Monday, July 28, 2014

Anti-Procrastination Techniques

as collected by Shayla Poling

Whether you're writing the next Harry Potter, a future classic, or that 10-page final that needs to be done by noon tomorrow, you will face the enemy of all writing: procrastination. A beast that haunts the mind and hungers for productivity, procrastination can convince you to do almost anything to avoid your work. If you ever find yourself cleaning the house instead of typing out your thesis/novel/blog post/extremely important life-changing Facebook status, the following tricks may be for you.

  1. Cut off all access to the internet by disconnecting from your wifi network, pulling out your ethernet cable, or both. You may also want to throw your phone or tablet at least halfway across the room. This will make browsing the internet just inconvenient enough to stop you from doing it unless you get truly desperate.
  2. Remove all objects from your desk. Fiddling can be surprisingly entertaining when the alternative is getting something done. For example, I just spent at least five minutes messing with a rubber band on my desk instead of writing this blog post.
  3. Learn to recognize these agents of procrastination. It may save your life.
  4. Get all cleaning done before your scheduled writing time. Make sure to clear every nook and cranny of dust, lest you find some excuse to get up from your chair and leave your writing unfinished.
  5. Likewise, make sure that all other chores have been finished ahead of time.
  6. You don't need a snack.
  7. You don't need to drink your entire soda in one gulp just so you'll have an excuse to get up and get another one.
  8. You just walked the dog. You don't need to walk the dog again. The dog doesn't need to be walked twice an hour. If you didn't walk the dog before sitting down to write, refer back to number 4 so that you won't make that mistake a second time.
  9. Stop drawing cats all over that piece of paper. I thought I told you to remove ALL objects from your desk. Paper is an object. Pencils are objects. You're very bad at following directions, aren't you?
  10. No. This is not useful. This will never be useful.
  11. I see your pointer drifting toward that offline game. Don't you dare click that icon.
  12. I mean it.
  13. You'll just be hurting yourself!
  14. There we go. Why don't we add a rule to fend off further temptation. How about: Move all video game icons from your Desktop to a special folder. Label it something repulsive to dissuade yourself from browsing through it.
  15. Replace spiders with your phobia of choice.

You can customize this list of tips by studying your own behavior closely. How do you waste time? What excuses "force" you to get up from your computer? These simple questions can help you develop strategies to beat back procrastination and finally get some real work done.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Weekly Book Review: The Name of the Wind

Click to find this book in our catalogue.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Released: March 27, 2007
Genre: Fantasy


So begins the tale of Kvothe—from his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-riddled city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a difficult and dangerous school of magic. In these pages you will come to know Kvothe as a notorious magician, an accomplished thief, a masterful musician, and an infamous assassin. But The Name of the Wind is so much more—for the story it tells reveals the truth behind Kvothe's legend.

[From Patrick Rothfuss' official website.]


The Name of the Wind is well-written, even lyrical at times. This isn't one of those fantasies that shirks style in the name of plot, nor does it forsake plot in striving for style. Kvothe's tale kept me engaged throughout, and though certain plot points can feel disconnected, almost all are intriguing in their own right.

The Name of the Wind's world is at once new and familiar, a mix of well-trodden fantasy tropes and original ideas. One of those is its magic system, sympathy, which bows before the laws of thermodynamics and tends toward subtlety over flashy explosions. This system should appeal to those who favor the intricate rules of a Brandon Sanderson novel over J. K. Rowling's wand-waving and vague Latin.

The book's otherwise traditional structure is bolstered by the addition of a frame narrative that sharpens suspense by showing us exactly where the story is headed without revealing how it will get there. The frame narrative gives readers a lot to look forward to and helps pull the book through its duller stretches with the promise of later developments.

Most of the book's problems stem from its hero, Kvothe (or Kote, as he's known in the frame narrative). Kvothe (pronounced "quoth" and not, as I can't stop calling him, "k-voh-th") is, quite frankly, infallible, or so the novel seems to believe. His talents include but are not limited to: anything and everything. His only fault is his personality, condescending in its pretend modesty and almost as arrogant as the Draco Malfoy stand-in who haunts his time at the University. The book presents Kvothe in a largely positive light, however, so it's hard to say whether his personality was meant to be a fault at all.

I can't decide where I fall on the topic of the novel's female castmembers. Many fit into easily abused stereotypes common amongst female characters. Auri, for example, is the flighty, damaged girl, spouter of esoteric ramblings that, in a roundabout way, turn out to be prophetic. Quirky and childish, Auri seems to have been designed as a catalyst for displays of Kvothe's inner goodness.

Part of me hopes that the third book in the series, Doors of Stone, will reveal that Kvothe's apparent perfection is all the result of an unreliable narrator, though the other part worries that such a reveal three monstrous tomes in would ruin the series just as much as an "it was all a dream" ending. Still, some of the plot points in the second book (see: the Felurian), are pretty common in Mary Sue fanfiction. Whether it turns out to be Kvothe's Mary Sue fanfic or Rothfuss' will probably make all the difference.

Despite some complaints, The Name of the Wind is an enjoyable read that deserves much of the praise heaped on it since its release. Give it a shot if fantasy is one of your mainstays and prepare to wait for Doors of Stone.

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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