Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Month: March 2018

Reblog: Tate Modern and the Damian Hirst Exhibition

I am reblogging this from an old journal. In 2012 I visited the Tate Modern while in London and saw the Damian Hirst exhibition. I’ve never been the biggest fan of (a lot of) modern art, so I was dubious going in, but open to try it and hopeful that I’d come away with a newfound appreciation. Well, I did. Mostly. The exhibition was interesting and beautiful and grotesque and frustrating all at the same time. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but a couple of them worked strongly enough that I came away with a general good feeling. I’m still not sure if modern art is my thing, though I’m much more amenable to giving it a whirl.

Pieces that were hits: the shark, the butterfly room and Black Sun.

Pieces that did not hit: The medicine cabinets lost their charm after the third or fourth. I get that our bodies ultimately fail us, and they may have provided a thematic thread through the whole exhibition. But! I didn’t need three roomfuls of this. And I admit, as much as I loved the concept of the butterfly room, I could only stick it for about three minutes before I had to duck out (literally). A lot of them were tropical butterflies and they were bloody humungous! One landed on my head as I went in and gave me the wiggins.

He’s very focused on birth/health and death/decay. You go from the butterfly room, with its canvas-lined walls embedded with pupae that the butterflies hatch from and carry out their life cycle, to the black sun room which is a gigantic mural made of dead flies caught in resin. Yum.

Another piece of note—one I’m still not sure whether I liked or not—is A Thousand Years. A massive glass box houses a smaller white box filled with hidden maggots. These maggots are continuously hatching into flies, which fly out of the white box and feed on a severed cow’s head. There’s also an electric insect-o-cuter in the box which draws many of the flies and obliterates them. Others just die naturally—they litter the floor like a black carpet. I must say, I felt a bit squiggly looking at that one. Plus, you could smell this faint undercurrent of flies and rotting cow’s head. Conceptually, it’s a well-executed piece.

[Publication] Shuffle | Horror | 3,300 words

My short dark fantasy / horror story “Shuffle” was published at the wonderful Kaleidotrope magazine in their summer 2015 issue. It’s a post-apocalyptic story in which a young woman realises that there is something worse than death, and fights to regain her sense of control. You can read it online for free!

Title: Shuffle
Author: Jennifer K. Oliver
Word Count: 3,300 words
Publication: Kaleidotrope (Summer 2015)

I think my name might be Sarauugh. At least that’s how it sounds when I pull it up through frayed vocal cords. But I’ve also been Joe, followed briefly by Amelia. I was an echo of Dumaka, and for a few moments I was Frederick. And once, I was Mei for an entire morning.

View the cover design. Reviewed at Locus and SFRevu.

There were a lot of incredibly helpful reviews of this story on the Online Writing Workshop and from Storyslingers writing group. Thank you to those who took the time to read and comment, and as always thank you to Yvonne Anisimowicz for the multiple beta reads.

Notebooks, Notebooks, Everywhere

Notebooks play a massive role in my life, as I’m sure they do a lot of writers. All those crisp, tantalising pages. All the ideas and inspiration gathered under one perfectly-bound foiled and embossed roof. The smell of a new notebook can be heady to a writer, like the first hit of nicotine in on a winter’s day (OK, I’m exaggerating, but it’s still pretty awesome). I love the soft creak as I open a new notebook. A used notebook is like a box of dreams–it’s a personal artefact, but also something you wish to share. I am a particular fan of a couple of notebook manufacturers and generally go for their books before anything else. These are my recommendations.

Paperblanks – Their journals are exquisite. They are available lined or blank. The paper is a soft cream-colour and coated so you don’t get ink bleed (if ink is your thing; it’s not mine, but each to their own). The foil covers are vibrant and tactile. Some of the books have small ornate clasps, some have a magnetic flap, while others have no clasp at all. Their range is huge and I’m convinced that any notebook user would find something to adore in the Paperblanks collection. I own far too many of these and yet I always seem to need more (I fill them quickly with story notes, plot ideas and character sketches!). Don’t believe me? Here are mine:

I’m currently waiting for the Grolier Ornamental Ultra notebook to arrive from Amazon.

Flame Tree – The Flame Tree books are a similar to Paperblanks in their tendency to use embossed, foiled covers, though the books themselves are a little thinner than the Paperblanks Ultra, and the pages are not as thick and luxurious. The quality is still high and they are extremely pretty journals. I own 4 of these and I’m looking to get a couple more soon.

Peter Pauper Press – Again, similar in style to the others, with some lovely cover designs. These are a good back-up journal. I really want one of their Timeless Tree journals. That cover!

On a related note, Paperblanks once interviewed me for their blog. You can read the interview here: In which I ramble about notebooks, creativity and inspiration.

The (Vast) Difference Between A Critique and An Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help an author see where a story might still need work when they edit.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1. How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2. Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

The N+7 Machine

I’ve been having silly fun with The N+7 Machine today. If you haven’t tried it yet, I highly recommend playing with this tool, as it will not only entertain but it might also throw out some unexpected writing inspiration.

From the site: “The N+7 procedure, invented by Jean Lescure of Oulipo, involves replacing each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary.”

You can make fifteen different versions of your text. Here are a select few of mine (#0 being the original paragraph) from my YA sci-fi novel in progress:

N+0: “Course I’m up to it,” Aidan said. “I told you, it’s in progress.” The lie soured his tongue. If only he didn’t feel so brain-tied whenever he tried to come up with a hooky title for the new post, or a decent tagline, or the content itself. But he caught Pendergast’s threat; if Aidan didn’t work something up soon, the boss might pass the story to someone else.

N+8: “Course I’m up to it,” Aidan said. “I told you, it’s in projectionist.” The lifestyle soured his tooth. If only he didn’t feel so brandy-tied whenever he tried to come up with a hooky tobacco for the new postman, or a decent tagline, or the contingent itself. But he caught Pendergast’s throne; if Aidan didn’t work something up soon, the boudoir might pasta the strand to someone else.

N+13: “Course I’m up to it,” Aidan said. “I told you, it’s in promise.” The light soured his tootle. If only he didn’t feel so brat-tied whenever he tried to come up with a hooky toddy for the new postponement, or a decent tagline, or the contour itself. But he caught Pendergast’s thrum; if Aidan didn’t work something up soon, the boulder might pastime the stratagem to someone else.

(Is anyone else trying to figure out what the heck a tootle is?)

Bad Bunny Logo Design

Logo design originally created for a small cosmetics startup company. Yes, there is some tongue-in-cheek here with the rabbit + cosmetics, which worked alongside the essence of Bad Bunny – the colour palettes of the cosmetics were going to be vampy and loud. Nothing came of the startup, sadly, which leaves me with a logo that I still like. That’s not to say that Bad Bunny Cosmetics won’t happen in the future, but for now it’s on hold.

There is a dark version and a light version, and both work depending on where they are used. The dark would have been on bottle labels and boxes (nail polish, lipstick, eyeshadow) as both would have had black backgrounds. The light works on marketing materials, such as letterheads, business cards, and flyers, or on merchandise like t-shirts.

Interestingly, Bad Bunny has garnered some attention on my Behance portfolio. Someone approached me asking if they could buy the logo. Unfortunately they wanted to use it as the logo of their adult toy shop. Needless to say, the sale did not go ahead, but it was nice that my work caught someone’s eye.

You can see more of my graphic design at my other website J. Oliver Designs.

Young Adult Markets and Blogs

Young Adult fiction has exploded in popularity in the last decade, spawning a number of huge movie franchises, TV shows, games and spin-offs. But fiction is where it all begins.

There are a number of online resources catering to young adults and adults who love to write and read YA fiction. The list below is not exhaustive, so it pays to check regularly to see the new publications that spring up. As the genre grows, so will the fan base and the need for more YA fiction venues.

If you’re a writer of YA and you’ve been looking for places to submit your stories, these magazines and blogs should give you a good starting point:

Cicada – A literary / comics magazine whose purpose is to speak to teens’ truths. They publish fiction, poetry, essays, and comics by adults and teens. They have a submission page for writers. You can find them on Tumblr and Twitter.

Cast of Wonders – Young adult fiction podcast featuring tales of the fantastic. They are open to submissions, up to 6000 words in length. They also have a forum where listeners can discuss books, TV, movies, as well as the podcast episodes.

Cricket – A magazine aimed at 9-14 year olds. It features fiction and non-fiction, and each magazine is illustrated.

Youth Imagination – YI encourages young adults to submit their creative writing, but it is also open to adult writers of YA. They feature a blog on their website where short fiction is available to read for free.

Seventeen – An entertainment magazine aimed at young people, from 13-21. Seventeen invites its teen readers to submit their real life stories to be featured in the magazine.

YARN – A magazine that aims to publish the highest quality creative writing for young adult readers, ages 14-18, and those in other age groups who enjoy young adult literature. They also have an active blog.

Twist – A magazine aimed at young adults, featuring pop culture news, as well as advice, fun stuff, and fiction.

There are also a few publishing houses on Tumblr who either cater specifically to or have YA imprints. They offer insights about the publishing industry, and update with new releases and news. To list a few: Random House, HarperCollins, Chronicle Books, Scribner Books.

Go Book Yourself has a YA section where readers recommend books based on other books of a similar type. A good place for readers to find new YA authors to try.

If you know of any other YA-centric markets or blogs, feel free to post about them in the comments.

Mother’s Day Creativity 2018

My mother always loved that I made her cards in school when I was little. This is something I’ve never grown out of and I still try to make her cards whenever I have time. To mark Mother’s Day 2018, I spent Saturday afternoon making cards. One is for my mum and one is for my boyfriend’s mum.

Mother's Day Cards

My mum loves cats and sparkles, and my boyfriend’s mum loves labrador dogs (she got sparkles too, regardless of whether or not she loves them). Can you guess which card belongs to whom? We took my mother out for lunch and gave her the cat card, then went to see Jon’s mum afterwards. I’m so happy they like the designs.

Materials used: card stock, a glue gun, brush pens and some diamantes that I originally bought for my fingernails.

[Flash Fiction] Ring-Ring | Speculative | 156 Words

This is a short speculative flash piece called Ring-Ring I wrote a few years ago. I still quite like this one.

Title: Ring-Ring
Genre: Speculative
Word Count: 156 words.
Credits: Many thanks to Dabs for beta reading this!
Notes: You can find more of my published fiction, as well as free fiction, here.

She doesn’t know why she keeps the old phone. At first it was because its faux-metallic body represented some space-age 60s bourgeois dream, the ultimate in retro cool. But it doesn’t have a cord—its severed spiral wire hangs limply like a lone gut over the back edge of the table.

Her friends keep telling her to, “Junk it,” tell her to, “Throw the damn thing away.” They tell her it just catches dust, doesn’t fit with her décor anyway.

Easy to say, but the phone doesn’t ring for them, now does it?

When you lose people, the world becomes hollowed out, husk-dry and quiet, and yet it’s heavier, too. The phone rings, and she knows the receiver will be leaden.

But she doesn’t fear recognisable voices that shouldn’t be there, crackling down the line—it’s not that.

What she fears is the static pulse of silence, repeating through her ear and through her bones forevermore.

Social Networking for Writers

Today I have a big blog for you about social networking, content generation, and how it can benefit new or up-coming writers. Discussions are welcome and if you have any questions or comments about this post feel free to drop them below.

The Importance of Networking

Reaching out to your readers and potential readers both offline and online is majorly important if you want to draw in the crowds. With an ever-widening market for e-books as well as print books, it’s easy to sink beneath the ocean of other writers struggling to be seen and heard, and most importantly—read. A good place to start building your author presence is online, particularly if you’re a busy writer or can’t afford to attend book and writing conventions.

To someone unused to social networking, the sheer amount of websites, blogs and forums can seem daunting. The key thing to remember is you really only need to pick one or two to visit regularly, at least at first. It’s about cultivating a presence in your niche, not spreading yourself too thin. When you’re relatively unknown, it might be tempting to create accounts on every social site you find, but realistically it’ll be difficult keeping on top of everything.

Choosing the right social networking sites for you is a little bit down to personal preference, although there are a couple of biggies that you should be aware of. These are generally the best places to create accounts due to their immeasurable popularity and how current they are.

Facebook has always predominantly been about friends and family, although their Fan Page function can provide businesses with a platform and they are worth looking into.

Twitter is back in favour, after a strange drop in interest a few years back. It seems popular again as a venue for writers to network and share advice, so I’d say this one is a must.

Getting Started

Social networking doesn’t have to be a stressful endeavour. You can put in as much effort as you want. But bear in mind that you’ll probably get out of it about as much as you put in, sometimes less. This is why it’s advisable to log in at least once a week and drop a note to update friends and connections on what you’re up to (read on for advice about content creation).

Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre. Try to find a balance of both self-promotion and supporting your peers. If you rarely post and never comment on anyone else’s page, you might find people will stop commenting on yours. The secret is in the name: social networking. Give and take. Communication. These are the things you’ll need to build up a solid network—and hopefully a solid fanbase.

The Secret to Networking Consistently

Time for the big reveals. A lot of authors are doing this already, and if you’re struggling to stay on top of your social networking, or you’re just starting out with new accounts, here are my top two pieces of advice for generating content and posting regularly:

1. Soundbites! If you only have one post on your author blog, you can mine it for soundbites to share on your social feeds. I do it. In fact, I will do it for this very blog post you’re currently reading. I have a chunky post here which is focused on writing and content. I can legitimately mine it for three or four tweets linking back here. This is what my tweets might look like:

[#writing blog post] How Social Media Can Help Authors – [Link] “Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre.” #amwriting #writingtips

In two or three weeks I will create another tweet, and choose a different quote from this post, then share that for the people who missed the first one. The trick is not to post too many and too close together. But three or four links back to the same post over the course of a few weeks is perfectly reasonable.

2. Schedule posts! If you invest in anything to help you manage your social networking, make it either Buffer or Hootsuite. Both have free versions where you can link a handful of your accounts. You can load posts in advance and set a date and time for them to be posted. Load 10 tweets / Facebook posts into Buffer to cover the next fortnight and you don’t have to think about it again for two weeks. Perfect.

Additional handy links

Social Neworkingfor Writers – These are all writer-specific, rather than the more general (and often busier) venues like Facebook and Twitter.

Social Networking and Message Boards for Writers – Similar to the above, though this one covers the lesser-known boards and forums.

Goodreads – One of the more popular books and writing websites. Goodreads is a cunning amalgamation of different things: a virtual library, book club, discussion board, blogging platform, and a place where authors can connect personally with their readers and hold competitions/giveaways.

Shelfari – Similar to Goodreads, this site is dedicated to books and reading. It also gives authors the opportunity to reach out to readers and vice-versa.

[Publication] Death Car Alley | Fantasy-Horror | 3,900 words

Back in 2012 I announced on my old blog my first story publication, a dark fantasy horror with a dash of tongue-in-cheek. I’m reposting this here because I’m still fond of my first venture into magazine submission and publishing. The story is set in a not-too-distant future where monsters have overrun the world, but people are still trying to live as normal lives as possible. Even the monsters have grown lazy, but feel a faint obligation to put in a little effort to hunt.

Title: Death Car Alley
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Humour
Word Count: 3,900
Publication: Jersey Devil Press (Issue 27)

Evan stops dead as the shiny black Shogun 4×4 creeps around the corner up ahead like some giant prehistoric insect, liquid-metal smooth shell glistening.

A massive thank you to Yvonne Anisimowicz and Dabs Lyons for their superb beta reading and encouragement.

I designed a story cover for Death Car Alley in Adobe Photoshop. I’m happy with how this turned out, and it remains in my portfolio to this day!

Find the rest of my published fiction here.

Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker (Anime)

A gaming friend once gave me the Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker anime on DVD and I re-watched it last night. See the official trailer.

I’ve been in more of a Bethesda Softworks mood these past couple of years, though I do love Bioware games and got massively into the DA series years back with Dragon Age: Origins (OMG Alistair!) and then Awakening (OMG Nathaniel Howe!). Origins is still hard to top, even with current graphics and gaming hardware. (I’ll post about DA:O sometime soon.)

So, Dawn of the Seeker. The animation style is different, but I ended up enjoying the tangle of traditional animation and CGI. At times it has a comic book feel which works well during action scenes, and the overall dreamy style lends to the fantastical element of the franchise. There were things they could have tweaked to make it more immersive, however, like characters getting dirty and scraped as they trek around engaging in battle. The creators said they used a lot of negative space so you focused on the characters. As a designer I get the effectiveness of negative space… but I don’t know if it worked here. In the games there’s a lot of detail and the world has real depth. But OK, this is an anime and a completely different medium.

The story focuses on Cassandra Pentaghast, who we first meet interrogating Varric in Dragon Age II. I never warmed to her as much as to the others in Dragon Age: Inquisition. I do like her design in Dawn of the Seeker, where she’s a little younger and less war-scarred.

For me, the anime fell down slightly on story, with a handful of hackneyed moments that had me eye-rolling. There is also a fairly predictable character motivation: as a child one of Cassandra’s family members was cut down by a mage, and she’s grown up aloof and anti-mage. Cue having to work alongside a mage and find mutual understanding. I’m not saying this trope doesn’t work, but I feel that the betrayals within the Chantry would have been enough motivation for her to rethink what she stands for, without the “You killed my brother, prepare to die!” element.

I’ve always liked the way Bioware writes the political aspect of their series. Overall Cassandra was fun and there were weak glimmers of Alistair in Galyan. Definitely worth a watch for fans of the game series, particularly those who love backstory and lore.

Find the DVD on Amazon here.

Dadaism and Letting Go of Authorial Control

A few years ago my writing group experimented with Dadaism, a cultural movement that started during WWI. We attempted to let go of our authorial control and generate story ideas. First, a little about Dadaism, from Wikipedia:

Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

Our own Dada exercise focused less on politics and more on creativity. It’s easy to do at home or work: simply pick a magazine or book, and then chop out words and short sentences. Mix them up and reassemble them without thinking too hard about it. If you’re worried about destroying books you can scan or photocopy the pages too. One key thing and one of the things I found most difficult to start with is allowing word order to be totally random. I wanted to put certain words next to each other to form coherence, but this is not what Dadaism is about.

We used excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I don’t know if I’d call it a poem as even that suggests some kind of order. Let’s just say it is what it is:

Patriarch’s Ponds. Associations, dressed in a Berlioz, an awe horn-rimmed glasses my utterance / And and with who called Massolit / broad-shouldered drag drink deep and by thee, O torments me. Hair, eternal my.

And these are my semi-Dada pieces, where I’d not quite let go of control and there was a little conscious placement:

The lips should utterance. One of you pseudonym of Homeless. And his conduct and vengeance

I must excited quickly dark-haired. Plump, bald. Destroy him by perish. The spirits their murderer. The poet feel, poet agony; this shall feel the dead over

Sharing our results was most of the fun. Some of them were hilarious, others a little eerie. All contained interesting concepts or prompts that could be expanded into longer pieces.

Graphic Design for Writers

My graphic design website has had an overhaul, with an updated portfolio and option to contact me using a contact form. Graphic design is a huge part of my life. It is my day job, an on-the-side freelance business, as well as something I do for pleasure. I prefer graphic design for writers and can create logos, infographics, as well as story and book covers. I’m going to share a few of my graphics here over the next few weeks, but if you are already interested check out my alter-ego J. Oliver Designs.

This first design was made for fun, simply because I a) love bunnies, b) love texture and vibrant colour, and c) wanted to try my hand at creating a mandala. I’m rather proud of the outcome. The texture used in the background was also custom-made by me for this design. It’s available to download as a texture on my Instagram. Eventually I plan to have a dedicated resources section on my other website for textures and vectors, so keep an eye out!

Run Rabbit Mandala | Adobe Illustrator CC

J. Oliver Designs

Run Rabbit Mandala by J. Oliver Designs

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