Friday, July 18, 2014

The Writing Process

as experienced by Shayla Poling

Start off by opening your word processor of choice. This step is crucial. Not only does it allow you to type words (remember: words are vital to the writing process), the icon's presence on your taskbar will serve as a constant reminder that you sat down to write, not to browse Facebook or get caught up in a video game that will devour your time faster than you can say "Just one more turn."

Oh how it taunts me.

Every ten minutes, bring up your blank word processor document. Stare at the blinking line, wondering why it refuses to produce words of its own accord.

Please do the thing. I'm begging you.

Eventually, a word will come to you. Don't panic! Transferring that word from your mind to the page is a relatively simple process. Just follow these steps:

  1. Keeping the word in mind, minimize whatever browser you've been using to procrastinate.
  2. Open your word document.
  3. Find the first letter of your word on the keyboard. If you don't have a keyboard, this, as well as the next few steps, may be a little difficult.
  4. Press the key corresponding to the first letter of your word. If you push the wrong key, locate the "Backspace" button on the right side of your keyboard. Press that button to erase your mistake, and we'll forget this little mix-up ever happened.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 with each letter of your word.
  6. When you've typed out the full word, congratulations! You've taken your first steps on the path to authorship. Feel free to bask in the glow of your monumental accomplishment.
This first word is a true classic.

Now that you've written a word, more words may start popping into your mind. This can be a frightening experience for newcomers. How do you sift through the good words and the bad? The answer is simple: Don't. Words are rare and fickle beasts. At this stage in the process, you can't afford to set any loose. Write down every single word, making sure to follow the above steps for each.

Eventually, after many hours of alternating procrastination and productivity, you will have between one sentence and five pages of writing. You may now feel justified in "taking a break." However, any time you choose to "take a break," you will likely have to restart the entire process. It is recommended that you reach your intended page/paragraph/sentence minimum before "taking a break."

For best results, repeat these steps daily.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT begin editing until you have a finished draft. If you start editing at this stage, you are likely to second guess yourself. Second guessing can be fatal for a fledgling piece of writing.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Weekly Book Review: The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Released: September 18, 2012
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy


Blue Sargent, the daughter of the town psychic in Henrietta, Virginia, has been told for as long as she can remember that if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. But she is too practical to believe in things like true love. Her policy is to stay away from the rich boys at the prestigious Aglionby Academy. The boys there – known as Raven Boys – can only mean trouble.

[From Maggie Stiefvater's official website.]


As you can see in the summary above, The Raven Boys professes to be about a teenage girl named Blue and the prediction that's been strangling her dating life since it was made. In reality, the book centers on a group of four boys from Ravenclaw—I mean, Aglionby Academy—on a quest to find and revive a lost Welsh noble.

The rich man's Ravenclaw.

Don't get me wrong. The reality of the novel is engaging. Each of the boys has his own set of goals, a backstory colored in varying shades of mysterious, and a slew of problems both mental and emotional. The group as a whole is a little cliché, consisting as it does of the Good Boy, the Bad Boy, the Quiet Boy, and the Angsty Boy, but they are compelling. Their quest is a little odd, as the book takes place in the fictional American town of Henrietta, Virginia and not, as might be expected given its ties to Welsh mythology, the United Kingdom, but it pulls its weight as the source from which the rest of The Raven Boys' plot emerges. Stiefvater crafts a fascinating and quite original hidden world throughout the book, enough to ignite my curiosity and ensure that I will likely read the second book in the series, despite a few misgivings.

One of these misgivings is, unfortunately, our so-called heroine, Blue Sargent. Born from the same shapeless mold as many female YA protagonists, Blue possesses no particularly interesting character quirks or emotional hang-ups. Despite her eccentric family of psychics and her super special psychic amplification power, Blue is reduced to the popular YA trope of the everygirl readers can easily project themselves onto. Her relative lack of personality isn't a huge problem, as the majority of the book is told from the perspective of other characters, but the trend she represents bothers me quite a bit.

Blue wasn't enough to stop me from tearing through the book. The Raven Boys was easy to pick up and hard to put down. Stiefvater's prose is quite good, and the plot is doled out at a quick but comfortable pace.

The novel ends on a shoddy sequel hook that is more likely to enrage than pique. Tonally dissonant and completely out of the blue (ha ha ha), a single sentence almost ruined what was otherwise a satisfying conclusion.

Fans of YA romance might be disappointed that the promised kiss-of-death plot plays second fiddle, but if you're willing to forget the synopsis, you'll find a fun modern-day quest narrative riddled with original mythological concepts.

You should also read:

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Weekly Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half

Click to find this book in our catalogue.
Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened by Allie Brosh
Released: 2013
Genre: Illustrated Comedy / Memoir


This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative--like maybe someone who isn't me wrote it--but I soon discovered that I'm not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:

  • Pictures
  • Words
  • Stories about things that happened to me
  • Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
  • Eight billion dollars*
  • Stories about dogs
  • The secret to eternal happiness*

*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness.

[From Goodreads.]


Allie Brosh's popular blog, Hyperbole and a Half, started up in 2009 with mostly text posts, but it wasn't until Allie started incorporating her now-famous drawings that it really took off. Over time, the blog metamorphosed into something halfway between a webcomic and a (non-fiction) short-story collection, and though it seldom updates, it appears to have maintained its popularity.

Perhaps her most famous panel, inspiration for the "X all the Y" meme.

Brosh's art is crude but charming, and it evinces a deeper understanding of perspective, anatomy, and movement than one might expect from characters whose complexity ranks only a few notches above "stick-figure." The drawings are just as hyperbolic as the name might suggest, and they infuse Brosh's already funny stories with enough humor to send you into a laughing fit as your unfeeling computer monitor stares stoically on. Their simplicity is obviously a stylistic choice, as her posts are peppered with art of higher fidelity. She alternates between the two styles as the story demands, and the overall effect is hilarious.

Her stories are at once silly and thoughtful. Brosh draws on real-life anecdotes for the majority of her posts. A good choice, considering the interesting life she's led. Most of her posts are funny, though a few (see: Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two) are tinged with melancholy and whole lotta truth. I first read Depression Part Two at a very dark point in my life, and it amazed me how similar our experiences were. It was comforting to know that I wasn't alone. Depression Part Two may not be the funniest of Allie's posts, but it is one of her best. Relatable for the depressed and enlightening for those who've never really known depression, the Depression two-parter deserves a read, whether in print or digital form.

Some of the stories in this book are available on her website, but readers are treated to 10 pieces only available in print. Warning Signs, in which twenty-seven-year-old Allie, spurred by a time capsule left by her ten-year-old self, confronts herself at various stages of her life, is a particularly good one. It also hits a little close to home as I, like Allie, may have been obsessed with dogs at some point in my childhood. I may have, in fact, liked dogs more than people. That might not be surprising, however, as the list of things I liked more than people includes:

  • The Internet
  • Dragons
  • Velociraptors
  • Books
  • Pokemon
  • Digimon
  • Monster Rancher
  • Just about anything with "mon" in the title
  • Fictional Characters

Other new content includes The Helper Dog is an Asshole, a belated introduction to Helper Dog, who made her first appearance in the absurdly popular Dogs Don't Understand Basic Concepts Like Moving, The Hot Sauce Debacle, The Parrot, Motivation, Lost in the Woods, Thoughts and Feelings, Dogs' Guide to Understanding Basic Concepts, and Identity Parts 1 and 2. Dinosaur (The Goose Story), based on a text-only post from early 2010, has been refurbished with added visuals and more refined storytelling.
The old content is well worth looking over, even if you've seen it before, as the artwork in Brosh's older stories has been updated for consistency with her newer material. The new panels preserve the tone of the originals while making it clear just how much Allie's artistic talent has evolved over the course of the blog.

Updated panels from "The God of Cake." Click to see the original post.

Overall, Hyperbole and a Half is a treat for readers both new and old. Come for the humor, stay for the insight, laugh at both.

You should also read:

Hark! A Vagrant

Monday, June 30, 2014

Silver Screen Selections: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Dean DeBlois
Released: June 13th, 2014
Genre: Animation / Fantasy


It's been five years since Hiccup and Toothless successfully united dragons and vikings on the island of Berk. While Astrid, Snoutlout and the rest of the gang are challenging each other to dragon races (the island's new favorite contact sport), the now inseparable pair journey through the skies, charting unmapped territories and exploring new worlds. When one of their adventures leads to the discovery of a secret ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace. Now, Hiccup and Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and dragons.

[From Metacritic.]


As sequel to one of my favorite animated movies, How to Train Your Dragon 2 had some comically oversized shoes to fill. For the most part, it does so with aplomb, continuing the first movie's tradition of seamlessly melding comedy and action with more tender moments, but there are a few snags along the way.

This film is heavier on the action and lighter on the quiet, character-building moments of the first. This is to be expected with most of the important relationships (Toothless and Hiccup, Hiccup and Stoick, Hiccup and Astrid) now firmly established. That's not to say that there aren't such moments. A new character with ties to both Hiccup and Stoick is introduced in the film's second act, and with this introduction comes a number of the movie's best scenes, many joyous, some subdued, all reminiscent of the original How to Train Your Dragon.

Like its predecessor, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is mostly light-hearted and hopeful. There's a lot of comedy, much of it from a hilarious side plot starring Ruffnut, the female half of the twin duo, but the film does have a dab of tragedy. One moment in particular treads darker paths than most western animated films would dare.

Toothless and Hiccup are as adorkable as ever. Hiccup trades witty quips with friends and villains alike while Toothless gambols about, alternating between cute and ferocious as the situation demands. The duo is a little more saccharine than in the first movie, and Hiccup takes his empathy and pacifism to new levels, sometimes to the detriment of his established character. Though Hiccup's penchant for sarcasm remains intact, I sometimes miss his teenage cynicism.

Visually, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sets a high bar for computer animated films. DreamWorks employed groundbreaking new animation software in the development of this movie, and it's evident with every movement and expression. How to Train Your Dragon 2 also employs gorgeous color palettes, even in its more solemn scenes, and the lighting seems both natural and dramatically appropriate.

Even darker scenes show an impressive display of color.

How to Train Your Dragon 2's updated aesthetic does have its victims. A few of the updated character models stray a little too far from the first movie's designs. Astrid, in particular, appears to have had all of her edge sanded away. Though her personality remains mostly the same, a softer, more rounded face and an entirely different eye color separate her two models.

Before and after.

Most of the other characters have aged more naturally. Hiccup, while less gangly and awkward than in his teenage years, retains most of the notable facial features of his original model. Even his freckle placement seems to have survived the transition. The other twenty-somethings are easily recognizable despite a few changed hairstyles and a smattering of facial hair, and Stoick and Gobber remain true to their original models, albeit with more gray streaked through their beards.

Is it just me, or did Astrid and Hiccup trade chins between movies?

How to Train Your Dragon 2's biggest weakness is its slavish devotion to cramming its story within the limits of traditional kids' movie running time. A lot happens in this film, too much for an hour and forty-five minutes to really do it justice. As a result, a well-paced first half gives way to a rushed finale exactly when the movie could benefit most from slowing down. The concluding action sequence does not have quite the same impact as the first movie's battle against the Red Death despite much greater stakes, and a few scenes leading up to the final confrontation jar, with solemn moments followed almost immediately by out-of-place comedy. It's not enough to sour the beautiful first half, but it did leave me wistful for what could have been had the movie been granted an extra twenty minutes.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 may be a bit weaker than its predecessor, but it's still a brilliant, beautiful film that deserves your attention. My advice: go see it in theatres, if only to bask in the big screen glow of its animation.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Weekly Book Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Click to find this book in our catalogue.
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
Released: May 1, 2004
Genre: Juvenile Fiction / Fantasy


Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III was an awesome sword-fighter, a dragon-whisperer and the greatest Viking Hero who ever lived. But it wasn't always like that.

In fact, in the beginning, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III was the most put upon Viking you'd ever seen. Not loud enough to make himself heard at dinner with his father, Stoick the Vast; not hard enough to beat his chief rival, Snotlout, at Bashyball, the number one school sport and CERTAINLY not stupid enough to go into a cave full of dragons to find a pet... It's time for Hiccup to learn how to be a Hero.

[From Cressida Cowell's official website.]


This first novel in Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon series might take those familiar with the movie by surprise. The novel and its film adaptation share only a few superficial qualities. Yes, the book stars a young Viking named Hiccup who happens to be the village punching bag, he is the son of Stoick the Vast, he's trained by a man named Gobber, and he "befriends" a dragon named Toothless, but aside from these and a few more shared names, the book and its adaptation couldn't be more different. In the movie, Viking society sees dragons as ruthless beasts to be slain for the good of their clan, while the dragons themselves are intelligent and gentle creatures who only fight back to defend themselves. In the book, Vikings have been training dragons for a long, long time. Their dragons differ from the movie's in that they are, for the most part, horrid little beasties, fond of insults and only willing to follow a human's orders out of fear or through some form of bribery.

Toothless in the films.

No character demonstrates the differences between book and movie more than Toothless. As you may have seen in my How to Train Your Dragon movie review, the film version of Toothless is jet black and large enough to be ridden. Toothless is scrappy when he needs to be, but in peaceful times he's a curious and playful companion. Though it takes time and patience for Hiccup to gain Toothless' trust, the dragon seems open to it from the start, and he's extremely protective of his human friend once that trust has been established.

The film's "Terrible Terror" was based on the original Toothless.

Book Toothless, on the other hand, is "extraordinarily small," far too small to fly on. In personality, he's more like a naughty child than an intelligent animal. He's cute, but he's also a bit of a handful, and though his antics can be endearing, for Hiccup, they're quite dangerous. If he can't get his dragon to obey him by the time Final Initiation rolls around, he'll be banished from his tribe. Luckily for readers, Toothless generally sways more toward endearing than annoying, but his whining (this Toothless can speak) grates at times.

Cowell's rendition of Toothless.

For much of How to Train Your Dragon, Toothless is more an obstacle than anything else. The book is more interested in Hiccup's evolution into a Viking Hero than in his relationship with his diminutive dragon. Still, the dragons are fun characters, and their interactions with each other and with their Viking handlers are entertaining.

How to Train Your Dragon the book and How to Train Your Dragon the film are ultimately two different beasts, and it's best to approach each as separate from the other. Both are good on their own merits. The book is lighter fare with lots of action and sprinklings of parody. It's primarily concerned with appealing to children, and I can confidently say that had it been out when I was still part of that age group, I would've read it and its sequels a hundred times over. The movie taps a larger (and older) audience. It's more reserved, though not entirely so, and its humor is more widely spaced. It's a lot less silly, but, again, this is just a symptom of a different audience.

As How to Train Your Dragon is a children's novel, you can expect a quick and simple read. The prose is quite good for its genre, especially in the frame narrative as told by an older and wiser Hiccup. This frame narrative is strangely melancholic in comparison to the boisterous action of the story within, which left me wanting to know what happens between the events of this book and that far off future to so alter its tone. Anyone who's read and enjoyed the first few entries of the Harry Potter series should feel right at home here.

Some of the best parts of the book are its illustrations. One stand-out example is the fictional book How to Train Your Dragon by Professor Yobbish (BA, MA Hons, Cantab. Etc.), reproduced in its entirety. This reproduction includes a cover, a copyright page, a library bar code, an "About the Author" section, the First (and Last) chapter of the book, and the back cover, complete with synopsis, price, and blurbs. It's a great little moment, especially for those of us who've spent a lot of time with academic texts, made even better by the single sentence content of the book itself (shorter even than the summary).

Leave any film-based expectations you might have aside and what you'll find is an enjoyable and often very funny romp through an imaginative world. If it skews too young for you, rest assured that the kids in your life will love its funny, witty antics.

You should also read:

Dealing With Dragons

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Silver Screen Selections: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Released: March 26, 2010
Genre: Animated Fantasy


Set in the mythical world of burly Vikings and wild dragons, and based on the book by Cressida Cowell, [this] action comedy tells the story of Hiccup, a Viking teenager who doesn't exactly fit in with his tribe's longstanding tradition of heroic dragon slayers. Hiccup's world is turned upside down when he encounters a dragon that challenges he and his fellow Vikings to see the world from an entirely different point of view.

[From Metacritic.]


When I saw the first trailer for How to Train Your Dragon, I dismissed the movie almost at once. Early advertising focused on the humor without hinting at the huge beating heart underneath. Not even the cute scene of Toothless spitting up half a fish to share with Hiccup was enough to change my first impression. At best, I thought it might achieve mediocrity, and it would certainly never be able to compete with rival studio Pixar's offerings.

After a slightly disappointing opening weekend, however, word-of-mouth started pouring in, and the overall consensus surprised me. It was good. Great, even. Now, four years later, it sits at an impressive 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, only a single point below the almost universally acclaimed Toy Story 3, released the same year. How to Train Your Dragon shifted almost immediately from "definitely skip" to "gotta watch."

I'm glad I did. How to Train Your Dragon is not only the best of Dreamworks Animation's offerings, but one of the best animated films of recent years, period.

The movie centers on two primary relationships: that of a boy and his father, and that of a boy and his dog—sorry, dragon.

Defend him from all of those tasty, tasty fish.

It's these relationships that elevate the film from good to great. The budding friendship between Hiccup and Toothless is the highlight of the film. Though largely devoid of dialogue, the scenes leading up to the pair's first synchronized flight say everything they need to about both characters. Hiccup finally gets to utilize his true talents: patience, empathy, observation, and intellect. In doing so, he transforms from dejected village outcast into a self-assured and competent young man. In the meanwhile, Toothless shows off the real face of dragonhood. Far from the brutal killers Viking-kind has made them out to be, dragons are intelligent, inquisitive, and unfailingly loyal to those who show them kindness. While Toothless does bare his retractable teeth on occasion, it's only to defend himself or his newfound best friend.

This friendship's development is beautifully wrought through the aforementioned dialogue-lite scenes in combination with a masterful score courtesy of composer John Powell. I'd be hard-pressed to name a single weak track in the movie's score, though picking out the strongest ("Test Drive" and "Forbidden Friendship") is easy. The music moves easily between the booming cadence of its Viking scenes and the whimsy of our man-and-beast duo.

In the film's secondary relationship, Hiccup struggles to impress his father, Stoick the Vast. Stoick is chieftain of their Viking tribe, a mountain of a man who, within minutes of the film's opening monologue, wins a fistfight with a dragon.

Stoick is the ideal Viking, a massive, bearded warrior more than capable of protecting the village from the dragons that threaten it. Hiccup is his direct opposite: small and weedy, too weak to wield a weapon any bigger than his knife. Stoick may love his son, but he's clearly disappointed that his heir turned out to be nothing like himself. That the village itself seems to tolerate Hiccup as little more than a nuisance to be babysat lest he end up on fire or in a dragon's belly probably doesn't help matters. Hiccup is desperate to prove himself a real Viking and earn his father's—and the villagers'—respect, and many of his actions center on that goal. As for Stoick, though he is stern and sometimes harsh, it's clear that what he really wants is a way to connect with his son. The movie could have painted him as a villain. Instead, with the help of some subtle animation cues and a great performance via Gerard Butler, Stoick comes off as a concerned parent who wants to prepare his son for what he knows to be a dangerous and often deadly world.

Other characters in How to Train Your Dragon's colorful cast include Gobber the Belch, Stoick's best friend and Hiccup's secondary caretaker, Astrid, a tough, no-nonsense dragon-killing prodigy, and an assortment of Viking teens who serve mostly as comic relief. Though only Astrid achieves any significant development, the other named characters are responsible for some of the movie's funniest scenes, and their individual quirks make them extremely likeable.

From left to right: Snotlout, Astrid, Fishlegs, Hiccup, Ruffnut, Tuffnut.

How to Train Your Dragon's animation is some of the most timeless in its genre. Each character is awash with tiny details, from Toothless' barely visible stripes to the scar on Hiccup's chin. hese details stand out in opposition to many other animated features, where characters' textures are often Barbie-doll smooth.

Freckle-faced and scarred.

The highlight of the animation is, of course, Toothless. His mannerisms, inspired by such varied animals as dogs, cats, lizards, birds, and insects, combine to make a creature who is totally unique. He is also extremely expressive, moreso even than most of the human characters, thanks to his axolotl-like ears and large green eyes.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Hiccup and Toothless' flight scenes, some of the most delicious eye-candy in animation. A lot of research went into these scenes, and it shows. Seeing these in 3-D was worth the price of a ticket (despite the ensuing 3-D headache).

No matter your age, How to Train Your Dragon deserves a watch. Click here to find it on DVD or Blu-Ray in the library catalogue.

Part 1 of a series of How to Train Your Dragon posts. Stay tuned for Part 2, our review of the book that started it all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Weekly Book Review: Saga Volume 1

Click to find this book in our catalogue.
Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn
Illustrated by Fiona Stables
Released: March 2012
Genre: Graphic Novel/Science Fiction/Fantasy


When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.

From New York Times bestselling writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and critically acclaimed artist Fiona Staples (Mystery Society, North 40), Saga is the sweeping tale of one young family fighting to find their place in the worlds. Fantasy and science fiction are wed like never before in this sexy, subversive drama for adults.

[From Goodreads.]


Saga is at once beautiful, touching, funny, dark, and absolutely, totally, 100% insane. From TV-headed robots to cheeky teenage ghosts, Saga walks a thin line between science-fiction and fantasy, but it does so with such confidence that all resulting weirdness seems entirely appropriate for both setting and story. This isn't the sort of story that offers up its oddities with an abundance of exposition meant to make them seem realistic, and it doesn't have to be. It's all totally in line with the story being told.

Some of the book's best moments come from the little interactions between Alana and Marko, the star-crossed lovers who serve as the story's leads. The duo talk and fight like a real couple, though their spats come with a good deal more wit and charm than most real couples could muster. They may be members of two warring alien species that bare suspicious resemblance to mythological creatures (Alana a faerie, Marko a satyr minus the cloven hooves), but their relationship is surprisingly down-to-earth. Most other characters aren't given enough page space to truly shine, at least not yet, but the lives they tease seem worth looking forward to.

Be warned: all isn't humor and charm with Saga. This is an adult series with some very adult themes. It approaches a few dark topics (see: events on a planet called Sextillion), and its action scenes are awash with blood. Sexual content is everywhere (Again, there is a planet called Sextillion. Rest assured that its name has nothing to do with 1021.), and it's often just as graphic as its genre would suggest.

Saga barrels along at breakneck speed with nary a pause to catch its breath. Every moment of safety is shortly broken by some unexpected development that sends our protagonists fleeing to the next. While it can get exhausting, the chaos establishes the book's hectic tone to great effect.

A highlight of the series is Fiona Staples' art. Dynamic when need-be and always beautiful, every panel represents its story well. The beautiful cover drew me in, but it was her talent in combination with Brian K. Vaughn's that kept me reading.
My biggest complaint is that this volume was over far too soon. I've already ordered the next two, and barring some unexpected disappointment, I'll eagerly await Volume 4's publication.

You should also read:

Y: The Last Man
Volume 1