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Friday, December 31, 2010

Interviewing characters? Interview yourself!

I'm sure you've heard about this technique, often used by writers, of conducting impromptu interviews with characters in order to get to know them better. I've written posts suggesting questions for such interviews myself (like here).

Answering questions like these will often provide you with useful information about your character. If you've asked the right questions, this information can help your story a lot. However, a simple interview format has one large disadvantage:

It isn't good at capturing how the character would think and talk about him/herself.

I've tried to alter the questions I use to improve my results in this regard, but the real problem isn't the questions. The problem is the questioner. Think about it this way: would you talk about your life and your concerns in the same way to yourself, or your spouse/best friend, as you would to someone who came from a foreign country? Of course not.

However, when you ask questions of a character who resides in a world not our own, the answers you are likely to get are those you might give to someone from a foreign country or another world. You'll discover that all kinds of distance markers start creeping in - names that you'd never use, ways of defining oneself that we never think about unless dealing with outsiders.

How can you defeat that tendency so that you'll learn more about what your character should sound like on the inside? It's definitely a challenge. In the post I linked to above, I have a list of eleven questions that I've deliberately tried to phrase in a way that encourages you to use your character's voice to answer. Another thing I'd suggest is interviewing yourself, or having a spouse or close friend interview you. If you find yourselves laughing at the questions because you both know the answers, that's a good indicator of shared knowledge that insiders wouldn't bother to mention. If you don't feel you can do an interview without becoming more distant than you should, try looking into a diary that you've written, or letters that you've composed to someone you know well. Look at how you describe your setting and social situation. Look at what you label (group membership) and don't label. How much of it would an alien or outsider really understand? I'll bet you any money that you don't find anything resembling the phrase "Americans do this/believe this because..."

After your interview or research is over and after you have a draft of your narrative voice, try to edit it with an eye for distance markers. These include "Americans" or "Californians" or "noblemen" or anything people use to describe themselves to outsiders. Look for places when you've used "there" instead of "here," "they" instead of "we." Think about what information is normal and what stands out, what is important to your character and what is beneath notice. Make sure you've used "the" to refer to objects or concepts the character knows or has perceived before, and "a" for new information.

Getting into a character's head is a very valuable point of view technique, but the interviews that you conduct are limited by the fact that your character lives in the world you've created, and you don't. Since your subconscious knows that you don't live in this place, I'd encourage you to experiment with an "insider interview" approach or a diary approach to see how you talk about your own world - and then see if you can apply what you've learned to the worlds you're creating.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Okay, you have to see this...

I put the news up on my website, but I want to share it here too! I got the coolest gift this Christmas eve, from my husband, and my brother and his wife. There was an entire conspiracy for months that I had no idea about! Here it is:

This is me with the original painting Bob Eggleton made to illustrate "At Cross Purposes" for the cover of Analog. I was totally overwhelmed. It's beautiful down to its tiniest details, and I'll cherish it forever.

When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?

These writing projects of ours take a lot of time and effort. Some folks I know can pound out short stories (and more power to them!), but I know I'm not like this, and certainly novels demand more. Even those who write NaNoWriMo novels often spend a lot of planning time in advance of the writing period, and then more time revising and cleaning up afterward.

So let's say you've invested a large amount of worldbuilding time, design time, and writing time into a project, but no matter what you do, it refuses to do precisely what you want. It might be that you've dived into something but it has petered out in the middle. That was what happened to me with For Love, For Power after I'd written around nineteen chapters. It might be that you've rewritten something over and over but every time you fix one thing, beta readers keep finding something else that bothers them. That one happened to me with a work in progress called The Past Unhealed, and the things they kept finding weren't tiny fix-its, but major rethink-this-whole-section stuff. It might be that you've got whole books which are sequels to other books that aren't quite working (yep, I have those too). Or maybe your work in progress is just acting ornery and doesn't feel right.

Walk away.

Don't just leave it alone for a weekend. That's fine, and it helps, but by this time you've probably already tried that. What I mean is, go and write something else.

Yes, it can feel like failure. Holy cow, I put years of work into this! How can I abandon it? But I'm not suggesting you take all your precious hard-won files and toss them in the trash can (either literally or figuratively). I'm suggesting that you refresh your brain by giving it a different problem to work on. A challenge - particularly if it's something you haven't done before.

When I walked away from my first four novels, I started writing short stories at first. That felt different. A good number of those were in the same world as the novels, and were up against some big hurdles because of that, but it was good to give them a try. Why? Because I'd never forced my brain to think short. I'd never tried to create a story small enough to balance in the palm of my hand. Slowly I started learning that when the story was small, I could visualize all its pieces in my head at once, and I started understanding how the parts of the story related to one another. Writing the short stories took on a new fire for me, and my rejections started getting better.

Then I picked up a new novel. Totally new - not in the same world, with none of the same characters. I applied what I'd learned from short stories to this novel. Lo and behold it was working. I wrote the whole thing in (for me) record time. Revising it was still brutal, and I had a few very embarrassing failures with agents before I had it in the right place, but when it came out finished, it made me happy. And my agent liked it too!

Because it was a novel that used none of the same parameters, I exercised my brain on it in a different way. I did different things trying to revise it, and set my brain against different kinds of problems. For a writer, trying new things is really important. We have to try things that are challenging, because they help our minds and skills to grow.

For me, more than four years went by before I went back to my previous material.

I wouldn't have had to, necessarily. There are a lot of people out there with "trunk novels" that never see the light of day. I could have left mine in the dark, but there were some factors that drew me back to them.

1. The world wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be going along, and learn something about language or culture or writing, and a new connection would form in my head. Wow, I'd say to myself, that could really apply to Varin in an interesting way.

2. The story shifted whenever I started thinking about it again. My new ideas of structure gave me new ideas for how to approach it, and I started seeing things here and there that would change for the better.

3. The characters grew without me writing them. They kept coming back to me and whispering things in my head - but even more than that, I started seeing things about how they interacted on a larger level. And when I spoke about them with friends, I figured out even more. The fact that Tagret had to be the protagonist in For Love, For Power (shoot, why didn't I realize that before?). The fact that sweet little Xinta can't be sweet little Xinta any more, but has to start out as the antagonist in the first novel where he appears (and I mean scary). The fact that one character whose head I've never visited has something terribly important to say that will add to the structure of the entire novel when I get back to it.

When I get back to it. Not if, though it was if for a very long time.

How do you decide to go back? I can't speak for others, obviously, but the thing that convinced me was when I decided experimentally to go back and think through the stories, reorganize my thoughts and outlines - and I discovered how much better everything would be. By writing for four years on other projects, I've improved my skills immensely. When I look at those old versions, I find some things that embarrass me, but other things that I think still have value. Those old words aren't a waste. They've created something in my head that has grown while I let it rest. They stand behind me now as I go back and write again. I'm not fool enough to try to revise them any more - empty files for me! - but if I need a reminder of what should happen next, or if I remember a phrase I loved, I can go back.

Here's the reward. Even before I've finished For Love, For Power, I can tell it won't die in the middle this time. I write a chapter in the beginning and I can feel everything in the story interconnecting. I can feel it's better. I handle everything more confidently and more subtly because I'm a better writer now. I can even feel ideas coming together for the books I wrote before this one, the really old books I wrote when I had no idea what I was doing yet. I'm excited now to think of those books, not embarrassed. I know I'll go back because I feel what I'll be able to do with them. The underlying structure of the world is still sound, even when I'm good enough to test it in totally different ways. It deserves a better writer to write it - and while I have no illusions of perfection, I know that I'll be good enough to draft something worth sticking with this time.

It's hard to walk away. But if you can do it, it might be the very best decision you ever made for those books you love.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A new story for early humans

Here is a very interesting article about a new species of early humans, the Denisovans, who appear to have been widespread in Asia and to have contributed 4-6% of their genome to modern Melanesians. One of the conclusions drawn by the article is that the story of early hominids is more complex than originally thought.

A human story, complex?

Somehow, I'm not at all surprised.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Too cool to be normal

I've known a lot of people who've endured the stress of a parent or friend asking why they can't be more "normal." When the topic came up with my kids the other day we started asking, "What is normal?" Of course, with an opportunity like that, the anthropologist in me can't resist speaking out.

Normal, even in statistics, is defined relative to a particular group. Collect the data from this group, then calculate the mean and figure out a bell curve. That's how it's done when you can precisely identify the members of the group in question. In the social sense, though, the group is much harder to define. Asking someone to be "normal" implies that they don't belong to the "normal" group. Usually, but not always, it implies that the speaker does belong to that group.

So the first thing I'm going to ask is why we use this term at all? I found myself using it a few days ago to talk about people who do violent acts - "they're not normal." I'm pretty okay with that, I guess since the group I'm defining is good citizens of the world. But believe me, I know my kids are going to run across "not normal" comments about their love of school, and their intelligence, and their love of good stories, and on that one I'm going to be ready to go into battle.

"Not normal" isn't always a bad thing. I definitely consider myself "too cool to be normal" - something I definitely associate with being a lover of science fiction and fantasy - and I hope my kids will feel the same.

If you have ever been a victim of the phrase, "not normal," use your writing as your chance for revenge. First of all, take pride in the fact that you're above average. And second, redefine normal in your writing. Use the word shamelessly in whatever world you've created, and think it through, making sure it means something utterly different there from what it means here in our world. In Cochee-coco society, it's not normal to seek privacy. In Aurrel society, it's not normal to cook vegetables (and only your pets would eat them anyway). In the Realm of Words, not saying what you mean isn't only "not normal," but against the law.

We all know people who use "normal" as a sword. It's time for us to give that sword a second edge.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Your dialogue can do more

I've just spent a week working on one conversation.

This is not because I had no time (not that I had a lot, but I did write consistently). It's because for me, conversations are very important. Particularly if the conversation features a character who hasn't had much "screen time" previously, and particularly if that character is one who influences the course of the main story as it goes forward, it's worth giving people a good look - and listen - to her. So each time I came back to work, I started by reading through the conversation so far. Each time, I found places where the dialogue I'd written could accomplish more.

I know many of you write in layers. By this I mean writing one type of thing to get started and then going back to flesh out other elements later. Often, that first thing is dialogue - but just because it's the thing you feel comfortable enough with to write your dialogue first, you shouldn't necessarily leave it. It may be able to do more.

When people speak, we don't ever really say one thing at a time. Think about the conversations you participate in. Everything you say gives extra hints about social context, your intentions, etc., but because in reality you're engulfed in that context, and you hold those intentions, what you notice about what you say is the language that imparts new information. That is to say, the social and other contextual information is evident when we speak in person, so we typically don't notice it unless we are actively trying to determine where another person is "coming from."

In writing, this process can be reversed. Certainly in most cases, dialogue isn't enough to carry a narrative all on its own (plays are different, of course) - I usually add internalizations, actions, body language, and other kinds of cues to any kind of dialogue situation, even if it's just a conversation. However, if you think about it, when you write the subconscious cues that would ordinarily reflect the social context can actually imply the social context. They can imply the character's motives. This is particularly useful if you have a non-point-of-view character on your hands.

Since this may sound vague, and since a lot of it is subconscious anyway, I'll give some before-and-after examples of how I went about adding an extra layer to dialogue.

Tamelera, Version 1
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but since she joined the Cabinet, I'm not sure I can trust her."

This isn't bad. Captures Tamelera's emotional reaction to Selemei, the reason for it, and the proper chronology. Also shows a glimpse of the political structure (Cabinet).

Tamelera, Version2
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but when she took a Cabinet seat she joined the men's side. I'm not sure I can trust her now."

Better. Why? It keeps the earlier details, but also makes clear that Tamelera is aware the Cabinet is dominated by men (which has been pointed out earlier; Selemei is the only woman on the Cabinet). Furthermore, it shows that she thinks of the world as divided into men's and women's sides, which are opposed to one another. This is a major characteristic of hers that I can build on later.

Here's another example.

Recited message, Version 1
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] I expect to see you there."

Recited message, Version 2
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] See you there!"

Here the difference is very small, but important. You may notice that neither one says "please let me know if you're able to come." The message sender wants the recipient to show up at this tea, and in fact has information that could potentially be used to blackmail the recipient into coming. I tried to reflect the attitude of "I could blackmail you" when I first wrote the invitation, but it seemed too dark. It also seemed a bit heavy-handed for the message sender, who is a bit more subtle and refined than that. Thus I decided to change it to "see you there!" which conveys a certain charming excitement, but also relies on the underlying assumption that the recipient will be attending the event.

The next example I think shows how a slight change can give a clearer idea of a character's assumptions and social expectations. It comes from a section where Tamelera's son has told her he's met a girl, but he hasn't told her under what kind of circumstances they met. Here is her comment:

Comment, Version 1
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to meet you."

This is certainly true, as her son is quite handsome and a pretty nice kid, too.

Comment, Version 2
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to be approached by someone like you."

I decided to use "be approached" to show that Tamelera assumes her son decided to approach the girl - when in fact she was the one who approached him. I decided to use "someone like you" because Tamelera doesn't want to engage emotionally with the idea of her son meeting a girl. Thus she speaks of him as a member of a group of people (people like him). Given that people in this society are primarily defined on the basis of their social standing, it means that girls like to meet boys who are in a good social position, and implies that Tamelera is trying not to imagine the actual people involved.

Here's another example:

Household Keeper, Version 1
"Yes, sir. She will join you as soon as I have your breakfast ready."

Household Keeper, Version 2
"Oh, yes, sir. Join you she will indeed, as soon as I've your breakfast ready."

In this case, the Household Keeper's voice was turning out to be too similar to that of another servant, also in the room at the time. Since he's a recurring character who will be seen more closely in other chapters, I decided to give him a different speech rhythm. This differentiates his speech from that of the other servant, and it also helps me give a sense of the scope of my world, because he sounds like he has a dialect (and later when it's relevant I'll mention that he's from a provincial city).

And one final example:

Surface, Version 1
"Let me tell you about the surface."

Surface, Version 2
"Do you remember what I told you about the surface?"

This sentence is one character bringing up a topic that she's about to discuss with someone else. As you can see, the dialogue will turn out differently depending on whether the characters have met before, and whether they have spoken previously about a particular topic. I realized that the way I phrased this topic opener needed to reflect these characters' shared history - and that it could thereby help me handle backstory. Anyone who sees version two will immediately know that these two people have discussed the surface before, which gives me the opportunity to say a few words about what the content of that communication was. The advantage for me in my revision was that if I hadn't placed their previous conversation as backstory, then their current conversation would have had a lot of ground to cover before I could get to what they really needed to discuss. So not only did the dialogue sound more natural, but this segment of the conversation become significantly shorter and less clunky.

To summarize, dialogue can help you reveal:
  • character attitudes (Tamelera example)
  • character intent (Recited message example)
  • character assumptions and social expectations (Comment example)
  • character differentiation, background and world characteristics (Keeper example)
  • character backstory and personal history (Surface example)
These aren't the only things that dialogue can help you do, but they're the examples that I was working with this week. Your choice of words in dialogue can leave other kinds of clues, like indicating what kind of information is known and which is new, or whether your character feels comfortable or uncomfortable with the situation. It can also help you strengthen the theme of your story. When handled well, it can often help you take some of the information burden off the main portions of the narrative.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fantastic article about metaphor and the brain

This is a really cool one, talking about the relationship between metaphor and reality in the brain, and some studies related to this. Turns out feeling one's own pain and empathizing for others' pain happens in some of the same brain regions. And moral disgust resides in the same place as literal disgust. Check it out here!

Break down your goals!

I don't have a lot of time to write, so I'm always very cautious about setting writing goals. I don't even track my word counts. Why? Because it depresses me every time I see friends on Facebook or on the forums talk about how they wrote 1000 words today, or 3000, or however many. If I counted, I'd probably end up with 100, or some number that merely indicates I redid a scene with hardly any wordcount change. And of course there are always days when I get zero words. But zero words might mean I was too sick or busy - or it might mean that I got a lot of fruitful thinking done, just no typing.

My number one rule of goal-setting is "be compassionate with yourself." I focus on saying "I did a bit of work today," and on keeping a sense of momentum.

That said, there are times when setting a goal can be motivating. Don't set one that's too big, like "I have to write a novel as soon as possible." Ouch! If you're writing a novel, and it's a big project, it's a good idea to find ways to keep your eyes on the prize, but break it down. I made some good progress yesterday (unexpectedly) and now I'm thinking, "Can I get Chapter 5 done by Monday?"

For me, goals come in several categories.

1. Write every day. For this one, thinking/plotting/outlining count. This is maintaining momentum.
2. When you sense a potential goal close, try giving yourself a timeline to reach it. I'd call this one opportunistic goal-setting. It can help you get a boost of motivation over a short time period.
3. When you have a big project, set smaller goals. Set a chapter writing-rate goal, realizing that it will vary longer/shorter depending on the demands of your life. Set a chunk goal, too. My current chunk goal is to get to Chapter 10 - the end of a major arc. My sense of when I'll finish the whole novel will depend on how long it takes me to get to Chapter 10, and how I feel at that point.

I speculate about how I'd like to finish writing this novel by next October or so. It's a good thing to imagine, but at the moment I have no idea how realistic it is. It depends on too many factors. If you find your larger goals are overwhelming you, be compassionate with yourself. Break down your goals to make them more manageable. Then as the smaller ones are achieved, you can get a better sense of what to expect with the larger ones.

Above all, don't punish yourself for underperformance. It will only make things worse.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Culture isn't uniform!

Way back in the very early life of this blog (in 2008!) I wrote a post about making sure your characters aren't all the same. Not surprisingly, the post was called "Don't make them all the same," and I encourage you to go back and look at it.

Today's post deals with culture, but it has the same message. Not only aren't different cultures the same as one another (on a very fundamental level), even cultures that are spoken of as if they were uniform aren't really uniform.

American culture. Which one? From the point of view of Australians or Japanese, our culture is what they see on the television and in the movies. I remember having to explain over and over when I was living as an exchange student in Japan that just because they hear stories about Americans who own guns doesn't mean that every American owns a gun. Just because they hear Americans talk about Christianity doesn't mean every American is a Christian. As my Aussie husband has remarked, "America has Utah, and it has Nevada, and the two are side by side."

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that Japanese culture varies a lot also. There are a myriad dialects across the Japanese islands (as should be expected given the length of time that the population has lived there). The Japanese are particularly proud of their regional delicacies, but the differences go beyond just that.

In fact, culture isn't necessarily uniform even in a single location. In a tiny town dominated by a printing plant, you might have a microculture for the people who work at the plant which distinguishes itself from the people who work in service positions for the plant workers. In a major US university you'll have African American groups and Asian American groups as well as groups based on religious affiliation, hobbies, etc. People align themselves based on professions, religions, neighborhoods - almost anything can become the basis for alignment, or realignment. When I was an undergraduate one of the major issues that came up was that the Asian American group was splintering into subcomponents - the Filipinos and the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese were starting to want their own groups. In the US we often talk about the culture of a company, or the culture of sports, etc.

So let's say you're creating a fictional culture. It could be aliens, or elves, or humans in a secondary world - that part doesn't matter. The characters that you create will differ enormously based on the culture they are a part of, but also upon the subcultures they belong to. And here's another thing - different subcultures aren't necessarily even aware of one another's existence, even when they interact all the time. Let's say that you have one group that works as servants to another group - the master group will know a lot about the servant group as pertains to their interaction with the master group, and the expectations for intergroup relations. However, they may not know much if anything about the norms for relations inside the servant group, when the master group is not present. People can live side by side and interact constantly but have no idea how members of another cultural group think.

I encourage you to think this through as you build a world. A character doesn't behave the way he/she does because he/she is a member of X labelled group. That character is a product of his/her own experience and has layers of cultural awareness. That character will also have ideas about how other groups work - and those ideas probably overlap with other groups' views of themselves, but they probably miss a lot too.

I have a big trilogy in my future (something I wrote before when I wasn't as good a writer!) and I'm having ideas for it on and off continually (which is why I'm sure I'll go back to it). One of the things that's developing is the social structure and the intra-cultural contrasts. It's a Varin trilogy, so it's set in a society with seven caste levels. I used to have three point of view characters, but now I have four planned, and contrast is the reason for this. It's going to look like:
  1. Imbati #1
  2. Imbati #2
  3. Akrabitti #1
  4. Akrabitti #2
Each of the two members of the Imbati caste have very different ideas about what it means to be Imbati, which grow out of very different sets of experiences - and as you can imagine, the same is true for the Akrabitti characters. There's also going to be an important contrast between the noblemen that Imbati #1 and Imbati #2 work for. These contrasts give the portrayal of the castes and the world far more depth than they could have if I used only a single character from each group. In my reading of science fiction and fantasy I've met a lot of quest groups, and other groups, with different races and cultures - but usually only one representative of each. It's not a problem, per se, but when you want to create a truly three-dimensional society, it can really help to get a stereoscopic view of the cultural groups from which it is formed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An artifact example: we're not just making up random stuff!

I had an epiphany yesterday, about a suit. Yes, a suit - one that my protagonist's mother gives him for his birthday. If you think about it, if you use those words alone, it's pretty generic. Could be the real world, or a fantasy world, or a science fiction world. The epiphany came to me because I found myself spending a lot of time describing the details of this suit, and wondering why I was doing so. After all, I'm not writing Regency romance where the fashions are much of the point. I don't want random stuff in my book that isn't relevant in some important way.

Let me tell you, it irks me when someone says, "But you're writing fantasy. You can make up anything you want."


I'm not going to waste words describing a suit if it's not important. And it is - in much the same way that the sun armor was important in "Let the Word Take Me" (discussed in my post "Focus your Worldbuilding Efforts").

But wait, there's more to it even than worldbuilding. That's why I thought it would be worth breaking it down here. First, an excerpt:

"Inside the box [Tagret] found a cutaway coat of mottled blue and green with touches of white. Parts of it glimmered like spider-silk, while others seemed woven of more common fibers. Underneath were two glowing white silk shirts and a pair of trousers in matte slate-green. [...] The new shirts had long cuffs that buttoned with pearls up to the elbow, clearly intended to match the coat's short, flaring sleeves, and to echo the darker pearl buttons that fronted the trousers. This was a style the Pelismara society had never seen - a choice that said 'Mother' all over..."

Even though it occurs in two locations in the scene, this is a lot of words to spend on the details. I asked myself why all these details were important. There were lots of answers.

The idea of a cutaway coat is familiar from our world, and the term is important to suggest the shape of the coat, but other details like spider-silk, the long shirt cuffs and the short coat-sleeves are there to make clear this isn't your typical Earthly fashion. Furthermore, the coat is woven in an ocean pattern (ocean is also evoked by the pearls) - but in this world of underground cities, nobody sees the ocean unless they travel, and travel is very dangerous. Thus my protagonist has to describe the pattern as he understands it, one detail at a time. "A style the Pelismara society has never seen" also implies world, because it shows some of the social significance a fashion like this might have. In fact, the Pelismara society ladies and gentlemen are accustomed to wearing jewel colors or earth/stone colors, and the ocean design causes a minor fashion scandal later in the story!

" - a choice that said 'Mother' all over..."
The presentation of the suit precedes Mother's entrance into the scene, and though she's been seen before in the story, this is the first time we see her through the eyes of someone who knows her well and cares about her (Tagret). Essentially, this is when we first see who she really is: a noblewoman of considerable intelligence, with a penchant for humor and subversion, who is trapped in an extremely restrictive social role. How do I get all that in, when the two of them will be talking mostly about the social issues that my protagonist is currently dealing with? Well, I can't tell readers about her (her son would never think about her that way), so I use the suit to imply it. The suit has been specially commissioned, so she's noblewoman with a great deal of money at her disposal. It's a very unusual fashion, so she doesn't follow trends. It also brings an image of the surface world down into the underground city where such things are never seen, suggesting that she doesn't think like everyone else. The rest of her outfits for herself are also going to use surface motifs, so once I had this piece in place I got inspired to expand its scope.

One of the major ideas that recurs in this novel is that of being trapped and wanting freedom, but having real freedom and the search for it be full of risks. The underground city/dangerous surface travel situation parallels Tagret's inability to escape from the political situation his father thrusts him into, and also the awful marriage situation that Mother suffers. When Mother brings images of the surface down into the city, in this suit and in her own clothing, it shows her struggling against her situation in the limited way she can - a struggle and a tendency for subversion that she's passing on to her son.

"Parts of it glimmered like spider-silk, while others seemed woven of more common fibers."
This was an artistic choice by the artisan who created the suit to try to represent light on the ocean water by mixing spider-silk and other fibers. It's also more than that, linking back to an earlier scene when the protagonist takes his friends (all dressed in silk) to a concert hall attended by members of Lower castes (who dress in matte fibers). Tagret remarks that "Tillik-spider silk might be an unregulated commodity, but evidently it was expensive enough to sift Higher from Lower all on its own." The mixing of the fibers in the coat given to him by his mother thus gains an extra meaning of subversion, and hints at Tagret's future, where he'll see that the separation of the castes is another kind of trap and work to break the barriers down.

That's why I described the suit - but I did it before I realized any of these connections. Sometimes you don't know precisely what you're doing - and you don't have to - but your subconscious says this is how it has to be. The exciting part for me about seeing these larger patterns was knowing that I could extend them further across the book. It gave me insight into Variner fashion, and into Mother's character as well. I didn't have to "make up" the rest of the clothes she wore, because I knew what kind of thought had gone into the design of Tagret's suit, and thus the same kind of thought could be applied to her choices for her own clothing. And I also knew that she'd be brave enough to be the only one wearing clothes like this, strong enough to set off a scandal and eventually a new fashion trend in the claustrophobic, decadent Pelismara society.

Because of a single suit, I know so much more about my novel now.

Yesterday was a good day.

Friday, December 10, 2010

An interactive list of the most common English words

This will blow your mind. They have 86,800 of them. Check it out here!

The is number 1.
Gentle is number 3270, just ahead of precise and encouraging.
Pickle is number 24469.

Number 100 is got.
Number 1000 is James
Number 10,000 is sewing.

You know, I figure this has to be useful for writers. Very often the commonest words are the ones that sound most generic - so this might be a good way to measure whether you're being too generic, or too specific, for the context you're working in.

An interesting post about story

This is fun, coming on the heels of Janice's and my discussions of the rules of writing and story. Kay Kenyon shares her thoughts on what keeps her reading: story.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A useful outline format

I've come to the point in my outlining process where I don't feel I can progress any further on For Love, For Power without doing the writing that will take me further in. This in itself is interesting, because I'm sure there are people out there who think that outliners must know everything in advance and count on their outlines not to change much. On the contrary. I'd feel rather more comfortable with this novel if my outline were a bit more solid, but I expect it to change, and in fact I expect it to become more fully fleshed as I start writing and discover the various new elements, character alterations, etc. that will help me see more about what needs to happen. The part of my outline that has the least information is actually the middle of the story - the beginning is pretty solid through chapter 13, and I have a pretty good sequence going for the final eleven chapters (yes, it has lots of chapters!). In any case, the thing that has let me get this far is creating a particular outline format in Excel, so I thought I'd share how I've been doing it in case any of my readers might find it useful.

Here's an example from the start of the novel:
1 Tagret meets Della in the panic 1
1 Tagret kisses Reyn 1
2 Aloran interviews with Eyli 2
2 Indal institutes the Kartunnen ban/health checks 2
3 Tagret sees Della at the concert and speaks to her 2
3 Tagret speaks to Lady Selemei 2
4 Nekantor tries to break Tagret's door 2
4 Garr and Tamelera return home 2
5 Tagret receives an invitation to tea from Lady Selemei 7 Tagret's birthday

As you can see, the main content is in the second column, labeled "events." I write down what needs to happen in varying levels of detail, depending on how much I can envision. In this case, this section is rather minimal because I'm summarizing something I've already written. When I have a clear idea of whose point of view the event must fall in, I give the event a color code showing who it belongs to. I also have the names included, but the color coding helps me to see the balance of the points of view at a glance. If I don't have enough chapters in someone's point of view, it will jump right out at me because there won't be enough of their color in that section of the outline.

In the far left column I make sure to note which chapter each event falls in. That helps me gauge the length of the book. For this book, each switch of point of view is a new chapter.

Then to the right of each event I number the days that pass. This is important for me because I need to make sure that people have enough time to change their minds, fall in love, etc. and everything has to happen pretty quickly, but it shouldn't be totally unrealistic. I also need to track whether people have had enough sleep/food/activity/healing time over certain periods of the novel (to see how worn out they would be), and the day counter makes this much easier.

Finally on the far right is the calendar. I haven't actually filled in the dates (most of the book occurs in the month of Soremor), but this is where I put important events like Tagret's birthday, his mother's birthday, the Eminence's death, the Accession Ball, and the different rounds of voting in Heir selection - which, by the way, need to occur on a fixed schedule every three days.

I think you can probably see how this was tangling up my head before I worked out this outline format. There was a time when each point of view character had his own column, but that was more confusing for me and made it harder to track which events caused one another and how the characters interacted.

In any case, I hope a glimpse at this will give you ideas for organizing your own projects - it's pretty easy to set up.

Happy outlining!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Should writers "follow the rules"?

I've been following a discussion recently on the Absolute Write forum about point of view and the idea of head-hopping (there are now two threads! 1/2). At the root of that discussion was the question of whether readers notice an author's use of point of view, and whether it's done consistently, etc. One of the issues that came up was the question of rules, since point of view (POV) follows "rules" that people say you should follow. There are also rules about not using adverbs, rules about show don't tell, rules about three-act structures, etc., etc., all through writing. One of the common exchanges that I often see coming up in discussions of rules looks like this (and let me remark that I'm not specifically referencing the AW discussion/participants here, but all the different instances of rule discussions I've seen):

Person A: "But really good writers get to break the rules all the time."
Person B: "You're just saying that because you don't know how to write."

This saddens me every time I see it. Usually person A isn't actually saying that because they're trying to cut corners, but because they've heard this refrain about breaking rules. If you've been writing for any significant length of time, you've heard this - just as you've heard the rules about adverbs and "show don't tell," etc. At the same time, person B is often not trying to attack person A, but to defend the idea behind the rules.

So why are the rules there? Can they be broken?

When these questions come up, I'm extra glad of my experience in Pragmatics - because this is be a perfect time to talk about H. P. Grice's Cooperative Principle. This principle says, "make your contribution to the conversation optimally relevant and appropriate." As I've remarked before, this may seem terribly obvious. However, it is quite powerful, because the assumption of cooperativeness allows us to draw conclusions about other speakers (and in our case, other writers).

When you assume that the writer is being maximally cooperative, you're essentially relying on two things (both of which we assume about people in speech all the time):
1. The writer knows the rules
2. When the writer breaks the rules, he/she breaks them intentionally.

This is to say that following grammatical rules establishes a default value for language - a way of using language in which everything flows and nothing stands out or gets noticed. Consequently, breaking those rules causes a marked state, a state in which things stand out as having possible hidden/additional meaning.

Compare the workings of grammar, point of view and story structure to a room with which you're very familiar. You leave the room in a particular (default) state, and have a basic memory of that state when you return to the room. When you return, if something has been moved in the room, a. you notice it and b. you draw the conclusion that someone or something has moved that thing. Depending on what has been moved and how, you can easily conclude that someone opened the window and the wind blew some papers, that your husband picked up the envelope you left for him, that your cat knocked over the plant, or that you've been robbed.

To quote from my 2006 IROSF article on Point of View:

"The voice of a narrator is usually so transparent that we feel it without needing to analyze it. [...] But then, every so often, we run across a sentence like the opening of Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (Science Fiction 101, p.100, emphasis added):

He doesn't know which one of us I am these days, but they know one truth.

Suddenly, the words used for point of view are not only visible but provocative. "What is he doing?" we ask. "Four different pronouns in the same sentence?" Then quickly we move on from our initial surprise to ask, "What special situation or alternate reality can this signify?""

Readers - and I'd think, particularly readers of science fiction and fantasy - will be willing to do a lot of deduction to figure out precisely what special situation is being described. Personal taste is involved, of course. Some readers find certain departures from the norm bothersome, while some don't notice those much and object to others. However, to keep reading, readers must feel a level of trust for the writer. If a departure from the rules violates that trust, perhaps through making some change that the reader finds particularly irksome, or by using language loosely so that some grammatical changes don't paint a consistent picture of an alternate situation, then the reader will stop reading.

All right, so what about those famous folks we all know about who violate all kinds of rules (grammar, point of view, structure, etc.) in inconsistent ways - yet people read their books voraciously anyway?

I'd say there are a few core elements that have to be in place grammatically - like, say, that it's really convenient to be able to identify who your characters are and keep track of who is doing what, etc. Beyond those really fundamental confusion-inducing principles, though, the kinds of rule violations that are a matter of taste can potentially be outweighed by the content of the story. Usually that has something to do with the situation, the characters in the situation, who they are and what is at stake. When the story content is exceptional, a lot of readers will ignore faults of the writing. But not all of them - take my husband, who is not a writer but is a voracious reader and was absolutely furious by the time he finished The DaVinci Code. Okay, yes, he finished it, but he's unlikely to pick up another book by Dan Brown. I personally picked up Twilight to see what it was all about (because something about the story had to be exceptional) and couldn't stand it long enough to get past page 3.

The fact is, I love a good story. But I love a good story well written even more.

If you're a writer out there wondering about rules and whether to follow them, you're asking the wrong question. The question should instead be what it means to follow them, and what it means when you break them for specific effect.

Language is a marvel. Its patterns are complex, and multilayered. I discover things constantly that put me in awe of its beauty and complexity, as well as its flexibility as a tool. If writing is your passion, and you want to make it your life, it's worth the time and effort to explore what it can really do.

P.S. Since I wrote this post, Janice Hardy has put up a companion piece dealing with story, that other critical aspect of writing - and the part that tends to make people ignore problems of grammar etc. Go here to check it out!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sequence Outlining

How many of you outline? Now, how many of you learned how to make an outline in school but don't actually outline the stories you write?

I'm here today to say that the school-style outline and the writer's outline are often very different things.

I outline fanatically. I always have an outline of some sort, even for a long book. Outlines help me because I often write puzzle-like stories where the required outcome is known, but I don't know how to get there. Once I figure out intermediate events I have to make sure they all fit - relevantly and somewhat neatly - into the space between point A and point B. However, my outlines don't look like

I. Blah Blah
A. Blah
1. blah blah
a. blah

Which is to say that I don't organize my thoughts into concepts and sub-concepts. That's a pretty natural organization for a persuasive paper, where you have to build and support a particular argument. For a story it's not necessarily of any help at all.

I've tried two main strategies for outlining and I believe most firmly in something I'd call "organic outlining." This is opposed in my mind to chronological outlining.

In chronological outlining, you take a look at the book's calendar of events and you write down what logistically has to happen at what time, and then use that as a scaffold for placing plot- and character-related events. Whenever I do chronological outlining, I find I end up with something that has lots of events in it, but is lacking in the larger dynamics the story needs. Things don't converge to form the big highs and lows that make a story exciting. I also end up with big gaps that say "something has to happen here," and I often can't figure out what to put in those gaps, which makes the story feel both long (too many words, yikes!) and diluted.

In sequence outlining, you start with events first and worry about calendar later. Often I start with a list of questions or suggestions that come directly from my sense of the demands of the story. Such as:
  • Someone has to be the target of an assassination attempt.
  • Sorn has to be part of some nefarious plan to influence the voting.
  • Tagret has to learn that Selemei wants to expose his mother to the public eye.
  • Tagret has to do something bad in order to save his girl from the candidate Innis.
Then I put my mind on how these things can be ordered relative to one another, and relative to other events I have in mind. I ask myself, "what would be the worst time for this thing to happen?" So for example, the worst time to learn that Selemei wants to bring attention to his mother would be just when Tagret realizes his mother is up to something that would put her in serious danger if she were to be exposed to scrutiny. That gives me a hint for another event, "Tagret realizes his mother is up to something," which I can then look for a place to add. Of course, I know that it must happen right before "Tagret learns that Selemei wants to expose his mother to the public eye." The two events now have a required relative sequence.

I try to find as many required relative sequences as possible, and then I see how closely I can place them to one another. The other thing I do is I try to take related events, which happen to different characters, and pile them up into the same time period so that the story intensity will go way up. I'll think to myself, "This is basically Tagret's point of greatest despair. How can I make it so that his ally also experiences despair at this point, and his enemy elation, so that it all lines up and the dynamics are stronger?" Or, "What can I line up with this so it provides the climax?"

Once I have those relative chronologies in place, then I worry about schedules. Schedules provide the scaffold only after I have all of the relative pieces in place. Nobody will try to assassinate any candidates except between their initial nomination and the voting round where it gets down to two candidates, because if one of two gets killed they'll have to start over. Tagret won't do a bad thing unless he absolutely has to, which means it's going to happen after he's determined candidate Innis can't be ruled out any other way, and before Innis gets enough power to act on the girl directly. This chronologically confines the timing of that particular event.

What I end up with (as will you, if you try this) is clumps of densely packed event sequences (a bt like Cheerios in a bowl!). Gluing those sequences together in a logical way can be tricky, but if I can do it, that gets me to an initial sense of how the story flow has to work - with the added advantage that I don't feel like a slave to the calendar, and I don't feel like the story is either wordy or diluted.

In a story as complex as the one I'm working with, this technique is proving to be extremely helpful. Indeed, the more complex you want your story to be, the more outlining can make the difference between getting through it and petering out in the middle.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Working with no text

Having successfully recovered the very latest version of four out of six-and-a-half chapters of my novel, For Love, For Power, I'm feeling good and lucky - if also frustrated because of the two and a half I have to redo. This gives me a great excuse, though, to talk about working with no text.

Working with no text is actually something I enjoy. I think that every story can benefit from it (though I don't recommend flushing the chapters in question!). For me, this takes three different forms:
  1. Talking about principles. This is when I try to hone aspects of my story by walking away from it and talking about it with friends.
  2. Echo listening. This is when I identify the strongest lines of my story by seeing which ones pop up in my head when I'm not looking at the text.
  3. Constructing a structure scaffold. This is when I try to rethink my story on a structural level without getting bogged down in the text which is already there, as an aid to revisions.
I'll take these one at a time. I can't recommend number one highly enough. My friends know that I like to talk story with them (sometimes incessantly!), but the fact is that getting away from the words that create your story can help you put your mind on underlying issues more easily. You can talk about characters as though they were a real people, talk about their growth and progress and what you think they'd do or what they wouldn't do. You can also brainstorm small elements to change here and there without being limited to one single instance in the text. This is where I do most of my work on "story," that intangible thing that lies behind the words. My friends and I talk about what matters in the story - and that usually isn't a question of the words themselves.

Echo listening is a different kind of tool. I use it for the most part as a guide to editing, to show me what kind of things I should try to keep no matter what (even if, for example, they need to be moved to another location). It's also a good test for poetic meter (which I don't usually bother to count out explicitly) and what sounds good.

Building a structure scaffold is enormously useful. Some of you out there may simply sit down with a blank page and start to write, but I almost never do that. I generally have an outline - and by that I don't mean something that is numbered with Roman numerals and indents. Sometimes it's just "this has to happen here," "X goes to this place," or "Y realizes A." Especially when you have a large unwieldy chapter with lots of words that need organizing, walking away from those words can help you identify the most logical progression, which elements are core elements of the story drive, and which are peripheral. This then makes it much easier to go back to the chapter and reconstitute it without getting caught up in the flow of the existing words - to see which ones are truly necessary to core drive, and which are not.

All of these are useful for reconstructing lost text. Because of all my talks with friends, I retain a lot of the information that we've discussed about the way the story is supposed to work. I bring this to my blank page and then use echo listening and the structure scaffold that I remember to put things back together. Currently my reconstruction file is up to ten pages worth of good lines interspersed with notes on scene and structure elements that I remember coming up with. And now that I have those, I'm much less scared about regaining my lost chapters than I was when I was staring at a blank "Document 1."

I hope they can also give you ideas for dealing with text loss, or with revisions.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Is it a spaceship or a cloud?

Funny that I'd see this question asked just after I asked it myself in "At Cross Purposes"! Check out the fantastic photo, here.

Monday, November 29, 2010


If you're a writer, you need to back up your work. We all know this, but we don't necessarily do it. I did it, but didn't back up at a separate site, thinking that the greatest likelihood was that I'd lose or damage my laptop outside the home. Instead, our home was burgled the night before Thanksgiving, and both computers - along with my backups - stolen.

I'm very fortunate, in fact. I've discussed how important critique is to my writing process, and as a result of that, I have sent relatively recent drafts of all my work to friends, who are now sending them back to me. I've only lost my most recent work, about two and a half chapters.

Needless to say, however, I'll be changing my backup strategy. There are services now which provide off-site storage for files, and even services that provide automatic back-up saves for you. A number of my friends have recommended Mobileme, or the Dropbox service, to me, so I'll be looking into them.

My message for you for today is this: however you do it, do it and don't wait. If you feel cautious about using an outside service, burn yourself a disc today with all your files on it, and then take the time to do your research. Or find a friend with whom you can exchange files regularly so there's always an extra copy out there somewhere.

I'm going off now to work on reconstructing what I've lost. Thank goodness that's as little as it is.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Another Guest Post Today!

Today I'm visiting over at Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story, with a post about revisions. This one was a special request from Janice. I'm talking about how to revise a scene without changing anything that happens in it, just by using the internalizations and mental states of your point of view character to change what the scene means.

The post is called Re-envisioning a Scene Without Rewriting it. I hope you find it interesting!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Guest Blog Post today!

Well, we've arrived at the time for another guest blog post! Today you can get an inside view into Khachee, the language of the Cochee-coco aliens in my new story, "At Cross Purposes." Many thanks to Ann Wilkes at Science Fiction and other ODDysseys for inviting me over.

The article is called Peering behind the curtain with Juliette Wade. I hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Focus Your Worldbuilding Efforts

You're creating a world. You want to write a story in it, and you want it to feel real. How best do you go about that?

Well, you have to have all the underlying basic principles down. Climate, ecology, economy, etc, etc, etc. It all has to fit together and make sense. But a lot of that stuff isn't precisely relevant to your plot. The temptation might be to explain things - and that leads you into trouble. You want people to believe in you, yes. But don't tell them things and ask them to believe. If you show those things effectively, then they'll believe in spite of themselves.

I'm sure you've all heard this "show don't tell" advice before. I have a whole post on its different meanings, but I'm not trying to access all those meanings today. I just want to say that if you can bring your worldbuilding efforts into sharp focus, you can achieve that "show don't tell" feeling, and a little bit of worldbuilding can go a long way.

A good place to start explaining this is with a short story. Say your story is short, so you don't have room to try to explain the world - and yet, you want to make sure that the world feels large. One really good way of doing this is picking a single object to start with. This object has to be one that has high relevance to the character - but not necessarily to the plot. I recommend everyday objects. Not something like a fork which has become nearly generic, but something that is slightly off what in the real world we would consider normal. Maybe it's a ceremonial object, or an object of significance to the main character. Maybe it's this Roman "Swiss army knife" that Astrid Bear pointed out to me on Facebook this morning (thank you!).

The reason why I enjoyed the Roman knife-tool was that it was so detailed. So much to be learned from its discovery about the habits of the person who carried it. The fork and spoon. The blade. The spike which may have been used to remove the meat from snails. The toothpick; the spatula.

If you can pick one highly relevant, salient object, its nature can imply many things about the world around it. In my story, "Let the Word Take Me," (Analog July/Aug 2008) I gave my alien girl two objects like that - a ceremonial knife, and "sun armor." Here's a quote:

On top [in the artifact case] was a ceremonial knife in a scabbard of intricately worked grazer-leather, with a leaf-shaped blade and a hilt wound with stone beads. Underneath was a mass of white feathers. Lifting the top layer, he found himself unfolding a hooded coat of perforated leather densely clad with yorro plumage. ... David suspected it was an heirloom; the unblemished feathers were layered without gaps, but the leather inside showed that patches had been resewn, and two of the worn tie-thongs had been replaced.

I spent this many words describing the two objects because of what they said about the technology level and culture of the people who had made them. Find the right object, and its significance will radiate outward, accomplishing far more than general descriptions on a larger scale.

The fact of the matter is, while this technique is very convenient in short stories where you have fewer words to work with, it is equally effective for longer works. The objects don't have to be ceremonial or have special importance. They can be small things that the characters consider quite mundane. A lot of large-scale principles become evident in the tiny details of the everyday. Focus your worldbuilding efforts and you can get a lot of power out of a very few words.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Point of View changes everything

I love point of view. This is in part why I talked about multiple points of view over at The Sharp Angle last Friday - but you don't need to have multiple points of view. Even one can be fantastic, and for me, the deeper into the point of view you go, the more fun it is. Point of view restricts you, but it lets you do so much.

I want to share with you the following video, "Out of Sight," which I discovered through Facebook this week. It was made by a pair of film students at the National Taiwan University of Arts - and for those who know the name, I see a lot of the influence of Hayao Miyazaki in it. To me, this is a wonderful expression of how the limitations of point of view can make for a truly unique experience. This goes for watchers in the case of this short film, but it also goes for readers in the case of written point of view. The mysteries are deeper, the revelations more dramatic, the emotions more poignant. Karen Anderson also pointed out to me that this is a terrific example of an unreliable narrator. I hope you enjoy the film.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Body Language: eye gaze (in life and animation)

Eyes are important. You remember all those scenes where the bad guy is questioning a child, trying to find people who have hidden, watching the kid's eyes to see if they flicker off in any direction to indicate the location of the hiding place. You probably also remember that the character Violet's first line in The Incredibles is, "He looked at me." In real life, and in the movies, we're constantly watching people's eyes - characters' eyes - to learn things about what they are thinking and feeling.

Just because you're working in words - writing a story rather than a movie - doesn't mean you should ignore the power of eye gaze. It's one of the most important non-verbal cues that we watch for, and if it's missing, readers will sense a huge gap in your story.

Eye gaze is an excellent tool for reinforcing point of view. To me there's a wonderful contrast between talking about the things seen by the POV character - where I explicitly try to avoid saying "I saw" - and giving descriptions of the way that a non-POV character's eyes move. In this context, having your pov character "look" makes it a conscious gesture of the eyes. Here's an impromptu example:

I turned. Josephine was standing in the doorway. (1) When I looked at her (2), she dropped her gaze away (3).

1. POV character's observation, no mention of "seeing"
2. POV character makes a deliberate eye gesture: placing gaze on Josephine.
3. POV character observes movement of Josephine's eyes, which suggests an emotional state.

We are taught throughout life to manage our eye gaze. "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" "How dare you give me that look?" "As you speak, make sure you're looking out across the crowd and making eye contact with individuals." Because of this, we form expectations about what different eye gaze positions and styles mean, and those expectations can help you in your story. Talking about eye movements or what someone is looking at is a great way to externalize one character's assessment of another character. It's also a great way to "show don't tell."

Different cultures place different value on eye gaze. I had a friend once who was having a period of difficulty with job interviews, and someone else suspected that his style of making eye contact might be at fault. In my local culture, students in school are expected to make eye contact with teachers as a way of indicating that they're paying attention. In other cultures (such as Japanese or Native American), making eye contact with a teacher is considered inappropriate and presumptuous, possibly an affront. If you're working with an alien group or an alternate world, keep this in mind, because it can give you lots of opportunities for creating difference and possible misunderstanding.

Because I like this stuff, I've created a special instance of eye gaze that I'd like to share from my own work. The Imbati servant caste of Varin has a special set of "gaze-gesture codes" that manservants use in order to communicate when speaking is not appropriate (for example, when their masters are speaking and they can't interrupt). It's not a language, and not universal to the caste, since it's taught explicitly to the elite manservant group. However, the most basic gaze gestures are known to most Imbati and can be used in place of speech whenever they would like to use them. Some examples are "permission," "apology," "request," etc.

Recently I've noticed a sort of common gaze language - or more accurately, eye language - emerging from the portrayal of eyes in animated films. Both Pixar and Dreamworks make use of what I call the "shrinking eye." When characters are shocked or frightened, their pupils shrink down to tiny dots. When Toothless the dragon is angry and ready to pounce, his pupils are small; when he's friendly, they're large.

In fact, this is contrary to my observations of nature. I used to play a game with my cat Folly. I'd stare her down and try to get her to pounce at me by using nothing more than my eye gaze. I could always tell when she was about to pounce because her pupils would abruptly expand. Expand - they'd get so big I could scarcely see her irises, and a split second later, she'd jump.

I've asked myself why in the world the shrinking eye would be so effective at conveying fear or shock, and I've come to this conclusion: pupil size is only one indicator of shock. The wideness of the eyes is another major indicator - probably even a more obvious one. When an animated character experiences shrinking eye, not only the pupils but the irises get smaller, leading to a significant expansion in the white of the eye. By using the shrinking eye, the animators are able to convey an extreme widening of the eye without having to have the eyes expand and take over the head (as they, and mouths, do quite often in anime-style animation). In the case of Toothless the Dragon, the pupil not only expanded but distorted, becoming less oval and more square. The result was an optical illusion that made his eyes look more round - more cute - without requiring the animators to change the shape of the eye and create a weird distortion effect on the dragon's face.

I wonder if you've noticed this trend in animated movies, as I have... I hope the commonness of these effects doesn't lead to them becoming the accepted method. Too much uniformity detracts from creativity, in my mind.

Anyway, try spending some time concentrating on how people use their eyes. It could give you some ideas for your latest story.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Interesting thoughts on pre-publication blurbs

I thought you might find this article interesting. Les Edgerton shares his thoughts on the value of seeking blurbs from established writers - before you have a sale yet. I'm not sure how I stand on this issue, but certainly it's thought-provoking.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Feed your writing soul

If you're like most writers, you have two lives.

Mild-mannered fusion physicist by day... sf writer by night!
Fun-loving graphic designer... and fantasy writer!
Nurturing mom... and sf/f writer!

If you're at all like this, you may find it difficult to balance these two sides. There are times when the demands of your "day job" (and yes, mother/homemaker counts) completely overwhelm you to the point that your creativity may feel blocked by sheer exhaustion. Sometimes you'll experience a period of high demand from your mild-mannered alter ego, and writing will get pushed to the side.

This happens to me a lot, and I find that after an extended period of this, I need to feed my writing soul. There are many ways that I do this. Sometimes all I can do is find a really good book to read, to help me feel inspired. Sometimes I call a writing friend and have a good chat about story ideas, story structure, rewriting, etc. When I can, I try to find a convention that I can attend, even if it's only for one day.

I occasionally do this crazy thing where I fly to a nearby convention, stay for a day, and then fly back without spending the night. Yes, I know it's nuts - but it's something I know I can do, and when the convention is close enough, it's worth the trouble. I save money by not staying in the hotel, and I get a few good hours of solid time where I can be a writer - shed the alter ego and be the superhero just for a little while. It tires me, yet energizes me at the same time.

I'm going to be flying down to Los Angeles for a day at LosCon on November 27th. Even just knowing the plan is in place has made me feel more energized to do my writing, and I know that being there will help me even more.

For all of you who may occasionally (or more than occasionally) feel trapped behind the mild-mannered alter ego, I encourage you to look around for things to feed your writing soul. Even the small things. Even the things that seem a little nuts. Keeping yourself inspired as a writer is really important to keeping that alter ego happy. Even though I do my mothering while I'm not writing, I know that I'm a better mother when I'm feeling strong and energized in my writing, because I feel like a whole and happy person. So making sure to care for your inner writer-superhero can make every part of your life better.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Multiple POV at The Sharp Angle...

I have my second guest post up today. It's a post on multiple points of view, currently up at The Sharp Angle, a fabulous writing blog hosted by Lydia Sharp. You should definitely go learn about it if you didn't know about it already. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bilingualism Delays Alzheimers?

I ran across a really interesting article today. Apparently a study has found that people who have used more than one language for many years have up to a five-year delay in Alzheimer's symptoms. To find out more, check out the article, here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Guest Blog Post today!

In conjunction with the appearance of my story, "At Cross Purposes," I've been putting together a few guest blog posts which will be up on some fantastic blogs this month. Today, Wednesday the 10th, I'll be appearing on Jaleh D's blog, Ex Libris Draconis, talking about using animal species as inspiration for an alien culture. On Friday I'll be over visiting Lydia Sharp's blog, The Sharp Angle, with some thoughts on how to use multiple points of view.

To recap those links:
Wednesday, November 10th - Ex Libris Draconis
- Using animal species as inspiration for an alien culture

Friday, November 12th - The Sharp Angle
- Multiple points of view

Both of these posts will give you insight into my new story, "At Cross Purposes"!

I have two more posts scheduled for later in the month which I'll update you on when the dates are fixed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

External and internal conflict

Ever since reading Janice Hardy's thoughts about the topic on Friday, I've been thinking about external and internal conflict. That very day I realized that the reason a story I've been writing wasn't working was that I didn't have both external and internal conflicts - only external. I found myself asking a question:

Why is it so important to have both external and internal conflicts in a story?

One reason is complexity. A story with only external conflicts feels somewhat shallow to me, no matter how thorny the external conflict becomes. I always like to have the sense that the protagonist is somehow at odds with the external realities of his or her situation.

Another is unpredictability. I always like a story that is hard to predict, and as Janice notes, when you have external conflict driving the story in one direction, and internal conflict driving it in yet another, "crashing them together," the story's direction becomes more difficult to guess.

Both of these are reasons I've thought through before, but this week the problem hit me from another direction, and I came up with a third.

It feels more real.

Now, why would that be? Maybe because it's plausible to think that most people have internal issues they're working through. On the other hand, why would it be so appropriate to have the protagonist dealing with internal conflicts that directly contrast with the external ones? Wouldn't that feel more coincidental? To me it doesn't. After much thought, what I decided was this:

An internal conflict that contrasts with an external one lets the protagonist fight directly against the author.

As a reader, I know that the external conflict is controlled by the author - an outside force that throws things at our beloved protagonist. I don't feel the same way about conflict inside the character, for some reason, even though I know the author is just as much in control of the conflict inside the character as they are of the conflict outside. I think it's because a well-crafted character will feel like her motivations grow naturally from personality, experience and other factors. Thus, so long as the protagonist feels like a real person, then her struggle with internal conflict, while dealing with the events of the plot, will take on additional dimension. Not only will the protagonist's choices be unexpected, but she will take on that quality that I love to feel when writing a character - the feeling that she is acting on her own against me and against what I might (as the writer) want to make her do.

I urge you to think through internal conflict as well as external. It will really make a difference to your story.

Friday, November 5, 2010

East vs West? An interesting link

My mother and my friend Saleha sent me this interesting link. It takes you to a site where you can see art depicting contrasting ways of thinking from East and West. They were made by a Chinese woman who lives in Germany, but may suggest trends in other East/West countries also. They're done in the style that I call "bathroom people" so by their very nature they depict generalizations, and the site makes this clear. Still, very thought-provoking.

Untranslatable Words

Here's a funny little link I found with some untranslatable words from different languages, and explanations of what they mean. I hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Where we travel to

Have you ever noticed where we travel to? If you were to take a poll of people in your area, where do you think they typically go? Where would they like to go, or dream of going?

Where you want to go depends a lot on where you are.

Consider the places that your everyday routine takes you. Then think about whether there are tourist destinations nearby that you almost never go to. There are probably some. We live an hour from San Francisco and we almost never go there as tourists. We go when we're taking guests from out of town, and that's it, with very few exceptions. I used to live right by the beach (10 minute walk) and go maybe three or four times a year.

Where would you go if you had a day or two, maybe a weekend to travel? The radius will be bigger, and perhaps you can identify some weekend spots that are relatively close by.

Where would you go if you took a longer trip?

I remember meeting my husband, who is from Australia, and telling him how I had taken trips to Europe and would love to show him France one day. The first time I told him that he gaped at me. He'd never considered going to Europe. From California, Europe is exotic and faraway; from the East coast it's exotic but just a bit of a hop. From Australia, Europe is on the opposite side of everything.

You'll enjoy this one: he asked me, "Have you ever been overseas to Mexico?"

I said, "I've been to Mexico, but it didn't involve going over any seas." Of course, that was when I realized that if you live in Australia, everywhere that's not Australia is "overseas"!

People from Australia won't go to Hawaii on vacation; they'll go to Bali. It's closer, and I'd have to say it's roughly the equivalent expense in money and time as going from the continental US to Hawaii. People inside Europe travel between countries quite a bit. It's very common for people from France to visit Italy in August, for example.

What I'm trying to get at here is that for any given region, there will be travel zones (day travel, overnight travel, longer travel) and travel habits. The places we think of going have a lot to do with the place we are right now.

So what does travel mean in your world? How does faster-than-light spaceship drive change that equation? If you live in the medieval-tech world of Fandazia, what does it mean to leave your town? Where would you imagine going? The concept of travel, both of how much effort and money it takes, and of where one might go, depends a lot on the culture of the local area.

It's something to think about.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Experience of Pregnancy

How many of you out there have ever been pregnant? The number of you answering "yes" is going to be limited by certain factors, such as being female, being of a certain age, etc.

Okay, then, how many of you have ever considered writing about a pregnant person in a story? Probably far more - the limiting factors aren't so limiting in fiction!

So many times when I see pregnancy in a fictional context, it tends to fall into the tired old throwing up - food cravings - fat tummy combination. But there's so much more to pregnancy than that! So for those who might want to know for their research, I thought I'd start this entry. I encourage any of you who have experienced pregnancy and would like to contribute any of your own experiences to comment at the end of this post. I'm trying not to be gross here, so please keep the comments informative and not too detailed.

Let me start with some refuting/refinement of the traditional basics, and then I'll add some different kinds of pregnancy stuff.

1. Throwing up.
Not everyone does this - I felt nauseated at times, but never actually threw up in either of my pregnancies. Morning sickness can hit people in the morning, but sometimes people feel it more strongly in the afternoon (I did). For some, it can last all day. My own experience was that I would feel nausea if my stomach was ever totally empty. Therefore, I had to make sure not ever to let my stomach be empty. I took food with me everywhere (more on this below). Morning sickness for most people lasts through the first trimester (12 weeks); for me it lasted 15 weeks. I have known people for whom it lasted through the entire pregnancy, but this is more rare. So if you have a character experiencing morning sickness in their 8th month of pregnancy, this is a really unusual thing (and in addition, they've probably had it all along until then).

2. Food cravings.
Yes, these happen. But pickles and ice cream would be something I'd expect to hear about from one woman in a hundred (or maybe more). My experience was more that I wanted to eat in a particular pattern. This pattern was different for different pregnancies. With my son, I wanted to eat meat. Lots of meat, in lots of forms (though I remember feeling revulsion for tangerine beef; go figure). With my daughter, it was vegetables and fruit. Meat didn't gross me out, but neither was I excited about it. I definitely did want to keep supplies of my favorite foods available. Note for the curious: this is not a boy/girl thing. It's all about the individual pregnancy and the individual child. I have heard lots of stories about indicators that you're carrying a boy or a girl, but none that actually have consistent patterns across groups of people. The thing I experienced the most was hunger, and hunger like I'd never known it. A moment would come, and I would need to eat. NOW. Even once the nausea effect was gone, the hunger effect would remain, and I'd get so ravenous that I'd feel dizzy and angry. This again was why I carried food with me all the time. I wasn't able to wait five minutes for a table.

3. Fat tummy.
The weight that a woman gains in pregnancy is significantly more than the weight of the baby, but she may or may not put on fat. This weight comes from amniotic fluid, placenta, and other things - not the least of which would be the extra blood the woman needs during a pregnancy (up to 50% more than usual). Early in the pregnancy you'll see the tummy bulge but it will feel soft because the uterus will still be too small and too far down in the pelvis to feel. The hard round tummy of later pregnancy is the feel of the uterus which has pushed other things (intestines, etc.) out of the way. In a second or subsequent pregnancy, the abdomen will expand more quickly than in the first pregnancy, because the body has already "learned" how to stretch out to accommodate a growing baby. In addition, the tummy does not expand gradually and consistently, but will remain at one size for a period of time, and then expand rapidly over a day or two before staying at that size for another longer period.

Some other elements of pregnancy that aren't usually accurate in fiction include:
  • a pregnant woman may experience slower digestion (even constipation), but she'll have to go to the bathroom more often because she'll be eliminating the baby's wastes as well as her own, and the uterus often presses down on the bladder.
  • a pregnant woman will have changes in balance, and may stumble or fall, or have difficulty navigating stairs or narrow aisleways (such as passing people in a theater or stadium). The irregular expansions of the belly have a lot to do with this, as they change your center of gravity constantly.
  • a pregnant woman will very often experience an increase in the sense of smell. I could smell cigarette smoke practically half a mile away; a friend of mine was able to smell pizza before it even came out of the kitchen. My brother referred to this as "Spidey-senses." Perhaps included in this is an increased awareness of surroundings, and increased anxiety about dangers.
  • starting around the third trimester the woman will probably start to feel Braxton-Hicks contractions, which are uterine contractions not associated with actual labor. (It feels for a few moments like you're holding a basketball inside your stomach!) For most women I know, it has been difficult to distinguish between strong Braxton-Hicks contractions and the early onset of actual labor. Cries of "The baby's coming!" and "It's time!" occur often in fiction, but seldom in real life.
  • one very common symptom of pregnancy is extreme fatigue. My own experience with this was having sudden waves of fatigue hit and knowing I had about ten seconds to lie down (bed, couch, wherever) before I'd fall asleep, whether I wanted to or not. During my first pregnancy, I'd sleep for two hours each time. During my second, the baby would wake me up after a much shorter time. On one of those occasions, I discovered he had learned to use the CD player while I was sleeping! I'm very lucky he wasn't a destructive baby.
  • the "water" doesn't always break. Some women experience their water breaking at home, and some in public places. It's not always dramatic, though our pregnancy counselor joked that if it happened at the grocery store you should just break a pickle jar on the floor and shout "clean-up on aisle 3!" However, once the water breaks the baby needs to come out within 48 hours or be at risk of infection.
A few last thoughts - I include these because they stand out to me, though childbirth and its aftermath aren't really official topics of this post:
  • women don't always scream in childbirth.
  • women experience continued contractions after the birth (even when everything is out), because these serve to bring the uterus back down to its normal size and to stop the bleeding.
  • breastfeeding is both instinctive and learned, and it isn't easy at first; it's also very individual. There's no one way to do it.
I hope this post expands your thinking about pregnancy if you haven't experienced it. It's worth doing research about it if you want to include it in a story. The web has lots of sites where you can find medical information about pregnancy and its physiological changes, including this one. You can also interview friends or try to find personal accounts of pregnancy experiences. It's worth doing, so that your story doesn't fall into a pregnancy cliché by accident.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Do more research to give the impression of less "research"

Recently I've read a couple of fiction works, whose names I won't mention, in which I could "feel the research." Perhaps you've run across something like this - a piece of prose with a historical or foreign setting in which you could do a tally of details and everything checked out correct, but somehow it felt effortful. Or though the setting was all present, the characters seemed to float on top of it rather than moving through it.

I could call this a problem of anachronism, but that usually implies something glaring that stands out and doesn't belong in its time period. This isn't something glaring. When I'm in my anthropological mood I'll call a piece like that "not culturally situated."

Very often, it's a problem of attitude. The author's research has given them the architecture, the physical details of rooms and everyday objects - but it hasn't had as big an influence on the way the characters think and speak. Small turns of phrase will stand out as wrong. Or it will be difficult for me to imagine how a person with the upbringing that this protagonist must have had (given the era/location) would reach a state of mind like the one the author wants us to accept. Straining against the status quo - a common phenomenon in a piece like this - is not the problem. It's the assumptions that underlie the WAY this person wants to challenge the status quo that make it successful, or unsuccessful.

Here are a few thoughts on how to avoid having a story that feels full of research, rather than seamlessly melting into the period intended.

1. Don't create an extensive checklist of "stuff." Have a key object or building here or there, and make sure to use of details that aren't obvious or easy - but don't overload the reader.

2. Move beyond Wikipedia. While it can be a wonderful and convenient source, Wikipedia will typically only give you one angle on your location or time period. Look for others, such as...

3. Look to literature or primary sources for inspiration. Literature written in the time period will give you a sense of the language used in your setting, and will also reflect the philosophies and attitudes of the time/location. Primary sources like personal accounts etc. can give you even more of this, if you can find them.

4. Watch your dialogue, judgments and internalization. Check expressions against the Oxford English Dictionary, if necessary, to know when they came into use. Check your characters' moods and the moods of your scenes, and how your characters define them. What words to they use internally to describe their own mental states? Do they reflect how people of that time and location would have described them? Or have any expressions crept in that are inconsistent with the culture or time period?

Even if you can only find one primary source or piece of literature to go on, it will make an enormous difference. In the Heian period in Japan people used to describe the shedding of tears as causing their sleeves to become wet, generally in a very gentle and pensive way. In another period, frantic weeping might have been attributed to hysteria. Nowadays we would describe such things entirely differently.

The setting you choose for your story is far more extensive than just a collection of objects, fashions, and architectural trends. It goes deep into the psyche and language of the people who populate it. When you capture that in your writing, the sense of reality you achieve will be far more powerful, and any departures from it will become far more striking.

It's something to think about.