Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A different value: alcohol

I've heard it said that every society in the world has some sort of intoxicant. Alcohol is a big one worldwide. What brought it to mind for me today was a link that a friend passed on to me, about a group of researchers in England who are trying to find a healthier substitute for alcohol. They're working to find a substance that would cause pleasant inebriation, but wouldn't poison people or cause hangovers, wouldn't cause emotional swings or addiction, and which could be counteracted rapidly by an antidote that could be given at any time. The article is here.

I imagine the consequences of substituting that stuff into alcoholic drinks. Now, that's science fiction. There's an entire culture, or two, or three, or more, surrounding alcohol consumption. Substitution would require an enormous revision. Lots of money and lives saved, first of all. Lots. But I could also see plenty of push-back. Where is the hard edge that you're perceived to have, as an alcohol drinker? If you need that perception of risk and danger, where will you buy it?

I suspect there would be instant upheaval followed by a longer-term shift in cultural perception. Who knows whether a shift like that could be successful on the long term, or where it would land the largest segments of the population.

But it's worth considering the value that we place on alcohol and other intoxicants. I'll remind new readers that when I say value, I don't mean "values" in an ideological sense, and I don't mean good or bad. Alcohol plays a role in our culture, different from the role it plays in other world cultures in some subtle ways. I remember being surprised when I visited France by the difference in the way alcohol consumption was treated. I remember thinking at a certain time in my life that people wouldn't go as crazy on their 21st birthday if alcohol weren't treated as such an awful taboo, and thereby given such incredible cachet. Who knows - maybe they would, but I suspect it wouldn't be nearly such a big deal.

Let me remark that there are excellent physiological reasons for age restrictions on alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious problem, surrounded by its own patterns of behavior. But it's interesting to me to watch movies and take a look at how the consumption of alcohol is portrayed in different ways. I believe there has been a shift in our perceptions of alcohol consumption, because for years and years - from Shakespeare's Stefano up to Uncle Waldo in the Aristocats - the drunkard was portrayed as an amusing clown. I don't see that image any more. The scientific recognition of alcoholism as a disease has changed that. There are still plenty of movies where you have party behaviors and binge drinking, etc. but even there it's no longer seen as solely amusing. The sense of risk is there, I think, even if the pathos and the real danger are not.

If you were creating a society, would you include alcoholic drinks or other intoxicants? It seems likely. I wonder if it might be fruitful to consider changing their value. Ask, for example, for whom the alcohol might be most attractive, and to whom it might be most readily available (possibly not the same group). Does the society have alcoholism? How does that express itself at different levels of socioeconomic status? Does it have locations dedicated to the consumption of alcohol? How are they accepted or perceived by others? Does alcohol consumption have a classy side and an ugly side, as it does for us? What form might that take?

There's lots of potential there for interesting stories.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Metabolism and Daily Time Organization

Did you ever think about the workday? 9-5, they typically say, even though there's generally an additional half-hour to an hour included for lunch, which changes things around a bit.

Now think about the things that can cause variation in this schedule. There are places where work has to continue 24 hours per day, so that people come in in shifts. There are places which have a lot of connections in a different time zone, so they shift their daily schedule earlier or later to have better rapport with the other location(s). There are places where the lunch hour is extra long to accommodate the main meal at noon, or the main meal plus a nap (potentially).

Of course, it wasn't always an eight-hour day. Historically, people used to work brutal hours - fourteen hours a day, etc.

Humans have the ability to keep working for long periods of time. This makes sense given our size, our warm-bloodedness, etc. We have our ebb moments, which are ideal for siesta time.

What might change that?

I look around at the animals of the world for inspiration. Tiny mammals like mice tend to have very high energy for short periods of time, and then flop down for a rest, and then go back at it. Cats have incredibly high intensity sometimes, but sleep a lot. Some animals have stamina for hours, and some don't.

This is useful to consider, because for whatever world you're creating, it's good to consider how they organize their daily time. Especially if you're dealing with aliens, it might be useful to ask yourself how their energy levels translate into work patterns. The difference between a nocturnal creature and a diurnal creature is obvious, but there are more subtle things you can do to make a big difference.

As my friend Janice recently asked me when I was working on something for my otter story, "These are otters. Why would they sit while working?"

It was a wake-up question. I'd recently seen a video of a baby otter playing with toys in someone's home, and one of the things the film said was that the human was a specialist working with the otter while it was out of its natural enclosure - not someone keeping the thing for a pet. If you'd seen the energy of this thing, you'd see why. It would get bored one day and tear your house apart.

Mind you, my aliens are big, and this tends to change metabolic rates (whales and elephants move more slowly than rats and mice!). However, I figure they could still be on the otter side of the metabolic pattern relative to humans, and come across as very energetic.

It changed the way I thought about the organization of their days, and also about the organization of their work spaces, and all kinds of things.

I encourage you to consider this if you're doing something similar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A nice mention from Rich Horton...

Here's the quote:

I thought these were the best novelettes from Analog this year: Stephen Baxter's "Formidable Caress" (December), David Bartell's "Cavernauts" (March), Dave Creek's "Zheng He and the Dragon" (January-February), Craig De Lancey's "Amabit Sapiens" (November), Juliette Wade's "Cold Words" (October), Jesse L. Watson's "Shallow Copy" (October), Howard V. Hendrix's "Monuments of Unageing Intellect" (June), Mark Rich's "Foe" (April), and Shane Tourtellotte's "Evergreen" (September). [bold added :-)]

Thanks, Mr. Horton!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Two Non-English Languages

This post is in answer to Meg's question about using two non-English languages in a story - thanks for the question, Meg!

First, some general orientation. We're not talking in this case about using world languages, or speakers of existing world languages, in a story full of English speakers. That would be an entirely different issue. This is a case of two fantasy populations, each of which has its own language.

When fantasy populations have their own languages, this means that no readers have any hope of finding a dictionary to allow them to understand the languages the author has created. I have done this before, and I generally referred to the difficulty with using such languages as "the translation problem."

Question 1. How much do you render in the language, and how much in English?

I've addressed this question before, but the basic metric is this: the more of your created language you use, the more alienated your reader will feel. So if you're working with an Earth traveler among aliens, and you want to emphasize that person's sense of alienation and confusion, use more of the alien language. But if you're working with a point of view inside a population of speakers of the created language, then use more English translations of the words in question, and only a minimum of the created language's vocabulary.

Think about it this way. You are teaching your reader every vocabulary word you choose to use. This requires reader effort, and you don't want to overload them so much that they can't follow the story.

So here we are. In Meg's case, she's working with the point of view of a speaker of a fantasy language.

Question 2. How do you deal with the internal pov of a person who is not an English speaker?

I'll call this the one-language problem. Assume that everything that occurred in her native environment happened in her native language, and its cultural context. She's multilingual, but for the sake of simplicity I'll assume that her thought patterns were primarily influenced by her native language. The way you write the English for her will not sound like the English you would write for a native speaker of modern English (obviously). It should use the metaphors, concepts, manners, and cultural sensitivities of a native speaker of the language she speaks. I call it the translation problem because you want it to look something like a translation of her native language into English, rather than just English.

Now, when I work with alien languages in my short stories, I take the "translation" further, and try to make alterations in the structure of the English I use, to reflect the use of the alien language. This requires a sense of what the structure of the created language is, and how that structure might influence the speaker's use of English - but I don't necessarily recommend it in this case. You're working on the inside, in a fantasy context where the main character should probably be considered "home base" for the reader. So I think that any significant grammatical alterations would probably be too distracting.

So in Meg's case, the first step I'd probably take is working out how her main character's speech would come across based on her native language. Forget for a minute about the second language issue, because if you can figure out how her native language will influence her English, that's going to be roughly what you need to discover how her native language influences her use of the other language. Especially since both will be written in English anyway.

Now, if you're working with a second language that the protagonist doesn't understand, you can simply have them not understand it, or partially understand it. That is, if you're using a close point of view (either first person or close third person).

But Meg has a protagonist who understands and speaks the second language. So that leads us to....

Question 3. What do you do when you have a second non-English language?

Once you've established your "base" for Language 1, start looking at the other language. Pick an antagonist (because in Meg's case, the second language is the antagonist's language) and go through the one-language process again, for the other language. What concepts, metaphors and other features of Chirrith are going to show up when a Chirrith speaker speaks in English? Establish your "base" for Language 2 the same way you did for Language 1. (This can actually work for more than two languages also.)

Great. Now...

Question 4. How do you work with the two?

The good news is, you may already be done. Once you have the "Language X in English" pattern, then the Vas'her pattern in Chirrith is going to look a lot like the Vas'her pattern in English - because after all, you are writing this all in English. All you need are cues here and there, when they become relevant. When they become relevant will be the moment when the protagonist becomes aware of which language she's speaking in contrast with the other. If the protagonist has lost her memory, this may take a while!

It is important, however, to make the different languages as immediately distinguishable as possible. For this purpose, you might want to consider one more tool: intonation and meter. The distinction between the language concepts and metaphors is going to show, but may not be immediately evident in every line. If you want to push the difference further, consider picking an intonational pattern to associate with one or the other - possibly, in this case, a Vas'her intonational pattern that would mark her speech as different from that of the people around her.

The only thing I don't think you should do - at all! - is try to translate between Chirrith and Vas'her. I've tried translating directly between French and Japanese, and it was confusing and difficult. Especially since both of the languages are products of your own creation, I'd encourage you to move away from thinking of them as languages to be spoken, and start thinking about them as templates to influence your use of English. Relating one variety of English to another is something native speakers do almost on a daily basis. It will probably be much easier.

I encourage responses and questions!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Now, this is marvelous!

Here's a wonderful blog entry about drawing portraits of great apes - gorillas and chimpanzees. The portraits are wonderful, but what makes me laugh with delight is the way the artist has learned appropriate nonverbal behavior to be polite to these apes so they'll pose for the sketches.
Marvelous!

It's here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An article that might inspire your worldbuilding

I'm pushing very hard on finishing a story right now, so I'm going to make this a short post. This morning I was directed to a really interesting article called "Why Are Europeans White?" The article doesn't have anything to do with races as social groups, but discusses why it is that skin pigmentation is so light in the region surrounding Europe. A hint: it has to do with successful pregnancies, UV light, eating cereals, and ocean currents.

For the details, here's the link.

This is interesting to me in part because it looks at planetary environmental factors, and biological factors, in a human characteristic that clearly has enormous influence on social behavior.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Any questions or requests?

I did this once earlier in the history of my blog and got resounding silence, but I thought I might try again now that I have a few more regular visitors!

I invite you to ask me questions or make requests for topics in my comments area. Questions can be about any post in the archive, about linguistic or cultural topics, about my writing or about how I got my agent. I'll also consider suggestions for ridiculously close looks (though whether I do them will depend on whether I can access the book!).

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Scene breaks and hand-offs

My adventures with my latest story have led me to contemplate the question of scene breaks and hand-offs. By this I mean evaluating possible breaking points to see which one would serve the story best, and trying to determine how effective a change of point of view would be at those different points.

There are a lot of ways to handle scenes, and stories. I'm thinking of Mike Flynn's story, "Where the Winds are All Asleep," which involved a story told by a person in an Irish pub - that had a whole frame of the pub setting and then broke up the story itself with elements of the pub interaction. This is to say that I'm not saying every story should have the scene structure I'm about to discuss - I'll just put my musings out here in case anyone else does find them useful.

My short stories tend to have seven scenes. I couldn't tell you why, but both of my Analog stories were like that, and the next one is turning out that way as well. I've been doing short stories for a few years now, and I pay quite a bit of attention to scene breaks and what lies to either side of them: first sentences, and last sentences.

I was sharing first sentences with my friend K yesterday and we discovered that if I listed all the first sentences of each of my scenes, that it gave a decently good outline of what was happening in the progression of the story. Given that I like my first sentences to propel readers directly into the next piece of the main conflict, that makes a degree of sense.

A list of my scene-ending sentences didn't have the same outline-like quality. The reason for this, I think, is that last sentences don't need to function as orientation devices (as first sentences do). The main function of last sentences is to make a reader desperately want to read the first sentence of the next scene. This is something I learned from my friend Janice Hardy: your last sentence should make the reader curious. It doesn't have to be a cliffhanger, necessarily, but it needs to show forward momentum.

This is where I get to the question of a breaking point. If you write, you've probably encountered those places where a scene just seems to stop and not want to go any further - or to feel strained if you try to push it beyond that point. I find that ideal breaking points tend to be places where the tension of the scene has just ramped up. Something big has just happened, and we desperately want to know what its consequences will be, so what better place to stop and take us directly to the consequences? [Mind you, this is also why you shouldn't cut off at a point of high tension and then take us directly to something unrelated that happens much later!]

A breaking point, if you choose to use it as the official end of your scene, then leads you to a hand-off. This is what I mean by jumping to the consequences. You're handing off the baton from one scene to the next, switching the momentum so the story will keep driving forward. There are a lot of ways this can be handled, depending on the narrative distance you're using, and the point of view you've chosen, etc. When I started writing my current story, At Cross Purposes, I made some deliberate choices about the switch of scenes. These choices were based on what I'd learned from my last two stories.

In "Let the Word Take Me," I switched between points of view, human to alien, but only the human point of view actually provided story drive and forward momentum, while the alien point of view was more static, like a contemplative interlude. "Cold Words" had no point of view switches at all, so every scene had to drive the story forward. I found that I really liked this, so when I came to my current story I decided that somehow I had to execute the switch of point of view from human to alien and back, but keep the hand-offs really tight and allow each point of view to drive the story forward in a different way.

So far, so good. Last night I reached a breaking point and decided to call it quits for the night, believing that the scene was over. But there was a problem, I discovered. There was another breaking point still coming in the narration; either I could break where I did, or I could try to make the scene continue until the second break point.

I thought this over: for any scene, the point of view choice should make for the most interest, the highest stakes, and the lowest redundancy. It should also, since I'm writing science fiction, allow for the greatest sense of wonder and discovery. I had a scene in the hallway before from the alien point of view, so maybe this one should be from the human point of view, to avoid redundancy - after all, this would be the first time the humans have really seen the alien ship in its full glory. There's a big conflict coming up that has to be in alien point of view because it won't make any sense if I keep it in human point of view (that's another important factor!). The event which causes this conflict is the second breaking point.

So I mulled it over, and things started looking good for pressing the scene a little further - and then suddenly I discovered something important: a way to make the first breaking point not seem so final, but appear to be part of a progression within the scene that then leads to the second breaking point. That was when I finally decided to change what I'd done - when I figured out how to make the scene work without having the extra material feel tacked on.

It's hard to get any deeper into this question without giving more of the actual story text, which I don't feel comfortable doing at the moment. I just hope that this post has given a small view into some of the factors that go into choosing when and how to break one scene and hand off to the next one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Do you gotta have faith?

When I first read Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness, one of the things that really impressed me was how she'd given a religion to the people of her world. It was one of many things in that book that made her world feel real.

So today I thought I'd share some thoughts on using religion in your worldbuilding.

Question 1: Do you need it?

Answer? No, not necessarily. One of the reasons that religion can be extremely valuable in worldbuilding is because it provides a foundation for people's thoughts - a set of metaphors and references that the community can share. These metaphors and references can infuse the entire community, and give your world a sense of common culture.

However, religion in and of itself is not necessary, because a similar function can be served by what I'll call a "world concept." A religion definitely provides a world concept to its people - one in which a sense of the sacred is inherent. But world concepts don't necessarily need to include the concept of a deity or of sacredness. It depends on what you're doing with the story!

My two Analog stories are a case in point. In "Let the Word Take Me," religion was terribly important - indeed, the nature of the Gariniki beliefs was central to the resolution of the story problem. In "Cold Words," I deliberately chose to give the Aurrel a world concept that did not include a deity. Their "natural order" was basically all about the food chain, and it fit well because they were carnivorous creatures who had come out of a hunting culture. I wanted people to concentrate on the linguistic question at the center of the story - which fit well with their world concept - without getting distracted by questions of deities.

You might wonder what I mean by "distracted." Well, since this is sf/f, whenever you have a religion involved there comes a moment when the question can come up: "Is this mystical force real?" I know it came up in "Let the Word Take Me," but it would have been completely irrelevant to "Cold Words," which was why I left religion out.

Question 2: What are the consequences if you choose to include it?

As I've just said, one possible consequence is the raising of questions about whether the deity or mystical force is real. But it goes much further than that.

If you create a religion for a society in your world, then it has social consequences. The infusing of metaphor and world concept into your story can be greatly advantageous, but can also require a lot of work. Consider some of these questions: How does the religion influence people's concepts of life and death? How does it affect their sense of morality and consequences for their actions? How does it affect people's daily personal practices? How do different people relate to the taboos on behavior and language that are often associated with particular religions?

Furthermore, in choosing to have a religion in your world, you are committing yourself to a history of religion for that world. Is there only one religion? Why? How and when did it arise? If there is more than one religion, how did that come about? How do the two-or-more religions relate to one another and why? How does religion relate to government? Are the two congruent, or separate? Is there tension between them?

Finally, when you have a religion in your world it's important to consider the different ways that individuals relate to religion. There are people who are involved in the practicing of the religion, and laypeople. There are those of great faith and those who question aspects of their faith or the details of scripture etc. There are those who reject religion entirely, and they may do so for a wide variety of reasons. And don't forget the secular members of society - the people who will not engage in regular ritual practices associated with a religion, but who share its metaphors, follow the same moral precepts, think in terms of the same world concepts and may even swear by its deities.

When it comes right down to it, I'm not going to make a simple yes-or-no recommendation about including religion in your world. I do recommend, however, that you consider what its place might be in a society you're building, and very importantly, consider what its place would be in your story. You might build a religion into sections of your world, but if it has little relevance to the main conflict of your story, you should probably keep references to it very low-key. On the other hand, religion might be just the tool you need to guide the principles, judgments and actions of a key character - in which case, by all means go for it to the hilt.

Make the choice consciously, and your story will probably be stronger as a result.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Culture is what we DO

The word "culture" sticks out to me. In almost any context where I see it, it makes me curious, and makes me want to comment. So some days ago I found a discussion of culture going on at the Analog forum, and not only did I feel compelled to jump in, but I had tons of thoughts I wanted to share here as well. (Thanks, Bill Gleason!)

What is culture?

Well, whole classes have been dedicated to this topic, as you might imagine. Probably one of the first things that comes to mind is "high culture," what we mean when we say someone is "cultured." Art, music, theater, etc. The finer things in life. That's certainly one of its meanings, but it only captures the tiniest part of what culture really is.

Culture is what we do.

I like to think in terms of what's called "cultural practices." These are the special things we do that form a part of our routine, our habits, etc. The way we interact verbally involves cultural practices. Our sense of objects and how we relate to them.

Whenever we do anything, we are enacting our culture. We aren't contained by culture. On the Analog forum, someone mentioned The Force from Star Wars - I loved the analogy. The Force is all around us, it is in us, etc. Culture is more interesting than The Force, though, because by enacting it, we pass it on to others, and simultaneously we bring about change in it.

Culture is a quality of interaction - not a written set of rules that people have to follow, but a way of doing things. We can articulate the rules, and sometimes we've been taught them explicitly, but we don't just follow them - we hold a relationship with them. We discuss them perhaps, or rebel against them, or value them, or defy them, or cherish them...

They're like the road we walk on. We can choose to follow the road to its destination, or we can walk away from the destination. But leaving the road entirely is far more difficult and dangerous.

When you think of culture in terms of interactions and cultural practices, it becomes far easier to grasp what people mean when they talk about "a family culture" or the culture of a smaller group. For every group that engages in regular interaction, a set of conventions will emerge through that interaction. Thus we can have "football culture," enacted by a group that meets in association with football events. We can have "company culture," enacted by the members of a company. An online forum can have a culture, too - witness the online discussions regarding the difference between the Analog forum and its neighbor, the Asimov's forum.

At least one of the consequences of this conception of culture is interesting for writing in sf/f. The idea is that, since we enact culture in everything we do, any smallest piece of interaction that you capture will contain evidence of that culture. To put it in writing terms, the culture of an alien world, a future Earth colony or a fantasy society will show itself in every single scene - and in every part of that scene, and in everything its people say, and in every object they possess, and in every attitude they have, and in every body movement they use to express emotion, etc. etc.

This might sound very demanding.

In a way, it is. But in another way, it's not so bad, because the pieces of a culture flow into one another. Usually there's an overarching world concept involved, an underlying principle, or a set of underlying principles. Even just a large metaphor, such as the metaphor of the hunt and the food chain that I used to structure the world of the Aurrel in Cold Words. If you can come up with principles, then you can start to push deeper with your expressions of culture in a way that will make sense and that readers will be able to grasp. The important part is that the practices you create must make sense to the characters. They must appear logical and obvious - and if they are strenuous, then there must be a strong motivation for engaging in such strenuous activity.

If you can build culture into the actions, speech, and thoughts of your character, then you won't have to explain, or work hard to have some character in your story explain how the culture works.

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Does your story carry a message?

Does your story have a message? You know, a meaning hidden inside it, something to say about life, the universe and everything?

Hey, I'm not telling you it needs one. There's something really annoying about a preachy story, isn't there? The funny thing is, though, your story may have a message even if you don't intend it to. Message is one of those things that sneaks in sometimes, hidden in the parallels between the plot for the humans and the plot for the aliens, or in small mentions here and there throughout the story.

Really it's a sort of "show-versus-tell" issue. Don't stick your message in my face, but if you can weave it in, I might appreciate it...

In any case, message is a good thing to watch out for, because patterns often form in a story when the author isn't really thinking about them consciously. If you can keep an eye out for them, though, you can very likely make them stronger and more effective, or adjust them to keep them from getting too preachy, etc. Here are some things which may contribute to a message (in rough order from most to least preachy):

1. The narrator delivering the message directly. (This is "moral of the story" type stuff).
2. A character delivering the message to another character.
3. A character coming to a conclusion based on a sequence of events which relates to the main conflict and its resolution.
4. A character coming to a conclusion based on a sequence of events which is peripheral to the main conflict.
5. A character behaving in a principled way throughout the story (not necessarily related to the main conflict).
6. Evidence for a message appearing in concentrated form in descriptions of scene or setting.
7. Evidence for a message appearing in dilute form (here and there) in the narrative.

As far as 6 and 7 go, "evidence" can be as little as a word here, a word there - an association between an emotional state and a location, etc. What makes it a pattern is that it recurs. I like to use a version of the "rule of three" to help me decide whether I'm creating a pattern. If a word or phrase or association occurs once, it will become part of the subconscious background as people continue reading forward. If it occurs twice, they will typically notice that it is there. If it occurs three times, it means something. If you think about it mathematically, this is how we used to plot lines. Find one point on the line. Okay, now plot another point on the line. Great - it looks like a line, but let's just check to make sure that our conclusion is correct by plotting one last point on the line. Three points and we're sure.

Once you have your eye out for this, you can start to use it. The rule of three for humor basically says that two points set up an expectation, and the third is your punch line where you break the expectation or twist it in a funny way. You can decide whether you want it to mean something that the boy sits and thinks in his father's chair. If you don't want the pattern, you can break it before you get to three. If you see something twice and you want readers to be able to carry some kind of evidence forward, then you can do it one more time.

People look for meaning subconsciously. It's just something that human beings do. Use this to your advantage if you can.

At this point I'd like to turn the topic in a slightly different, but related, direction. Have you ever asked yourself whether every scene in a story has to mean something?

I was talking with my son about this yesterday, because he was playing a video game, walked into a "room" and then left it without looking for anything. I said to him, "Niall, don't you think that room was there for a reason? Why did you walk out of it without looking for some way that it might challenge or help you?"

The way I think about stories, I feel that every scene has to be "doing" something. This is particularly true for short stories, where you have very few words to carry your plot and character arcs, message, etc. In fact, I prefer it if every single sentence is "doing" something!

I often notice in a quest story if an event seems not to be doing anything for the characters or their story - it makes me impatient. I'll also notice if a similar scene happens twice over in a story. If you're setting up a pattern, like a pattern of three tests the hero/heroine has to pass, that's fine. But if I feel déjà vu, and there isn't a pattern, I start to wonder what the point is.

I have a friend who tells me that life isn't patterned, and that lots of stuff happens that doesn't mean anything. It's true - the events in our life don't come to us in a pattern. However, when we relate them, we turn them into patterns, and stories. We look for evidence in the chaos to tell us that we're learning or progressing in some way. There is even a form of therapy that centers around creating narratives to get control over traumatic experiences. So in a way, if you're using your scenes deliberately to defeat the idea of pattern, that's a different kind of message - a deliberate meaning about chaos and the unpredictability of life.

It doesn't necessarily matter what the meaning or the message is. It may be buried deep. But if you can keep your eye out for it, you can make it work for you, and not the other way around.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A funny article!

This is a wonderfully funny one. Many thanks to my lovely friend K for directing me to it - an article about a constructed language called Na'vi which is used in the upcoming series, "Avatar." Apparently the language has been developed in some depth, and certainly the article treats its subject respectfully. This also includes references to Klingon, for those interested - and an intriguing reference to an artist who renders Eminem rap songs in Klingon!

The article itself is here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wonderful Article

I thought I should share this link to a really terrific article by Nisi Shawl about portraying minorities in your work if you aren't a member of a minority (or of a particular minority) yourself. It's on the SFWA website, here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Darmok and Me

I have a couple of serious posts brewing, but I thought today I'd keep it light and whimsical... partly because I exercised this morning and do want to get some writing done before my kids-at-school window closes, and partially because I discovered that someone had googled "Darmok" and found me.

If you've read my first published story, you already know why I find this delightful.

Even those who know me well - but from recent times - may not know that I was a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan in college. Not a Trekker, and never a "dress-up-and-go-to-cons" type, but someone who would watch Star Trek TNG every single week. This actually lasted all the way through getting married, and I watched Voyager and Deep Space Nine too, and even Enterprise. My first favorite was TNG, and DS9 was second. Something about the aliens... you all know how I love to think about the alien experience.

I remember very well when I first saw "Darmok." I was fascinated. I kept hoping I'd catch it on reruns. There was something about the language premise of a people who would speak only indirectly, in allusions to a set of stories they shared, that really fascinated me. I think it was the fact that someone had at last found a way to stump the universal translator! I was glued to the screen, and afterwards I kept thinking about the episode, thinking and thinking.

I was struggling with it.

I mean, what a brilliant concept! But things about it kept bugging me. I guess I'd already come into my obsession with cultural depth in science fiction and fantasy, even though I hadn't yet discovered writing. How, I wondered, had these folks become a spacefaring people if they didn't ever speak in productive sentences? Were there stories in their canon concerning circuits and how they went together? More than that - how was this language learned?

I'm actually pretty flexible when it comes to my expectations about how languages are learned. Kids are amazing, and they can learn a lot from the data that they're presented with. But grammar, as a force, is pretty irresistible. Witness the creole languages that grow out of pidgin languages: the first generation cobbles something choppy together so they can get things done even though they don't have a common language, but the second generation takes that and gives it grammar. It's pretty amazing.

So I struggled with the idea that a guy like the alien captain, when facing death, would still be speaking in choppy sentences. I figured the language concept would work, but that the language would have to have a grammar and it would have to be spoken productively somewhere, sometime - the same place where the language would be learned by children. Then the people would just have to have some vastly compelling reason why they'd speak in the oblique manner.

The idea sat in my head for a very long time. The vastly compelling reason was easy to come up with: religion. Religions are intimately linked to patterns of language use, and they're very good at setting up rules and taboos, so it fit perfectly. Then I realized that the stories they told were considered religious, and were told in a holy place. That led to the idea that the holy place was a community building where people could spend hours on a regular basis, particularly as children, and where behaviors would be learned.

Then I left it alone for a long time, and finally after a number of years I wrote "Let the Word Take Me." So if you've read it, and you were ever curious, yes, there's a reason it reminds you of "Darmok." In the first draft the language concept was my "punch line" and the story didn't work, exactly because I was using the Star Trek idea as the surprise - and after Darmok, it's not a surprise any more. When the story really started to take off was when I combined the Darmok language concept with some of my own experiences in Japan - an additional social aspect - and with some concepts from anthropology about coming of age.

So in the end, this post has turned not only into the story of Darmok and me, but a little description of the process of writing, and how my ideas came together for that initial story, which appeared in Analog in July/August 2008.

At this point, my stories are made up of language concepts and ideas that are all mine, but I'm very grateful for that initial inspiration, or I wouldn't be where I am today.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A different value: choice

Would you rather have a choice? Or would you rather not?

I'm going to guess that when the question is asked that way, a lot of people will answer, "yes." In America, we tend to like to have choices. We have tons of them - just walk into the supermarket and try to buy breakfast cereal, or laundry detergent, and you'll discover how many options go into just a single choice around here.

Or how about a restaurant, when you order? Would you like soup or salad with that? Salad? Great. What kind of dressing? You have six options to choose from.

This is the kind of thing that many Americans relish. It's also the kind of thing that shuts a lot of people's brains down. My Australian and British friends tend to wonder at the diversity of options over here, and at the same time say, "Isn't it ridiculous?"

The availability of choice has also changed over time. When I was a kid, I never remember choosing what I had for breakfast, except when I chose my breakfast cereal at the store. I chose the cereal then, and then ate it day after day. But I find myself asking my kids what they'd like on almost a daily basis. This becomes a problem, because it opens me up to complaints about having given them the wrong thing. I never gave the choice problem a single thought when I began this routine, but I probably should have. Now I have to try to train my kids out of being finicky. Sad to say, I was the one who inadvertently trained them into it, at least where breakfast was concerned.

And then there are life choices. We talk about these with our kids regularly. If someone at school is constantly bugging you, what do you do? Often enough, you feel like you have no options - so talking it out and making sure you consider different possibilities can have great value. Tell the teacher is one option. Call the kid's bluff is another option. Bluff or tease back is another, and yet another is to get violent. Some of these options are socially acceptable, and others are not - and don't even get me started about questions like drugs and alcohol. I've already mentioned those issues to my kids, even though they're just 4 and 6. I figure the orientation had better start early.

My friend Janice Hardy has a great little quote in her book, The Shifter: "She who has a choice has trouble."

Now, when it comes to writing and worldbuilding advice, I'll start with the obvious: make sure that your setting has a level of choice consistent with that present in any historical analog you're using for background. Don't have your medieval character walk into the equivalent of a Y2K grocery store, or even a 1950's grocery store! If you're working from the ground up in a science fictional or fantasy economy, think through how goods are supplied and transported, and that will help you arrive at how they might be presented. Different social groups can have different ways of accessing goods depending on their level of affluence, as well.

Second, keep your eye out for places where people are likely to be asked to make choices, either between objects or between life options. You can really give your world a lot of depth if you can think through what kind of reasoning might go into your character's choices in each situation.

Third - and I think this is the sneaky one - keep your eye out for a character's tacit expectation of choice. A character without the means to access the choices available to others will not react easily to being presented with the kind choice a rich or powerful person is accustomed to dealing with. The options that spring up in the character's mind will be limited by their culture and upbringing. They'll probably struggle. They'll probably also wonder why they have to choose at all, and whether there's any potential for punishment involved in the choice. Furthermore, they'll be far more likely simply to accept what they're given without question or objection. So watch out for situations where your poor or undercaste character acts as if he/she feels entitled to the privileges of the rich. Even as this character objects to his/her status, even as he/she plots revolution, there's going to be a subconscious level on which they fear the ability to make a choice.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I'm a guest blogger!

It's almost Thanksgiving - today I'll be baking pies and making cranberry sauce, and generally filling my day with food instead of blogging. But! Lydia Sharp, over at The Sharp Angle, has been kind enough to invite me for a guest blog post on pronoun use and narrative distance, a.k.a. the intersection between point of view and "show don't tell."

So thanks so much to Lydia, and here's the link. As always, I hope you find my musings useful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not hiding information that readers need

This post is intended to be an extension - a reversal, in fact - of my last post. In the same way that you can use backgrounding to slip in world information, you can also do yourself a disservice by "hiding" critical information that should be taking head billing. I've made comments to my critique buddies about how they shouldn't "hide X under Y" and it usually takes me a while to explain to them what I mean. So I figure it's useful to discuss here.

If you have a critical piece of your plot, especially a voluntary action by your protagonist, then you should not hold back from describing that action. Don't imply that it happened. Don't make it passive. State it as directly and actively as possible.

I think this is the kind of thing that people are talking about when they tell you not to use "was" or "passives" in your writing. Though the instruction never to use "was" or "passives" is extremely overgeneralized, it does make an important point. If you've got a character and that character is acting, changing things, etc. then chances are you should stick him or her right in the subject spot in the sentence and use the most interesting and exciting verb you can come up with to say what he or she is doing.

The other way that writers might inadvertently hide critical information has to do with (gasp!) sentence structure.

I suppose there must be folks among you who have spent time diagramming sentences in school. I did. Well, don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to get out your pencils! But if you've got even the vaguest image somewhere in your head of what those diagrams looked like, you might find it useful. The basic distinction I'm thinking of here is the one between the main clause of the sentence - the one that used to be on the main line when we diagrammed - and the subordinate clauses that attach to it. Here's an example:

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that Mom made.

Now I'm going to put main clauses in bold text and subordinate ones in italics.

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that mom made.

Now, when I say information is "hidden" in a sentence like this, of course, that's a relative statement. It's still available - in exactly the way that makes subordinate clauses so convenient for slipping in worldbuilding information. But - and this is the important part - its impact is blunted.

Take this sentence, for example:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

The structure of this sentence looks like this:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

Essentially what I've done here is "hide" the action of hitting, and bring primary attention to "he cried out." In most action narratives, this makes no sense at all. I'd almost expect that this was a sentence coming from after the event itself - someone describing what happened, for example. Or perhaps I'd expect that the actual hitting event had been described before this sentence. As a method for actually conveying the occurrence of the action, it comes across to me as weak. This isn't to say that I never do stuff like this in my own writing - but if I catch something like this on a first draft, I might change it to the following:

I hit him over the head with the frypan, and he cried out.

Conjunctions like "and," "but," and "so" do not create subordinate clauses. They keep both coordinated clauses on the same level of structure, and in an action sequence, work far better to keep the hitting and the crying out at the same level of importance.

I'll conclude by giving a few examples of words to watch out for - words that create subordinate clauses. But before I do, let me be clear: I don't mean that these words should never be used. There may well be a context when you want one element of a sentence to be backgrounded to another, and be given lesser importance. It's like the whole "was" thing. If you try to forbid yourself a tool of grammar in writing, you're just shackling your own feet. Just make sure that you're not using these words inadvertently.

As: As he ran through the door, the horse neighed loudly.

Because: Because I'd paid for the pot, the barkeeper gave it to me.

When: When she found the harlot in bed with George, she took out a knife and killed him.

I'll also mention "that" and "which." These guys make subordinate clauses in a different way from those above, because they allow a writer to describe more about a particular noun, as "the pie that Mom made" in the earlier example. I think they're not nearly as much of a trap for the unwary. However, they do background information, and if you want to direct attention deliberately to the attributes of an object or person, you should probably try to avoid using a subordinate clause, and give the description its own space and sentence.

That's all for now. I hope all your writing goes really well today.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hiding Information in Plain Sight

What do you do with information that you need to "get across," but can't "explain"?

If you write science fiction or fantasy, you're certainly aware of the magnitude of this problem - the one we fondly refer to as "infodumping." A big infodump can take readers off the main drive of the story, bore them and eventually dump them out of the story completely. Not good.

So what do you do to keep them? Well, the common suggestion is to avoid infodumping, but the question is, how do you do that? This post will attempt to give you some ways - I hope, not the most common or obvious ways - to approach the problem.

First suggestion: resist the instinct to explain. Explaining means you're stopping out of the main thrust of your story to speak to the reader as an author and let them know "this is how it works." If you generally use a third person omniscient narrator, it may be easier to do this without actually having it feel strange. But if you're in a close narrator like a third person limited, or first person present tense, stopping out of the action for a paragraph, even a sentence, can be very distracting. Pure explanation will tend to stick out like a sore thumb, so only do it if you absolutely have to.

One common solution to the infodumping problem is to set things up so that one of your characters will explain the necessary information to another. It can be done successfully, but here are some things to watch for if you're planning to do it. First, stay away from "As you know Bob," dialogue. This is where one person explains something to someone else who can't help but know the information already. Like saying, "As you know, Bob, this space station orbits around planet Zobob." You've doomed yourself immediately because readers see right through this. This isn't to say that you can't put very obvious information about location into dialogue - but there has to be a good reason. One good reason might be conflict between characters. There's a great example of this in Mary Pope Osborne's book, Dinosaurs Before Dark.

"Help! A monster!" said Annie.
"Yeah, sure," said Jack. "A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania."

These are the first two lines of the book! And already she's told you that Jack and Annie live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. But she didn't explain it. Neither did she have Jack say, "As you know, Annie, we live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania." She did something much more clever, which I will call hiding information in plain sight, or backgrounding.

The information sneaks in, in this example, because of Jack's sarcasm. The point of what he's saying isn't where they live - it's his message of "you've got to be kidding," which he has phrased in terms of a sarcastic attack on her claim. He could have said, "Yeah, sure, a real monster. Right." But the author chose here to dispense a critical piece of information by turning Jack's words in another direction.

Very often, you can contribute to the ongoing drive and conflict in a story using the main point of a sentence, and then use the back door of that same sentence to sneak in information. Not a lot, mind you - just a piece here, a piece there. When I studied pragmatics, we talked about backgrounding in terms of things like implicature and presupposition. In this post, though, I think I'm going to use a few concrete examples so I don't send everyone scrambling to buy a Pragmatics textbook that won't directly address what you're trying to do in a story.

From Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief:

"Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood."

This line tells us that the main character (Percy) is a half-blood. Yes, it's obvious, but no, it's not actually the main message of the sentence. The statement that he didn't want to be one implies that he is one - takes that message, which probably could have been stated directly without losing the reader, and backgrounds it to a statement about Percy's desires, with extra implications about his attitude. Suddenly the sentence is doing more than telling us Percy's a half-blood. It's telling us that he has strong desires and resentments, and showing us his character. Bravo.

"Like at my fifth-grade school, when we went to the Saratoga battlefield, I had this accident with a Revolutionary War cannon."

I love this one. At this point Percy's told you he's a troubled kid going to boarding school, but not much about his history. Now he starts telling you some of the reasons he's been in trouble. Take a look at the phrase Riordan slips in there: "my fifth-grade school." This single phrase presupposes that such a school exists, i.e. Percy could not use the phrase if he had not had a school that lasted only for fifth grade. Therefore, though it's hidden inside a sentence that centers on "I had this accident...", suddenly we know by implication that Percy's trouble isn't recent, and that he has a history of changing schools. Not surprisingly, later in the same paragraph we find "my fourth-grade school." Riordan can later build on this concept of Percy's itinerant schooling without ever having explained it outright.

From Nnedi Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker:

"Ejii fought against her surety that this time the world really was ending, that the Sahara Desert was finally finishing what it had started, swallowing up the rest of what was there."

This is a great sentence. The main point of it is that Ejii is fighting the certainty of an idea - similarly to the first Riordan example above, making a statement about the mental state or judgments of the main character. The idea itself has at least two critical worldbuilding phrases in it. The first one, "this time the world really was ending," implies that there was a last time when everyone thought the world was going to end - critical history for this book, but information which (if Okorafor explained it) would detract from the action of Ejii reacting to an earthquake. The second phrase is "the Sahara Desert," which unequivocally locates Ejii and her story in Africa.

These phrases are critical to reader orientation, but because they work indirectly, by implication, we often don't notice they are there or what they are doing. And by not explaining, they make us more curious, not less.

I don't want to leave this post without addressing the issue of explanation. Sometimes you have to do it. Sometimes you have a really complex concept that is absolutely necessary to understand your story, and it would take you lots and lots of strenuous work-arounds to get across, and maybe even then you couldn't be sure if readers would be able to put it together. In that case, you need your explanation. So here are a few suggestions. First, streamline to make it as concise as possible. Second, make it as relevant as possible. Put it in a place where your character has every reason to think of it, and not only that, but every reason to think about it in those terms.

If your character needs to know how to use a complex piece of technology, ask yourself precisely how much they need to know about it in order to use it. My daughter started being able to use the internet to click around her favorite PBS website before she was four. If she needs to be able to do this for the story to work, it doesn't mean that I need to explain the technological basis for the internet. Still, if something about what she finds is fundamental to the plot, I may have to give some detail about how she thinks about what she does. It's a matter of judgment.

This "explanation" example is from my own story, "Cold Words," because I know what I intended when I included it in the story, and why I placed it where I did - something that would be harder for me to guess at in another person's story. This story centers on trouble with status dialects in an alien language. When the story opens, Rulii and Parker are speaking the less-marked dialect, called Warm Words. Then Rulii goes out to speak to his Majesty, and this is where I need to make the distinction between the dialects clear. I could just throw readers in, but figuring out what the difference is between the two styles of talk is not the point of the story, exactly - it's about the consequences of the two styles of talk. So I take advantage of Rulii's antagonism toward Majesty and the other councilors to place his explanation of the dialects right before he has to start speaking the second one.

"Blunted now is the fierceness that incited their tundra ancestors to annex our lands. They depend on the urrgai that our Lowland Clans first bred tame, and their ancient hunt-calls have changed in sense, to Cold Words proclaiming dominator status. Only in Majesty's exalted presence must the Cold Words be used by all as they were long ago: the language of the ice-hunters."

This paragraph is still trying to do multiple things (because I can't help myself!). The first sentence is something of an insult about how these guys he's looking at aren't fierce any more, with the history of tundra ancestors and annexing lands backgrounded in the "that" clause. The second sentence is similar, calling them dependent - and the explicit statement about the hunt-calls changing into Cold Words fits into this feeling of the decline of fierceness, even as it directly tells what the Cold Words are supposed to do. The final sentence sets up the rule that Rulii will be following as he enters his next interaction, so that nobody has to guess what's going on and why he's talking a little differently. But at the same time it fits into the attitude that has come before, making the Majesty's presence special but also somewhat pretentious-sounding.

If you're writing right now, chances are you're already hiding information in plain sight. We do it all the time. The trick is just to look for these opportunities consciously, to make it easier to place hints about world and culture while we're giving our primary attention to the ongoing action of the story.

As always, I welcome any comments.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Scientific American Takes On Aliens

Here's an article about the likelihood - or lack of it - that any aliens we encounter in the universe will look like us. Many thanks to Doug Sharp for pointing this one out to me! I hope you enjoy it.

Will E.T. Look Like Us - Scientific American

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Inciting Event and Your World - Revisited

I've had a couple of requests to revisit this topic outside the workshop in which it originally occurred, and it relates directly to the idea of beginning stories (as in my last post) so today I'm pulling it out of the archive and re-editing it for your enjoyment.

I've been thinking a bit about inciting events. An inciting event is generally the event that propels you into the main conflict of your story. My friend Janice Hardy mentions it in a great blog post, here (her blog has tons of great information on the process of writing and on getting published). In her words, "The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion." She treats it separately from the opening scene, but I'm not sure the two are necessarily separate. When trying to hook your reader, it's good to plunge into the inciting event as early as possible. I've spent a lot of time in my writing career working on the question of where to start my stories, and believe me, it can be tricky - but it's worth thinking seriously about.

Where I want to take this topic in a particularly TalkToYoUniverse direction is by linking the inciting event to the issue of worldbuilding. When you're thinking about how to open your story in a science fiction or fantasy context, you have to take into account both your need to hook the reader, and your need to introduce your world.

We all know the dreaded word, infodumping. We all know we want to avoid it. But how do we go about creating a scene where this information doesn't need to be explained? How do we make it so the information is simply evident in the action?

First, use your POV character. Make sure you know the character's background, culture and motivations to the fullest extent possible, so that you can use the character to help you convey information. This is what I call making your world personal. Think about what your characters care about, and what they don't care about - where they are especially attentive or where they have blind spots and weaknesses. All of these things can become your tools, as you can imbue your narration with a dismissive or contemptuous tone, or a bubbly enthusiasm, or what have you.

Next comes the tougher, more subtle step: working in the things that the character considers normal. Things that are totally normal, entirely obvious to the character, are not things you want him or her to talk about. Talking about obvious things leads to completely cringe-worthy "As you know, Bob" dialog, and we don't want that.

So here's the question: How can we possibly describe the basic parameters of our worlds, when we know that to our character, so much is entirely unremarkable?

The answer is, use conflict and contrast. I have an example of this done simply and elegantly for a real-world scenario, here.

In fact, there's a beautiful convergence here: the inciting event, the trigger for the core conflict of the novel, very often is all about the precise type of conflict that can let you give out world information.

Here's an example from the drafting stage of my recent story, "Cold Words" (Analog, October 2009). Consider the list of events below and ask yourself which one is the best to use for an opening scene:

1. A Human ambassador inadvertently insults the Majesty of the Aurrel, placing a spaceport negotiation in danger.
2. The native liaison asks the Humans to send away the failed ambassador and get a new one.
3. The Human ambassador comes to the native liaison to tell him that he's worried about the motives of the replacement ambassador.
4. The native liaison goes to the Majesty to report the impending arrival of the replacement ambassador and try to rescue the spaceport negotiation.

I wouldn't choose 1 or 2. Any event that occurs before a significant lull, like waiting for a replacement ambassador to arrive, is less optimal because it will require a time break and reduce forward momentum. Furthermore, even though the incident of insult is interesting, it would be hard for readers to understand without significant previous context - which, if this is the first scene, they can't possibly have.

When I wrote my first draft, I chose 4. The story is told in the point of view of Rulii, the native liaison, and thus the main motivating force in the story is Rulii's desire to complete the spaceport negotiation successfully (for his own secret reasons). Why not start where you see him pressing his suit with the Majesty, a place where he can show his intense desire for success and share it with the reader?

The answer to that question is this: if he's alone with the Majesty, he's in a completely native context where everything is normal. And that means that every piece of normal world information will be really difficult to put in.

So in the end, I chose 3. There's conflict in that scene, because the human ambassador brings a warning that may put the negotiation at even deeper risk. More importantly for this discussion, though, scene #3 puts our native liaison in direct contact with a human. There's conflict, and there's contrast. There are opportunities for the human ambassador to demonstrate his own cultural biases, and for Rulii to remark on them, thus putting his own world forward for readers to explore. Better yet, the sense of contrast continues forward as he goes to see Majesty, because with the human interaction foremost in his mind, Rulii is more likely to remark on the quirky cultural things inherent in their interaction.

So, when you're looking at your own stories, consider the kinds of conflict or contrast opportunities that appear in the opening scene as you've written it, and then ask yourself how you could tune the circumstances of that scene to make your job easier.

Finally, in the spirit of making a world personal, I'm posting a list of eleven questions I've used in two of my workshops. You've probably seen questions like these before, but worldbuilding questions are often phrased in a very impersonal way, and that's not what I'm trying to do here. All of these questions are deliberately phrased to relate directly to a protagonist's view of the world, and participants in my workshops have found it a helpful exercise to answer them using the voice of their POV characters.

Here are the questions:

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?

I hope you may find this exercise helpful in your writing process.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

First Things First

How important is the first sentence of your story?

I've seen whole discussions about this on the writing forums I frequent. Some folks will tell you that the first sentence of your story is the most important one of the entire piece, and if you don't get it right you might as well just give up. This doesn't seem a practical approach to my mind, because I don't like any advice that tells me to give up!

I'd like to call the first sentence "a great opportunity."

It's an opportunity to hook your reader, to impress them, to intrigue them and make them curious. But it's not everything. Imagine the disappointment of reading a terrific first sentence and then discovering that the rest of the paragraph is ho-hum. So don't put all your energy just into sentence one; save some for the continuation. I don't think a "just fine" first sentence will be enough to make someone reject your story. On the other hand, if you don't have some great stuff in the first paragraph, you may well lose a very impatient editor. They're zooming, because they have a lot of manuscripts to get through.

So how do I approach a first sentence?

Because I'm a very chronological writer, I need to have a first sentence for a scene before I can start writing it. Sometimes I'll wander around for several days trying out different first sentences in my head until I can find the way in. Ideally, I want any first sentence I write to do three things:

1. Make people curious
2. Demonstrate the psychology of the main character
3. Introduce the main conflict in some form (even obliquely)

I put "make people curious" first, because that's what gets a reader to read your second sentence with gusto, rather than with diminishing momentum. That's your hook. If it makes people curious about the main conflict or main character or the core of the story, so much the better.

I put "demonstrate the psychology of the main character" second because it's something that is very important to me - but I usually write either in first person or in tight third person point of view, and the psychology of the main character is therefore highly relevant. Not to mention the fact that if the main character is an alien, showing something of his/her psychology may help to make the reader curious (see #1 above).

I put "Introduce the main conflict" third because it's something that's really good to do, but can't always be done directly in the first sentence. Even if I don't manage to get it in there, though, I usually try to tap into some part of the main conflict (or the spirit thereof) before the end of the first paragraph. This kind of information does a lot to make the reader curious, but also provides an orientation to give them a sense of where the story might be going - not the plot, but the point, the reason I'm writing this story and they should keep reading it.

Just because I spend days trying to think of a first sentence doesn't mean that the first one I think of - my "entry" to the scene - will end up being my first sentence when I'm through. I often make changes to beginnings, sometimes even trying over and over until I find just the right thing.

Just so I'm not talking about air, I'll give some concrete examples below.


"Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken."
- Janice Hardy, The Shifter

I love this sentence. The first thing I think of when I read it is, "Why?" There's our curiosity, right there. It also reveals the psychology of the narrator, because it suggests this person is willing to try to get only the eggs rather than taking the whole chicken - or why would she be mentioning how hard it is? And while this sentence doesn't introduce the main conflict, it does demonstrate a moral sense that is finely tuned between what's right and what's necessary - which is what lies at the core of this character's involvement in the main conflict of the story.


"Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of a blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me."
- Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart

I have an extended analysis of this sentence in an earlier post, here. But speaking in terms of the three items above, I can say this: it makes me curious, by letting me know the main character is in trouble ("for all the good it did me"), and by giving an amazing amount of information about the psychology of the main character (class attitude, social position, etc.). The entire book maintains the same intense focus on the character of Phèdre - she is the magnetic core of the story, so the sentence is certainly consistent with what follows.


"I hereby declare the end of Dana Turner."
- Juliette Wade, Through This Gate

Here's one I wrote myself, so I'll say off the bat that I've tried to have this sentence do all three things I mentioned. I thought I'd share some of the process behind this one, though - I came up with it pretty early in the writing process, maybe even as early as the first draft. However, for a long time I didn't know how to follow it. I worked and reworked the scene that followed this sentence, and even considered changing it, but in the end decided it was the right first sentence for my book, so the rest of the scene had better fit with it, and that was that. I worked until I managed to get it to fit.

Finally I thought I'd share a revision example. Here was the sentence that was my "entry" to the story I'm currently writing:

"Piloting the shuttle between maintenance sites is my reward, the guys tell me - to make up for the five years it took Terrafirm, Inc. to grant my security clearance."

I wrote it, and it got me in, but I wasn't happy with it. Yes, you might be curious about why she didn't get her security clearance for so long, and yes, the sentence does show her attitude, but it doesn't really give you any hints as to where the story is going. Maybe something to do with security clearances? Certainly security clearances are relevant, but they aren't the point of the story. So I've gone back in and rewritten it - not edited it, but gotten rid of it and started in a completely different way. The physical details of location etc. for the opening scene have all remained the same, but the opening sentence is now:

"Kelly's on the comm and she's playing with my mind, trying to tell me she sees a cloud."

Psychology/attitude, check. Curiosity, well, it has to do with why someone who sees a cloud would be suspected of playing with anyone's mind. Let's just say that yes, it's highly unusual for someone to see a cloud in this circumstance, and yes, the main conflict begins with the sighting of the cloud. So I'm much happier, at least for now. Who knows, I might find something better, in which case I can choose that.

So at the end of this whole discussion I hope I've given you something to think about, and something to aim for - but I also hope that I've been clear about the difference between an entry sentence (first sentence for the first draft), and a first sentence (first sentence for the final draft). It's always cool and exciting when you can find a first sentence that really hooks a reader. Just don't be afraid to take as many drafts as you need in order to get there.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Many paths to a writing career

"It's hard to get published."

Everybody knows this, even people who never plan to become writers. I knew it when I started writing, when I'd just discovered this storytelling drive I had inside me and had no idea (yet) where it fit into my life. I'd always had an artistic drive, and always had interest in science fiction and fantasy, but had never put them together before. So I wrote first and figured it out later.

When I first got to the point where I wanted to try to get published, I had no idea how to start. This may sound familiar to some. I was living in Japan at the time, and the internet resources for writers hadn't really come into their own yet, so I mail-ordered a couple of books about agents and publishers and how to go about writing query letters and all that lovely stuff. Some of you will recognize at this point that I was writing novels rather than short stories. That was where my experiences with rejection began! On the other hand, I learned early that rejections with comments were pure gold, because they were feedback from someone on the other side of that mysterious wall that lies between the publishing world and the lowly newbie writer.

Now there are lots of internet resources out there for writers: AgentQuery, Preditors and Editors, SFWA's Writer Beware, Duotrope's Digest, etc... But it's still hard to get published, and there's no easy answer just waiting out there for a writer to find. This is because there are many different paths that can lead you to a successful writing career, and if you ask two (or three, or four) writers how they got to where they are, chances are they'll each give you a different answer.

Some start with short stories and others start with novels. I started by writing novels, and then after a time friends said to me, "You should try writing short fiction." I got the impression from some of them that it would be easier to get short fiction published than novels. Since I'd had no success with the novels I'd written so far, I figured, "Why not?" So I started writing short stories, and learning how to do those, because they're very different from novels and require different kinds of skills to get right. I got lots of rejections, from lots of different markets. The fact of the matter is, I'm not sure which one is harder. But you'll never know which one is easier for you if you don't try both. My friend Aliette de Bodard has a novel coming out from Angry Robot, entitled Servant of the Underworld, but by the time she sold it she already had a great career going and lots of fans from her short fiction.

Some people sell their short fiction first to semipro venues, and others to pro. I always figured, start at the top with each story you want to sell, and work your way down as it gets rejected, from pro to semipro, to token venues. But the fact of the matter was, I lost patience with the endless cycle of waiting, and after I ran my work past a few semipro markets, I pretty much left it in the trunk. I have several friends who have sold many pieces to semipro markets before breaking into the pro markets - and at least two who now make regular money from their sales of short fiction, hooray!

Some people pitch a novel to a publisher first, get a deal, and then find an agent. Others go straight to getting an agent through the query approach. My friend Janice Hardy, for example, landed an agent without any previous fiction sales, simply on the strength of her new novel, The Shifter, which she sent queries for and then pitched to the woman who would become her agent at the Surrey International Writers Conference. If you think this is impossible, well, you can feel reassured that it's not. It just may not end up being the path that is successful for you.

Some people go to lots of conventions and network like crazy. Others don't. This is a funny one, because I never figured I'd find this to be my own route. Are you kidding? I started out writing in Japan, and then after I got back to the US I had my kids, and it was all I could do just to get out to a local convention for a few hours during the day. But, interestingly enough, this turned out to be my path - because I kept working on my writing, and because I got to meet a few wonderful people.

In thanks to those people, I'll tell a brief version of the connections here. I first went to BayCon, my local convention, in 2003 when my son was 3 months old. There I went to a session run by Kent Brewster, who recommended that I submit to the BayCon writers' workshop the following year. So I came up with my very first short story and went in 2004. One of the pros on the panel at the writers' workshop was Dario Ciriello, who got word after the workshop was over that I was looking for a face-to-face writers' group, and invited me to his. Dario was also the one who put me in touch with the BayCon programming folk, with the result that I was on a panel about the Seven Wonders of the World in (I think) 2006. On the panel with me was a lovely author with whom I struck up a conversation, Deborah J. Ross. She encouraged me to come to the SiliCon convention a month later, and there introduced me to Sheila Finch, because Sheila and I share an interest in linguistics. Sheila was the one who told me that Dr. Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine, liked stories about linguistics. So I took some time, got my linguistics story together and sent it off, and it sold in December 2007, appearing in Analog in July/August 2008. It was also at SiliCon that I met my friend Lillian Csernica. We hit it off immediately, and she helped me with the interminable revisions of my novel, Through This Gate. At a certain point, she said she'd like to recommend me to her agent. Well, she never did - but only because I ran into her agent at the 2009 Nebula Awards weekend, and remembering what Lillian had said, walked right up to her and said hello. This turned into a pitch, and a full manuscript request, and finally this October, into an agency signing. I could never have signed with the Grayson Agency (blog) on the basis of queries alone, but they happen to be just the right agents for me. Who would have imagined it?

I am immensely grateful to these people who have helped me get to where I am. I have found that the science fiction and fantasy writing community has a great sense of helping in return for being helped, and I am already trying to pass on what I know in this great spirit.

All of this is to say that if you want to have a writing career, you have to keep at it. Be dogged. Meet people, query, submit, and above all, write, write, write. Try to make your writing better at every opportunity, because you never know which path will suddenly open up for you, and when it does, you'll want to be able to give the right person a piece of writing that really knocks their socks off.

I wish you all the best in your own endeavors.

Photos from Halloween

Since some people have requested these, I thought I'd post a couple of photos of my kids and hubby at Halloween. I didn't end up with any photos of myself.

This first one is of my son Niall as Emperor Palpatine (watch out for Sith lightning):


Then we have my daughter Rhiannon as a Barbie Musketeer (the hat represents 6 hours of work!):


And finally, here's a picture of Rhiannon with my husband Tim. He dressed as an Australian convict this year, and not just any convict - one of his own ancestors who was arrested in Tipperary, Ireland for stealing a cloak (first offense) and shipped off for seven years labor in Australia. You may notice that the Australian convict outfit isn't quite the same as the American. That was something interesting I learned as he was getting ready. The pattern on the suit is called "magpie's feet."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Measures of Intelligence

The other day I went to the Ardenwood Historic Farm, which isn't far from our house. It was peak season there, with a corn maze and pumpkin patch and lots of great animals at the farm. One of the key attractions was a pair of pigs - huge creatures, which we were told had only been born this spring. The friendly farm volunteer asked us if the pigs looked intelligent. Some folks, mostly kids, said no. Some sagely nodded their heads, having been told previously that pigs were quite intelligent. Then the volunteer explained to us that one of the big signs of porcine intelligence was this: they might spend a lot of time lolling around and digging their heads and bodies in muck, but they keep the location where they defecate constant, separated from the location where they sleep, and the location where they eat. Other animals at the farm don't do this.

It got me to thinking. What are the cues we use to measure intelligence?

This is a question that is quite relevant to science fiction, because in the science fictional arena, you quite often find situations where one alien or another is casting aspersions on another species' intelligence (or possibly admiring it). But it's not just for alien scenarios. When we think to portray a character to our readers - just generally - we need to make sure their impressions of that character's intelligence agree with our own, and it's useful to think about what kind of cues to use.

We might be able to run a dog, or an alien, through a maze, but that's a bit less plausible for humans.

A lot of the way we assess intelligence comes down to behavior. A creature or person who is keenly attentive to his surroundings, and purposeful in his movements, can easily come across as more intelligent than one who is not. Restraint and good manners are often taken as a sign of intelligence. Someone can show intelligence in the way she organizes her belongings or the space she occupies. In a conversation between speaking entities (not necessarily human!) a shorter lag time before beginning a response can indicate intelligence. People who speak faster can often be seen as more intelligent - and I've even seen this measure used (naively) to cast aspersions on speakers of dialects that have a slower rate of speech. Another sign of intelligence in speech is lack of redundancy - either the lack of reiteration in one's own speech, or the ability to build on another person's contribution to a conversation rather than simply recasting it.

These measures can be useful - and the expectations associated with them can be used to the writer's advantage in description and dialog. However, they are heavily influenced by culture and context, and should be considered highly fallible.

A person isn't unintelligent if she speaks with a slow dialect. Leaving a pause before you respond to what someone says could be interpreted as a lack of alacrity - or as thoughtful pondering of a response. Good manners are just that - good manners. And we know that all sorts of people get crazy once in a while!

Misunderstandings in this arena can provide great opportunities for stories. In the story I'm currently working on, the group of aliens has an unusual criterion for "higher intelligence" that humans don't happen to share. The pigs at Ardenwood farm are a great example of how a behavior that might seem senseless to us - digging around in mud with one's nose - can make perfect sense to another species and have nothing at all to do with that species' level of intelligence.

It's something to think about.

After reading through the links that Mike Flynn volunteered in my comments section below, I heartily recommend his taxonomy of aliens, which can be found here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Layers of Language

The other day I found myself talking to a friend of mine about computer languages. One of the interesting things about computer languages is how they have increased in complexity and layered over one another. The interfaces that we see on our computer screens look simple and easy because there are lots of intervening layers of meaning between what is simple and easy for us, and what is understandable by a computer chip. In the conversation with my friend, I ended up describing binary machine code - how zeroes and ones correspond to the presence or absence of an electrical signal. To get from that to a pretty window with icons to click on requires an elaborate process of translation which progresses through multiple layers of linguistic re-interpretation.

Zeros and ones are obviously not the only option as a fundamental basis for language - they are just associated with the structure of computer chips. I recently read an interesting article about something called "memristors," which don't have the same either-or structure and have the potential to change this fundamental basis. Here's a description of them at Wired magazine.

This layering reminds me in some sense of human language, except that the layering of human language occurs over time (here's a post I wrote on language change, for the curious). Language speakers will take ideas and put them together, combining words to express that complexity. Then, when such a combination gets used a lot of times, the sounds will simplify and the word will become unique and singular. For a while the underlying meanings will outlive the alteration of their sounds, but eventually the word will become opaque, and those who learn to utter it will have to be taught, explicitly, what the word's origins once were. Here are two examples:

God's wounds => 'zwounds =>zounds
All Hallows Even => Hallow e'en => Halloween

I bet you can guess what put me on to this idea... Mike Flynn has a fascinating post on the history of Halloween as a holiday (and about saints), which everyone should read. It's here.


etymology and the history of language. words/expressions that start out meaningful and then become opaque, like Halloween.

Monday, November 2, 2009

World Fantasy Convention

Let me start by offering my congratulations to all the winners of the World Fantasy Awards, which were given out at the convention this weekend.

This was the first non-fan convention that I've ever been to, and as such was interesting and different for me. The biggest draw of the whole thing was the lounge, where people milled about, sat in comfy chairs and talked for hours at a time. The San Jose Fairmont has a great space for that, and it worked very well. I met friends, and friends-of-friends, and approached a few strangers when I overheard interesting topics.

I got to listen to Patricia McKillip read aloud. That was cool. I've always loved her work for the calm poetry of it, and this time was no exception. Definitely a fan experience for me.

I also heard Kij Johnson read. She's very skillful when she reads aloud. The story was "Spar," currently up at Clarkesworld, and a very disturbing story - but she read it in a way that gave it a whole new dimension for me. I was lucky enough to talk to her afterward; she's a lovely person. Then on Sunday she won the award for best short story with "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss." If you haven't read it yet, go find it! And if you have already read it, you can check out my analysis of it, and her response, here on the blog.

I went to parties - which I haven't done for ages. It was fun, mostly involved more standing around and chatting. My friend Janice was with me for most of all of this adventuring, which was totally great since she lives in Georgia and I almost never get to see her. I also got to spend a bunch of time with my friend Dario, and we even had a lunch with Keyan, so there were four members of Written in Blood writers' group there all at once! I got several opportunities to hang out with the Graysons, which was neat, since I don't imagine everyone gets a chance to spend time with their agent and chat.

The banquet was pretty much as expected, but I always enjoy seeing the amazing people who get up on the stage to talk and accept awards - like Ellen Datlow and Garth Nix and David Hartwell, and a whole bunch of others.

It was a great convention for me, not least because I didn't have to worry about pitching, just enjoying myself.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A big day!

Today was a very big day for me, and I have fantastic news:

I have an agent!!! Whee!

I spoke with Ashley and Carolyn Grayson of the Grayson Agency this morning for about two hours, and we shook on it. Ashley will be representing my novel, Through This Gate, which some of you may have been aware of because it was the novel whose revisions I slogged through for more than a year. It's about a girl going off to college who gets mixed up with a magic book, and the world inside which is literally created from the delusional writings of a Japanese madwoman.

I've been working toward this for a long time (though not always with this novel) and it's finally happened! I'm thrilled. The Graysons are terrific and I'm really looking forward to working with them.