My Favourite Blogs

Here is a list of my favourite blogs right now. I have all of these saved as shortcuts on my iPhone homepage, and recommend them with much clapping and whistling.

1. The Whippet, by McKinley Valentine.

What is it?

From McKinley herself:

Science, history, weirdness and 0% contemporary politics because oh my god sometimes you need a break.

Always free, always interesting.

I hope she won’t mind that I post a few snippets here, to give a taste of how wonderful and diverse (and yet somehow glued together) all her writing is!

For example, this, from the most recent Newsletter:

Unsolicited Advice: Better questions to ask experts

So I went to a tonne of writing workshops over the last year and a half, because lockdown, some with quite famous and talented fantasy/scifi authors, and at the end the teacher asks if anyone has questions.

And the questions people ask completely threw me.

They were like, “Can I use a flashback? Can I use a prologue? Can I write a story in present tense?”

These are not good questions, in that they will not result in usable answers. It’s like saying “should I use the word ‘huge’?” Well, are you trying to describe something that’s very big? If you’re describing a small thing, you probably shouldn’t. There’s no possible meaningful way to answer that question without the context of where and why they want to use the word.

Anything’s ‘allowed’ if you can make it work. So the question is, how do you make it work? Some better questions you could ask:

  • what are prologues for?
  • what effect does writing in the present tense achieve?
  • how can I tell whether or not to use a flashback?

If you know what effect various techniques have, then you can decide when or if you should use them.

These are all writing-based, but I bet it happens in any field, people asking yes/no questions instead of how/why questions.

And this (from Issue #121):

Words for ‘hamster’ translated from other languages

Feldhamster - European hamster - Cricetus cricetus | Flickr
European hamster, admire his stripes
  • Fat cheeks (Welsh)
  • Lazy mouse (Cherokee)
  • One who hoards (Hebrew)
  • Silk fur rat (Japanese)
  • Mister Saddlebags (Syrian Arabic)
  • Cuddle mouse (Afrikaans)
  • Grain piglet (old Swabian German)
  • Earth dog (Lower Sorbian)
  • One who snores (Serbo-Croatian)
  • Eating mouse (Hungarian)

This list is by Adam Sharp, and if you like lists and language and wordplay, I can’t recommend following him enough. Or if you’re not on twitter, you could buy his book, The Correct Order of Biscuits: And Other Meticulously Assembled Lists of Extremely Valuable Nonsense.

He also includes a hamster-related aphorism translated from Swedish, the equivalent of “the lights are on but nobody’s home” —

“The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”

Valentine is funny, kind, and clever. I want her to be my sister. (I have a sister, whom I love very much, and is also all of these things, but I would also happily add a third sibling, if it were McKinley).

2. Austin Kleon

Kleon is a writer who draws. His daily blog would be loved by lovers of Brainpickings, but feels like he is talking to a community of people making things. Kleon’s trilogy of books, starting with “Steal Like an Artist” are books I show and quote from to all of my songwriting students and classes. They changed my relationship to my creative process, and his blog is a daily dose of his thoughts and research that spiral in and out from observations about creative process, making things, and paying attention.

This is a graphic (from Steal Like an Artist) that I show to all my students:

Credit: Austin Kleon, ‘Steal Like an Artist’

3. Bad Astronomy, on syfy.com

I get bouts of insomnia every now and then (small kids, working at night, plus weird brain chemicals you get in your late 30s, and possibly post pregnancies, that keep the brain ticking, sigh). When it sets in, there are a few things I now know that will help recalibrate me for sleep. One of them is that I need to read something before bed that is interesting, but non-narrative. Something that fills me with calm — and it turns out that pop-astrophysics hits it on the head. Phil Plait’s astronomy blog fills me with the awe and wonder and humility that only galaxy-gazing can fill me with.

Something about the fonts on the website also make it look like tabloid news for aliens, which I love.

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