Authors, Books, Fiction

Neil Gaiman and the science of speculative fiction

Brain Pickings just shared a terrific article about speculative fiction and Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction that makes me want to drop everything and start reading the book immediately. In it, Gaiman explores what motivates authors to write science fiction, and what led Ray Bradbury to create his classic Fahrenheit 451. 

According to Gaiman, there are “three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:

What if … ?
If only …
If this goes on …”

These questions are what lead writers to explore alternative and “cautionary” worlds.

They also make a pretty handy storytelling road map.

Read The Power of Cautionary Questions: Neil Gaiman on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity from Brain Pickings here.

Books, Digital

The upside of reading books on a smartphone

I opened my Twitter feed this morning to find this headline from Quartz:

It’s time to get over yourself and start reading books on your iPhone

Seeing as I can’t imagine life without my iPhone – and given I’m even more attached to printed books – I was intrigued.

The post makes some good points, particularly about the convenience of always having a book on hand and the joys of digging deeper into the subject with an easy tap over to Google, but the best argument for adding some smartphone reading time to one’s routine might be personal gratification. The author of the post writes, “I feel less icky about my overall phone usage if at least some of that time is going to books.”

When the alternative is checking social media 17 times a day, using a smartphone to start in on a new novel does feel pretty great.

Storytelling, Writing

The secret door

I was tipped off to an article today that’s really worth sharing. The Poynter Institute has published a collection of writing tips from Pulitzer Prize winners, sourced from a recent seminar hosted by the journalism school. Every one of them is a gem, but here are a few of my favorites – useful not just for journalists, but writers of all kinds.

On story structure:

“Plant the kicker — the end of a story — higher up and circle back at the end.”

On the value of observation:

“You can have something right in front of you, and you can think that you’re good at seeing things, but you miss everything.” Tom French, Indiana University’s Media School

On keeping readers on their toes:

“…At the very last sentence, I stick in a knife, just a little twist.” Leonard Pitts Jr., the Miami Herald

On finding that coveted nugget of truth that makes your story unique:

“These stories are like old houses, rambling old houses…and you have to find the secret door into your story.” Diana K. Sugg, The Baltimore Sun

You can find the full article here.


10 book covers, big on design


Ebooks have their perks, but there’s nothing like a gorgeous dust jacket or some lovely deckle edges to make a reader happy. With this in mind, I took a look at book covers this week for the Shutterstock blog. There’s so much design inspiration to be had from Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (both great reads, too). Here are my picks for ten of the best book covers out there. What are yours?

Branding, Storytelling

Interactive storytelling: It’s what’s for dinner

Coke_ekoI learned this week that my recent column on digital interactivity was ClickZ’s most-read guest post for the month of February. Thanks to all who took a look! The current state of digital interactivity is a topic worth talking about it. When I think back to the days of static banner ads, I can hardly believe they managed to engage anyone at all. Compare them to the brand experiences of today, and they’re Sony Walkmans in a world of Oculus virtual reality headsets. They may have blown our minds once, but our expectations – and our appetites – have changed.

So has the way we tell stories, as evidenced by Coke Mini’s amazing “Hulk vs. Ant-Man” narrative. Digital interactivity is making it possible for brands, businesses, authors, and academics to create incredibly meaty experiences. I can hardly wait to see what’ll be served up next.


Singer Castle library: History and books galore

I recently spent tSingerLibraryime in the Thousand Islands and was lucky enough to tour Singer Castle on Dark Island, the historic home built in 1905 for the Bourne family, the patriarch of which was president of the Singer Manufacturing Company. Book lovers might enjoy this peek at the home’s walnut-paneled library, which includes a hidden wall panel that leads to a secret passageway once used by servants to fetch busy readers their drinks.

And before you ask, yes! The castle contains Singers aplenty.



Short stories, long on value

shortstoriesI’m a big fan of short stories – both writing them and reading them – so this recent Medium post by writer and educator Hannah Kowalczyk-Harper caught my eye. As we continue to spend more time on our smartphones and tablets than our desktops, short-form content is really relevant to our daily lives and in increasingly high demand. As Kowalczyk-Harper points out, though, there are many other benefits to writing short fiction, from gaining the trust of readers who might one day pick up your novel to tossing around story ideas. Take a look at the full list here, and support a new author or writer you love by picking up a short story today.

Animal Conservation, Animals

Google gives credence to a legend

GoogleLochNessToday’s Google Doodle celebrates the 81st anniversary of the Surgeon’s Photograph, the famed falsified image that catapulted the Loch Ness Monster into the collective consciousness. Now, eight decades after one of the world’s greatest hoaxes arrived on the scene, the tech company is on the hunt for the real thing. Google recently announced that it’s enlisting the help of its Street View cameras – the same technology it has been using to map the world’s oceans – to search the Scottish freshwater lake for evidence of beloved aquatic cryptid Nessie.

As reported by The Atlantic, Google mounted its Street View equipment to a boat and coupled the resulting images with additional photos taken underwater to create a “portrait” of Loch Ness. Believers and skeptics alike can navigate the images on Google Maps and while away countless hours as laptop explorers. “Loch Ness is a lost world. But it is accessible through technology,” says Adrian Shine, a marine biologist and researcher with the Loch Ness Exhibition, in a short film about his own search for the Loch Ness Monster and the Google project.

LochNessGoogleThe use of technology to harvest data and glean a deeper understanding of elusive animals is a growing trend. Camera trapping on wildlife preserves is being used by the Wildlife Conservation Society for its Wild View photo blog, as well as by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). For the past five years BBC Wildlife has been holding an annual competition for the best camera trap photographs in an effort to recognize “the role that new technology plays in our understanding of the natural world.”

Amid growing concerns about the inhabitants of the earth’s oceans, which the author of a recent study on the subject says are at risk for a “major extinction event” (journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, who wrote the remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural Historycan attest to this), this kind of non-invasive surveillance becomes more critical than ever. Another recent study found that there are roughly 8.75 million species on earth, but that at the current rate of discovery it will take “hundreds of years” to know them all. We don’t have that kind of time. Biologists estimate that within the next century 75 percent of those species will be extinct.

There may be an unidentified creature in Loch Ness. There may not. The point is simply this: if a company as industrious as Google is willing to look, we’re on the right track toward implementing a desperately needed tech-driven strategy for animal discovery and conservation.


Storytelling on the smallest screen yet

The Apple Watch is coming. In 24 days it will be here, and analysts say Apple could sell 1 million devices in a single weekend.  Exactly how consumers will use it remains to be seen, but we can expect there to be apps, ads, and – according to The New York Times – single-sentence stories.

Yesterday, the Grey Lady announced that it’s creating “a new form of storytelling” designed to keep Apple Watch users abreast of its daily news reports. Readers will have the ability to read the stories on their iPhones, to which the watch is tethered, or save them to a reading list that can be accessed at a later time.


The Times is one of the first publishers to address the issue of content on this new screen. To date the focus has been largely on utility: the Apple Watch is being touted as a functional object that’s useful for getting calendar reminders, tracking fitness goals, unlocking hotel rooms, and receiving flight notifications. Its potential as a storytelling tool, however, should not be overlooked. Just as authors and aspiring writers have successfully tinkered with Twitter within the confines of 140 characters (this year’s #TwitterFiction festival is coming up in May), so too will they push the boundaries of a 1.5 to 1.7-inch screen. Single-sentence stories the likes of which will be told by The New York Times can just as easily be used as a vehicle for flash fiction and poetry.

We now know that The Economist will offer audio of its articles for Apple Watch users. It’s been almost a century since the debut of the six-word novel.

When it comes to storytelling on the Apple Watch, the iCloud’s the limit.


Why Medium is a must for writers

Are you using Medium? If the answer is no, the time is right to log on. A self-publishing platform created by the co-founders of Twitter in 2012, the site serves up a near-endless stream of content in such categories as culture, humor, tech, and long reads. Somehow, despite receiving 17 million visitors a month, Medium still hasn’t gone mainstream, but it’s fast becoming a go-to for excellent digital content. Already it’s being used by Barack Obama, who recently chose it as the best place to publish his State of the Union Address, along with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, publishers like Random House Penguin, and authors like Emily Gould.

Medium attracts two types: readers and writers. If you’re the former you can spend hours perusing its pages and come away feeling like you’ve gotten a dose of The New Yorker, Salon, and Wired all at once. Most of the stories you’ll find are original to the site, but some are republished from elsewhere online. Sign up for a free account using Facebook or Twitter, as that will allow you to “recommend” and follow the stories and authors that most interest you. In essence that’s like subscribing to their feed, so that Medium will show you their work as it goes live as well as help you discover other relevant content. Visiting a writer’s profile page can serve the same purpose by affording you access to his or her own recommended stories.

Recommend_MediumFor the writers, Medium is an alternative to blogging that puts your work in front of a huge new audience hungry for good stories. The platform itself is a pleasure to use and produces posts with loads of visual appeal. If you’re so inclined, you can collaborate with other users by sharing your work in progress prior to publishing it on the site. You can also import stories you’ve already posted to your personal or author blog to gain access to new readers. Fiction and non-fiction authors alike are producing beautiful work and building a following of potential fans in the process. I’m particularly fond of Fred Venturini, whose stories (“Five Awesome Nuggets of Writing Advice,” “The Accidental Novelist“) offer invaluable writing advice and insight into the publishing industry.


Few of us can claim to have the time for another social site, but Medium is more than that. It’s a good book. A thought-provoking editorial. Advice to help you with your craft, delivered by a pro. It’s become the first place I go in the morning and the last place I visit online at night. And I’m a better writer for my trouble.