Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When do you trunk a story?

I ran across this question on the SFWA website recently. It's an interesting question, and not at all easy to answer.

Let's start with the more basic question: what does "trunk a story" mean?
Well, to trunk a story in its simplest definition means not to send it out, or to keep it in your "trunk" at home (at this point, this is a virtual trunk for most of us, rather than a literal one). So, once you have stopped actively writing a story, and have revised it to the point where you consider it "ready", then if you don't send it out, it might be considered "trunked."

Of course, if you're simply not sure you're through with revisions, you may just be letting it rest to give yourself a fresh perspective on it. This is not the same as trunking, and it is highly recommended practice. Distance makes for more effective revisions.

The question of trunking becomes much more relevant after you've sent a story out and it has come back rejected. Many writers will cite Heinlein's rule, that you should not revise a story except to editorial order. I don't actually agree with this. If you've sent a story out, and it comes back rejected without comment, and you look at it again and see some major way to improve it, then go ahead and rewrite. It's just like taking a rest from your editing to get distance. Even better is when the rejection actually contains advice - then you can decide if the advice seems solid, and if it is, revise as necessary. But once you've revised, you need to send it out again. And again. And again.

So when do you stop?

Well, getting demoralized is not a good reason to stop. There are a lot of markets out there, and markets come and go. A story that gets rejected at all the current pro markets might not be good enough yet (and it behooves you to try to figure out if that's indeed the problem with it), but it might just not have matched the tastes of a particular editor. Thus, you should keep going. There are a lot of great semi-pro venues out there (some of which may become pro in the future), and if exposure is what you're looking for, there are also venues such as small anthologies which can be terrific (though they pay less well). You can choose to trunk your story temporarily because you don't want to submit below a certain pay level... just don't lose it in your files! In the future, other markets will surely open up at the pay level you're interested in, and you will be able to submit to them at that point.

Deciding that a story just isn't good enough... may or may not be a good reason. Maybe you just haven't found the right editor yet. But if you're feeling pretty sure it's not good enough, or you're getting pretty uniform feedback from critique partners but you don't feel capable of doing the revisions required, then maybe it's worth setting the story aside and taking a look at it later. If you leave it aside for a few months, or even a few years, then you might be able to come back to it later. At that point you may decide it should be blown to smithereens, or you could have much better vision and better tools as a writer and really be able to make it work. This has happened to me.

Deciding that a story isn't your first priority right now... is a good enough reason. I have a story that I'm keen to revise, but I don't have time. Add to that the fact that it takes place in my Varin world, which not many people know, but in which I'm currently writing a novel, and I arrive at the following decision: I should probably be writing my novel and not rewriting that story right now. It can sit until I have the time and wherewithal to deal with it.

Deciding that you don't want a story to represent you... is a good enough reason. I had a story that I wrote on the basis of a story seed given to me by somebody else. It was fun to write. It was really different from what I usually write, and as such I found it refreshing. But when I started to send it out, the main complaint I got from editors was that the premise was not believable - and the premise was the part that I had been given as a seed. I couldn't change it without gutting the story. I looked at what I had written, and asked myself, "If an editor says he/she likes this, will I feel happy about having this in the public domain with my name on it?" In the end, I decided I really wouldn't. So I retired the story. I have only ever done this once.

I'm sure that my own personal experiences don't cover all the possibilities here. Have any of you decided to "trunk" stories? Why? I'd be interested to hear your thinking on this subject.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Illness and Medicine: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

First, let me note that there will not be any worldbuilding hangout today, for any of you who might have been thinking to drop in. I'm going to be resuming my worldbuilding hangouts in January. And some secret plans are afoot... I'll let you know more when we get more tied down.

This past Wednesday I spoke with Janet Harriet, Harry Markov, and Glenda Pfeiffer. Our topic was Illness and medicine. As with many of our topics, it's hard to know where to start with this one, so I started by mentioning one of the fundamental underpinnings of any culture of illness and medicine, namely the idea of cause and effect. The way that we treat people, and the types of medicine we pursue, are based on our understanding of the causes of illness. Thus, when a people believes that illness is caused by evil spirits, the medical approach will typically address this problem directly by providing exorcisms and other spiritual approaches. When a people possesses the idea of germ theory, that fundamentally changes the approach to one of finding medicines to deal with the germs in question. There is also the possibility that medicine may be an empirical/experimental practice, which is to say that a people may have found out through fortuitous circumstance that eating a certain plant will cure headaches, or stop a certain kind of illness. In this case the cause of illness may not be considered particularly relevant. Janet felt that (at least historically) midwives have had an expertise that grows out of this kind of learn-by-experience approach. And Harry mentioned that if you have a magical healing system, the sense of cause might not even be necessary.

On the other hand, a logic of magical healing is necessary. This logic can grow out of the general logic of a magic system, or out of some kind of medically based model, but it needs to feel grounded. I mentioned how I'd worked with Janice Hardy when she was setting up some of the cultural underpinnings of the magical healing system she used in The Healing Wars. In this system, healers are able magically to perceive injury and hurt, and to heal it, but must take the pain of it into their own bodies. Then they have to push the pain out into a magical metal which stores it (and is in short supply). This metal is in turn forged into pain-shooting weapons, creating a pain-based economy. Believe me, this is a fascinating trilogy - but at the start we were looking for answers to questions like these:

Who are physicians?
Why are they chosen as doctors?
What is the role of doctors in the culture?
What are the limitations on doctors?
Is there any alternative to the magical healing system?

In fact, people who use plants and other substances to heal are considered dirty in Janice's world, and dangerously unreliable...but the system would have seemed incomplete without them.

I believe it was Harry who mentioned that in the Anime series "Bleach" there is a character who can do what looks like healing, but is actually a localized reversal of time that reverts the damage to its previous condition. Harry shared a logistical issue he's been dealing with in his work in progress, where magic can be used to heal, but at the same time, using magic is a drain on life force. So what happens if you try to heal yourself? It could be complex...

Glenda asked, "How do the magical healers conceptualize healing and illness?" This is an excellent question. Very often we use metaphors to describe illness; this can influence our treatment of it in addition to our general concept of its cause. Magical healers who are aware of physiology will treat people very differently from those who are not. Harry's system has complex rituals - like recipes - for tissue repair. Thus the healer need not know too much about physiology, only how to follow the rituals, and of course he/she must have the magic ability to activate the process.

It is worth doing research when you're dealing with illness and medicine in your writing. Don't just gesture at what is possible. I've gone and looked up how to treat bruises, and I've looked up the different types of recognized mental illnesses, and a lot of other things as well. It's also worth considering the scope of what doctors are called on to treat. As Harry noted, homosexuality has sometimes been considered a mental condition that requires "treatment."

What can you alter in your world? There are lots of underlying parameters that are open to change. For example, who is more important, the doctor or the patient? Who has the power, and why? Can you ask questions about the recommended treatments, such as why and how they are to be delivered? Can you refuse treatment?

It's important to keep in mind also that doctors are knowledge elites, much like priests. They undergo special training, and have knowledge that must be protected and treated with respect. Often they can engage the services of gatekeepers to help them accomplish this. In the case of a system based on evil spirit possession, the roles of doctor and priest can overlap. Even today, Harry told us, people worry about the "evil eye" in Bulgaria: if people look at you and think you're pretty they will jinx you and make you feel ill; grandmothers will recommend washing your eyes three times at the door and washing the door handle and then you should be fine. Exorcisms still happen, and mental illness can sometimes be labeled as possession.

The metaphors we use to describe our bodies and our health are very resistant to change over time, and they can deeply affect our behavior. If you're worldbuilding, this is a wonderful area to spend time developing because tiny phrases will speak volumes about the way your people think. Here are some expressions that the discussion participants shared:

"The hamster that runs my brain fell off."
"One of your boards is loose."
"Losing your marbles"
"Not playing with a full deck"
"You've let go like liver" (in Bulgaria describes lounging around lazily)
"A seagull has eaten your brain"

I wrote a post some time ago called Body Models and Metaphors, which was about how one decides when to seek medical treatment. Some people base their decision on the amount of time one has been sick, while others base their decision on specific types of changes in the health condition.

Some final things we mentioned were terminal illness and palliative care, medical insurance, and issues of public health and vaccination.

In Japan, very often the person who has a terminal illness will not be told, because it is believed that the knowledge would trouble them unnecessarily. Instead, the family will be told, and the patient simply expected to follow doctor's orders without any knowledge of the reason. In the last session I linked to the article called "How Doctors Die" which is also relevant here, about the cultural conditions that lead us to expend so much money on torturous last-ditch treatments when people are near death. The question of medical insurance comes along with the role of government in public health in the society you're designing. Does this society have a concept of spreading the risk across the population? How might a government respond to issues of public health when it is responsible for safeguarding public health and sponsoring treatment? In Australia, the government puts out pretty stiff advertising against unhealthful behavior that brings significant expense upon the public health system. One would expect vaccinations to be heavily supported in an environment like that, whereas in the US a lot of people have been convinced by fraudulent argumentation that vaccinations cause autism or other disorders... leading directly to public health problems such as the resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough. There can also be questions of whether one group in society is disproportionately affected by one health condition or another - such as Tay-Sachs disease affecting Jewish people, or royal families having a tendency to carry hemophilia. In my Varin world the noble caste is heavily inbred and so everybody has some kind of health difficulties (or if they don't have them currently, they still might have had difficulties at birth).

Obviously there's far more than can be covered in one hour, but I hope these thoughts have given you some inspiration. Our next hangout will be in January, and I have a special plan in the works, so I want to ask you: are any of you working on creating languages for your stories right now? If so, would you be interested in a special invitation-only hangout with experts (not just me) on language design for fantasy and science fiction? If you are, tell me about it in the comments below.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

TTYU Retro: Using the social tools you have (or, why the women of the past weren't powerless)

I wonder if you've ever had this experience: you're reading a story set in a far-away world, either far future or far past or far distant in species or dimension, and despite this incredible distance and differences in every detail of their environment, protagonists in this environment seem to be motivated by modern world values. As you can probably guess, the most common version of this that I've run into is the female protagonist who protests the fact that she has no control over her life - easily imagining all the amazing things she could do if only every member of her family and her society and every institution around her weren't there to prevent it.

Call it a pet peeve, but this drives me crazy.

Let me be clear. I am not trying to say that people always accept their lot in life. Any time you have an imbalance of freedoms between one group and another, the group with fewer freedoms will most likely notice the difference, and certain members of that group will feel the need to protest or do something about it. Whether that protestation is quiet, or gets quashed, or turns into revolution depends on social and historical context.

What you'll find, though, is that that same social and historical context - the worldbuilding that so many of you work so hard to achieve - will have deep implications for how the downtrodden think about objecting to their status. Often enough, they won't object at all.

The powerless often have power in certain circumscribed areas. Noble women in the year 1000 AD in Japan led very closeted lives and were entirely protected and directed by their men - but. They learned how to protect themselves by finding powerful protectors among those men. This meant they knew which men to approach, which to allow close, and how to handle them. They knew how to use family alliances on both maternal and paternal sides in order to achieve security or advancement. They also knew how to use their skills with writing to gain prestige, or how to use their skills in memorization of classic poems to get attention. Classic poems may not seem like a big tool for social advancement, but you might be surprised how important they were in the Heian era Imperial court.

People learn to use the social skills they have. They see what works and what doesn't, and they pursue those areas where they can win small victories. Or big ones, as the case may be. Jacqueline Carey's Ph├Ędre (Kushiel's Dart) uses all of her personal skills as a courtesan and a spy to get things done that you might not expect.

In fact, if you think about it, accidentally giving a culturally situated character modern expectations and sensibilities will not help but hurt them. Suddenly they'll appear to believe that they have absolutely no useful skills, and no avenues to escape the oppression they endure - which is not in fact the case. At the same time they'll be able to imagine possibilities that are both implausible and impractical for a person in their situation. So the chances that they'll be able to accomplish anything go down, and since their vision is too unrestrained, they'll be more frustrated than ever. In those circumstances the author may feel tempted to use modern means to give them opportunities for action, but that will only draw the story further away from the world and cultural/social situation that the author intended.

So I encourage you to think through how your characters use the social tools they have to get things accomplished. See if you can find a situated way for your character to work toward his or her own ends. If they can use gossip or information control, use that. If they can stealthily organize masses of people, use that. A character can take the social walls that limit them, turn them into shields and use them for protection.

If you let your characters use the social tools they have, they'll fit far better into their own worlds, and you'd be surprised how much they can accomplish.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Must every scene must be different?

This is, of course, a trick question. The answer itself isn't the important part - the important part is that your readers will notice sameness when they encounter it, and expect it to mean something. Which in turn means that if you don't want the sameness to mean something, you have to work towards making every scene different.

Let's get a bit more concrete about when sameness means something.

Let's say you're starting your story with your main character walking into a confrontation with a parent, and the main point of the story is a change in the relationship of that character with the parent. Then it makes sense to put in a scene at the end where there's another confrontation between the character and the parent, and it comes out differently. The repetition is noticeable, and it means something: it means the character has changed, allowing a different outcome from a very similar situation.

In The Princess Bride, we see repetition between the scene when Buttercup first gets introduced to her people as a princess, coming out on the red carpet, and the scene where she walks out with the queen's crown on ("at noon she met her subjects again, this time as their queen...") and gets booed. In the first instance, she's detached but accepting of the situation. In the second, she has her detachment and her acceptance called into question. It creates a terrific contrast, and that second scene had me going "No, no, no!" the first time I saw it. (And it has the boy doing the same thing.)

In The Lord of the Rings there is a repetition of the scene inside Mount Doom - between Elrond and Isildur in the first instance, and between Sam and Frodo in the second instance. Part of the power of the repetition comes in our desire for all the adventures to have changed things and made the situation different, so that Frodo won't fall into the same trap - and yet he does.

In a situation where two scenes are noticeably the same, readers will conclude that any differences they can find will be seriously significant to the story.

Now let's talk about when it's important to make every scene different.

Take my novel in progress as an example. I have a society going where the nobles get messages via servants, and in which the sending of messages is quite common and sometimes quite important. Naturally, this means I have a lot of scenes where servants are delivering messages. The danger here is that there would be too much similarity between the scenes of message delivery - causing people to invest significance in differences between the scenes that really have no particular import. Then of course as we go on and there are more instances of message delivery, it could get extremely repetitive.

In this kind of situation I pay very close attention to which aspects of the scene are important. Is the location where the message is received important? Is the method of delivery (paper or recitation) important? Is the content of the message important? Is the character's reaction to receiving the message important? When I write the scene, the important elements need to stay, but those of less importance can just be skipped. So when Tagret gets a message too sensitive to be written down, he gets it in his own room via recitation - and I make sure to show that. When another message comes and the deliverer wants to be anonymous, Tagret gets a piece of paper slipped under his door. When the message is too urgent to let the family enter the house and relax before receiving it, I have the First Houseman meet them in the entry vestibule to deliver the message. But when Tagret gets the message that a close friend has survived the threat of death, it's not the method of delivery that's important, but Tagret's reaction - so I skip the message delivery entirely and go straight to Tagret's post-message emotions and actions.

Watch out for small details that can become repetitive when you're not paying attention, such as the way you have people respond to danger, or the way they approach doors. If you're always describing these the same way, you're giving your character a habit - which may be charming and work great, or which could be entirely distracting from the conflicts of the story.

The other place where sameness can cause trouble is in larger, more important events. Maybe you're writing a book where a politician is trying to get something done and has to give a number of important speeches. It could turn out to be really awful if everything surrounding those speeches is the same, especially if your politician is giving the speeches about the same topic, just to different people. In that case, it's worth working hard to create different contexts for the similar events.

In my novel in progress, there is a point when the story events start being organized around a political process called Heir Selection. In my Varin world, twelve candidates compete in several rounds of voting so that one can be selected as heir to the throne. The votes are all cast by the members of the Eminence's cabinet. We start with the Round of Twelve, then three days later is the Round of Eight, three days after that the Round of Four, and three days after that the final round. I think you can see the trap. If these events are not to become very repetitive and boring, they must be very different from one another. They must take place in different locations, the type of test put to the candidates must be different, etc. - but even that is not quite enough. I've also found that I have to make sure that I use different points of view, and even take focus off the content of the event. The Round of Twelve is handled in the point of view of one of the candidates on the stage in the Hall of the Eminence; the Round of Eight is outside in the Plaza of Varin, and the questioning that the candidates have been subjected to is not even part of the event.  While the Eminence announces the results of the question session and introduces the four candidates who will be moving on, I stay in the point of view of an audience member who doesn't care at all about what the Eminence says because he's busy trying to stop one of the candidates from being assassinated. My sense is that for the Round of Four I'll be back in my candidate's viewpoint, because this is a spot where his actions during the competition are absolutely critical - but for the final round I suspect the question of the results will be far more important than any character's actions during the ceremonial portion, so the ceremonial part will most likely be omitted.

As I go through this I'm noticing a pattern, which is to say that any time you have repetition it's important to keep the primary focus different. Try to identify what's most important about what is happening, and stick to that. Look around for ways to change setting, character, etc. so you are not simply falling into a reader's comfortable expectations. When their comfortable expectations are being met, readers are far more likely to skim or skip. It's the focus on difference that will keep their attention riveted to the page.

It's something to think about.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Link: Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits

Here's a good article by a modern armorer concerning the question of reasonable armor for women, and how to balance style with functionality. My favorite part is when he says that if Sauron ever raised his arms too high, he'd poke his own eyes out!

Unfortunately, the link to the article has gone dead. Darn... and thanks to Sean for letting me know.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Guest Post by Jane Kindred: The Language of Fallen Angels: Russian on the angelic tongue

When I first decided I was going to create a celestial world that echoed the world of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, I didn’t actually intend for the story to have anything to do with Russia. I was just working from the “what if” of an angelic grand duchess being the only survivor of her family’s execution and having to go into hiding with demons. Stumbling across the name of the city of Arkhangel’sk while searching for Russian angelic names was the beginning of my Russophilia. I just loved the way the name sounded and looked. Alongside the history of angels, I was soon researching the history of Arkhangel’sk, and the story began to be increasingly rooted in the real world.

Meanwhile, thinking it would be a fun way to do some research for the book, I signed up at the local community college for a class on Russian Culture and Civilization. That whim would turn into a full-on obsession within a matter of days. As soon as I began studying Russia, I fell in love with it. We watched Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev in class and I ran home to put it on Netflix so I could watch it repeatedly (all three and a half hours of it), fascinated by the images of the icons painted in the early Orthodox cathedrals by devoted monks—and equally fascinated by the depiction of pagan rituals celebrated on the summer solstice before being subsumed by the Church. We read Gogol and Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and I couldn’t get enough, moved to tears by the sound of words I didn’t even understand.

When my instructor mentioned she was hosting a summer Russian-language trip to St. Petersburg, there was no way I could pass it up, though I had to turn my entire world upside down to do it. (I think it was around this time that friends began to be less amused by my obsession and a little more concerned.) I didn’t know a word of Russian, so I bought a Russian language dictionary and a beginning Russian textbook and taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet and the rudiments of the language. By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg, I could spell my name in Cyrillic script, identify signs for the metro and the bathroom, count to 20, and say “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” and “I don’t speak Russian.” (And “How much is that bulochka?”)

I fumbled my way through conversations over evening tea (and bulochki) with my hostess every night, managed to buy things at the corner markets—even if I later learned I was asking for the equivalent of being a bottle of water rather than purchasing one—and counted my money in rubles and kopeks. I was hesitant to speak in broken Russian in social situations, but the longer I listened to the flow of the sounds of the people around me, the more I seemed to be following what others were saying. One of the highlights of my trip was listening to a friend’s uncle who didn’t speak a word of English reciting long stanzas of Yevgeniy Onegin as we walked to the Ekaterine Palace in Pushkin.

By the time I returned to the States, I knew my demons weren’t just going to happen to land in Russia when they fell. There would be an indelible tie between Heaven and Russia, and my demons would be Russian. I wanted the language to be an authentic part of that characterization, woven in among the English words as unobtrusively as possible. Like Joss Whedon’s characters do with the odd Chinese phrase in Firefly and Serenity, my demons often slip into Russian for more course expressions, and I also made it a kind of secret language used by the demon peasants still living among angels in my celestial St. Petersburg.

There’s a scene set in modern St. Petersburg in which a human negotiator between the demons and the Seraphim brute squad chides my demon Belphagor after he expresses ignorance about a post-Stalinist statue commemorating suffering in the gulags: “It’s your country, yet I seem to know it better than you do.” Belphagor shakes his head and replies, “Not my country,” and his friend says, “Of course it is. Why else do you come here?”

Just as it did for me, Russia took hold of my demon from the first time he fell into it. It’s beautiful and tragic, heartbreaking and triumphant at once, plunged into the harshest winter nights and soaring into the most magical, brief summer days in a way that’s almost a metaphor for its entire history, and its people are its soul. It’s no surprise, then, that Russian is also Belphagor’s language of intimacy.

There was no way I could do the place or the language justice after a five-week trip and with a very limited vocabulary, but by letting my angelic grand duchess experience it as I did, as a foreigner dependent upon the people around her who embody the place, I hoped to convey both its lyrical magic and its darkness to the reader. While my Russian phrases may be imperfect, so are my demons, after all, having picked up their Russian on the streets of Heaven’s slums. Hopefully, we’ll both be forgiven for our mistakes.

***

Bio:

Jane Kindred began writing romantic fantasy at the age of 12 in the wayback of a Plymouth Fury—which, as far as she recalls, never killed anyone…who didn’t have it coming. She spent her formative years ruining her eyes reading romance novels in the Tucson sun and watching Star Trek marathons in the dark. She now writes to the sound of San Francisco foghorns while two cats slowly but surely edge her off the side of the bed. Jane is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Carina Press/June 2011) and The Fallen Queen (Entangled Publishing/December 2011), Book One of The House of Arkhangel’sk trilogy.

You can find Jane on Twitter: @JaneKindred
on Facebook: www.facebook.com/somewherebetweenheavenandhell
or on her website: www.janekindred.com

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Culture of Death: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

Last week I was joined by Leigh Dragoon, Dale Emery, Janet Harriet and Glenda Pfeiffer for a discussion of the Culture of Death. Considering how dark the discussion could have been, I felt it was actually wonderful - more intellectually engaged, and at the same time more personal, than I had feared.

We began with the idea that despite the uniformity of the phenomenon of death across the world, it is responded to with an incredible diversity of practices. These practices vary across countries, but they have also varied across history, in part because of the way science has changed the way we interact with death.

We started in with some examples of death practices. In Japan, Buddhism is often seen as the religion that handles death the best (in comparison with Shintoism and Christianity). It is said that people are born Shinto, get married Christian (or Shinto), but die Buddhist. The Buddhist ceremonies in response to death occur at regular intervals after the death has occurred, which we felt fit well with the way that people endure grief. Leigh also noted (somewhat later in the discussion) that Islam provides for different funerals at intervals. Sometimes death is celebrated, as in the Irish wake (involving drinking and music). Janet mentioned the New Orleans funeral in this context - a procession that begins somberly but ends with a huge party. In 2010 when my own family went to Europe, we encountered a funeral procession in the city of Aosta, Italy. The coffin was being carried by about eight pallbearers and accompanied by a four or five piece brass band - a combination which we found quite unusual. One of the participants asked me if they hired dirge singers (answer: I don't know, but I didn't hear any), and mentioned that the book Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay involves hired mourners. I brought everyone's attention to this terrific post that Joyce Chng (Twitter @jolantru) contributed to my Culture Share, entitled "Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween." In it, she describes Singaporean funeral practices and the "ghost month."

Out of Joyce's post I remarked on the presence of different colors in the funeral ceremony and we moved to discussing colors associated with death - like brown sack-cloth and red threads. In the US and in many other countries, black is the color associated with death. In China and some other countries, white is the color associated with death. This is something I've taken advantage of in my own worldbuilding: in Varin, the goddess who cares for the spirits of the virtuous dead is Elinda, the moon, so the color of death is moon yellow, and people going to a funeral bind yellow scarves around their arms just below the elbow, with the ends hanging down toward their feet.

Religion is very closely associated with death, I think because one of its functions is to provide explanation, social support and comfort. We don't always attend to questions of death or cosmology in our day to day lives, but an event like a death causes us to reach out for this kind of support. Dale insightfully described celebrating the dead through ceremony as a spiritual act.

Indeed, there is a strong sense of community built up among people who attend a funeral, and I believe part of the function of death celebrations is to bring a community together after a catastrophic event of this nature that might otherwise cause people to drift apart. Janet described it as figuring out a new social order without the presence of that individual, and mentioned cases like the death of a president, and the symbolism in the way the airplane flight formation comes back together.

These kinds of elements can form a wonderful part of any world you are building, and give a great glimpse into the cosmology, expectations and thinking processes of a people. Anything that is a cultural affirmation can take different forms in different cultural contexts. In our own world, a funeral can be a very  personal affair, or it can be exceedingly public, symbolic of maintaining the current social order (as a state funeral), or it can even be an event which foments violence and revolution - everything depends on the meaning lent to it by the people involved. Extreme examples of this would be the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church and the events surrounding political martyrdom.

I brought up the idea of the death of Steve Jobs, because it seemed to have taken so many people by surprise. In this culture, there is something of the expectation that death doesn't happen, or that it only happens to "old people" - but of course, who is considered old is another thing that changes with time, medicine and culture.

We also talked about euphemisms. As with any kind of phenomenon considered frightening or distasteful, euphemisms swarm around the way we talk about death. Dale mentioned the death of his dog, which he had described in a letter as having the dog "put down," and told us of his shock when a Swedish friend described it as him having had his dog "killed." Janet told us that in her family, the primary euphemism was to describe someone as "being called home." Another common phrase is to say "passed" or "passed on." This area is an incredibly rich one for worldbuilding. Just by creating a single euphemism you can express an enormous amount about how the people in your world conceptualize the universe - death, an afterlife, etc. Dale mentioned a story by Joe Haldeman called "A Tangled Web" (Analog, Sept. 1981) in which people expressed embarrassment by saying, "I die, and my death creates trouble for the community."

Because of the way demographics work, and the way we travel through periods of our lives where certain things are expected to happen, there can be times when death seems to be coming in a wave all at once. This is mostly a product of our internal point of view on the stage of life we are in, because people are being born all the time, but we tend to know more people who are roughly of the same age we are. (Though it would be interesting to consider what life would be like if people weren't being born all the time.) Janet mentioned how this can be seen as bringing about the end of an era, the way that we tend to track when veterans of a particular war, or witnesses of an event, become fewer and finally disappear. Quite recently I saw a news story about the death of the last veteran of World War I. Leigh mentioned that many recordings of Holocaust survivors' stories were made in the 1990's, because people became aware that many of them were dying and didn't want their stories to be lost with them.

Dale asked, "How do we decide what we want to record about people's lives?" It's a fascinating question for worldbuilding. Certain types of information get recorded for posterity, and certain types do not - and the method of recording influences this hugely. Just compare a person's diary with his/her YouTube channel!

Perhaps inevitably, the question of Zombies came up. Robots too - I guess because we were looking for dramatically different models and a little bit of humor on the side. We asked, "Is death inevitable?" What if you could back yourself up into a robot? In this context we discussed Brad Torgerson's 2010 story, "Outbound," involving a boy who at a certain point was transformed into digital form. We also mentioned the ghosts of Harry Potter, and the "Deathday party" that Nearly Headless Nick celebrated in Chamber of Secrets. Would there be circumstances (as with zombies or ghosts or backups) where death would constitute the beginning of life? Dale gave me a great link to a humorous piece by Monty Python, Funeral Arrangements. Because it is so emotionally fraught, death is actually the subject of a lot of humor - Juzo Itami's film The Funeral comes to mind.

Our last major topic was the processing of dead bodies. There are lots of ways of doing this - burial, cremation, burial at sea, etc. Many may have arisen from the desire to keep the dead body from infecting the living (though there is a notable exception to this in the case of cannibalism). Some traditions put the body on display, seeing it as a necessary piece of evidence that the spirit of the person is gone, and thus providing a sense of closure for the survivors. On the other hand, there are plenty of issues surrounding this. What if the person died in a car accident? Do you cover up the damage done to the body? We talked about the idea of the "death picture" and how some mortuaries will try to make the body "perfect." (This creeped a few of us out.) Janet mentioned how sometimes children (and others) are encouraged not to see a person who is dying so that they maintain the image of that person's health in their mind. Leigh mentioned reading that the Greeks viewed becoming dead as a process that followed the initial death event, where preparations had to be made for the afterlife. She saw this as a more integrated view of death and life. In ancient Egypt the royals were mummified and provided with statues of servants, animals, and goods for the next life. In the Asian market near my house you can buy "death money" which you are supposed to burn to send to the dead.

Dale suggested (and I agree) that while one should ask, "What is hidden about death? What is displayed? Should stoicism be valued?" This question of appropriate behaviors for the survivors of a death (extreme wailing and tearing of hair versus stoicism etc) was one we barely touched on, but which provides rich opportunities for worldbuilders.

Here are a last couple of interesting links that came out of the discussion:
How Doctors Die (a discussion of cultural phenomena surrounding death and modern medicine)
The Greek Way of Death (the book mentioned by Leigh above)

Thanks to Leigh, Dale, Janet and Glenda for a wonderful and deep discussion. Today's topic will be illness and medicine. I hope to see you there!




Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Upcoming excitement...

 I'm excited to say that on Thursday I'll be having a wonderful guest post from Jane Kindred, author of The Fallen Queen - just out from Entangled Publishing. She'll be telling us about how she started learning Russian and how she ended up integrating it into her novel. When you read her story, I'm sure you'll be inspired to go out and start learning a foreign language too!

As for this week's Google+ hangout, I'll be holding it on Wednesday at 11am PST and we'll be discussing illness and medicine in worldbuilding. Please join us... and feel free to ask me in the comments if you need help finding us.

TTYU Retro: Character Motivations versus Plot Motivations

One of the most critical ingredients of close point of view, from my perspective, is a strong basis in character motivation. I'm sure you've seen instances where characters are acting because the plot requires it, rather than because they have their own reasons to act. Places like this always give me the impression that the narrative has gone from deep to shallow, even when the close point of view is otherwise well-executed.

When I am planning a story, I always have a pretty good idea of how my characters will be feeling in any particular scene. However, I never feel 100% certain until I'm "on the ground" in a scene. This is one of the reasons why I tend to write in linear chronological order - but even if you don't, it's worth taking the time to go through the story in linear fashion to make sure all the motivations connect up to one another.

For me, plotting a character's reaction to something is not a simple matter of stimulus-response. I'd write out my way of thinking through the process like this:
  1. initial mental state
  2. stimulus
  3. judgment
  4. initial mental state + emotion inspired by judgment
  5. motivation
  6. response
Each one of these steps has to connect to the next for me to feel like the scene is seamless. To put it in prose:

Characters perceive plot events, judge them and react emotionally, which then causes them to feel a motivation to act in response.

Sometimes, especially in action, this occurs very quickly. I don't have to write out a separate sentence for each step in the process! But before I have a character enter an interaction, I go through in my head how he/she is feeling and why. Emotions concatenate. If we're already feeling tense, our reactions to a particular event will likely be magnified. If we're feeling rattled because of previous events, we may not be able to slow down enough to notice things, or to think through our response to what happens next.

As I write, I find myself thinking through the nature of emotions and motivations. What kind of emotional state might makes a person get so angry they might start throwing things? If a person often reacts in one particular way without thinking, what might be different about their reaction if they decided to do it on purpose? What does a character want to accomplish by their actions? Are they fully in control or on the edge? What behaviors do they engage in to counteract the feeling of being out of control? What could push them so far they might make a decision that hurts them in the long run? Why would they hurt a friend?

A character's actions, and particularly a point of view character's actions, must grow naturally out of his/her reaction to story events. If they don't, the sense of deep connection and plausibility will be lost. If you have a story that alternates point of view, make sure to ask yourself what happened in Character A's story while you were visiting Character B's head. It's important, because when you go back to Character A, that person's reactions won't necessarily have much to do with what was going on with Character B (unless they were in the same scene together). The state of mind with which they enter their next point of view scene will depend on what they were up to "offstage." So it's very good to have figured out what happened offstage! In fact, if I don't know what happened and what state of mind my character is in, I can't start a new scene at all.

By going through all this, I aim to create a sense of mental continuity with each character that runs from one end of a story to the other. If I find the plot requirements are dragging me off that continuity, then I either go back and change the character motivation so it will end up in the right place... or I change the plot.

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Writing male point of view

I ran across an interesting article at Fiction Groupie some time ago about writing male point of view. It provided a checklist of some things that men do and think about...fully admitting that many of these things were stereotypes, but pointing out that the list does have some basis in fact (most stereotypes do, on some level). My first reaction on reading it was that I felt it really didn't apply to most of the male points of view that I write. Was it just that I was avoiding stereotypes? Was it - horrors - that my male characters weren't male enough?

Fortunately, I have male readers who have assured me my male characters are working - but it got me thinking about how I write male points of view. I do this quite a lot, in fact - two of my three published stories have male protagonists, and my novel in progress, For Love, For Power, has three points of view, all of whom are male, for structural reasons.

First I think it's important to think about stereotypical characteristics from the point of view of core vs. peripheral characteristics rather than stereotypes. Core characteristics are those that tend to be possessed by most men we know. Peripheral characteristics are those that can be considered male, but are typically possessed by smaller subgroups of men. One of the things that will cause you to fall into a stereotype is if you give too many of your male characters too many of these characteristics all at once. To go with Roni Loren's list, if they're all action oriented, impatient, visually oriented guys who like to be in charge, project confidence but repress their emotions, say what they mean in order to solve all problems, converse only to exchange information and think about sex all the time... you have a problem. On the other hand, these are all really valuable trends in male behavior in our society that are useful to consider when designing male characters (especially for category romance, which has its own idiosyncratic demands!).

One thing I'd encourage you to remember is that a lot of the characteristics that we consider typically male are based in our society's cultural values - which means that if you're working outside our society and its rules (as I am most of the time) the characteristics of male characters are going to be heavily influenced by the differences in the society around them. Dress varies widely (think Japan versus US men, for example). So does the expression of emotions (think European or Slavic men vs. Englishmen for an alternate example of expressive style). When you're designing your world and the society that operates within it, make sure to think through some of these core gender-role variables and figure out what your society values.

So for the sake of making this more concrete, I'm going to give some examples from my own male characters. I'd say that typically each one has one or two defining characteristics that are "male," but they vary widely on a lot of the other variables.

The most current-society-normative of my characters are the humans from my Allied Systems stories. The young man David Linden doesn't have women to interact with, so sex isn't on his mind at all. He's primarily defined by his need to prove himself to his father as a worthy scientist - which can be done for either gender, but won't seem out of place for a male character. The main character of my story in progress, The Liars, is Adrian Preston. He's married and spends a lot of time thinking about, and negotiating with his wife, but the story doesn't allow a lot of extra time to explore the intimate side of their relationship. He's a man who lives for his work as a linguist and loves it so much that his idea of having fun is working on language.

The idea of the importance of work is one that I didn't see in Roni Loren's piece, but one that I think is common to a great many men. When designing a society you should definitely consider identifying what activities are considered worth dedicating one's life to (work), and which are considered legitimate outlets for emotion and conversation (sports, for example). Even Rulii, my wolflike alien, is very much centered on how his work as Councilor will allow him to achieve his life's goal, which he thinks of in terms of "landing the quarry of my life's hunt."

A more nuanced example from my stories is the character of Imbati Xinta. He lives for his work to the point of fanaticism, and he certainly represses his emotions, but not for the reasons that men in our society would do so. Because he works as manservant to the Eminence of Varin, his job is to stand by and remember everything he hears, and to reveal nothing through his face or movements that would jeopardize his master's secrets. He is a trained bodyguard and martial artist, but in appearance is quite effeminate, and emotionally he is very vulnerable. There are a couple of things going on with this, one of which is that I've known any number of men who go about covering up significant emotional vulnerabilities - and the other of which is that Xinta is expected to repress his own ethics and human feeling, and to be entirely "selfless," since that is considered the ideal state for a member of the servant caste. Xinta self-represses to such an extent that he's not able to connect with anyone emotionally beyond normal politeness, and sex is the last thing on his mind. Which is to say I suppose that I'm using the work focus tendency and the emotional repression tendency to negate the tendency to think about sex in his case. As to his appearance, I'm having him look the way he does - paying close attention to his looks, dressing in bright colors, wearing jewelry, etc. - in part to please the man he works for, and in part to echo that real-world tendency for a "civilized" man to take on more elaborate habits that might be laughed off as effeminate by a member of the lower classes.

I suppose you could say that close observation of the people around you can only go so far, because that will only allow you to see the parameters being used by the people around you. I have found my anthropological studies extremely valuable, because they've given me an eye for paying attention to and interpreting the possible variables behind different styles of social interaction. Particularly if you're worldbuilding, you should try to see foreign movies or read books about people in other times from the point of view of looking at societal models of gendered and romantic behavior (Emma, for example, can be quite an eye-opener for someone used to the permissive ways of modern romance).

When you're writing a male character, you won't want him to be without any male characteristics (those recognizable to the readers). That can be considered a given. But you don't have to cling just to the stereotypes you know. If you cultivate a sense within your world and your reader of what gendered behavior is like, then you can have your male character follow that trend and see it as masculine. Furthermore, female characters can possess Earthly "male" characteristics and still be considered feminine depending on the views of the society you're working in. The most important thing, I think, is to make sure that you've thought through why your character behaves the way he does, why you think he's masculine, and precisely how and why he deviates from the stereotypes that everyone will be looking for, yet fearing to find.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Some thoughts on publishing, "teaching to the test," and artistic vision

I see a lot of discussion of the publishing industry these days. We're clearly in a period of overwhelming change, and I don't find it useful, personally, to take sides in the traditional-publishing-versus-self-publishing conflict. I continue to write; I observe from the sidelines, and I continue to hope for a result that will benefit authors and keep readers reading high-quality work. I think an upheaval like this one will end, not in any complete supplanting of old models with new, but with a new equilibrium whose parameters are as yet uncertain.

Publishing is a very old business. When I first started learning about it with a view to getting published, I was surprised at how little penetration of modern technology (simple stuff like email and websites) there actually was. At this point, these have become the norm. Word processing and email have made it very easy for authors to submit, but the bottleneck they must face is the same as it always was: someone has to read the work all the way through in order to evaluate it. This takes time, and it takes people. The deluge of incoming work has put far more strain on these people than they had to face in the past.

The role of the gatekeeper is a problematic one, and double-edged. The gatekeeper, because of her/his role, has power that can be resented by petitioners. But at the same time, the gatekeeper is protecting the publisher, and the readers, from work of low quality. I'm sure you will say that a lot of poor quality work gets published, and I have indeed felt the same way myself, but the evaluation of fiction is nothing if not subjective. Getting published is not just about being "good enough," it's about reaching someone.

If there is anything I would choose to decry about the current situation, it's the way that the concerns of marketing have pulled us away from that core question of reaching someone. I compare it to standardized testing. Standardized tests were created to evaluate a person's total education, but they never bore much direct relation to it; they just happened to be a good indirect measure of the results. The problem arises when getting a good result on the test becomes so overweeningly important that we decide we must instruct people directly how to take that test. Performance on the test goes up, but the total education that the test once reflected is gone, and students end up with meaningless test-taking skills that leave them woefully unprepared for the demands of life that the original full education once addressed (or at least tried to). In publishing, teaching to the test is the equivalent, in my view, to buying for the marketers. Letting the numbers dictate the content of our fiction will lead us toward fiction written by the numbers, and everyone will suffer as a result.

Fortunately, I don't know many authors who spend much time compromising their vision to a business model. The core of what makes fiction and storytelling wonderful - what makes it visceral, and has made it a vital part of human societies since prehistoric time - remains intact. And I believe that this kind of vision is something that need not be lost at the level of the publishers. Just because we work within a market doesn't mean we need to lose that spark. The example of the late Steve Jobs should be instructive in this regard. Apple stands out as a company because he understood that computers weren't just a business - they could be a vision. I would like to see publishers recapture that feeling of vision, because this business all about inspiration. As authors, we are constantly working to take the voice of the Muse, to convey it to our readers, to deliver it to our agents and our publishers. In the new equilibrium, I can only imagine the most successful publishers will be there to pick it up and let it shine.



Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Colonialism and Imperialism: A worldbuilding hangout report

It was great to get back to the Google+ worldbuilding hangouts after a two-week break for Thanksgiving. I was joined by Kyle Aisteach, Janet Harriet, Harry Markov, and Glenda Pfeiffer for this one, and we had a really great chat.

The topic of colonialism and imperialism is one that I've studied a bit - and found daunting - academically, but one that I engage with in all of my published work involving the Allied Systems universe. The first time I really realized that this was a critical issue for me was in the early drafts of my first story, "Let the Word Take Me" (Analog 2008), when my friend Keyan told me she was worried that the resolution of the story was going to lead to a future "with alcoholic geckos lying around." That really wasn't where I wanted it to go either, so I did some serious revising and kept the issues of colonialism and imperialism at the forefront of my mind thereafter.

In Star Trek, we encounter the concept of the Prime Directive, which demands that the crew of the Enterprise and other ships not interfere in the culture of another people. We all agreed that the pure Star Trek form of this directive is very limiting. It was a concept that came up multiple times in our discussion.

One of the questions that underlies whether Federation folk will attempt to engage with a culture or not, and on what terms, is that of technology level. The idea of a technology "level" is one defined by our own culture and our own world, where we have given names (bronze age, iron age, etc.) to periods of our own history and thus consider them iconic. However, it is a more complex question than this, and we would certainly expect that in dealing with alien societies (either in the science fictional or simply "foreign" sense) technologies would not necessarily conform to our expectations. Certain kinds of materials and innovations are necessary for the technology to develop in a particular direction, but a people will view both materials and technologies through its own lens of value, and that can create significant divergence.

Thus it's difficult, and extremely problematic, to define who has the "more advanced" society. Harry mentioned our current level of technology as being associated with the desire for instant gratification. High levels of technology in one area don't necessarily entail cultural refinement or sophistication. In Alan Smale's alternate history novella, "A Clash of Eagles" (Panverse) the Roman legions are sure they are the superior culture at least militarily, but they are soundly defeated by unexpected military technologies possessed by the residents of North America. My own story "At Cross Purposes" (Analog 2011) involved spacefaring otter aliens with technologies that humans couldn't understand, but they felt that art was more important than technology, and thus had no prime directive at all (they were happy to give tech to artists of any stripe...I can't wait to write a story about that kind of havoc).

Very often we encounter situations where one society feels superior to the other. But how is that enforced? Kyle asked whether it is ethical for a group with higher medical technology to withhold that technology from another group in desperate need, just for Prime Directive reasons. Indeed, this is an area where ethics come into play quite seriously, and Star Trek has driven plenty of episodes with the question of which one will win out (Prime Directive or ethics/compassion).

Janet remarked that in a colonizing situation, one group has something that the other one wants - this can actually play both ways, as sometimes the colonized want the higher tech or whatever it is that the colonizers possess, and sometimes the colonizers are there because the people of this area possess something they are planning to take. An excellent book about the topic of the colonizing of the Americas is Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I recently read a great article online that recommends several books. The article can be found here. You might also be interested in Orientalism by Edward Said.

When writing and worldbuilding, it is very important to avoid stereotypes. The "holy noble simple native folk" will drive people mad, especially since they've seen it so often in movies like Pocahontas and Avatar. Avatar also has the "one white/human guy who shows up out of nowhere and becomes better at native stuff than the natives and saves them all" stereotype, about which I have heard many people scream.

Colonization has happened all over the world, and can take different forms. Harry mentioned that Bulgaria had been colonized by the Turkish. The British colonization in the Americas would have been less dramatically, but still distinctly, different from the British colonization of India, for example.

Colonization also has an enormous influence on language, up to and including language death. Languages disappear when all their speakers are killed, or also when the language ceases to have any functional utility in the surrounding culture. Colonizers also use the standardization of language for writing and commercial purposes to exert control over the colonized. We diverted momentarily into a discussion of how standard language differs from language used on the ground, and Harry definitely saw this as a possible form of power maintenance. As an example of language variation away from a "standard," he gave us the word "pepper," which near the Black Sea means "bell pepper" but 600 km away on the other side of Bulgaria means "chili pepper." Kyle said that we have a "war over 'Next Tuesday.'" [I think the question of the scope of "next" is a discussion for another time, however.] In a colonizer situation, the group in power maintains the standard language and uses it as a gatekeeping device.

Language can also be used as a form of rebellion by the colonized. Kyle told us that during the Holocaust, Jews used "amchu" as a secret way to ask, "Are you one of us?" The Hebrew language was revived from a purely literary and liturgical language to a spoken one for the purposes of unifying the Jewish population. Harry told us that there was a linguistic underground in Bulgaria during the Turkish occupation, when everyone was politically bound to speak Turkish, and bound in religious circumstances to use Greek. Bulgarian was still maintained as a language throughout this time period. Similarly, in World War II the Japanese outlawed the speaking of Korean and Chinese in the areas they controlled, but those languages continued to be spoken in the home and surged back again once the Japanese occupation came to an end. This switch was not peaceful but came to an end as violently as it was initially imposed.

One of the things that can happen in a colonization situation is what I called the aggressive use of stereotyping. Colonizers will create a stereotypical image of the colonized group to associate them with weakness or lack of quality, and those stereotypes will take on a pernicious power both among the colonizers and among the colonized. Harry (I think it was) remarked that sometimes the more oppressed the people are, the more they conform to the stereotype against their own best interests.

Though we spoke mostly in terms of science fiction, all of these principles can also be applied to fantasy. Only the nature of the technology and resources will be different. Even "low technology" is still technology, and a group with iron swords will prevail over a group with stone tools or bronze weapons. Wands can play the same role as guns - so please feel free to apply all of this over whatever colonization scheme you're working with, fantasy or science fiction.

At the end Harry proposed our topic for the next session (today, December 7, 11am PST): the culture of death. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tightening your plot by layering

There is something to be said for having everything happen at once.

Often we think of the climax of a book as the place where everything comes together and starts happening at the same time. However, we shouldn't necessarily restrict ourselves to the climax; layering can be beneficial at other points in a story as well.

I mention this because of my own experience. I had a sequence of events in my WIP as follows: the protagonist had to go to a political event; thereafter my bodyguard character had to follow a nefarious character to prevent an assassination; thereafter my bodyguard had to come home and find a conflict going on between the master and mistress. It wasn't bad, but when it came to dramatizing the whole thing, I found it was dragging. I was struggling to get the protagonist out of previous plot points and over to the political event. I was daunted when I tried to imagine all the details of the political event. Then I couldn't figure out how to make the opening of the prevent-an-assassination sequence different from all the previous interactions between servants that I'd been working with (I try to make every interaction unique - something I'll be writing about soon in another post).

Over this weekend I realized what the problem was. Everything was strung out, all the events coming one after another like beads on a chain. That simultaneously put too much importance on each individual event, and made me work too hard to keep them connected.

I therefore decided that as many things as possible needed to happen at the same time.

I can get away with this in my novel, because it's supposed to be complex. It is certainly possible to overload a scene with too much stuff. However, if you can find a way to concatenate instead of stringing, the result can be amazing. In the case of the sequence I describe above, I decided that the political event and the assassination attempt had to happen at the same time. This accomplished several useful things for me.

1. Because the assassination attempt had to occur in a specified location, I suddenly had a place to put my political event that was more effective than the white-room-ish space I'd been fighting against previously.

2. Because the new sequence placed both my protagonist and my bodyguard in the same location, it allowed me to do a direct point-of-view handoff (I love those).

3. Because I could do the point-of-view handoff, I could shift to the bodyguard's perspective early in the political event, thereby making it unnecessary for me to elaborate on all the details of the event. In fact, the ceremonial details of what's going on are much less important than the bodyguard's attempt to foil the assassination. Layering allows me to place focus on the more important element and stick the less important element in the background.

4. Suspense went through the roof. Instead of having the bodyguard out attempting to stop an assassination on his own terms, he's right in the middle of a public event trying to figure out how to save the target from the assassin without having any means to reach the assassin (who is hundreds of feet away) or the target (who is at least fifteen feet away).

5. Consequences also became much more dire. The bodyguard won't be able to take action without hundreds of people seeing him, and this will result in entanglements that delay his return home, providing a perfect reason for him not to be where he needs to be when the conflict between master and mistress begins.

It's worth keeping an eye out for opportunities to do this. Especially if you are being told by critiquers that your story is wandering, that the pace is slow, or that it's one thing after another after another, consider whether layering might be the right answer.

You might also want to look out for this if you're trying to figure out how to shorten a work. What if you feel like you've taken out as many words as you can and the book is still "too long"? Maybe you're aiming for 90-100K words but you're stuck at 127K. Usually at that point it's the structure of the story which has to change - and if you can take a step back from your outline and create clusters of events that can either closely follow one another, or happen concurrently, then the layering effect will save you a lot of words that can't be "pulled out" any other way.

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Excerpt from "Cold Words" in honor of Analog's first e-anthology

If you follow me on Twitter or are a connection of mine on Facebook or Google+, you may have seen my announcement that I had a story anthology come out today. My story, "Cold Words" (Analog Oct. 2009) is now appearing in Analog's first e-anthology now available on Amazon. I was incredibly honored to be included in an amazing Table of Contents with authors like Mike Flynn, Harry Turtledove, Marianne Dyson, Brad Torgerson, Robert J. Sawyer, and many others.

Amazon allows you to look inside the ebook, but doesn't actually give excerpts from all the stories, so for those who are interested I thought I'd put up a teaser excerpt of the story.

Rulii is a wolf-like native of the planet Aurru and the only member of the downy-furred Lowland race on the Majesty's Cold Council. He is brokering a deal with the Allied Systems to bring a human spaceport to his region, hoping this may bring the riches his oppressed Lowland people need to improve their lot. Problem is, the new negotiator Hada must speak the Cold words dialect well enough not to insult Majesty - her language sounds wrong and he can't figure out why. The human linguist Parker is trying to help him, but Parker's friendship may put Rulii in an entirely different sort of danger...

Click here to start reading!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Two excellent links on how far to take links between grammatical and actual gender

My two friends, Keyan Bowes and Aliette de Bodard, contributed some very interesting thoughts to the online discussion of grammatical gender and its links (if any) to actual genders and actual gender attributes. I found their position particularly interesting because of the implication that Americans tend to anthropomorphize more than other cultures (not something I can recall seeing any studies about, but it may indeed be the case), and that that influences us to give a greater significance to grammatical gender than it in fact merits.

I encourage you to go and read their arguments, here (Aliette de Bodard) and here (Keyan's response).

While the link between language and thought is undeniable, it is also subtle. Thus it can be easy, when saying something like, grammatical gender influences the way we think about objects, to overstate the case. Much of our language use is subconscious, and in particular it would be a mistake to assume that the presence of a grammatical feature in a language means that a speaker of that language will think about reality in a particular way all the time, or with intent, or on a conscious level. As Keyan notes, in Hindi there can be one masculine and one feminine word used for the same object - so clearly there can be no underlying assumption of gender being literally possessed by that object. Furthermore, as Aliette remarks, the characteristics that we assign to one gender or another vary widely across cultures.

If it were so simple, then it would have been a matter of much less debate, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about the links between language and culture would not have been so heavily disputed. It's important to remember that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had a "strong version" and a "weak version." As Wikipedia would have it:

"(i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories and (ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior."

In the end my best suggestion if you are curious about the links between language and thought is to go to the actual studies. One of the current leaders in the field is Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University. In looking directly at the psycholinguistic articles,  you will be able to see how studies were conducted and upon whom, and get into the real subtleties involved. It's a fascinating field to delve into.

Link on how manners continue to change

How digital assistants are affecting the way people talk in public. What is polite?

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/03/technology/virtual-assistants-raise-new-issues-of-phone-etiquette.html?_r=1

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fun link on Japanese Ghosts and Monsters

I ran across this one on Facebook this week. It's quite a long and interesting list, and though I'd quibble with some of the pictures, a lot of them are great. Plenty of ideas here!

http://www.tofugu.com/2011/10/29/super-ghouls-n-ghosts-from-japan/

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Culture and language in The Fallen Queen by Jane Kindred

I met up with agent Sara Megibow (I almost typed "angel," and while she's lovely, you'll see why that's funny in a second) at World Fantasy Convention a few weeks ago, and while she and I were talking about my interest in language and culture in fantasy, she handed me an ARC. "You might like this," she said. She was right.

The book in question is Jane Kindred's newly released novel, The Fallen Queen. While I won't attempt to review the whole book, I'll tell you what I thought was fun and fascinating about it. Kindred has taken Heaven and turned it into a mirror of Tsarist Russia - and she also taken the main character, an angel, on a trip into Earthly Russia, complete with Russian language and tapochki slippers.

Very careful attention is paid to creating parallel levels of reality in this book. Not only is the geography of Heaven carefully analogized to the geography of Russia (the river Neva in Russia=the river Neba in Heaven), but Heaven isn't just a bin full of angels. It's carefully divided into layers of angels characterized by different elements (fire, water, earth, air), who don't necessarily understand each other. Those who appear human are the Host of the Fourth Choir, while the Ophanim and Seraphim each have supernatural behaviors and qualities that make them distinct. What's even more fun is that the powers of the angels and demons are relative to where one stands in the layers, and which layer one happens to be occupying at the time. Demons are those of mixed blood and "impure"  behaviors, keeping the spirit of angel versus demon and also setting up a rather deft allegory related to race and to purity of blood.

I got a special kick out of the way the Russian was used. I don't speak any Russian, but I sure want to now that I've read it! The language never interfered with story comprehension, but the author used it with finesse. For one thing, the angel doesn't speak Russian when she first arrives in Russia, and she has no Heavenly power that grants her language skill. For this, Kindred gets a cheer from me! I'm willing to grant that the angel Anazakia will have some ability to pick it up quickly, and this is used to advantage. It's great, because when she first arrives, the things she doesn't understand are related in Russian, so if you really don't understand Russian, you understand precisely the same things she does, i.e. not much. If you do understand Russian, no doubt you'll get a lovely little sense of confidentiality with the author. The use of Russian goes down as the book progresses and Anazakia understands more, but it is still retained for flavor in a lot of contexts.

One last issue I'd like to mention is that this book engages with questions of virtue, vice, and sexual taboo behavior in a really interesting way, by juxtaposing the behavior of humans, demons and angels, and setting Anazakia's fall - and the attendant changes in her own choices - against that. While there were a few places where I felt the author's views intruding, the overall treatment of the topic I felt was very good, and readers may find it tittillating in some places, appalling in others, and overall quite thought-provoking.

I'd like to thank Sara Megibow again for handing me the ARC. It's really fun when I can discover a book that is both enjoyable and engaging on multiple different levels.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gender in Language: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This is a report on the Worldbuilding Hangout that I held two weeks ago, on November 16th. I was joined by a large (wonderful!) group including Cheryl Barnett, Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Janet Harriet, Kay Holt, and Kyle Aisteach. Our topic was Gender in Language, and boy, did we have fun with this discussion!

We started out brainstorming examples of language that stood out to us for their portrayal of gender. I mentioned the phrasing in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness that has tickled me ever since I first read it: "my landlady, a voluble man..." What do you do when you're trying, as LeGuin did, to portray someone with no gender? Well, sometimes she alternates as above, to confound our expectations. When she wants it not to stick out, however, she picks one.

Kyle talked about using "zee" for non-gendered pronouns. One of the hazards of trying to find a new pronoun is to retain the sense of specificity while gaining a sense of neutrality. The pronoun system is notoriously resistant to change (that is, when it comes to keeping readers with you). Cheryl mentioned Melissa Scott's "Shadow Man" which uses five genders - now there's a challenge, but clearly it can be done well!

Of course, the most common solution to the problem of gender neutrality is to use the plural pronoun "they." This has become extremely common, though I wouldn't say it's become part of accepted grammar. Kay and I both remarked that language doesn't tend to create a lot of "new stuff" - it has accepted regions and methods of creating new words, but doesn't do much to change the core elements (like pronouns). Kyle and Harry mentioned how German concatenates nouns to create new vocabulary, and in fact languages do a lot of borrowing words back and forth to create new concepts. As you may know, German has masculine, feminine, and neuter articles associated with nouns of each category.

I mentioned that the lack of gendered nouns in English (English is unusual in this regard compared to most of its direct relatives). Apparently there was an early confluence between English and Old Norse, which didn't have gendered nouns, and it was at that historical point that English lost its own use of gendered nouns. Finnish uses no gendered pronouns at all, but languages that do assign gender are extremely common. We speculated that this might have originated (back in the mists of time) from the human tendency to anthropomorphize things. However, there have been salient examples of flexibility, or at least unusual usage. When women came to power in the age of the Pharaohs, they were referred to as kings, not queens.

Though we've worked very hard to start using words that are gender neutral (congresswoman -> representative, steward/stewardess -> flight attendant), gender still has enormous influence on language and thought. I once read a study where young French- and Spanish-speaking children were asked to create cartoon characters out of objects. Without fail, they chose to assign genders to the characters that corresponded to the genders of the nouns in their language. I once also linked here to a great NPR article which talked about the influence of gender on language - it turns out that people tend to associate adjectives to nouns according to their gender. For example, people speaking languages in which the word "bridge" is masculine will talk about bridges as heavy, tall or strong while people speaking languages in which "bridge" is feminine will talk about bridges as light and graceful. The gender of the noun influences the perception of the genderless object.

Kay mentioned that colonialism can force a language on people - such as Spanish in the Phillippines, and that this can change the use/perception of gender. Cheryl mentioned the French invasion of England, which brought in a lot of new words, but didn't re-gender-ize the nouns (excuse my creative grammar, Cheryl!). It is very hard to eradicate a language, unless you eradicate all the people who are using it (which can be done, sadly). Kyle mentioned that after the French invasion of England, French was used as the language of the court - and the courts! - so that it wasn't until the reign of Edward II that English was reinstated in the courts so the accused could understand what was going on. Latin was maintained as the language of the Church for hundreds of years. Other languages have gone underground, such as Gaelic, Korean during WWII under Japanese occupation, or Bulgarian during the Ottoman invasion (thanks for adding that one, Harry!).

Some languages have different dialects in which gender is assigned differently. Kyle mentioned different dialects of ancient Greek. Dialects emerge over time as language use is isolated in an area, and all kinds of changes can potentially emerge.

We returned to the question of gender by talking about Japanese women's language. Though women in Japan don't use "their own language," the style in which they speak is very distinct from the style in which men typically speak. My husband, who learned for years from female teachers, was once told by a friend that he had to "stop talking like a girl." Women tend to speak more formally using honorifics, verb endings, choices of more formal vocabulary, and using different emotive particles on the ends of sentences (these indicate if you're exclaiming, questioning, etc.).

There are also gendered variations of English usage, as Kyle mentioned (this isn't just for languages in faraway lands!). Generally in English the use of qualifiers and indirect approaches is considered more female, and the use of more direct approaches is considered male. There is also a female style many of you may recognize in which statements are delivered with the intonation of questions (i.e. going up at the end). There are internet metrics available now which claim to be able to tell whether a writer is male or female, but Cheryl told us those tend to pick her academic writing as 90% male, and her fiction as 90% female, so there's obviously something else going on besides gender!

Finally we attacked the question of what this all means for worldbuilding. Gender has a deep influence on any people's unconscious view of the world and on the way they speak - so it should do the same for the worlds you create. Harry suggested people could use a special Bulgarian style of insult, where someone will use the wrong gender for a person, and then when they get called on it, deflect by claiming that they were talking about a gendered object nearby. (I'd never heard of that one, and we all loved it!) If you're working with aliens, you can consider animal gender behaviors and assign language use based on them. Avian aliens might have variations in plumage and singing style based on gender. It's always fun to challenge or change gender expectations. A seahorse alien would probably assign male gender to a pregnant human (and misunderstanding and/or hijinks might ensue!).

It's important also to keep in mind that gender is not simple or exclusively bimodal, even in our own world. Some harrier hawks are born with female plumage and engage in female behaviors. Gender is all over our DNA, and resides as much in our brains as it does in our bodies, physically. It is also surrounded by elaborate patterns of cultural behavior, and the two intertwine.

I mentioned that I have a friend in the Netherlands who does speech therapy, and during one of our visits she told us she had a transgendered client who was getting her help to learn how to speak in a feminine way. That if nothing else should tell us that gender has an enormous influence on language use, and that this influence is cultural rather than physical. Cheryl recommended an interesting link about how to speak androgynously.

This is a never-ending topic, but that was where our discussion closed. Today at 11am we'll be talking about colonialism and imperialism, so I hope you'll join us!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Back to Worldbuilding Hangouts!

Well, I'm back from my trip and I'm going to be resuming worldbuilding hangouts this week. This Wednesday we'll be talking about Imperialism and Colonialism. The hangout will take place at 11am PDT on Google Plus. I hope to see you there!

Cultural views of "attractiveness" change

I ran across a couple of cool links today I thought I'd share. One is this link, which shows old weight gain ads - I mean, after all, you wouldn't want to be too skinny or you wouldn't get any dates! Another great one is this one, from Jamie Todd Rubin, discussing the ads that appear in the 1940's Astounding magazines. Not only weight but tobacco and many other things were seen differently, and it's very evident in the advertisements he shares. Check it out!

TTYU Retro: How and where to begin a story

How and where to begin a story is always - always - a hard question. I have gone back and changed the beginning for nearly every story I've written. In some cases, I have changed the beginning multiple times over the course of revision. It's enough to make one go batty!

The fact is, while there is no absolute rule, a story generally should begin with:
  • the main conflict, or some event that is a direct tributary of the main conflict
  • the main character
This may sound simple, but there's more to it than that.

I put the main conflict first because the main conflict is what drives the story forward, and sometimes the main conflict does not start in the same place that the main character does. Often in works where a murder mystery occurs and where the antagonist is mysterious, the book will start with a segment from the antagonist's point of view. This establishes the stakes, i.e. why exactly it is that a reader should care about what the main character is going to try to accomplish. Thus, when we get to the point where we're seeing the main character - likely doing something far more innocuous - we already get a sense of danger, anticipation, and most importantly, curiosity about what happens next. When, as in Janice Hardy's The Shifter, the character has a secret and her safety depends on nobody finding out about it, it makes perfect sense for the story to begin with a scene that results in this secret being discovered. That's what I would call a tributary scene, where the scene has its own natural stakes and drive, but delivers us into a place where the main conflict has clearly begun. For my current work in progress, the opening scene is one that shows the main character in a situation where it is important for him to pay attention to how he and his reputation are perceived by others, and then shows him being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns into a place of extreme danger, not because of the antagonist, but because of a contagious disease and the fear that the disease causes in people around him. The disease then becomes a driver that leads to a second major change, the death of the Eminence, that propels the story toward its conclusion.

I'll return in a second to the issue of "being driven step by step off his comfortable ordinary concerns," but before I do that I want to address the question of backstory.

I often feel like choosing an opening scene for a story is like trying to create a see-saw. You have a big piece of story (it might even be your protagonist's whole life!) and you have to balance it on that opening scene. The part that chronologically precedes the opening scene is the backstory; the part that follows is the story. My rule of thumb is this:

Any piece of backstory that contributes directly to the identity of the protagonist, his/her culture, his/her self-awareness, and his/her basis for decision making can be portrayed indirectly through the protagonist's actions, and thus need not be included in the main story.

You may have noticed that I've arrived at "the main character" here.

Point of view is my ultimate ally in this. I think about it in the following terms: we judge our experiences and choose our actions on the basis of our personality and experience; thus, aspects of personality and experience can be included at points where our protagonist judges events, and chooses to act.

Here's an example from For Love, For Power of me doing the backstory thing with character judgment. Tagret (my main character) is going to a concert in the ballroom and one of his friends tells him that a new Cabinet member will be announced at the event, and that it might be Tagret's father. Here's how Tagret responds:

"It wouldn't matter," Tagret said. "My father wouldn't risk coming all the way back across the continent just for a Cabinet seat. He's too happy ruling Selimna where nobody can reach him." No Father meant none of Father's nasty surprises, and it would be preferable to keep him there, except that his last and worst surprise had been taking Mother with him.

The fact that Tagret's parents have been gone in a place so far that they can't come back to visit, that he hates his father and loves his mother, and that his father is important enough to consider a Cabinet seat not worth his while - all of these are important pieces of information for understanding the story as it continues. They are relevant here not because Tagret stops out of his ordinary concerns to muse on them, but because he's using them as a basis for his evaluation of the ongoing talk, and his response.

The fact is that an opening scene is strongest when it's a point of convergence. It shows conflict, it shows character, and it shows world (you didn't think I'd forget world, did you?) all at once in an active and engaged way. At the beginning of the story, a reader needs to be grounded in all three.

Grounding is absolutely critical in an opening scene. This is the word I give to basic reader orientation. The reader needs to be oriented - in some way - to the who, what, and where of the story. These elements can be presented in different sorts of balance, as when our protagonist is feeling disoriented and not knowing where he/she is, but they are very important. Imagine the main character as a runner, and you're about to be tied to that runner with a rope so you can follow along at (possibly breakneck) speed for the entire story. If you are going to be able to do this, you have to have your feet on the ground. Otherwise the runner will end up dragging you, spinning and yelling, until you manage to untie yourself and get away.

This is why starting in the middle of extreme action is not a good idea. Everett Maroon had a good post on this issue, here. In your opening scene, your main character should be doing something that requires him/her to indicate to readers who he/she is and what his/her normal concerns are. Until "normal" is established, the abnormal will have no meaning. Even if your character is disoriented, he/she can still try to make sense of what is going on around him/her in terms of what would be normal under ordinary circumstances.

Similarly, starting with simple introspection or gazing out at views is not a good idea either. It's not just that you've omitted the conflict. It's also that you've shackled yourself in terms of backstory and world. It's not only that people don't sit down and contemplate the basic normal conditions of their lives for no reason. It's that backstory and world belong in the background, and if there is nothing going on, they will necessarily take the front seat. By starting with your main character in a situation of conflict that leads directly to the main conflict of the story, you do several things:
  1. You give your main character an opportunity to introduce him/herself through action and judgment
  2. You give your main character the opportunity to introduce his/her world through action and judgment
  3. You orient readers and establish where the story will be going next
  4. You place the drive (the hook!) of the story front and center so readers can catch hold
As you consider where to place your opening scene, think of the two basic criteria of main conflict and main character - but if it's not obvious where that scene needs to happen, think through the more detailed questions. Ask yourself:
  • in what context could the main character best demonstrate his/her core motivations, possibly through indirect reference to backstory?
  • in what location the main character could best portray the conditions of his/her world that have the greatest bearing on the story as it goes forward?
  • in what situation would the significance of the main conflict to this character become most evident?
Once you've arrived at an answer, don't figure it's the answer. Be aware that it's perfectly okay to start in the wrong place - if I didn't realize that, I would never finish anything. In the first draft, the most important thing is to find a point of entry where the story starts telling itself to you. Then you can go back later and refine the placement of that scene so it does the most for the story as a whole. After all, sometimes you don't know where the story is going until you've finished it. And since a major point of an opening scene is to show, or foreshadow, where the story is going, you'll be able to place it a lot better if you actually know where the story is going!

Dive in and go for it. These are just a few things for you to think about as you prepare to do so.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Secondary characters can add dimension and tension

Sometimes I come into a scene that I've really been looking forward to, and then I discover that it's not really popping the way I want it to. This happened to me the other day with a scene where my protagonist, Tagret, is reunited with his best friend Reyn after they've both been deathly ill. Honestly, I really had been looking forward to the scene - in part because I wondered what would come out of it, whether they would be closer as a result of their ordeal, or further apart. But when I got there and started writing it, it started feeling like some generic scene of reunion.

Generic is not allowed in my book.

It was at that point that I realized I hadn't been thinking through the surrounding context enough. By that I mean that it's always valuable to consider not only the situation at hand (in this case the reunion), but what surrounds it. It can sometimes be easy to think only about our point-of-view protagonist, and not so much of the others he or she interacts with. In my case, I hadn't really thought through how Reyn would be feeling, and what role would be played by the fact that a mutual friend of theirs contracted the same illness and died of it.

So I came up with two ideas that completely change the feel of the conversation:

1. Reyn lives without either of his parents (he's held back by law from accompanying them where they are working now), and has realized that he doesn't want to die without seeing them again. He has decided that as soon as the law allows, he will move to their city to live with them. This changes the conversation significantly, because instead of "wow, we're together again and we're both alive" all of a sudden it was "wow, we're both alive but you should know I'm going to skip town as soon as I can." The tension level is going to go way up as a result of this, and tension is generally good for story drive.

2. Reyn isn't just going to be thinking he needs to leave town, but he's going to be telling Tagret (as opposed to thinking it but not telling him) in part because he's feeling survivor guilt. He feels terrible that their mutual friend has died and isn't sure that he deserves to be alive and part of this friendship when their friend cannot be. This gives him an added layer of motivation, and gives the conversation somewhere far more interesting to go when Tagret gets upset about Reyn's declarations that he wants to leave.

Lucky for me, this also fits beautifully with the next piece of the chapter where they'll be interacting with the one friend of theirs who was untouched by the disease - I now have a lot of great ideas about both Reyn and Tagret, their psychological states and how they'll feel about seeing their friend who got lucky and didn't have to suffer.

What does this mean for you?

Well, it means that if you find yourself entering a piece of interaction between characters, and it doesn't seem to have as much punch as it could, try reversing your point of view for a while. See if the non-POV character doesn't have something really interesting on his or her mind that could take the whole interaction in a different, more fruitful direction. Not only will it help to raise tension locally, but if you take it seriously (i.e. don't just stick it in for one scene and then forget about it later), it can make your secondary character much more three-dimensional and interesting. It will also combat that feeling that readers sometimes get, that they are listening to a conversation that is "getting stuff done" for the author but not really progressing with natural realism.

This change that I am making is not going to change any major plot points, but it will change the whole feel of the story going forward, and make Tagret's motivations far more interesting and subtle as he heads into the rest of the "stuff he has to do." So as you work, don't just make the conversation go the way it has to to get the plot from point A to point B. Think of the hidden context, and do more.

It's something to think about.