Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Interview up at Dave Steffen's Blog

Dave Steffen has kindly interviewed me in conjunction with the appearance of "Cold Words," which is now on the stands in Analog. If you're curious to see what we talked about, the link is here. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cross-country differences in food (milk and bread)

Since I'm currently in Australia, I've been put in the position of noticing differences between this country and the US - and explaining them to my kids. For example, last night I had to explain to my son that the reason he didn't like the glass of milk they brought him was because every country's milk tastes slightly different, depending on how they process it post-cow. And in fact it appears that the higher the fat content of the milk, the more distinct the taste difference is.

My least favorite milk is the UHT super-pasteurized milk they carry in boxes in Europe. I can hardly stand to drink it. My favorite is the one I'm used to, US milk - but I definitely prefer either 1% or 2% milk fat rather than whole or skim. The other one I remember is having milk fresh out of a cow in England when I was fifteen. That was quite an eye-opener as well.

The day we arrived here in Australia we went to the grocery store, and I went looking for bread. In fact, I'm very proud of the bread that I found - a sort of whole-grain bread, not too thickly sliced, which has been lovely for the purposes of toast in the mornings. The final measure of its success? My kids will eat it. They're actually a bit wary of white bread, which makes me proud.

A few years ago when we were here, we decided to make French Toast for my sister-in-law's family and I asked her and my husband to buy ciabatta for the purpose. Interestingly, though my sister-in-law was skeptical about their chances of finding any, it was easily available. So Italian-style breads are available in Australia (focaccia most definitely is, too).

Bread is one of the foods that I've noticed varies most widely, both in the way it's prepared (its flavor) and the way it's perceived.

The most remarkable bread I've ever eaten I had in Germany. My mother bought it, so I couldn't tell you what kind it was. It was dark, pungently flavorful and very toothy. I wouldn't say it was the most delicious, precisely, but I will tell you I've never eaten another bread like it.

My favorite breads come from France. But a baguette in the US is not the same is a baguette from the country of its origin. My husband and I visited France in 1998, and I remember saying to my him before we left that he was going to love the bread.

"Bread is bread," he said.

"No it's not. The bread in France is different. It's just so good."

"I'm sure it's good," he said. "But bread is bread."

Then we actually got there and his eyes went wide on a first bite of baguette. He actually went so far is to apologize to me for arguing - which is quite a concession, believe me! Bread in France, well, really matches my idea of what delicious bread should be.

I say "matches my idea" because not everyone has the same idea about bread. Take Japan, for example. Not only is bread not a primary staple there in the way it is in the US, but perceptions of what bread should be like are totally unlike what I'm used to.

I saw an advertisement there for bread - generally a great way to get a basic read on what is considered ideal. In this advertisement, there was a close-up shot of a slice of bread: the bread was white and perfectly square, and the slice was about one inch thick. Then a pair of attractive female fingers appeared from the lower right-hand corner of the screen and pinched the corner of the slice. When they released it, the ad remarked on the wonderful way the bread sprung back into shape.

My own response? "Please don't buy me any of that." I've actually eaten it, mind you. If you pinch the bread hard enough, you can compress it down to about 1/4 of its original thickness, which is just appalling. It's Wonder bread taken to an extreme.

Compare that reaction to my lovely Japanese host mother's reaction when my husband and I bought a lovely round crusty loaf of rye-raisin-walnut bread in the specialty area of a department store. We brought it home to her place, but she was reluctant to try it. Finally we managed to convince her and her two kids to try some, and they actually liked it quite a bit - but some hours later my host mother told us she was very surprised that it tasted good, because the loaf "looked dirty."

That was a piquant little cultural difference that fascinated me. It's worth thinking about.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Grappling with, and Portraying, Discrimination

This post was inspired in part by a comment on the Analog forum about how difficult it is to portray discrimination if you've never been subjected to it. In fact, I think that it's difficult to portray well even if you have been subjected to it.

The other source of inspiration is an epiphany I had about portraying discrimination in a story that I've already written, but which I was never fully happy with.

I'll start by talking about the experience of discrimination. I'm from the US, which means that ideologically I'm not supposed to value discrimination on any basis. On the other hand, I do recognize that it exists all around me. For one thing, I'm female, and while I've never been told by my own parents that I can't do something because I'm a girl, I've been told it in other contexts. Believe it or not, when I was a kid I got really ticked about the way boys could go shirtless and girls couldn't.

My experience of discrimination changed and sharpened when I went to live in Japan. Wow, was that interesting. The variety of reactions I got was quite remarkable. Here's a sample:
  • There were the people who asked to touch my hair.
  • There were the hairdressers who told me they couldn't help me because I had fluffy hair like a cat's.
  • There were the people who wouldn't sit next to me on the train, even though it was packed.
  • There were the people who didn't recognize that I was speaking Japanese until I addressed them directly, because they just couldn't believe Japanese would be coming out of a face like mine.
  • There were other people (fewer, fortunately) who never did recognize that I was speaking Japanese.
  • There were people who would praise my Japanese up and down, making sure to remark on how difficult Japanese was for foreigners - at first I found this nice, and later I realized that many people would say this for anyone who could put together a basic sentence, so it really ended up belittling all my work.
  • There were also people who told me I spoke Japanese "too well" and that it made them uncomfortable - I suppose because they wanted to keep it for themselves and they felt invaded by my skills.
I also got gender discrimination in Japan - probably less than a Japanese woman would, but at one point I was told that because I was attending Ochanomizu Women's University (where the government had chosen to place me) that I must be smart for a girl. I nearly went apoplectic.

I once had a five-minute argument with a male professor over a point of English language grammar, because he decided to expound an analysis that was incorrect before he gave me a chance to answer the question he'd asked me. And this wasn't linguistics stuff, folks - he asked me the function of the word "but" in a complex sentence. It took me a while to realize he wouldn't back down, and I was in trouble because I don't believe in capitulating to something I think is incorrect, so I just said I couldn't agree with him and sat down. The girls in the class were open-mouthed at my audacity; the professor never spoke to me again. I am not proud of this, in fact, because it shows me that I'd missed some critical cues to the social situation.

I spent a lot of years learning to understand Japanese culture and social context, but I never learned to find it easy. As my husband says, "The good thing about being a foreigner in Japan is that you never get treated like you're Japanese. The bad thing is, you never get treated like you're Japanese."

The experience was an eye-opener, for sure. I've only started to scratch the surface with the things I've mentioned here.

For the purposes of writing fiction, I would begin by making the following observation: discrimination is complex. It is pervasive, and it has many different faces, all of which will show themselves in the relevant contexts. Even people's attempts to be nondiscriminatory in one way can show their bias indirectly in other ways. And even though I resent bias, I understand that I hold many biases myself, subconsciously.

If you want to show discrimination in your world, it's not enough to show people calling one another names. That's the obvious one - and you can do it, but you should also try to push beyond it into the overall picture of how a society marginalizes one group of people. Explore the limits of how your people define "self" and its value, and how they define "other." All the nuances of these definitions will make themselves felt in different social contexts.

I've dealt with this in more than one of my stories. Cold Words definitely deals with questions of superiority, inferiority, and the perception of discrimination between people. I also deal with this a lot in Varin, which has a complex caste structure with seven different levels.

My recent epiphany had to do with Varin, and in particular with my main character in one of the novels, a girl called Meetis. Meetis is a subversive (if not a revolutionary) because she chooses to look beyond the easy caste-based definitions of people and try to fathom their motives; she believes that people have common human characteristics in spite of caste. Here's the problem: this view of hers appears to be quite normal to many modern Americans. Thus, when I began the story with her, she appeared to be rather insipid and I was never able to get fully in touch with what her subversive character would be. Now, I'm thinking about it differently, and I won't be starting her part in the story until three or four chapters in.

The trick is to set up the context of discrimination first. To show the blatant abuse, to show the subtleties of labeling while visiting the POV of characters who are not at all like Americans. Once I can get that moving in all of its multidimensional horrible qualities, then when she shows up on the scene, her views will stand in contrast to what I've established as the norm. And now that I'm thinking about it in these terms, I'm starting to see how hard Meetis has had to work to maintain her views - the pressure she's been under to change, even within her own loving family, and the fierceness with which she must hold her beliefs because she knows precisely how dangerous they are.

Are any of you dealing with discrimination issues? I'd love to hear about it.

I will also note that on Wednesday night I'll be leaving for two and a half weeks in Australia. During that time I should have internet access, but I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do. I'll be back here in California - and seriously jetlagged - on August 10th.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sheila Finch at TTYU!

Please welcome Sheila Finch, Nebula award winner and author of eight science fiction novels, who has agreed to blog here as a guest and tell us a bit about the experience of developing and writing in the universe she explores in her stories about The Guild of Xenolinguists. Now, turning it over to Sheila...

I wish somebody had warned me, when I wrote the first lingster story, that I had just set out to create a whole series of tales about communicating with aliens, my own universe, let alone an entire Guild of Xenolinguists with all its rules and precepts. I might have taken the endeavor more seriously right from the start instead of having to make it fit as I went along, with too many occasions where I found myself thinking, Oh no! I didn’t say that in a previous story, did I? How on earth am I going to get around it?

The novel that came to be called TRIAD (1986) started as notes on African native cultures that quickly morphed into notes about an alien one. I was at UCLA for a quarter on a fellowship, studying South African literature, crafts and (dabbling in) language. It wasn’t the first novel that I’d written (actually it was the fifth – or sixth if we count a perfectly ghastly one that eventually went into the trash can) but it was published as my second. But somewhere in the writing the word xenolinguist appeared, and a Guild that trained them. The author hardly noticed.

“Babel Interface” was supposed to be a one-off story about alien communication (which I’d been convinced for many years wasn’t going to be as easy as Star Trek portrayed it). It’s a story whose birth pangs I don’t even remember – that’s how casually I dropped in details about the “Guild” back on Earth that Tomas worked for, or the fact that such communicators were called “lingsters,” or the field pack of interface drugs they relied on. But there they were.

I didn’t sell that story right away (several editors disliked it thoroughly), and I went on to write other stories. Meanwhile, I continued reading books about language, a major passion of mine. And somewhere along the line I started wondering what Whorf and Chomsky, Pinker – and all the other linguistic scholars whose books I bought as soon as they were published – might have to say about talking to aliens. I began noodling around with an article on how we might eventually approach the problem. I’m not even certain that I took the matter too seriously even then, judging from the title: “Berlitz in Outer Space.” But I had fun dreaming up the first class in
Xenolinguistics 101.

An editor finally bought “Babel,” and wanted to see “Berlitz” too. He finally printed both in the same edition of Amazing Stories in 1988. But even then I didn’t seem to understand the trap I’d laid for myself. “A World Waiting” was under construction about that time, and I was thoroughly distracted by the marvelous experience I’d just had of hearing my unborn granddaughter’s heart beat and seeing her ultrasound picture which I knew was going into the story somehow. Then one morning I realized that my lingster (the term had stuck) was
dragging her luggage into a tent and that the luggage had a logo on it – and the Guild of Xenolinguists finally made it into the author’s consciousness.

The rest is history, or maybe bibliography. There are now two novels and eleven stories about the lingsters, not to mention a couple of borderline stories where the lingsters themselves never appear.

What would I have done differently if somebody had warned me at the beginning what I was doing? Well, for one thing I wouldn’t have founded the Mother House of the Guild in Geneva. I had to do some hand-waving in “First Was the Word,” last written but first in the timeline, to explain that. And, if the reader notices, Triad is apparently set in a female-dominated world which had to be conveniently ignored in later stories. The role of Artificial Intelligence changed over the years too, from Earth’s warm and fuzzy CenCom to the Venatixi AI that acknowledges no loyalties. Little details like that. About midway through, I stopped and wrote myself a
“bible” of the Guild and its teachings; I wish I’d had it from the beginning.

So do I now know all there is to know about the Guild and the lingsters? Heavens no! At least, not consciously. I’m currently working on a longer story – maybe a novella – set at the very end of the cycle, and I’m constantly surprising myself with things my unconscious mind apparently knew that I didn’t. Such as why Humans and Venatixi fought a war in “Out of the Mouths,” or who the Sagittans were whose presence Gia experienced in Triad.

Maybe I had to hide the fact I was creating a series from myself in order not to scare myself off from writing?

Many thanks to you, Sheila, for sharing your thoughts.
For all those who would like to learn more about her work, her website is at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/ .

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Deciphering an unknown language...

This post is a response to Marian's question of a few days ago.

I have seen some of the instances Marian refers to, of humans trying to decipher alien communication beginning with numbers. David Marshall also has a good point about chemistry. In effect, the idea behind these approaches is to try to find understanding by starting with something we know we must have in common.

I'm not convinced that these things would work in actual practice, simply because they rely in large part on our own perception of the separation of objects.

However, in SF generally there is a degree of commonality embedded in the premise. Sometimes the only assumption is that of common perception of objects and numbers. Sometimes it's greater, as when an author asks you to accept a computer that is able to process and decipher language, or when an author asks you to accept a machine translator (or babel fish!)

In her Xenolinguist stories, Sheila Finch often deals with thorny questions related to how alien contexts and physiologies would influence language form - and in fact, she'll be guest blogging here in the next day or so to talk a bit about her design of the Xenolinguists' universe.

In my own stories, I like to pick up at a point where linguists feel they've already got the language largely under control, and deal with the fine points of culture, dialect, and the significance of language.

But the question was how to get past numbers into deciphering more of a language. The key, I think, is context.

The folks who write about the numbers-based communication strategy are setting up a very hard problem, dealing as they are with signals sent at a distance. This kind of communication, much like writing, is highly divorced from the original context of communication.

Humans tend to see objects as separate from one another and assign words to them. This is the vocabulary, or lexicon. When humans are working in a close context of togetherness and shared activity, often enough only a single word is enough to evoke the correct meaning, as when the doctor says "scalpel" over the patient in the operating room. The further away one moves from immediate shared context, the more language features become necessary to get the message across. This is essentially the origin of grammar - pieces of sound (in the human case) stuck in with the object information to show relation, in cases when the relation is not immediately clear to both parties. Writing takes this phenomenon to an extreme, while transmission of data over interstellar distances pushes it even farther.

Humans have powerful language-processing mechanisms built into their brains. We are able to track sounds with powerful accuracy, identifying separate clicks even when they are delivered at quite high speeds - I saw an article on this in the New York Times while in Chicago a few weeks ago. When light flashes occur at the same rate, the eye perceives it as continuous motion and is unable to separate it.

Another thing humans are able to do is perceive frequency of occurrence. If I were to give you two words, say, "true" and "identifiable," you could probably give me an accurate ranking of which one occurs more commonly in English, right off the top of your head. This is a tremendous advantage in deciphering language, whether it be auditory or visual.

So what we do when we see communication is we try to identify patterns that repeat in similar contexts. If we went to an alien planet, the best approach would probably be to get as close as possible to aliens and begin taking samples of their language with as much contextual information as possible - both physical, temporal, and social. Since those contextual cues may not be the same ones we typically use, having sophisticated sensors and computer power at our fingertips would probably be a great help. Once we figure out correspondences, we can start assigning tentative meanings. Having a local resident to test these meanings on, even if it means playing recordings of things that human vocal tracts find unpronounceable, is an indispensable step.

Even so, this process would certainly take years.

The last thing I'll add tonight is a couple of examples of context and frequency distinctions, from the area of phonology. Linguistics talks about something called a "minimal pair," which is the diagnostic test for a phoneme. It goes roughly like this: if you change one single sound in a word, and the meaning of the word changes, then that single sound is a phoneme. The two words, one with one sound and one with the other, are called minimal pairs.

"bit" and "bat" show that short "i" and short "a" are separate phonemes from each other.

On the other hand, aspirated "t" and non-aspirated "t" both occur in English, but are allophones, or two different forms of the same phoneme, because they can be related by a rule, and don't make the difference between separate words.

"tar" contains aspirated "t"
"star" contains non-aspirated "t" - but the non-aspirated "t" is present because of the "s" preceding it.

These two types of "t" are phonemes in at least one Indian language (I can't cite a minimal pair, however, not knowing Indian languages well myself; perhaps one of my readers could give me an example).

I hope that sheds a little light on this process; I certainly have enormous respect for the linguists who have gone out into the field and taken on languages previously unknown to them. Marian, you can always let me know if you have other questions.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Characters and Direction

The responses to my last post really got me thinking about characters and their relation to a story.

Characters have always felt very real to me, as though they were my friends and not simply the creations of my imagination. I often discover that characters I designed as mere walk-ons will end up taking on greater importance as a story progresses. And I do feel that they have wills of their own, because when I submerge myself in them, I feel their voices and their desires more strongly than I do my authorial planning.

Often when I'm having trouble getting through a scene, I discover that what is missing is a deep sense of what one of the characters needs. Sometimes that missing point is a sense of the judgment of the point of view character, and other times it's the motivation of the other person in the conversation (as happened recently with the romantic lead in my novel).

I originally started writing short stories as a way to get to know characters who couldn't be point of view characters in the novels I was writing, but whom I wanted to know better. This means that when I first wrote short stories, they felt like vignette snippets from a larger piece of work, and I needed to do a lot of work to grasp the structure of a stand-alone short story. But I did find that going to the trouble of creating a voice for a character helped me to understand them better for the purposes of both the short story and the novel. My main bad guy from the Varin world, the Eminence Nekantor, became a completely different character when I got close enough to figure out precisely how he thinks. Now I find that I love a really challenging character voice - like the mentally ill Nekantor or the alien Rulii - even when it can take me an hour to get into the proper head space to write the voice fluently.

It can sometimes be difficult to know which character to use for the primary backbone of a story. Janice Hardy was the one who really drove the critical criterion home to me: it's a question of stakes. The primary point of view must belong to the person who has the most to gain or lose in the course of the story. So while dallying in other viewpoints can be instructive and help you to flesh out a story, it's not necessarily what will get the story written. To extend the backbone metaphor, if you don't have your backbone in the right place, it's hard to know where to hang the flesh so the body will actually work properly. I wrote about half of a novel believing that my backbone character was one person, and then found it petering out. Only some time later did I realize that I'd picked the wrong person. Now that I have the focus placed correctly, the outline of the story is clear to me from beginning to end, and I can't wait to write it.

Janice and I got talking after my last post about the question of letting a character take charge of the story's direction. She pointed out to me that what I had described as letting the story follow the character was somewhat misleading, because it could have been construed as meaning that the story had no direction and rambled on wherever the character wanted to go. Of course, I thought, that wasn't what I meant. Janice has a way of knowing precisely what the stakes of a story are, how to escalate them dramatically, and where and how she wants to bring the story to an end - but she's amazingly flexible about the details of how she gets there, and that's where she listens to where her characters want to go.

There are a lot of story markets out there that talk about how they look for "character driven" stories. This is opposed to "plot driven" stories. I find that if I don't care about a character, I don't care about the story. This is something different from disliking a character. I can hate them, as long as I care about what happens and whether they get what they want or not. The decisions the character makes, and the actions the character takes, must critically affect what happens in the story, particularly the final outcome. Yes, there's room for external influences - attacks, or natural disasters, or simple bad luck - but these have to be present in conjunction with the character's goals and drives, or the story will just feel like a lot of meaningless stuff happening.

The idea of goals and stakes for a character is independent of the choice of first or third person point of view, or degree of narrative distance. A story usually has a character trying to achieve something, or trying to make some kind of decision. The character is our guide to how to feel and understand the world in which he or she moves.

Love them or hate them, we need to care about our characters.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Puppet Problem

This post is inspired by the Question Box. (If you have a question, this is a great place to put it.) My anonymous Romanian poster says, "the problem is that the protagonist is a female and I seem to have some difficulties in getting the character's pov. Feels a bit artificial, like maneuvering a puppet. I didn't manage to get 'inside.'"

This question makes me think a little of my friends Mary Robinette Kowal and K Richardson - because Mary is a puppeteer, and K is in theater. While I'm not sure precisely what they would say about this topic, I do think the task of getting into writing a character is a lot like the task of acting one.

I personally feel that I need to know a lot about a character in order to write him or her. The amount of what I need to know isn't precisely measurable, and I'm sure that different people feel they need to know different things about their characters. However, I would say that you need to delve deep into a character in order to make him or her feel non-mechanical. What we don't want is for the character to feel author-directed.

So what makes a character feel author-directed? Usually in my experience it's that the character is put into the story for a reason decided by the author, and the author has a lot of ideas about what the character then "has to do" in order to make the story work.

In order for a character to feel organic, that person needs to be self-directed. That means the author should sit down and figure out what that character's cultural viewpoint and backstory is, to the extent that it is relevant to his or her decisions about the actions he or she must take in the plot. The things that we know about our characters show in everything we write about them. If we don't fill them out sufficiently, our own minds and motivations will fill in those subconscious blanks, and that's when the character will start feeling strange.

Here's an example. The character Rulii, in Cold Words, must have difficulty communicating with the human linguist Parker and the human diplomat Hada - but he must not be able to figure out precisely why. In order for this to appear natural, I have to get deeply in touch with the possible factors that may be confusing him. He knows he feels discomfort with Parker when he speaks because Parker is trying to be deferential to him, and he's trying to be deferential to Parker at the same time. That's the surface level. His discomfort is deeper, though, because mutual deference is perceived in his society as a sign of low class, or of extreme intimacy. Because he values Parker, he doesn't want to think of their language as low class, but because he is a Council member in a business relationship with an alien, the idea of intimacy with him makes Rulii very uncomfortable. Furthermore, Parker tries to use an alien term ("friend") to describe their relationship, and the social implications of this are also very troubling to Rulii. When all of these factors come together, Rulii feels very uncomfortable, but enough possible causal factors are present that he can be plausibly confused about which one is the most important.

This is a complex example. However, I'd say to go about creating building blocks for your character's self-animation, you should start simple and let additional complexities suggest themselves (I "discovered" the whole problem with "friend", for example).

Start by considering what you want the character to achieve, and ask yourself whether that is what the character wants to achieve. If it isn't, ask yourself what the character really is trying to achieve, and make sure you have your plot events lined up to push him or her off-course just enough to arrive where you want. Once you know what your character is trying to achieve, ask yourself why.

The harder your character must work to achieve this goal, the more motivations he or she will need in order to justify all that effort. So just wanting to stay alive will work, but it's more powerful if there are also additional personal reasons. Think about what those might be, and try to ground them in something inside the character: a personal motto perhaps, the culture of a group that he or she belongs to, a personal experience with a mentor or during childhood, etc.

I have had the experience of writing a character and having them not do what I wanted them to do. Maybe I'm lucky because my characters do take on lives of their own. But if they're not behaving appropriately, I still have a problem. The moment I try to make them do what I want, they're working for me and not for themselves - they turn into puppets, or bodies, that I have to shove through the motions. Not good.

I know two solutions to a problem like this. One is the one that my friend Janice Hardy often follows: just let the character go where he or she wants to go, and let the story follow. I have a tougher time with this, so I usually go with the second solution: go back and change the nature of the character. If the character is too aggressive, go back and create a background or set of experiences that will temper the character's judgment in the situation you want. Maybe he's aggressive with other men, but his father taught him to protect women and that tempers him in the scene where he needs to be gentler with a female character, for example.

I don't usually interview my characters, but I know many writers who do - or who write a piece from the character's point of view just to let him or her act naturally for a while and help the author feel in touch. That can be a useful piece of preparation, even if you don't actually plan to write the character in first person point of view. I also have a set of questions related to characters and their relationship to the world they grew up in that might be useful, here.

I hope that has shed some light on the topic; I welcome any further comments or questions.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Westercon report

It was a whirlwind day yesterday. I got up at 4 am and took a 6:20 flight to Phoenix, whence I found my way to Westercon by around 8:30. If you know how people party on Saturday nights at conventions, you might already have guessed that things were pretty quiet around the place.

I always like to hang around the social rooms, like the green room, to meet people. I've met a lot of very cool authors that way, and I had some great conversations today also. I used some of my extra energy, on behalf of those who had less, to help organize the food in the Con Suite.
Before the panel started, I got to meet Alastair and Marian from the Analog forum who were in the audience. That was fun!

The alien language panel was super-awesome. I think the greatest thing about it was that all three of us - Stan Schmidt, Sheila Finch, and I - were both qualified and excited about the topic of designing alien languages. We talked about them from all kinds of angles. Evolution of language, physiology and its relationship to language form, phonology, morphology, and many other things including how to render alien languages so they're comprehensible in English (always important so people will keep reading your story!).

One of the things that Stan Schmidt brought was a pair of recordings which really added to the depth of the discussion. The first was of animal sounds from Earth - birds, insects, and others. My favorite - and clearly his also - was the willow ptarmigan, a tundra bird that sounds as if it is really speaking a language. That was a striking thing to listen to! He also had a recording of messages in a language he'd created that used vowels, pitch and length to distinguish meanings. What a great example for the group to consider!

I think there were about 20 people in the audience. They were great, too - very engaged, listening well, awake (and on Sunday at a Con, this is no small feat), and asking great questions.

After that I got to eat lunch with my fellow panelists, which was also very enjoyable. We talked a bit about language at that point, and also about stories and about Dr. Schmidt's editing experiences. Fascinating stuff. I promised I would do my best to get a new story out to Analog by October - so I have my work cut out for me now.

It was a great, exhausting day. You're welcome to ask questions if you're curious about anything else.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A late amendment...

For any of you who may be going to look for me tomorrow at Westercon, the time of the alien languages panel is 11:00am (not 10) in the Capistrano room. My reading is still at 2, in the Boardroom.

I'll try to post a report as soon as I get back...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Layers of Complexity - Revisions

My friend Janice has a great recent post about keeping up with the fundamentals of writing even after you feel confident that you know them. It's here, and she directs her readers to an interesting post on dialogue by Sara Crowe, here.

One of the things I take away from this is that what we as writers create is larger than our own conscious ability to grapple with it. Thus, even when we "know" a lot of things, it's not possible to hold them all in our minds at once, and it's good to go back later and look consciously at the hints our subconscious has tried to leave behind.

My novel, now in final revisions, has been a real challenge on this score. It's got layers upon layers - so many that I suspect most readers won't even notice a lot of them on the first read-through. I discovered when I first started describing the content of Through This Gate to people that when I gave them the kernel of the story - the query paragraph, really - they had no trouble grasping it. But when I talked about some of the different things I had put into executing the story, they mistakenly guessed it would be difficult to read.

My critiquers tell me it's not difficult to read. Thank goodness.

But this post is intended to be more about writing than about reading. When you're putting together a draft, the most challenging parts of drafting can take a lot of your attention, siphoning it away from other aspects of the manuscript. There's nothing wrong with this. It's totally appropriate.

For example, I have a character who speaks in verse. I can't just write his dialogue all at once. I have to understand the content first, then try to hash out the verse, then go back on a third pass and make sure the verse isn't clunky and the content is appropriately conveyed with all the nuances it needs. On the first pass, I have enough bandwidth to think about the progress of the scene as a whole, the tension etc. required to keep the scene moving forward. On the second pass, I'm not paying attention to the scene at all, but merely trying to get the meter right. On the third pass I'm trying to take the metrical side and the whole-purpose side of things and make sure they match correctly: the verse doesn't distract from the content, nor does the content destroy the verse.

The other thing I've noticed with these revisions is even quite late in the revisions, I keep making tiny error-catches. Spots where I've been so concentrated on the language, and the drive of the story, that I've lost sight of things like the direction from which the sun is supposed to be coming, or what outfit the protagonist is wearing right now and the fact that if she gets turned upside down, yes, her skirt is going to flip up over her head.

My friend Janice also did a post on copy editors, and why we should treasure them. Well, this is one of the reasons. They are trained to tease apart the levels of a story and catch things on all of them - hooray for them!

But in the meantime, we as writers have to keep track as best we can.

It's easy sometimes for me to get demoralized while drafting, thinking about all the revisions I still have ahead of me. But then when I get to them, I generally find I love finding the extra layers of significance. It's perhaps a bit like aging wine; it gains so much complexity and quality with a bit of extra time. Some of my friends and I also like to use the sculpting metaphor, where you take away layers of stone to get to the statue inside. With each level I reach, I discover that being there gives me more insight into the next level.

I try to forgive my conscious brain for not being preternaturally able to capture everything. And I try to trust my subconscious to point things out for me. Then on the second revision, the third or the fourth, I pick up each hint it's left for me. That part is the Easter egg hunt - and I love chocolate.