Saturday, May 29, 2010

A breadth of critique

Today I participated in the writers' workshop at BayCon. I have a great deal of affection for this writers' workshop, because it was the first place I ever received professional critique for any of my work - and because this summer, six years after I first submitted it to the BayCon writer's workshop (and after much revision), the story that I submitted there is finally being published in Eight Against Reality! I felt the session went really well, and it also reminded me how important it is to get a breadth of critique on your work.

One of the participants had written an intriguing story in a really fascinating world, and she told us that she was shocked we liked it so much, because always before she'd gotten critique from people who focused on the literary genre rather than the sf/f genre.

I'll admit, this can be a problem. Many people from outside the sf/f genre will be turned off by science fictional or fantastical premises and be unable to evaluate a story for what it's actually trying to achieve. However, this is not always the case.

The best thing, to my mind, is to try to get a wide breadth of feedback. If you only give your work to the precise audience you intend it for, then you'll be getting only a partial view of how your work will be received. Readers who typically read different genres will be sensitized to different aspects of a story. For example:

  • Literary readers will be sensitive to vocabulary use, to parallelism and to patterns of words that create impressions in a reader's mind.
  • Thriller readers will be sensitive to issues of pacing.
  • Mystery readers will be sensitive to information control and the development of hypotheses about what's going on behind the scenes.
  • Naive readers - and by that I mean readers who aren't especially allied to any particular genre - can serve as a great measure of entry point success (how easy the book is to get into and understand at the hooking-point)
This of course is just a small sampling. I will note that I find it really useful to get naive reader opinions because I work with points of view that can be difficult to "get into." The important thing, I think, is to listen to where the critique most speaks to what you as a writer are trying to accomplish. A critique that just says "I like it" or "I don't like it" has no value at all as a guide to revision, but any critique that is able to address specific points in the text or specific aspects of the work can potentially be very useful.

I need to add a caveat here. That is, the things that other writers point out to you and tell you to do should not necessarily be taken at face value. Advice needs to be assessed in the context of what you, the writer, are trying to accomplish with the story. This is in fact a fine point, and a critical one for me. I do mean to say that you shouldn't simply follow advice. I don't mean to say that you should ignore advice and simply say "that reader doesn't get it."

The simple fact that a reader doesn't get it is worth your notice, every time. I never like to alienate a reader if I can help it. So I always suggest that someone doesn't get it, you should be asking why. The answer to that question why is sometimes in the reader - such as when someone can't accept your premise and that colors their judgment of the rest of the story. But more often than not, if you look hard, you can find the basis for their confusion in your text. And that will allow you to take action in your revisions to make things clearer for readers, even if it doesn't mean taking the critiquer's advice. Have enough confidence in yourself to remember that even if your reader can't see a way to fix a problem they've identified, that doesn't mean you can't fix it. It's your story; if anyone can fix it, you can.

So what I typically do is run my stories by a number of groups. If my story is intended for Analog, I go through my main critique group first (Written in Blood) to get their varying opinions on what it needs, and then once it's the best I can make it, I run it by a critique group of Analog readers to make sure I'm responding to their very particular needs (they're a wonderfully exacting group!). Then before I send it off I always make sure to run it by my special literary reader, because I know she can catch things that none of the others can - things that stand out to her because of her special point of view. When I've gone through all these steps, I can feel ready to send a story out.

I know that some people don't work with critique, and each writer needs to follow his or her own process. But at least for me, critique has been the reason for my success, and I like a lot of it, because I find it helps me raise my craft to a higher level and reach a broader audience.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Putting your self into your voice

This post will be a quick one, because BayCon starts today, but I wanted to follow up on my thoughts about tone of voice that came up in the post about channels of communication.

When we speak, we communicate a lot more than just the words we say. We convey emotional messages, too. Sometimes those involve emphasis on elements of language, and sometimes they are more general-level emotional. Tone of voice can convey basic emotions like happiness and sadness, but it also conveys aspects of our sense of self - like refinement, receptiveness to approach, and gender identity. These factors can vary across cultures.

Think about the female intonation pattern that ends each sentence with a question-like rise in pitch. Not all American females use this, though I know it is very common for many Californians. When a person uses this, it makes them sound uncertain, but it also gives an impression of "cute and feminine" for some. I'm not going to go into the larger feminist issues surrounding the femininity of uncertainty here, but suffice it to say for now that adopting an intonation pattern like this can give several impressions:

1. Uncertainty
2. Cuteness
3. Femininity
4. Annoyingness

The interesting part to me is that the choice of the rising intonation pattern is not likely to be made consciously, and that it does have a definite effect of annoying people who aren't accustomed to it, i.e. who haven't learned, or accepted, the association of this pattern with femininity.

Here's a second example, in differences between English and Japanese. In English, a male speaking voice is considered to be attractive when it's low but relatively smooth. A female speaking voice is higher, but when it's pitched to be sultry and attractive, it's lower. In the context of popular singing, high male (tenor) voices often make for success, as do lower women's voices. [Though this is of course not exclusive, and both very low male and very high female voices are an important part of opera.] The contrast in Japanese is that the manly male voice is low and not necessarily smooth, and the attractive female voice differs even further, being quite high-pitched and airy. If you've ever watched Pokémon videos you might have noticed that the female character's voice is quite high and can sounds to an English-speaker's ear overly perky and babyish. A lower tone of voice in females is not considered attractive, but rather masculine, and indicates lack of refinement.

What does that mean for someone like me, a learner of Japanese who is initially an English speaker? Well, in fact it has interesting consequences. If I speak Japanese in the same tone of voice that I'm accustomed to using in English, I don't come across as "myself." I suppose I'd describe my intended manner as feminine but confident and straightforward - but the tone that accomplishes this in English is much lower than it is in Japanese. So, to portray myself as myself in Japanese, I speak Japanese in a higher pitch than I do English. English speakers often find this funny, and it is, even for me.

I think there are lots of possibilities for playing with this in subtle ways in a story. Xinta, one of the characters who appears in my novelette "The Eminence's Match," has quite a high voice. This to him is partly his natural voice (tenor) and partly a sign of refinement - but to members of the undercaste he encounters in the novel where he appears, it makes him appear very feminine. This entirely changes their assessment of what he's capable of, and leads them (for example) to underestimate him as a fighter.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Perceived Boundaries

I started thinking about how we perceive boundaries this weekend, while I was in Yosemite. What brought it on initially was our walk on the nature trail that surrounded Evergreen Lodge where we stayed. This trail was marked by the occasional numbered post, where we were to read things about local flora and fauna and their history, and by different sorts of boundary markers in different locations. At one point we walked along a barbed-wire fence. At other points there were long dead sticks of varying size laid along the borders of the path. In some places where we climbed over rocks, the boundaries of the path weren't marked at all. Somehow we managed to find our way all the way around the loop and have a good time without getting lost.

There was another form of boundary-marking in play on the paths within the Lodge cabin areas. The paths were paved, which made their boundaries very obvious, but I found when it was dark that the lights they put on both sides of the path weren't quite close enough for me to perceive the boundaries of the path when I looked from afar. What with the number of different paths, and their proximity to one another, looking at them at night was a lot like gazing at a bunch of random lights.

At the Lodge this weekend, someone was getting married, and given that the weather was very cold, they had the reception in a giant tent. This tent had transparent plastic walls, a very clear boundary. But once when I circumnavigated it, I found myself wondering if I should "count" the ropes that tied down the tent as part of the border, and skirt them, or not.

All of these struck me as questions of how we perceive boundaries. I've read that human minds like to perceive boundaries - we look for them. Our brains even exaggerate them, as when we perceive a larger difference in color between two adjacent blocks of color than actually exists (for an example, go here and look for "the shade of the center dot is the same in all the squares").
My children just noticed for the first time the other day that in the movie "The Jungle Book," the character of Mowgli has black lines surrounding him, while the jungle backgrounds do not. I remember noticing the same thing about the movie Totoro - the characters were outlined and clearly animated, while the backgrounds looked more real. Here's a little illustration of the difference between outlined and non-outlined colors.

Perceived boundaries can vary across cultures. I'm thinking in this regard particularly about perceptions of personal space (I've blogged about this before in Are You Being Invaded?). The boundary of personal space in the US differs significantly from that in Japan. In the US people typically stand and talk at handshake-distance. In Japan they do so at bow-and-don't-conk-heads distance, which is farther. However, the sense of personal distance in Japan alters radically when you change contexts from the social to the commuter train. In a commuter situation the boundary of personal space seems to me to move straight to the skin - people in a train station in Tokyo will walk right into you and pass by without appearing to notice that they just slammed into your shoulder. I remember coming back from Japan and encountering an entirely different type of perceived boundary: a woman in the grocery store had extrapolated the future path of her shopping cart, and mine, and having determined that they would intersect, apologized to me. I was floored by this after spending eighteen months using the Japanese system (to the best of my ability - I've never been able to handle jostling crowds well). I think there are some contexts in the US where that crowd impersonality takes hold and people jostle one another without perceiving an invasion of boundaries - a packed rock concert, for example - but I've never encountered it here to the same degree as in Japan.

Here's another example of children and how they perceive boundaries - or how they learn to change their behavior as a result of a perceived boundary. I have some neighbor kids who occasionally play with mine, and one day I was working in my garden weeding when they came over. I had one of them help me a little with my weeding, but her younger brother started pulling out plants I liked, so I asked him to stay out of the garden. This was very difficult for him. I don't imagine that he couldn't perceive the border of the garden, just that he hadn't learned to perceive that border as one that should stop his forward motion. So after that day I went out and bought a very short wire fence, to exaggerate the sense of the edge of my garden as a barrier. So far it appears to have worked.

This kind of boundary perception is something that may be worth considering in the process of worldbuilding. It's easy to assume that another group of people will perceive physical boundaries in the same way we do, but it might be more interesting to ask how they might not. Personal boundaries. Physical boundaries. The edges of objects. City, state, or national boundaries. All of these can potentially be called into question - either in their sensory perception, as with some kind of alien species, or in their interpretation. In a science fictional or fantasy world, or any other situation where culture is at stake, I think it's fascinating to play with misunderstandings (like the one about my garden!) surrounding the perception and interpretation of boundaries. What are we taught about what boundaries mean? Why might good fences make good neighbors (or not)? Why do nations need to draw lines between them, and how far can these disputes go (very far - witness Kashmir!)? Do the disputes of nations directly parallel the way that we treat our personal boundaries? And what about our psychological ones?

There are lots of implications there worth exploring.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Worldbuilding, or world growing?

I was thinking about how I go about building my worlds - I've done quite a few by this time, each to different extents. So how is it that one goes about beginning a world? Where does it start, and where does it end?

The beginning of a world should be a story (or the seed of one).

You can start a world without a story, but then you may be taking the risk that you might never find a story in it - and while that's great for some people, it would never satisfy me. My Varin world started with the idea that ancient kings were cast down and became an undercaste that then had to redeem itself (a story), except the regular fantasy explanations weren't satisfying me, so how would that really play out if the world worked in a realistically logical way? The world of Garini (Let the Word Take Me) began with the question of "Okay, you've got a language entirely created from references to canonical stories, so how would that really work and be passed on?" Aurru (Cold Words) grew out of the idea that rank and injustice should grow somehow out of the distinction between warmth and cold. In each of my linguistics stories the story is inherent within the language concept, because the language concept itself is a sort of punch line that the human characters will have to figure out somehow.

Thinking of the story idea as a world seed is actually a useful metaphor, because the intermediate process of world building is like growing a plant. The original story idea sends you in a direction, and then you'll discover it's branched into a sort of cultural (or physiological, or ideological, etc.) dichotomy, and then communities will start to associate themselves with divisions of thought, and then you'll discover patterns of life and behavior for those communities, and start to ask yourself all kinds of niggly questions that branch in every direction. If the world is alive, you should be able to discover smaller twigs and leaves growing from every branch you might care to consider. The other reason I like to think of worlds as living plants is because everything in your world should be connected. The climate influences the housing and the scarcity of resources which in turn dictates behavior and indicates what things will be fought over. This will create winners and losers and people with terrible things at stake. It's all connected. If it seems unconnected - like for example if you have two people whose names don't fit in the same phonological system - then it needs to be connected in a different way. In the case of Varin, I had taken for granted that the undercaste had a different religion from everyone else - and then when I looked closely at it, I realized there was an entire thousand years of backstory behind that. An entire opposite side of their world, which explained some of the divisions I'd created without realizing it. Just the way that people assume that others speaking to them will be engaging in conversation cooperatively, and draw conclusions based on that assumption, I encourage you to maintain a strong assumption that everything in your world has a reason behind it. This will suggest hidden depths that even you can't initially imagine, but which will reveal themselves to you if you consider them closely.

Not every story requires the same depth of world building. I admit I go pretty far with world building in general. I do climate and demographics and all those checklist things, plus language and culture. However, my short story worlds still don't get elaborated to the extent that my novel worlds do. Varin in particular took me (on and off) about 20 years of work.

Now, once you have your tree grown to the size it needs to be for you to understand the story, what do you do? How can you end the process of building and create a story without getting lost in all the branches?

My answer is, find a character. The character, with his or her upbringing, identity, and judgments, will create a microcosm of the whole world - and furthermore, will take that massive world of yours and reduce it to a comprehensible size. If you'll pardon me taking my metaphor a bit too far, it's like looking at one cell of your plant, and realizing that it's got DNA in there, that if you could look at it the right way, you'd be able to learn some things about what the plant was like. A character from one section of your world won't know every detail of every little corner of that world. But if you've built the connections well, then the view from the spot where that character lives will give tons of hints about the existence of a larger structure - the bigger, more meaningful entity that is their world.

There's a reason why I love to use first person point of view, and third person internal point of view. When you have a world that big, it's hard to manage it all, and keep its information from overwhelming what the story is about. It's the wonderful myopia of a culturally situated character that allows you to cut it down in a way that makes sense.

So start with a story seed, then grow your tree with as much care as you think necessary for the story's needs, and finally identify the single part, the character, who will allow you to create the most meaningful view of the whole. Maybe it shouldn't be world building at all, but world growing.

At least, that's how it feels for me.

BayCon 2010

We're one week away from the BayCon convention, so before I worry about what else to post today, I'll take this opportunity to invite you. Come on over to the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara (CA) if you'd like to take part, and maybe bump into me and say hello! The link to the convention site is here. It's a testament to the perseverance and dedication of the convention team that the event is coming off this year after some bumpy weather back at the start of the year, and it looks like it will be a lot of fun.

For those who might like to see me there, I'll be on a panel at 4:00 on Sunday, May 30th about writing science fiction while science continues to advance, and I'll be having a reading at 2:00 on Monday, May 31st during which I plan to read from "The Eminence's Match," which will be coming out in Eight Against Reality in July:

An insane ruler obsessed with control - a flawed servant desperate to find a master - will they destroy each other? Or will Xinta become the Eminence's match?

And here's the terrific cover, art by Vladimir Krizan, design by Janice Hardy (who is quite a multi-tasker!).
Learn more about the anthology, including teasers for stories by Janice Hardy, Aliette de Bodard, T.L. Morganfield, Doug Sharp, Keyan Bowes, Genevieve Williams and Dario Ciriello, here.

I hope to see you at BayCon!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Language Demographics of Twitter

Cat Rambo (of Fantasy Magazine) directed me to this fantastic article on how Twitter can be used to track the use of colloquial language across different regions of the US. Interesting stuff!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Psychic links and channels of communication

Everybody knows that we communicate using language. Ask how humans communicate, and that's the first thing that pops into our minds. However, it's not the only way we communicate. Even if you don't count writing, there's a lot more going on in any conversation - particularly face to face conversation - than you might immediately realize.

Today I'm going to talk about both linguistic and non-linguistic communication in terms of sensory "channels," with one channel corresponding to each of our five senses. And then I'm going to talk abut the idea of a sixth, psychic channel - which was one of the things that I found simultaneously intriguing and disappointing about James Cameron's Avatar.

The auditory channel is typically the first one we think of when we consider communication. It's the channel where verbal linguistic information gets expressed and conveyed. It's where we find our phonemes and morphemes and syntax - the structure of language - being expressed most of the time. Science fiction and fantasy are full of examples of invented auditory languages.

We can also use auditory codes like Morse code to send linguistic information. But the auditory channel doesn't just convey language structure. Prosody, or tone of voice, also conveys a lot of information. Prosody is the use of volume and pitch to convey information about emotions and about emphasis on the words that we speak. If you look at written descriptions of verbal speech, you'll often see emotions associated with the way someone says something. Our judgment of that emotion comes in part from our interpretation of tone of voice. Tone of voice also conveys a lot about gender identity and attractiveness, but there's enough there for an entirely separate topic, so I'll leave it alone for now.

Emotional information also travels on the visual channel. The muscles in our faces pull and twitch and suddenly we can see information in another person's face - and even in the faces of non-human animals! The facial expressions of happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust, and sadness have for some time been considered universal to human cultures (though see this story which says that east Asian men and women concentrate more on the eye area than the mouth area, suggesting that some elements of expression are culturally based).

The visual channel can also be a primary channel for linguistic information, as in sign languages like ASL. I find it fascinating that ASL is able to use this single multidimensional channel to convey both linguistic structure and emotional information, by combining gestures (and the manner in which they are executed) with facial expressions. Codes can also be transmitted in the visual channel (immediate flash of Monty Python's skit including the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights and Julius Caesar on an Aldis lamp). There are numerous examples in science fiction and fantasy of languages using the visual channel, such as the light-language of Sheila Finch's octopus-like aliens in "No Brighter Glory" (The Guild of Xenolinguists).

My favorite example of using the tactile channel of communication is the language that Anne Sullivan used with Helen Keller - basically, English written with a finger on the palm of Keller's hand. There's clearly no barrier to communicating linguistic structure through a channel like this, even though we don't typically use it that way because we're focusing on other options. One could argue, though, that we communicate on this channel all the time, expressing non-linguistic messages about comfort, care, love and intimacy.

I've discussed the olfactory channel before, early in the history of this blog. For dogs and other animals, a great deal of information is channeled through the sense of smell - mood can be communicated through scent, and identity can be communicated through urine or musk even after quite a bit of time has passed (and in fact, smell allows animals to gauge how much time has passed since the message was left.). Taste isn't used quite as much as a communication tool, but one could argue that the culinary adventures of "Like Water for Chocolate" grew out of a keen sense of emotions being conveyed through cuisine!

So finally we've arrived at the question of psychic connections, which for this discussion it's actually quite useful to think of as a "sixth sense." Telepathy could be considered the transmission of linguistic information and structure through this channel, while empathy could be considered the transmission of emotional information, in much the same way that facial expressions transmit emotional information.

Let's play with this idea. You've got a great new sense available (by whatever means it might be actuated) for conveying information. Empathy makes the assumption that the psychic channel is being used to convey the kind of information that we pick up from the visual channel in ordinary conversation, while telepathy makes a stronger assumption, that the psychic channel can be used for linguistic structure (which is typically available in either the auditory or visual channels). Given this, I have two questions that pop up in my head:

1. Why would linguistic information on the psychic channel take an auditory or visual form?

2. How might the use of a psychic channel influence the use of language in other channels?

When I consider the first question, I'm not at all sure that information in a psychic channel would necessarily parallel the forms of language we're already familiar with. In cases like that of Ursula LeGuin's Hainish series, where humans had existing auditory language and learned thereafter to communicate in the psychic channel, I really have no problem with the idea that existing language forms would transfer over. Language is not easily re-invented. On the other hand, if you were to have a species that evolved with telepathy, the form it took would very likely have a lot to do with its means of actuation. Variations in the strength of an ongoing signal? Pulses of something? Direct perception, somehow, of the electrical signals going on in another person's brain? If we're talking about direct perception of electrical signals, then telepathy might be able to borrow sensations from the other senses - but if it is indeed a sense in and of itself, that communication might take an entirely different form. That form might be difficult to describe for those of us who don't possess such a sense, and in fact it would make communication with such a species quite challenging.

But not necessarily impossible. Just because a species uses a psychic channel, that doesn't mean it wouldn't communicate in other channels too. The communication we use is highly redundant, both linguistically and between channels. We often speak in auditory linguistic form about emotions which can simultaneously be read on our faces and in our body movements, and likely perceived in our scent as well. In just such a way, a psychic species might make certain kinds of information redundantly available - it's easy to imagine them backing up their psychic communication with facial expressions and body language, for example. For them, adapting to an entirely auditory language form would not be easy, I don't imagine, much in the same way that adaptation to sign language can be difficult for people accustomed to dealing with auditory language.

This has brought us around to my second question, of how psychic communication might influence language. I have no doubt whatsoever that it would.

In Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, the use of the psychic channel is redundant with the auditory channel, but it is different. Because it's impossible to lie psychically, use of the psychic channel lends a sense of frankness and/or intimacy to communication.

I always wondered about the Na'vi in James Cameron's Avatar, who seemed to "link up" regularly with animals and plants, but somehow never with one another. Was that a lost opportunity for the storytellers? Possibly so - but that wasn't really a part of the story they chose to tell (which I thought was very effective for its audience). I would guess if the Na'vi were to communicate with one another that way, the need for direct physical contact would have a similar effect to the honesty requirement in LeGuin's case, making for a sense of intimacy associated with communicating in that way (what precisely is communicated in the Na'vi case is unclear, but it seems to be non-linguistic information). Might communication without that added channel then make for a sense of lack of intimacy? Rather than what we'd automatically assume, normality?

I'm sure you would also see direct influence of the psychic channel on the forms of auditory language. Vocabulary and expressions would reflect the influence of the channel's existence. Perhaps you'd see a proliferation of language used to describe the sensations and meanings associated with the psychic channel. Or perhaps you would see areas of auditory language that became impoverished because they were redundant with a more effectively communicated psychic equivalent. Quite likely in a species with a complex auditory language, you would see both forms of influence, in different areas of the language.

Whenever you are working with an extra sensory channel beyond the auditory, whether that be visual, olfactory, tactile, taste-based, or psychic, it's worth spending some time to consider how the increased importance of that channel would influence the forms of linguistic communication. Think about how we talk about what we perceive with our senses, and then ponder the impact of a significant change in the importance of any one of those additional channels. You might come up with some fascinating results.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robot Marries Couple

I ran across this article today thanks to my friend Lee Gimenez on Facebook (thanks, Lee!). Apparently a Japanese couple has been married by a robot called the iFairy, which was designed to give museum tours and just needed a bit of new software to perform this new function. It's complete with video...

Of course, from a pragmatics and speech acts point of view this is rather fascinating. I had an earlier post about weddings and the speech acts associated with them, but one of the critical ingredients here is that the speech acts that make the marriage real have to be performed by an authorized person - usually a priest or someone representing the laws of the state.

Now, it appears this couple worked for the same company where robots were being designed, so there's a certain logic to their decision. Couples often tailor their weddings to fit their own needs, whether those be of one religion or another (or more than one - I've been to a Jewish Buddhist wedding before), or whether the trappings be those of a historical period, a garden fantasy setting or a science fictional world. On the other hand, the role of the celebrant is right at the center of what goes on at a wedding: the uttering of words that create a real change in reality for the couple being married. I can only assume that in this case, the people involved were willing to approve the robot as an authorized celebrant - for otherwise, the marriage would be considered invalid.

That's an interesting twist on the cultural significance of marriage!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Tell me, do

I've put up a new poll! I'd appreciate it if you could vote and that will give me a better sense of what kind of posts you all would enjoy. I haven't done a workshop for a while, but I know those were popular when I did them, so if you're potentially interested in one, vote for that, too. Select multiple answers if you like. And if you feel somehow that the poll isn't sufficient to cover the details of your preferences, feel free to comment to this post.


The future of internet language?

Here's an interesting essay I found discussing how internet language may be changing our use of English in general. It's not doom-and-gloom, though, and refers to poetry as an example of how language can be flexible. Some interesting thoughts.

The essay is here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A little opinion piece on alien contact...

This fellow has strong opinions, but generally a good sense of humor and some interesting perspective on the question of Voyager 2's change in data transmission.

The link is here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why Worry about Parallelism?

I got this idea because someone landed at my blog yesterday having begged Google to explain, "What is parallelism?" And while I don't have an existing article that would really work for that person, I was immediately inspired.

How many of you have seen this on an exercise machine?

Stop exercising if you feel pain, faint or short of breath.

This drives me crazy, and it's the perfect example of how parallelism can mess you up. In all likelihood you've seen it so many times that it seems normal, so let me explain. The sentence has a recommended behavior and then a list of possible conditions, as follows:

Recommended behavior: stop exercising if you...

1. feel pain. This is a verb phrase. A verb, feel, followed by a noun, pain. No problem.
2. faint. Problem!

Even though the people who wrote the sentence were probably thinking of the expression "feel faint," it isn't actually parallel. The parallelism we're looking for is between parts of speech in the list. Essentially, in order for this item to parallel the first appropriately, it either has to be a verb or a noun. It's definitely not a noun - it's an adjective. So the first thing that happens when I read this with my finicky mind is that I interpret it as a verb!

Cue bizarre image of exercising person falling off of elliptical trainer, murmuring, "Gee, maybe I should stop exercising..." and landing on the floor out cold.

3. short of breath.

This one is also an adjective. So it might work as a parallel to #2, but not for #1. This sentence could be made properly parallel in two possible ways. One would be to make the first condition involve an adjective, and the other would be to change the second and third conditions to either nouns or verbs. Of course, "light-headedness" and "shortness of breath" would make the warning rather longer than ideal for those folks who want to write it on a machine.

Effectively, any time you have a list of any kind, you should try to make each element of the list parallel all the others. My husband occasionally asks me to edit his PowerPoint presentations, and I drive him crazy trying to get all the bullet points to parallel one another. The funny thing about it is, English is flexible. It's actually not that hard to get bullet points to match - it's just a hassle if you have to go back and do it after the fact.

Now, I'm sure the next thing I'm going to hear is that we're not writing PowerPoint presentations, we're writing stories. This is true. But if you consider the first example, you'll realize that lists can be found almost anywhere, and they will be much stronger in their impact if they are parallel. They can happen in one sentence, with a list of options or recommended behaviors, or even sequential behaviors. Here's another example from my friend Janice which I really enjoyed:

She wore a bright dress, shoes, and roses in her arms.

If you don't want her to be wearing roses in her arms - the automatic image suggested by a Noun, Noun, Noun list - then you need to insert a verb here, so the parallelism shifts and compares Verb "wore" to Verb "carried."

There's another issue hiding here in the question of parallelism, and that is the question of why we vary our sentence structure in long descriptive or action sequences. It's a common recommendation, but the real reason why we do it is directly linked to parallelism. A sequence of things phrased in precisely parallel grammatical form, by their very nature, becomes a list. It's what I've often heard described as a story turning into "this happened, and then this happened, and then..." A story and a list are not the same thing. Stories can contain lists, and they can also contain repeating images without becoming problematic, but if you can remember parallelism and its consequences, then the reason why we vary our sentence structure makes a lot more sense. So for today I'll pull out the following observations (in a list!):

1. Items in a list should be parallel in grammatical structure.

2. Items in sequence which are parallel in grammatical structure will feel like a list.

Now I hope that fellow who asked about parallelism considers coming back...

Echo-location for humans...?

My friend Mary pointed me to this interesting article about a young boy born without his sight, who has apparently learned to use clicks to help him navigate successfully. It's interesting to consider how that might work... Certainly brains are more flexible than we often give them credit for, especially in the very young.

The link is here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mythical Creatures

I found this great link to a list of 30 mythical creatures - complete with artistic renderings. Some are quite creepy and others beautiful. It would make a good source of story ideas, I think.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Learning Curve

Learning is really important in stories. Often, a large part of a particular character's development involves learning of one kind and another. Sometimes a character learns a skill. Sometimes he/she learns a language. Sometimes he/she learns something about his/her own personality or character, or strengths, etc.

So I thought today I'd share some of my thoughts about learning.

People typically can't just pick up new things and do them right instantly. Talent is one thing. Miracles are entirely another. I know it's been done a thousand times if it's been done once, but simply handing a sword to some school kid from our world and expecting him to know how to lift it, much less fight the bad guy with it, isn't very realistic. If realism is what you're going for (as it is very often with me) then you'll want to build in the opportunity for your character to learn to use that sword. Or ride that horse. Or do the dancing/kung fu/whatever.

You can put learning in a character's background. Early in my writing, I had the experience of looking at one of my characters and asking how he got to be the way he is. I thought to myself, "He's intelligent. He knows about politics. He's also as graceful as a dancer, and strong enough to pick up a grown man. Shoot - he's a superhero!" Given that he wasn't in a story about superheroes, this was a problem. I had two options to consider at that point. Either I could give him weaknesses (which I did in one respect - he can't sing at all) or I could explain how he got to be so cool. It was that explanation that made me realize he'd been through lots of special schooling, including political training and bodyguard's training, and even training about how to move, stand, and pick up objects. This was now his background. He wasn't a superhero - he was a highly educated specialist. I could weave his experiences in schooling into his thoughts and memories, and suddenly he became a much more interesting character.

You can also put learning "on screen" in your story. If you choose to do that, start by remembering that learning is not instantaneous. Then think through the fact that learning is not linear. A learner can make progress steadily for a period of time, then appear to plateau, then start making rapid progress again thereafter. This offers great opportunities for conflict and frustration for your character. One of the factors involved in the changes in learning speed has to do with novice/expert distinctions. A novice tends to think through a task on the surface level, plowing through what comes at him/her. The novice can get faster at plowing through, but won't "reach the next level" until he or she achieves some kind of expert insight. Expert insight can mean different things, but typically it involves the ability to stand back from a problem and consider it from a meta-level, from the point of view of a larger overall pattern. Once that overall pattern has been grasped, the speed and skill with which the character accomplishes the task jumps up radically, because they don't have to plow through in order to get it done. The answer suggests itself on the basis of this larger pattern.

I have an example of this from language learning, where people talk about the "U-shaped curve" of learning. This curve is observable quite often in child language. Let's take past tense endings. For quite some time, a child will appear to be learning steadily how to make past tense verbs. They'll say:

"had" "hit" "walked" "stood" "cooked"

Then all of a sudden their performance (from a testing point of view) will take a sharp decline, and they'll say:

"hadded" "hitted" "walked" "standed" "cooked"

Notice that I said their performance declined from a testing point of view. What has actually happened here is that the child has suddenly grasped that there is a rule for creating the past tense. Before that, the child was having to memorize each instance of past tense. So if you asked the child with perfect performance to create the past tense form of a made-up verb like "quanch," they wouldn't be able to answer. The child with the apparent problems in the second set of examples (which could be the same child just a bit later) would be able to tell you that the past tense of "quanch" is "quanched." It's at that point, once the rule has been grasped, that the child goes about re-instating all of the exceptional cases, until they get back to:

"had" "hit" "walked" "stood" "cooked"

While this isn't always directly applicable to non-linguistic learning, it does bear some similarities to the difference between novice and expert performance. Grasping higher principles of mathematics, or techniques for how to approach a problem - or even seeing a sword duel in terms of body relations and dynamics rather than blow-by-blow - is where I think the similarity lies.

Language learning isn't always like other types of learning. It's often glossed over in books, and understandably, since it typically takes a very long time and progresses in fits and starts. I've spent so much time studying the details of it that I can tell you it's not worth trying to pin it down to a step-by-step progression - not for story purposes. But make sure you think through how the person grasps the different elements of the language from phonology through syntax and semantics, and also pragmatics. Explanations of these can be found in my "How Linguistics Can Help You!" series in the left nav bar. A person can have bad pronunciation but still do really well with grammar. Or the reverse. Or they can have good pronunciation and grammar and bad pragmatics, and be taken for a social boor. The possibilities are endless, so I won't go into them here.

Lastly, learning isn't just about learning skills. It's also about putting together clue-puzzles, figuring out mysteries, realizing what the bad guy is up to, realizing that you're in love with the girl/boy/etc. Watch out for realizations that happen without any appropriate build-up, because they can be just as awkward as when the schoolboy gets the sword. Think through the underlying components of the realization - the clues - and make sure they're all in place, and in the right order. Then think about what factor might be the single one that clicks everything together for your protagonist. Don't leave that last piece out, either, or readers will be confused. If the realization is important to your story, give it the time and words it deserves. Your story will be stronger and readers will trust you more.

It's something to think about.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Some weekend links

For those who celebrated mother's day, here's a link about the word for "mother" across languages:

Here's a fascinating link about a study of morality done by physics experts, treating it as a complex emergent phenomenon across communities:

And here's an article having fun with the developments in language inspired by the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption:

And finally, here's an article about the phenomenon of English as a global language, and how it appears in some ways to be transcending its localized roots:

Saturday, May 8, 2010


We use more "expressions" than we realize. I'm constantly having to say to my kids, "well, see that's an expression." An idiom is a phrase, usually with most of its words fixed in value, that is used to express a state of mind or other condition in a very specific kind of context. Longer ones might include

"the straw that broke the camel's back"

which, interestingly enough, is an allusion to a story. Those of you who have read my first Analog story, "Let the Word Take Me," will probably understand why I find this enjoyable. The idea of a language that consists entirely of references to canonical stories originated (to my knowledge) with Star Trek TNG's episode "Darmok" - but if you think about it, it's just a logical extension of something that is already going on in our language, with idioms.

Here are some more.

"waiting for the other shoe to drop"
"out of the blue"
"a wolf in sheep's clothing"
"a toss-up"
"[X] has your name on it"
"six of one and half a dozen of the other"
"keeping in touch"

In many cases, the individual words in an idiom are starting to lose their literal meaning. We don't pay much attention to them, only to the overall effect of the expression in context - the meta-meaning. This is one of the things that makes an idiom different from a proverb to my mind, because a proverb is a complete statement that sends a message and stands on its own, daring the listener to figure out the meaning of the whole like a puzzle or a tiny story. [An example would be "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."] If you visit , for example, you'll discover that their list actually includes both idioms and proverbs.

When you're writing a story in a world that isn't related to our own, watch out for idioms. Because they're losing their literal meaning, they'll sneak right under your nose - but very often, they'll make direct reference to elements of our world's history and technology. Or to the Bible. To sailing or shipping. To the Earthly sky or elements or climate. Even to human physiology and behavior. Stick one of those in the wrong place and you'll be sticking a hook into the picture of our world that exists in the reader's mind. If it's bad enough, you'll pull your reader right out of the story.

So when you're writing a story in an alternate world:
1. Keep your eye out for idioms.
2. Alter existing idioms if necessary. In my underground Varin world, people say "out of the dark" instead of "out of the blue."
3. Come up with new idioms if you would like. They can really give a wonderful richness to your world.

And if you're NOT writing a story in an alternate world:
1. Keep your eye out for idioms.
2. Make sure your use of idioms fits the regional sensibilities and/or dialect of your chosen setting

It's something to think about.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Famous Writers with Epilepsy

I was put onto this interesting link by my friend and fellow writer Doug Sharp. Essentially, the article talks about the relationship between epilepsy (also depression and bipolar disorder) and great writers. One of the sources cited there is a book I've recommended before, but am happy to recommend again, Alice Flaherty's inspirational book The Midnight Disease. If you want to see my own previous blog discussions of insanity and creativity, they're here and here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Where's "the Future" for Science Fiction?

We live in the future. Many of the iconic images of science fiction have already been realized, in mobile phones, toy robots, etc. I've heard it asked whether science fiction has anything left to say to kids who text to one another, or use Twitter, or embrace modern technology in its current forms. What's left, they ask, for science fiction writers to write about?

I find this question odd. In a universe that's continually expanding, how can we ask what's left? The possibilities will remain limitless so long as human curiosity itself does not fail - and I don't think it can.

I'll grant the point that many of the things that were once cutting-edge science fiction have now become commonplace. How can we learn what is new now? We can follow science - but as an author who has appeared in Analog, I can't help but notice the advanced degrees in physics and chemistry etc. held by other authors and say to myself, "I'm nowhere near close enough to the cutting edge of science to be able to write a story about that kind of stuff." On some levels one could argue that cutting edge of science has been drawing farther and farther away from the general American public in recent years.

On the other hand, the cutting edge of science is only one small aspect of science fiction.

Science fiction is accommodating. It is not a restrictive genre, but something that can be applied to all different kinds of stories. Science fiction Western. Science fiction thriller. Science fiction romance. Why not? People are creating stories like this even now. Even people who don't want to be called science fiction writers are using science fictional ideas.

So what kind of ideas are out there?

To my mind, ideas are available anywhere that human knowledge is asking to be expanded. Into the areas of technology, yes, and space. But also into the areas of medical science, or even what lies in our own back yard. Even what happens when we speak. Science fiction isn't only about the future, or about technology. Of course it is about those things, because we can see that space ships and robots and nanotech are common enough in science fiction stories. But there's also something else going on.

Science fiction is about human response to the unknown.

Science fiction allows us to share in experiences that are new, that push our knowledge toward the boundaries - of science, of space, sure, but also of what we know about ourselves. A truly new idea is an incredible thrill, one of excitement and also of fear. Readers of science fiction ride that boundary into the unknown, wherever it remains to be found. Yes, that means technology and space - because with enough creativity we can imagine ourselves past any technological limit, and space, after all, is still out there nearly untouched.

But science fiction as the experience of the new is all around us. Under a rock. Hidden in the ground. In the depths of the mind. In the heart of the person you see walking down the street every day but you don't really know.

In my own science fiction, I use linguistics and anthropology - social sciences. It's natural to me to do this because of my academic background in these fields, and also because of my experience of travel to other countries where I've been immersed in different cultures. These sciences, and these opportunities, are full of delicious material for science fiction - but not only that. They seem to me to be appropriately suited for this modern age of world travel and cultural mixing.

An age of linguistic and cultural diversity means your next experience of alien first contact could be with someone right next door. Understanding different ways of thinking requires us to face the unknown every day. This is why I know I'll never run short of inspiration for stories.

It's also why I think science fiction has a long future to look forward to - in more ways than one.

Monday, May 3, 2010

You must be very tired...

There's this expression in Japanese - it translates into something like "You must be very tired" but means something far more wonderful. I was inspired to use it today because my friend Janice Hardy just finished the first draft of her third book over the weekend - the perfect context for this expression. In Japanese it looks like this:


o tsuka re sama de shi ta

In practice, it sounds roughly like "otskaray sama deshta." It's untranslatable in English, but it effectively means you've accomplished something big and you should feel good about it. And also that the person saying it values (honors) the effort that you've put in.

Another interesting twist is that if you say it in the present tense instead of the past tense, it expresses gratitude for ongoing effort, and is a greeting very commonly used between work colleagues as they see one another throughout the day.

This is one of those expressions that I wish were translatable. It's also one of the ones that reminds me to think through how other cultures interact, and to try to come up with special expressions that show a cultural attitude toward effort, or companionship, or any other vitally important expression of cultural interaction. Even just one can lift your world into a greater sense of life and vitality.

So congratulations again to Janice, and for all of you who are working hard on your writing out there, I say (in present tense):