Sunday, September 27, 2009

Many Voices

I read a really interesting post today about writing voice, by S. Boyd Taylor. I encourage you to go and check it out, but to summarize, it said "finding your voice" was a myth and tried to talk about voice in terms of developing a voice, and in fact developing multiple voices. Since voice is something I deal with a lot, particularly in dealing with aliens and with unreliable narrators, I felt inspired by that discussion to talk about it a bit here.

S. Boyd Taylor's discussion includes steps to take to influence your writing voice. He describes this process in terms of how to emulate a favorite author's voice: by reading, defining what you like about that author, figuring out how he/she does it, and then giving it a try. He says the "figuring out how" part is the hardest.

I've never actually tried to emulate the voice of another author, but I know many writers who have - and I know from my experiences exploring writing forums that for every thread that asks "how do I do X?" there will very likely be at least one person who replies, "Find an author who does X. Read him/her. Learn how." What makes the figuring out tricky, though - and this is Mr. Taylor's observation - is quantifying exactly how an author achieves a particular effect. A further complicating factor is the fact that most literary analysis I've encountered uses complex interpretive filters - like feminism, Marxism, modernism, or deconstructionism - to take patterns of language and imbue them with extra layers of meaning which can confuse the issue for a writer.

Personally, I find the question of voice fascinating, and I try to come at it from a linguistic perspective.

This means that when I read, I'm not necessarily going to be able to predict the "meaning" a particular linguistic pattern will have for someone who is bringing a different set of previous experiences and judgments to the table. But I can still identify its features on various linguistic levels (from phonological to semantic and pragmatic) and talk about what its words evoke for me.

It also means that when I write, I use linguistic concepts and analysis. These serve firstly as guides for my instinctive drive to put words on the page, and secondly as tools for editing after the first draft has been set down.

Your first reaction might be to say, "I can't use analysis when I put words down; it will stop me writing." This is definitely a factor. Especially when I am dealing with an alien or with an unreliable narrator, the very first scene I write in a new point of view can feel like it takes forever. Sometimes I fall right into the new pattern, but other times I'll find myself deviating from my rules and have to go back, and it won't be until I'm looking at the scene for a second or third time time that I start getting a gut feel for how the voice works.

So let's get specific about voices, and the tools I use to differentiate them. I thought I'd introduce you to a few of my characters who have deliberately crafted voices, and talk about the linguistic and other features they have. One thing I can tell you right up front is that the common way of distinguishing points of view by pronoun - "first person," "third person" etc. isn't going to help a lot. Except for one, all of these are first person present tense points of view.

1. Dana
(from Through This Gate)

"I swear, [Mom's] trying to make Caitlyn hate me for getting into college. It's working, too - Caitlyn's been looking daggers at me all day, as if it was my fault she got herself depressed and addicted to sleeping pills and had to be dragged home for Mom's special brand of detox."

Dana is an almost "normal" voice, because she's a real-world kind of girl. But I do watch out for her voice all the time. For example, she's less likely to say what she thinks with "I think" than with more emotionally charged phrases such as "I swear." She uses modern-day concepts and vocabulary like addiction and "detox" (a very modern term). Where she uses modern slang, I make sure to check her language use with age-appropriate friends of mine, because slang is very easy to overdo. The most slang-like phrase in this example is "as if" (as if it was my fault). I can usually feel Dana's attitude and get into her voice just by reading a short scene.

2. Tenjiro and Ryuuji
(from "Smoke and Feathers")

" blood turns hot. They've got Ryuuji. I'm whirling to go when Takada-sensei's voice says, 'Tenjiro-kun, wait a second, I want to talk to you.' I must stay and bow, though I want to run. Sensei starts telling me again how he wants me to go out for kendo club after school. I can hardly stand still."

"I don't feel like myself tonight. I shut my eyes, drain all the energy from my body, become a puddle in my futon. Maybe this way she will spare me. I hear the door open, and soon Baba's breath blows over my left ear; I breathe slowly, slowly."

Tenjiro and Ryuuji are two Japanese twin brothers. Their culture is reflected in their use of titles (like Sensei) and what they treat as known information (kendo club). The two boys' voices are both first person, but they are distinct from one another because they have different features. Tenjiro's major metaphors are those of fighting, birds, and heat. He uses contractions most of the time. He constantly uses phrases like "try," "struggle," and "have to." Ryuuji's major metaphor is that of water. He is more self-reflective (as when he speaks of his body), and less reactive. He also uses fewer contractions, which makes him sound more formal. I found this story easy to write, but went back through in revision to enhance the differences between the boys' voices.

3. Nekantor (from "The Eminence's Match," forthcoming in Eight Against Reality)

"...the Eminence Nekantor frowned down across his naked ribs. Look: two buttons at the waist of his silk trousers. Fastened, both of them, completely fastened. Deceptively fastened. They had been fastened wrong: lower-then-upper, not upper-then-lower. The difference stuck to the buttons like fingerprints. The difference felt like fingers pressing on his mind."

Nekantor has obsessive compulsive disorder, and his prose is designed to reflect this. He repeats himself (fastened/difference/fingerprints/fingers). He has an obsessive refrain for each scene in which he appears (in this one, it's "fingers"). He never expresses uncertainty. He uses words with insulting, dismissive, or suspicious connotation whenever possible (deceptively, wrong). He frequently uses "must," because he wants everything around him to conform to his altered perception of reality. The first scene I ever wrote in his point of view, I wrote on my gut - then stepped back and analyzed it for features to take forward into other scenes in his point of view. Sometimes he's easy to fall into, but sometimes it can take me an hour just to get into the right head space.

4. Allayo (from "Let the Word Take Me," Analog, July/August 2008)

"The male blasphemes before me: I must avert my face as he allows the sacred Word to escape his mouth in this improper place, so far from the House of Leaves and the Mouth of Singing Crystal. Yet the female is worse. She sits and utters simian calls while a dark box in her lap - O save me! - speaks. Imagine it: to hear the living Word issue from a dead box! My heart quails when I think of it, and I hide my face in atonement for whatever misdeed might have brought me to this test of faith."

Allayo compares everything she sees to sacred stories from her past experience, and to familiar categories (simian, ruff). She uses religious terms for behavior (blasphemes/hide my face in atonement), and religious categories to define things and events (sacred Word, test of faith). Allayo does not use contractions, and this and her use of more archaic or formal vocabulary (avert my face/utters/quails/misdeed) contribute to her sense of general reverence. I wrote this voice mostly from my gut, but my experience with church language was a definite influence.

5. Rulii (from "Cold Words," Analog, October 2009)

"My hackles rise. I know much of unfairness, as the only one of Lowland race on the Cold Council - and also of hidden intent. My own is to use this spaceport to bring Human silver to the Lowlands, thus raising my nape-bitten race. If Parker scents true, this Officer Hada could ruin my hunt before its final pace. 'When will she take foot in La-larrai City?'"

Rulii never uses present progressive forms. The fact that he's always using "do" instead of "am doing" gives him a sense of urgency and constant action, because the use of "am doing" would suggest a sustained state. His major metaphors are those of the hunt (scents true/ruin my hunt before its final pace), and the food chain. He describes interactions in terms of territory dispute and Rank dispute among wolves (nape-bitten). He also uses unusual vocabulary, like "take foot" instead of "arrive," and "show embarrassed" rather than "look embarrassed." His voice also uses unusual meter (rhythm) - I tried to give some of his prose a loping feel (dactyllic/Xxx), and sometimes a striking feel (spondaic/XX). Rulii didn't use contractions in early drafts, but the resulting formal tone actually detracted from the effectiveness of his voice, so I reintroduced them. He was another voice that sometimes took me an hour to get in the right mood for.

6. Tsee (under construction)

"As one, we watch the images shift and move, fishlike, within the sphere. Ship Martials have captured aliens, in fact, truth! They rise homeward to the ship in one of our planet-divers. Four of them, evidently. They are in shock, it seems, no talk among them. But are these four halves, like to other aliens, or are they two wholes, like to us? Not like us, like the Cochee-coco, surely. In the great star pattern with all the races we have met, none have traveled the stars - truth, witnessed - and none have been like us."

Tsee and her brother are twins, never separated, and they never use first person singular pronouns, but speak of themselves as two halves of a whole. This means no "I," "me," or "my." She uses metaphors of music and water. Since alterations in the use of pronouns are extremely marked (difficult for readers to grasp unconsciously) I'm trying not to change much else in her grammar, but I'm trying for a metrical/intonational effect on the phrase and sentence level. Tsee tends to break up her thoughts with short interjections of one or two words, in a call-and-response pattern. Her first scene was extremely difficult to write, because forbidden words kept slipping in (argh!), but I've gone over it and started to get a feel for it now, and it's getting easier.

So after looking at all of these, I'm going to make a list - not an exhaustive list by any means - of some linguistic elements that I use in creating distinct voices.

1. People references.
Names, titles, etc. How characters refer to those around them will reflect how they view them as well as the social structure of their society.

2. Meter/turn-taking patterns
The rhythmic pattern of words, whether it mirrors English, and whether it conforms to expectations.

3. Verb tenses. Affects the sense of time progressing, and gives hints of a character's attitude.

4. Contractions. Contractions aren't actually an on-or-off thing (all vs. none), but the more you use, the less formal your character will sound.

5. Vocabulary. One word alone isn't necessarily going to be enough to affect a character's voice, but if you have lots of words that suggest urgency, rush, or impulsiveness, then your character will start sounding impulsive. The character's choice of vocabulary will reflect the larger metaphors they use as models for their judgments.

6. Metaphor. The imagery used in judgments and descriptions. A person will tend to compare something new in their experience to something more familiar, or to liken parts of their lives to established metaphorical models. So using particular metaphors will establish things like hunting, religion, etc. as known to your character, and also help to establish a "feel."

7. Word Repetition. This is something people will notice, at least on a subconscious level, and it can have different kinds of effects in different contexts (slowing down, speeding up, suggesting obsession, etc.). It's worth looking out for.

Some of these elements I establish intentionally, while others just grow out of the "feel" I get once one or two elements have changed. My general technique is to try a voice for one scene, then run it by some friends to see if it's "working," and then either try to make it more reader-friendly or go, go, go. With the more alien viewpoints, I am careful to ease into them by starting in a place where there's a lot of easy overlap with the existing, familiar patterns of English, and then gradually push them further into the alien.

It's a process I love. You can probably tell - and I hope this post will help you enjoy it, too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Banjo Patterson and Meter

As I experiment with writing a new group of aliens, and at the same time while I prepare a long post on voice (which is as yet not ready to go), I've been thinking quite a bit about meter. I did a post about it here some time ago, here, which lists different types of metrical feet (units), etc.

English has a natural rhythm to its patterns of stressed and non-stressed syllables. That rhythm is generally iambic, or composed of sets of syllables of the following pattern:

x X = one iambic foot

Where a small x is unstressed, and a large one is stressed.

A lot of people, hearing the word "iambic" probably think of Shakespeare and panic. True, Shakespeare did the whole iambic thing beautifully:

"Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum/mer's day?"

(I'll note that the unstressed syllable on "to" is an exception, but an accepted one within this meter. It's explicable, but too complex to go into here.)

But it's probably easy to confuse Shakespeare's use of meter with his use of language generally, and think that it's somehow linked to archaisms and worthy of panic.

Not so.

To illustrate, I bring to your attention the poetry of Banjo Patterson, a perfectly wonderful Australian poet whose work we read tonight at the dinner table. He's the guy who wrote the poem behind the movie, "The Man from Snowy River," and I thought I'd show you a sample from that poem and the poem "Mulga Bill's Bicycle." (The complete poems can be found at the links.)

First, from Mulga Bill's Bicycle (1896):

'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, "Excuse me, can you ride?"
This is basically perfect iambic heptameter - seven iambs to a line. And if you go and read the poem, it's not archaic or stilted. It's hilarious.

Next, iambic with a twist, from The Man from Snowy River (1890):

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses — he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

This one alternates lines of seven and five feet, and does a really interesting extra thing as well - the first foot of all but two of the lines is an anapestic foot, like this:

x x X = one anapestic foot

I can't help but wonder if Banjo Patterson was thinking of horses galloping when he pulled that particular trick. It's marvelous stuff.

I hope you all get a chance to enjoy his work.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Honesty and Politeness

I'm going to begin this post with a hypothetical situation:

You're at High Tea at a nice tea shop with friends and family. Everyone is enjoying eating scones, and giggling about drinking with pinkies raised, etc. The tea sandwiches come out, and someone recommends the cucumber triangles to you. You take one bite and really don't like the sandwich. What do you do?

Okay, I will allow for the assumption that you're not going to break your "tea character," fling the sandwich to the floor and stomp on it before storming out of the place, never to return. But what do you do when you don't want anyone ever to give you another cucumber tea sandwich?

a. Don't say anything, and put the sandwich back on the plate with a bite taken out of it.
b. Don't say anything, and leave the sandwich on your plate without eating it.
c. Say, "That's good," but leave the sandwich on your plate without eating it.
d. Say, "I don't like it."
e. Say, "I'm sorry, but I don't like it."
f. Say, "I'm sorry, but it's not my favorite."
g. Say, "I liked the chicken salad sandwich better."
h. Say, "May I try the mushroom turnover instead?"

There are possible complications to each of these options, if (as you may have guessed) you're one of my kids at the table in this situation. Option a will probably get you yelled at. Option b won't get you yelled at, but it's also possible that no one will notice how much you dislike it, or that Mom will conclude you were full and didn't want anything else. Option c, in my family at least, is considered a lie, and even if you don't get called for dishonesty, you'll probably get asked why you didn't eat it if you actually liked it.

Option d was the one my daughter chose (she's 4). Option e was the one my son chose (he's 6). At the time I accepted these without comment and got them different food, but I did wince a little internally. Mind you, we weren't eating High Tea with the queen, but my impolite radar did go off.

On the way home, I tried to think about how to deal with similar situations in the future. This involved running some more options through my head.

Option f is a fancier version of option e. My sense of this one is that it might work, but it still expresses a negative opinion that might be hurtful to someone's feelings (the cook's?). So I kept thinking until I came up with options g and h. The first of these is more direct, since it provides a comparison with something that you like better. The second leaves the disliking incident entirely behind and focuses on a future, and (we hope) better, outcome.

If you've ever lived through a situation resembling this, then you may notice the way that politeness and honesty appear to be at odds a lot of the time. This is true across every culture that I've encountered personally, and is in fact an enormous resource for me of situations that cause misunderstanding and friction.

Which makes you more of a bad person - to be a social disgrace, or to be a liar?

I have a real aversion to dishonesty. To me this means not that I must say precisely what I mean on every topic, but that I should not say what I do not mean - a different kind of criterion in its practical application. Of all the options I outlined above, only option c involves actual dishonesty from my point of view. This aversion of mine has gotten me into social trouble before, particularly when I was living in Japan - very instructive experience.

I've discussed H.P. Grice's Cooperative Principle before on this blog. Politeness is one of the things that we study in the linguistic discipline of Pragmatics. It's relevant here because avoiding the topic of one's dislike completely, and yet talking about something else that one would like to eat, depends for its understanding on the cooperative assumption that one will not say untrue things, and that one will not say less than one needs to. Obviously if I mention that I want something else to eat, that implies that I needed to say that (for some reason) and thus the astute listener can conclude that the reason is a dislike of cucumber sandwiches.

I always find it fascinating how strong our gut reactions are to perceived impoliteness. Funny as it may sound to a child learning it, I really am much happier to comply with a request that is made politely. It's easy for bad syntax, morphology, phonology, or semantics to be interpreted as the mistake of a language learner, but make a mistake of politeness and you're suddenly no longer just making a learner's mistake - you're a bad person. Students of the Japanese language struggle with this all the time, particularly since in Japanese you can't really say anything at all without putting some kind of politeness marker on it - but it's not restricted to Japanese. It happens in English all the time.

One of the places I see it happening a lot is on online forums, where there aren't a lot of external social cues to help people judge one another's verbal behavior. It's hard to know, in a lot of cases. Where is the fine line between politeness and plain dishonesty? Where is the line between honesty and incitement to flame war? I'm not going to say there's one real answer, because there isn't one - online, there isn't even a single culture to establish the rules of behavior. Most "communities" form their own through habit rather than through a written manifesto.

We all live, speak and act on this borderline, every day. It's a fascinating source of stories for me - and something I'd encourage writers to think about.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Character description: who? when? how?

I got the idea for this post from a thread on the Absolute Write forum, in which a member was asking about how to come up with fresh ways to describe characters' appearance.

It's interesting, but the question of fresh ways to describe appearance does contain a fundamental assumption that character appearance must be described. This isn't always the case. There are plenty of times when readers are happy to fill in an appearance from their own heads, and don't want to be bothered with the details - this is especially true when the action of an exciting story is flying along. So I thought I'd break the question into three parts: who? when? how?

1. Who?

You don't want to describe everyone. When we walk around in the world, we take in everyone's appearance on a basic level, but we don't have to remember it - and our brain takes it in easily as part of its massive parallel processing. When you're writing a story, you have to take that massive stream of parallel input and render it in a single stream of words. The result is this:

The more of the parallel stream of experience you try to capture, the longer the single stream of story language gets, and the more the perception of the passage of story time slows down.

So my general rule for describing appearance is as follows: describe only those people who deserve to be noticed and considered for a non-negligible period of time. I put the rule in this general form because I know some folks out there are writing with character-external narrators. Your narrator is going to have an enormous influence on how you should treat the problem of description (whether it be of characters or setting). Different narrators will concentrate on different things. With an omniscient narrator, the biggest question is who and what in the story the reader needs to notice. With an in-the-action character narrator, the biggest question is who and what in the story that character notices. With an out-of-the-action character narrator, such as a retrospective narrator, you can include stuff that the character noticed in the action, and stuff they noticed or recalled, or looked up, after the action finished. I talked about noticing in my earlier post about unreliable narrators (which some may find illuminating for this discussion, so it's here.)

I should add that I mean these suggestions to apply to all characters - including the point of view character. Ask yourself, for the sake of argument: How much time do I spend focusing on and maintaining my appearance? How much does the question of my appearance intrude on my daily judgments (of, for example, how other people treat me)? If your point of view character doesn't care about his/her appearance at all, and doesn't feel it's relevant to the way others treat him/her, then really there's no reason to slow the reader down and get into details - not to mention that there's no natural context for it.

2. When?

Different authors will likely treat this differently. When I'm powering through and drafting a story, I usually don't even think about the who/when/how questions on a conscious level - I just write. However, when I go back and edit, especially when I've been told by a critiquer that I need to include a description of someone, I try to look for what I call natural context for description.

Natural context for description is that moment of noticing and consideration. When does it happen, and for how long? When you pass someone on the street, what do you notice about them? Chances are it's not going to be their height and weight, unless you've been trained to give police evidence. In a split-second glance, you might notice just one feature - unusual hair, or clothing. If you're close enough to them to be potentially in their sphere of influence, you might notice their size relative to yours. If they are nondescript in a crowd, you might not notice them at all; if they are nondescript but alone, probably all you'll notice is their presence or absence, and maybe a bit of the surrounding context of where or when they appeared. If they are totally and utterly alien but moving too fast to be stared at? You might only notice they were alien. And maybe the color of their blur as it moved by.

Naturally, then, the longer the period of time you have to look - and the better reasons you have for doing it - the more you're going to notice. A character may notice one feature of a person on first glance (in which case, mention it at that point in the story), a few more features in a second encounter, but not actually be able to put together a detailed impression of a person until they've met face-to-face for a period of time.

I've heard people remark that romance includes a lot of description. Well, it does. But there are two very natural reasons for this. First, when we're romantically interested in someone, we're going to spend a lot of time and resources considering them on all possible levels, the easiest of which is appearance. Second, when we're romantically interested in someone, our senses are heightened, which enhances our ability to notice small things in our surroundings. Bang, there you have it - more natural context for description, even independently of authorial style and choices.

Contrast this with moments of high action in a story. Action is where you're going to want to keep description to a minimum. When things happen fast, we don't have time to notice a lot. And when we want readers to perceive that things are happening fast, we don't want to add the extra words that will cause them to feel story time slowing down.

3. How?

Wow, we've finally gotten to how. Let me start by saying that some of the aspects of "how" have already been touched on in the question of "when," at least where it concerns how much description you want to put at different points. So I'm going to try not to concentrate on that, and take the discussion in a bit of a different direction: the noticing and judgment direction.

What one person notices about another at any given time will depend on a lot of personal and cultural factors. Even a split second judgment of "what stands out" isn't necessarily going to direct everyone's attention to the same things. Someone with police training will be able to form split-second descriptions of height, weight, and distinguishing features. Someone with spy training will have very different impressions - possibly notice whether the person is armed, or moves as if they have martial training etc. Does their species stand out most? If they're alien, or if the observer is an alien seeing a human, then maybe so. Or if the character is an older woman judging a younger one in a social context, she may bring a large set of expectations for proper behavior and appearance, and run down a basic checklist of these in her initial judgment of the younger person.

To go back to the question of freshness and originality - if you write your description as befits the individual judgment of a unique point-of-view character, including that character's species, cultural background, individual experience, and social role in the context of the encounter, you're far less likely to describe people the same way twice. And the more time the describing character has to pass judgments, the more divergent these things can become.

Just for fun, here are a couple of character descriptions from my alien points of view.

Allayo the Gariniki describes humans:
"My captors have the faces and ruffs of simians, but are too large and have no tails at all."

Rulii the Aurrel describes human hands:
"Parker shows me his hands: short, stiff, single thumbs placed far to the side; long, long, soft brown fingers ending in covers like pale coins instead of claws. Hand-showing: a human submission move."

Part of why I include these examples is to show difference; part is to show that one character's description of another does more than describe the other: it also reveals things about the one doing the describing. We describe things and people in terms of what we know well. So from Allayo's description we can learn that she knows about small monkeylike creatures with tails. We can also conclude that she isn't one of them. Though we don't have enough information to construct her full appearance, we can be put on the alert to look for more cues to her actual appearance as we go forward (she's a reptile). From Rulii's description we can conclude that Aurrel hands have more than one thumb, that his thumbs are long and flexible, and his fingers are short and have claws. We also get a hint that he cares about submission behaviors.

Comparison between two characters is a great tool to provide natural context for description, especially for description of a point of view character who isn't naturally vain or otherwise focused on his/her appearance.

One last thought: while many times it's great to leave a character's precise appearance to the imagination of the reader, it's worth establishing that character's physical characteristics if they will be relevant later in the story. You don't really want someone getting halfway through your novel before they realize that they thought the main character was a brunette and the author thought she was a redhead. That level of strategic placement of description is unique to the author's point of view, and can often lead you to have to stick descriptions in where the character didn't naturally fall into them on the first draft. But if you keep your eyes out, you can usually find an opportunity here or there to provide a few extra words in a natural context. And then it will all work out.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Samurai Art Exhibition

Well, after a one-day delay when my lovely daughter was up all night sick, the manuscript is out and I'm back. Now we cross our fingers over here...

This weekend the family and I went up to San Francisco and saw a great exhibition at the Asian Art Museum. It was about the life of the samurai warrior class in Japan - and though I've seen a lot of Japanese stuff in museums, I have to say I loved it. The Asian Art Museum did a great job not only of showing objects, but of trying to depict various aspects of samurai life, including swordsmanship and armor of course, but also poetry and art. They also tried to explain some of the reasoning behind the features of the objects.

It's when you see both better known and little-known aspects of a lifestyle that you start to feel you're getting an insight into how people lived, and how they thought - which is of course my favorite thing to think about.

I thought I'd give you a picture of a few of the things we saw and how they got me thinking.

In the battle-related area, we saw two types of "yoroi" armor. The first type was made of metal plates woven together with silk cords, and came from the era of sword battles on horseback. The second incorporated chain mail in the sleeves, had fewer plates and thus less cord-weaving. That variety came after the introduction of firearms to Japan by the Portuguese.

Both these varieties of armor were extremely fancy. Some had built-in horsehair mustaches on the faceplates. One had a four-foot-tall wooden crest on top of the helmet! The cord-woven ones used several different colors of cord, and wove them through in patterns. We saw one with white, green, brown and purple striped cord work. While the one with the four-foot crest was purely for ceremonial occasions, the other ones were all designed for battle - but I did learn that the samurai who died in battle were buried in their armor. This was given as the explanation for the incredible detail of metalwork, embroidery, and other fancy work that went into the armor.

There were also differences in the armor over time. I mentioned the first difference above - once firearms came into Japan, the armor changed. The biggest difference between the two styles of armor was that the post-firearms style weighed a lot less. Things change when it's less important for your armor to take a lot of really stiff sword blows, and more important for you to be able to maneuver to dodge weapons fire. There was also a trend in the later armor towards less ornamentation and more sober colors, such as cordwork done entirely in dark blue. This was explained as reflecting the more sober tastes toward the end of the samurai era.

I also learned why samurai swords curve. This was totally cool. The swords are made of two types of steel: a core of steel that contains very little carbon - flexible, but not able to keep a super-hard edge; and an outer layer of carbon steel - sharp, but very brittle. In battle the edge does what you think it does, and the core steel absorbs the impact of blows on the blade, so that the sword won't break. The two layers are forged together into a straight blade, but towards the end of the process they are tempered by heating them up to a particular temperature and then plunging them into cold water (quenching). In fact, the forgers close big heavy curtains and make the room totally dark when heating the sword at this point, so the outside light won't affect their judgment of the heat of the blade, which is based on its color. When the heated blade is plunged into the water, the two types of steel contract at different rates. A high level of carbon in the steel actually prevents it from shrinking as fast, so the core steel shrinks more and faster while the outer layer shrinks less. The result is that the blade comes out of the water curved.

I also saw an unusual-looking sword in the display. Some of you may know that the hilt of a samurai sword often has cords wrapped over a sort of bumpy layer underneath. This layer is made of the skin of rays (quite expensive even now, but more so in the samurai era). The sword we saw had the ray skin of the sword hilt uncovered by cords - and it also incorporated ray skin into the scabbard. This was where it got cool. The ray skin was wrapped around the scabbard in a long spiraling strip, and lacquered at the same time as the wood of the scabbard - then sanded down until smooth and covered with clear lacquer instead of black. The result visually was that the scabbard had a spiral of tiny white dots wrapped around it. It was beautiful.

I saw a copy of the Book of Five Rings, which was a book on proper sword technique.

There was also a collection of paintings of iris flowers that was just breathtaking. I think the young men were having a painting contest - but I've never seen iris flowers rendered in more detail, except scientifically.

The samurai had lots of contests like this - art contests, poetry contests, etc. Around these and other activities they enjoyed, like tea drinking and smelling incense, elaborate systems of rules sprang up. The exhibition didn't go into all the rules, but it was still interesting to see the variety of activities that could be made into contests or ceremonial occasions. For any of you who want to do a bit of research, the "renga" poetry contests were just fascinating, and required amazing skill - imagine having to write a sequence of poems where the last line of each one is the first of the next, and each two sequential poems have to share an image, but the image must change for each pair (and the second pair includes the second member of the first pair...).

Last, I'll mention textiles. The exhibition had kimono from the Noh theater. I have never seen such care go into a woven item. One of the kimonos had a checkered looking pattern where each square was about 1 foot by 1 foot; this had been executed by tie-dying the warp threads, and then carefully weaving through the weft threads so that they matched the color through that section of the cloth. Floral designs in other bright colors had been woven into the cloth as well. The exhibition said that the kimono of Noh probably came to be so fancy because wealthy samurai would give them as ostentatious gifts to their favorite actors - and pretty soon, everybody was having them.

The last object was a sort of sleeveless coat, made of horizontal stripes in red and white wool. Wool was a European product. The exhibition pointed out that this coat would have stood out (I could believe it would stand out for about a mile!) because of the brightness and clear difference between the stripes. They were each three or four inches wide, and the strips of felted wool had actually been laid side-by-side and stitched together.

My kids' favorite area of the exhibition was the area where they had a Japanese style room in which you could try on simple kimono, play go, look at art, and write in a folding book. Hands-on rocks for the younger set, and I enjoyed this also. The exhibition ends this weekend, so take advantage of the remaining days if you live near San Francisco and get a chance to go see it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Submission Girl

This is just to let everyone know that I have a big submission coming up on Monday, which is why I'm keeping my head down at the moment (Stay away from the Facebook, Juliette! :) ) I'll be back to blogging Monday or Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Designing an Alphabet or Writing System

I love alphabets. When I say this, I include writing systems generally (it just rings better if I say "alphabets," though). I started creating them when I was a kid, and have always loved looking at foreign writing. In high school I created at least two code alphabets that I used with various friends, and I used a Greek-alphabet transliteration of English to trade notes with one of my boyfriends. In college I asked a friend to teach me about Arabic, and I had yet another personal alphabet that I used in my journal to make sure no one could peek and read. I also discovered some alphabets I'd never seen before, such as the loopy script of Malayalam. Great stuff.

I've also encountered a goodly number of fantasy alphabets, including the elvish and dwarvish scripts of Tolkien, the Kzinti script of Paul Chafe, and numerous others.

After all of this, I thought I'd try to distill a few thoughts here that might be useful to would-be creators of alphabets and other character systems.

Thought #1: Before you start creating arcane symbols, decide exactly what it is you're representing.

Any alphabet that simply replaces the English alphabet is not really an alphabet in its own right, but a code. It's cool - and goodness knows I've made a lot of these - but it probably won't be the best match for a really original alien or fantasy language.

It's good to ask yourself whether your symbols will be representing sounds, syllables, or meanings. English roughly represents sounds, while the Japanese hiragana and katakana systems represent syllables, and the Japanese Kanji, like the original Chinese characters, represent meanings. Any one of these can work, but a system that represents meanings is going to require a lot more complexity than one that only represents sounds, because the sounds of a language are a finite list, while the meanings just go on and on.

Thought #2: Don't just ask what you're representing, ask also how this writing system will be used.

I bring this up because I think its important for language designers to consider how often, and how quickly, the symbols they create must be written. Japanese Kanji are brutally hard to dash off a quick note in, although people do it regularly. I've seen fantasy character systems so complex that I can't imagine how people would be able to write them in any practical fashion. Contrast that situation, though, with the writing system used by Ursula LeGuin in her novel, The Telling. That system was intricately related to a whole belief system and sacred meanings were part of it; a lot of time and effort can be invested in writing when the final product is believed to have greater than everyday significance. For dashing off quick notes, though, simpler is probably better.

Thought #3: Think through the basic visual elements of your script, including stroke types and points or axes of orientation.

The English alphabet uses a finite number of stroke types: vertical and horizontal lines; two types of diagonal lines; curves; and dots. It orients to a primary axis located at the bottom of all of the characters - "writing on the line," so to speak. The characters then vary based on which strokes occur in which orientations to one another, to the axis, and to three different distance points measured in the vertical dimension off that axis (the horizontal bars of "e," "t"/"f," and "I."

Why is it worth thinking this stuff through? Because for ease of writing, you probably want to minimize the number of stroke types, keeping maximal simplicity while at the same time maintaining maximal difference between the different characters. Put it this way:

If the characters are too complex, you get screaming - but if all the characters look the same? More screaming.

Okay, great. Now let's assume you've got the basic characters sketched out. Do you want to add additional complexity, like capitalization, or cursive forms?

Answer: maybe. Additional complexity has its uses. Cursive (I was always told) was designed for the sake of speed, and it certainly has a sense of style to it. Capitalization helps a lot because it provides visual orientation for a reader, effectively saying, "Look here! It's the beginning of the sentence!" or "Look here! It's a name!" In German, it says something different: "Here's a noun!" Similar to this, if greatly more complicating, is the use of Kanji in Japanese. Kanji say "Here's a piece of meaning!" And given that Japanese is written without spaces between words, that piece of meaning generally also allows a reader to separate the beginning of a new word from the function words around it, and from any suffixes appended to previous words. Arabic has a different kind of complexity in its script: the "letters" take different forms depending on whether they occur at the start, in the middle, or at the end of a word. Again, this provides orientation on a larger level - and it reminds me to point out that empty spaces between words are another highly useful feature of script, used for general orientation to the language being represented.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention punctuation, but I don't want to go into much detail there, except to say that it is another type of orientation device. It works on the sentence level, but also within the sentence, to help clarify syntactic structures. For more fun with punctuation I'll direct you to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, as she handles the discussion in much more depth - and far more amusingly - than I can.

At this point that I must bemoan the fact that it's so difficult to render a created alphabet into computerized blog form, because I would love to give examples. Suffice it to say that a character system with a deliberate balance between simplicity and complexity (differentiation), and one that uses appropriate cues to the beginnings and ends of words, will strike a viewer's eye as more "real" than one that doesn't. And just so I'm not completely without examples, I've written a sentence in Japanese for you:


I invite anyone who is able to speak a language using a different character system (and enter it into their computer) to volunteer examples in my comments area. I - and my readers - would love to see them.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A different value: water

One really great way to make a created society (whether science fiction or fantasy) stand out is to take something very common or vital and give it a drastically different value. A society that doesn't use money might be one example. Or one in which technology is seen as a bizarre replacement for the usual solution to problems - which is the case in the wizarding world of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. A few of my recent experiences have got me thinking about water, so I thought I'd share some musings on the value of water.

California is in a drought right now, and so we're receiving messages about how important it is to conserve water. Since I lived through a portion of the '70's in which there was a serious drought, I find that I have a gut reaction to certain types of water-wasting behavior, such as when I see sprinklers running in midday and dumping drinkable water into the gutters.

As a result of this, when I first went to Japan I had a similar gut reaction to one very common water-related behavior I saw: that of dumping a bucket of water over the sidewalk in front of a place of business. This is generally done in the early morning, and I guess is intended to clean the sidewalk, or at least to give an enhanced feeling of purity to the entrance of the business in question. Sometimes it's just a bucketful, and sometimes it extends to rinsing the entire section of street in front of a famous restaurant. In Japan, where there are two separate rainy seasons, there seems to have been less worry about the quantity of water used in this kind of activity.

Australia right now is having a serious drought - a much more serious one than we are. Visiting Australia is in many ways like going through the looking glass for me: lots of things are similar, as a result of our shared English colonial heritage, yet all are slightly different. One thing I do notice is that concerns for public issues are much more dramatic there, and advertising reflects this. I noticed a poster ad in the train stations in which a very dirty-looking plumber holding tools and pipes declared, "If I can get clean in four minutes, so can you."

I took a brief trip to Mexico some years ago, and had to follow the advice, "don't drink the water." This meant drinking bottled water, or sodas, or other purified forms of beverages, to protect my sissy American immune system from some of the things that Mexican drinkers take for granted. A friend of mine, traveling with me, let down his guard without thinking and had a glass of water in the airport before we traveled back to the US - perhaps unconsciously thinking that being in the airport meant we'd already left Mexico in some sense - and he was a very sick man by that evening.

When I traveled to France, one thing I learned is that while the tap water is drinkable, you can't assume all water is drinkable when it comes out of a pipe. You have to watch for signs saying "eau non potable," or non-drinkable water. One of my friends told me that Paris has two entirely separate water delivery systems: one for drinking water, and the other for fountains. This certainly suggests a different value placed on fountains! Imagine all the work that went into building two entirely separate systems of water-delivery infrastructure. Boy, would I be curious to see a map of that.

In the science fiction arena, the most dramatically different value I've ever seen placed on water was that portrayed by Frank Herbert in his Dune novels. Every drop is so precious that a person's wealth is measured in water - and the horrible oppressive government engages in overt demonstrations of water wastage just to prove to people a. that its people are rich beyond measure and b. that they don't care at all about the natives. In this scenario, where plants are planted with their own individual dew-gathering cups, the planting of a thirsty palm tree or the splashing of water onto towels become offensive activities, tapping into that very same gut reaction I had when I saw the buckets of water being poured onto the sidewalks in Japan.

So for those of you out there working on worldbuilding, think about taking something like water - something extremely common that we see every single day - and giving it a different value. That different value can be shown in many different ways. In the examples above, the different messages about water were conveyed by: traditional daily behaviors, advertising, public signs, and common verbal expressions. There are other opportunities as well, such as laws, urban myths, gossip or wives' tales. The change in value doesn't need to be as extreme as Dune's in order to stand out. But by placing it in your story world and making it visible by one or more of these means, you can make great strides toward achieving a sense of difference through "show don't tell."

It's something to think about.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blog News

Here are some updates...

First, great thanks to Ann Wilkes for a great interview of me. It's now up at Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys, here.

Second, my post on "How Morphology Can Help You!" - also known as how to make convincing plural endings and town names, etc. for your sf/f world - is up at

Third, here's an announcement from Dave Steffen about the new nonfiction webzine he's starting, Diabolical Plots:

I'd like to announce a new speculative nonfiction zine entitled Diabolical Plots, that covers virtually every medium related to the genre from books to movies to video games. Edited by Anthony Sullivan and me (David Steffen), this site will feature regular content related to the craft of writing, including interviews and reviews. Past interviews include David Farland, Cat Rambo, KD Wentworth and, of course, Juliette Wade. Future interviews will include Jordan Lapp, Charles Coleman Finlay, and Tad Williams. As part of the grand opening, we're giving away a copy of Writers of the Future volume XXV to one of the people who visits the site and enters the contest before September 7th, 2009.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Swearing (New elements added!)

I got thinking about swearing after seeing this great article online from Scientific American (which you can check out too): Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief

So you can have an idea what it says without having to read the whole thing, here's a quote:

"The study, published today in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer."

When I stopped laughing, I decided that was pretty fascinating. I mean, swearing obviously taps into something inside our brains that's pretty fundamental. Humans have been doing it for hundreds, probably thousands of years, and I even have a textbook (a rather dry one, unfortunately) about its history.

I would personally observe that you have to learn how to swear. I didn't really learn to do it myself until high school, when it became useful to know how from the point of view of general social acceptance. And the way you do it can vary, as can the types of words you use - words related to religion, to scatology, or to intimacy are common examples.

One is generally discouraged from swearing around children. This was easy for me, as I wasn't a big swearer in the first place - more difficult, however, for my husband. Children, as they learn language, will repeat the words they hear that they can at least partially understand, to test them out. When they hear swear words, the results can be surprising.

I've known plenty of parents to get very upset hearing swear words, but I think my anthropology and linguistics encourages me to take the long view and to say to my kids, "well, before you use that word again, you have to know about how it makes people feel, and why adults tend to use it." When I explain that some people can become very angry at the mere sound of certain words, my kids are very impressed - and to their credit, I've never heard them use the words a second time. I get told off by them for using the word "stupid" for things, because my kids know the intent behind its use is derogatory. I think they understand what lies behind the words better than some adults.

The meanings of swear words are almost beside the point. I used to giggle my head off in high school, thinking about the literal interpretations of some of the streams of expletives I heard. It's their evocation of a passionate, often aggressive or violent emotional state that does the trick in many cases. Or in the case of pain relief, maybe it's just a kind of catharsis. It makes me wonder if there's any relation between the pain relief/catharsis aspect of swearing, and the tendency of people with certain kinds of brain disorders to swear (I think immediately of Tourette's syndrome, but I'm sure there are more).

I've been asked on forums several times to help with the creation of sets of convincing expletives for fantasy and science fiction contexts. There are a couple of parameters that are valuable to consider: content, and realization (which I'll discuss below).

My commenter Byron Bailey was kind enough to research this topic independently and come up with a great list of content types for profanity, from linguist Steven Pinker:

1. The supernatural: fear and awe.
2. Body effluvia and organs: disgust.
3. Disease, death, and infirmity: dread.
4. Sexuality: revulsion at depravity.
5. Disfavored peoples and groups: hatred, contempt.

Okay, so now what is realization? Realization is what form the swearing takes, in terms of its sound and recognizability by English speakers - and in my experience, this is often what trips people up. There are three directions you can go:

1. create words that have no English meaning, but are linguistically suited to the language of the social group you're featuring (example "rispot!")
2. alter English or use an existing world language, creating variations on existing swear words, using swear words that don't mean anything to English speakers, or creating swear versions of words that don't currently have expletive connotations (example "frak", or the Chinese expletives in Firefly/Serenity)
3. use English or alien words that are related to the content type you've chosen, and which are appropriate to your world (example "by the Consortium!" etc.)

You can even mix 1 with 3, or 2 with 3, in different contexts. I don't encourage mixing 1 with 2, though, because mixing language sounds will make the words sound inconsistent.

Now get out there and have fun with this - and maybe alleviate some pain while you're at it.