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Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapter transitions and story drive

What is it that creates the sensation of story drive?

There is no one single thing that does, of course (no surprise). A character with goals, a sense of danger, making sure not to include any irrelevant description (or any description that doesn't fit with the mental state of a protagonist in a dangerous hurry). But that generally is what happens within the narrative, as you're reading along through a chapter.

How do you sustain story drive over a chapter break?

Point 1: A cliffhanger ending alone is not sufficient.
Cliffhangers come in different forms. Someone can be literally hanging from a cliff, can make a dangerous discovery, etc. Anything that makes a reader go "Aigh, what happens next?" Just make sure not to keep the answer hidden. Pick it up in the very next sentence if possible. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to be left demanding the answer to something and then either have the answer appear in backstory to the next chapter so you never see it, or have the next chapter not address the question at all. It doesn't have to answer the question directly, necessarily, but please don't make me ask that question and then hide the answer outside the narrative. "Aigh" quickly turns into "Argh!"

Point 2: A continuous timeline is helpful for drive, but not necessary.
I really really like switching chapters inside of a critical moment. One chapter ends one second, and the very next second, the next one starts. For example, I have one direct handoff (this is my nickname for them) where Tagret's father takes him into a room and Tagret discovers that his father has been interviewing the servant Aloran. This is a real shock for Tagret because it's a move that will really upset his mother, and he's been fearing that his father is hiding something from his mother. The instant he makes the discovery, I switch chapters and begin with Aloran going, "Oh, no, it's Tagret!" We already know what the stakes are for Tagret, and it's less obvious how Tagret walking in is bad news for Aloran...but it is, and switching to his point of view allows me to show that, and then have Aloran take the narrative in a different direction immediately thereafter.

When you are using a continuous timeline, even if you aren't using a direct handoff, your readers don't have to do the work of re-orienting themselves every time they start a new chapter. This is work that will pull them off the drive of the story conflict, so if you want high drive, try to reduce the amount of orientation work they have to do at the beginning of any chapter.

Point 3: Even without a cliffhanger, and even without a continuous timeline, you can create a sense of direct continuity between chapters.

The way I recommend doing this is to look for cohesion elements. These are things that readers will recognize because they have seen them in the previous section of narrative, and they then show up in the next. Cohesion elements are very flexible. For example, you could have an object in the first piece and then have it appear in the second piece: I'm imagining a scene where a criminal encounters a hand mirror at a crime scene, and then in the next section you have the detective picking up the mirror to examine it as evidence. (I'm sure you've seen this done on TV also!) It doesn't have to be an object though. It can be a topic of conversation picked up by the protagonists. Or it can be a location. A location can be mentioned in conversation in the previous chapter and then you can show up there in the next one. It can be an activity that appears on either side of the divide (with or without different people engaging in it), or a theme.

Point 4: If you have no obvious cohesion elements, you're placing a big demand on your readers. You're saying to them, "Trust me, this is relevant." And in fact they'll probably go with you up to a certain point... but they will be actively searching for cohesion elements. I've been reading this lovely book - Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox - and he achieves a very dreamy sense of the entire story by not connecting all the pieces directly, but by making sure to drop cohesion elements when you're looking for them (sometimes two or three paragraphs into the scene, and you'll have this "Aha!" moment). It's very effective, but it's also risky and I could imagine some readers feeling confused at different points.

When you're working on a novel, keep your eye out for these cohesion elements. Try to use them consciously to bind the story together and keep up a sense of drive. Be aware that tiny things can make the difference between your readers taking a running step between chapters, taking a slow step, taking a long floating leap, or floating right off the page and out of your book for good.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Me, and book reviews

This weekend at World Fantasy Convention I was asked several times if I do book reviews. The short answer is that I don't. However, I did encounter a couple of people who were interested in getting my opinion about specific aspects of their books...and that I feel is within my purview. TalkToYoUniverse is all about language and culture and writing, and those of you who have been following me for a while know that I get pretty analytical sometimes. So if you're interested in having me look at your book and analyze a small piece of it to look at worldbuilding or point of view or cultural representations etc. I'm willing to consider it. It will be something of a different angle on the book than you'd see in a general review, and more congruent with my theme.

In this vein, then, I'm going to be doing a piece in the next week or two about a new book that's coming out called The Fallen Queen by Jane Kindred. Lucky me, I was given it in Advance Reader Copy by an agent at the convention, and it's a lot of fun! I'm also hoping to see another ARC from someone I met... this could be really cool and interesting.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wish me well at World Fantasy!

I'm headed off to World Fantasy Convention tomorrow morning, early. I'm really looking forward to it. For those of you who are less familiar with it, World Fantasy Convention is a wonderful convention that is more focused on industry professionals - authors, editors, and agents - than fans. If you're in a position where you're breaking into writing, it's wonderful. There's a whole lot to learn, a lot of really wonderful people, and a lot of fantastic intelligent conversations going on.

And if it so happens that you're already going, keep an eye out for me!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Magic Systems 11am PDT today on Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout

Today, Wednesday, October 26 at 11am PDT

I'll be holding a worldbuilding hangout on the topic of Magic Systems! This should be a really wonderful one because I have opinions about magic! Now you will all laugh, because I have opinions on everything. But there are a lot of great magic systems out there, and a lot of not so great ones, and then some that you may be designing yourselves. I think we're going to have a really awesome discussion. Come and join us!

Here's how to get there: go to Google+ (you need an account, but it's not hard to get one). Look up my profile, Juliette Wade. At the time the hangout is going on, that should be the top entry on my stream, so click "join" and there you go.

Manners: a Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report

My visitors for this hangout were Kyle Aisteach, Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Harry Markov. It was good to see Dale back after not seeing him for a while! Glenda had a few audio difficulties, so she doesn't appear as often as the others in this report - sorry, Glenda!

We talked about manners. What do you think when you think of manners? I asked. Kyle thought of "A comedy of manners," while Dale thought of choices you make about how to moderate interaction, and Glenda talked about greasing interaction. All of them are correct.

When I start into the topic of manners, which is one of my favorites, one of the big issues I face is that many people think just of fancy manners when you say "manners." Manners is a much bigger deal than that, for two reasons:
  1. People don't ever not have manners
  2. Manners are managed subconsciously
You might argue that you're very aware of manners and what you should do, and you'd be right. People are very aware of what they should do. Researchers have found that if you ask someone what they say in a particular social situation, people will tell them what they feel they should say, not what they actually say when bugged with a microphone.

Manners in your story are more than just having one prim and proper character.

We then tackled the topic by discussing two aspects of manners language that I had studied:
phatic talk (the talk whose content and meaning has less importance than the social fact that stuff is being said) and Speech Acts, which are contexts where you are "doing" something by saying it (requests, refusals, marrying two people, etc.)

Any time you perform a speech act, you are potentially insulting someone or "threatening their face." Not literally, of course - you're not likely to damage someone's visage with a refusal. However, if you think of "face" in terms of your social image, like "saving face," you'll see what I mean. There are lots of ways that people use to mitigate this possibility. If I add some nice pretty words it will make the threat softer, and protect me from this person who could potentially be very upset.

Kyle told us a very interesting story about how difficult it was for people to get women's accounts of the Titanic disaster, because it was considered rude to ask a lady about anything upsetting that had happened to her in the past. Apparently some people's stories were lost forever because whenever they were asked about it, they would get all affronted!

We asked, "How can you approach somebody? What is appropriate?" Sometimes there is a socially licensed way to approach a person. Sometimes it's easy, as when you are friends. Sometimes you can't approach that person at all, and have to use elaborate work-arounds.

Dale asked me what I meant by "elaborate work-arounds." The most common everyday example I could think of is when a girl who is not a member of a particular social clique likes a boy who is a clique member, and asks an intermediary to approach him - or even asks an intermediary to approach another clique member, who can then approach him on her behalf.

Kyle mentioned that when you see a celebrity out eating dinner, it's inappropriate to interrupt their dinner and ask for an autograph. This leads to people standing by doors, lying in wait outside the bathroom, etc. hoping that the celebrity will stray across their path in one of these socially autograph-licensed areas.

I gave an example from my current novel in progress of a servant who faces social pitfalls when trying to return to his lady the key to her diary, which has been stolen. The servant can't go to the thief and demand the key back because the thief is a more senior servant than he is. In addition, he can't take the key to his lady himself because he'd risk having her think that he had been trespassing into her private thoughts without permission (and he hasn't yet won her trust). In the end he enlists the help of the lady's son, who as a nobleman is of higher rank than the thieving servant, and who as the lady's son is someone she trusts. In the end she and her son both admire him more for his discretion. And that's one of the critical things that manners can do for you.

In this context, Kyle mentioned N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as a great example of a story that handles subtle and complex social rules. That's one I'm going to have to seek out!

I mentioned the situation in Japan, where it's uncommon for you to meet anyone as a casual street acquaintance, and much more likely for you to be introduced to someone through correct connections. This situation makes a lot of sense if the language requires you to use different manners depending on the person's relative rank to you. How are you going to guess the rank of a person on the street if you haven't been introduced?

Kyle told the story of Saint Bernadette, who was a peasant in France who met the Virgin Mary. Apparently she knew she was in the presence of a deity because Mary addressed her in the formal "vous" form, and nobody in her life had ever addressed her in the formal!

We briefly discussed the idea of formal and informal pronouns (tu and vous in French), which is common to the Romance languages. Formerly, these pronouns used to be used as reflections of power relationships, where vous referred to someone of high rank and tu to someone of lower. However, this usage has changed over time, and now it's much more common for people to say vous for people they don't know, and tu for people they know, turning it from a power measure into a solidarity measure. According to Kyle, this is at least in part deliberate, as an attempt to move away from old definitions of social class.

At that point I had a chance to introduce another really useful academic concept about politeness: the difference between Positive Politeness and Negative Politeness. The adjectives used here are not the most useful in reflecting how this works, but because it can be really helpful in developing social interactions, I'll explain.

Negative Politeness is the one we most often think of. This is the kind of politeness which involves saying fancy things in order to make sure another person knows we didn't intend to step on them in any way. The core idea here is that the person "doing" negative politeness is emphasizing how willing they are to protect the other person's autonomy, and their right to do things unhindered.

Positive Politeness is the opposite in that it involves getting closer to a person, rather than moving farther away. Autonomy is not the idea here; alignment is. This is the kind of politeness which involves approaching someone and saying something to make sure they know we're on their side. The things we say can seem impolite, especially when looked at from the perspective of negative politeness which relies on autonomy.

Different people, and different subcultures use these two different styles. I have friends who expect negative politeness from me, and others who expect positive politeness. I have helped friends through situations where someone tried to use positive politeness with a person who expected negative, and inadvertently offended them by crossing their personal social boundaries.

At this point, Harry joined us, and we engaged in some greetings and other social smoothing!

As we move through our lives, we are constantly called upon to take social stances - to act like we're members of this social group or that, to approach someone in a humble or a friendly or an authoritative way. I find it really interesting how I have to change my voice and my mode of expression when I go from chit-chatting with my kids and their carpool friend in the car to telling them they've crossed the line and they need to settle down or I won't be able to drive!

Manners are everywhere. They're in your stories, too. Just take an example of an interaction from a story that you're writing and take a closer look. Play it out. Look at what is at stake socially.

Dale mentioned a context in which someone in a position of service, i.e. someone who was socially obliged to carry out another person's orders, was asked to "promise" to do something. Promising is a prime example of a speech act, but unexpected in this context because carrying out an order is something that should be so normal it's unnoticeable here. To ask someone who serves you for a promise, you'd need to be asking them for something that is well outside the boundaries of their normal service.

How many stories do you know about oathbreakers?
Harry mentioned the unbreakable oath taken by Snape in the Harry Potter books.

Dale gave a rather fascinating example of manners in a workplace culture, where if someone suggested you take on a job or a function, you were essentially forbidden to refuse. However, you were not necessarily expected to succeed in carrying out the job or function. You were only obliged to take it on.

I mentioned an example that my husband shared with me: if you receive an invitation from the Queen of England, you can't refuse it. If for some reason (illness or disaster) you can't attend the event she has invited you to, you gratefully accept her invitation, and then say, "unfortunately, I won't be able to make it..."

Manners are everywhere. They are in social restrictions on behavior, approaches, and speech. They are in group membership behaviors. They are in ceremonies and rituals. I encourage you to think about all of these things as you write. It's very easy to fall into a kind of theoretical stance when writing, to think about your world from the standpoint of the author and say, "I have these social groups and this gamepiece is blue, this gamepiece is red, this gamepiece is yellow..." Take it further. Look closely at how the different groups are expected to interact, and what manners they need to follow in different situations.

My Varin world has special greetings that people use to express respect for the people who are of higher caste rank, and the group asked me to explain some details of the world. Essentially, each group has a different job function (officers, public/private servants, laborers, knowledge workers, etc) and each group is proud in its identity and the way in which it keeps life in Varin running. "We've got the real power here, no matter what anyone else thinks; Varin wouldn't survive without us" is the general attitude. The greetings thus reflect the perceived core value held by each caste.
To greet a merchant: "May riches spring from your footsteps."
To greet a laborer: "Fearless labor is the foundation of prosperity."
To greet a knowledge worker: "The focused mind is the sustainer of life."
To greet a knowledge worker who graduated from the University: "May you take your place in the Record of Great Masters."
To greet a public servant: "May your honorable service earn its just reward."
To greet a soldier/officer: "The heart that is valiant triumphs over all."
There are no special greetings for the nobility, to whom caste is more or less invisible, or for the undercaste, because nobody is low enough to owe them a polite greeting. I decided on these greetings very early on in my world design, but they made a great basis for later refinement of the intercaste interactions. If you can start your manners on a basic level, you can move on from there and increase subtlety as you go.

Thank you to everyone who came for the discussion. We decided that today's discussion would be about Magic Systems. We'll be meeting at 11am PDT today on Google+, so I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

TTYU Retro: Similes, Cliché, and Added Information

Here's a hilarious post from Nicola Morgan about similes. If you aren't sure what a simile is, it's that thing you do where you say something is like something else. "He moved like a cat." "Her eyes were like sapphires." You've seen them before; they're everywhere, and a lot of them are clichéd.

So how do you avoid clichés and keep your similes under control? Nicola Morgan suggests that the simile must add meaning to the writing in order to be worthwhile, and points out that the entire content and connotation of the simile will be added (so be careful).

Question: what does that mean? What kind of meaning does a simile add?
My answer: two kinds.

First, a simile provides a comparison of a story event, character or object, with something else. As it does so, it lends all the qualities of that something else to the object (etc.) it describes. Here's an example, from my story "Smoke and Feathers":

...water reaches out over Ryuuji like a hand of glass.

What's happening here is that a boy, Ryuuji, is having water poured over him from a bucket. However, the effect of the water is far more than him getting wet. (I'll save that for those who read the story.) The simile compares the water to a hand reaching out, which gives the impression that the water could either grip Ryuuji, or maybe even cast a spell on him - things that hands, not water, can do. Thus when strange things start to happen afterward, we've already had a warning of it in the form of this simile.

Depending on the kind of word we choose to compare, the simile can bring along more connotations or evoke a more complete scene to go along with the thing that's being described. This is all included in the first kind of information that a simile imparts, through drawing a comparison.

The second kind of information that a simile can give us is character (and world) information. By this I mean, not comparing a character to something using a simile, but having the comparison itself reflect upon the person making it. If you are using point of view in your narrative, any simile you use will suggest things about the kind of person who would draw such a comparison. Here's an example that Nicola Morgan provided as being a bad example of a simile:
His words paralysed me. I was like a deer that's been transfixed by an arrow, right in its spine, so that it was alive but could not move. [The first sentence says it all. The simile simply adds some wholly unhelpful and, frankly, bizarre, extra images. We learn nothing extra and yet are bombarded with extraneous images of a dying Bambi.]
She says that the first sentence says all it needs to and we don't learn anything extra. I'm not sure about that, though - I personally think the simile suggests something unexpected and (perhaps) unwanted about the character making it. The original writer probably didn't have it in mind to suggest that this POV character was sadistic, or obsessed with death, or anything of that nature. Yet somehow they did. There's added information here, certainly, but information which can only confuse readers about the point of view character.

The information that similes (and metaphors) give us about the point of view character is in fact extremely valuable, and I highly recommend you take advantage in it as you write. Think about what kinds of comparisons your character would make, and why. The comparisons they make will show readers how they judge a situation, and will reflect on their sense of themselves and their own world. Similes give us an enormous opportunity to add dimension and life to our stories.

It's something to think about.

Worldbuilding Hangout on Google+ Tomorrow

Here's another announcement for tomorrow's worldbuilding hangout on Google+. We're going to meet at 11am PDT to discuss magic systems. All you need to do is go to Google+ and look up my profile (Juliette Wade) and the hangout should come out right at the top. Remember, you don't need to have a working camera or microphone to participate, and you don't need to be exactly on time. We'll fold you in by whatever means, even if it's by IM chat. These discussions are really thought-provoking and inspiring, I find - they're a great opportunity for us to share ideas. I hope to see you there!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The "audacity of writers" - use it to the fullest!

If you are a writer, you are brave.

Other people may not see you that way, but believe me, it's true. If you're writing, that means you believe you have something worth saying. That world in your head - the one you always seem to be drifting off to - is something you believe in so strongly that you want other people to be able to see it too. Whether you have a moral message or not, you have a vision that cries out to be shared. By writing it, you are being brave. And by insisting on writing it even if others around you don't approve, you are being even braver.

You should be brave this way. Feel the writer's fire inside you and let it burn!

This audacity goes further, too. Every time you challenge yourself to learn more, to push your craft further than you have before, you are using it. Every time you try to write something unlike anything you've written before, and every time you think, "boy, this will be hard to write, but if I can get it right, it will be SO COOL!" you are being brave. Be brave. Push further every time. Write about the things that scare you. Write about the things that make you feel so strongly that you laugh or cry, or want to scream. By writing these things you dare to know yourself.

It also takes bravery to write about those things that other people are afraid to discuss. Painful things. Discrimination. Abuses of power. Even taboos. You don't need to fly them like a flag, but even if you get close enough to look at them straight - or from more than one angle - that takes a bravery worth seeking.

There's a further form of bravery in looking for feedback from others. We write for an audience beyond ourselves, but often we don't meet that audience. Seeking critique is like stepping out onto the stage, waiting for the crowd to cheer or catcall, heckle, or all of the above. Taking criticism and using it to make yourself and your writing stronger takes a special form of bravery.

You should be brave in this way. Be a writer, be confident and proud, and be ready to listen!

If you've ever submitted a story anywhere, you are brave. Congratulations to you, because you went out on that limb. You reached out to an editor. You entered the realm of the publishers, which can (when you're alone in your room, in your own world) seem strange, foreign and daunting. But in fact you've started a conversation, even if you don't at first hear the personal words of the ones you're talking to.

If you've ever been rejected, and then submitted the story again somewhere else - revised or not - then you are brave. You decided that the blow wasn't going to get you down. You kept to your path and continued on.

Every step on this path requires bravery. There are more steps - some might say infinitely more. But I congratulate all writers who read this on their brilliant audacity, and encourage them never to feel like they have no strength of spirit. The more writers I meet, the more I am impressed by their ideas, their determination, and their courage.

Now, go forth and be audacious!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Link: Why computer voices are mostly female

Here's another interesting story. Why are computer voices mostly female? The reasons are cultural and various, and the article includes very interesting examples. Check it out!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Link: Land bridge theory of American settlement "speared"

I thought this was a very interesting article. A mastodon bone with a weapon point embedded in it has been dated to a time long before the Clovis hunters came across the Bering strait into north America. So how did people first get here? It's a mystery...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rediscovering the novel that was my "baby"

So I have this trilogy I wrote. (Maybe you have one like it, or something similar sitting in your files somewhere.) I always loved it. It was my first "novel," my baby, very close to my heart in that dangerous way that means it will take you forever before you really understand it. Maybe "baby" really is the right word.

It has a lot of growing up to do, but I've never stopped loving it. The world - Varin - was the one part I was sure of, because it came into a mature form on the basis of my studies. That was the one thing I was an expert in at the time that I wrote it. Varin sticks with me. The characters, as problematic as they were in their execution (even after three, four, five drafts!) never stopped sticking with me. I knew that I had their basic roles right, the basic contradictions and flaws in their personalities.

And when I mean they stuck with me, I don't just mean I remembered them. I mean that long after I'd left them alone, realizing that this still wasn't the novel it needed to be, I kept having ideas that refined their character, brought them closer to what they needed to be in order for the story to succeed.

I got a really wonderful opportunity to step back into that world and "get it right" with the short story I had published in Panverse Publishing's Eight Against Reality anthology ("The Eminence's Match," reviewed here by Margaret McGaffey Fisk). It was years since I'd put the novel down, but when I finally got that story right, I knew I had the ability to get the world and the characters to come together. The character in that story, Imbati Xinta, was the first character I'd really grasped with any degree of complexity when I was writing the novel initially, so it made sense that he was the first one I'd be able to "get right." At the same time I was getting glimpses into the character of Akrabitti Meetis, the girl who seems innocent but really is an incredible intellectual subversive.

Last year sometime I started back into Varin writing a novel, For Love, For Power. It was a novel I'd attempted before, after writing the trilogy, initially because I wanted to try to understand the nobility and their situation better (a great reason to start a story, but not sufficient for finishing it, as I learned at the time). It was better-planned than the original trilogy, and when I picked it back up, it started to take off. I'm 2/3 through right now and certain that it will finish in a way that far exceeds what I was ever able to accomplish earlier. It's also doing something fascinating that I didn't expect. By getting me deep into the backstory of some of the trilogy's major players, it's re-focusing my attention on the elements of the original trilogy in a new way. It's forcing me to engage deeply with details of Varin that I hadn't previously considered. How the streets are laid out, for example, and how people who have no power will work around all obstacles in order to accomplish things. What kind of motives are plausible for people to hold. How people earn their money, and what kind of position that puts them in as far as altering the difficulty of their situation.

A few days ago, the question of money-earning opened a door for me into the backstory and mindset of the third character from the trilogy, Akrabitti Corbinan. He was always the hardest, because he was the least like me. I figured out how he was brought up and why he ended up getting involved with gangs, and why his people's undercaste status was so dissatisfying. Hint: it's not because he wants to overthrow the government, which would be implausible for a person in his position. It's because he figures everybody deserves some cash, a place to live, and some respect...and nobody he knows gets all three.

Figuring this out put me in a strange position. Always before I'd known Corbinan was the revolutionary - you know, the one who wants to bring the whole system down and make things right for his people (it's a familiar trope). Suddenly he wasn't that any more. It was refreshing - so refreshing! - for him to be so much more realistic, but I wasn't sure how he was going to get done what he needed to get done any more. I couldn't see how to get him to begin the story I had always imagined. So suddenly everything and everyone was working better than ever before, but the story was implausible!

Today I was talking with the lovely and insightful Janice Hardy, and it came to me. It was like a shock, and I got goosebumps. Corbinan has to discover a hidden library. But he doesn't have to have revolutionary goals, and he doesn't even have to know it's a library in order to get there. Once he's there, he gets arrested and dragged before the Eminence of Varin and his servant, Imbati Xinta. The Eminence falsely accuses him of spying and working for a political rival, has him tortured and thrown in jail. But here's the best part - it is those very accusations that for the first time give Corbinan the idea that he can make a difference. It is the fact that he then gets thrown in prison that gives him time to think it all through, and make plans. An ordinary person with a degree of insight into his own people gets exposed to something unusual, and the results are unusual. That is something I can get behind.

Suddenly I'm starting to realize that none of the previously written text of this story will make it into the new draft. I'm going to have to outline it from scratch, because that new beginning is already starting to show me how entirely different the story will be this time. I don't want to see what I did before. I want its spirit to stay with me, as it always has - but I want to write it the way I now know how to write it.

I'm telling you this because even though I see mountains of work ahead of me, it feels like climbing Mount Everest, in the best possible way. So if you've ever been in this position before, or if you still are guarding a "baby" somewhere, you might have a chance to realize that it still has hope. It might not be a baby, but a caterpillar just waiting for its metamorphosis in order to fly.

I get the feeling mine will fly this time, and I can't wait to get started.

Lovely post about me at Deborah Ross's blog

My dear friend and awesome writer Deborah J. Ross wrote a thoughtful post about me following my article here called "It's good to be wrong - Or, why my characters use the scientific method." She adds some really interesting thoughts that I hadn't even consciously had when I was writing the article. I encourage you to go check it out, here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Culture Share: USA (NY) - A Walk to the Subway in Brooklyn, NY, USA

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Nicole Lisa discusses her home of Brooklyn, New York.

A Walk to the Subway in Brooklyn, NY, USA

by Nicole Lisa

The New York City of television and movies is cleaned up or dirtied down or filmed somewhere else entirely, and doesn't much look or feel like the city I know and live in. Walking to the subway—something I do almost every day—reminds me of all the things I love about living here.

Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York City, is known for its culturally diverse neighborhoods, like Chinatown in Sunset Park, or Italian Bensonhurst. But in some areas, diversity happens on a micro scale—by block, building or even inside each building.

Before I leave my apartment building, I say good bye to my husband in Spanish (actually “ciao,” borrowed from Italian by some South Americans), hear the video game sounds of Russian television programming at full blast and pass brass or plastic mezuzahs on doorframes (small rectangular cases with a Jewish prayer inside).

During the week, on my 15-minute walk to the subway I dodge groups of teenagers chattering loudly in English, get distracted by a mom urging her son to walk faster in Mexican Spanish (“Orále, hijo”) and glance at a group of men sitting on their heels against the stucco wall of a deli, speaking quietly in Tibetan.

On the weekend, on this same walk, when the sidewalks are full of women, I might be one of the few with her head not covered. Hasidic Jews, dressed in black with their elbows and knees covered by long sleeves and long skirts, cover their hair, either with perfectly styled wigs or snoods that gather their hair at the nape of their necks. They tow large families of kids identically clad in home-made clothes. South Asian women, some Muslim, some not, wear bright butterfly-colored salwar kameez (a tunic and loose trousers) that cover most everything, or saris, that may leave arms bare, but cover knees and chests. Their heads are draped casually with a dupatta (a long scarf), more carefully with a pinned hajib, or even more carefully with a black niqab (a head covering with a veil). Fewer children accompany them, maybe only one or two, dressed in a mix of Western and Asian clothing. On summer days, I often wonder what the women think of me, with my uncovered head and knees and tank top.

Off the main commercial street, the buildings change from small free-standing homes mixed with large brick apartment buildings to mansions built at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. They’re really in a motley of styles, from an English cottage covered in roses, to actual Victorian mansions with wide porches and colorful gingerbread moldings...

to a Swiss chalet–Japanese temple hybrid in green and orange.

Flocks of chickens strut in a few driveways and eye passersby suspiciously. Chickens are popular again in Brooklyn, and people raise them in their backyards or in community gardens. Twenty years ago, mostly recent immigrants, or transplants from rural areas, kept chickens. Now many people who’ve never seen a farm keep them (and bees, since the city just reversed the ordinance making beehives illegal).

In other parts of Brooklyn, the row houses seen on TV are the norm: two- or three-story buildings with facades of brown or white stone, connected all down the block by shared walls, with high stoops leading to the entrance on the parlor floor—the main living area of the house if it's a one-family, or one of several apartments if it’s been divided up. Nineteenth Century cast iron fences with pineapple or urn-like finials enclose the front yards and under-stairs entrances to the ground floors—nowadays the coveted garden apartment with access to the backyard. The iron has to be repainted every five years or so to prevent thick orange rust. And there are specialists who replace the stone facades if they’ve become too damaged by pollution or lack of upkeep.

On Sundays, there’s a greenmarket in front of the library on my way to the subway. Farmers from New York State and nearby New Jersey and Pennsylvania set up tents and sell their bread, dairy, produce, sometimes fish, beef or chicken, and local honey directly to customers. On a fall day, you’d see baguettes and pumpkin pies, pears and apples, winter squash, carrots and potatoes, fresh yogurt and milk (sometimes the illegal unpasteurized kind), and hot apple cider and cider doughnuts. The doughnuts come with or without granulated sugar sprinkled on top. Past the greenmarket is the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pick-up spot. If you join a CSA, you buy a share, or subscription, of produce for the growing season, and each week you pick up a box of whatever the farmer is growing and lug it home on foot.

Finally, I reach the subway. The whole system is old, dug or raised, and cobbled together over more than 100 years and it looks it: metal wheels squeal against metal tracks, the I-beams are exposed and often unpainted, nascent stalactites and stalagmites grow where mineral-heavy water drips through ceilings and walls year after year, and the big brown rats are bold enough to scamper across the platform while you stand there late at night. It’s dirty in a way that surprises Americans from other parts of the country and visitors from all over the world, but it takes us where we need to go (mostly), and makes New York City unique in the US, a place where a car is a liability, not a necessity.

My stop is outside, looking more like a suburban train station than a tourist's idea of the New York City subway. Sub means below or under, and my stop is below street level in a cut out, but it’s not under anything. Once, we had an out-of-town visitor decide he was lost when he got there. He returned to our apartment rather than risk getting on a strange train going who knows where. To make it more confusing, New Yorkers use “subway” and “train” kind of interchangeably. Subway is the system, but train is what you get on. Which isn’t that much of a problem, but we don’t always distinguish in speech between the subway (a purely intra-city system) and the trains on one of the five rail systems that will take you out of the city.

The suburban train feel is accentuated by the station house. In Manhattan, many subway entrances are simply stairs descending to toll stiles. But many, especially in the other boroughs, have actual station houses. This one, built in 1907 for the street-level, then-privately owned Brighton line (named for the beach/neighborhood of the same name at the last stop) hangs suspended above the tracks.

The other subway option in the neighborhood is this one’s opposite in every way; it’s an elevated train that runs three stories above the street on a wooden platform that feels like it’s been there since the original station opened in 1919 (although I don’t know if that’s true) and yet feels temporary too. The whole structure sways when trains pull in or grind away, and the whole world moves—a mini, localized earthquake. If you look down on the tracks, you can see bits of street, vertiginously. And if you drop your cell phone, fuhgeddaboutit (forget about it), as we really do say in Brooklyn. Maybe just not as often as in the movies.

Nicole Lisa is a Brooklynite by adoption. She writes YA and fantasy and is currently struggling with how to conduct research for her work in progress. She loves to geek out on language discussions, eat and travel. She has lived in Mexico, Nicaragua and several different states in the US and speaks Spanish and first generation Spanglish at home with her Chilean-born husband. She can be found at her blog Reading, Writing and the ‘Rhythmatic of Life and on twitter.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Morals & Values

We had a smaller group last week for our discussion of morals and values. I was joined by Jaleh Dragich and Glenda Pfeiffer.

Jaleh started our discussion by mentioning a multiplayer role-playing game featuring a team of people trying to stop an invasion of Earth - and hampered by the fact that all team members didn't share the same sense of morality. She specifically mentioned a Victorian English player who would get caught up over how little clothing her more modern character was wearing ("showing a scandalous amount of leg").

I thought this was a very perceptive place to start, because morals and values stand out most when they are put in a context of contrast - either between different members of a group, or between readers and characters. They are also a huge potential source of conflict (as they are in our real lives). Imagine a story where a priest and a pirate had to work together!

It's easier when working with fantasy or science fiction to set up groups with a huge contrast of moral value systems, but also important to remember that there is no such thing as a mono-culture. Even within groups who ostensibly possess the same morality, not everyone will agree. I thought immediately of sectarian disputes within religions, and all of the wars and terrible acts they have inspired - indeed, these have also inspired world-changing acts like the departure of the pilgrims for the Americas.

The second question we discussed was where morals and values come from. A society can have laws, but those are generally a later development that follows on a preexisting set of societal values and traditions, which may or may not be religious (indeed, it's hard to separate societal values and religious values).

So how do you go about creating morals and values in a world you are designing?

Glenda suggested that we consider that there were often practical purposes at the root of certain behavioral prohibitions (or other guidelines), and that these may fossilize while the world around the people continues to change. So in creating a world it's useful to consider what the initial conditions of environment and food production were, for example. "Be fruitful and multiply" is a pretty good admonition for farmers who need more laborers to help them bring in the harvest, and would probably also work well (but for different reasons) for hunter/gatherers in a position where child mortality might be high. Once we hit the post-industrial age, however, having a lot of children becomes less clearly beneficial and more problematic.

Leaders, and elite groups, can also have a large effect on societal values. Jaleh mentioned the influence of charismatic leaders whose beliefs can influence the larger society. There can also be aspirational values established by small groups, which make other people want to emulate them, but may be impractical for people who are not members of the elite themselves (I think here of certain types of conspicuous consumption in our world). Glenda gave a good example of the value of pale skin, which started out as a sign of wealth when people who had to work spent a lot more time outside - but which, now that industrial laborers work indoors, has changed to valuing tanning as a sign of wealth and leisure.

One question you might want to ask yourself is this: how do you define a good person, a good member of society? That definition will change depending on the social subgroup you ask. Each group will have specific ideas of the way a person "should be" in order to contribute in an ideal way.

Glenda mentioned manners here. The question of manners had already come up in passing once before, but they can be seen as critical indicators of whether one is a "good person." Using the wrong set of manners, and being "rude," can easily turn into a serious moral condemnation. We'll talk more about this in today's discussion (so come and visit!).

Outsiders coming in to join a group can give conflicting signals because they are not accustomed to the behavioral rules of the group. Jaleh noted that manners are a way to demonstrate that you have the proper morals.

In fact, two people can have the same basic moral code but their way of expressing it through behavior may differ significantly. People very often have a relationship with their own morality - they may hold a set of beliefs, and have a way that they know they should behave, but they may or may not be able to achieve this, and this can fundamentally influence their own self-value.

One interesting thing to do in a story is to take two people who ostensibly have the same morality system, and put them in a situation of stress. Chances are not bad that under those conditions the two people will diverge significantly in their decisions and behavior in spite of those basic moral similarities. Glenda mentioned a Regency context in which one person was more interested in preserving form and appearances, while another person was more interested in "doing the right thing" regardless of appearances; this meant they dealt with the poor very differently.

Jaleh told us a really interesting story about two monks who encountered a woman beside a river. Neither one was supposed to "mix" with women, but one of the two monks decided to help the woman by carrying her across the river. He carried her across, set her down, and she went on her way, but once the two monks continued walking, the one who had not touched the woman started criticizing the other for helping her. The first monk then said "I carried her across and set her down. So why are you still carrying her [mentally]?"

Not only was this story a good example of divergent behavior based on the same morals, but it also demonstrated that morals are often passed on through stories. It's definitely worth thinking through what the parables and morality tales of your world are, and what kinds of language are associated with morals and values. Is there such a word as "scandalous" or "indecent"? What other judgments might use special words in your world?

Our last major topic was the question of placing value on objects/substances. This phenomenon ranges from assessing whether an object is generally valuable or not, to imbuing certain objects with spirit or with other sacred value (around which there may be considerable ritual).

I mentioned that in Japan's history there was a period where Portuguese traders brought Christianity to Japan, and gained quite a large number of followers, but when the local Daimyo realized that Christianity was becoming imperialist and wasn't simply going to be an additional religion that people could follow (since Shinto and Buddhism were side by side), they decided to stamp it out. This led to a period of terrible violence against both the Portuguese and the Japanese Christians. The relevance of this to sacred objects is that one of the tests for seeing whether a Japanese person was secretly Christian was forcing them to walk over an image of the Crucifixion. If they didn't see the image as possessing sacred value, the idea was, then they would walk over it no problem. Other images and objects have had sacred value throughout history, like the holy grail, relics of the saints, the Shroud of Turin, temples and statues of all sorts. Some places come to be imbued with similar value because of the depth of their sacred history. Glenda mentioned a rebellion in India where Hindu troops refused to use their guns because they had been told that the black paper around their shells (which had to be torn with the teeth) had pork fat on it.

This kind of thing is so potent and so omnipresent in our society that I urge writers to try to include something like it in their stories. The lack of any such significance (regardless of whether it is religious or based on some other belief system) will likely seem strange. Thus, unless that strangeness is a deliberate choice, it's good to think these things through for your world.

The question of pork fat also brought us to the value of foods. Is there a concept of clean vs. unclean in your society? Where does it lie? Did the fact that one food isn't acceptable to your people arise from some condition in their early history where the food could not be prepared properly/safely? Might it have been based on an injunction against over-fishing? Or based on the seasonal algae bloom?

Often, even when the original purpose of a prohibition or of a moral rule has been lost, the practice that arose from it has come to have inherent social value. In fact, it can serve as a marker of membership in the social group that holds this particular set of morals. We thought of both the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition as examples of people outside a religious group using social practices to single people out for persecution.

Would you be willing to break a taboo to save your own life? Would your character?

An example of a very common substance that gets a special value is water. I wrote about this on the blog once before (A different value: water). Is it for drinking? Is it for bathing? Is it, as in the novel Dune, your entire earthly wealth and something to be preserved at all costs (but wasted extravagantly by the people in power)? Is it something that should never be wasted because of frequent droughts? Or something that should be used to purify yourself and the area around your business?

The list of possible things goes on and on. We also mentioned how often people bathe, and whether a person's smell has social value, as in Babylon 5's Mars domes where any kind of strong smell was not approved of.

It was a good discussion, and at the end we decided to move over into the arena of Manners for this week. I hope you will stop by and join us later this morning.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

TTYU Retro: Do more research to give the impression of less "research"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

It's good to be wrong - Or, why my characters use the scientific method

I was writing along on my latest story (which is almost finished!) and managed to iron out something that really made me happy. I was sitting there grinning and realized this was the sort of thing that I should blog about.

So here I am, to encourage you to let your characters be wrong.

Now, there are lots of good reasons to do this. For one thing, it keeps you from creating a Mary Sue character who can't do anything wrong and really ends up annoying readers. For another thing, it enhances your ability to create conflict between characters. I especially enjoy it when I've got two or three different points of view, and each of them is wrong about something, and nobody really has it right. It creates such great opportunities for conflict and learning and personal growth, and often makes the story that much more worth reading.

But my focus today is on having your characters be wrong in systematic ways. This is something that is particularly useful if you tend to write puzzle stories, or mysteries, or any kind of story where a group of people has to "figure things out."

In a story like this, generally there is a long list of things (like clues, or pieces of the larger puzzle) that your characters will have to put together before they "get it." As the writer of a story like this, you will often be paying attention to whether you are missing a piece, and where it has to go in, and how it can be fit into a scene in the background so that it doesn't appear to be too obvious, etc.

Well, one big problem that can arise in a story like this is confusion. Readers are getting barraged with information as the story goes along and they go, "Whaaa?" They don't feel drive in the story, they feel it's going in all sorts of different directions, and then by the time they get to the point where the main characters are supposed to put it all together (if they ever get to that point) they can't believe the characters would be able to figure it out, because they didn't.

It takes a certain amount of talent, and a lot of imagination, to put the correct constellation together out of a sprinkling of stars.

Here is my suggestion for how to manage this problem: Let your characters be wrong.

I find that my puzzle stories work best when I let my characters use the scientific method as they go. That is, they take what evidence they have at any given point and create a model for what is going on. Because they have a model, their lives seem directed, and their vision seems clear.

In my current story, the main characters arrive on the planet of the Poik and immediately see that there is a problem: the planet is being managed as a tourist destination by the Paradise Company, and as a result its environment has been damaged/altered, and its people are being exploited in a very demeaning way. So they immediately "know" what the problem is, and though they're trying to have a good time, their instinct against exploitation starts them into conflict with the Paradise Company from the start. Everything is clear, and actions are motivated.


I suppose you had already guessed that they're not seeing the entire picture at this point in the story. They make friends with one of the Poik, and this changes things. They experience a native ceremony, and that changes things. The further they go, the more they learn. And each time they learn something new, they change their model for what they think is going on. Not only that, but I make sure to have them articulate their current version of the model. Maybe it happens in character internalization, or in a conversation between characters, but there's always a spot where someone has the chance to say, "Because X is what's happening, we should now do Y."

The more complex the real solution is, the more valuable it is for you to break it down into smaller steps. I write pretty complicated puzzles, and I really need to make sure I'm keeping people with me. I need to make sure I'm showing exactly the thought process that leads the characters to the conclusions they draw. That's why this is so valuable for me. That's also why I get so gleeful when I discover a moment where the characters think they have it all put together. Readers will know we're close to the end, and when the characters go, "Aha!" the readers will likely go "Aha!" as well. But there's still something left to learn.

In "Cold Words" I loved it when Parker was trying to explain to Rulii that he felt the downy-furred aliens were being unfairly discriminated against and that he wanted to help them by taking their case directly to the Majesty... whereupon Rulii told him if he did that, they wouldn't have a relationship any more and Rulii would make sure that humans were branded as barbarians. Yeah, you might think you've figured it out, but now I'm going to show you why you really haven't...

This is one critical piece that can make a "twist" at the end really satisfying rather than annoying. The other piece is that you can (and likely should) be subtly telegraphing the larger picture to readers from early on, in pieces whose significance goes unnoticed by the main characters, and which readers are likely to interpret as interesting ancillary detail.

So here are the thoughts to take away as you look at your own stories:
1. Let your characters gather evidence and use it to create models that motivate their behavior.
2. Let your characters change those models in steps as they go through, so as to lead readers along their path of reasoning.
3. Let small pieces of evidence for the biggest picture be available throughout, though their relevance and significance should not be clear, so as to give your climax a better foundation.

It's something to think about.

This week's Worldbuilding Hangout

Happy Monday, everyone! This is just to let you know that this week I will be having a worldbuilding hangout on Google+, as usual, at 11am PDT. The topic of discussion will be "Manners." This is one of my favorite topics! So please come and see me. Do also feel welcome to comment with any logistical questions you may have about joining the discussion.

Link: Looks like glass is a liquid after all...

I've been part of arguments about whether glass is a liquid, so I'm mentioning this here. Apparently there's compelling evidence to suggest that it is a liquid after all! Here's the article.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Link: The Language of Interfaces.

I really enjoyed this article. The first piece of it is an article and the second is a slide show, so if you want to see the whole thing, click on the double forward triangle when you get to the slides. It's a funny combination of marketing advice and linguistic anthropology, referencing both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and products like Google Wave. I enjoyed seeing the whole thing. It will really attune you to the language you see here on the internet and may get you thinking about the language you use in stories as well.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Link: Cave people made paint 100,000 years ago

This is a really cool article, handed to me by my friend Dario Ciriello, an expert in paint himself. In a cave in South Africa they have found evidence of a paint-making workshop from 100,000 years ago! It appears that pretty advanced humanlike cognition was happening far earlier than science has previously hypothesized. Very cool stuff.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Culture Share: USA - The US through UK Eyes: What's in a Name? And Other Language Differences

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Laura Pepper Wu discusses her culture shock upon arriving in the USA.

The US through UK Eyes: What’s In a Name? And Other Language Differences.

by Laura Pepper Wu

I think the reason that I experienced so much culture shock on my arrival to the US was that I was totally, 100%, unprepared for it. I had lived in Asia for almost 4 years prior, so moving to the US seemed like it was going to be a breeze. I was expecting no language problems, a similar culture, and I felt that since I had seen so many US movies and TV shows that nothing could surprise me. How wrong I was!

The big, obvious differences were the easiest to grasp and get used to. Within a couple of weeks I no longer gasped at the size of the food portions or the oversized cars that rule the road in California. It took me a little longer to grasp the opening hours of the shops, to feel comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road, to remember that I could turn right on a red light, but perhaps only a month or two. It was the small, subtle differences that really got me. The ones that I couldn't even put my finger on until a visiting friend pointed them out, or until they would suddenly dawn on me months into my stay here. This is what I would like to talk about today.

When British people meet for the first time in any situation, be it at the park, at the pub or even at a party, we rarely, if ever, exchange names until it is absolutely necessary. You can talk to someone at the pub for hours until you ask for their name, usually when he or she is about to leave or you have to excuse yourself. Neighbors might say hello to each other every morning for years without ever knowing what to call each other. If you bump into someone on the street and talk for the first time it might be considered rather intrusive to ever ask for their name without having a good reason to know (for example exchanging phone numbers or to find out if you know people in common). And yet here in the US I am asked for my name on a daily basis. It's usually the first thing people ask when we meet; they extend their hand and say "Hi, I'm John" even before we have had a conversation.

The first time I was asked my name in Starbucks I was shocked that they were going to call out my name and everyone in the store would know who I was and what I had ordered. It just seemed so personal!

I also realized early on that it is important for Americans to be called by their full name and that shortening the name might be considered rude or disrespectful. For Brits it's the norm; David is always Dave, Benjamin is always Ben, Thomas is usually Tom. And the abbreviations don't stop there. We will often replace a name with honey, love, babe, chuck, duck, sweetie, mate - anything to avoid using the name which might be construed as aggressive or too direct. In my dealings with American friends I have found it to be quite the opposite. Emails and texts will often begin with Dear Laura, Hi Laura and so on, which I have slowly learned is not aggressive but is instead considered to be respectful. This took me a while to get used to - I have a string of nicknames that I am known by and nobody calls me Laura in England except for my mother (and only when she is angry!)

Moving on from names, but remaining on the topic of the use of language, another subtle culture difference that I notice is the usage of the words sorry and thank you. Observe a transaction with a Brit over the counter and the Brit might say thank you several times; once when handing over the item to the cashier, once when receiving change, once when receiving the item back, and perhaps once again just for good measure. Here in the US I noticed that one thank you is sufficient, if it is said at all. Sorry is again used sparingly compared to the Brits; we are more likely to apologize to others for every small inconvenience that we cause which I have been told appears as passive or weak to an American.

When we talk about the difference between American English and British English, the emphasis is often on vocabulary. We say porridge, you say oatmeal; we say cotton bud, you say q-tip and so on. But the differences extend much further than that, to grammar as well. Brits ask questions differently using a lot more of the present perfect tense: “Have you had a nice day?” versus “Did you have a nice day?”. “Have you been dieting?” versus “Are you on a diet?”. I’ve certainly sub-consciously used the present perfect less since moving to the US; many of my friends and family in California speak English as a second language and would certainly have difficulty understanding what I was saying if I spoke English how I did 5 years ago.

To anyone making the transatlantic move, or to those in business who might deal with clients or colleagues from “across the pond”, I think it’s important for us to realise that just because we speak a similar language, we are two different cultures with two very different ways of thinking and interacting. This is something that has surprised me and continues to surprise me everyday and is worth keeping in mind.

How about you: have you ever had culture shock in a land that you thought you should be familiar with?

Born and raised in England, Laura Pepper Wu set off to Japan for a post-college adventure 5 years ago and hasn't quite made it back yet! She and her husband now live in sunny California where she writes to her heart's content and runs the site a community for writers of all levels to find the perfect critique partner.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Economics

This is a report of the discussion about worldbuilding and economics held on Wednesday, October 5th on Google+. It was our biggest worldbuilding hangout yet, and we had such a good time that we ran over a few minutes. I was joined by Jaleh Dragich, Barbara Webb, Amy Sundberg, Glenda Pfeiffer, Heidi Vlach, and Kyle Aisteach.

I started off the discussion by asking a question that is often neglected in economic worldbuilding: "Where do the rich people get their money?" If they are nobility, do they own the land? Do they then take a cut of whatever is produced off that land? Of course, there is always the option of taxes, but we got to those later in the discussion

Economics is a battleground - as we see in real life - and as Glenda said "everything is economics." It underlies a lot of the other features of worldbuilding and societies, so watch out for it as you construct your world. Barbara brought up the idea of how economics underlies food. If there's a mismatch between the climate and the food being eaten, such as rich delicacies or jungle fruit being consumed in a desert, then you need to think of another resource that desert offers which the desert people can trade in order to get that lovely food. Jaleh mentioned the Dragon Jousters, how they had supplies in the desert because refugees to that area brought with them herbs and spices that they could then trade. Heidi took us from there onto the idea of trade pathways, and how they bring resources to an area. Economics and trade can be the reason that a particular city exists at all. It happened on the silk road, which as we observed runs through some pretty dangerous and inhospitable territory, but which happened to be the way to trade most effectively through the area. I mentioned also Route 66 and the movie Cars, for the way that cities can spring up when a road leads through them, and die when it doesn't (mind you, I got laughs for this, but it did fit!).

After that we turned to the topic of money. If you're designing a money system for your world, whatever you use as currency has to have some key characteristics: it has to be portable, divisable, and its value must be agreed upon as verifiable by the people engaged in the trade. In a sense it's a glorified form of barter (thanks for mentioning this, Heidi), where everyone has simply agreed to use money as an intermediate item to trade for. The "default 3 coins" may be copper silver and gold because of Dungeons and Dragons, or they may be bronze silver and gold because of the Olympics, but they don't have to be. In our own real world history rice has been used as a currency, as have salt and cowrie shells. When I mentioned the way that Europeans traded beads for land with the American tribes of the northeast, that brought us to the idea of problems with currencies. Those beads were a problem because they were not part of a larger system of trade in which beads would be accepted by other groups. Wouldn't it be interesting, we thought, to have a story involving several different groups with incompatible currency systems? What would happen then? Glenda mentioned the solution some would take, which would be enforcing the system with guns or weaponry. It's not the only option, I'm sure.

I mentioned the island of Dejima, which was off the coast of Nagasaki in Japan and for about 400 years was the only point of legal contact between Japan and the "Western world," mainly in this case the Dutch. Through this tiny conduit, goods were allowed to pass, and the influence of the Dutch can in fact be seen in Nagasaki architecture to this day - fascinating, because of the difference with Tokyo, where all of the Western overlay is more modern.

Glenda brought up a critical question for those working with trade in science fiction contexts - that of the value of a commodity versus the cost of travel. When faster-than-light transportation occurs simply and easily because of quasi-magical things like dilithium crystals or "jump points," we can easily gloss over it, but traveling between the stars could be incredibly expensive, which would mean whatever you found to trade would have to be super special to justify doing it at all. Amy pointed out that if you traveled in generation ships, the trade would all be within the ship, and none of it would be between worlds. Heidi suggested that trade in ideas might be more valuable - which would bring up other questions of the costs of communicating over such large distances.

Economies, and especially complex economies, resist change. Simple trade structures grow other things on top of them until they form an incredibly complex web, and the more integral a particular commodity or other variable is to the whole, the harder it is to change its use. Fuel is a prime example of this. Power and money tend to flow together, and then people add to the natural resistance of the system to change. Glenda mentioned how rare earth metals are very toxic to produce, and she said as a result of this they are only now being produced in China. Monopolies lead to control of price and then to pressure to find alternatives to these commodities.

At this point Kyle joined the discussion we turned toward different assessments of the value of human life. It started out with the question of valuing labor. What value is placed on manual labor? on skilled labor? Is your "value" as a person equal to the amount of labor you can do in your lifetime, or not? I think many people would hesitate to say that monetary value is placed on human life, but in fact it gets done all the time, by different groups in different contexts. Kyle mentioned that there is a monetary value (he wasn't sure of the precise figure, but somewhere around 2.3 million dollars) placed on saving a life in the context of airline travel. If an improvement that will save a single additional human life costs less than that amount, then it is mandatory for it to be implemented across the airline fleet. But what is the value of a human life when you're calculating money going to hurricane shelters, asked Heidi. That number would be different. In the justice system (wrongful death) the number put on a human life is estimated as the amount the person could earn over their lifetime. A similar kind of number is used in the calculation of life insurance.

Does your world have an economic system complex enough to support life or other insurance? Or what about a stock market where people can speculate and buy odd non-corporeal things like "futures"? It doesn't have to, but if it's a nice complex society, you shouldn't rule it out.

At that point the conversation turned to how to put monetary value on artistic activities like writing and crafting, where the product can't be precisely measured in terms of materials cost plus labor in the same way as a less creatively intensive pursuit. It's another case where the surrounding culture ends up placing a value on something which may not be directly related to the work of creation itself. Kyle observed that market research used to be expensive until the internet made it far easier to obtain and entirely changed its value.

I found the idea of value change (in the monetary sense, here) to be very interesting. Stories can be born out of the question of who is hurt when these changes occur, as Amy and I both observed. How do people respond to economic upheaval? What happens when people take power who haven't had this power before?

We also briefly discussed taxes. I mentioned how my idea of taxes first came out of the story of Robin Hood, where the king would send an army through the countryside and shake people down so that he could sit in a room full of gold. However, as Kyle observed, there was a real economic situation behind that story, in which the war debt from the Crusades was set on Prince John's shoulders and he had to collect even though there was nothing visible the money was being spent on. The result of course being a tax revolt. There is a lot behind the whole idea of taxes, but one of the key ideas that should go into worldbuilding a society that pays taxes is what exactly the people expect their leaders to provide for them. There is less likely to be objection to taxation if people can see what the tax is going to. Kyle asked what would happen in a society where you could tax thieves...would that mean thievery was seen as more legal? Jaleh mentioned a situation where anything could be legal with a permit (and you could get a permit for just about anything, including "illegal" behavior). We all felt that this put quite a bit of power in the hands of the person issuing permits...

You can also find conflict between economic micro-cultures and macro-cultures, as when a small organization is financially doing well but the larger culture is in the midst of difficulties. This can lead to the values of frugality bleeding down into the operations of the smaller group even though they are not necessary, or may in fact be harmful to its operation.

The last major concept we talked about was how to take larger economic models that we may have dreamed up for our societies, and translating them onto the small level of day-to-day personal interaction. When we write stories, it's not as though we have the leeway to spend pages and pages talking about how the world's economic system works. We have to exemplify it by showing the viewpoints and situations of people who live within it. It's very valuable to ask questions like, "how do these people actually get paid, and what do they get paid for?" because very often that will translate into very specific patterns of behavior (as I talked about in my Monday post). Jaleh posited a situation, for example, in which seamstresses would have to buy materials themselves but would be paid for their labor by patrons. This might turn out very differently from a situation in which the patron bought the materials as well as paying for the labor. The patron would have different expectations about the disposition of the materials in these cases. Think through if you can how an individual of a particular social class gets money, whether they are able to increase that amount of money through their own efforts or whether it is controlled entirely by someone else. Once they have it, where would they then spend it? How are their basic needs provided for? Are they? Answer these questions by showing small interactions between people.

When you're working with a story, there are two directions from which you can approach the economics questions. One is to design the system from the "top down" with macro-economic trends and then try to find your way down to how those would be enacted day to day. The other is to start with small individual interactions and then extrapolate "bottom up" into larger patterns that might have influence across the society in other ways. If you choose top down, make sure you get all the way to the nitty gritty bottom level. If you choose bottom-up, you probably don't have to go all the way to the macro-level, so long as you show that you have some understanding for the larger implications of the system.

We could have gone on and on, because we didn't even get into questions of how economic issues influence language use, and how to name currencies, etc.

But perhaps we'll be able to talk about those another time.

Next week's hangout will be on Wednesday, October 19th at 11am PDT and we'll be talking about Manners. Should be fun! I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Worldbuilding Hangout on Google+ Tomorrow

I'll be on Google+ holding a hangout tomorrow at 11am PDT. Our topic will be morals and values, so it's bound to be an exciting discussion. Please come ready to discuss this as regards worldbuilding.

If you're on Google+ and are trying to find the hangout, please go to my profile (Juliette Wade) and that should get you to the part of the stream where the hangout appears. That should allow you to join in... and don't worry if you don't have a video camera or a microphone, because we are very good at watching the chat sidebar!

I hope to see you tomorrow!

TTYU Retro: Many paths to a writing career

This post is as accurate now as when I first wrote it. I hope you enjoy...

"It's hard to get published."

Everybody knows this, even people who never plan to become writers. I knew it when I started writing, when I'd just discovered this storytelling drive I had inside me and had no idea (yet) where it fit into my life. I'd always had an artistic drive, and always had interest in science fiction and fantasy, but had never put them together before. So I wrote first and figured it out later.

When I first got to the point where I wanted to try to get published, I had no idea how to start. This may sound familiar to some. I was living in Japan at the time, and the internet resources for writers hadn't really come into their own yet, so I mail-ordered a couple of books about agents and publishers and how to go about writing query letters and all that lovely stuff. Some of you will recognize at this point that I was writing novels rather than short stories. That was where my experiences with rejection began! On the other hand, I learned early that rejections with comments were pure gold, because they were feedback from someone on the other side of that mysterious wall that lies between the publishing world and the lowly newbie writer.

Now there are lots of internet resources out there for writers: AgentQuery, Preditors and Editors, SFWA's Writer Beware, Duotrope's Digest, etc... But it's still hard to get published, and there's no easy answer just waiting out there for a writer to find. This is because there are many different paths that can lead you to a successful writing career, and if you ask two (or three, or four) writers how they got to where they are, chances are they'll each give you a different answer.

Some start with short stories and others start with novels. I started by writing novels, and then after a time friends said to me, "You should try writing short fiction." I got the impression from some of them that it would be easier to get short fiction published than novels. Since I'd had no success with the novels I'd written so far, I figured, "Why not?" So I started writing short stories, and learning how to do those, because they're very different from novels and require different kinds of skills to get right. I got lots of rejections, from lots of different markets. The fact of the matter is, I'm not sure which one is harder. But you'll never know which one is easier for you if you don't try both. My friend Aliette de Bodard's novel came out from Angry Robot, entitled Servant of the Underworld, but by the time she sold it she already had a great career going and lots of fans from her short fiction... and since then she's sold the series!

Some people sell their short fiction first to semipro venues, and others to pro. I always figured, start at the top with each story you want to sell, and work your way down as it gets rejected, from pro to semipro, to token venues. But the fact of the matter was, I lost patience with the endless cycle of waiting, and after I ran my work past a few semipro markets, I pretty much left it in the trunk. I have several friends who have sold many pieces to semipro markets before breaking into the pro markets - and at least two who now make regular money from their sales of short fiction, hooray!

Some people pitch a novel to a publisher first, get a deal, and then find an agent. Others go straight to getting an agent through the query approach. My friend Janice Hardy, for example, landed an agent without any previous fiction sales, simply on the strength of her novel, The Shifter, which she sent queries for and then pitched to the woman who would become her agent at the Surrey International Writers Conference. She now has three books out, The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall. If you think this is impossible, well, you can feel reassured that it's not. It just may not end up being the path that is successful for you.

Some people go to lots of conventions and network like crazy. Others don't. This is a funny one, because I never figured I'd find this to be my own route. Are you kidding? I started out writing in Japan, and then after I got back to the US I had my kids, and it was all I could do just to get out to a local convention for a few hours during the day. But, interestingly enough, this turned out to be my path - because I kept working on my writing, and because I got to meet a few wonderful people.

In thanks to those people, I'll tell a brief version of the connections here. I first went to BayCon, my local convention, in 2003 when my son was 3 months old. There I went to a session run by Kent Brewster, who recommended that I submit to the BayCon writers' workshop the following year. So I came up with my very first short story and went in 2004. One of the pros on the panel at the writers' workshop was Dario Ciriello, who got word after the workshop was over that I was looking for a face-to-face writers' group, and invited me to his. Dario was also the one who put me in touch with the BayCon programming folk, with the result that I was on a panel about the Seven Wonders of the World in (I think) 2006. On the panel with me was a lovely author with whom I struck up a conversation, Deborah J. Ross. She encouraged me to come to the SiliCon convention a month later, and there introduced me to Sheila Finch, because Sheila and I share an interest in linguistics. Sheila was the one who told me that Dr. Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine, liked stories about linguistics. So I took some time, got my linguistics story together and sent it off, and it sold in December 2007, appearing in Analog in July/August 2008. It was also at SiliCon that I met my friend Lillian Csernica. We hit it off immediately, and she helped me with the interminable revisions of my novel, Through This Gate. At a certain point, she said she'd like to recommend me to her agent. Well, she never did - but only because I ran into her agent at the 2009 Nebula Awards weekend, and remembering what Lillian had said, walked right up to her and said hello. This turned into a pitch, and a full manuscript request, and finally this October, into an agency signing. I could never have signed with the Grayson Agency (blog) on the basis of queries alone, but they happen to be just the right agents for me. Who would have imagined it?

I am immensely grateful to these people who have helped me get to where I am. I have found that the science fiction and fantasy writing community has a great sense of helping in return for being helped, and I am already trying to pass on what I know in this great spirit.

All of this is to say that if you want to have a writing career, you have to keep at it. Be dogged. Meet people, query, submit, and above all, write, write, write. Try to make your writing better at every opportunity, because you never know which path will suddenly open up for you, and when it does, you'll want to be able to give the right person a piece of writing that really knocks their socks off.

I wish you all the best in your own endeavors.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tired of cliché? Want to be unique? Pursue the why.

They say it's details that make a setting unique. Some would say, "Don't just create a character who is the generic chosen one who grew up on a farm unaware of his destiny," and they'd be right, but it's been done successfully. I'm thinking a lot of this is about details.

If you're just starting out on something like this, though, hearing this advice can be maddening. Details? What details? The last thing you want to do is take the same old tired scenario and add on a few bells and whistles, a bunch of superficial stuff that you made up because somebody told you that you needed details. Then you're still sitting where you started, just with a lot of extra words.

Pursue the why.

It's not really the details that make the scenario unique. It's how the scenario grows out of your world organically. Does the city have dirty streets? Okay, then why are its streets dirty? Does the village have an idiot? Okay, then who is he, and what is his family like, and how did he come to be where he is? Does he have a real disability or is he simply disaffected?

There are all kinds of societal scenarios that we see constantly in stories. But the fact that we see them constantly may not be because people are unoriginal. It may simply be because these things are real features of our own world. If we're working in a different world, we can have these features appear, but it's important to dig down into the underpinnings of the world and ask, "Why would this common phenomenon happen in this world?" Because things don't happen for no reason.

To make this concrete, I'll tell you about an insight I had over the last two days about my Varin world. Funny enough, it's about a part of my Varin world that plays only a tiny part in my current novel in progress. I was inspired in part by last Wednesday's worldbuilding hangout, which I'll be reporting on this coming Wednesday. We were talking about how to make larger economic patterns in society concrete by thinking about their impact on individuals.

Here's the part that I had before. It's the part that isn't as original as it could be.

Varin has an undercaste. They take undesirable jobs, so they work with trash, or in cremation, or as prison janitors. They get abused in their jobs. They live in small apartments. They have hoodlum gangs. One of my characters, Meetis, works in a prison and has a "good job" and a "good apartment." The other character, Corbinan, is a trash collector who has an "okay job" but not a "good apartment." He is a fighter who used to live on the streets.

It's not that it's not detailed. I had put in a lot of setting and stuff. But look how it changes when I tell you what I figured out.

The undercaste members get different economic benefits from their different possible jobs. People who work in prisons get apartments near their work, clothing, and food paid for by their place of work, but they get paid virtually zero cash, so once they have the job, it's almost impossible for them to leave (because they would be homeless with no money), so they have no recourse and are pushed around by their superiors quite easily. People who work in crematories get housing near their work, and are required to maintain high standards of cleanliness, but they don't get fed at work; they are paid cash to buy their own food. They are also paid "by the body" as an incentive for them to do the hardest work. Thus they carry cash but this money is often seen as dirty. Trash collectors are paid by the hour, in cash, and receive no other benefits. Thus they have a hard time securing apartments, and often a group of several people will join together and pool funds to secure an apartment (even if the apartment isn't designed for so many people). People (especially teenagers) without jobs form gangs and steal to keep themselves alive, but it's far riskier for them to try to rob members of other castes, so they target the trash worker neighborhoods first, the crematory neighborhoods if they're desperate, and only then would they try to target a member of another caste. They don't bother with prison neighborhoods because there's no money in it. The trash workers create their own gangs so they can stand up to the penniless hoodlums. The only way to get cash outside of the system without stealing it is to be able to read. These people deal with government workers all the time and are handed papers they can't read, so they will pay anyone who can actually read what they're being given and help defend them against manipulation by the contract writers.

It sounds complicated, but what it does is establish the reasons why gangs exist, who has them and who doesn't, and where they operate. These are details, but they are not random. So once it's all set up in theory, then I operationalize it on my characters' lives.

Meetis is the daughter of prison workers. Her mother is a reader, which is the only honorable way she could get the money to buy a ticket for her daughter to take a prison job in the capital when jobs are scarce at home. Thus, Meetis has an apartment near her work that she shares with her cousin Flara. It isn't well-maintained, but it works. She wears company clothes and eats at work. She works hard and doesn't eat a lot, but she has a safe home and doesn't starve, and she isn't targeted by gangs unless she goes into someone else's neighborhood. She is also a reader, so she has the means to earn cash if she can find the time to fit in reading work.

Corbinan is the son of crematory workers. As a result he got a lot of hard teasing as a kid, had to learn to fight early and ended up running away from home, and running with the hoodlum gangs. When he realized he was starving, but was too young to get a job, he decided to learn to read, so he cornered a reader and threatened him with a beating if he didn't teach him the skill. Once he could read he was able to separate from the hoodlum gangs and save some money, and when he was old enough he got a job as a trash worker. He lives in an apartment with six other people who work out of the same trash center, and though he's tired of gangs generally, he's now a target of the hoodlum groups, so he and the other six form a gang for their own protection. Now he uses his fighting skills to run off the hoodlums, and also to help the gang leader make sure everyone pays a fair share of rent. He's far too smart ever to pick a fight with a member of another caste, but if he and his gang become targets, he can hold his own long enough to help the others get away.

Suddenly he's not just some guy who knows how to fight for who knows what reason. He's simultaneously jealous of Meetis' easy life and a bit contemptuous of her for her lack of "freedom," and her lack of toughness. We can also see why Meetis' life is easy compared to his, but why it is hard on her anyway.

The phenomena are still there, but the whole thing feels different.