Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Is it a spaceship or a cloud?

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Backups!

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Another Guest Post Today!

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Guest Blog Post today!

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Focus Your Worldbuilding Efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Point of View changes everything

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

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


Monday, November 15, 2010

Body Language: eye gaze (in life and animation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Interesting thoughts on pre-publication blurbs

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

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Feed your writing soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Multiple POV at The Sharp Angle...

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bilingualism Delays Alzheimers?

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Guest Blog Post today!

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

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

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

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



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

Sunday, November 7, 2010

External and internal conflict

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

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

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

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

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

It feels more real.

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

East vs West? An interesting link

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

Untranslatable Words

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Where we travel to

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

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

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

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

Where would you go if you took a longer trip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Experience of Pregnancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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