You might have noticed that visiting markfeenstra.com redirects you to the blog instead of loading the photo galleries. That’s because I’ve split my photography off onto its own site, and you can view my portrait projects at markfeenstraphotography.com.
Some of you might notice that only three projects are currently represented, and some of the old galleries are no longer online. These photos will reappear on some of my other photo hosting sites, but since I’m streamlining my portfolios into specific projects that illustrate the direction I want my photography to go, only relevant galleries have been ported to the new site.
I recently co-founded the Writers’ Critique Group on Google Plus, and in order to help users get the most from their experience, I wrote up a document that encompasses my basic advice on how to make the most of public critique. I’ve reproduced that document here for the benefit of anyone looking for guidance when starting their own writing circle. Giving and receiving effective critique is a delicate art, and I hope this helps you work with others to make your work the best piece of writing it can be. If you don’t already have a place to get your work seen and commented on by others, swing by the WCG, leave a few comments on the work of others, and drop your writing into the pool to see if the sharks think it’s tasty.
I once had a successfully published writing teacher tell me that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—a book she felt was one of the best to come out in the last decade—would have been torn apart at your average writers’ critique group. The book is challenging and difficult in places, and the collective wisdom of many a well-meaning workshop member would likely dull it down to uninteresting dross. The anecdote also served as a reminder that any work will always be open to suggestion or criticism, no matter how many times it is revised. You can’t please everyone, nor should you try.
How does that apply to us? The most important thing when having your work critiqued, is to remember that you don’t have to listen to everyone. Let’s be clear in that I’m not suggesting you argue against the advice of others, but rather that you ignore their suggestions and move on. If you ask six people for feedback and only one tells you they think your main character is too racist, you might be able to write that person off as having misread your work. If five of the six people mention the racism thing, you might want to consider that you’re not conveying what you think you are.
So how do we get the most out of a critique session? Here are a few simple rules for critiquing and being critiqued…
The social paradigm shift that saw geek culture rise to prominence over the last decade has been one of the best things to happen for anyone who grew up playing Magic cards, painting D&D figurines, or dreaming of a life on a renegade smuggler craft exploring the outer reaches of the Alpha Centauri system. I’ve always admired the people I’ve known who let their geek flag fly back when it wasn’t cool. I mean, it’s because of those people that geekdom is enjoying the status it currently does. How can you not admire their dedication to their passions in the face of all pop culture telling them they’re lame and to be made fun of?
I was not so strong. My best childhood friend introduced me to Magic cards and Dungeons & Dragons, but we never really graduated beyond the painting of miniatures in his room while listening to Nine Inch Nails and Alice in Chains. There was an unspoken rule that we didn’t really talk about those things at school or around our other friends. When it was just the two of us, we’d watch Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future VHS tapes while shooting at the screen with the mind-blowingly awesome interactive XT-7 Powerjet gun, but when others were over it usually turned into NES Ice Hockey time.
On my own, I’d abandoned almost all other reading genres for books that involved some combination of swords and wizards. Throughout high school I was reading series like The Sword of Truth, Shannara, Dragonlance, the Drizzt Do’Urden books, the Riftwar Saga, and nearly anything that came in the form of a ridiculously thick tome of epic fantasy.
Around this time, I discovered rock climbing and I realized that it wasn’t so much that I hated sports, but that I hated sports as defined by North American culture. I still don’t like having to throw a ball or hit something with a stick, but the world of adventure sports was a gateway into rewarding and interesting physical activity that made me realize how much I liked belonging to a group of people with a common interest. Putting on a harness and tight rubber shoes definitely wasn’t mainstream cool, but I surrounded myself with people who thought that there wasn’t anything better in life than to go haul yourself up a wall at the indoor climbing gym, or to spend a long weekend at the base of a cliff with a bunch of other similar-minded weirdos. We were sport geeks, only we never stopped to think about ourselves that way.
The thing about climbers is that many of them are attracted to the analytical nature of the sport. Finding the path of least resistance up a wall is a puzzle, and a lot of my climber friends were engineers, chemists, programmers, and doctors. They liked to discuss the efficacy of different brands of shoe rubber, and compare stats on different ropes they’d used. They looked at carabiner weights and geeked out hard on any new piece of natural protection that came onto the market. We were most of us true geeks of our domain, but that was a label that was reserved for Star Trek loving losers. Even though many of the climbers I knew were into traditional geek culture, they kept quiet about it in the sporty environment of the climbing gym.
I’ll own the fact that a lot of my reluctance to be an out and proud geek came from my own insecurities. Some of the climbers I spent time with had all the imagination and personality of a stack of low-grade printer paper, and years of blank stares in response to some of my puns or cultural references trained me to stay quiet in social situations. I didn’t risk being clever or witty, because I didn’t want to be treated like a weirdo. I took it as a flaw in my character instead of in the characters of those around me at the time.
I’ve been privileged to have met some real proud and dedicated geeks over the last couple of years, and I’m ashamed to say that it’s only in the last few months that I’ve realized how much of myself I still hide from people. As little as six months ago, I was sill thinking along the lines of publishing speculative fiction under a pseudonym so I wouldn’t ruin my reputation in case I wanted to write something serious. On the other side of the sporty spectrum are my literary friends who don’t have much use for anything that isn’t a potential Pulitzer, Giller, or Booker prize winner. Some of them have a difficult time believing that any form of genre fiction could have real literary merit, and I felt just as strong a need to close myself off from those people as I did when I was too embarrassed to be seen in school with a copy of one of the Fionavar Tapestry books.
Even still, I feel conflicted about posting certain things to twitter for fear I’ll turn off some of the photographers I admire. I can’t tell who’s presenting an image or who really buys into the hipster creative mentality, and I don’t want to embarrass myself by tweeting about how utterly blown away by The Name of the Wind I was.
How sad is that?
People around the world are fighting against oppression because of their sexuality, their social class, or the colour of their skin; and I’m worried my ski buddies might find out I like wizards, or that that one of my old literary fiction pals will see that I spent eight hours making a map of an imaginary world in which I’m currently writing a new book. I’m even quiet about the fact that I play Call of Duty on the PS3 because it’s too bro for some ‘real geeks.’ It’s a stupid thing that has yielded two decades worth of varying degrees of anxiety and shame, and I’m finally ready to admit to all of it publicly.
I’m only half as hardcore geek as a few of my friends who might read this, and I’m a hundred times more nerdy than some other people in my social circles, but it’s time for me to proceed with the faith that most of those people won’t care one way or the other.
If they do? Fuck ‘em. Life is too short and stupid to care what the image-conscious think about the things you’re passionate about. If anyone wants to play a few rounds of Magic: The Gathering, you know where to find me.
For some of us, the reality of being a digital creative means hours upon hours of sitting at our desks staring at glowing screens while the world hums and buzzes around us. Sometimes that ambient noise is great for creativity, other times it’s hell on earth when your landlord’s 22-year-old daughter is having another howling tantrum and screeching at her parents like a psychotic preteen. What? You don’t deal with that last one? Lucky me then. Still, there are times you want to block out the noise without being distracted by lyrics. Some brains can handle the distraction, but if I’m working with words, or if I need to focus a little more on a particular design issue, I can’t have strong vocals coming out of my speakers.
I rolled a bunch of albums from all of these bands into one giant Grooveshark playlist, but you should be able to at least find a few samples of each on your streaming media site of choice, be it YouTube, Spotify, or whatever the hell app the kids are using these days.
Loscil is Scott Morgan of Vancouver Canada, and I’d be lying if I said that him being a local boy didn’t influence his position at the top of the list. Beneath that though, is the perfect blend of ambient electronic that will roll you through a long day of typing or drawing complex clipping paths. I can’t remember how I discovered Loscil, but I’m eternally grateful that I did.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
What hipster doesn’t Love GS!BE? These Montreal post-rockers have an eclectic mix of albums that include a few distracting samples, but with several 20+ minute long rambling and epic instrumentals to keep you going, you might find the interludes a welcome reminder to blink and look out the window for a few seconds. Bonus: you can lie to your mega hipster friends and say “Yeah, I used to listen to Godspeed a lot, but now it’s just background noise to me.”
These guys are on this list because Gregor Samsa is the main character from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Well, that and they’re another mellow post-rock group that sits slow and mellow in the background for those introspective and quiet moments in your day. Some tracks have lyrics, and they’re not Canadians, but I guess you can’t really fault them for that.
Explosions In the Sky
Are you sensing a post-rock theme here? Explosions in the Sky smoulder mellow and low until building into epic crescendos that will have you writing the main characters of your own stories into the most heroic and nerve-tearing scenes you’ve ever created. Check out Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, for an example of how full a band can make a drum kit and three guitars sound.
Boards of Canada
These devious Scotsmen are actually from Edinburgh, but that doesn’t stop them from being a perfect addition to the ambient electronic post-rocky guitar swooping over the plains and climbing mountains from our office chair thing we have going here. It took me a while to come around to Boards of Canada, but now they’re one of my go-to artists when I have a lot of writing to do.
Probably the most widely known band on this list, I turn to Sigur Rós when I’m looking for a certain mood to back up the work I’m doing. Jónsi Birgisson holds the distinction of being about the only singer I can listen to when I’m writing, because hey, his vocals are all swoony made up sounds! It’s on the edge of distraction for me, but I’ll slip on some Agaetis Byrjun when I’m looking to tap into something a little more emotional.
Instrumental emo math-rock? Are you fucking kidding me? How did I not know this was a thing? These Leicester boys are much more guitar driven than anything else on this list, and those of you with a soft spot for punk rock or emo will find something to love here. Tracks range from weepy to face-punchy, and every shoegazey angsty notch in between.
That is a pretty comprehensive list of the musical sounds I listen to when I’m trying to drown out the bullshit around me. For an added bonus, check out the website rainymood.com for the perfect rainy weather white noise generator. Pair it with music, or let it run all on its own to blank the audio intrusions of those around you.
What do you listen to while working? Any suggestions for me to work into the rotating playlist of above artists? Pissed that Mogwai wasn’t on the list? Let me know in the comments.
I am a data-minded person, and so I do things like track my daily writing habits with a spreadsheet. Since there are others like me out there who may not be that great with spreadsheets, here’s the 2014 version of the sheet I’ll be using:
As it says on the sheet itself, the tracker is designed to record progress over a series of categories such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Blogging, Planning, etc. It isn’t really intended for tracking individual projects, but you should of course feel free to modify it to suit your needs. Conditional formatting is used in all the word count fields to highlight all entries, daily totals over 5,000 words (blue), and daily totals over 10,000 words (gold).
This spreadsheet has been kept somewhat compact in order to serve as a yearly overview of how many days in a row I’ve made time to write. There’s something satisfying about seeing a long stretch of word count entries with no breaks between them, and even more so when several of those are highlighted blue or gold.
To use the sheet for your own word count tracking, open the document and use File > Make A Copy to save an editable version to your drive. You can also download the document in a number of formats.
In 2013 I wrote approximately 300,000 words of fiction in the five months that I decided to track that sort of thing. That word count is significantly higher than any single year’s worth of writing I’ve amassed in the past, and this year I’d already planned to push the clickety clacking of my keyboard to the more lofty goal of one million words written in 2014 when I was invited to a group of fellow writers attempting to do the same. Joining their millionaires club gives me another venue for competition and semi-public shaming that will hopefully drive me to keep working through the times when I’d rather be doing anything but.
My million words will be a mix of those I’m paid to write for others, and those I write for my own novel projects. I’m aiming to complete several novel drafts over the course of the year. Although I’d love to produce a million words of fiction, I’m currently contracted to write 80k of non-fiction for a client, and have decided to include that effort in the yearly tally. I won’t be tracking blogging words in my total this year (not that they amounted to much in 2013), but I will probably include the writing I do as story explorations. In any given month, that’s only about 5% of my total output, but it’s something more akin to short story writing than straight up outlining—which I won’t be counting.
For anyone considering doing something like this, or the more reasonable NaNoWriMo, it’s important to remember that little games and goals like this are a secondary byproduct of Getting Things Done. I’m tracking my words as a method of ensuring my output reaches a desired rate, but I’ll sacrifice my goals the second I become concerned that I’m writing for the sake of putting black marks on a page and filling bars in progress meters. Quality should come before quantity, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to increase the amount of quality work you’re producing.
Anyone out there in readerland have any big goals for 2014? Number of books or pages to read? Number of novels or short stories written? Pitching magazines or publishing houses? Landing an agent? Having a photo published? Exhibiting new work? Leave your plans in the comments and I’ll check in on you later in the year.
What the hell is NaNoWriMo you might ask? Nasty Norwegian Wriggling Monkey? Nabbing No Writing Money? National No Writing Month? That last one is closest to the heart of it. The event is called National Novel Writing Month, and it’s a time of year when a whole gaggle of would-be wordsmiths put fingers to keyboards and write the most awful strings of exposition and purple prose this side of a Fifty Shades novel. This November, a few hundred thousand people will sign up at nanowrimo.org so they can post in the worldbuilding forums, discuss all the cool software and hardware they’re going to use so they can write anywhere and everywhere (this includes a 240 comment long thread on typewriters), update their signatures and blog sidebars with progress meters that show unicorns galloping towards their goals, and maybe, just maybe doing a spot of writing. I should know, I tried it once.
Don’t Take It Too Seriously
As much as I think NaNoWriMo is a fun idea for people who want an excuse to focus on writing over everything else for a few weeks, I do worry that it sets people up for failure. According to the NaNoWriMo 2012 stats, they ‘had 38,438 winners, giving us a 11% win rate.’ That means 89% of participants failed and probably ended their November with the angry scorpion of rejection following them around and jabbing them with its two-pronged stingers of self-loathing and suckiness. 302,937 participants did not meet their 50,000 word goals. Yes, yes, a lot of those people signed up and never came back, but the fact remains that most people will fail. Those people will then avoid writing until the following November when they try and fail again. It’s a bad way to jump-start a career as a novelist, because it’s too easy to take your performance in this silly little game as indicative of the complete extent of your writerly capabilities, which is a stupid thing to do. Again, I tell you this from a place of personal experience.
How To Not Fail This Year
It’s hard to jump into writing EVERY day of the month. The 1,667 word per day goal constantly being bandied about means that missing one day immediately puts you in the hole. If you’re already falling behind on your count, how are you going to catch up with a bigger effort the next day? A better goal would be 2,273 words per day. This November has 22 viable writing days if we discount weekends. Plan to write 2,273 words EVERY day, and you won’t fall as far behind when you ultimately miss one because you had a hard day and you really needed to pizza-funnel a cold IPA into your gullet while watching the last two episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you missed because you were writing. It’s appropriate, right? It’s an acronym, NaNoWriMo is an acronym? You’ll make it up tomorrow morning before work. (Spoiler alert: you won’t make it up tomorrow.)
It seems somehow wrong to say that something as silly as a piece of gear made me love photography in a completely new way, but the Fujifilm X100s did just that. I wasn’t able to get my hands on one before leaving for Bangkok, but when I learned that AV Camera had this guy in stock for cheaper than I would have paid in Canada, I took a trip over there and made the decision to wreck my budget by buying this little life-saver. It was so hot in Bangkok at that time of year, that I was finding it extremely difficult to hump my SLR and associated junk around town with it. The SLR felt obnoxious and intrusive, and the bag required to carry everything left me sweaty and exhausted. Switching to the X100s for my street photography gave me the opportunity to move freely and without burden, and to shoot in conditions that my D300 just couldn’t handle. I’m talking handheld ISO 5000 ƒ/2 at 1/60s after the sun has set. And the images at that ISO are GOOD. Not amazing, but completely useable for printing full page in most magazines or displaying on any website.
What really got me was the fixed 35mm lens. I was very close to buying the Olympus O-MD E-M5, but I just didn’t want to deal with interchangeable lenses. I wanted simple, and the X100s delivers that in spades.
Astute observers will notice some bars in the side menu. The curious among you will go so far as to look at them and read the text nestled in and around these bars. From there you’ll encounter numbers divided by other numbers, and might reasonably conclude that these are somehow indicative of some sort of progress I’m making towards various goals of the wordly variety. Why do such a thing? Public shame and a little bit of mind-trickery. You see, I’m a lazy sort of person, and without engaging in a touch of mental guerrilla warfare with myself, I’m prone to not doing things. I’m especially good at not doing things I really enjoy doing. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and that’s the main reason it’s incredibly frustrating to be me on most days, but I’ve come to terms with it and learned that a bit of public accountability is one of the things that helps me get things done.
It’s also worth mentioning that I’m a spreadsheet and stats nerd, so collecting data on my keyboard tippy tapping is second nature to me. The problem with private spreadsheets is that they don’t always work for motivating me to push through my slacker mentality. My theory is that holding myself publicly accountable for the filling of bars will make it easier for me to write a few thousand words for one of my ghostwriting clients and then find the motivation to switch over to working on one of my personal projects for an hour or two before the sleep monster comes to drag me away. As much as I love working on my personal projects, it’s a bit like working at Wendy’s all day and then coming home to make burgers and fries for a bunch of people hanging around your house for no apparent reason beyond getting free burgers and fries. Think of it as the gamification of writing productivity. It’s not a complete solution to doing more work in any given day, but it’s one tiny piece of a larger engine that drives me to produce.
My spreadsheets divide the output into individual categories by month and year so I can see how much I’m working on each area, but for now I’m just mashing them all together in my monthly and yearly goal tracking. One of the categories I recently started monitoring is my planning and outlining. This felt like a bit of a cheat at first, but I write long rambling explorations of stories during the brainstorming phase, and a typical chapter by chapter outline can easily run to a few thousand words. I wanted a way to feel like I’d accomplished something after spending two or three days not actually contributing to the final text of my story, and tracking the planning allows me to do just that. My spreadsheet is a bit like Seinfeld’s Don’t Break The Chain system, and I didn’t like looking back and seeing outlining days as big fat blanks telling me I was a lazy bum who should go pour myself a measuring cup of Irish whiskey to drink while lying under the table in the foetal position. My spreadsheet’s a real asshole when I don’t feed it regularly. Seriously, you should hear the things it says about me.
It’s been an interesting 1,386 days since I quit my office job to screw around with creative writing and photography projects. You know the old expression about not quitting your day job? It’s probably a good idea to listen to that one. Good ideas and I don’t really get along so well, and I threw caution into the dumpster and cut my financial ties so I could devote full days to seducing my muse into showing me the secrets of the universe which I would then dribble onto the page like decorative swirls of minted pea coulis on a pristine white plate. I knew the world would weep for my prose, and by the end of the year I figured I’d have to hire a bodyguard to keep away the journalists and fans after winning both the Giller and Booker prizes. I would write and sip whiskey, and book after book would fall behind me like snowflakes blanketing the ground in a silent winter storm.
None of that happened of course. I started writing some manuscripts, I abandoned some manuscripts. I churned out a lot of words, but none of them piled up into completed books. My anxiety and self-doubt about being able to tap into my creative side has been like someone standing over me with their foot on my throat for most of my life, and surprise of surprises, writing full-time didn’t manage to make it any easier. The more time I had to focus on nothing but writing, the more time I had to think about how much everything I was doing sucked. I’ve always wanted to be one of those people for whom the words just came naturally, but somehow in all my years of writing I’ve just never finished anything besides a few short stories with hastily tacked-on endings.
When it became clear that the writing thing wasn’t going to pay any bills, I invested more time in my other passion of photography. There was easier money to be made here, but it’s a career that demands so much hustle and braggadocio that my biggest barrier was getting over the earlier-mentioned anxieties to promote the hell out of myself. No promotion means no jobs, and life was a constant battle of trying to string together enough assignments to keep myself housed and fed. The work was sometimes fun, sometimes irritating, and always underpaid; but I clung to it because I didn’t want to go back to my old job.