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Monday, January 27, 2020


If you're looking for a post on how to be more productive in your writing, this is not it.

However, if you're looking for a discussion of how we conceptualize productivity and its value in society, you've come to the right place!

We often are asked whether we are productive or not, but we don't always talk about what productivity is. How do you benefit the society that you are a part of? Do you have to make stuff? Or is there more to it?

Kat remarked on the difference between people who live in the Caribbean and people who are tourists there. The tourists want to "get more out" of the experience while the people who live there simply live it.

Productivity is, in some sense, a story that we tell ourselves about our role in society. However, it does have real life impact. Morgan pointed out that it puts focus on the idea of "product," and can devalue service and education as human vocations, because they don't create piles of gold.

Division of labor is also relevant here. Many people fall for the total independence fallacy. People do tend to need other people around to perform certain functions for them. It's extremely difficult to do everything for yourself.

The words and metaphors we use to describe ourselves and our behavior influence our behavior.

Class is an important consideration here. Certain classes of people are expected, and indeed required, to be productive, while others are not. Consider the difference between the words "leisure," "idle," and "lazy."

We often find societies where there is a leisure class and a labor class. In the labor class, high productivity often works people to death. Those in the leisure class have a lot of free time.

We are taught to be as productive as possible, but it's important to recognize that this is not sustainable or an economic, human, or environmental level. Humans are not machines, and the resources of the environment are both necessary and finite.

Different cultures place different value on productivity. Kat described a video in which a group of people in France was building a bridge across a viaduct. They stopped and had lunch with beer as a group before they finished the bridge. Having leisure time, and social time, help people to be more creative on and off the job. When we are forced to keep going at a frenetic pace, at all costs, we get burnt out.

How would you go about building an economy where frantic productivity is not necessary?

This applies to the world of school as well as to work. In the US right now the culture of homework has taken over, leaving kids no time to play and little time to engage their creativity. Even schools with excellent resources and teachers create an environment where kids are dying inside with riches all around them because they can never rest.

People love to force others to be busy for the sake of being busy (especially kids), when love of a subject should be the goal.

Accomplishment and productivity are not the same.

Industrialization has significantly changed our expectations in the arena of productivity. Medieval serfs had time off for feast days, and winters are not high productivity times in the are of agriculture.

Some of our desire for work comes from a desire to keep people from causing trouble, or to keep them out of our way.

Paul noted that in Germany people work shorter hours with more holidays. They just work less. Here we are taught to engage our scorn for such values. But why? Is it related to the idea in Christianity that suffering is somehow noble?

The level of busy-ness is not necessarily linked to the amount produced by an individual. The question is sometimes "Do I see you working?" more than it is "What are you accomplishing?" Do you need to be seen working? Can you leave before your boss does? Paying by piece work creates a different kind of pressure on a worker from paying by the hour. Take a look at what kind of pressure and coercion are happening on the management side. In this kind of an environment, someone who stands out for productivity as an "eager beaver" will ruin things. If you excel in productivity, you may only teach management that they can get that much out of you.

What about work in the home? Laundry and dishes are finite in quantity, but they cycle infinitely. What happens during the "wait times" while you are required to be attentive waiting for a machine to run?

A lot of these concepts are gendered. Women are often expected to be able to do 70 things at once. Men tend to be taught that they can demand space to do one thing at a time. This is actually related to the reason why it's easier to recognize ADD in boys than girls.

Who gets to perform incompetence and be excused from house or other work?

Morgan noted that people generally need to be able to produce food to keep themselves from starving, but that this is not the same thing as knowing how to cook.

We don't do things communally as much in our current US culture.

Why do we shame behaviors that don't conform to our expectations?

There is pressure to cook, but in fact, people selling food have always been present in human communities, so it's not "going back" to some idealized past to learn how to cook. Some activities require expertise.

This returns us to the total independence fallacy. How independent are you if you can take a road into the wilderness (who built the road?)? How independent are you if you can shoot your own food (who made the gun and ammunition?)? Spencer Ellsworth, in his visit to Dive into Worldbuilding, talked about how much work goes into producing your own food, so definitely take a look at what he said.

Settler technology can be very toxic. It may work for one day's survival, but surviving for generation after generation is different.

In a fantasy world, if elves mature slowly, what are they doing with all their time? How long does it take to potty train? Maybe they have seeming superpowers because they have 500 years to learn things. Are there no elf children? If you find that everyone is 18-35 in your book, maybe you should rethink things. Are children and elderly people expected to be productive? How?

Thoreau thought he was being independent on Walden pond, but he was constantly being tended. He wasn't alone, but he refused to admit it.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. This week, we meet on Tuesday, January 28th at 4pm Pacific to discuss What Communicates Power. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What's on the Page?

One of the problems that worldbuilders sometimes run into is when they have a massive world designed and planned, but then they start writing and feel like the world on the page is coming out as much more shallow, in spite of all their work.

One of the challenges here is that not everything we know shows in what we write unless we're doing deliberate work on that. The things that resonate in our own heads may do that not because they are in the writing, but because we know about them before we come to the writing. It's therefore really important to engage outside readers.

An outside reader is someone who doesn't know your world, but will be willing to read what you've written and tell you about their experience of the place. They will be able to see only the things that are actually shown in the words on the page, and hopefully, to tell you about it.

How do we manage to put so much on the page when we have so little space? Carefully chosen small details are vital tools. These can include objects or interactions.

A couple examples from my Varin world. Varin has a time system that is not entirely like our time system. I want people to know it's there, but I don't want to spend a lot of time explaining it. So I pick an interaction people might find familiar, like time estimation, and I change it. In our world, we'd say, "Five more minutes," and it would be a time estimate, not a precise number. "Four more minutes" would be a measured quantity of time. In Varin, "Four more minutes" is a time estimate, and "five more minutes" is measured time. I use the social context to help a reader interpret the tiny piece of information correctly. Another example is when one of my teen characters says "Can I borrow your Aloran?" He's asking to borrow the services of a bodyguard so he can go out, but the social context is set up to have it be as familiar as a teen asking to borrow the car so he can go out. It implies caste information in a comprehensible way.

We talked about syntax. Specifically, I mentioned that I like to use subordinate clauses to hide world information. Readers will often expect main clause material to be immediately relevant to the main conflict, and can sometimes resent being taken off into an explanatory aside. Putting this material in a clause subordinate to a main one, where the main one is relevant to the main conflict, can help you get the necessary information in under the radar. I'm not suggesting you jam your work with subordinate clauses, but they're there for you if you need them.

Idioms can also convey a lot of information. One Varin idiom is "When the sun rises in Pelismara," meaning NEVER.

Conflict is another great way to create context for informing the reader of things that people wouldn't ordinarily notice.

If you look at your writing, can you estimate the information density? Is it too dense already, or too thin? What kind of thing could enhance it or clarify it?

Creating context for your concepts is very important. You can do this on multiple levels. A surprise might be good or bad depending on the context. You can create context to introduce readers to invented words, or to redefine existing words. What you put in the story at one point will create context to strengthen other aspects of the story later down the line.

As the author, you have ideas of what the characters are like, and about what you mean. Outside readers don't have that. You might get a critique that totally lambastes you, but that doesn't necessarily mean your ideas are bad; it could be that your critiquer got lost, or didn't care. A lot of things can become tedious if you don't care!

Sometimes you might imagine a pice of information is on the page, but it's not.
Sometimes you might imagine a piece of information is NOT on the page, when it is. (Racism and sexism and other biases unfortunately often fall into this category)

We spoke about how readers come to a story with different backgrounds, which means they bring different forms of social and cultural context that will give different meanings to what they read.

It's easy to think that when we write, we are transmitting ideas to another person, but we're not. The words on the page EVOKE a context of usage in the reader's mind, and they may have heard the same word in dramatically different circumstances from you. With conlang words (ones you make up), there is almost no context of meaning beyond the phonological. You are the one who has to do the job of creating the context in which those words become meaningful. Even words like replicators and skimmers require some work. Replicators in Star Trek produce food. Replicators in Stargate are scary.

The question of context also applies to second books in a series. How much can you count on readers to have experienced before? Do they have context to understand?

Good writing will provide contextual support in a seamless web so that readers almost don't notice how much they are learning.

Some series have carefully engineered entry points for unfamiliar readers/watchers. Stories with long continuing arcs are harder to come into in the middle.

Kate notes that it's very important to provide readers with information on whom they should be caring about and why. What is important? What is not?

How much do you explain? How much do you allow people to infer?

It's important to acknowledge that different people will have different visions of what is going on.

Writers typically put words on the page for a reason. The more words there are, the more time it takes to read them. This increases the sensation of time passing within the story. It also means that we consider things that are given lots of words to be more important, because we are taking more time, and they have to be worth our time.

In McCaffrey's Pern books, there was a creature called a watch-wher, and it had a very basic early introduction. Twenty years of writing and books later, you learn that's what dragons were bred from.

Kate says it's important to say yes to things you didn't necessarily plan to say yes to, as when her co-author added five characters. Give the story the space it needs.

Remember that each word you see => other words you see => words and ideas you can't see.

It can be frustrating, or it can be super cool! You have to know lots of things in order to make what's on the page come out well.

It's a good idea to set up environments, people, etc. before the climax so you don't have to distract from quick pacing by stopping to introduce new things. Put it on the page in one place so you don't have to put it in another place.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this interesting discussion!


Monday, January 13, 2020

Managing Spaces

This topic was a little tricky to explain, and I'm sorry about that. We spoke about how we fill the spaces around us, or don't fill them, and whether and how we make spaces of our own.

In some sense, it's about being the Dungeon Master of your own life, or of the lives of your fictional characters.

What shape are the rooms that people normally expect? Cliff mentioned a story, The Machine Stops, that had hexagonal rooms that were metaphorical for a hive and gave the story a sense of unreality. Kat mentioned that some stories have characters who are uncomfortable with square rooms. "Humans are cubical." We have quadrilateral cardinal directions.

I spoke about designing the cities of Pelismara, Selimna, and Daronvel in Varin. Pelismara is organized like a stack of plates of shrinking sizes. Selimna is a city where a river runs between two cliff faces. Daronvel has been carved out of rock, so that there are no buildings with "outsides," only internal spaces. The three cities have totally different features and feel very different.

Cliff mentioned that the spaces on a spaceship or space station are very important to how stories there play out. 2001 featured a curved floor. Babylon 5 had a station so big you didn't really notice the curve. Some stations have an area at the center where there is no gravity. Science-fictional environments often have unusual properties. Forbidden Planet had the Krell doors that were pentagonal.

Morgan talked about how you could say "3/4 spinward" within the context of a space station.

Kat mentioned that island cultures can sometimes say inward our outward. They can say hillward or seaward. On the big island of Hawaii they say windward and leeward. You could conceivably say orbitwise or anti-orbitwise. The space around you changes how you talk about direction.

What is considered a person's space? How far does it reach around their body? Does their body have to be in it? Are any spaces communal? Are all spaces communal?

Americans sit in rows of chairs leaving space in between, and only filling those chairs when there are no more spaced-out spaces left. How full does a restaurant have to be before you would share a table with someone else? Or maybe you wouldn't under any circumstances.

On public transport, are there seats for disabled people? When do they get filled? Do all the window seats on the bus fill up before the aisle seats fill?

What are table seating rules? Where is the seat of honor? In office seating, where do you sit relative to the desk? What if there is a desk in a huge room? Do people have shared offices? Window offices? Private offices? Flex offices, where they are shared based on the time of day?

Do you expect to be alone while sleeping? At an inn, do you share rooms or beds with strangers?

Morgan mentioned the cultural expectation that a married couple will share a bed in the same room. This is not always the case!

When I lived in a dorm in Japan in college, I decorated my small single room in a very specific way that indicated my tastes. My friend Tim had almost no decoration except family photos. How do you decorate your space?

Do you make your bed in the morning? Morgan mentioned how you might put temporary things like papers on top of your bed, and if you are not sharing the space, you might not put them away.

Do you put things away between instances of working on a project? Do you have enough space to put them away? Do you have enough energy? Will the space rock, move, or otherwise cause things that left out to get moved or damaged (like on a ship)? Will other people in the space interfere with your things if you leave them out (like in a family home, or even a prison)? Will someone take your stuff? Does it bug you if you don't put things away? Do you live in a pristine white nothing space?

Do you leave cabinet doors open? How tall are you relative to those doors? Will they hit you in the head if you leave them open?

Does out of sight mean out of mind? Do you remember all the things you have? Are glass cabinet doors awesome, or awful? Do you have slatted doors?

Do you expect things to stay where they are put? I talked about how my toddler used to pull all the CDs out of the cabinet, and I'd put them back, and he'd pull them out again... until I thought to just leave them on the floor (which was boring, and he eventually forgot about it). Do people childproof their homes? For how long?

Cross-culturally, expectations for the use of space differ. Where does the outside of a house begin? In a Japanese home, the outside starts at the genkan entry hall.

Do you use a shoe rack so you don't end up with piles of shoes on the floor? What do you do in an apartment without a broom closet? How much storage space do you expect in your home? Where is the washing machine or washing space in your home? Where is the kitchen? Are they in the same space?

How large do you expect rooms with different functions to be relative to each other?

Do rich people expect to be able to live in large spaces? In Varin, the highest-ranked nobles live in relatively small spaces because they live in proximity to the Eminence. They look down on the nobles who don't have enough clout to live in this environment and have bigger spaces in their large houses outside the Eminence's Residence. Maintenance of big spaces can be a challenge, however.

What is the accepted motivation for living communally?

Think about these questions on a historical scale as well as concurrently to your story's timeline. Has use of space changed? Why? Paul brought up how many stories feature noble homes with lots and lots of unused spaces, like the neglected wing of the palace.

How are shops and residences organized relative to one another? Are they segregated? Side by side? Shop on the street and home upstairs?

Kate was reading about a space habitat with single family homes and fields and wondering how that could be managed. People look at their constraints and adapt to them.

What do kitchens imply about other parts of the house? Does a house have a root cellar? A storm cellar? No cellar? Does your property feature a spring house to keep food cold?

Does your house have a dog run? Space allotted for animals?

Is a kitchen space with hot ovens attached to the house by a covered walkway rather than being inside? Is it for heat reasons? That might change the focal part of the house from the kitchen to the dining room.

Climate has a huge influence on use of space. In a hot climate, you only heat as necessary for food etc. and keep things as breezy as possible. In a cold climate you have a fireplace or cooking space that is enclosed so it can share its heat with spaces around it. In the hot, you will eat colder food, and in the cold you will eat hotter food. Climate control, like air conditioning, can change all of this.

Where is your focal social space in your house?

Do you divide child and adult spaces?

Cliff mentioned that in the middle east there is often rebar sticking out of the tops of walls because the next generation is expected to build upward onto the existing house.

Colonization can drastically change how space is used. One example we thought of was that a society which makes square or donut-shaped homes with an inner outdoor space for women might start making totally enclosed homes, but the women would then lose their outdoor space.

When you have servants, the kitchen is not going to be the center of your home.

Paul talked about how tea houses in Nepal had a central room with heat. The sleeping rooms are cold. The Sherpas hung out in the kitchen.

Kate mentioned microclimates. You might have a room or tent behind the stove so you could have privacy amidst all the social interaction. There might be an inglenook anyone could use.

Library carrels create a sense of private space within a larger public space.

Thank you to everyone who joined us to take on this fascinating but tricky topic!


Monday, December 9, 2019

Paul Krueger and Steel Crow Saga

We had a great time talking with guest author Paul Krueger about his novel, Steel Crow Saga. Paul describes it as a love letter to Pokémon, and also as what would happen if Pokémon and Full Metal Alchemist had an anti-colonialist baby. He said he went way out on a limb with the book, using a different world with situations in it that are not average, and that it meant he had to draw on a lot more personal things in order to make it real and relatable.

I asked Paul whether there was any part of the story he really had in mind from the ground floor, and he said the only thing was Pokémon. The characters in this book are able to connect their souls to an animal's soul, and thereafter summon that animal by calling its name - but this is not the Pokémon you are familiar with! It has a lot of fascinating twists.

Paul told us that although he believes all binaries are false, he's much more on the side of "pantser," someone who doesn't outline ahead, but discovers the story as they write. If he redoes something in the story, it might end up with a completely different ending. Sergeant Tala, the main character in Steel Crow Saga, didn't exist in any of the earlier versions of the book. Paul spent some time frustrated with earlier drafts because they didn't seem to have a thematic skeleton or a plotline to explore that.

The world of Steel Crow Saga is a secondary world, i.e. not related to our own. In it, Paul uses actual Earth languages rather than creating new languages. In this book, there are four different countries and five different cultures. Paul didn't want to ask the readers to keep all the names of the groups in their heads, so he based their interactions on real Asian history. He picked up a lot of Asian history over the years. Shang is China, Tomoda is Imperial Japan, Sanbu is the Filipino group. Paul told us that each of these groups was used for language and for cuisine in the book.

The character of General Erega is inspired in part by George Washington (if he never owned slaves), and in part by Filipino generals.

Paul said he struggled somewhat with questions of authenticity because he is a member of a diasporate community, i.e. not a current member of the cultures in the countries he is featuring. He asked, "What are you being authentic to?" He chose to mythologize the countries somewhat, and to draw from anime and detective novels.

One of the fascinating things about Steel Crow Saga is how it tackles the hidden underbelly questions of Pokémon, namely, are Pokémon enslaved? Paul argues that Pokémon does itself a disservice by avoiding the slavery question, so he wanted to tackle that head-on.

I asked him whether he had an answer for whether the shades in his book are slaves. He doesn't - and different characters in the book disagree with one another on that very question. Paul says it's better to have ambiguity. He's annoyed by 100% bad guys, or people with 100% right to be oppressed. In Steel Crow Saga, the Tomodanese believe all souls are equal, and they therefore believe that shades are slaves. Unfortunately, they also over-apply that sense of moral superiority to justify colonization and taking resources. It echoes real history quite effectively.

The history in the book is inspired by the history of 20th century Asia. Jeonson is an altered form of a word for Korea, which declared it was an empire but then was gobbled up by Japan. The people of Jeongson lived under the Shang for centuries and then under Tomoda. They became people without a nation. The character Lee Yeon-Ji is from Jeonson. Shang is based on the latter days of the Chin dynasty before it fell and became a republic. Paul said that monarchies are convenient for narrative because they are able to localize the stakes of the story into a single person. Paul also told us that the Philippines were the 2nd richest country in Asia before the Japanese occupation. He said that later rulers like the Marcoses took lessons from external oppressors. However, Paul didn't want to claim the history. He didn't consider that pain his to exploit.

Paul mentioned that there is a lot of great SFF now featuring Asian cultures, including Fonda Lee's Jade City and Jade War, R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. They pay a lot of attention to this historical period. Fonda Lee focuses on an immigrant story. Paul says this is a moment when we examine Empire and the marks people leave on each other, and the scars left by nations.

I was especially interested in the way Paul described the changes that happen between drafts for him. He said a lot of his first drafts have shapeless blobs and featureless rooms. At first, Tala was "hte angry one" and Jimuro was "a shitty prince." Gradually, through the process of the story developing, they are revealed as more. When learning about other characters, Paul suggests using them as foils against each other. He says "I do better with big ideas." He did tell us that some of the early drafts included versions of "I choose you" or Pokémon arenas, but those fell away as the book took on its own shape.

Paul told us that what really brought the book together was when he realized he was interested in the idea of forgiveness. Can you do the unforgiveable? Can you then forgive yourself afterwards? Returning to these questions kept him going.

He also said he believes in the forensic principle that all things that come in contact with each other leave traces behind. He applies this to characters. Watch what happens when two pairs of characters come in close proximity to each other. What happens if they switch "dance partners" for a while?

We talked a little about romance in the story. Paul said it could be viewed as a chronicle of the world's craziest double-date. Lee and Xiulan have a lot of banter in their relationship. Tala and Jimuro progress in their relationship much more slowly. Paul didn't want the progressions to be parallel. Tala and Jimuro start out hating each other. Paul said he was worried at one point that they were too vitriolic, that he should pull back, but Alyssa Wong said he should lean into it harder. This led to Paul writing a fistfight scene, and led to the two characters coming to respect each other. He said that when he came to writing the scene where they get together, he realized that one of them just wasn't there. One of them didn't have bandwidth for a serious relationship, and the other realized that with respect and understanding.

Paul says he has left doors open for sequels, but he wants to do some stand-alones first.

We asked him about the title of Steel Crow Saga. Apparently it was super-hard to title because his first thought was "Full Metal Pokémist." Then he tried "Splintered Souls," but it wasn't going in the right direction. There were lots of back-and-forths with the editor. Eventually they hit on the word "Saga," which everyone really liked because it captured the anime feel of the book, and after that "Steel Crow" finally came together.

Matt Wallace, of the Sin Du Jour series, had the following titling advice, which Paul summarizes as follows: I imagine the obituary for my book and write the headline.

I asked Paul about something he'd said online about fan art. Paul told us that his first book, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, didn't have any fan art. When he whined about it, he was told he'd only vaguely described the characters. In Steel Crow Saga, therefore, he made sure that each character had colors and symbols, their own animal, and distinct physical traits. Paul said, "I went really overboard with visual cues." The good news is, he's gotten lots of fan art this time! Paul says being friends with artists has made him a better writer. He listed Victoria Schwab and Erin Morganstern as writers with great visuals.

Paul commissioned art for his book on the theory that it was like busking: you put out some money in your hat, and people see the social clue and contribute. He therefore seeded the internet with Steel Crow Saga art. He says he's very touched by the fact that people take time to do art, and to create recipes based on his book. Steel Crow Saga features adobo, and you see it many times. There are exchanges of adobo. He calls it the perfect food, because it is adaptable, has five ingredients, and can be made in less than an hour. It's the "Kalashnikov of recipes."

Paul says he likes to use food as a vector to create a world. "If you can figure out where the food comes from and where the poop goes, you can extrapolate a society." Jimuro is used to cleaner, mild flavors. His diet is vegan. He has learned over time to appreciate bolder flavors. Paul likes to consider the palates of different countries.

Paul said the princess who pretends to be a detective reveals something quite personal about him. Because he loved Calvin and Hobbes, and Calvin would sometimes be a Private Investigator, Paul would daydream about being a detective. Xiulan got his love of detectives, his aversion to mushrooms, and his inability to throw.

Paul, thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us further insights into Steel Crow Saga!


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Blind Spots and White Rooms

What are the things you don't see?

Sometimes a story will feature sections of bare dialogue. These are like overhearing a conversation, and you have to guess what is going on around them based on the content of their talk.

It's all right not to specify things in a story, but we need to be aware that very often, a reader will fill in what they don't see with defaults.

Defaults are culturally dependent. They can be influenced by regional expectations. In some regions, "of course you have a basement." In others, "of course you have central heat." Where I live, it's astonishing if your house is not bolted to its foundation (because houses will walk off their foundations in a major earthquake).

When you are thinking about what kind of room your characters are in, remember that rooms have idiosyncracies. Ask who decorated them. What were they intended for? We noticed that Paul has maps and a sword in his room. I have wall hangings and a dresser. Morgan has a gaming chair and a dusty exercise machine. Ask whether a room was deliberately decorated. Was it filled by someone who had time to fill it? Were they in a hurry in some way?

Characters don't always think about everything around them. What does a kitchen look like if your main character has no interest in cooking? Morgan talked about having a character like that and comparing her view of the kitchen to that of her boyfriend who cooks.

Why do people pay attention to particular things? How does that change depending on their circumstances?

LaShawn noted that it's fun to play with character blind spots, with things they don't notice. If you want a reader to notice something that the character doesn't, you can always lay out an array of important and unimportant items. Paul remarked that sometimes an author doesn't plan the array, just puts a bunch of stuff out there and then some of it proves to be useful later.

Morgan asked how much we all look at hotel rooms. Not much, unless we're first walking in or noticing something wrong or different. Paul noted that if you are in a hotel room overseas, the room can be more distinctly different. LaShawn told us she once stayed in an older building that used to be a Men's Club because she was in overflow of people into rooms for a conference. It was unique and bizarre, because the doors were eight feet high and even the wall fixtures were very high up. It's worth noting that a hotel is not the same as a b&b or a ryokan, etc.

Any change in height or angle can really change our perception of a place. Adult heights tend to come in a much smaller range than those of children, and particularly so within a single culture. Our expected range of heights is smaller than the actual range of heights.

How do people learn not to see things? We notice things when they are new, and after a while our eyes gloss over them. There is a difference between not being taught to see something, and being taught not to see something. In China Mieville's The City and The City, people are taught not to see things right in front of them. We are taught not to look at homeless people when we encounter them. A change of environment will cause us to see things we might not in our most familiar contexts. If we go to a foreign country we are trying to watch for new languages, etc. so we pay attention to more things.

LaShawn noted that not everyone is the same, with the same opinions and experiences. This means you will notice different things. Kate remarked that you can be a relative outsider to an area even when everyone in the area is native to it. People also don't necessarily fit into the roles they have been assigned. When characters struggle with expectations, that teaches readers more about expectations.

It's helpful to try to understand secondary characters.

Kate brought up unreliable narrators. You can't necessarily orient reliably based on what is in a character's head.

My own view is that there's no such thing as a reliable narrator.

You can use situational irony to point up the unreliability of a narrator.

Kate noted that it's a problem when everyone sounds the same.

It's good to get multiple people to look at and critique a story while you are writing it, because different people will notice different things. People who don't usually read genre will be able to tell you if the genre conventions you are using are opaque to outsiders.

If you are writing in someone else's universe, you need to be able to speak the language of the people who live there. Star Wars people need to know Poe Dameron's idiolect. LaShawn told us that Mary Robinette Kowal was able to fool a whole bunch of people into thinking she was Patrick Rothfuss because she had studied his tweet style.

It's a really good idea to pay attention to language. It's our tool for writing, but it's also largely unconscious. People can't actually tell you what they will say in a given social situation; only what they think they ought to say.

Make sure you do your research. Kate can't stand it when someone has girl scouts "be prepared." (The Boy Scouts motto) The person who hypothesized about the Yucatán meteorite was not Luis Alvarez, but his son.

Know what you don't know.

Morgan noted that spoken and written language are very different, and it helps to read your dialogue aloud.

LaShawn said she looks at some of her early short stories and wonders, "Why did I pick this name?" Morgan noted that you often have to come up with a reason why someone is named something a bit unusual for their culture.

The blind spots and things you don't notice will change over time. If you have a new baby, you will be on the lookout for baby emissions, and if you have a toddler you will look for small people so you don't trip on them.

If you see someone wearing spurs in a grocery store,  (Kate did, and then later found herself post-riding in nearly the same situation) you can't really know the path someone took to get there. Be aware that there are things you can't know. Find experts to help you. Ask for the help of sensitivity readers, and pay them.

There isn't only one way for us to be who we are.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! I really enjoyed it.


S. Qiouyi Lu and As Dark as Hunger

It was a real pleasure to have S. come on the show! We got to talk about their story, As Dark as Hunger, which is now out in the latest issue of Black Static magazine.

This story takes place in a secondary world. S. told us that while Tolkien made his own language, they, like Paul Krueger in Steel Crow Saga, use existing world languages set into a context that is not the real world.

Since I'm a linguistics geek, of course we followed up on that immediately. The story features English, which S. refers to in the story context as Common; it also has Esperanto, called Komuna. Esperanto is a conlang originally designed to promote global communication and peace. It also uses Manchu, a language now known to have only 10 remaining native speakers as it has been supplanted by Mandarin. S. has some Manchu heritage in their family, and uses it for the mermaid language in this story, and uses the word for language/tongue to refer to it. They said it was fun to put together sentences. In the story world, the mermaid language has become isolated because mermaids are hunted, and that has contributed to additional divergence. S. uses different terms for the languages in the story because once you start referencing Earth terms, you have to assume Earth exists.

As they construct the world of the story, S. uses imagery of the bayous in the southeastern US, and of Asian riversides. There's the stench of the riverbank buildup, too. Smells trigger memory in really effective ways. S. told us that smelling a particular type of garbage or sewage smell makes them think "I miss Beijing." Smells can be difficult to describe but they are very powerful. S. is intrigued by the idea of scent as language. They said Pratchett's Discworld does a good job with scent and "werewolf smellovision."

There's a balance between having things readers can reference and understand, and things that are unique to a world. If you say "green as Nyquil," that implies the existence of Nyquil. If a particular word or language usage stands out, we say it's marked; if it doesn't, then it's unmarked. Using unmarked language can help sneak things under the radar for readers, but not all readers consider the same things marked or unmarked. For some readers, lotus flowers in a pond evoke an atmosphere and a scent.

S. told us about a story called "The Scent of Memory" by Zhao Haihong, in which a character who was kidnapped and doesn't remember his family uses perfume to restore his memory.

In "As Dark as Hunger," the main character lives a simple humble life fishing, but then her former lover comes to the village. Her lover wants to hunt mermaids, because people pay handsomely for them, but to find a humane way of doing it that won't kill them. S. told us that part of this conflict came from the conflicted feelings they have about shark fin soup. It's a celebratory dish, but cruel because it kills sharks.

S. told us that they struggle with xenophobia in the US, where there is an anti-China climate. They want to be able to defend their personhood without feeling obligated to defend Chinese politics they don't approve of.

In the story, there is a contrast between the village and the city. The village is downstream from the city, which pollutes its water. Talented people seek opportunity in the city, and children and the elderly are left behind. The city drains away the village's people. The main character has an ethical objection to hunting mermaids, but she does want a better life than the stinking river.

One of the major themes of the story is diaspora, of being removed from the motherland. While, in this story world, foxes can shapeshift back and forth many times, mermaids can only shapeshift from tail to legs once, and then can't change back. Their children are human. This is a metaphor for immigration and assimilation. One of the main character's ancestors made this change in order to keep her descendants from being hunted, but in so doing, closed a door that could not be re-opened.

The mermaid who ends up at the main character's house is fluent in mermaid tongue, but the main character herself only knows a few words. S. described how they are able to learn Mandarin, but there are things about Chinese culture that they can't ever grasp in spite of that learning.

Kat asked S. if this story featured any forcible conversion to the new culture.

The story does refer to the story of the main character's grandmother as her parents were trying to transform. The mother does it first with a haunting look of resentment. The grandmother ends up being part of a sort of 1.5 generation, of young children who came to a new culture with their parents. From the second generation on, it becomes hard to hold on to the language.

S. Qiouyi Lu's story "Mother Tongues" literalizes assimilation by featuring a mother who is literally selling her ability speak her heritage language. Like "As Dark as Hunger," it captures a feeling of yearning, the feeling "you're so close; you're almost there but not quite."

With people in the diaspora, there's still a hope that you can learn your culture, and open the door a little bit. The language is not forcibly diminished, but gradually replaced.

This is not exactly like language loss in indigenous groups. When you are looking at situations with indigenous culture, you see the links of culture being broken.

S. described growing up in Southern California with a significant Asian-American population where you could access tutoring in heritage languages. It would be a lot harder if you were the only Asian kid in your community.

The idea of spaceships could easily be matched with the themes of diaspora, but you don't often see them explored. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather takes up interesting questions in an intimate narrative with a larger conspiracy. S. said they liked how it explored religion as an arm of control, but it didn't really take on the question of colonization. Aliette de Bodard addresses questions of how culture permutates and varies. Lois McMaster Bujold asks what happens if culture is isolated.

S. told us they found the idea of Earth being destroyed as a default is quite depressing. They are glad solarpunk is growing.

As Dark as Hunger is part of a larger series of novellas that S. is still working on. The stories occur in the same world but are not necessarily linked. They are planning to link the stories together with a frame story about a cabinet of curiosities, in a similar way to Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

S. has created maps of this planet, and has some idea of the cultures on it. They are enjoying the opportunity to finish stories they had thought about for a while, set in different geographical places, with Earth cultures in an alternative context. One features necromancy, and a character seeking to do magic on his brother's ashes, but unable to succeed in China, goes to look for a bruja in Mexico. S. said this story was inspired by their childhood in a desert region. Another story features a girl with bound feet who creates a steampunk mech to move around without pain. It is inspired by the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia. It's a secondary world they explore piece by piece, seeing what fits.

S. told us they are very happy to see so many Asian-derived secondary worlds coming out now, like in J. Y. Yang's work, or like in Paul Krueger's Steel Crow Saga. One advantage of working in secondary world versions like this is you don't have to do extensive research on the real Chinese mythology because you can "make up stuff." There is less pressure to get it right. This generation is starting to show the influence of anime, manga, and Japanese roleplaying games rather than relying on the same Western genre background. S. finds it interesting to see people drawing on these influences.

S. told us they hated History in High School, but it was mostly because it was taught badly - too much big picture, and not enough knowledge of what was happening to various different groups. Chinese-American history is has fascinating pieces we don't know. Idaho used to be one quarter Chinese. S. likes exploring these lesser known histories as a good jumping off point for stories.

I asked S. about their background in Linguistics, and they explained they have a BA in Linguistics, and their favorite areas of linguistics were Sociolinguistics and Phonology. They enjoy grammar books and dictionaries. Wikipedia can often give you an overview of a grammatical system. You can look in language grammars for examples of words and sample sentences. Once you have these pieces, you then have to figure out how to change them for context. If you working with a language that has only ten native speakers, as S. was for this story, it's hard to reach out to verify things.

J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series doesn't include Earth language. The main character realizes they are nonbinary or trans. That person uses the masculine version of the pronoun "I."

Steel Crow Saga uses Tagalog, Chinese, and other languages. There is a character with a taboo against using the first person pronoun, so he uses the third person to refer to himself.

S. said they always wish there were more science fiction based on linguistics, especially sociolinguistics. There isn't often as much about diglossia, when there are two languages used. Some societies have had one language for written work, and another for spoken. Singapore has four national languages, used in different contexts. You can do a lot to stratify or deconstruct a society based on language.

We talked briefly about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language influences thought. The strong version of the hypothesis, which posits that language constrains thought, has been debunked. S. said they know Ted Chiang is a great writer because he based a whole story on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and S. didn't throw it across the room.

Paul asked how S.'s work as a translator has influenced their fiction. S. said the reverse was more true, that their fiction writing has helped them be a better translator. If you can't write well in the target language, translating a story will be difficult. Literature in different languages has different conventions. In Chinese literature it's not a faux pas to use a lot of adverbs. S. said they have to make a lot of decisions about translating phrases like "ran quickly" as "dashed." They try to balance editing and adapting for an English audience without losing the Chinese voice.

It's harder for them to translate into Chinese. There is stuff you can't look up in a dictionary. They would have to internalize vocabulary and writing conventions.

When asked if there should be a Hugo award for translations, S. argued that it is better to have translations integrated and listed alongside English-language works. There is an award in Japan for translated works, but so much there is translated that it makes sense. In addition, in the anglophone context, people already have the idea that translations are "different." A dedicated award might boost the profile of translated works, but might also turn people away. Having these works in the main Hugos shows that they compete.

Kat asked if S. comes under any pressure to create a flavor of Chineseness that is expected by anglophones. S. replied that individual translators have different styles, and some stories have more Chinese flavor than others. They quoted Ken Liu who said, "Authenticity is something other people use to describe your work." One interesting question S. runs into is whether to translate names into their literal meanings or not. Translating them is more "othering." S. has sometimes seen an interesting mixed approach used.

Thank you so much to S. Qiouyi Lu for being on the show, and to everyone who attended! This was a fascinating discussion.


Monday, November 11, 2019

Personal Habits

This is something of an underrepresented topic, but it's incredibly useful for world and character.

Do characters brush their teeth? How do they open and close doors? Do they slam them? Turn the handle and un-turn it afterward? How does the door open and with what kind of handle? Does it behave differently in different types of weather? Is it like a car door, where it has to slam? Do your characters make a mistake because they are accustomed to a sticky door when another door is less sticky?

What about going to the bathroom? Do your characters' clothes have zippers? Elastic? Buttons? What does that mean for getting in and out of clothes? Do they have socks with garters? What holds up your hosen? You can cut fabric on the bias if you want it to stretch a little, but how much does that affect the way you wear a garment? Kate notes that we don't thank the universe enough for Lycra.

Do you shut the door behind you or not? On a farm, you should leave a gate how you found it, or you might cause huge problems for livestock. Do you know how to go through a gate with a horse? There's a whole process involved. When you have farm animals involved, one mistake can cause a disaster. Kate asked, what if you need the gate open for the cows to come home, but you don't leave it open?

Morgan lived for a long time with cabinet doors that wouldn't close. Now they do, but people still don't close them.

Does your character close drawers? Why or why not? This will give you an insight into the character's style and thought processes.

My character Nekantor has obsessive-compulsive disorder, so his habits are really important to his character. A lot of our impressions of a character's habits have to do with what our expectations are. Do you expect a small person to have a small car? But what if they need a large car because they have horses and tack to carry?

Morgan says she likes looking over the steering wheel of an SUV to look at the road. Sometimes the advantage of a particular thing will diminish if everyone else has the same thing, as when everyone starts having large cars, or cars with fast acceleration.

Think about the size of the characters and how it affects their habits and interactions. Kate says she always ends up with the biggest horse, and it's ridiculous.

Do your characters shove their hands in their pockets? Do they have pockets? What do they carry in them? Does a character carry string? Or a worry stone? Or a knife?

How do people look at each other? Up or down? Can you see up the person's nose? Can you smell the person's armpits if you're short? Do people lean on a smaller person's head? Do people joke about height? Does a large person have careful habits to minimize size so as not to scare people?

Tall people in a small house will have to duck a lot. What about on a submarine? Or a ship?

Do you carry writing implements or paper with you? Sand, wax, or blotter? Do you have a barrel of sand handy to remove rust from your tools?

Morgan takes her keys and puts them in her purse before she exits the car to prevent herself from locking the keys inside.

Some habits are self-protective.

My character Adon has a lot of clothes-related habits. He changes clothes when upset, and analyzes people's attitudes based on their clothing.

Kate wrote about a bunch of aliens reacting to hearing a human describe how they lie to get laid. Normal-seeming things can become very weird if you step far outside your normal sphere.

Would carnivorous aliens have dental floss? Probably not.

How do people apportion food? Do they have moral reasons or ostensible health reasons why they would do that? How many vegetables do characters eat? Do they have meals at particular times? We have TONS of narratives and habits around food.

We also have habits related to what we talk about, when, and how.

Do you serve food in the kitchen or at the table? Who gets served first? Do you fill plates in an order? Do you eat standing at a counter with your laptop open? Do you eat fast or slow? Mercedes Lackey does a lot of interesting things about how people access food.

If you're hungry, should you offer everyone else food before you get your own?

What are your dietary habits like?

How do you manage permissions for boundary-crossing? In Mazes of Power, the Imbati ask permission before asking a question, and have a gesture specifically intended to get permission to touch someone.

Do we ask other people before we change the heat settings in a car? In the house?

Kate said when she visited Africa, the habit was to grab the forearm with a handshake. French people who are friends give kisses on the cheek, but which side goes first?

Remember that habits often take time. Sometimes they take other people's time.

Thank you so much to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, November 12 at 4pm Pacific.