Monday, December 29, 2008

Schoolhouse Rock: Pronouns

Last week I got the DVD compilation of Schoolhouse Rock from Netflix. This dates me, but I remember really well watching TV as a kid and hoping and hoping that one of those songs would come on, all the while never quite being able to track when they would appear. So having the DVD at home has exposed me to some songs I was familiar with, and also some that I've never heard before. Blast from the past for me, and my kids love it. Niall is constantly coming out with snippets of songs and information now. It's great fun.

My favorite song of the moment is the pronoun song. For those who may remember, it's entitled "Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla" and the most memorable line in it for me is "'cause saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down."

Needless to say, that got me thinking. In fantasy and science fiction there are a lot of tough names and concepts, and sometimes when I read I feel people are overusing nouns when I would prefer a pronoun. The trick of course is to have the pronoun link back properly to the noun so the reader can track it. ("It"=a pronoun linked back to "the pronoun" :) ) My son is working on tracking pronouns in his reading right now.

I would encourage people to look through their prose and track their hierarchy of reference. This just means how you refer to something when you introduce it the first time, refer back to it the second time, then the third time, etc. The most flexible element in this hierarchy is the straight pronoun, i.e. he/him/her/it etc. but there are also phrases using demonstrative pronouns like "this man" and "that alien" and of course there are definite noun phrases like "the alien" etc. Generally the complexity of the phrase undergoes a successive decline across the number of references, except when there is a possible confusion and you need to reestablish the reference in contrast to that.

This isn't the only thing that pronouns make me think of.

Since I have a language design workshop coming up in February, I'm going to start doing a few language design topics to get people thinking, and pronouns are wonderful things to play with. The English pronoun system says a lot about our concepts of individuality, gender, and relative position, for example. Compare our use of the word "I" with the Japanese pronouns for "I": we've got one pronoun and we use it all the time, while Japanese has more than six different ways of saying "I" but much of the time people don't use any of them at all. They just drop the subject of the verb completely and leave the listener to infer the information. The pronouns themselves vary depending on whether the speaker is a male or a female and how formal the situation is - demonstrating the importance of gender and formality in Japanese society.

So what do you do with pronouns if you've got a language of your own? Well, think about the social structure of the place and try to determine what identity parameters are important. Do your people think of themselves as individuals? Do they divide themselves primarily by gender, by some other criterion, or both? Do they consider the formality of the situation to be relevant in how they refer to themselves or others? Or are there other factors involved? For example, would they refer to themselves in one way in the presence of a member of an oppressor race, but in another when alone with their own kind?

The tiny little pronoun can do an enormous job in showing (not telling!) how the social structure of your world works.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Designing a Story

So Chicago has been great.  And busy.  And I'm still here, but I'll be flying back home on the 28th.  Being so busy having fun that I can't think straight does put a damper on my blogging, unfortunately.

Okay, so I've been designing a new story.  Making a sale tends to inspire me in that way.  I thought I'd share some thoughts.

When I do a linguistic/cultural story I tend to start with five questions (or so)

1.  What is the linguistic problem?
This is the toughest one.  What is the exact phenomenon that our linguist hero (whether it be his POV or not) is trying to pin down?  What is the punch line?  Without this, no story can work.

2.  Who are the aliens?
Here I'm talking about what kind of animal to base the aliens on.  Yes, you can design an alien from scratch, but it puts a huge processing demand on the reader.  If the nature of the alien is part of the central point of the story, then by all means go to the trouble of designing their physiology from the ground up.  A great example of aliens of this type is the story "Doctor Alien" by Rajnar Vajra, which appeared in the January/February issue of Analog.  I loved that story.  But because for me the way the aliens speak is the main issue, I don't want to send a lot of my reader's attention toward understanding the physical and physiological nature of the aliens.  Sometimes I like to select an animal that fits well with the language phenomenon I'm looking at, like wolves for status language.  Other times there isn't a really good parallel between an animal and a language phenomenon, so I can pick something else.  But after I pick an alien, I try to look at their diet and behavioral patterns so I can use that information to expand my understanding of how the aliens might live.

3.  What is the alien technology level?
This is one of those details that has to be pinned down, of course.  I like to try to make their technology real in an atypical way, by considering how the aliens make light, and what kind of objects they would keep in a home, etc.  This one has two sub-steps:  first designing the objects, and second, figuring out what they mean to the aliens.

4.  What is the plot?
Those who know me will laugh at this one, because honestly, the plot comes as number 3 or 4 in the list for me, every time.  Once I've got a sequence of events to work with, I continue tuning it throughout writing and rewriting.

5.  What is the language?
This is not the same as the language problem - it's the structure of the language, mostly the phonology and morphology.  That means the sounds and the way the sounds are put together.  I also have to know aspects of the language that relate to the language problem listed above, but this is where I have to figure out how the alien physiology meshes with the sounds they make, what words they might use in the context of the story, how the names and titles work, etc.

These are of course only the entry points.  But the nature of these stories is so complex that I can't just sit down and start something; I have to figure out this kind of stuff first.  I know I'm getting close to sitting down when I start hearing names and alien phrases in my head, and seeing a scene where two entities are talking to one another.




Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not far from the tree...

I went to my Ph.D. advisor's Christmas party last night. They're always potluck, and they're always fun, and they're always full of people who love to talk about what they're studying/researching/working on. Last night there were a lot of people working on language learning and technology. Lots of discussion of foreign countries and languages and cultural differences.

The great thing is, I still fit in with this group. My advisor and the folks there loved hearing about writing science fiction. Thing is, I'm still doing a lot of what I was doing then: working with foreign culture and subtleties of misunderstanding in communication; looking closely at language and analyzing it for how the message is delivered and all that. I told several people that I really have gotten where I am with my writing because I took Claire's (my advisor's) discourse analysis class. Yes, Claire said, but you also have the creativity and imagination.

I see her point, but the fact of the matter is, she really contributed something crucial to where I am today. I gave her a copy of Analog magazine containing my story, "Let the Word Take Me."

For the title and illustration page of that story, Dr. Stan Schmidt wrote an exceedingly astute summation, namely:

Language is more than just words. Sometimes much more.

Whether in academia or science fiction writing, fundamentally, that's what it's always been about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Exciting News!

I'm over the moon this morning, and I thought I'd share.

I just sold my second story to Analog Magazine!!!

Cold Words is a story that features the point of view of an alien dealing with Humans. I built the world and the language from the ground up, so it would probably interest my visitors, and my workshop participants as well. I don't yet know when it will appear, but I'll certainly make an announcement here when I know more.

I've also been giving some thought to when I might run my Language Design workshop, for those of you who are interested. What with the holidays and my writing schedule, I think the beginning of February might be a good time for it. I'll keep you posted, and in the meantime, I'll be posting more musings and Ridiculously Close Looks as you've come to expect.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Workshop: A Question for Participants

A comment that Catreona submitted today led me to ask this question:

Are you all interested in receiving direct critique on your revised work from

1. me?
2. other participants?

Please comment here and let me know. I had anticipated that other general worldbuilding topics might come up, and those are cool. I also always find for myself that a range of critique is very helpful. However, I didn't originally envision the workshop as a group critique session. So please do let me know your preference, and that will help me organize our wrap-up discussion.

Thanks! More soon...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Workshop: Revised Submissions

K had the great idea that I should put up a new post where people could put their revised drafts. So here it is - please put all the revised drafts under comments here so I can find them most easily.

More soon...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Workshop: Discussion of Revision Questions

Because the comments area on my earlier post got so crowded (yay!), and because I don't want questions or comments to get mixed in with my long question+manuscript posts, I'm starting another post here. Participants, if you have questions or discussion, please attach them as comments onto this post.

More soon...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Workshop: Detailed Questions

Before you go into the comments area and look at your questions, I'd like to say the following things about them. These are intended to spark thoughts for you about how to tune your excerpts - NOT as explicit instructions for changes.

You might want to look back at my blog posting titled "Critique and the Writer's Compass" for further discussion of what I mean, but I'll say it again.

These are not commands or explicit instructions. They are opportunities.

Follow your instincts for balance and tone. For example, if I have made similar comments in two different areas of the manuscript, and you feel that the issue is sufficiently addressed in one place and doesn't need to show up in the second, trust yourself.

Also, if you have questions about my questions, or don't know what I mean in any spot, please ask me. This is not a test and it is not a puzzle for you to solve. What I've tried to do as I read through these manuscripts is to point out places where things could be changed subtly to expand the sense of world, sometimes through clarification but many times just by the addition of an implication or two.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Workshop Next Steps

Thanks to all of you who have taken on the world questions and posted answers. I've read all your responses with great enjoyment and I'm going to take the weekend to put together some more specific questions for each of you. Just to give you a hint of what they will be, I'm going to try to formulate questions that will help you integrate the world knowledge of your point of view character into the 500-word excerpts that you've given me.

I'll make this clear again when I give you the questions, but I don't intend the individualized questions to be answered like the eleven you've been dealing with in the last couple of days, but instead I'd like you to use them as guides for fine-tuning your original submission pieces. Once all the revised versions are in, we'll discuss any questions or issues for going forward and that will be the end of the workshop.

My thought is to give you questions on Sunday or Monday and ask you to revise for Thursday the 18th. That would give us Friday for final discussion. I can't really go beyond that because I'm going to Chicago for Christmas.

If that time schedule sounds prohibitively tight for anyone, please let me know and I'll try to get you your questions earlier (I know K has a new baby in her schedule, for example).

Questions are welcome, as always. More soon...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An interesting link about plotting

I just thought you might be interested in this - a very good discussion of plot from J.A. Konrath's blog.

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My ulterior motive (Mwa-ha-ha-hahhh)

I see I've got some comments already telling me about the larger story context for these excerpts. Thanks so much for your speed, guys.

My plan is to use this material for a devious purpose. :-)

With well-developed worlds like the ones I'm seeing, very often writers develop their own world-related notes and research at home. For a novel-length piece, it might even get its own file on the computer. A world developer will probably have worked to answer some of the following questions:

1. What is the nature of the environment? Planet? Nation? Underwater world?
2. What is the climate? What are the physical dangers?
3. What is the geography where the story takes place?
4. How do people live? In cities? In an air bubble on an inimical world? What do their homes look like/feel like?
5. What is the political layout of the area where the story takes place?
6. What do people wear? How does this reflect the climate and their social status?
7. How do people move goods around? Is it easy to obtain supplies in this environment?
8. What do people eat?
9. What kinds of objects or substances have value? Is there an economy? What kind?
10. Are there regional differences?
11. Are there religious differences?

Obviously there are many more questions that can be answered, and some questions are more relevant to a story than others. On the other hand, while you wouldn't expect regional differences between the different areas of Mars in Bill's piece, you might discover that the characters come from different regions of Earth, and that could conceivably have bearing on the plot. Which is just to say, think about all the possible ways that these world details can influence the story before ruling any of them out completely.

In this workshop, I didn't want to work with world descriptions so much as world demonstrations. So now that we've considered knowledge sets in each piece, I want to zero in on something else.

Consider how your world saturates your point of view character.

Let's take the questions above and put them differently, from the protagonist's point of view.

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

Changing these questions from general world questions into personal protagonist questions can deeply change the way you write about your world. This is why I have asked you to tell me about the point of view character and the main conflict. Once I have all the descriptions in hand I'm going to go off and think, but I'd like you guys to start thinking too, because I'm planning to give each of you a set of questions geared to your particular piece, and in the end I'm going to ask you to make changes to your text.

Here's the central issue:

Think about who your main character is, and what that person's goals are in this scene that you've given me. What does he or she want? Then think about how that person's goals relate to the world that you've created and the personalized questions above. Why does he or she want it? What value does it have, and why? What is standing in the way of him or her getting it?

The goals of the protagonist, and the worldview that lies behind him or her, including any specialized knowledge or experience in his or her untold backstory, will influence the protagonist's judgment of everything.

So to summarize what happens next: once I have a sense of the main character and the main conflict from everyone, I'll post a set of questions for each of you that relates specifically to your own piece, and we'll see where we can go from there.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Knowledge Sets - advantages and disadvantages

Thank you to the participants who have responded about posting their work. I'm putting the pieces up in the comment section of the Workshop Participants area, for those who would like to see them.

I want to talk a little about using knowledge sets, by which I mean using words in your manuscript to access interrelated pieces of knowledge in a reader's mind. Knowledge sets are powerful tools for setting expectations, and because of that, they can be a really big advantage - or a really big disadvantage - to the writer who uses them.

In this workshop group the person with the most easily and completely accessed knowledge set is Bill Moonroe, with his mars explorer piece. The minute we hear the "giant leap for mankind," we're set. We can imagine the moon lander, the astronauts and their gear - let's face it, the entirety of human history up to this point. This lets us feel grounded immediately with a sense of "I know where I am," and it also frees us up to stop paying attention to certain things.

Our reader antennae, which have been reaching out for clues, start to focus in and look for what is new about this situation. Bill then has the job of making sure that what is new is fully in focus. The space suits, for example - he says the woman's suit accentuates her figure. This makes a reader pause momentarily and revise the worldview established by the existing set. He also talks about the Second Space Age. This changes the game considerably, but there's not much sense of what it means in the current piece. Yes, we'll learn more as we read more, but I think even in a short beginning bit like this one there are great opportunities to demonstrate what it means. More on that later.

Along with the responsibility to make clear what is new, there is another thing to watch out for with a very complete knowledge set, and that is, not everyone who reads the piece may be in possession of every part of the set. This is an issue that has to do with how broad the appeal of the story will be. Because I am not well versed in space history, the name Squyreston doesn't ring any bells for me (also, could "pulling a Ford" be related to this?). Without the expert background knowledge of Bill and Ryan, a reader might become confused.

On the other end of the set spectrum we've got David Marshall's underwater piece. There isn't much of a comfortable set to be had here - and in fact, that discomfort is probably intentional. I personally love to create an alien point of view that really makes people rethink what they know. But it has the disadvantage that it may create confusion. It may be a testament to my lack of sleep, but it took me several readings to figure out what the "Lesser Void" and "Greater Void" were, and what the protagonist was actually doing.

Yes, this is great stuff: creating a mind that labels things we find familiar in an unfamiliar way. But the job of the author then becomes that of dropping hints of orientation that will allow us to comprehend the analog being used. I'm thinking that in this case the addition of directions, up and down in particular, would be informative. A sense of the size of the "veil" might also help to orient a reader. When most of the terms are unfamiliar, people will jump more slowly to accept a very complete set. It is important to include as much of the familiar as you can to evoke the set you want.

Even a very few words can be enough to evoke a set. Kerry Thompson expressed some surprise that I would pick a Victorian English knowledge set for her sailing piece. For me it wasn't the sailing that evoked that set for me, but the names of the two men, and the way that they spoke to one another. By the time I got to "my dear fellow," the set was in place, and this was one reason why I guessed fantasy for her piece rather than science fiction.

If you ever end up with a set that is doing something you don't want it to (as in this example, evoking fantasy and not sf), you've got two options: either ground the set, i.e. talk about the planet Nova Britannia and how it was settled by Englishmen; or break the set intentionally. Breaking the set involves choosing and integrating some distinct differences that will stand out and change the reader's expectations, much as with Bill and his slimline space suits.

I'll give a little example from my own work. My Varin world has a complex caste system which is not at all feudal, but which can appear to be so at first glance. So though Varin is a high-technology world, I've had many test readers say the technology took them by surprise. So what I have to do is every time I start a Varin piece, I have to make sure to place the setting and technology in plain view as early as possible. I break, or defeat, the set. If I don't, the set will continue to work against me.

In Ryan's piece, I find myself suspecting a set - the Andean set - because of the people's names and the scenery description - but I don't feel certain. This is in part due to the use of the fantasy bird, pharu. It puts me on my guard for differences, and makes me want just a little bit more information to justify or defeat my suspicions. As the story goes on we may get more information to sway us one way or another, but we'll still be looking out for pieces of the Andean set, and for differences.

In K's piece we've got layered sets. The technology she mentions will cause us to anticipate other types of related technologies - all good. We've got enough unfamiliar information that we don't assume this is earth, and the relation between it and earth can remain a mystery. It's not critical to know the relation precisely at this point. Yes, K has chosen to use words like car and ComBud, which use familiar concepts, but this works to our advantage in visualizing them. There's no point in labeling them in an unfamiliar way simply because they are not earth-related; we can consider them translated for our purposes. Because the technology is not critically in question here, it's fine to leave those things under the radar. More intriguing is the question of the words "linked" and "psychic." Those words evoke some very strong associations, both in our world, and in the history of fantasy and science fiction writing. If this world has a unique combination of mental abilities, and if it impacts on the plot (which it already does here, in the form of the distinction between regular people and Corpa, and in people's behavior and morals), then this is probably a context where defeating the typical sets is recommended. Giving details and specifics about the way the linked affect works, for example; even possibly staying away from the most commonly used words to describe mental powers.

My final note for today has to do with knowing too much. The more time you spend in your world, the more it will tend to resolve into sets for you - which is to say, that words and phrases local to your world will evoke other aspects of that world for you. The trick is, it won't necessarily do the same thing for a reader who doesn't share your extensive knowledge base. I have this problem all the time. This is partly why it's so important to me to have "naive" readers who are unfamiliar with the world I'm using. They have a unique perspective on the issue of world entry, and whether I've made it reasonably easy, or unreasonably difficult.

In the earliest parts of a piece, the knowledge sets you rest on are either real-world sets, or sets that come from a reader's previous experience in the genre. What I've been talking about here is how to tune those so they start to become the sets you need for your own world. Pay special attention to the sets that will be directly applicable to the main conflict of your story, beause a reader's understanding of the whole story may rest on how the relevant set is established.

Participants, by Friday can you please give me a brief description of the main conflict of your story, what your protagonist's role will be in it and where this scene stands relative to it. Please also tell me the approximate length of the story, i.e. short, novella, or novel.

Thank you so much! Questions and comments are always encouraged. More soon...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sets Engaged, Questions in Focus

I've got five very interesting pieces in front of me, and since I'm waiting to hear back from the writers about sharing their work, I'm going to start by talking about initial impressions and the expectations that are set up for me in each piece.

From K Richardson we have a high-technology world with shielded vehicles and telephones (ComBuds), microphones and surveillance. It's not earth, though, because it everyone is expected to be psychic and have "linked affect." My sense is that the two are not linked in this universe at all (tell me if I'm wrong!), and that familiar technologies on this world are not related in any way to their analogues on our own world. I'm seeing politics, with the Presidi; I'm seeing higher power, with the Collective. I'm seeing something like police, with the Corpa. As yet these terms are used unquestioningly, as terms known to the protagonist, Lison. This is consistent with an insider point of view, but I would expect to learn more going onward. I'm curious, though, as to what the structure of dwellings is - this will tell me some things about how people organize themselves and what expectations of privacy are. In a world of psychics, this seems highly relevant.

From Ryan Anderson we have a lower-technology world, where goods are carried up mountains on llama-back, and people travel on foot or on large birds called pharu. The presence of the pharu points me toward identifying this as a fantasy world (tell me if I'm wrong!). The protagonist, Curo, appears to be heading into a political plot with the Choque, who may be invaders or may simply have annexed Curo's native territory. We have terrace agriculture carried out by peasants, and the Emperor's tower, so a good view of the social structure in the infrastructure. Another view out to the Flatlands is less clear in its significance. I'm curious as to what Curo's social position is precisely, and what exactly his goals are relative to the Emperor. The names and places suggest an Andes-analogue location. As yet I see no indication of belief in a greater power. I'm curious about about what the people are wearing, which might show climate and also hint their social status.

From Bill Moonroe we have an earth future, as indicated clearly in the first paragraph with a reference to Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind." This has some advantages, as the technology set is generally well-known. Elements of this technology can be anticipated, and they're also expected to have advanced - so we see images on the face-plates of the space suits that can fade in and out, and suits that are light enough to accentuate a woman's figure. These particular people are landing oan Mars. There is much reference to light gravity and to red dust. The characters refer to the Second Space Age, and to someone called Squyreston, who perhaps has been there before and less successfully. The protagonist, Perry, tries to protect his female colleague from falling but doesn't want to offend her dignity. I'm curious as to what happened in the First Space Age and how that might resonate in the goals of this crew; also as to how much time has passed, and how that might have affected gender relationships like those demonstrated by Perry.

From Kerry Thompson we have a world with islands and travel by ship, clearly indicated by the word "astern" in the first sentence. I conclude that it is a fantasy world based on the combination of unfamiliar place names like "Falibar" and "Splangliborn" co-occurring with very English-sounding personal names like "Morrow," "Shepherd," and "Miss Emma." I'm assuming this juxtaposition is intentional (tell me if I'm wrong!). This appears to be an English, possibly Victorian, cultural set which brings an array of expectations with it for behavior, belief systems, etc. although divorced from the typical geographical considerations. I'm curious where the story starts, because it was hard for me to tease apart the shipboard location and the grain-merchant's office location (a switch indicated only by tense change with "had" instead of plain past tense). I'm also curious about Shepherd's background. He could always have worked as a sailor and that may have influenced his worldview; or it could be that everyone in this world sails from an early age and so he has an entirely different source of income and a much easier life story. There's little indication here of politics on a larger scale, though some is hinted in the tension between the sailor and the grain merchant.

Finally from David Marshall we have a non-human protagonist with a head and shoulders but "anemone gills" and "hearts," who lives in a watery place where a veil lies between her home in the Great Reef and a place called the "Lesser Void." This one comes with an submarine climate set, implying certain types of ocean inhabitants - these include "bloodrays," "kraken," and "sandlurkers." I'm curious about the general physiology of the arcati race, particularly in the tail end. Coughing implies lungs, and I'm not sure whether she has both lungs and gills or not. There's a belief system here, in the form of a tentacled Eater of all Life who eats the Sun every night. I'm curious whether this entity is merely legendary or at least partly real; this could be an issue in the story. I'm also curious about the nature of the veil and the precise relationship between the livable water world, the veil, the Lesser Void, and the sun. I'm also curious about why our protagonist would be interested in peeking into the unlivable water on the other side of the veil.

I'm enjoying all of these, and we've got some great stuff to work with and explore. Again, please ping me to tell me "okay" or "not okay" on posting the content of your piece (I'd probably do it in the comments area). These are my first impressions; feel free to comment or ask me any questions you have about what I've said here. Seeing these has got me thinking about knowledge sets: above we've already got some climate sets, technology sets, and cultural sets.

More soon...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Workshop Participants

Thank you to everyone who submitted story excerpts. I will be working with the following people this time:

1. David Marshall
2. Bill Moonroe
3. Kerry Thompson
4. Ryan Anderson
5. K Richardson

I hope all of you are okay with me posting parts of your work on the blog. If you're not, please let me know right away.

More soon...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Critique, and the Writer's Compass

I'm thinking about critique today.

No single thing has been more critical for my progress as a writer. Showing my work to other people and asking what they think helps me to step back from the words and look at them from the outside. I can work and work and make a story the best I think it can be, but then when I show it to others I find my eyes opened to entirely new parameters of consideration. This is why I always, always have my work critiqued before I submit it anywhere.

Taking critique is an acquired skill. It's not just a matter of listening to someone tell you what they think you should do with a story, and then doing it. If that were all, then you'd never have a finished product, because everyone who reads it has different tastes, different preferences, and brings something different to their reading of the story. You'd just get pushed around. This is why it's important to have what I call the Writer's Compass.

The Writer's Compass is basically an instinct that holds onto your own idea for what you want the story to do. You want character A to come across as sympathetic. Or you want the city to be impressive. Or you want the scenery to be bewilderingly complex. When you set down a first draft, you make your first shot at achieving an effect, and you (hopefully) achieve it at least partially.

Then people start to critique. Remember that a great deal of the meaning of a story does not come from the story itself, but from the mind and experience of the reader. A reader will say, "I'm confused." Or they'll say, "I pictured him with black hair." Maybe they'll say, "The dialog sounded stilted to me." Or "I don't like him/this whole story."

This is part of where writers develop their thick skins. The other part is of course from the editors who say the same kind of things, along with the words "alas" or "I'm sorry."

But let's not think about editors yet - or at least, consider them as another voice in the process of critique. Say you wanted a particular effect, and you didn't achieve it for one of your readers. The next step is not to do what they think you should do. The next step is to try to figure out why they said what they said. Dig in and analyze the critique along with the manuscript. They may have pictured a character with black hair simply because you didn't specify his hair color early enough. Or because they found dark elements in his character. They may have felt the dialog was stilted because of the dialect that you used when writing it. Or because there was something unnatural about the situation in which the dialog occurred, which made the words themselves come out oh-so-slightly funny.

What I'm trying to say is that the effect you want to achieve should never be forgotten, and a critiquer isn't always going to suggest exactly the way to get there. So evaluate your manuscript with an eye for the difference between what you wanted, and what the reader wanted, and try not to say, "They just didn't get it." Try to ask yourself, "Why didn't they get it?"

It's a hard question to ask, but if you can find the answer, sometimes it can raise the story to a new level.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Some thoughts on Meter

I'm talking about poetic meter. You know, what we learned when we learned Shakespeare, mostly iambic pentameter, but also spondaic tetrameter or trochaic hexameter or any of those other bizarrely named things.

Here's a brief review of a few terms, with examples.

foot: a set of grouped syllables that form the most basic unit of a metrical pattern.
iamb: a foot with one weak syllable followed by one strong syllable. x X "She comes."= 1 iamb
trochee: a foot with one strong syllable followed by one weak syllable. X x "Hit her." = 1 trochee
spondee: a foot with two stressed syllables. X X "Bob Smith" = 1 spondee
anapest: a foot with two weak syllables followed by one strong one. x x X "He has gone to the edge of the road."= 3 anapests
dactyl: a foot with one strong syllable followed by two weak ones. X x x "Gone are the days of the foresters."= 3 dactyls

Meter is not just for poetry and Shakespearean plays.

Whether in poetry or prose, meter is all about flow - the feel of the language as it streams by. I read a discussion on the Absolute Write forum recently which concerned the difference between "on" and "upon" and which should be used in a particular context. My own sense came far more from an instinctive desire to align the meter of the sentence in question than from a general preference for "upon" versus "on."

It is often said that the natural meter of English is iambic. This is because we generally like our sentences to have an alternating pattern of strong and weak syllables. I have a character I'm working on who speaks entirely in iambic pentameter, and while he does sound archaic at times, my goal is not to have any of his lines come across as ta-TUM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM. Fortunately, there is some flexibility in the metrical rules which allows for the occasional foot with reversed stress, and the occasional extra syllable.

Here's a random couplet of iambic pentameter (totally unrelated to my novel!) which doesn't sound much like poetry to me:

"In utero, the baby undergoes a lengthy process of uneven growth."

By altering this natural rhythm, you can achieve effects that act a lot like onomatopoeia. In action and situations of stress you can use strong syllables to break flow intentionally: a few trochees and spondees can go a long way. This is one of the things that can help you create the effect of a regional accent, for example, without requiring extensive alterations of spelling.

When I'm looking for a voice for an alien, I make sure to consider the meter of his or her speech, even if I don't use that meter strictly in the alien viewpoint. The gecko-girl Allayo (Let the Word Take Me) spoke in an unmeasured meter that I based on the intonation of sacred readings, because that fit well with the fact that she considered her language to be sacred. When I thought about designing a wolf alien, I tried to use anapests to influence the dialogue so that the speech would come across in a loping rhythm.

All right, that's enough for now. I'll let you go have fun with it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

If Aliens were like Cats

Right off the top of my head I can think of two examples of aliens based on cats: Larry Niven's Kzin, whom I've read about in Paul Chafe's novel, Destiny's Forge, and Anne McCaffrey's Hrruban from Decision at Doona.

There's something about cats, isn't there? Having two new kittens at my house, I can testify to this.

Okay, so what about making them into a group of aliens?

My thought is this: don't stop with physiology and its immediate consequences.

With the feline physiology you get great hunting capabilities and a carnivorous diet. But in case you were thinking that these aliens would only eat raw meat, think about the little kitties eating kibbles in your house. If they have an advanced society, they would also have a sophisticated sense of cuisine, at least among the wealthy. Maybe raw meat would be a delicacy - or maybe it would be associated with poverty, because these people couldn't afford fire to cook. Either way, it should have a localized cultural meaning.

So then, what about social structure? A lot of times people will come up with structures that are elaborate and cool but somewhat arbitrary relative to the species in question. That's fine, as long as you can make your felines fit into it without going against their native ways (and you can always alter the felines!). However, if you want to match more closely, you could always work with a very social group of felines, like lions. They've got prides with dominant males and hunting females; that would be fun to work with.

I'm going to challenge myself a little by working with housecats - or at least, a group of cats that is very territorial, typically not hanging with other cats unless they are siblings or mates. This can still translate into a societal structure for a civilization.

Imagine a society of semi-nomadic feline hunters that guarded its core territory, yet possessed a superstructure of civilization and government based largely on the interactions of mates and siblings. An individual would have a compound where he/she lived with a mate and their juvenile children, but siblings would be welcome and would probably live in territories nearby. Those territories would be linked to the first by blood ties to create small interlocked communities. Intergroup marriages would take on great importance, especially between larger linked groups - like the marital interactions of the European royals. At the same time, siblings would have very close relationships and would add to the possible links. It might be that the only way to get "into" a rival group would be to marry off one of your daughters or sons, because then that other group would not be able to deny access to that person's siblings, and thus information might travel.

I can see thorny political plots growing already. And therein lies the story.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Welcome to the Worldbuilding Workshop!

Here it is, as promised...

Let me first extend congratulations to all the NaNoWriMo participants. Whether you hit your 50K or not, it looks like every one of you I've seen has taken some significant strides in their writing. It's a cool endeavor, and one I could never manage myself. I'll try to go easy on you.

I've decided to start with worldbuilding, and then once the worldbuilding part is done, to continue on into language design. At that point, anyone interested in language design can join, or if you would like to continue in the context of a world you've been working on in this workshop, you may feel free to do so.

Here's what we'll do. I'm going to ask any of you who are interested in participating in the worldbuilding workshop to submit a 500-word scenelet to me in my Comments area by December 7th. This scenelet should have the following characteristics:

1. It forms the beginning of a story or novel. (This does not mean it has to be the beginning in your final draft, but I want you to assume that the reader has no prior information.)
2. It has a protagonist and a main conflict, i.e. it is not simply a description of the world you're working with.
3. It demonstrates the characteristics of the world and situates the reader.

I will be reviewing the comments before they are posted publicly, so your work will not automatically appear to public eyes. I'm hoping we can get some examples out in the main sections of the blog as I pick topics to discuss, but I don't want anyone to worry about premature exposure of their text!

I will then post blog discussions and expect all participants to comment and push their worldbuilding forward. Because I will be "digging in" and being very involved in the work that is submitted, I will need to keep the number of participants to five. Given that I had four people express interest, that should be possible... I'm hoping not to have to turn anyone away, but I must keep my sanity. I hope that if anyone misses out they'll get a chance to do this with me on another occasion.

Please feel free to comment with any questions you have, or contact me at the address in my left navigation bar. I'll look forward to seeing your ideas by December 7th!

Juliette