Friday, February 26, 2010

Campbell Eligibility

I have just learned that the nominations for Hugo awards close on March 13th, so while it feels to me that I've just left Nebula season, let me remark that "Cold Words" (Analog, Oct. 2009) is eligible for Hugo consideration. Also, because my first professional story, "Let the Word Take Me," appeared in Analog magazine's July/August 2008 issue, I'm in my second year of eligibility for the Campbell Award for best new writer (here is my profile at the site). *Any member of the 2009 or 2010 Worldcon as of the end of January 2010 is eligible to make nominations for the 2010 Hugo Awards and John W. Campbell Award. You don't have to attend Worldcon; you just have to be a member of it. Less expensive Non-attending ("supporting") memberships, which come with all of the rights of membership except actually attending it, are available* (information between the asterisks helpfully provided by Kevin).

For the curious, here are a couple of quotes. I hope they'll inspire you to seek out copies of Analog...

from "Cold Words" (Oct. 2009):

"What is it? Still the problem of Cold words? Someone of Rank among your people must grasp the dominator's tongue, Parker, or Majesty will brand you Barbarians!"

Parker's fur-naked brown face shows embarrassed. "This new negotiator is a more gifted speaker than the last," he says. "Officer Jasmine Hada will speak Cold words well enough not to Warm Majesty's presence inadvertently."

"Then this is news of triumph. We shall have our spaceport!" And all that come with it - so close is the conclusion of my life's hunt!

"Yes, but Hada is too skilled. She even bears the authority to propose terms. Why should the Allied Systems grant Aurru spaceport such importance, if it's only meant to be a way-stop between star territories?" Parker frowns. "I fear some hidden intent of unfairness to the Aurrel people."

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?"

Parker lowers his head. "She comes down by shuttle at the sunset hour. Your presence at her arrival would grant us Cold honor - and we might make sure of her."

from "Let the Word Take Me" (July/August, 2008):

At the border of the village, a hand emerged from the speckled darkness and jerked him off the path into deep shadows.

"David, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

David caught his breath. "Father!"

"If Monroe finds out you've been trespassing...!"

"I know, Father, I'm sorry, I –" How stupid would he sound if he said he'd risked the colony listening for bedtime stories? It wouldn't win him the respect due to a fellow linguist, that's for sure, and Father would say he should have shipped him offworld to college on Erimyno Treaty Colony instead of giving in to all his begging to stay. "I'm sorry."

"Well, never mind."

"So how did it go? Did you get the extension?"

"Damned Systems functionary," Father grunted. "She doesn't care about the years of work we've put in; all she thinks about is Systems resources being wasted on maintaining us here at Garini Base."

David shook his head. "How can anyone say we're wasting resources? We hardly import anything." He shuddered, realizing that 'resources' must mean something else entirely. "Does she mean our defense ships? But she can't take them away – it would be like handing the Garini rainforests over to be shredded by pirates!" And, since the Garini Provisional Colonists had been the first to inform the Systems about Garini's biochemical wealth, it would be their own fault.


"The sacred Word is life, or death," she told me. "It binds, it brings bliss or misery. It is the blood of the People, that flows freely in its heart, in the House of Leaves, and the Great Tales like flesh grow from it; outside, the blood and flesh are clothed in small images that give understanding without unleashing the full might of the Word, like scales over the skin."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Different Minds, Different Voices

Recently, numerous friends have mentioned the name Temple Grandin to me, so finally yesterday I went and listened to this remarkable woman give a speech called, "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds." If any of you have heard her name and been wondering, she's definitely worth listening to. It's clear to me that she's correct: her special way of thinking (medically falling on the autistic spectrum) makes her uniquely qualified to perform excellently in her job (analyzing livestock facilities to make them more effectively usable by animals).

Not everyone thinks the same way. I've encountered this a lot, for a number of reasons. When I taught in the classroom, I was always trying to explain things multiple different ways because not everyone relates to pedagogic explanation in the same way. As I watch my own children grow, I notice that they're asked to perform many of the same tasks, but that they approach them in extremely different ways. Also, when I work with writers, I notice that people approach stories in different ways.

It shouldn't be surprising. I always think of the game of Boggle, and remark that if you're sitting on a different side of the board from everyone else, you see different words (and often, that's what helps you win).

If you're writing, what can the idea of different minds - what Temple Grandin calls neurodiversity - do for you and your stories? Well, it can do a lot, in fact.

It can inspire you to create a narrator who thinks differently. The classic non-genre example of this is the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which features an autistic protagonist, thereby giving readers a very different - and very moving - viewpoint on the events of the story.

It might also inspire you to create aliens. C.S. Friedman's Novel, This Alien Shore, features a fascinating group of people (actually humans significantly mutated by a star drive, but they function very much as aliens do) whose society is based on dividing people up by their type of mind. Friedman bases a lot of these types on what we'd call mental illnesses (obsessive-compulsive disorder, megalomania, etc.), but in the society of the Guerans, they are legitimate ways of thinking that give these people advantages in their fields of specialty. Social relations in their society are eased somewhat because people draw patterns on their faces to indicate the nature of their inner thought, and thus allowances can be made for them.

If you're working with mental illness, or any condition which has been significantly examined by the medical community (including Asperger's Syndrome, autism, OCD, schizophrenia, etc.) I urge you to research it. The advantage of knowing the medical specifics - and personal specifics, if you can learn about them - of a condition is immense. Your portrayal of a person will be more principled and realistic, and you'll know which characteristics are safe to exaggerate and which should be kept under control. There's a big difference between a character who's an evil bastard, and one who's mentally ill.

But even if you're working with people we'd call "normal," remember that they don't all think the same way. As Alice Flaherty discusses in her book, "The Midnight Disease" - and Temple Grandin also notes - many mental "conditions" are genetically related to different ways of thinking that also show up in the normal population. The traits of mental disease persist because they are simply overconcentrated forms of creativity and other adaptively advantageous traits. I have a previous post you might be curious about which talks about Flaherty's fascinating book in more depth, here.

I think these issues are applicable to the question of character voice. When you're looking to write a unique character voice, think about how that person thinks. Temple Grandin says she thinks in pictures - and not just in pictures, but in a series of very specific pictures, without creating any overarching prototypical concept. If you were to create a point of view character who thought that way, it would be worth thinking through how they put together thoughts, and how they reasoned their conclusions, so that you could render that in the voice. Any change in categorization strategy, or metaphorical strategy, can have a deep influence on voice. This is one reason why someone who speaks a different language will have a very different voice. Something as simple as a different verbal strategy will greatly change the way that character's point of view appears on the page.

I love to do different - even wacky - voices for my characters. Some of these characters are human, and some are not. When I'm working on creating a character voice, typically what I'll do is come up with a list of things I want that person to do textually ("special effects"). I'll experiment with what a particular set of alterations does to how that person sounds, and once I've learned a bit about what the "special effects" do to the feel of the narrative, then I'll edit to achieve better overall readability and flow. Here are some examples of special effects I've used.

For Rulii in Cold Words (Analog, October 2009):
1. Never use the present progressive tense (use all actions and no ongoing states)
2. Use unexpected phrasings ("Parker shows embarrassed" instead of "Parker looks embarrassed")
3. Use hunt metaphors ("My life's hunt" "she could ruin my hunt before its final pace")

For the obsessive-compulsive, paranoid Nekantor in The Eminence's Match (forthcoming, Eight Against Reality, 2010)
1. Never use expressions of uncertainty (avoid "probably," or "must be" to express likelihood)
2. Use negative connotative words in description whenever possible
3. Use metaphors of games and control
4. Use textual repetition to convey obsessive thought patterns

A list like this is not a recipe. It's an experiment - an experiment that I encourage you to try, if you want to diversify your voices. As I said above, the list points are special effects, and like any effect (even the use of a cool word) they can be overused. But I still encourage you to come up with your own special effects to try.

This is all about thinking outside the box. The more we can be aware of other ways of thinking, the more we can learn about the world's diversity on both the linguistic and neurological levels, and all of these things can help us, as writers, achieve something different and exciting.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Language Pride/Language Control

If you're creating a nation - for fantasy or science fiction - I'll begin by encouraging you to give it a language. But even if you have already, don't stop there. One of the things you find all over the world is that people who speak a particular language have strong attitudes about it, both internally or relative to other languages of their world.

Today my husband and I were discussing France and the French reputation for being prickly toward Americans - something which I have never in my life experienced. Interesting, isn't it? Because I speak French well, I always get lots of credit for it. My theory is that Americans and French are very similar. The people of each of these two countries are very proud of their language, and because it is spoken in many countries of the world, they feel that others coming to visit should have the courtesy to learn some of it. This may or may not jive with the experience of some of you, but nevertheless, it's an example of manners which are closely linked to language pride.

In Japan, they have a different kind of language pride. Both my husband and I have encountered situations where we were told we spoke Japanese "too well." There's a strong cultural view of Japanese as a unique language that can't truly be captured by a foreign speaker.

Speakers of different languages can also have varying attitudes toward the use of dialect by people from different regions - some laugh at them, some think they're precious, and others disparage them. Some countries have a national institution whose job it is to maintain the "standard" language against the intrusion of dialectal usages or foreign borrowings (especially foreign borrowings).

I encountered a funny article recently about German train stations replacing signs written in English with ones written in German. The part that was surprising was that the English they were replacing wasn't the kind Americans would necessarily find easy to understand - it was very idiomatically appropriate to a German context. The article is here.

If your world has nations and languages, then considering language attitude on some level will help it feel a lot more real. Even if you've got one language that is the strongest across a whole world, consider that language use diversifies very quickly. English is very strong as an international language, but there are lots of different kinds of English. What is Standard English? How does it compare to the Queen's English? Is one more often learned, or more highly valued in a particular location? If you meet someone from Hong Kong, their English will probably sound British, but someone from the Philippines will probably sound American. If you want to teach English in Japan, it will be easier to get a job if you sound American or British than if you sound Australian.

War is another context in which language control can play a huge role. Take the example of World War II, when Japan occupied Korea and outlawed the use of Korean in public. Korean didn't disappear, but a whole generation of people learned Japanese as a conqueror's language. Imagine how that influenced attitudes about Korean and Japanese!

Think also of the language Hebrew, which was primarily used as a literary language and was then revived for active use starting in the end of the 19th century (source: Wikipedia entry on History of Hebrew). Now it's the native language of millions in Israel.

I hope all of these real world examples can help you extrapolate for situations in your fantasy and science fictional worlds. Language isn't just a tool for conveying messages, but also for conveying information about culture and identity. It can serve conquerors, or rally the oppressed. It can be a measure of refinement or lack thereof. It can be a symbol of national unity, or a symbol of national diversity, or yet again a symbol of deep national history.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brave New Twitter

I attended a Twitter chat last night. It was both difficult and fascinating - and not because of what we were talking about, but how we were talking about it.

Let me give you some context. I'm not a big producer of tweets, because I don't have the best mobile phone tech, and I don't tend to narrate my life in quite that manner. But this time I was invited to #scribechat and I figured I'd attend. It took me a while to figure out how to attend, given that I never had, and I'm still not entirely convinced that I did it in the easiest way. But I learned a lot about Twitter interactions.

New technologies don't always allow for established conventions. That's certainly the case with email, texting, and instant messaging, but even more so with Twitter. Sometimes when conventions of communication fail to be translated between media, it can become socially problematic or even dangerous. Let's trace through some developments.

Take email first. It's considered to be a much less formal medium than actual letter-writing. I remember when people first started learning that writing in all capitals meant shouting in the email format. Some people still have trouble grasping this convention. It worked fine for telegrams, because those were usually sent only in emergencies anyway. I know of many cases where people have offended others by going too far into the realm of the informal with emails. It's a medium that resembles letters, but doesn't follow their rules in the area of politeness.

Then there's texting, and instant messaging. Like telegrams, texts are restricted in length by price. It's interesting to note that the conventions for shortening a telegram - which involved leaving out words but not usually shortening the words themselves - more resembled writing headlines for newspapers. Texting conventions took this shortening trend and combined it with the more recent trend for creating acronyms (from company names etc.), resulting in "ROFL" and all sorts of fascinating new expressions. Instant messaging is restricted by a different kind of shortening influence - the desire to get the messages back and forth as quickly as possible. Texting conventions translate easily to this environment, but for those who aren't well-versed in the texting acronyms, you tend to see missed capitals, abbreviations and dropped punctuation. Interestingly though, when you're dealing with a medium of high-speed back-and-forth, misunderstandings can be cleared up much more easily than with email, because the members of the conversation can simply ask questions immediately to clear things up. There's another convention that gets altered too - turn-taking. The high speed of messages means that cross-posting happens, and one person will start a new topic while the other is still about to make a comment. Generally in my experience, that can lead to the situation (more unusual, but not unheard of, in verbal conversation) of two topics being maintained at once.

Twitter is something different. You've got lots of people involved in a chat at once, but here more distinctly, turn-taking rules don't apply well. In Twitter many of the contributions aren't actually replies to any particular person's statement. I figure if a two-person conversation is ping pong, and a multi-person conversation resembles hacky-sack (even in an online chatroom), a Twitter conversation is more like trying to play tennis against a ball machine. I felt like I was in a room with lots of different conversations going on, but even once I chose one to belong to, I still was required to eavesdrop on all the others at the same time.

So here's a summary of some conventions of conversation and letter-writing that get altered by new technologies:

1. turn taking (and topic switches)
2. the link between information and identity
3. conventions of politeness
4. availability of context for disambiguation of message

This is not to say that technology only causes trouble. It has some great advantages. The funniest one I've heard lately was yesterday, when my friend told me that "today in rehearsal, I had to ask kids to text instead of whisper. Crazy thing is, it actually worked."

I'm not about to condemn these new forms of communication. They're actually very interesting as inspirations for the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise in different contexts - and for different modes of narrative. More and more these days I've seen stories take the form of chatroom logs. It works pretty well! There's also the example of the Google ad about the boy and the French girl that was shown during the Superbowl. I'd call that an unusual sort of flash fiction video.

I had a flash of inspiration after the Twitter chat that I'd like to share because in the moment I had it, it felt so true. Being in a room with multiple conversations and having to listen to all of them is precisely the reality that many people describe when they work with species or groups that communicate by telepathy. Our imaginations can give us a lot of insight into how it would "feel" to be in a place where you could hear everything that everyone said - or thought - but if you want insight into the kind of conversation that would occur, or the kind of processing load that would be put on a person unfamiliar with such a context, follow Twitter chats for a while.

I don't think that was my last Twitter chat, though I know that I prefer instant messaging. I'm definitely going to be keeping my eyes open for inspiration - and I hope you can too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Country Identity

Several recent interactions with friends, as well as the ongoing Olympics, have brought the topic of country identity to my mind. In this case I'm not talking about national symbolism, or flags, but about how people form a concept about another country.

We form patterns quickly. I think it's actually a biological imperative. If an unusual-looking bear is coming at you, and you hesitate because you can't figure out if it's really a bear or not... you get the idea. Typically we suspect a pattern after two data points conform to it, and we feel it's been confirmed when we see a third conforming example. From that, we expand our idea into a generalization that we try to apply in new contexts.

Lately, I've met more than one person who told me they didn't want to go to Australia. Needless to say, I found this surprising, since I'm married to an Australian and have been there lots of times (it's lovely). When I asked why, these people explained (not in precisely these words) that Australia was filled wall to wall with terribly dangerous animals from sting rays to jellyfish to spiders to crocodiles, and that going there would mean certain injury or death. My response? Um, wow. But I didn't ask where they got the idea, because I actually know where they got it. From the news. It doesn't take more than one Steve Irwin to make a big impression; add to that one story of lifeguards wearing panty hose to avoid jellyfish stings, and one story about the Sydney brown recluse spider, and voila! That's a pattern for generalized fear.

Just so you realize I'm not really much better than any of these people, I'll tell you how I felt when I first met my husband. I was incredulous, listening to all his stories about the big city of Melbourne (3 million people). I thought - with some embarrassment, mind you - "Wow, Australia has people?" All my data points came from stories or tv shows about Australian scenery and animals.

I heard another story about a pr video that was being made in France. The first people to judge it weren't impressed, because they wanted to get away from the typical "Baguette, beret, fromage" image. (Fromage is cheese.) France is quite strong in biotech, for example, and in this case, pointing out that fact was far more relevant to the video than the old-fashioned image.

So in general, I'll observe that people's mistaken first impressions of countries don't seem to come from erroneous information so much as bad luck in the first few pieces of data they encounter. When I watch the Olympics, I always feel like it functions as a force for good in world awareness, because at least it will give people a few more data points about a place they don't know well.

So in real life, we might advise people to be cautious about drawing larger generalizations from scant data - but the fact is, people do it. This is where it becomes relevant to writing alien and fantasy worlds. Chances are, residents of a fantasy or alien world will think in much this same way - and draw conclusions about humans, or about their neighbors in another country, accordingly. Think through how people think about each other. If you can, try to go as far as establishing the kinds of major events or rumors that might establish a country's reputation with its neighbors. It will make your whole world feel more real.

Thank You

The Nebula nominations have closed. I got a total of twelve votes - not enough to reach the ballot, but far more than I ever expected. I want to thank all of you who supported me and my story. I'll try my best to live up to your confidence in me and write even better stories in the future.

Thanks also to all my blog followers and readers. You're wonderful, and I am grateful to all of you for your interest in my odd musings. It's been hard for me to post in the last week due to various factors beyond my control, but I'll try to get back to it now.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Monuments of Unageing Intellect: A Ridiculously Close Look

I had an interesting experience when I read Monuments of Unageing Intellect by Howard Hendrix. As I began reading, I had an intense feeling of familiarity, as if I'd read the story before. By the time I'd gotten halfway through I recognized the similarity - and in fact, when I spoke with Dr. Hendrix himself, he confirmed that his story is deliberately intended to update and give homage to an older story, The Dying Man by Damon Knight (first entitled Dio, which Hendrix read three decades ago in the Groff Conklin anthology 5 Unearthly Visions).

What does an author do, I wondered, to make us feel the similarity between two stories like this without actually imitating the text directly? And how does one bring a classic story into a new age?

When I spoke with Hendrix at the Nebula Awards last year, he told me he hadn't looked at Knight's story as he wrote this one. I can see how that would be a good idea - avoiding the gravitational pull of the original story is probably a very good idea. On the other hand, there had to be many strong similarities in order for this to be a re-envisioning of the story, rather than a revamping of the premise. So I thought I'd show a collection of points, and demonstrate how each similarity simultaneously evokes and makes a distinct departure from the Knight story.

The premise at the heart of each tale is the same: amidst a society of immortal humans, one person starts dying. Each story has three important characters that drive the tale, those being the dying one, the involved observer (who is the primary point of view character), and the one who can explain what's going on. In fact, I could argue that these are the characters required by a science fictional tale of this nature, for the following reasons:

1. The dying one is the reason for the story
2. The one who can explain helps readers with the basis of the world and its details*
3. The involved observer experiences significant emotional impact from the impending death, and at the same time will outlive the dying one. This makes the observer a natural choice for the primary point of view character, in part because he or she will have a chance to reflect on the event in retrospect, but also because the point of view of an immortal human being is the most "different" from what we are familiar with in our own lives.
*This is a question of information management that I've discussed before; it functions quite effectively in these stories.

Hendrix chooses to create a deliberate difference between his story and Knight's in this area by reversing the characters' genders. Knight's dying person is a man, Dio; his friend is Claire, and the helpful explainer is a man named Benarra. Hendrix's dying character is named Moira, her friend Hisao, and their helper Wilena. The change of gender makes it much easier to keep the two stories distinct.

More similarities lie in scene-setting, imagery and the use of language. Both stories begin with a scene involving sports, the ocean, and flight. In Knight's story, Dio watches a game of ball on the beach, then gets drawn into a flying wresting match. The scene ends with the following image:

"Far out, the comber lifts its head menacingly high; it comes onward, white-crowned, hard as bottle-glass below, rising, faster, and as it roars with a shuddering of earth into the cavern, the Immortals are dashed high on the white torrent, screaming their joy."

In Hendrix's story, the scene opens with a game of ball played over the ocean on flying surfboards, which ends like this:

"She hurled the ball back into bounds, where it was greeted with the laughter of young gods and goddesses, golden Olympians at play, flashing and moving in waves with the ball and the game."

What I find fascinating here is that the mere presence of ocean/ball/game/immortal people in Hendrix's story was so powerfully able to evoke Knight's, to the point where by the end of the first scene I was certain the two stories were linked. Even more interesting for me is the parallel between the word "dashed" and the word "flashing" - a phonological link that gives a common flavor to both pieces.

The parallels do continue. Both Dio and Moira are artists in a sense, and both create sculptures during their stories. There is a continual contrast between the changing and unchanging, and its emotional effect - Hendrix does this well by giving Hisao a strong reaction to the "Persistent Personae", sculptures created by Moira. In both stories, it's inexplicable why one person would suddenly become mortal, and the image of an animal's death (a rat for Knight, a dolphin for Hendrix) plays an important role.

However, once the initial link between the stories is established, the reader can be freed up to pay more attention to the differences that then appear.

In Knight's story, the world he creates is rather dreamlike - an impression contributed to by his use of present tense narration throughout. This impression is furthered by a division he draws between two classes of people: the Players and the Planners. The Players are the most thoroughly immersed in the immortal experience, having no care for the passage of days; they don't keep journals, and don't notice, for example, if the people they meet on a daily basis are people they might have met before three hundred years earlier. The Planners are responsible for keeping track of things, and thus for keeping society running. Dio, even before he becomes mortal, is a Planner - but we only experience his point of view right at the very beginning of the story. Claire, who loves him, is a Player - and her identity establishes a basis for her naïve understanding of his situation and of the world around them, which colors her emotional experience and allows her relationship with Bennara to be so informative (to her, and to the reader!).

Through all this, Knight creates very little sense of how his immortal world came to be, saying only that people no longer die because they never reach full physical maturity (neoteny). When Claire asks how people became immortal, we get the following exchange with Bennara:

"You're saying it happened. But how?"
"It didn't happen. We did it, we created ourselves."

[they look at images of disease agents]
"What happened to them?" she asks in a voice that does not quite tremble.

"Nothing. The planners left them alone, but changed us. Most of the records have been lost in two thousand years, and of course we have no real science of biology as they knew it."

By contrast, though he keeps the explanation of neoteny as prolonging life, Dr. Hendrix brings to his tale a keen sense of the technological - a sensibility quite appropriate to modern readers' understanding of science. The flight in his tale is not inherent in neo-human abilities, but comes from technology like the hovering surfboards. In his vision, there was a person behind the "Intervention," Cherise LeMoyne, who brought about the change by releasing nanotechnology called "moteswarms." Wilena describes the swarms as follows:

"'LeMoyne's diagnosis had come too late. She died, but not before giving the motes their ability to swarm-communicate. She connected the 'bots, even gave them links and search capabilities into the human infosphere - apparently hoping everything we humans had ever learned might serve as the motes' classroom, their school, their teacher, their database. She also gave them their most important commands, at least after their Hippocratic "Do not harm" substrate.'
Into the air above her desk Wilena holoed up the twin directives, where they hovered in golden numbers and letters.

By giving us these elements, Dr. Hendrix allows his story to move beyond the emotional impact of mortality into the question of what the moteswarms have actually achieved, and whether their presence has helped or hurt humanity on the larger scale (in the areas of psychology and learning). The idea that humans have experienced both physical and psychological neoteny as a result of the work of the moteswarms allows him to arrive, from a totally different direction, at the sort of Player/Planner distinction that Knight takes as a premise. In Hendrix's case, all the immortal humans are characterized by psychological immaturity on a certain level, which leads to hyper-specialization - and only Moira is different, or Deeper.

"The rest all swim in shallow seas....Only Moira moves in deep waters."

The two stories end in very different places, thematically. Knight's story ends with a change in Claire, who has in a sense left Eden behind because she has gained an awareness of death - and sees that while distant, it may still be waiting for her. Dr. Hendrix's story ends with a different kind of change in Hisao, who realizes he will never experience the intensity of life in his endless years that Moira experienced in her few. There's a distinct portrayal of the moteswarms as having escaped human control, and of their influence as not necessarily one that was best for all humanity.

I'd like to thank Dr. Hendrix for his story, and for inspiring me to this post by writing his own monument - a "monument to unageing premise."

I hope you all find this discussion interesting, and have a chance to enjoy Damon Knight's "The Dying Man" and Dr. Howard Hendrix's "Monuments of Unageing Intellect" for yourselves.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Turncoat Nouns

My mom sent me this terrific, humorous article from the New York Times about the word "podium" and how it's becoming a verb in Olympic and sports circles - think, "I didn't get gold, but at least I podiumed."

If this makes you cringe, I'm not surprised, but the article has a lovely perspective on this widespread tendency in English to convert nouns into verbs (party, surface, etc.).

The article is here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Update for Thursday

Something exciting and nerve-racking is happening right now. I'm very close to making the Nebula ballot with the novelette I had in Analog this year, "Cold Words." It's making me lose sleep (though the kids being sick have a lot to do with that too). When I look at all the marvelous authors on the list with me, I'm amazed... and more than ever, I hope I can get onto the ballot. Just being there would mean so many more people would read my stories, and right now that's my greatest hope. So if you're a member of SFWA, or know one, I'd greatly appreciate it if you could read my story, and think about it. And if you've already thought of me, let me say thank you, thank you, thank you!

Enough with the self-promotion (which makes me feel awkward anyway).

Tomorrow I'm hoping to post an article - my first Ridiculously Close Look in far too long - about Howard Hendrix's "Monuments of Unageing Intellect." I'm excited about putting this up, because I think it brings up some interesting topics that aren't often discussed. So at this point I'll go off and try to finish the piece so I can get it to you all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Folklore, Parable and Metaphor

I'd like to thank Hayley Lavik for suggesting the topic of folklore and its resonance within culture. She said:

I don't have anything too specific in mind, but I really love delving into cultural folklore (such as England's black dog myth, which became incorporated right into the identity of the town of Bungay, Suffolk) and how it resonates, becomes an influence on a culture as a whole (working into customs, rituals, etc), and the like. I'm hoping to work in more informed folklore research on my blog in the coming year, and I would love to hear your take on it from an anthropological standpoint (or heck, if you have any suggestions for good reading).

I've tried a couple of avenues of research, but I think the best approach here is to point you at the resources I considered, since they contain way too much information for me to share in this post. If you're interested in specific folk tales and their significance over time, you should check out the "Folkways" series published in Realms of Fantasy magazine. Each of these articles picks a different classic story and looks at its roots, its international history, its local significance at different points in history, its literary influence, and other such things. A lot of these would be available in back copies of RoF (of which I have a few, but not that many).

I remember going to Chicago a few years ago when there was a exhibition on at the Field museum about Mythical Creatures. This was a great exhibition, because it talked a lot about both localized and internationally known mythical creatures - and when they were internationally known, it spoke about how the stories had traveled. I wrote a post about the exhibition not long after I visited; it's here.

Also, for those of you who may be interested in the history and folklore behind Japanese mythical creatures, I highly recommend the Obakemono Project, a constantly developing website that has illustrations of creatures and citations from stories in which they've appeared, tells you which regions of Japan they're from, etc. As time goes by, people have also been adding to the website illustrations from classic texts of the ghost tales.

Now, a few thoughts, inspired by my own experience and by a discussion I had with a friend recently. This friend of mine is working on a really wonderful academic project, trying to understand how people interpret literature and why, and how it is that this process has become so difficult to teach to those who need to learn it. Her topic turns out to be relevant here in an interesting way.

We were talking about metaphors, and what they do. Generally speaking, a metaphor is a comparison of sorts: it draws two things into a relationship that weren't in that relationship before. I'll include similes here, because I'm not interested in the technical distinction of "this is that" versus "this is like that." A metaphor has two parts. Those parts play different roles. If we say "I could get lost in the midnight of her hair," we're relating hair, and midnight. One of these is concrete, an object in the story we know basic parameters of but are looking to learn the quality of. The other is more abstract - midnight has lots of qualities. But when the two are in relation, we search for ways that they might be the same. For that phrase, I get that her hair is black (no question), but the addition of "lost" particularly brings in some more connotations of midnight - a sense of space that makes me think she has lots of hair, but also hints something to me about the relation between people.

A metaphor makes new meaning. It puts two things in juxtaposition and challenges us to create a meaningful relation between them. It can act like a bridge for us to understand more about something familiar than we did before, or to reach for new meanings that we haven't yet seen.

A parable, then, is a metaphor on a larger scale. It creates relations between people and challenges us to see the relation between it and our own lives. This is where the folklore angle comes in for me, because folklore to me is a fundamental activity of creating meaning.

The activities we engage in when we understand metaphor and parables are very basic to human minds and to how we understand the world. They aren't flowery extras that you learn in English class. They are forces of meaning much greater than that, which have existed throughout human history and even earlier - imagine how flat and dimensionless life would be without them! And imagine also how difficult it would be to reach for significance amidst unfamiliar things and experiences, without the tools of understanding that metaphor and parable provide. Metaphor is one of the driving engines behind proverbs, for example - and proverbs are I think intended to influence behavior. Janice Hardy uses them wonderfully in her book "The Shifter."

Before I go, I need to talk about the role of metaphor and parable in fantasy and science fiction writing. I read an interesting article here about moss trolls - it talks about the problem that arises when you are letting people in a fantasy environment use metaphors willy-nilly and then have to make up all kinds of world details to back it up.

Metaphors are your friends, but not just in the way you think (I'll let this extend to parable, but I don't use parable as much as metaphor). People use metaphors on all kinds of levels, not just to describe objects or places but also to describe life situations and to understand interactions, etc. So by all means, let your characters in your fantasy or science fiction scenario do this as well. Watch out for moss trolls - make sure that the metaphors you use aren't cosmetic, but are really integrated into your world. And that means you can't assume your characters are going to use the same metaphors that you do. They'll use the ones that make sense to them. How do they conceptualize life and struggle? They'll put it into a metaphor that is grounded in their world.

Rulii in my story "Cold Words" understood his whole life and goals in terms of hunting. Where do their stories come from? Nya in The Shifter has a background of proverbs and stories about the Saints that she draws on constantly. I have a character who lives in an underground city and has never gone to the surface of her planet. So when I send her up there for the first time, I have her describe what she sees in terms of what she knows. Human beings on Earth have a tendency to describe mundane things and compare them to objects in nature. She doesn't know nature, so I turn the metaphors backwards. A field of grass billows like bedsheets. A lake gleams like a clean plate. It feels totally different from the metaphors we'd use because it's been turned around.

A great example of folklore/parable being used to this effect comes from Ursula K. LeGuin's classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. She interweaves stories of the local people into her main narrative, to marvelous effect. The stories she relates give dimension to these people, helping to establish the subtleties of their morality and the grounding of their behavior in a way that simple description never could - and since this aspect of the people is central to the main conflict, the stories contribute beautifully to her purpose.

Metaphor and parable are integral to all stories, on more than one level - indeed, the stories we write are in one sense parables themselves. It's cool if you can look at your story in that light, and see the kinds of layered meanings you're creating. I hope that in some small way, this post helps you to do that.

Hayley, thanks again for suggesting this topic, and I'm sorry you had to wait so long for me to get to it. Josephine, thank you for all the illuminating discussions of your work.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Point of View: more personal than pronouns

Point of view is typically categorized in terms of pronoun types. First person, second person, third person. Then comes the point where people start wondering about the difference between omniscient and limited points of view, and what narrative distance is, and pronouns stop helping. There's a small degree of closeness that can be gained through the switch from third to first, but that's a minor tool in the grand scheme of things.

I think of three different types of tools for point of view:

1. personal pronouns
2. position words (believe it or not, these are adverbs!)
3. judgment words

Personal pronouns are precisely what you'd expect - I, me, my, myself, you, your, he, his, her, etc. Position words are words that locate the point of view character in time or space - here, there, now, last night, come, go, out, over, etc. They're cool, and I can go back to talk about them sometime if you'd like, but today I think I want to put some serious attention on judgment words.

What is a judgment word?

It's a word that shows the judgment of the point of view character or narrator - and I think these words are unrivaled in their ability to create a feeling of internal, personal point of view. If you've got pronouns alone working for you, you'll get a distant feeling. If you bring in position words and center them on your main character, you'll take a big step closer. If you then bring in judgment words, the feeling takes on a whole new level of power.

How do I know a judgment word when I see one?

You might find them easy to recognize, and you might not, but I'll try to give you a sense of the range of judgment words that you can use. These can appear anywhere in the narrative, on the assumption that all description is relaying what the character perceives, and judges, for him or herself.

1. Adjectives, nouns, and verbs that imply judgment.
Say the character sees a person doing something. Instead of saying "Monu came in wearing a hat," you can say something like, "Monu sneaked in, trying to hide himself behind his stupid hat." Sneaked implies the pov character's judgment, as does trying to hide himself, and stupid. The extra connotations behind words that you use in description will be understood as having been chosen by the point of view character.

2. Adverbs.
At this point, many of you may be getting alarmed because you've been told not to use adverbs. Ignore this. The people who rail against adverbs are railing only against improper use of those adverbs that end in -ly. I'm against improper use of adverbs too - grammatical tools should, after all, be used with maximum effectiveness.

All right then. Here I'm talking about adverbs that indicate how a point of view character feels about a situation. Probably is one, because whenever you use it, you're essentially saying that the point of view character has judged something to be probable. The list goes on: certainly, surely, obviously, fortunately, unfortunately, etc. We're not changing the manner of a verb so much as talking about how a character judges the source and reliability of information, and how it impacts him/her emotionally - and that's valuable information.

3. Articles.
You'd be surprised how much a little switch from "a" to "the" can do for you. The choice of article expresses the point of view character's knowledge of a situation - their judgment of whether something is known or new. If someone says "A bear came into the room," it implies that the bear is new information, but the room is known: likely, the point of view character is in the room ("came" also gives this impression) and being surprised by the bear. If someone says "The bear went into a room," that implies that the bear is known information, and the room is not. I can't use "came" in that sentence because it doesn't make sense - which only goes further toward showing that "a room" can't be a place where the point of view character is currently standing. To take it further, "The bear came into the room" implies that both bear and room are known, while "A bear walked into a room" can only rightly be said by a distant narrator establishing both bear and room for the first time.

4. Conjunctions.
Which one will you use: and, but, or or? You might not make the decision consciously, but these little words are working for you by implying judgments of logical relation on the part of your point of view character. "We'll go by the main road and pass by Tikon castle" implies that passing by the castle is a natural, following consequence of going on the main road. "We'll go by the main road but pass by Tikon castle" might imply that Tikon castle is on the main road, but probably should be avoided. "Shall we go by the main road, or pass by Tikon castle?" implies that these are two separate routes. All of those options are demonstrating the knowledge and judgments of your main character.

I'll stop there for now, but if you have any questions or feel I've missed anything, feel free to comment. The discussion is still open...

I discuss point of view issues at length, with examples from science fiction and fantasy classics, in a 2006 article in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, if you want to go check it out.