Transcription work: my new challenge

I haven’t had a day job for a while. Food service isn’t known for providing a stable life for its workers, and I’ve had an exceptionally bad run of jobs throwing me under the bus after 2 or 3 months. What’s a writer to do?

Well, I stumbled into a freelance gig as an online transcriptionist, so there’s that.

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My desk is a real mess. You might even say it’s a sty! Thank you, remember to tip your waitress.

The work is pretty simple: listen to an audio file and type down all of its discernable English speech (using clean formatting, punctuation and speaker tags). I turn in my work and, if it meets the QA checker’s standards, I get about 50 cents per minute of audio.

The listening part is … weirdly entertaining? Even when the audio file is a subject I’m not really interested in, like legal texts. Listening in on these random speakers reminds me of sitting in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on strangers — which isn’t creepy as long as you’re doing it for writerly purposes, right? Right …?

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“You’d make a GREAT minor character.”

People’s speech patterns are a tricky thing to capture in fiction. What sounds like “real conversation” in a book isn’t actually realistic at all, because real conversation often proceeds faster than our brains can manage. Listen to any casual conversation and you’ll hear a lot of “um”, “well”, stumbling on words, starting over, and other indicators that we’re trying to wrangle our thoughts into coherent order.

Transcription pays close attention to that. I was told in the style guide to remove false starts and other word-sounds that aren’t contributing any meaning. No problem! That’s editing! I’ve done several novels’ worth of that! Economy of words means that every phrase has its place.

My biggest struggle right now is speed. The QA checkers are giving me high scores on accuracy, so now, I just need to complete more than one file per hour and maybe I’ll be able to earn minimum wage.

But hey, whether or not this transcription work is a practical way to pay the bills, it’s definitely a workout for my writer muscles.


How animals view us

I like thinking about non-human beings — obviously enough, given the subject matter of my writing. There are so many possibilities, ranging from magical/genetically altered “talking animals”, to anthropomorphic beings who look and behave like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Tons of possibilities there.

But you know what else is interesting? The way ordinary Earth animals react to humans, right here in our present-day world.

Because it’s not as simple as “humans are scary apex predators, always flee from them”. We’ve domesticated dogs and horses. Cats are commensal, which is a fancy word for choosing to hang around with humans. Even rats, a long-time nuisance animal, have found a niche as pet fancy rats who can be as beloved as any family dog.

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I’ve kept rats as pets before, and honestly, they’re delightful. (Photo by Ellen van Deelen.)

What about animals we don’t consider pets, though? Even when they’re not sharing our homes, animals share this planet with us. They watch our daily lives, and we watch theirs. Sometimes, kind-hearted humans will use our particular skill sets to rescue an animal — and this doesn’t go unnoticed in animals’ collective awareness.

There are many recorded examples of distressed animals approaching humans, seemingly asking for help. A fox cub with a jar stuck on its head; a mama duck whose ducklings are trapped in a storm drain; a raven with porcupine quills embedded in its face; a wild dolphin tangled in fishing line. Even sharks — which are often thought of as soulless monsters — seem able to understand that humans can be benevolent.

This discussion between Tumblr users makes an excellent point: as animals watch us, they notice that city-dwelling humans don’t really behave like apex predators. User Roachpatrol says:

raccoons and possums and foxes and crows all succeed in an urban environment because they’re opportunistic and observant. and almost none of them would have observed us pounce on one of their species and then start eating it, you know? a lot of them would have observed that we scream and chase them out of wherever we don’t want them to be, but other animals are territorial too. but there’s a number of situations where humans feed whoever’s bold enough to take them up on the offer, and we do tend to pull garbage off of other animals as soon as they slow down enough for us to catch. ‘a human got me but nothing bad happened’ is a much more frequent thing than ‘a human got me and tried to eat me’.

Tsfennec and Sapphicaquarius add that there’s a remarkable parallel with the way humans imagine mysterious fantasy creatures — for example, fairies/fae.

Of the stories I’ve read, the food of the Fae, its origins and effects, are often strange and/or obscure.- Just like our food to most animals.

The Fae are strange beings that seem to know weird things that give them power or an edge over us.- Just like us to animals.

The Fae work and live by strange rules also often nonsensical or obscure to us.- Just like us to animals.

The Fae can easily obtain vast amounts of things we consider rare/precious/desireable, and have no problem with dishing it out wantonly for no other reason than amusement.- Just like us to animals.

The Fae sometimes are amused by having us around, but only on their terms and IF it amuses/intrigues them.- Just like us to animals.

This line of thought is so interesting to me! When humans imagine interacting with other intelligent species, we don’t have a lot to go on. Just our relationships with the animals in our environment. So what if a dragon/fae/god/etc. represented a higher tier of power and awareness? What if humans were the animal in the relationship, forced in our moments of desperation to approach those higher creatures and hope that they’ll be merciful?

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Meeting The Neumenon by Edvige Faini

It would be an inversion of our normal power dynamics with the animals around us. It would be a frightening, exciting — yet somehow familiar — frontier. And that’s what fantasy/sci-fi is all about.


Why do dragons have hoards?

One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.

I had this paperback version. Wrote an extremely simplistic book report about it.

This is the cover variant I read, and it’s the first mental image I have when anyone talks about The Hobbit.

 

More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.

Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?

In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.

It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

 

In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.

Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?

I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.

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Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.

 

I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.

Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.

     -Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9

And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.

In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.


The inspiration behind Wings of Renewal

Today’s post is a guest post by Claudie Arsenault, editor of the upcoming anthology Wings Of Renewal. It’s a collection of solarpunk dragon stories — and hey, any interesting spin on dragons has my full attention! But what was the inspiration to combine eco-positive science fiction and dragons? Take it away, Claudie!

 

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The Inspiration Behind Wings of Renewal

Ever seen an image so stunning you just had to write something about it? Read about a new technology that sent your mind spinning with possibilities? I think most writers have felt the thrill of sudden inspiration at one point or another, the solid desire to produce fiction, right there and then, based on something heard or seen.

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Solarpunk does this to me all the time. Might be why I love it so much! There’s something about the Art Nouveau aesthetics, the incredible sustainable techs, and the marvelous gardens attached to it I just can’t get enough of.

So today I wanted to present three of the inspirations that went into Wings of Renewal, a solarpunk dragon anthology I curated with my friend and co-editor, Brenda J. Pierson.

 

China's Great Green Wall

  1. The Great Green Wall

Let’s start with a cool, currently-occurring African initiative, shall we? The Great Green Wall is a project to plant a long and wide line of trees all along the Sahara’s southern edge. Its goal is to prevent further desertification, and to help communities in the area. The initiative goes well beyond planting trees and includes programs on ecosystem management and the protection of local heritage. As a whole, it seeks to mitigate climate change and improve food security for the local communities. The picture is of China’s very similar initiative, called the Great Green Wall of China.

And I mean, when you look at it, the Great Green Wall is huge undertaking by eleven African countries (Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Chad), aiming to create a more sustainable and stable world for the communities involved. You hardly get more solarpunk than that! It’s no surprise, then, that defending the Wall against a terrible forest fire is at the center of Fighting Fire with Fire.

 

Fog Basking Beetle or Darkling Beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) drinking, Namib Desert, Namibia

  1. Darkling Beetles and water condensation

Did you know some beetles can condense dew onto their body and get their daily hydration from it? That’s how the darkling beetles manage to live in the desert! Now give this to a creative writer, and suddenly it’s not a tiny beetle with this ability, but a huge dragon! How much water could one create? Seven? A dozen? Enough for sparkling oasis with a thriving ecosystem? Why yes! That’s the setting in Lost and Found.

 

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  1. 3D-printing

Solarpunk isn’t all about adding greenery to the desert. A lot of it revolves around making cities sustainable and accessible living places. 3D printing is a huge part of ‘accessible’ as it allows prosthetics to be created at low costs and high speed. And nothing says these can’t be beautiful and badass! So as a personal fan of everything 3D-printing can bring to a solarpunk universe, I was thrilled when the protagonist from Summer Project not only had prosthetics, but worked in a shop building some.

If you haven’t heard of E-Nable, watch this video! It explains how the organization uses volunteers with 3D printers all over the world to bring cheap (as in, low-cost) prosthetics to people who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

 

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  1. Dragonsight, by Donato Giancola

The last is not so much solarpunk inspiration as a painting at the center of Wanderer’s Dream, one of the last short stories featured in Wings of Renewal. But it’s a perfect example of what I mentioned at the beginning: sometime an image has a story, or a setting is too charming to refuse. And that’s what happened with Dragonsight and Maura Lydon.

 

So those are some of the inspirations that went into Wings of Renewal, but there are way too many for me to fit all today! I mean, what about vertical gardens? Beekeeping? Tree-shaped solar panels? Everything else I’m forgetting? Between, stunning aesthetics, world-changing goals, and sweeping technologies, solarpunk has all the inspiration you need.

Wings of Renewal launches on October 25th, 2015. You can preorder through Nook, Kobo, and iBooks right now, or add it on Goodreads. Amazon ebooks and paperbacks will be available on launch day.


A reading from Tinder Stricken (and some updates)

First thing: Tinder Stricken is now available in print-on-demand paperback form. The books are 6 inches wide by 9 inches high, a wide, thin book that’s easier to hold open than the pocket-sized bricks Stories of Aligare novels. You can buy a copy from my Createspace storefront or from Amazon proper.

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Not sure I’ll ever get tired of sticking this cover art into my blog posts.

 

Second thing: All of my works are now available from Openbooks.com. It’s a new ebook site that features pay-what-you-want pricing, not necessarily paid up front — so you can read an book before deciding how much to pay for it. It’s a model I like for its inclusivity. Don’t have a lot of money and don’t want to waste it on a book you might hate? No problem!

Openbooks also allows sharing ebook files — so that you can share with your friends the same way you’d lend them your purchased paper books. I encourage sharing! Piracy worries are, if you ask me, an excessively neurotic fear of the inevitable.

 

The titular thing: I’ve recorded myself reading an excerpt of Tinder Stricken! Sort of like a casual book-reading event that everyone in the world can attend. Here’s Chapter 1 (and I hope to do some more chapters later):

Got thoughts on any of the above things? Share in the comments!


The phoenix has landed! Tinder Stricken now on sale

Launch day has come and gone. Which means that my Nepal-inspired story full of phoenixes, magic and other surprises can be purchased and read by you — yes, you!

 

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At the moment, Tinder Stricken is only available in ebook form through Amazon and Smashwords. That’ll change as I get the ebook ont other retailers, as well as do the formatting work for the Createspace paperback version. Check back here in a few days: I’ll update this blogsite as Tinder Stricken gets more buying options.


Tinder Stricken cover reveal

Right now, I’m busy with pre-release work for Tinder Stricken. Racing to the finish is pretty much always how I do things. But hey, before I dive back in, let me show you Tinder Stricken‘s cover!

 

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Made it myself!

 

On Tselaya Mountain, all humans transform into animals as a consequence of age — but for fieldwoman Esha, goat horns began growing in when she was just a child. Now in her forties, unmarried and alone, Esha scrambles to pay for her own retirement before she is more goat than person.

But when Esha stumbles into the wrong patch of forest, a wild phoenix steals her heirloom khukuri knife. Unwilling to lose her treasure before she can sell it, Esha forges a deal with Atarangi, a back-alley diplomat who speaks to animals. Together, the two women climb mountain plateaus to reach the wild phoenix’s territory. With enough tact and translation magic, the bird might be convinced to give Esha’s retirement fund back.

But the question remains: why did the phoenix steal an heirloom in the first place? What debt could a wild, free creature possibly need to pay?

Tinder Stricken releases this Friday, May 22nd (barring technical difficulties in uploading). And I’ll be at my annual furry convention hangout — What The Fur? in Montreal, Quebec — to throw a launch party! Can’t wait to share this new book of mine with the world!


Tinder Stricken giveaway to support Nepal earthquake relief

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Some hours ago, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal near the capital city of Kathmandu. Information is still incoming but a state of emergency has been declared and the death toll at this time is over 2 500 people.

If you’ve talked to me in the past year, you’ve probably heard about my in-progress novel Tinder Stricken, a fantasy story set in a Nepal-inspired mountain society. And I haven’t mentioned this before, but seismic activity plays a major role in Tinder Stricken’s story. An earthquake in Chapter 2 cause Esha to lose a close friend and alters the course of her life. Further into the plot, earthquakes turn out to be a significant threat to Esha’s new non-human allies. A particularly large earthquake near the end of the story does a lot of damage to humans and non-humans alike, and Tselaya Mountain’s society is changed forever.

My story is fiction with phoenixes and magic in it. But still, I’ve been drawing influence from Nepal’s real people and history, and I regret that my book will release at a time when Nepali people are trying to rebuild their lives. Tinder Stricken not an attempt to cash in on current events and I hope it won’t be perceived that way. Removing the earthquakes from Tinder Stricken would mean completely remaking Esha’s story — and despite unfortunate timing, I don’t think censoring fiction is an appropriate way to deal with difficult issues. If anything, fiction helps us rationalize the real world.

As a writer trying to encourage broader minds, I should try to do the real Nepal some good in this difficult time. I think the best thing I can do with my upcoming book is to help the fundraising efforts for the Nepal earthquake relief efforts.

Therefore, if you donate money to a Nepal relief fund before May 22nd, I’ll give you a free ebook copy of Tinder Stricken on that May 22nd release day.
There’s no minimum donation for this event. Any amount helps.
You can choose Global Giving, the Red Cross, or any other charity organization you’d like. Just be careful that it’s a legitimate charity and not some scammer, okay?
To claim your free Tinder Stricken copy, email me at heidicvlach@yahoo.ca and attach a picture of your donation receipt (with personal information blanked out, if you’d prefer). I’ll note your email address and get in touch with you once Tinder Stricken is ready.

Please share this post and tell your friends. I hope I can help send some pocket money to a good cause — and give you folks a thought-provoking story to read, too.


Tinder Stricken concept art and more paper maché

Work continues on Tinder Stricken. What I originally thought would be a quick blitz through a mountain world has become an odyssey of learning and stretching myself as a writer. So I’ve been painting lately, trying to cement some mental images. You might have already seen these if you follow me on Twitter!

tselayahousesmallThis is a house on Tselaya Mountain, made of clay, stone and bamboo (one of few plant products cheap enough for lesser castes to build with). This concept painting was mostly to help me remember the coloured flags. Inspired by Tibetan and Nepalese prayer flags, the five colours of flags are used to show a household’s rank, occupation(s), marital status, and much more.

kaewaandrooftopsmallI don’t think I’ve mentioned this significant character much —mostly because her personal traits only gelled recently, and also because I can’t decide on a name for her. She’s Kaewa right now and we’ll see if that sticks! Kaewa is from a Maori-inspired coastal society. On Tselaya Mountain, she works as a diplomat, using plant-based magic to translate languages, understand people, and mediate disputes. She also speaks with animals — which is a taboo subject among Tselayans. She’s pictured with her closest phoenix friend, who is her clever partner in less-than-legal human matters.

And with a new novel comes a new table display! I’m building up a base for a nearly-life-size Tselayan phoenix made of paper maché. Like my other paper maché display pieces, this will be built up into the right shape and then finished with acrylic paint and feathers. Nothing says “cool, non-human character” like a dramatically fanned pair of wings, am I right?

Also pictured: my cat Selphie being adorbs.

Also pictured: my cat Selphie being adorbs.

So if I’m quiet in the next few months, it’s because I’m working my creative butt off! Tinder Stricken will hit metaphorical shelves in late May, 2015.


The mythical sirens, and how I reworked them for the DISTORTED anthology

With my love of variety in fantasy literature, I try to experiment with lesser-used mythological creatures. I’ve talked before about the phoenix, that metaphor everyone knows — but few fantasy writers use to full potential. And I’ve dabbled with black dog interpretations ever since I first found out about that interesting little clump of British Isles lore.

Today, I’m here to discuss sirens. You know, those mythical aquatic women who aren’t mermaids?

A Roman mosaic of Odysseus and the sirens

A Roman mosaic of Odysseus and the sirens

Originating in Greek mythology and later adopted by the Romans, sirens are supernatural women who sing in enchanting voices. They tempt or hypnotize men, most notably sailors on long, lonely journeys. Sometimes the sirens distract the sailors into crashing their ships; sometimes the lovely singing just lulls the sailors to sleep so the sirens can easily kill them. Either way, it’s a bad outcome for any man enchanted. The first Greek examples of sirens were associated with meadows and earth, but later siren lore had a water connotation — including dangerous, rocky seashores for befuddled sailors to crash their ships onto.

That ocean context sometimes causes sirens to get mixed up with mermaid lore. Nowadays, particularly sexy mermaid artwork is sometimes tagged as a siren. But Greek texts originally described “winged maidens” with bird legs. The siren was sort of like a harpy‘s more attractive sister. Her bird traits represented her beautiful singing voice. An early Christian text also points out that love is a sharp-clawed bird: it “flies and wounds”.

 

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There are also historical artworks of sirens as fish chimeras who look slightly like mermaids. And some artworks where sirens looked like ordinary human women, lounging on rocky seashores. Like most mythological beings, sirens are open to interpretation.

 

As for me, I grew up hearing a bit about Greek/Roman mythology and its singing sirens. My more memorable siren encounters came in video games. Final Fantasy games and their summoned spirits represent a wide variety of Earth folklore, after all.

Siren, as seen in Final Fantasy VIII. Her attack, Silent Voice, damages the target and inflicts Silence status  (which prevents casting magic).

Siren, as seen in Final Fantasy VIII. Her attack, Silent Voice, damages the target and inflicts Silence (a status condition that prevents use of magic).

 

But in the modern fantasy genre, siren encounters are fleeting compared to elves, dragons, vampires or werewolves. The siren doesn’t seem to be a mythical creature that gets much thought or reinterpretation. So when I saw the submission call for the Distorted anthology — asking for modern, realistic, or fantastic interpretations of mythology — I thought sirens would be a great subject. Their flexible lore would let me worldbuild. Their built-in themes of love, temptation and punishment would help me make a great story.

 

I wrote a piece called To Sing Which Tune. It’s about a version of modern Earth where sirens (feather-covered humanoids with gills) have always been friends to humans. They call boats away from danger, and they perform their lovely songs on TV for our entertainment. At least, that’s how it used to be.

 

Nowadays, the siren population is showing more and more cases of violent dementia, attacking humans unprovoked and with little warning. Marine ornithologist Helen thinks it’s because of toxic chemical buildup in their bodies, a side effect of human pollution. Helen is driven to help all sirens — most of all her lifelong friend, Odyssia. But she might be too late.

To Sing Which Tune is darker than my usual stories, but it was an interesting project and I’m delighted to be included in the anthology! And I’m glad I jumped at this chance to write about beautiful, deadly sirens on a modern seashore.

 

Distorted is available now through Amazon, Smashwords or Createspace.

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