Saturday, June 15, 2013

5 Things You Should be Doing if You're [an] Unemployed [Writer]

Career building and job search websites have a tendency to distill career search advice into list form. Can such advice apply to the unemployed writer as well? I think so, and I've re-purposed a list from into an even pithier form:
  1. Volunteer - "volunteering can increase your chances if you're strategic about it."
  2. Keep your skills current - "Spend time each day building that skill."
  3. Network - "At a temporary dead end with your current contacts? Look beyond traditional networking events."
  4. Freelance - "a good way to boost your skills, resume, portfolio, professional network, income, and confidence."
  5. Build an online presence - "Get found online. Create on online portfolio to showcase your work."
Am I wrong, or do these prompts inspire specific things you could be doing?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Writers Blog About Eating, Part 2

Following on Tori's post, I wanted to contribute my two cents- and not just because the East and the South of Amsterdam were totally ignored! (I suppose that's the point of cheap eats: you go with what you know, and that usually ends up being in your own neighborhood.)

As a "global" city, you can find every type of food in Amsterdam, but given its small size (801,000 citizens in the 2013 census), it does not do all of them well. For example, the Italian food in Amsterdam is forgetful (and do yorself a favor and skip pizza until you leave). What passes as Mexican food has been thoroughly "Europeanized" for local taste buds. What passes for Greek food here is borderline indedible.

That being said, when Amsterdam does well, it does very well indeed. Some of it is an event rather than a meal - like the only Micheln-starred Asian restaurant in the Netherlands: Yamazato at the Okura Hotel. Much of it is no-nonsense food, like the Dutch themselves, and will fill your belly with good quality food for 5 euros for lunch, and 15 euros for dinner.

Going with what I know, I will kick off with the place I visited two to three times per month: Tjin's.

Tjin's is a fine example of Surinaams cuisine, though heavily weighted towards its Chinese, rather than its African or Indian (AKA Hindustaans) roots. This is because Mr. Tchin was, well, of Chinese descent. Mr. Tchin has passed on, but his family is still at it. You can get all the usual Surinamese fare, but I strongly recommend their sauto soup - a chicken soup with tauge, spring onion and spices) served with a side of white rice and dollop of pureed adjoema pepper (looks like a habanero, smells like a habanero, but sweeter and a tad milder). This is the perfect meal to cure or fight off a cold during those wet windy days, which sadly seems to include every day between May and August.

I never visited their flagship Van Woustraat location just off the Albert Cuyp Market, I only frequented the less glamorous sister, found literally under a bridge at the Bijlmerpoort. It looks like a skid row soup kitchen that needs renovation following a grease fire. In all fairness, they have replaced some of those cheap plastic chairs with other cheap plastic chairs that do not have cracks in the seat that pinch your rear. They have replaced some of the sadder linoleum and recently covered some of the lighting and plumbing fixtures with a false ceiling reminiscent of rattan. You get the idea. Helpfully, there is also a map of Suriname on the wall, in case you have no clue where such diverse cultures combined so maginificently in the kitchen.

Do not let appearances fool you. Amsterdammers know this is still the best sauto soup in the city, which makes it the best in the Netherlands. That probably makes it the best in the world. A large soup with a mango juice will set you back 5 euros and 50 cents. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writers Blog About Eating

I've decided to manipulate our tagline and focus a bit on eating for awhile. Writers do need to eat and eat cheaply. A little bit of hunger may be romantic and even good for your brain, but nothing beats a satisfying and inexpensive meal.

Since moving to Amsterdam, I have avoided eating out because it is usually a disappointing and expensive experience. Lately, however, the tables are turning for the better -- or my standards are getting lower. You be the judge.

So here is my Google map of cheap and satisfying eats in Amsterdam. I look forward to a bit of collaboration. The rules are that the food must be both good and cheap.

View Best Cheap Eats in Amsterdam in a larger map

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to be a Productive and Valued Member of a Writers' Group

How to be a Productive and Valued Member of a Writers' Group

I may not be a bestselling author, but I do know what it takes to be a great member of a writing group. It takes a combination of practice, empathy, and resilience. In fact, it takes much of what it does to be a great writer. Here are some tips. 
  1. Read. 
  2. So what if you don't like post-modern horror.Read outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself to learn from and enjoy reading books and stories that you normally would avoid. There are lists of great books of every possible type all over the place. Choose a few. Read them. Just fucking read already. 
  3. Did I say anything about reading? Read everything from the back of the cereal box to Tolstoy.
  4. But the new James Bond is opening tonight...Show up as often as you can. If you only show up when your own work is being critiqued, you will quickly fall out of favor with the group. 
  5. Was that middle, end, beginning? Learn the rules of storytelling. You can do this by reading. Yes reading. Did I mention reading?
  6. Orange you glad I didn't say banana? Does the hero always have to reluctant? Do we always have to like the point of view? Once you learn the rules, break them. At least once. (Oh wait, that was a writing tip...Oh well.)
9 Tips for Critiquing Others
  1. Why do you keep harping on reading? Have you been reading? Because if you haven’t, you have no business critiquing.
  2. Share the love. Be generous. Your critique is important, but your generosity and encouragement as a fellow writer and reader are even more so. Help the other members of your group become better writers by praising what they do well and pointing out what could be better. 
  3. Establish trust. This might mean restraining your wildly inventive and brilliant ideas for a session or two while you get to know the group and how they communicate. But there will be time for you to shine as you become a valued member of the group.
  4. Nice is as nice does. Nice doesn’t make for good critique. Once you have established trust in the group, you can become more critical. 
  5. Lock up your inner snark. Zingers aren’t critique.
  6. It's not your story. When you critique, remember the writer may not be writing for you. She may be addressing someone else. It’s your job to make her more successful in her storytelling. It isn’t your job to change the writing into something you would prefer.
  7. Know your limitations. If you’ve been reading, then you know what you like and what you don’t like. If a book has been read and loved by many and you can’t stand it, then  that is something worth noting. Why don’t you like it? A little self awareness will help you become better at critiquing work you don’t like.
  8. They heard you the first time. When you find yourself (and you will) in the position of trying to convince the other critical readers of your take on the piece under review, stop before it becomes an endless loop. Say your piece, trust that the writer has heard it, and move on. Trust me, that's easier to write than to do. (For me, at least.)
  9. Lose the red pen. Critique groups are not editorial groups. There are times when you just cannot avoid picking up the red pen and rearranging words, fixing punctuation, and rewriting sentences. This should never be done for more than a few paragraphs. You are not an editor. You are there to engage with the writing in a meaningful and careful manner that goes beyond fixing poor grammar or a misshapen sentence. This can be extremely difficult. I find the group helps me formalize my critique. So do time and practice.
8 Tips for Getting Critique
  1. Mirror mirror on the wall... If what you want from a critique group is an affirmation of your talent, then get an agent and be done with it. Don’t burden the group with your easily bruised ego.
  2. How do you keep your armor so shiny? Try to drop your defensive posture. When you have a chance to respond to the critique, use that time to ask questions and get more out of the group. (Hat tip to Eric for pointing this out in his comment.)
  3. Know when you need critique and when you need editing. If you don’t want to change your work, then don’t submit it. Give it to an editor.
  4. Set expectations for the group. Tell them what you want to learn. Give them guidelines. Every submission you make to the group should be accompanied by 3 questions you want your critical readers to think about. 
  5. Don’t wait for something to be perfect. You joined the group for their help. Let them help. Don’t try to impress them with your expertise. 
  6. I can't stand up for falling down. Sometimes the best way to succeed is to fail. It’s often easier to make a horrid piece of storytelling great than to improve a mediocre one. 
  7. Stand up for yourself. Avoid the critiqued-to-death story. You need to have enough confidence in your story to take the critique that improves your work and leave the other stuff behind. 
  8. Remember a project is never finished. It’s abandoned. There is only so close to perfect you can get.
(UPDATE: Thanks to Jackie for advice on the lead ins... and for the best ones.)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cringeworthy (part 3 of 3)

What is it about writing so powerful that it evokes a physical reaction from the reader?  Beyond cringing, the best and most memorable writing made me exhibit other physical effects that I began classifying in my previous entry and will conclude here:

Plaatsvervangende schaamte

The above mouthful is actually wonderful Dutch term that means literally "place-replacing shame." It's an intense feeling of embarrassment for someone else, usually someone who has no idea how shameful or embarrassing they're behaving. It normally occurrs during 16 and PregnantJersey Shore or any talent show variation of Britain's Got Talent or Voice of Holland, symptoms include: shifting in one's seat, groaning, covering one's eyes, or covering the ears then squeezing the eyes shut and shouting "la-la-la-la-la!" at full volume until the sensation subsides.

The talent shows require lots of work to bring to our screens - including casting calls and pre-auditions before they even get to the screen. And the thing is, what takes a cast of shameless individuals and a television production crew months to achieve, Jonathan Franzen is able to accomplish with a few pages of prose.

In many ways, Franzen is the most subtle entry on my Cringeworthy list: no psychopaths, no drug abuse (well, maybe a little), and no alternate universes - just a well-developed character, who has rock bottom. The most cringeworthy example is found in The Corrections, where the character not only hits rock bottom, but he falls through the floor to continue his ignominious plunge. That character Chip Lambert, the middle child of a fractured Midwestern family. The family is dealing no tonly their own individual troubles, but the rapidly declining health of the family patriarch/bully that brings them altogether for one last Christmas.

While each character in The Corrections has his or her own unique set of troubles, it's Chip's that's the most capricious and outrageous of the bunch. We meet him in New York City, tenuously hanging onto his identity as a "alternative" writer type. It's an identity that firmly rejects his Midwestern past and consequently - his parents. This is not his first attempt at such self actualization. He was already a middling professor of literature at a liberal private college - until he realized he wouldn't get tenure, and decided the best way to deal with it was to take some MDMA and have sex with (and eventually obsess over) one of his students.

Chip escapes to New York City to remake himself, but when we first meet him, this latest iteration of a life is also unravelling: he's flailing over a movie script (which you can sense is even more middling than his not-so-mad skillz as a college docent), his girlfriend is dumping his ass, and the aforementioned ass is flat broke. As if that's not bad enough, his annoying parents are visiting him. He's got to feed and entertain them and never ever let them know that he's not successful. So he goes to Whole Foods filling a basket full of groceries he can't afford. He ends up stuffing a prime piece of salmon down his pants. It's ice cold and he's got to get the fuck out of there, but now he's stuck chatting to the husband of of the woman who can potentially make-or-break his film script. The guy still thinks Chip is cool, so Chip is forced to humor him while the fish starts melting down his crotch...

It was at this point I threw the book down, squeezed my eyes shut and started shouting "la-la-la-la-la!" I can deal with rock bottom, but I can't deal with people who don't realize they're at rock bottom and continue digging - a key theme in the book. Chip Lambert expends so much energy keeping up his various facades, that he has to wait until he's broke, jobless, and jacket-less on a country road in Latvia before he begins reflecting and redeeming himself. It's no surprise that this literary novel has garnered so much recognition. Franzen doesn't need fantastical devices or outlandish settings to make me twist and turn in my seat: "real life" and the real world are clearly outrageous enough.

- Chris

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Speech Squeeze

My most recent peace on Iran commissioned by Article 19:

Learning the language of self-censorship

Poker. Rumi. The US Postal Service motto: Neither snow nor rain nor heat…Serendipity. All have their roots in ancient Persia. No matter how much you think you know about Iran, there’s always more. It’s no surprise, then, that you know so little before boarding a plane to take you to Tehran.

Maybe you’re nervous. Pulling the unfamiliar scarf close around your head. Tucking in loose strands as the plane rattles over the Alborz mountains for its landing. You expect prying eyes, secrecy, and suspicion. What you don’t expect is the friendly welcome from strangers and family, the chaos at the airport, the sheer number of women in black hijab everywhere you look.

The first week you are in Iran is a revelation. Everyone you meet speaks to you. Strangers try out a few words of English, speak to you in simple Persian. They express opinions. Slam the government. Make jokes about clerics. Shout out: We love you miss, in heavily accented English.

There are people and cars everywhere. You see women in sheer headscarves braving the treacherous pavement in high heels and challenging the limits of acceptable hijab. You see daredevil teenagers roller blading in and out of traffic and up and down the cement steps in Tehran’s largest park.

Read more at Article 19.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cringeworthy (part 2 of 3)

Close up of Marching through Georgia, by S.M. Stirling

What is it about writing so powerful that it evokes a physical reaction from the reader?  Beyond cringing, the best and most memorable writing made me exhibit other physical effects that I began classifying in my previous entry and have continued here:


SF, fantasy, and alt history author S.M. Stirling wrote a trilogy of books in the 1980 and 90s that are now referred to as the Domination saga - a dystopian alternate history where a militaristic, slave-holding "anti-America" in an industrialized Africa conquers Europe, Asia, and finally - the world.

In Stirling's books, the British Cape Colony of Drakia (our South Africa) absorbed far more Loyalist refugees that in our world after the American Revolution, as well countless refugees from the Confederacy during America's Civil War. Culturally embittered by this defeat, the descendants of these settlers begin their systematic conquest, enslavement, and industrialization of Africa.

When the first book, Marching Through Georgia begins, The Colony of Drakia has become "The Domination of the Draka" - a society based on conquest now in pursuit of territory and resources during the "Eurasian War" (their world's version World War II). What ensues in this first book is a graphic account of small-unit combat between elite Draka airborne soldiers (male and female) accompanied by an American journalist, against armored regiment of German Waffen-SS in the Caucasus - with the occasional Soviet partisan thrown in.

Don't let the cover fool you. Yes, this is pulpy military fiction, but what's riveting is the fascinating and horrific world Stirling has created. He has given us the Confederate States of America that could have been: a world of lush plantations and dehumanizing factory towns; a refined ruling class that preserve natural beauty even as their mines dispose of broken workers as they do slurry. Stirling has taken great pains to describe this civilization, economy, social mores, history, and a culture influenced by European immigrants such as Nietzsche (when the Draka still accepted outsiders). Stirling even creates a dialect of English embossed by Confederate descendants.

In the second book, Under the Yoke, the Domination has gained control of Eurasia from the English Channel to the East China Sea. While ostensibly a Le Carre-style story of an OSS man on a mission behind enemy lines, Under the Yoke is really a study of the society the Draka begin establishing in Europe. The picture he paints isn't a pretty one. On a broad level, European institutions, moral leadership, and education are wiped out. On the ground level, the reader must witness the awful repercussions of warfare since ancient times wreaked on the protagonists - destruction, rape, pillage, torture - not as some tragic byproduct of Draka conquest, but as a cornerstone of Draka policy. Their culture is conquest, and they've turned domination into a science. The hapless Europeans (foremost among them a Polish nun, who's forced into servitude as a clerk on a new plantation) stand no chance. The remaining free people on earth realize too late that the rules of warfare, decency or simply mercy do not apply to Stirling's Draka. They are unconquerable Spartans. They are the Roman Empire at its peak, but unlike the Romans, they're not going to fall. Once they master genetic engineering in the third book The Stone Dogs, they become the true Supermen of Nietzsche's dreams.

Seeing the yoke applied so personally, step-by-painful-step in Under the Yoke and the third book The Stone Dogs, was physically exhausting. There is simply no hope, and it's awful watching one protagonist after another fail and perish. I found myself wide awake at night, poking holes in Stirling's assumptions and postulations: how could their weapons development be so much better than America's? How could they have conquered Afghanistan and China when no one else has done so (and successfully held it)? How could they not fall apart from within? How could they be so bereft of mercy or human decency?

Although Stirling does answer some of these within the books (and other authors tackle them in the anthology entitled Drakas!) the author has taken great pains to point out that it is - after all - a dystopia. This is the story where everything does go wrong for the good guys. It says it right there on the cover "You don't know how lucky you are boys." Perhaps that's the source of my insomnia: the darkest dreams alway bear a frightening resemblance to waking reality.

To make it worse, Stone Dogs and the Drakas! anthology (and a fourth throwaway SF book called Drakon) explain how the Draka have also mastered inter-dimensional travel. The authors don't playfully suggest that the Draka might leap out of a wormhole into our world; they warn us that they're already here.

As if I didn't already have enough trouble sleeping.

- Chris

Next entry: plaatsvervangende schaamte thanks to Jonathan Franzen.