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Dreaming in Danish gibberish

I’ve heard people talk about dreaming in a foreign language as a sign that they’re getting really fluent in it. I have a step that is much, much, much earlier in the process, and that is dreaming in foreign language gibberish. Yesterday I watched two hours of The Eagle (because Netflix is taking it away from me! WOE!), and last night I went to bed and dreamed that people were speaking in Danish I couldn’t quite hear and mostly couldn’t understand. The vowels were right, the proportions of consonants–it was clearly Danish. It was clearly Danish like listening to hockey announcers with the sound turned down gets your clearly northern North American accents.* I don’t speak Danish; I’m certainly not fluent in Danish. But I now dream in Danish gibberish; oh good.

(I cannot see anyone else to blame for this but myself.)

I really don’t understand why the subtitler made some of the choices they did when they were phonetically obvious and not false cognates. I write for kids even though this blog is not for kids, so I’m going to be a little coy here: there are all sorts of English obscenities and profanities that sound exactly like their Danish counterparts. “Like which ones, Mris?” All of them. You cannot get away with fooling a 7-year-old by swearing in Danish, so why would you subtitle a heartfelt obscenity as “No”? Also, the phrase “after min mor” is practically identical to English–when someone compliments a new grandmother on her granddaughter’s name and she says that it is “after min mor,” you don’t have to speak anything but English to know that she has said that the baby is named after the speaker’s mother (the baby’s great-grandmother)–why, then, would they translate that as, “Yes, it is a lovely name”? Why not just say what she said?

One of the most systematic differences between the spoken Danish version of S1 of The Eagle and the subtitled English version, though, was the obscuring of ethnicity. I complained before that the switches in language were not marked, and this is true–people spoke all sorts of languages at all sorts of times, and the only one that was marked is that English was not subtitled. But within the commentary the characters were making, almost all ethnic and religious references were obscured. “Islamisk” is not a subtle word, people. Even people who can’t pick out what the rest of the sentence is will know if it has “Islamisk” in it and you did not use “Islamic” or “Muslim” in the translation, there’s something missing. Frequently the original Danish talks about something happening all through Scandinavia or someone being the Scandinavian this or that, and the subtitles say nothing of the sort, leaving the linguistically inert viewer not knowing whether someone or something is global, European, Scandinavian, Danish, local to Copenhagen, what. This is important to the plot. And I can’t really see saying, “Americans don’t care about this,” if you’re already dealing with a subset of Americans who are willing to watch subtitled Danish cop shows in the first place. And having to come in at the end and say, “Oh, by the way, these people are Serbs, these other people are Chechens, it matters, now you know,” is just less effective. And frankly weird. And I don’t get it.

(The Protectors is even worse about subtitles in the current Netflix iteration. I hope they get it back, but with better subtitles; there are places where two people are talking and the dialog of only one of them gets translated. Not what we do.)

*That, for those of you just tuning in, is how I became a hockey fan: I was a homesick Minnesotan in California, looking for vowels in all the wrong places.

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Books read, late July.

One of these days, I will get through an entire half-month without getting sick. This is not that day. In the meantime there are books.

John Joseph Adams, ed., Federations. Mixed bag, and I had been hoping it would be focused on actual federations (federations are cool!) rather than just vast space thingers. Not that vast space thingers are not also cool! It just seems unlikely that I’ll get an actually-federation-focused antho now that there’s been one titled that way but not. Aaanyway. Favorite stories were Genevieve Valentine’s “Carthago Delenda Est,” Alastair Reynolds’s “Spirey and the Queen,” and Mary Rosenblum’s “My She,” although Reynolds should note that naming someone Wendigo and not doing something interesting with it is like naming them Vampire or Werewolf. Or worse. There’s a reason nobody has a glamorous sexy wendigo urban fantasy trend. Don’t name people Wendigo. Sheesh. You don’t have to be from a state or province endowed with Ojibwe people to know this.

Marie Brennan, Deeds of Men. Kindle. Politics and the Ware family in this Onyx Court novella. The more politics, the better I like it, but I would recommend not starting your Onyx Court experience here–I think some things just won’t make sense, and others won’t have the emotional weight they need. Start with one of the books, preferably Midnight Never Come.

Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare. Kindle. Operations research people (mostly indeed men, but…sigh, title). This was substantially a biography of PMS Blackett, called Patrick Blackett throughout because physicists have since discovered PMS, I guess. He was a navy nerd who became a big ol’ lefty and also did some pretty cool physics stuff, and he is worth knowing about. I don’t know if this is the best book to find out about Blackettry in some hypothetical ideal universe, but in this universe it may well be.

Paul Collins, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Kindle. Mostly a book that made me want to read more about Pulitzer and Hearst in crunchy non-pop-history detail, but it was a fast read.

James S.A. Corey, Caliban’s War. So Jo and Mark eventually convinced me to give the vomit zombies series another go, and there were two major improvements over the previous vomit zombie-ridden volume: 1) fewer vomit zombies (duh), and 2) female characters of note. That helped a lot. It still did not make me love the vomit zombie series, but at least there were interesting things going on, and I will not need persuading to read the third one.

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage. Grandpa’s. An American classic I’d never read before. (I skipped that year of high school and only filled in intermittently.) I think the thing that struck me most about this was how much it had an attitude I learned to see as a result of WWI, but before WWI. The Victorians and Edwardians were not nearly as universally enthralled by dulce et decorum est as we are sometimes encouraged to believe they were.

Roger Crowley, City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas. Kindle. If you read another history of Venice and thought, “What this needs is more Adriatic,” this is the book for you. It still left out a great deal of what I find interesting about Venice, but there were more pieces of the puzzle, particularly more Byzantine pieces.

M.F.K. Fisher, Serve It Forth. The interest of Hanne Blank and Jon Singer in M.F.K. Fisher finally got me reading her, and I was greatly entertained thereby. Many of these essays felt short to me, but I think that was just a matter of getting used to her style and form, of accepting that she had said what she wished to say and was done. For those of you who don’t know Fisher, this is food writing, not recipes or restaurant reviews per se but writing about the experience of cooking and eating. Very quick read, very pithy.

Stella Gemmell, The City. This reminded me of K.J. Parker to the point where if somebody said, “K.J. Parker is secretly Stella Gemmell,” I would not be in the least bit surprised. (I don’t think K.J. Parker is actually Stella Gemmell, mostly because someone said we had learned–much to my surprise–that K.J. Parker is male.) The main difference–and for me this is an important one–is that amidst all the muck and betrayal, there are functional and even loving human relationships. There is overwhelming empire, there is fighting and despair and horror in the more general rather than genre sense, but there is a stained glass maker, and there are people who actually like each other. And since that’s more or less why I stopped reading K.J. Parker, I’m glad to see Stella Gemmell on the scene filling that niche.

Barbara Hambly, Good Man Friday. The latest in the Benjamin January mysteries. Ben and some of his family go to Washington DC in search of a missing nerd. Several politicians and Edgar Allen Poe make guest appearances, and Hambly is not able to resist a few sneaky Poe references, and also a few not-so-sneaky. While I am not generally keen on that kind of thing, Hambly (Hamilton) is one of my major exceptions, and this is a very reliable series for me–perfect thing to have on hand for a sick day.

Christopher Hibbert, Disraeli: The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister. Do you want a bio of Disraeli? Because this is one. Otherwise it is not outstandingly meritorious. But if you want a bio of Disraeli with no particular argument or thesis about his thoughts, actions, or life, boy howdy, here ya go. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that sort of thing is handy. Still.

Penelope Myrtle Kelsey, Tribal Theory in Native American Literature: Dakota and Haudenosaunee Writing and Indigenous Worldviews. Extremely useful, interesting stuff here. The section about late 19th century American regionalism/sentimentalism being deployed in service of Dakota philosophy/worldview was breathtaking and exciting and, honestly, was just one of those moments where you read a bit of lit crit and say oh, of course, I mean naturally. Probably not a book with a very wide audience, but very solid for the audience it has, which includes me.

David Liss, Mystery Men. One of my favorite historical fiction writers does 1930s superheroes for Marvel: yeah, okay, I’m in. This felt like a string of origin snapshots–not even developed enough to be full origin stories for any of the characters–so I probably would have wanted one mystery man at a time. Still and all, the 1930s setting really was a 1930s setting and not an idealized one, and I am a sucker for the Great Depression.

Hilary McKay, Indigo’s Star and Permanent Rose. Rereads. I love these books. They just make me so happy. Both of them made me giggle almost more on the rereads than on first reading. I picked them up because they’re in a stack to lend to a friend, and I can’t wait to talk about them with her, because we had the same favorite bit of the first one. (With Rose and the signs while Caddy is driving. I was reduced to helpless squeaking rather than laughter at that point the first time I read Saffy’s Angel. And I think Permanent Rose may be the best of them. And maybe I should reread Saffy’s Angel one of these days, also, and have I said I want a Sarah book? Because I want a Sarah book. Lots.)

Brian Switek, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road With Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. I think I am the dead-center audience for this book, because it’s mostly a summation of how dinosaurs are not like we thought they were when I was a kid, yes, me, when I was a kid. (Many “overturning what you were taught when you were a kid” books are aimed at Baby Boomers or older Xers and are overturning things I was never taught–like by the time I was in sex ed in school, we were having repeated to us that you can’t get AIDS from a toilet seat, no no no no, when we never thought you could and why were the adults obsessed with toilet seats? Well, this is like that, but with feathers. Um.) It’s also a physically lovely object, with a fold-out cover that’s really well-done. A lot of what’s in it I already knew from reading science magazines, but still, yay dinos.

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Forming the writing habit

Last week, when I was preparing for a birthday and a house guest, my friend Kethry asked for advice on how to get in the habit of writing stories, and I promised her I’d try to give some. And now the birthday has passed and the house guest has gone home and I am completely full of head cold, and I am trying to wade through my to-do list, and here we are. So.

1. Figure out what you want to do. I suppose it’s possible some people manage to write consistently and successfully–where by “successfully” I mostly mean “to their own satisfaction”–without having any idea what they want to write. But one of the most common problems I see among new writers who aren’t writing is that they don’t really know where they’re going. Occasionally you can wander into something interesting without knowing what it is, but on a day-to-day basis it helps if you have some idea what you want.

So: Do you want to finish something you’ve already started, or start something new? Do you want to write a novel? A short story? A new short story every week? Do you want to write for submission to professional editors? Fanfic forums? Your own website? Your own desk drawer? What elements would you like to have featured in your writing?

That last question, what elements, can be a very useful one to attack from whatever angle appeals to you. You can freewrite about it, or talk it through with a trusted friend, or just think about it while you’re brushing your teeth, but be as concrete as you can. If you’re a setting person, think hard about what kind of setting appeals to you; ditto for character or plot. If you start thinking, “I want to write about a 15-year-old girl…no, wait, a bunch of 15-year-old girls…who are in their high school’s marching band…”, that’s a very different direction to start that story than if you ended that with “who are drawn together by their experiences with a ghost” or “who live in the Black Hills”–and very different altogether if you put in all three. And “I want to write a scene in which A can say X to B and have it be devastating” gives you all sorts of variables to work into the rest of the scenes.

2. Figure out where you’re stopping. Not writing as much as one wants is a pretty common problem through all walks of writing life. Are you just not writing anything at all? Are you starting ten million stories and not finishing any? Are you drafting stories but not revising and polishing them? The change in habits needed for someone who never picks up the pen or touches the keyboard is very different than for someone who writes their head off and never revises. I’ve seen lots of journeyman writers having to readjust their habits and their ideas of success because they had fixated on raw word count as the signifier of success, and now they need to revise and polish, and that doesn’t have the same milestones. And the remedy for “I tend to wander off and read the internet instead of putting words down” is far different than the remedy for “I write 500 words and can’t go further.”

3. Try to make it not hurt. Of course there is the literal version of this–ruining your wrists with a non-ergonomic setup is not conducive to anyone’s goals. But also it’s easier to keep a good habit if the only “painful” parts are the parts inherent to the thing. If you want to try scheduling the same time every day to write, don’t make it 5 a.m. if you’re a night owl or midnight if you’re a lark. If you love the feel of a fountain pen on paper or the convenience of typing title ideas and story notes into your phone, do that. Writing good fiction is hard enough without making it externally harder.

4. Know your own tendencies. I’m a list maker. Earlier this week I had an item on my (general to-do) list that involved making another list. The list I made had another set of three sub-lists. I love me some lists, and they are incredibly useful for me in getting myself together. But at least two people dear to me find lists counterproductive. The way their brains work means that making a list will interfere with them getting stuff done. It’s best to roll with this kind of thing, not fight it.

Similarly, I know that I work best in the morning and right after meals. But not everyone works that way. A lot of people apparently do well with promising themselves food “rewards” for getting writing done, and good for them! It gets them a banana and something written! Me, I work on fuel, not rewards. I say to myself, “We’d better have this banana so that we’ll have good energy to write well.” And for me that works.

A lot of people also seem to find “accountability” useful: they make writing dates, either in person or online, with writer-friends. Do not ask me to do this with you, because it will make me resent every hair and eyelash on your head. If you want to get together and drink tea and talk about our projects, grand, but the only way I could get through a writing date of that kind is by telling myself that my real work-time is some other time that day. (I’m like this with workouts also. Workout buddy my sweet patoot. Leave me alone and let me do what I’ve got to do.)

Another trick that is good for non-me people is the writing every day strategy. I write six days a week. I don’t write seven. Writing may or may not be your main job, but it is in fact work. You will need to not do work on some days of your life. Some people work best in spurts, so they’ll write every day for a month or two before crashing out; some people work best steadily. But having a regular writing time, whether it’s daily or not, is really helpful for a lot of writers.

The nice thing about asking yourself what you want here is that not only do you have a means of going forward by thinking about it in more detail, you also have a means of evaluation as to whether the different ideas are working for you. Because that’s the thing about writing: there’s no one thing that works, there’s just what works for you–and it helps to be able to evaluate concretely and say, “Okay, I got a novel and two short stories written since I started trying this, I’m going to call that a win,” or “Hmm, I got half a story written, but I also had mono, so let’s keep taking data,” or, “Ugh, this was miserable and did not work, let’s try something else.”

A lot of writing habit advice online seems to be geared for the idea that you want to do this full-time as a professional. Many of us do. Some of you don’t. It’s okay not to. It’s okay to write part-time. It’s okay if the habits you form are the habits for you to write one or two short stories a year, if that’s what you want and can fit in with the rest of what you want. It’s also okay if the habits you form are letting you write multiple novels per year. You get to be the judge here.