywhere, and we’ll learn the language and the culture and generally thrive. We’re at home anywhere because we’re not at home anywhere. Paradoxical, I know, but it works.

• Living globally is becoming the new norm. The most competitive people in the next generation will be those for whom living in various countries and across time zones is an integral part of who they are.

I may someday move back to the United States. I’m a citizen, after all, and it isn’t such a bad place to live. But the wanderlust will strike again someday, and off we’ll be again.

Posted by: mlawrencekey | March 7, 2011

Review: The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and SaltThe Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book begins with a great "what if?" question: how would history progress if the Black Death of the 14th century had wiped out nearly 100% of Europe’s Christian population instead of the third that it actually did? A fascinating exploration of an alternative history timeline in which the Islamic world and China, as well as a few other world powers, vie for dominance, colonizing new lands and eventually fighting a great war. Woven throughout the sweeping historical narrative are the stories of a handful of characters who are born and reborn, mysteriously appearing in each others’ lives and helping one another to grow and advance as individuals. I’ve read it twice and plan to read it again. It has its weak points, but overall, a fascinating thought experiment set in the midst of a well-written novel with compelling characters.

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Posted by: mlawrencekey | March 7, 2011

Review: Childcraft: The how and why library

Childcraft: The how and why libraryChildcraft: The how and why library by Childcraft International
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this series of books when I was a kid. They were sold along with the World Book Encyclopedia set, which my parents also bought and I also read avidly. Childcraft was designed to be a sort of encyclopedia for kids, I think, but it really was so much more, with each volume dedicated to everything from nursery rhymes to international folk tales to biology and how technology and machinery work. Fascinating stuff. The articles were extremely well written with first-class illustrations that enthralled and inspired my young mind. Even today, as a somewhat more jaded adult, I love reading those articles, though they are somewhat dated (my Childcraft was the 1975 edition, after all). Well done, Childcraft authors, editors and illustrators, for helping inspire a love for learning in me and many others during our childhoods. If you see one of these sets (about 15 books) in a garage sale or flea market, buy it!

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