Friday, June 29, 2012

"JuNoWriMo" Participant Interview

The lovely Sydney Aaliyah has interviewed me about my June novel writing experience (and luckily forgiven me for being part of Camp NaNoWriMo instead of JuNoWriMo!) Check it out here.
 
I will be very busy today and tomorrow attempting to win Camp NaNo - look for a poetry post either tomorrow morning if I'm doing well, or sometime Sunday if I'm writing We Who Are About To Die right up until the last minute of Saturday! 

Good luck to everyone writing a novel in June. Follow me on Twitter @Amethystars and I promise to send you more encouragement!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

6 Strange and Amazing Gifts From My Mom

As I end my "childhood" - I'm now 18, done with classes, graduating on Friday, leaving home for university in the fall - it feels completely normal and at the same time totally unreal.

Everyone under 18 thinks they know what I'm talking about but doesn't. Everyone over 18 is laughing at my youth. Bear with me anyways, please.

As I said, I'm moving out in the fall, and although my parents will continue to be my parents, it won't be the same. I'm done being a kid, even though I'll always be their child.

I'm at the age now where when I babysit, I'm seeing myself as a future parent. How I treat these kids is a reflection of how I'll treat my own - and in many ways, a reflection of how my parents treated me. For example, I use tricks I learned from reading my mom's parenting books (as a bored 10 year old), and I discipline in a way that sounds scarily like my dad.

But I do have my own quirks. Given that the youngest kid I babysit is three, I can get away with the fact that I talk to them like adults, capable of rational thought. I use logic and arguments to try and sway them, even in the face of tears. I think sometimes it works simply because it's so strange.

All in all, babysitting, which I didn't do much of before this year, has taught me to be grateful for many of the ways my parents raised me and my sister. In particular, I'd like to highlight 6 strange and amazing gifts from my mom. 
 
1. No TV 
I didn't watch TV as a kid. No Saturday morning cartoons, no after school shows, nothing, except on vacation, and even then only a bit. As a teenager, that changed, and now I'm addicted to Bones, but being raised without TV was an amazing gift of time and imaginative play. We did watch movies - mostly ones with singing, as you'll see next.
  
2. Showtunes
With my mom, we never listened to "kids music." My step-mother introduced us to Fred Penner and that was fun, but not soul touching in the same way the stories in the songs we listened to with my mom were. We listened to Broadway music - from Cats, from Fiddler on the Roof, from The King & I. We listened to the soundtracks of films we loved like Mary Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and of course, we sang Disney songs until we were blue in the face.

3. The Freedom to Tell Stories
When we were done singing and ready to go to bed, my mom would lie down with my sister and I and she would tell us "Savana stories". They were all about a little girl who would every so often spontaneously wake up to find she had been turned into some random animal. Savana would have crazy adventures trying to get back home and turn back into a human girl - all of them made up on the spot. 

As I develop myself as a writer now, I realize I should thank my mom for showing me that everyone has stories to tell, and anyone can tell them. You don't need to make your stories perfect before sharing them with the world. (although it helps if you're trying to get published/rich!)

4. Books (aka other people's stories)
I was raised as a reader. As a family, we went to the library at least once a week, and some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading to me in bed. That's how I read Harry Potter for the first time - alternating chapters with my mom.

When I was older and reading on my own, my mom kept a list of books I'd read and whether or not I liked them in a vain attempt to find me enough reading material. I still have that list, and it's incredible to look back on it. It has a record of the first time I read the Protector of the Small series, and the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I was eight years old. I still love those books.

5. Lego (technically Duplo)
We called it Lego, but our toy our choice was actually the larger, for toddlers version of Lego called Duplo. I built everything imaginable with those blocks, from towers as tall as my 6'5" dad, to elaborate zoos, to buildings with colour coded patterns in their fully enclosed roofs. My mom says that watching me playing with Duplo was her first hint that I would become an engineer. 

6. My sister
Here last but never least. My mom always wanted my sister and I to be close - to be friends, not just family. And while our relationship can be explosive and loud and we bicker sometimes just for the fun of it, I would do anything for my sister, and she knows it. When she calls me with a problem, I consider it my job to fix it. Sure, she drives me crazy sometimes, but I wouldn't change what we have for the world.
 

And so, despite my sometimes rocky relationship with my mom, I owe her many thanks. I hope she knows that.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reflections on Engineering

I've been cottaging all weekend, having a blast celebrating the end of exams, so I completely missed my supposed-to-be-usual posting of my own work (also no internet so I couldn't even if I had remembered). And then, serendipitously, today while updating my resume I came across this essay, written for my application last year for the Engineers for the World Award.
[It was] established by the Division of Engineering Science [at The University of Toronto] at some of the top high schools in Canada to encourage and recognize students with outstanding academic abilities who have also demonstrated an awareness of their responsibilities to society. This award is given to a student completing Grade 11 who has achieved academic excellence in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and English, and has demonstrated involvement in extracurricular activities at school or within their community that embodies passion and enthusiasm, commitment and achievement, service and leadership.
Basically, it's designed to recruit the best and brightest to go to UofT. In my case, this didn't really work, since I won the award over a good friend and he will is going to UofT engineering in the fall, while I will be at Queen's.

But the essay was one of the first times I really accepted that I was going to be an engineer, and got to the bottom of why - beyond the fact that numbers are pretty and I love to make them dance.


Enjoy:

Ever since I was a little girl, my mother has been convinced I should be an engineer. I think it must have struck her when she noticed my passion for building the tallest, most complicated buildings and towers possible, out of Duple, Lego, blocks, popsicles sticks – anything that came to hand. But for a long time, I doubted my mother’s judgment, unsure of what being an engineer really entailed and unsure that I would enjoy such a career.

Over the past few years, with graduation and university fast approaching, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with my life, and I’ve discovered that it is engineering after all. Why? Because engineers are people who solve problems. Yes, engineers learn math and science and yes, engineers are machine designers and system builders. But everyone I talk to tells me that for an engineer, the most important skill is the ability to think creatively in order to solve problems. Engineering, in other words, is about making people’s lives better.

At this point, I have to admit that I’m not a child prodigy when it comes to making the world a better place. I don’t spend my evenings volunteering at soup kitchens, and I’m not a youth member of Engineers Without Borders. But in my already too busy life, between homework, sports and family, I do my best to make a positive difference wherever I can. I try to take the lead and orchestrate a little “social engineering” to keep my group or team running smoothly – in the case of our track team, literally!

Because engineering, by its most basic definition, encompasses anyone who applies their knowledge to solving problems; those who take the lead and seize the initiative to make things happen now instead of waiting for some dreamland optimum solution that will never be; those who get things done as best as they can be because the need is so great that they cannot stand it any longer. It means helping others at your own expense, merely because it is the right thing to do, and running around frantically at a track meet, trying to get the right bib number to the right athlete. It means making sure every member of a work group has a task they can do, badgering them to have their part ready on time, and then staying up late into the night finishing their job when they can’t or won’t make that commitment. Leadership isn’t always easy, but the ultimate rewards – respect, pride and closer relationships with those around us – are well worth it.

Today, engineers are vitally important to almost every aspect of life, and I think the importance of engineers to the world is only going to grow as we face an uncertain future – politically, climatically and socially. We must remember, then, that with great power – and what is influence and importance but power? – comes great responsibility. The engineers of the future, with an engineer’s unique problem solving mindset, have to use their influence for the good of everyone, leading those following and trusting in them toward solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Only then can engineers truly claim to be making the world a better place.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why I Adore Evernote

Because it's awesome. And using it, I wrote 3000 words for Camp NaNoWriMo today. Now, I am going to bed. I have an exam tomorrow. More later. :)

UPDATE June 21 :

Bad news: I hurt my hand with all the typing yesterday and test-taking recently. And I have an English exam (writing galore!) tomorrow. (I've taped my forefinger to my second finger to rest it. I hope it helps).
Good news: I aced my calculus exam
Better news: I have the rest of this post ready!

Evernote is basically a digital note-taking application. A cross, you could say, between a notebook and a file folder for stray articles and reference material. Only now, all this stuff is searchable, in one place, and accessible from anywhere. Awesome, right?

I've been an Evernote user since roughly November of last year, and I love it. As of right now, I have Evernote installed on my Windows laptop, my Apple iPad and my Android phone. I also use their webclient on a regular basis. 

Obviously, keeping notes is complicated and different people will want different things out of an application. Evernote isn't the perfect solution for everyone, but it's definitely worth a look and I highly recommend it.


Awesome features

Sync : All your notes are available across all your devices. Without a paid subscription (5$/month, 45$/year), notes aren't stored locally on mobile devices, but you can load notes while you have a wifi connection, and they will be on your device for quite a while. I use this all the time since I don't have a data plan - everything I open in the morning is accessible all day at school.

Flexibility : Evernote is built to allow you to create your own text-based notes, but it will accept pretty much any kind of file. I've yet to find something it won't take - I've saved images, webpages, audio files, PDFs, and even powerpoint slideshows.

Incredibly cool search : This is probably not high on anyone's must-have list, but I just noticed it, and it's very useful. When you do a 'find' search in a text document, not only does Evernote highlight every instance of the word or phrase you searched, but it also lays down a little yellow bar on the scrollbar at every point on the document where your search term exists. It's a great way to see how and where you're using certain words. I used it to track down where and why I was mentioning specific characters in my Camp NaNoWriMo novel.

Multi-level organization : Evernote allows you to organize notes into notebooks, and also tag them. Both notebooks and tags are stackable, although only to one level. I use this feature to find important things relating to a single project across folders (ie. everything to do with my WIP : the draft, revision notes, helpful articles and a blog post), or within large folders (ie. all notes with writing contest submission information, within my WIP notebook)

Email : Quite possibly the best feature. With your Evernote account, you get an email address, and anything you send to that address becomes a note. (and you can generate a new address easily if it becomes compromised). You can also specify which folder and what tags in the subject line of the email.


Areas for improvement

Text highlighting : Evernote has your typical bold/italicize/underline, as well as different colours for text and strike-through, but I can only find the highlighting tool on the iOS platform. No highlighter is a bit odd - selective ability to highlight is much odder.

Consistent formatting : I'll write something on my laptop, and it'll look good - all the same size and font of text. For no particular reason that I can find, when I open that same note later online, some parts are larger/smaller/in a different font. It's not a big deal to fix, but it's annoying for sure.


How I use Evernote

As a student: When I'm at school, I can simply log on online and make notes on any computer without having to worry about emailing documents or saving to a USB. When I get home, it's waiting for me, and any changes I make are available the next time I work at school as well.

As a writer: The ability to jot down an idea anywhere, and have it sitting on your computer when you get home, waiting to be expanded upon, is amazing. In February during FAWM, I used Evernote to write lyrics for songs, and save the audio files from GarageBand as well, so everything was in one place.

I also use Evernote to manage my fiction writing. Instead of a gazillion files and folders on my hard drive, I have one notebook and plenty of tags to keep my stories organized. I'm even writing my Camp NaNoWriMo novel in Evernote. I kind of miss Scrivener, but the easy sync and simplicity of Evernote are priceless for the no holds barred speed of NaNo.


Conclusion

I currently use the free version of Evernote, but depending on how my first few months at university go, I am seriously considering asking for a subscription to Evernote for Christmas. The free version is AMAZING, but I would love offline notebooks on my phone/iPad, and while the single and discreet promotion is really not annoying and sometimes very cool, I would like to have more room in my sidebar.

Check out Evernote for yourself.

P.S. No, I'm not getting paid for this. Opinions are solely my own etc...
P.P.S. Yes, I wrote this in Evernote.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Camp NaNoWriMo Update

We are now seventeen days into the epic adventure that is NaNoWriMo. A desperate quest to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. Normally for me, not so epic. I write every day, stay mostly on schedule, and finish up in a burst of energy with a few days to spare.

Not so this month. It's June, which is my last month of high school, full of summatives (final projects worth 10% of your grade), random other big projects, and exams. Plus regular life and many hours wasted shopping until I found a prom dress. (okay, only about seven, split over two days. it still sucked. but my dress is awesome and black and slinky and I rarely like dresses so I'm happy to have found this one)

Anyways. Point is, I'm nearly seventeen thousand words behind. Yes, you read that right. In addition to my daily 1667 words between now and June 30th, I have to find time and energy to write more than a thousand extra words every day. Joy.

And yet, I'm strangely excited by the challenge. The pressure is on, so to speak, and if you read my last post you'd know I thrive under pressure. So while part of me is starting to think that this might be the time I can't pull it off, the rest of me is looking forward to the challenge.

This weekend, I've more than doubled my wordcount. If I can stay on track with two or three thousand words a day, 50k is still within reach. To help me stay motivated, I thought I'd tell you all how I'm doing so far

Day: 17

Words: 11 660

Biggest driving force: I want this rewrite done.

Most helpful thing: writing in first person. I go off on fewer tangents, and can focus more on my main character's emotions and growth.
 
Another helpful thing: bribing myself with fudge.

Most UNhelpful thing: caring about quality since this is a rewrite that I'm proud of so far, not a first draft that's allowed to be utterly crappy.

Another UNhelpful thing: research. I'm not researching a lot, but I don't want to embed errors into my novel which will take a lot of time and energy to fix. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and all. For example, I had to make sure crossbows were reasonable for my civilization, given the other weapons they have. Thankfully, they were.

How I'm going to make it: aim for at least 2000 and preferably 2500 words every weekday. Aim for 5000 every weekend day. Write all day June 30th. (also, procrastinate studying for exams by writing)

Most fun part to write: the scene where I introduced all the characters - trainee gladiators - in the MC's group and got to figure out what crimes they committed. For example:
"And last but not least, there's Simon and Reaves, thugs for hire who took the wrong job and got caught up in the king's wrath over some noble misbehaviour."
Also the fact that the love interest, who turns into a pretty epic fighter later on, was sentenced to be a gladiator for tax evasion. (it was a stupid tax created by a mad king, and he was cooking the books for his father)

Most annoying thing: I've changed one of the main character's names because it was kind of odd and ended with an 's' which is very frustrating for possessives. Plus, the character needed to change, and I thought a name change would help me view them as a different person. But I still occasionally type the old name. Very annoying.

A few good quotes:

After the order to hang her has been given:
Tired and beaten, I didn't stop fighting. Every bruise left on these brutes would be one more mark on the world, one more proof tomorrow that I had existed today.
After an argument with another trainee is interrupted:
He moved away, and I thought I saw him muttering to himself. I didn't know why on earth he would have taken such a dislike of me. My only clue was that he didn't seem to like Mira much either; perhaps he didn't think it seemly for women to fight? But as he was a criminal by trade and murderer by conviction I didn't think he was in any position to be judging the seemliness of my actions or presence here.
The MCs first taste of weaponry:
I fumbled with a too heavy sword, dropped the bow when I tried to fire it, got myself tangled up in a net, and could barely get a club off the ground. I was moderately less of a failure with a spear, but only when I used two hands, which wasn't right at all. Besides, according to one of the Sorting men, I was 'too short' for a spear. I was agile enough with a dagger, but I knew that would be nigh useless in the arena against anyone else.
If you're doing Camp NaNoWriMo, or rewriting something, or any writing at all, I ask you: how's it going? Any tips and tricks you'd like to share?

(and what do you think of the excerpts?)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What kind of last-minute person are you?

It's four o'clock, and you've just arrived home from school. You have a final project due the next day - a ten minute presentation, complete with a powerpoint, scholarly research, and creative analysis. You can't wing it - you have to hand in a script. You have some info collected, and books on hand, but no actual work. How do you react?

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I think the above is common, but probably doesn't last long in most people. Because, let's face it, if you procrastinate and don't fail, you must have developed strategies by this point.

For me, I thrive on pressure. The deadline, the "go go go" mentality of moving forward and checking things off the list to "just get it done." I never learned to plan ahead that much as a kid because I could pull it off the night before. This attitude has been slightly modified in high school - I start early even though I continue to leave a lot to the last minute. But still, I can succeed on a tight timeframe. Indeed, sometimes I feel like that's the only way I can succeed - because often it's the only way I work. Given that my dad is the same way, it's likely I inherited both the procrastination and the success despite it from him.

My sister, alas, only inherited the procrastination. She can't shut off the perfectionist in her and "just work." It has to be done right the first time, according to some plan. So, come crunch time, she requires a lot of support from both me and my mom, even though she's plenty smart and capable. She just doesn't handle pressure well, and hasn't found a workable strategy to avoid it yet.

Interestingly enough, although my sister loves storytelling like I do, and although she does write some, only one of us has anything finished. And yes, I've had three more years than her, but I also think a lot of the credit goes to NaNoWriMo. It was my need for deadline driven goals that led me to NaNo, and discovering novel writing as a passion of mine. If it weren't for NaNo, and the pressure to write 50 000 words in a month, I can't imagine when I would have "gotten around to" writing and finishing something of a similar length.

Another way in which my sister and I differ lies in our handling of stress. I differentiate between pressure and stress, seeing the former as a specific feeling often brought on by a deadline or goal, and the latter as general feeling of inability to handle everything on your plate.

I see this difference mostly because, while pressure is great for me, I don't handle a lot of stress particularly well. Unlike with pressure, my sister shares this trait - only our reactions are completely different. She freaks out and shuts down, literally unable to handle too much stress. I can, but it's not good for me. When I have so much to do and I'm worrying about it - when I feel like I can't control the situation - I wrest some small measure of control back by staying up really late reading.

Yes, this sounds weird and maybe harmless. But staying up until three, four, five o'clock in the morning, until you can see the sun's rays over the horizon and hear morning birdsong, is really bad for your energy and focus. Really, really bad. (also kind of fun sometimes. but less fun when you don't really want to and you know its just a reaction to stress).

I think it's very interesting how different people can be, even when they are closely related, very alike in other ways, and have been raised by the same parents. How do you (and your siblings) react to pressure and stress?

Case study: Why this post is a bit late and less than perfectly polished

  • Monday night - went for a run, did some chemistry homework, watched TV and hung out online, went to bed
  • Tuesday night - 8 hours spent mostly working on my english summative presentation (also eating and taking sanity breaks). I left about 70% of a project worth 10% of my mark until the day before it was due. Bad idea.
  • Wednesday day - functioned pretty well on roughly 5 hours of sleep. Gave presentation. Was happy with quality.
  • Wednesday night - vegged (mostly watching TV shows featuring David Boreanaz) from dinner at around 5 until 10. At which point I woke up and started getting things done, which has led to me currently finishing this.

This is what a procrastinator looks like. I don't enjoy the exhaustion I'm facing right now due to my poor planning, but I've yet to find a better way to do things. Have you?