Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Keyword Research #2: Shapes

For our second week task we were asked to find three things to discuss at our conference call:

1. A literal example of our keyword
2. An abstract example of our keyword
3. Another artist’s interpretation of our keyword

For my literal image I went with a basic geometric pattern:

For my abstract, I chose two different pictures. First, geometry in nature (it is everywhere!):

Second is a quick drawing I created in Illustrator. I wanted people to look at this and tell me what it reminded them of or what it evoked in them.

A few key words that jumped to my mind when looking at this design: mystical, mathematical, spiritual, abstract, fantasy, ritual, cosmic. Some of the other ideas and words that came up when I showed this to my fellow students: circuitry and constellation (which could also lead to zodiac). Hoax is another interesting connection, as this could also represent a crop circle. Insignia also comes to mind, leading to an organisation or gang.

The different ideas depend on a person’s interests, beliefs, and connotations they have absorbed elsewhere.

Finally, my third entry is a piece by artist Manolo Gamboa Naon, which you can see on Behance hereManolo’s piece blows my mind. I can stare at it for ages and get drawn deeper and deeper. It feels almost like I’m looking down onto a strange and colourful cityscape. The faint grey lines all over it are like many pathways and possible directions people can go, with the larger circular shapes like buildings with their own networks and pathways within them. This is one of those pieces where I get totally lost and absorbed. Manolo is a creative coder who also makes video games, which is possibly why when I look at this piece I see a landscape and a place to traverse and explore.

Credit: Manolo | Beehive

Keyword Research #1: Geometric

My chosen keyword for the first module assignment on my MA is geometric. I am interested in how geometry is used to create pattern, symmetry, and definition, and also how it is used to create mood and imply meaning (rather than using text). Geometric design has risen in popularity in recent years, from logos and artwork comprised of mathematical shapes, to complex mandala and tangle designs, and I would like to find out why and what it is about geometric shapes and patterns that appeals to so many designers.

I first became interested in concentric and geometric patterns when I spent three months in Southern India in the year 2000. When I arrived in Tamil Nadu I experienced the Pongal Festival, a four-day long harvest festival which is an extremely important Hindu celebration. Many people draw kolam designs on the floors of their houses to bring good fortune and give thanks. The patterns are usually drawn in coloured chalk or rice powder. This was my first obvious exposure to mathematical shapes used in spiritual art.

In recent years mandala designs have become popular, particularly across image sharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest. I find the art of creating mandalas relaxing and have dabbled in digital and hand drawn designs. This is a type of design that I would like to explore further, and discover new ways of incorporating them into my work where they give meaning and significance. Many people see repetitive patterns as a way of stress therapy. This has given rise to the term and drawing style Zentangle, another form of drawing where repetitive shapes create complex patterns.

I also plan to explore naturally occurring geometry; for example: honeycomb, leaves, shells, spiderwebs, snowflakes, wind-blown sand dunes, fractals found in geodes.

Induction Week – Paper Challenge

My MA in Graphic Design officially starts this week, but last week was Induction Week and we were set a small, fun challenge to take a piece of paper and make something with it. There were no boundaries on what we could make, only that the paper was the feature of the piece and we didn’t use anything else to decorate it. There are some lovely submissions to the challenge up on our Pinterest board, such varied and inspired work. I was a little worried that mine would come across as silly, as I didn’t dig too deeply to come up with the idea – it struck me that Hallowe’en is just around the corner and I wanted to create something playful and fun. So here is my spooky house, complete with monster.

I used sticky foam pads to layer the elements and the original plan was to shine a torch up through so that the different layers were backlit, but I ended up posting it during the day so the lighting was wrong. Still, it was fun to make this, adding a new element each night after work. Looking at this now, I can see many things I could have done differently and refined more, but at the same time I didn’t want to fret about this mini-project too much.

Our first assignments were posted and I am considering my chosen keyword that will form one of my projects. More to come!

Becoming a Student Again (Studying an MA)

I’m so thrilled to accept a place on the MA in Graphic Design at the University of Hertfordshire! It’s an online part-time distance learning program, so I will remain at home and in my full-time job. The course spec is here. Crikey, I couldn’t be happier about this! It’ll provide me with invaluable new skills and knowledge, and help with my career goals and my freelance business. 

Term starts in September and I plan to update my blog here at my website and my Linkedin page frequently with my findings and developments, and also talk about life as a part-time, online mature student. It has been a long time since I’ve been in education but I thrive when learning so this will be a fantastic opportunity for my personal development, too.

The application process was intense, but I had oodles of help from friends Yvonne AnisimowiczDavid Cooke and Charlotte Jeffery! Their support and encouragement (and faith in me) was incredible.

Keeping It Real with Snippets

Sometimes you find yourself with an image or a line of prose (or an entire story concept) and you just don’t know what to do with it. You work at it, poking, picking, twisting, shaping, but it never quite comes together. It’s as if the idea stubbornly remains hidden (if it’s there at all), and yet you’re sure there’s something in there that just needs tempting out. I think of these things as snippets. They usually end up stored away in a folder called “miscellaneous” or “WIP,” and few of them ever see the light of day.

Lately I’ve been thinking about snippets; all those wobbly, unrefined drawings and lines from stories I haven’t completed yet and probably never will. A lot of my favourite stories have their wobbly bits. Some of my favourite stories that I’ve written are stories that are not finished. A lot of art I like or images that grab my attention are messy, asymmetrical, or unrefined.

I’ve come to the realisation that this stuff doesn’t always have to be squirrelled away in a misc folder deep in the bowels of a hard-drive.

It’s difficult not to be influenced by my idols and people whose work grabs my attention. I find myself trying to post my work in a similar format to theirs. Theirs is always beautifully presented, always carefully pulled together. Even the “rough sketches” are geometrically immaculate and the “first drafts” are too obviously edited to be true first drafts (or “Draft Zero” as a lot of writers like to think of it: that horrendous crap that comes spewing off your fingertips before you’ve had chance to tidy it up into a first draft. Yes, that is a thing). I don’t always believe what I see, but a part of me still tries to emulate it.

I’m teaching myself to show my work more, and maybe share things that I’m not necessarily done with or massively proud of. I got into the habit of thinking that creative output always has to be finished, in final, edited and polished draft form, before anyone can see it. I’m trying to train my brain into allowing myself the leeway to show all those concepts and attempts that perhaps don’t fit anywhere. Sometimes it takes someone else to interpret something to understand that these fragmented pieces are worth reading or looking at, or might simply inspire something entirely new.

Not quite symmetrical

Big Life Decisions

It’s both scary and exhilarating making big life decisions, especially if that decision could result in major changes to your day to day life. When I was younger I didn’t particularly like change, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to embrace new scenery and new experiences. On the flip side, when you’re older you tend to have more and greater responsibilities, and a big change can impact every part of your life – from work and hobbies to running a household and relationships.

I would say, if you’re young, don’t fear change. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to do what you want to do and who support you as you make your way through life.

I’ve also learned over the years that I’m happiest when learning, and thrive in an environment that facilitates the broadening of the mind and development of skills. This is tied in with my chosen career path (graphic design), something I do for a living but also because I simply love it. Creativity is such a massive part of who I am that it makes sense to continue nurturing it throughout the course of my life.

I’m about to start the ball rolling on a big life change, something I have wanted to do for a long time but have never quite been in the right place (professionally, time-wise, and personally). I’m not going to say too much yet as nothing is set in stone, but I’m hoping to be able to update this blog more regularly at some point with more graphic design and creative content.

For now, wish me luck!

Graphic design of the Shuffle poster

I’ve been hunting through my graphic design folders and found some of my old story promos, and found the poster I made to promote my short horror story Shuffle back in 2015. I also found the original stock photo of the woman I chose to portray Sarah and thought I’d share a little study in the awesomeness of Photoshop and what its tools can do.

This is the image I settled on, as I knew I wanted Sarah to be lying down staring up at the sky in the poster. I liked this model’s profile and liked the idea that Sarah had vibrant red hair (apocalyptic hair).

After many layers, textures and blend modes, I eventually ended up with this:

The texture gives the poster and her skin a more worn, beat-up look, and I added blood streaks and cuts on her face and splatters on her clothes. I used the Burn Tool to create the darker rings around her eye and darker patches around her nose and mouth/lips, as if she was eroding.

Shuffle was published at Kaleidotrope magazine in their summer 2015 issue. Go here to check out their more recent issues and archives for high quality speculative fiction.

Graphic Design Shenanigans

I’ve been caught up with various graphic design projects lately, which has eaten into my writing time a little. The creative tables are constantly turning between text and visuals, but that’s just how I roll. I wanted to share something I’ve been working on, a logo design featuring custom-made artwork and lettering.

This logo was so much fun to make, and I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I love anything that has a dash of tongue-in-cheek. The chicken is from a small design project at my day job. Rather than let my disgruntled chicken go to waste I figured I’d showcase it.

I listened to a playlist of mellow music while making this. It seems that movie soundtracks and smooth beats work well with my visual-creative half. Choice tracks include:

Flight, by Lycoriscoris. Beautiful ambient beats.
Princess Margaret, by Lorne Balfe and Rupert Gregson-Williams (from TV show The Crown)
Fireisland, by Aly & Fila and Solarstone, from Quiet Storm. I also love the Uplifting Mix of this track, which you can find here.

I am available for freelance work right now, so drop me a line if you need a logo or business card design, or a book cover!

Podcast recommendation: We’re Alive

Trawling through the iTunes podcast library, I stumbled upon an audio drama called We’re Alive – A Story of Survival, by Wayland Productions. It’s a zombie podcast, but before you run for the hills, hear me out. It starts off as you might expect, but it quickly becomes clear that they’re doing something a little different with the zombie post-apocalypse. For starters, it’s done in the style of a fully realised radio drama. It has an ensemble cast of voice actors and high-quality sound effects. There’s also a clever score and custom artwork for each chapter.

There are 48 chapters overall, so plenty to keep podcast fans happy. Plus Wayland Productions are still active, with a new podcast Goldrush.  Generally chapters are split into three or four parts, each part running from under ten minutes to around thirty minutes, which makes it easy to squeeze in on a lunch break, a car journey, a walk, or even just before bed.

The pros:

  • The sound effects are brilliant. Who would have thought that something that’s usually so visual—walking, rotting corpses—could be way scarier when only in audio. And these zombies aren’t the shambling, shuffling dunderheads you see in a lot of other venues. Think 28 Days Later undead who can sprint. Listening with headphones is absolutely the way to go—when you first hear the rapid thump-thump-thump of the monsters running at you, the sound growing louder and louder in your ears, it’s terrifying.
  • Like I said above, they’re doing something different with the zombies. It was one of the main things that kept me intrigued all the way through.
  • Apart from a couple of minor niggles (see below), the voice acting is fantastic and high quality.
  • The score is also very good, building tension or relief at the right moments. I can only bring to mind one instance where I felt the background atmospheric music was out of place.

The cons:

  • Sometimes the dialogue can be hokey. There are a number of cliches that could have been avoided, and at one point a character even says (narrating) that she goes on “an emotional rollercoaster”. That old chestnut. But the podcast is otherwise quite slick and while it jarred for a moment, it didn’t put me off.
  • Once in a while the line delivery is slightly awkward, and you can tell that the actors are reading from scripts. It’s never so bad that I wanted to stop listening, and generally they do an excellent job. It’s just the odd line.

If you don’t usually go for horror or zombies in particular but have always wanted to try some, this might be a good entry point. Its format sets it apart from many other horror stories out there. Plus, if it’s the blood and guts visuals you tend to shy away from, you don’t have to worry about seeing any of it here—only the squishy sounds coming from all directions. 🙂

You can find We’re Alive on TumblrTwitterYouTube and Facebook, too.

Dialogue and Why Not to Forget It

I forget about entertaining dialogue all the time and when I get to the end of a story I often feel that the characters sound flat. I get so tangled up in the many other elements of a story, like the plot and the world-building. It’s another one of those million things I’m still working hard to improve in my writing. When we write we convince ourselves we’re writing snappy dialogue because the dialogue is fast-paced, but it needs more than just pace. It needs to distinguish character, show character ticks and traits, reveal their attitudes and relationship dynamics.

Dialogue also has to sound real and feel organic, which can be tricky to pull off. The standard writing advice is to go out and listen to how people speak to each other, and pay attention to the ebb and flow of your own conversations. Doing is the best kind of research.

There was an excellent article by writer Kameron Hurley a few years ago about writing character banter, and it’s worth bookmarking: Who Cares? On the Importance of Banter and Character-Driven Narrative. Kameron says:

When I went back and looked at my own writing, I realized I was spending all my time trying to be a Serious Writer, and sorely neglecting all the humor and snark that makes life itself bearable. It was the revelation that maybe I should be spending more time figuring out snarky dialogue and fight scenes that eventually led me to write God’s War the way I did.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in something else – worldbuilding, or plot – that we forget about the people, and we forget that the world exists to make the people the way they are and the plot only exists because the characters move it.

Also, I love that Dragon Age: Origins artwork has been used in the post, because Alistair and Morrigan are wonderful examples of good character banter. Actually, I love all of the questing dialogue in DA:O.

A Sizeable Cool Link Roundup

Top 10 Gadgets From Iain M. Banks’ Culture Universe – I’m a massive Iain M. Banks fan, particularly his Culture sci-fi novels. This list breaks down some of the cool technology that exists in his storyverse, ranging from switching off pain to using knife missiles (yes, as cool as it sounds).

Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek That Ever Lived – This was posted on The Oatmeal a few years ago, but it is still wonderful and hilarious and lovely.

When Sci-Fi Crime-Prevention Tactics Aren’t Actually That Far-Fetched – how likely is RoboCop? According to this article, fairly likely. 

“We’re now producing airborne drones that have the automated intellectual ability where they are able to pick out a terrorist and make a decision whether to kill them or not.”

NASA’s Sci-Fi Vision: Robots Could Help Humanity Mine Asteroids – from Universe Today. More sci-fi future nerdery, but an exciting prospect. So if Armageddon really does happen like in the movie, we won’t have to send Bruce Willis up there to blow it up. That’s a relief. I’m pretty sure he would insist on wearing a dressing gown.

And here’s a great website called Urban Geofiction where people create maps of fictional cities and countries. From their site: 

But they all have in common that they do not strive to create fantastic worlds with its own physical and natural laws like Tolkien did, for example. Their aim is to imagine new combinations of all variables that affect our daily (urban) life on this planet in a spatial way. 

There are many possibilities for stories here.

Lady Froggy Steampunk Gatling Gun for Dainty Death Dealing – I really want one of these. So deadly and cute! This is the James Bond tech of the steampunk 19th Century.

Considering Theme and Motif, by James Broomfield at the Storyslingers (old) blog. The blog has since moved and while it’s no longer updated you can read the past entries here. http://storyslingers.wordpress.com Here is an excerpt from James’s post:

Theme exists outside of narrative, characters, genre, time periods and language. It may never be directly stated in the story, it may only ever exist between the lines.

Your Age On Other Worlds – This is just plain fun. Fill in your birthdate and the script will calculate your age on the different planets in our solar system. Does this mean I can now tell people “I’m 0.23 on Neptune” when they ask me how old I am?

[Publication] The Machinists’ Boy | YA Sci-Fi | 4,200 words

I have a short YA story called The Machinists’ Boy out in Youth Imagination Magazine, issue 39. It’s free to read online. I’m so thrilled that one of my stories is in such great hands!

Title: The Machinists’ Boy
Author: Jennifer K. Oliver
Word Count: 4,200 words.
Publication: Youth Imagination Magazine
Summary: YA science fiction horror. Two young boys crash land on a wasteland planet, only to find they are not alone.

Cailan’s mothers were dead on the flight deck, but Sum was alive in the hull, and that was something. The ship had shut most of itself down to conserve power, leaving only enough for basic systems and the faint, rhythmic surge of pressure waves logging leaks and cracks like a struggling heartbeat.

Many moons ago I workshopped this story at two venues: Storyslingers writing group and The OWW. Thank you to everyone who provided critiques of earlier drafts. They were all extremely helpful. Find more of my published stories on my Fiction page.

[Game] Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that’s so visually stunning that I sometimes find myself forgetting to quest or follow my next objective. The scenery and soundtrack together are breathtaking and entirely distracting. Not to mention all the interesting mechanical beasts that stalk the landscape. I can’t count the times I’ve been following a quest only to get tangled up in hunting and discovering new areas. This is not a bad thing.

Nothing is wasted in this game. Even the rather puny Striders provide you with valuable materials you can use for crafting or simply selling for metal shards (the in-game currency). The beasts don’t always react how you think they will, either – often you might run into a herd and rather than fight you they will gallop away, startled.

Things I particularly love:

Non-linear, open world gameplay. This is one of the main reasons Skyrim is my soul game – you can spend hours running and hunting and climbing, if you so wish. But there are still plenty of big, juicy quests to get into, when you’re ready.

The machines are cool. The idea (for those who haven’t played this) is that animal-like machines were living among humans peacefully, but something called the Derangement has happened and they are now beginning to act more aggressively and even attack humans. Aloy has to figure out not only her own origins, but also why the machines have turned, and why the mysterious cult Eclipse is after her.

Speaking of the machines, it’s funny that I blogged recently about a Final Fantasy XIII, a game I completed a few years ago. The beasts in HZD are vaguely reminiscent of FF creatures, often mechanical with elaborate designs.

Aloy’s story is bittersweet and as the POV character you grow to respect and care about what happens to her. She is quite a tragic figure and her personal story unfolds at a steady, satisfying pace. She’s highly skilled and agile, although I do get a swooping sensation in my stomach whenever she’s scaling some impossible sheer rock face. 😐

Zip-lining from great heights.

The crafting system is simple and straightforward. I didn’t think I’d like it, but it actually frees up more time to explore. This is not my usual play style, and I will often balance crafting and building with action and adventure. But it actually works in this game, perhaps because of the story.

The Shield-Weave Armour (see image. I would love a dress made from this material).

Scanning beasts and figuring out what types of ammo will work best against them. I love that the game gives you hints about a creature’s weaknesses. You get a selection of different arrows you can use (fire, shatter, etc. There are even arrows that will knock additional parts off a machine).

The Focus that Aloy wears is a godsend for checking out surroundings and assessing threats. It’s also great for finding small animals to hunt for resources.

Overriding is great in theory, but I prefer travelling on foot, otherwise you zoom past too many interesting things.

Did I mention that this game is utterly, breathtakingly stunning? Guh!

The soundtrack is also incredibly beautiful:

Within the Embrace | Meridian | On Our Mother’s Shoulders

Podcast Rec: The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast

Lovecraft’s stories are very hit-or-miss. A few years ago I went through a whirling reading fest and over the course of about two weeks I inhaled as many of his stories as I could manage. Afterwards, I took a break and tried to sift through my feelings.

For the most part, I came out of it frustrated–so much of his work is problematic and not easy to stomach, regardless of the period in which he was writing. At times it’s racist, xenophobic, classist, homophobic; female characters are under-represented; and his prose can be horrendously purple. And some of his earlier work just isn’t very good at all, on any level.

On the other hand, some of his stories are stunningly creepy and imaginative, and if nothing else, we can thank him for shaping what a lot of weird fiction and horror is today. There’s a reason people still love to run around in his playground, and I think it’s even more important to continue reinventing that playground, make it more accessible, diverse and consistent. But I digress.

At the time I started listening to and loving the heck out of The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast (otherwise known as H.P. Podcraft) hosted by Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey. Basically, they go through most of Lovecraft’s work and provide readings, commentary, music and resources. There were a couple of stories I wasn’t originally able to finish – The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath being one – but recently I’ve revisited them with the podcast providing a kind of Cliff Notes / York Notes support. Plus there are always additional laughs and observations I hadn’t considered. Chad and Chris also often give background info about the stories, such as when Lovecraft wrote them, what he said about them in his letters to correspondents, which magazines they were published in (or rejected by!), and other works inspired by them. It’s interesting listening, and Lovecraft himself becomes a more interesting character when seen through someone else’s eyes.

Of course, eventually you’re going to run thin on Lovecraft material, but they continued the podcast by reading works by other authors of weird, dark or horror fiction, many of them Lovecraft’s contemporaries.

And, for anyone who hasn’t tried HPL before, The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast is a terrific place to start, especially if you’re intrigued about Lovecraft but haven’t been able to find anything by him that’s easy to get into (as I said above, he can be very hit-or-miss).

You can also find them on Twitter and their forums.

The Epic Music Compositions of Michael Maas

Before anything else, I have to point to GrumpySkeletor on Twitter. This account is a parody and if you’re a child of the 70s or 80s, yes, it might tarnish your nostalgia but it’s so ridiculously fun. This is one of my first ports of call if I need a giggle. There is also an article at The Poke listing 34 Times Grumpy Skeletor was the Funniest Twitter Account in the World.

On a music theme, for a good few months now I’ve been unashamedly stalking the music compositions of German composer Michael Maas. I’m a huge fan of epic score style music (it’s a great writing backdrop) and a lot of his compositions could easily be from movies, ads, or nature documentaries – they are so slick and beautiful.

Here are a few links, though there is a lot more available on YouTube and you can grab copies of his work on iTunes. Some of you amazing creatives might find his music inspirational like I do.

 Kaeri. This is soft and slow, with a slight melancholy edge to it which I love. Great to write to! Just listen to the violin and cello.

 Bittersweet. Possibly my favourite of his pieces (so far). I just find this so incredibly chilling, gorgeous, and atmospheric.

 Skylight (Thunder & Rain Edition). Epic and pretty.

 Monster Divinity (Position Music). This is a bit different, more gritty. Sounds like it could be from a first-person horror or sci-fi game.

 Morpheus and the Dream feat. Felicia Farerre. The beginning of this one is gorgeous, with a lovely build and stellar vocals.

I really hope this composer continues to do higher profile work and gets more recognition. And just in case you need a bigger dose, try this: Two Hours of Epic Emotional, Vocal and Piano Music by Michael Maas.

Weird Stuff You Learn Through Research

It’s amazing what weird stuff you can learn while researching. While looking something up for a short story, me and a friend discovered that there are a bucket load of weird patron saints floating around, and the list just keeps growing. Some of them are amusing, some make an odd sort of sense, but some are just plain mind-boggling. Who decides on the saint and the topic? And why would you want or need a patron saint for twitching, or arms dealers, or greeting card manufacturers? (Yep, these all exist.)

In case anyone is wondering, my research is in relation to the naming of a building in my story, so none of these will actually feature as characters. Which is probably a good thing. Or a bad thing? Hm.

So, on with some of the strange(r) saints, and believe me when I say this is not an exhaustive list.

Saint Monica, Patron of Alcoholics.
St. Fiacre, Patron of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Saint Magnus of Fussen, Patron of Caterpillars (I totally want to be this saint).
St. Vitus, Patron of Oversleeping.
Saint Barbara, Patron of Fireworks, Firefighters, and those who work with explosives.
St. Clotilde, Patron of Disappointing Children.
Saint Drogo, Patron of Unattractive People.
St. Jesus Malverde, Patron of Drug Dealers.
Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of Dentists.
St Isidore of Seville, Patron Saint of the Internet.

And these two battle for my favourite:

St. Bibiana, patron saint of Hangovers.
St Hubert of Liege, Patron of Mad Dogs (Protection from Werewolves).

Find extended lists here and here, and I’m sure there are others out there on the interwebs.

(Story research aside, there are a number of opportunities for fictional hilarity on these lists. I’d love to read some humour fiction about these odd saints, so let me know if you get inspired.)

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