Monthly Archives: August 2010

Magic Hour – learning good writing

Two days ago I finished listening to a book called Magic Hour (but I did it in Swedish and here it’s called En flicka som kallas Alice) by Kristin Hannah. I hadn’t heard of the author before and had no expectations for the novel. I thought it sounded interesting as it involved a psychiatrist and a “wild child”, thought to have been raised by wolves.

What I got was a novel with cliché characters (psychiatrist-focused-on-her-career-with-a-broken-heart, flirty-doctor-with-a-secret-past-that-makes-him-doubt-love, man-who-loves-his-best-friend-from-childhood-and-now-wants-her-to-know-about-it, policewoman-who-loves-her-best-friend-from-childhood-but-doesn’t-know-it, smalltown-journalist-doing-whatever-it-takes-to-get-a-story and so on), inconsistencies and stupidity (a starved girl who hasn’t had anything but plants and grass to eat for a while is repeatedly fed waffles with whipped cream, hamburgers and french fries without any physical reaction and the girl who doesn’t know words knows that someone has told her about the “big bad world out there”, the girl’s biological father shows up and claims her after not having seen her in three years and then ends up giving her back to the psychiatrist the same night as he can’t handle his daughter) and a story as predictable as December coming after November.

The psychiatrist and the handsome doctor did end up together. The police woman realized she loved her best friend and they ended up together. The girl got better and got to stay with the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist and the police woman, who are sisters, patched up their relationship and realized that they loved each other.  And everyone lived happily ever after.

Sure, it wasn’t all bad. I was interested in finding out what had happened to the girl (and when the end came I couldn’t tie it all together but I don’t know if it’s just me or if it was a bit unclear) and curious about her recovery and what would happen to her. There just wasn’t enough of that to compensate for the clichés and the predictability of the story.

And while I was out there walking or biking with the book in my iPod, I thought about the difficulties of staying away from clichés and mainstream stories without getting accused of being “out there” and writing about things and characters that readers can’t connect with. And how readers sometimes get disappointed if you don’t stick to the stereotypes and decide to shake things up a bit by letting your characters do the unexpected. And about how this book wasn’t in the least daring.

Magic Hour didn’t gain anything from the two stupid love stories in it. Absolutely nothing. So, why choose to include them? Why not be brave enough to skip them and focus the story on the relationship between the girl and the psychiatrist? And maybe the sister conflict (even though we’ve read that one before as well)?

Lately, I’ve realized that I learn as much about good writing from reading poor books as I do from reading the great ones…

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Feedback in writing class

My second distant-ed writing class at the university starts on Monday next week. I’ve been looking forward to it since the beginning of the summer when I finished the first class. This follow-up class will have the same structure as the first one: writing assignments, feedback and literature discussions.

I truly enjoyed the writing assignments in the first class as they forced me to write things I’m not comfortable with, like dialogue and poems, and in doing so made me realize that I shouldn’t be afraid of approaching certain parts of writing. I wasn’t as thrilled about the reading assignments though. More than half of the books we were supposed to read had a very spiritual approach to the writing process and the life one would lead as a writer. Those kind of books are not really my cup of tea. I get tired of the repetitiveness of the message; write because you’ll feel better and write every day. I’m more of a practical girl and like the books on how to structure stories, how to use words and how to plan a plot and such.

I got through the reading and I got through the (often) lame discussions they led up to. My biggest struggles though were in the feedback area. Every assignment was posted online for other students to read and leave feedback on. We worked in groups of ten. For every assignment we were obligated to leave feedback on at least five different texts. I found giving feedback to be very difficult. We weren’t critiquing (finding faults or just giving praise) but giving the writer a chance to see how we as readers felt and thought of the text, what kind of questions it raised and what parts we found unclear or even too clear. It was all in the name of wanting to help the writer improve the text.

I worked hard on my feedback. I know I’m very nit-picking when it comes to texts and my eyes and mind often just focus on the language. I see the words that aren’t spelled correctly, the verbs that are not used in the right sense, the wrong articles or pronouns, the missing commas and prepositions. I like grammar. And structure. (Not that I’m always grammatically correct myself… Especially when writing in English…) What I’m having a harder time with is seeing if a character is developed enough, if a story has the right pace or if there’s a connecting theme to the text. I guess I know language but not as much story-telling.

Anyways, I spent a lot of time on my feedback, really trying to address different aspects of the text. I tried to be constructive and come up with alternative sentences if something didn’t make sense to me. I suggested other words if something jumped out at me as not really fitting. Reading someone’s text, drafting my thoughts and writing the actual feedback took me between an hour and an hour and a half. This resulted in me spending approximately 6 hours working with feedback for every assignment.

And I often got feedback that were either just three sentences long or focused on a memory or a thought that the reader had had while going through my words. Feedback that I estimate took about ten minutes or so to produce. Very seldom did I get feedback that helped me make my text better, feedback that offered advice on parts that needed improvement or questions leading up to me clarifying parts of the text. I was often disappointed. And I never got used to the fact that I didn’t know how my feedback was received. Did they appreciate it? Did I unintentionally hurt someone? Did they use any of my suggestions? The structure of the class didn’t give us the forms to communicate about the feedback.

I realized that many of my group members didn’t make this class a priority. They handed everything in right before deadline and rushed through feedback and discussions. I hoped that the ones who couldn’t prioritize the class wouldn’t sign up for a second one. I hoped for new group members. And then yesterday I did the offical registration for the class online and realized that many of the names around my name were the same as they were this spring…

Suddenly I don’t feel as pumped about this class as I did before. I look forward to it, but not with the same excitement.

I do try to focus on the positive experiences I had in writing the assignments, reading books I most likely wouldn’t have picked out myself, getting to know some of my fellow students a bit in their writing life, trying to learn to approach a text without expectations and becoming better at giving feedback. I learnt some and had lots of fun in the class.

Let’s hope for me becoming part of a group in which all members love feedback!

Zauberwolle shawl

Star charted Zauberwolle
Shawl for myself in autumn colours

Last week I bought Zauberwolle on an impulse. I was visiting my favourite yarn store in Malmö (Fröken Garn) last Thursday as Carina hosted her first open knit night for the autumn. I walked out of there with two skeins of Zauberwolle in these wonderful autumn colours and a vague idea on using the star chart from Laminaria to make an entire shawl.

iPod Nano and motivation

I’m usually late to the party when it comes to technical gadgets. Most of the time they don’t interest me. Could be my lack of understanding as to how these things function or my fear of “getting too wrapped up” (one of the reasons for me not doing Twitter or having an account over at Facebook) or something else I won’t admit to myself, but the fact is I’m not a gadget nerd. (I don’t even own a cell phone…)

Last week I climed a step on the gadget nerd-ladder!  I got myself an iPod Nano. And I love it.

It’s turned me onto audiobooks, and in ten days I’ve gone through 2½ books as I’ve biked to and from work, been out walking at night or sitting on the couch with a knitting project in hand. I’ve listened to a Peter Robinson-novel called Cold is the Grave (Kall som graven in Swedish), a Swedish novel called Supernova by Marika King and now I’m moving through Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (Fallhöjd in Swedish).

I can’t say I’ve explored much of my iPod yet, but I’m getting there. I can listen to audiofiles, I can film with it and I know how to turn on the pedometer function.

The thing that gets me all worked up about it though, is the way it has motivated me to get out on those walks even as the rain has poured (and how it makes every single walk longer than intended as I keep taking another turn to hear a bit more instead of going home straight) and how it kicks my creativity to life as I process the words I hear. From this week’s walks I have four ideas for short stories to write, a rough plan on how to turn one of our bedrooms into a cosy guestroom and also an idea for a project combining my writing and my photography. And I don’t think I have missed a word from the readings of the books…

Who knows? At Christmas time I might have a head (and notebook) full of creative ideas and be in great shape after hours of walking (and maybe even jogging!). And all because of an iPod Nano.

China (Part 5) – Expo2010 in Shanghai

Line up on a rainy day
Some mornings the line up was ridiculous before the gates opened up for visitors. This is just before 9am and it was raining a bit this morning. But there were just as many umbrellas on sunny days to keep the sun rays away.

Line up
The line ups continued in zig zag under the roof. This is about half an hour before the gates opened.

African quarters
This is part of the African quarters in the Expo2010. If I’m not mistaken, the green and yellow building (looking sort of like a cross between an onion and a tulip) belongs to Angola. This is one of the few times we saw a group of volunteers at ease as they usually moved around marching in straight lines whenever they went from point A to point B…

German ball
This ball was in the German pavilion. The audience were led to balconies on three different levels and with our voices we got the sphere to change looks and to move around. It was really neat!

Russia on the inside
Part of the Russian pavilion was turned into a foreign planet. There were space shuttles and stations in the ceiling, made up flowers and plants in bright colours and small houses with screens that showed kids dressed up like aliens talking about Russian innovations in technical and medical areas.

Pearl lion
This full sized lion made out of wire and pearls stands at the entrance of South Africa’s pavilion.

Swedish shop
This is part of the shop that Sweden had connected to their national pavilion. Here one can buy Swedish glass from the famous Kosta Boda.

Tired visitors
Walking around the Expo2010 can be tiring. These two men were hilarious as they just sat down in this part of an exhibition and fell asleep. I watched them for a bit and the guy hunched over the table actually snored…

In the next part of this series, I’ll show you some random pictures  from Shanghai.

China (Part 4) – The Great Wall

My colleague and I joined a guided tour that included a sleepover on the Great Wall. Yes. A. Sleepover. On. The. Great. Wall. We were bundled up in sleeping bags under the stars in one of the watchtowers. I didn’t get to sleep much as I kept thinking “I’m on the Great Wall in China. I’m on the Great Wall in China.” I didn’t get much sleep but was happy anyways.

The next morning, I was up at 4am waiting for the sunrise. The sun came up at about 5 and I started taking pictures like mad. I got a bit frustrated as I didn’t get the images I wanted and after a couple of minutes I just stopped myself and decided to turn off the cameras and enjoy the experience of being there. It was breathtaking!

After the sunrise and a breakfast (muesli, bananas and tea) we headed out for our hike. We walked 8km between Jinshanling and Samatai and it took us 4 hours. With many water breaks. We were so glad we got out early, firstly because of the heat and secondly as we only encountered something like 15 other tourists walking the Wall until we got close to Samatai. We arrived there when most tourists get there from Beijing to start their hike…

And our tour group? Well, it consisted of me, my colleague and a guide. We also had a driver, but he didn’t join us for the walk.

Sunset Sunset over the Great Wall on June 4th, 2010. This is in Jinshanling.

Sunrise 1 Watching the sunrise the next morning was breathtaking…

Scenery …as was the scenery around the Great Wall…

Original part Some parts of the Wall are still all original and you really have to watch where you place your feet. Also, the sides of the Wall were torn down in many places and a couple of times I was happy my mother didn’t see me walking steep parts with no particularly high walls to my sides…

Climbing a steep section …like here for example. This section was more than 100 steps high and it was steep. As was the mountain sides we’d roll down if we fell out.

Going to work We were walking here for the experience, but we met a couple of men and women who walk sections of the wall every single day to earn money. They bring mostly water bottles and hope for tourists that haven’t brought enough for themselves. Most of these men and women were older than 60, and they walked up and down these sections every day… Carrying loads of water bottles and some souvenir t-shirts. I was in awe.

Old, but still standing The watchtowers vary a lot when it comes to what condition they’re in. Some are restored, some are original but still in good shape and others look like this one does. It has two standing walls and no roof. Some of these watchtowers have more than one floor.

Going up My colleague and our guide walking a bit ahead of me.

And to round off this post, this is my favorite picture of the sunrise we were a part of. It’s overexposed but I love it.
Overexposed sunrise

Next part of this series of mine will take you to the 2010 Expo in Shanghai

New books

As of Monday, I have new books on my shelves. My second class in Creative Writing (or “kreativt skrivande” as it’s called in Swedish) starts in a couple of weeks and I wanted to make sure I had all the needed literature before that.

The class requires us to read:

  • Att skriva – En hantverkares memoarer (On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft) by Stephen King (a book I already had)
  • Att skriva börjar här, version 2.0 by Maria Küchen
  • Skriv på! En romanförfattares syn på skönlitteratur och författarskap (Write Away! One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life) by Elizabeth George
  • Creative Writing by Colin Bulman

For the fun of it, I also threw in three Swedish fiction novels and Amy Butler’s latest book on bags: Amy Butler’s Style Stitches: 12 Easy Ways to 26 Wonderful Bags. I have already fallen in love in two of the bag designs and see myself making these during fall. I love making bags!

(And while we’re at the subject of books – I have created a page on my blog here on which I’ll log the books I read. Not too much to report right now as I started this weekend, but please take a look!)

China (Part 3) – The Spirit Way and Ming Tomb area

The Spirit Way, or Sacred Way as it’s also called, is in an area approximately 50km from Beijing. In this area 13 Emperors from the Ming Dynasty were buried, some along with wives and concubines. The first Emperor to choose this as his burial ground was Yongle and he is also known for the construction of the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) in Beijing.

Elephant
Part of the guard parade along the Spirit Way/Sacred Way. The parade consists of both real and mythical animals as well as humans. The animals are portrayed as both standing and sitting/lying to reflect the fact that they work in shifts.

Lion
One of the resting lions in the parade. You can see the standing lion coming after him. I love his mane!

Identical twins
All guards stand (or sit) opposite its identical twin.

Human in the parade
One of the human guards up close. I think he represents the warrior. There are also guards representing intelligence and wisdom.

Fluff
I was waiting for my company as they were shopping for painted glass bottles, and I got fascinated by the fluff on one of the trees close to a human guard. I think I ended up with twenty pictures of fluff with a more or less visible warrior guard in the background…

Changling tomb's gate tower
This is the gate tower to Changling’s tomb; the largest and oldest of the emperor’s tombs. The actual tomb is not open to the public as three of the others are.

Stormwater management
This is stormwater management from the 15th century. Sure beats our plastic drains when it comes to beauty points.

My next post in this series will show you pictures from the Great Wall.