Thursday, April 23, 2009

Workshop: Making a first impression

In my first workshop, I began by summarizing what people had sent to me, in part because I hadn't established the posting standards I would use for the workshop. Then I went into knowledge sets, otherwise known as technology sets. (This will sound familiar for David and Catreona). Today I'm going to approach this from the angle of making a first impression.

For those who have never heard me use the expression before, a knowledge, or technology, set is a group of concepts that seem to go naturally together. Spaceships and talking computers, for example. Or cell phones and computer viruses and iPods and television. Or stone châteaux, torches, and swords. There are tons and tons of these, sets of concepts linked together by the associations of the words that evoke them. If you want to check out my knowledge sets post from the first workshop, it's here. You might also find interesting my discussion of semantics and word meaning associations, here.

The trick with these sets is that they are very strong, and sometimes it only takes a word or two to evoke them. So when introducing your world for the first time, you want to focus on words that evoke the technology set you want, and you want to avoid any that send readers' expectations astray. If you need a particular concept, but don't want its associations, then you have to defeat those expectations as soon as possible.

Here's an example from my Varin world. Whenever I start talking about the caste of the nobility, I have to watch out. Why? Because nobility evokes medieval knowledge sets in fantasy readers. Caste is less directly indicative, but the simple word nobility has incredible power. I have to make sure that I insert an obvious reference to high technology (electric lights, etc.) as soon as possible to defeat the unwanted medieval set.

How fast do knowledge sets take hold? Here's another example, the first sentence of my forthcoming Analog story, "Cold Words":

I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker.

1. By the time you get to the word "human," you already have aliens in mind, and that brings you spaceships, and that brings you everything that goes along with them.
2. "Scent" is a word associated with hunting, so I've also accessed a knowledge set that suggests the human might get eaten - and I don't want that. So I add "outside the door" in order to defeat that knowledge set, and place the protagonist in a building.
3. The phrase "our linguist, Parker" has the word "our," which suggests that there is a relationship between the protagonist's group and the human in question. "Linguist" specifies the nature of that relationship. "Parker" is a modern-day typical last name, which finalizes the placement of the world in a place directly related to present-day Earth.

This is just to give you a sense of what can happen in the space of nine words, and to give a bit of background for how I'll approach your work today. I encourage you to go back and take a look at my post on knowledge sets, particularly. What I'll do now is try to find the most world-evocative words or phrases in each of your pieces, let you know what they're telling me, and what you might want to work with.

From Khajidu's excerpt:

"Gods" suggests a place where multiple gods are worshipped, or at least revered in some way. This is not a phrase I've ever heard used in an Earth context, so my first thought is "fantasy world." The name "Xodull" confirms the fantasy world setting. The word "shitting" throws me off a little. Not that I haven't seen the word "shit" used in fantasy before, but it always comes across to me as very local to Earth, and the way you have used it here seems almost British. After that comes "concert." There are lots of different kinds of concerts, but the type is unspecified, so I can't choose medieval or renaissance orchestra, or rock concert. I'm still looking for hints. "Canal bank" gives me a setting that isn't obviously high-technology, but can't rule it out. After that I notice "evolution" treated as an unknown concept - but based on what comes before, I'm actually surprised to hear them mention something scientific like that at all. The word "evolution" is very much Earth-associated for me. "Sailor's necklace" is an unfamiliar term, and a great opportunity to give readers more about the technology of this world. I wish I didn't have to wait until "relationships with their ships" to get a hint. "Sky-Hierarch-Elect's husband" is incredibly specific, and very interesting. I want to see it earlier if it's relevant, and to understand better who such a person might be and how he might relate to our two protagonists. "Orlêzh" seems to be a type of location, but since it's not English, we get no associations, so please give us some hints in the surrounding text to let us know where you're going.

From Colin F.'s excerpt:

"Barkeep" and "beer" for me evoked a technology image from Earth's past, and thus the name "Lanuz" brought me to the conclusion that this is a fantasy world. "Mechanic" surprised and interested me, bringing me to the conclusion that this might be an industrial-revolution setting. If any of this is wrong, I would suggest adding more specific details to place each element. "To Order," was fascinating, but not followed up. Maybe you could give an internalized reason why Lanuz would be giving such honor to the concept? "Strange equipment" is the first hint I get that Lanuz is not at home in this setting - I'd like to see this more up front. "Nerve endings" surprised me, because I don't ordinarily expect a "mechanic" to have sophisticated medical knowledge. The "torch" fits with industrial age, but the view outside the window gives us "armored helm" which sounds medieval-ish, "metal horse," which sounds rather Steampunk. Then there's "sword," which again sounds medieval-ish. I come out at the end rather confused. Given what you've described, which is that there are two time periods involved, and that both are declines from past human colonization of a planet, I'm looking for more specifics. I'll go into this in more depth as the workshop progresses, but you should try to use Lanuz as your vehicle for the reader's understanding. What he knows should be what the reader knows, and even if he doesn't know about the Earth connection, he should have an awareness from the very beginning that he's in a foreign place, hurting and needs help, but everything around him is unfamiliar, and he doesn't know what kind of help he'll get.

3. Jeanne Tomlin
The name "Wrai" tells us this isn't a real world. I immediately notice "window-cracking" as a metaphor for breaking and entering - and I like it. It definitely takes us away from the more generic associations of, say, "thief." "Sharista" fits with Wrai. "Dice" are emotionally evocative but very flexible in their time/place association. "Executioner" immediately gives me the black-hooded guy with the axe, and makes me think of medieval technology. It also makes me think of death, so I'm not sure it's quite the right word for someone who cuts of your hands only. "Flogging" gives me a similar old-English feel. "Leather and homespun" works with this as well, and so does "inn," and the "muddy street." As we discussed, you might look for another name for Shelton so that we don't tip over into thinking this is a fantasy England. You say that these people fled from another place in order to settle here. For what reason? Ethnic, religious? Their origin might give you a direction for how they'd name their towns. The word "workers" stood out as too generic. This is a great opportunity to show critical elements of your world. What kind of workers are they? Can you add one or two words to tell me? "Manse" was interesting in that it is non-standard, but I wasn't sure of the shape of these places. Are they the same as the brick houses? "Carriage" moves the time period up considerably, maybe to the 1700's. "Summer wine" feels very English/faery to me. "Hickory-wood" seems very English also; I'd avoid "hickory" because it is not a generic-sounding wood, and will evoke Earth or a fantasy equivalent. I'll stop listing words because they're all rather well-aligned with one another. You're definitely getting a fantasy-Earth-England-1700's tech thing going here. If that's not what you want, then you might look for places to defeat it. Add in something early on that is unique to your world, so that people's expectations are deflected slightly. You might want to check out this post for ideas for your naming/language issue.

4. David Marshall
The first word I notice here is "ancient beyond imagining." That evokes Egypt, or ancient magic, etc. - the word "ancient" has a very specific meaning in our world. "Telepath" is something I associate with modern stories. "Tequila" puts us somewhere in relation to Earth, and "Veil" tells us we're not on Earth - but note that we have nothing so far that unequivocally places the current time period. "Beer"/"liquor"/"tequila" are all Earth things, but still could be stuff she gets from across the Veil, and we know nothing about the circumstances under which she crosses it, except for "smuggles." So far she could be a goddess who lives outside of the Earth universe an happens to like alcohol. "SoundPod" is a very science-fiction-y coined word, and "Lingerie Valkyries" is very Earth, too (so is "Valhalla"). Evidence is mounting that she is on Earth right now, probably in some Earth future. But can she be on Earth and not on Earth at the same time? Evidently so, but we get no information as to the relation between the two places. The Veil could be a dimensional border, or it could be a time-travel barrier - we don't know. "Voidwatch" is interesting, but not terribly informative; I have to assume because of "watch" that it is related to some kind of police function. "Cybergirl" gives me another hint that we're on future Earth, making the idea of the Veil as a time-travel barrier more persuasive. This may be why I have little idea what our protagonist means when she talks about the "Thin Red Line between Reality and Chaos." She could mean that the Voidwatch wear red uniforms (ref. The Thin Blue Line) - she could mean that the appearance of the Veil is red. We don't know. I want her character, and her knowledge of the world, to be more present in this excerpt. I'll discuss that a bit more later as we move forward.

5. Catreona
The first word I see here is "well shaft," but wells can exist in all sorts of places, so I don't know where I am yet. I notice "thanked the Lord" and it suggests Earth religion - a hint about our protagonist, but it doesn't say much about the location. Not until the word "humans" do I have an idea that there might be aliens involved. This is confirmed by "Strlinkmr" later in the same sentence. "Colonists" tells me this is an Earth colony on an alien planet, which gives me spaceships, and all the technology thereunto appertaining. But we don't see any of it in the environment, which seems very distant. Then she withdraws from it, giving us even less. "Black hole's event horizon" fits with the alien planet idea. She remembers (vaguely) the "Black hole of Calcutta," so she has studied Earth history. Her description of it seems to repeat the description of her current situation, and doesn't add a lot. "Keith" and "Tuesday" tell me that the universe still has standard Earth names; totally fine. "Prosperous little farm" makes me think of an American or English homestead, and I need details to show me how farming on Strlinkmrlad differs from that on Earth, because surely it does. "Concourse" is a curious word, but I don't know what it means. "Spaceport" fits with the alien colony image. My biggest concern here is that I have no sense of the environment at all. It seems completely generic to the "alien colony" idea, and I know nothing about the Strlinkmr except that they're impassive and similar to one another. I need visuals; I need details. Cindy's experience needs to be unique and personal to her, and grounded in her understanding of her world.

I welcome your comments. Please ask for clarification if you need to; if you think that I've missed something, explain it to me and we'll try to see how it can be fitted in. For those who want a peek into the future, I'm going to be laying my eleven world questions on you very soon. They are here: look specifically at second set, the close character-based versions of the questions, and feel free to start getting thoughts.

More soon...