Current Reading

A quick overview of my current reading projects.

The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, by William St Clair

As can likely be guessed by the title, this is an academic study of reading habits throughout the Romantic period. It actually goes further than this, with a thorough examination of how intellectual property laws were developed to support the printing industry, and how this affected book prices, print runs, and general availability of books through the Romantic and Victorian ages. There are roughly three hundred pages of appendices containing tables of print runs and unit price of various works of interest throughout the period. It’s a very complex study, and I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but I’ve been quite impressed so far. The impact of intellectual property is especially relevant today, especially when one considers the Google Books settlement. I’m certainly oversimplifying the importance of this book, I just haven’t read enough of it yet to fully grasp whats going on.

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

I’m reading the Bison Books edition from 2006, which aside from a few minor alterations, exactly follows the text of the first (1826) edition. I’ve only read two chapters so far, and I intend on taking notes while reading this. I can see some similarities already with Frankenstein, as Lionel starts out a rough savage, to be later educated in the classics. The opening chapters focus on the wilderness and freedom of youth, which I expect to recur as the novel progresses. It should be a most interesting novel.

Campus Chills, edited by Mark Leslie

I read several of the stories in this anthology when it launched, and I’m finally getting around to finishing it off. The best stories so far have been ones deeply rooted in a particular location. Three of the stories were written by Waterloo graduates. Julie E. Czerneda’s “The Forever Brotherhood”, James Alan Gardner’s “Truth-Poison”, and Douglas Smith’s “Radio Nowhere” all take place on the Waterloo campus. I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch in October, and all three read excerpts from their stories. Kimberly Foottit and Mark Leslie wrote “Prospero’s Ghost” which takes place at McMaster. “Different Skins” by Michael Kelly takes place on Philosopher’s Walk at the University of Toronto.

The story I liked best from this anthology is Douglas Smith’s “Radio Nowhere“, which has recently been posted on his website. While all the stories give some view of the supernatural, hauntings and horror, “Radio Nowhere” also carried a great melancholic sense of guilt and  loss. It’s a great story.

I’m reading some other books at the moment as well, but they’re currently on hold while I focus on these.

Creative Writing Retrospective

My thoughts on English 335, Creative Writing I at the University of Waterloo.

Last term, I was enrolled in English 335 at the University of Waterloo. This course was a workshop based course on creative writing. This course had a great deal of potential, but only partially lived up to my expectations.

The course is composed of three main areas of creative writing: poetry, short fiction, and drama (called “collaborative performance” in the syllabus). While I was most interested in the short fiction component, I also greatly enjoyed the poetry unit. For each of the first two units, two new poems or short stories were written and workshopped. One of each was then chosen to be thoroughly revised, and justification provided for the revisions. The collaborative performance was written and edited in groups, and was presented in class on the last day.

Possibly the best part about the course was the license to write. I not only wanted to write, but I was compelled to do so. The poetry unit helped me to think more deeply about the fundamentals of language, while the fiction unit allowed me to concentrate on narrative.

In contrast, the drama unit provided me with little value. The collaborative work was interesting, but there was little focus placed on revision after the presentation. This unit also took considerable time which I would have rather spent writing more poetry or fiction. The performance aspect of the work was also uncomfortable. My group read our script, rather than memorizing it. I did not have the time to spend memorizing a script. This is a creative writing course, not a drama course. Maybe this part of the course was more meaningful to others in the class, but I felt it detracted from my experience.

There was very little academic content in the course, which is expected for a creative writing course. It is listed as a workshop course, not a lecture. There are other courses which focus on the short story, and others which focus on poetry from the academically critical perspective. This course focused on creating and revising effective writing.

The workshop portion of the course was valuable, but also frustrating at times. The class size was excessive. There were over twenty people enrolled in this section of the course. When workshopping as an entire class, critiques of everyone’s work meant taking two nights to cover everyone. For the second piece in the poetry and fiction units, we broke into smaller, more focused groups, reading five pieces instead of twenty. In general however, there was not enough time to effectively critique the writing. If the class was smaller, more time could be spent on each individual piece, or each student could write another piece.

In general, I found the critique process to be poorly defined. The majority of the time was spent discussing what people liked, and what people didn’t. A particular phrase was often pointed out as being cool. It was more rare to hear a critique which focused on elements such as pacing or plot construction. The instructor frequently brought up the need to focus on characterization. This is a fault I was guilty of, in at least one of my stories, which I later gutted and rewrote from scratch.

Another frustration was having my work reviewed last in both the poetry and fiction sections. I realize that someone always has to be last, but it’s no more fun in creative writing than it is in high school gym class.

The pacing of the course seemed excessively slow. Over twelve weeks, we wrote two poems, of which one was revised, and wrote two pieces of flash fiction, of which one was revised. Added to this was the writing, editing and performance of a collaborative drama. Five pieces of original writing, and two revisions. I was expecting more writing in the course, and ultimately found the level of workshop discussion unsatisfying, primarily due to the lack of time for individual reviews.

I think this course would benefit from a bit more structure in the critique process. What sort of things should be looked at during a critique, for example. A simple list of some of the basic elements of fiction, such as plot, characterization and effective dialogue would have improved some of the reviews. By the middle of the term, I was getting rather tired of hearing the phrase “I really enjoyed this story” prefacing a simplistic review.

The instructor also has a bias against genre fiction, although it was allowed in the course. This can be understandable, as it is much more difficult to assess work in a genre in which one has little experience. From my perspective, it’s much easier to write in the genre in which I read. Without knowing the conventions of a particular genre, it can be difficult to determine if a certain phrase or concept is typical of the genre. The instructor primarily reads literary fiction, I believe.

I’m not sure if I will enroll in the advanced creative writing course. I think I need to spend some more time to absorb the experience of the first course, before I come to a decision.

Self Critic

I had my creative writing class again this evening. We broke into small groups for critiques of flash fiction.

Despite having one fewer member in our group this week, we finished at least half an hour later than some of the other groups. It was a fun little session. The stories showed good promise, and I hope my suggestions were helpful. I don’t think I pull any punches while providing my criticism. I certainly don’t start off every critique with another version of “I really liked this story”. Where there are problems, either in plot progression, character development, description or dialogue, I point it out, usually with a suggestion as to how to do things better.

My story somehow got selected to be last for review yet again. Thankfully, in the smaller sessions, we’re not working under the same time restraints. I find it disappointing though, to receive minimal feedback, most of which dealt with things I did well. While I’m pleased that people enjoyed it, as a workshop draft, it’s not at a state where I’m particularly happy with it. In fact, I think my story has major issues in plot, pacing, characterization, and point of view. Some characters were certainly not used as well as they could have been.

A few parts of this were mentioned, but nothing specific was cited as being a point for improvement. Maybe my expectations for this course were too high? Ah well. I know where I want this story to go. I’ll revise it over the weekend. I also want to revise one of my stories this weekend so I can submit it for the Tesseracts 14 anthology. It’s a dark little Canadian steampunk story. Hopefully it will interest John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory.

Busy with classes

Life’s been fairly hectic lately. In addition to my day job, I somehow decided that it would be a cool idea to take three courses this term. This term I’m taking English 362 (Shakespeare 1), English 350B (17th Century Literature 2) and English 335 (Creative Writing 1).
Creative Writing is a night course, and is workshop based. I’m enjoying the opportunity to focus on the writing craft. Thus far, we’ve focused on poetry, which is a nice change. The importance of precise diction is challenging.  The other two courses are distance education courses. Audio lectures, web based discussion forums, and regular assignments.
English 350B is primarily a study of Milton’s Paradise lost. It’s an impressive work of literature, made more so as Milton composed it while blind.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, during the summer term, I took a selected studies reading course on the works of Philip K. Dick. I think the course went really well. I’m currently reworking my final paper, expanding on some of the ideas I touched upon, and hope to submit it to one of the science fiction journals at a later date.

Science Fiction at Waterloo

The University of Waterloo is sadly lacking in science fiction literature courses. The only course offered is English 208B, which does provide a good introduction to the field of science fiction in literature. Sadly, it is just an introductory course. It has a very high enrollment, from multiple disciplines. There may have been more engineering and physics students in the course than English majors.

Since there are no further courses offered by the English Department at Waterloo, I’m preparing a “Selected Reading” course. This is an independent study course, supervised by a member of the faculty.  I’ve been working with Assistant Professor Aimée Morrison on the content of a course studying the work of Philip K Dick. The primary texts I will be studying will be

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Ubik
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said
  • VALIS

As well as some short stories

  • “Minority Report”
  • “Imposter”
  • “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale”
  • “The Electric Ant”
  • “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”

This isn’t just a “reading” course. There is a significant literary theory component to this course. I’ve selected a number of articles and book chapters regarding PKD’s work. Some of the more notable texts I will be using include The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, A Companion to Science Fiction edited by David Seed, and the Pocket Essentials guide to Philip K Dick, written by Andrew M Butler.

I’ll be meeting with Professor Morrison tomorrow to work out the syllabus for the course.

I’m really looking forward to this course, and it will wrap up just before my trip to the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal.

Anticipation

The 67th World Science Fiction convention is Anticipation 2009, being held at the Palais des congrès in Montreal.
It’s a big convention, and will be held from August 6th-10th. The Academic Track is run by Dr. Graham J. Murphy from Trent University, and Chrissie Mains, an instructor at University of Calgary and Mount Royal College in Calgary. My paper, “Modernizing the Difference Engine” has been accepted, and I will be attending Anticipation in August.