Monday, January 31, 2011

Superpowers of the grammatical subject

You know what I mean by the grammatical subject. "The subject of the sentence." Oh, yeah, no problem. It's the agent, the do-er, the entity or person or thing that engages in whatever the verb says. It's always a noun phrase. Examples:

I slept.
He hit me.
Reyes tried to escape.
The white-furred cat jumped over the fence.

If you only consider it from the perspective of its grammatical definition, though, you might miss its most important function. It focuses reader attention and gives special importance to whatever magical noun phrase gets that all-important, first-in-the-sentence spot*. When we choose to make something the subject of a sentence, we're exercising a great power. *(I'll consider exceptions below)

I'm deliberately going to quote Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility."

The easiest way to see the power of the subject demonstrated is by looking at what happens when we use it in unfortunate ways.

Teleporting readers into the air
Readers will be looking to ground themselves at the beginning of any story. What you chose to use as the subject of your first sentence thus becomes very important. If you begin, "The apartments at 200 Smith Street," then your readers will find themselves floating over said apartments. If, on the other hand, you begin, "I couldn't believe my eyes," then your readers will find themselves looking through the eyes of a person, "I," about whom they'll be looking to learn more. If you give them a name, like "George found the body at midnight," then they'll instantly be transported to George's location (beside him, or in his head, yet to be determined). An enormous amount about your narrator will be evident very quickly. Because I do very close internal point of view, I'm always tempted to start with internalization in my first sentence (implying the presence of a character rather than showing it). However, I always try to get the name of my protagonist in as the subject of a sentence within the first paragraph - and usually in the first sentence. Since I don't intend my readers to float on air, I don't want to transport them there accidentally.

Losing readers in a trance
The subject of the sentence can be a noun phrase, and it can vary in length, but because we're snagging a reader's close attention with it, if we let it get too long we've got trouble. Check out the difference between these two sentences.

The white-furred cat jumped over the fence.
The white-furred cat which my brother found over Christmas break and nursed back to health with the help of three friends jumped over the fence.

I often try to add extra information into the background of a sentence by using long noun phrases, but there's a limit to how much you can do without having your reader hit the word "jumped" above and go, "What?" They're engaged in trying to figure out precisely whom they'll be watching for the next few sentences (as subjects usually establish referents that get carried forward) and will follow the details... and when the verb finally breaks them out of the trance, they may no longer have any idea where they are or what you were saying! It's good to watch out for that.

Telekinetically striking readers over the head
A grammatical subject is a strong statement. By placing someone in grammatical subject position at the start of a paragraph, you're essentially saying, "Reader, you'll be hearing about this person for the next few sentences." This means you don't need to do it more than once. I talked some time ago about the hierarchy of reference. The hierarchy of reference basically says that you use a name for someone the first time you mention them, and then typically a pronoun thereafter unless you have to disambiguate between several possible pronouns, in which case you can use a brief description (more extensive details are here). A possible sequence of subjects might therefore be: Tagret, he, he, the noble boy. Now, imagine what would happen if you said, "Tagret, Tagret, Tagret, Tagret." By the end of it your reader would be begging for mercy. The same effect can also be achieved (far more easily) with the pronoun I: "I, I, I, I, I, I." Ay-ay-ay! Have mercy on your reader and don't always use the identical subject, but vary your sentences.

Transforming readers into fish
Think about the close attention that the subject demands, and then ask yourself where you're putting it. If your reader is working through the first paragraph of a story, and the first two or three sentences are internalization which implies the character rather than showing him/her, then by the time the reader reaches the end of that paragraph he or she will be looking hard to find the character subject from whom these internalizations are coming. Like this:

Where were the diamonds? This place wouldn't be safe for long, for sure and certain. Garmin's feet crept quietly across the floor.

Your reader might not realize it, but he/she has been looking for Garmin. But you haven't provided him for the reader; you've only provided his feet. Through the power of the grammatical subject, your reader's eyeballs have been transformed so all they can do is give the fish-eye view of what's going on. Not only will it give a strange feeling of an exceedingly close view of disembodied feet, but the reader may experience uncertainty about whether Garmin is really the character he/she is looking for. If Garmin's your protagonist, this is not a good thing.

Casting a glamour on readers
This one is a broader extension of the last power. When a fairy casts a glamour, the victim can't see what's real. When you choose not to put your protagonist as the subject of the sentence, you're deliberately making that person less visible. If you put your subject after a long "when," "before," "as," etc. clause, you're hiding your subject behind a screen. If you provide a body part, or a piece of clothing, or other evidence of the character's movements as subject, it will make the reader feel far from the character as if they're observing them externally (often from the fish-eye view!). If you choose to put your protagonist in the grammatical object position, you're making him/her into a victim and someone or something else into the position of agent/actor/do-er. If beta readers tell you your protagonist isn't ever acting or taking initiative, check to make sure he/she isn't spending too much time outside the subject position. Simply putting the protagonist in subject position isn't going to make him/her into a strong, pro-active character necessarily, but it's a step in the right direction. Furthermore, when people talk about not using passive verb forms, they may actually just mean that objects or thoughts or ideas or body parts are spending too much time in subject position in your story, rather than THE ACTOR, the protagonist, the one who should have primary place there. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you want to make someone invisible - such as when your protagonist discovers some terrible crime has been committed by an unknown (invisible!) agent - in those cases you should use the passive for whoever committed it. If your protagonist did it, but is in denial about having done it, one way of expressing this would be to have that person think about the act without placing him/herself in subject position, using passive instead. This is done deliberately in politics all the time, because by speaking in passives, politicians cast a glamour over their listeners and make invisible the actors behind critical events. It's a great tool for writers, too - but when you're dealing with your own protagonist, perhaps you can see why making the main character invisible (or distorting our vision of him/her) isn't such a good idea.

I'm sure there would be more I could say on this topic, but I think this is as much as I can fit into the extended metaphor this morning! I hope you find it interesting and helpful while you consider drafting and revisions.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Interesting link about writing out anxiety

This post I found thanks to Elizabeth S. Craig talks about the value of writing about anxious feelings in order to help ourselves process them... like writing about test anxiety before the test occurs. Could it help us to lower the bad effects of anxiety? Interesting stuff.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflections on "100 mostly small but expressive interjections"

I found this link today, to a list of tiny expressive interjections. I think this list is lovely, long, and quite comprehensive. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

One thing I notice, however, is how many of these expressions are 1. relatively new (weren't around when I was a kid) and 2. highly culture-specific. For example, when I see or hear the expression "Boo-ya," I don't think of success in any general way; I think of a sports commentator cheering over a score in NBA basketball.

The result of this is that the utility of these expressions can be highly dependent upon context. A list of expressions such as these, but that would also be usable in fantasy or science fiction settings, would be much shorter.

Fantasy settings require the most commonly used, most generic and non-context-specific of expressions (and also of words in general). In fact, this is one of the reasons why a sense of generic setting is such a pitfall for fantasy writers.

Science fiction settings can use slang expressions, but if they fail to take into account language change over time, they end up feeling anachronistically dated. It appears, indeed, that science fiction settings commonly have slang, and usually that slang is specially designed for the setting in question - shortenings of all kinds of gadgets, for example. Slang is much less common in fantasy contexts, at least in my experience.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Alien body language

How many of you have ever read anything like, "then the alien waved its tentacles at me"?

Last week I put up this link here, about body language. If you saw the original post, I put up a caveat about the fact that body language differs across cultures. Well, after thinking about it for a week I had to revisit the question.

This list goes through and gives very specific meanings for a lot of body language cues - in the head, eyes, upper body, and lower body. Here's a great example:
  • Failing to look someone in the eyes displays a lack of confidence.
  • Lowering the eyes is a sign of submission, fear or guilt.
  • Staring is interpreted as aggression and implies a person feels dominant and powerful.
  • Looking directly into another person’s eyes without staring signifies self-assurance.
This is what we, as Americans, typically interpret from eye contact body language. However, it is not at all universal. In many cultures, including Japan, looking into the eyes directly is interpreted as a similar message to staring. Failing to look someone in the eyes is a sign of respect. Note that it can be interpreted as submission, but submission with none of the negative connotations you see in the American association of submission with fear or guilt.

We are taught these things through both immersive experience and instruction when we are very young. Some kinds of gestures can be interpreted as specific, intentional messages while others are more subtle and sent subconsciously.

So, as to the question of alien body language, how should we approach it?

First, the approach to alien body language will depend on whether you are treating your aliens as strange and incomprehensible outsiders, or as friends, or from the insider's point of view. You'll have to do less work if you're going the "strange and incomprehensible outsiders" route, but I would still encourage you to think through a few things.
  1. Consider the alien's physiology. What are the regions of the body which can most easily be employed for body language, through motions of various sorts?
  2. Once you've identified those body regions, ask how those motions can be systematized. What kind of motions would be considered specific messages, deliberately sent? What kind would be more subconscious? A human watching body language on the part of the alien might be better at interpreting subconscious cues than specific messages, because of the way specific messages are typically taught.
Now, if you're going with the aliens as friends, or taking the insider's route, it's important to go into more depth. Unless you're designing an alien with an entirely different philosophy of communication, you'll find that communication travels through multiple channels (verbal and physical) and is highly redundant. If you look at descriptions of human interaction, you'll find that the interpretation of body language is very important. If you don't pursue the question of body language for your aliens, you'll be missing out on a great opportunity, and people may indeed miss it.

As you write the story, look for places where a human in the same situation might make a gesture of one kind or another. Consider whether the message your alien is sending is one that is common or important enough to warrant a specific-message type gesture. If so, consider how that message might be delivered. When you are using an alien that resembles an earth creature, particularly an earth mammal, it's good to go with familiar gestures that fit the physiological type (particularly for the subconscious ones). But be creative! And be creative especially with the iconic, specific-message gestures, because those are the ones that depend most completely on culture and instruction. Remember, for example, that beckoning (which seems at first glance to be a highly universal signal) is executed very differently in the West and Japan, so much so that if you are a Westerner you may think you're being shooed away. And this with precisely the same physiology.

Think about the body language system. Integrate physiology with culturally accepted messages. Think through how those would be expressed, and then think through how that code will be interpreted by a human outsider.

You could come up with some really interesting results.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Your Character's Motivating Need

I found this cool link today on The Character Therapist. It gives you a number of image cards and you can try "showing" them to your characters to see what their fundamental drives are (not quite the same as a situational motivation!). Very interesting.

New Sharing Buttons...

You may notice that I've now managed to get the sharing buttons to appear at the bottom of my posts. I thought they were there, but eventually had to go diving into HTML code to get them to appear! Anyway, this should make it easier for you to share my posts if you feel inspired.

Thank you all for being such devoted readers!

Nabokov and the evolution of butterflies

The famous author, Vladimir Nabokov, apparently was an avid lepidopterist and formed a theory about the evolution of Polyommatus blue butterflies that, years after his death, turns out to be correct! Something about this story really touched me. Go here to check it out.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Signposting Differences

Welcome back to the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! Today's entry comes from Che Gilson, who submitted through the comments area in the submit here link. As I generally do, I'm going to start by marking in blue the words I see as contributing to a sense of world in the piece.

***
5th Machidiel, Boath

Dear Betta,

I found this journal in the bottom of a trunk under an old rag doll I haven’t seen since I was eleven. I was cleaning up and putting my affairs in order (sounds final doesn’t it?). The journal was in good shape and apparently abandoned after only a month of entries. If I recall correctly it was a gift from Aunt Letha for my eighth birthday.
Journal keeping is not my strong suit apparently. Or maybe at the age of eight I simply had little to record. I tore out the month of entries, which amounted to five pages, without reading them and slipped the book into my luggage.
It seems now I am doomed to have something to record. For you see Betta, I’m off to my new life blood bonded to a vampire.
Maybe I flatter myself to think you’ll one day read these pages. I sincerely doubt it. You probably wouldn’t remember me even if you did. We only had the one summer together and you were two years older than me. But you were my heroine. Standing up to the Aseph boys like that. You were even nice enough to let me follow you around like a puppy the rest of the summer. I missed you when I got back home. We wrote for awhile but then the letters got further between and finally ceased.
So my correspondence resumes! One sided though it is. It helps to have someone to talk to and saves me from the insipid “Dear Diary,” as if I were some love struck school girl! Although, I suppose that’s exactly what I should be. It’s what I wish I were. Instead I’m on this train heading south in through the mountains. In another two days we reach the sea and then Hecolath.
But that’s skipping ahead isn’t it? I need to go back a week. That was when the Taster came.
I don’t know what the Taster is like in your district but ours is very old. He must be 2,000 at least. It’s a wonder to me that every year in Barchiel during the last days of the month he arrives. Every year since I was a child I’ve been expecting a new Taster to come. But there he is the same as ever.
His name is Xathaniel Sursh. When I was little he seemed so tall to me and terribly frightening. Now that I’ve grown he’s actually quite short. His back is bent and he walks with the aid of a cane. Deep wrinkles cut his blue white skin across the forehead and down each cheek, curving around a thin lipped bloodless mouth. So thin is his skin that you can see the blue traceries of veins beneath. I doubt he was ever very great looking for he has a large hooked nose. Once upon a time he had hair I suppose but not in my lifetime. Not even eyebrows.
***

Here's how I go about using those words to determine what kind of world this is. We start with some nice made-up words - Machidiel and Boath - right at the get-go. So this is clearly a fantasy or science fiction piece. Since the words are put into an easily recognizable date format, my immediate instinct says fantasy. The name "Betta" fits well enough into this pattern. Thereafter, we get a series of quite recognizable objects: "journal," "trunk," and "old rag doll." These tell me that whatever this world is, it's quite similar to our own in many respects, and that its technology will probably belong to an era when trunks were used commonly as storage units. The first clear evidence of what type of fantasy we're dealing with comes when we see the phrase "blood bonded to a vampire."

Before I discuss this further, I'll go through the entry again, putting in my comments. Let me remind my readers, again, that these are not corrections. I can hardly stress the importance of this sufficiently. I find it useful to think aloud to myself as I read and get impressions. My comments are in brown below.

***
5th Machidiel, Boath [This is clearly a date associated with a fantasy world. Probably means we're headed into a journal entry or a letter.]

Dear Betta, [Now I think this is probably a letter. Written rather in a style traditional to our own world, but this is easily transferable to a fantasy world similar to our own]

I found this journal [hm, interesting - it's a journal?] in the bottom of a trunk [This makes me think that we're probably not in a medieval fantasy scenario, because otherwise this would probably have been a "chest"] under an old rag doll I haven’t seen since I was eleven. I was cleaning up and putting my affairs in order (sounds final doesn’t it?).[Yes; it sounds both old-fashioned and final. It makes me curious] The journal was in good shape and apparently abandoned after only a month of entries. If I recall correctly it was a gift from Aunt Letha for my eighth birthday.[clearly they celebrate birthdays in this place. Evidence is mounting that this world is similar to our own, if associated with a past technology level. I'm starting to wonder what it is about this world that makes it a fantasy world.]
Journal keeping is not my strong suit apparently. Or maybe at the age of eight I simply had little to record. I tore out the month of entries, which amounted to five pages, without reading them and slipped the book into my luggage.
It seems now I am doomed [I like this word.] to have something to record. For you see Betta, I’m off to my new life blood bonded to a vampire.[This is interesting. So the fantastical element here is vampires? Is there more to it than that, like say, magic of some kind? The use of the fantastical names and dates makes me guess there might be, but I haven't seen evidence of it yet.]
Maybe I flatter myself to think you’ll one day read these pages. I sincerely doubt it. You probably wouldn’t remember me even if you did. We only had the one summer together and you were two years older than me. But you were my heroine. Standing up to the Aseph boys like that. You were even nice enough to let me follow you around like a puppy the rest of the summer. I missed you when I got back home. We wrote for awhile but then the letters got further between and finally ceased. [All of this phrasing seems very consistent with our our own world. I wonder why it matters who Betta is. Perhaps she might enter the story later?]
So my correspondence resumes! One sided though it is.[Or perhaps she won't enter the story.] It helps to have someone to talk to and saves me from the insipid “Dear Diary," as if I were some love struck school girl! [This is very real-world, and sticks out in contrast to the fantastical names.] Although, I suppose that’s exactly what I should be. It’s what I wish I were. Instead I’m on this train heading south in through the mountains. In another two days we reach the sea and then Hecolath.[By this time I'm losing track of the fact that we've had a fantasy world marked at all, and so the unfamiliar name sticks out.]
But that’s skipping ahead isn’t it? I need to go back a week. That was when the Taster [this is interesting. The Taster is obviously a social position, and well known to our protagonist.] came.
I don’t know what the Taster is like in your district [This is interesting to me because it suggests a larger social structure surrounding the position of Taster] but ours is very old. He must be 2,000 at least. It’s a wonder to me that every year in Barchiel during the last days of the month he arrives. Every year since I was a child I’ve been expecting a new Taster to come. But there he is the same as ever.[I'm surprised she'd expect a new one. If she knew he was 2000 years old, why would she expect a change now?]
His name is Xathaniel Sursh. When I was little he seemed so tall to me and terribly frightening. Now that I’ve grown he’s actually quite short. His back is bent and he walks with the aid of a cane. Deep wrinkles cut his blue white skin across the forehead and down each cheek, curving around a thin lipped bloodless mouth. So thin is his skin that you can see the blue traceries of veins beneath. I doubt he was ever very great looking for he has a large hooked nose. Once upon a time he had hair I suppose but not in my lifetime. Not even eyebrows. [This suggests to me that Xathaniel will be an important character in the story. The amount of attention given to his appearance hints that I should probably be prepared to recognize him. I also get a hint (with "great-looking") that our protagonist is concerned with looks.]
***

There are some really intriguing elements in this piece, but as I finish it I find myself trying to choose between two models that seem to conflict with one another. The evidence of our worldbuilding words seems to point to: one, a fantasy world which we should expect to differ significantly from our own, and two, a past-Earth scenario with vampires.

A reader's first instinct might be to ask which one the author intended, but I'm not sure that's the right question. Very likely this is a fantasy world which has vampires, but also has its own characteristics and rules. The idea of the Tasters certainly supports this.

It's important to keep in mind as we write the incredible rapidity with which readers will draw conclusions. Opening three words - bang! Fantasy world. Immediately we'll be looking for confirmations of this, and features of the fantasy world which can help us pare down possible scenarios. There are plenty of fantasy worlds which make use of existing human cultures and eras... but it would be possible - indeed quite easy - to keep all of the character's voice and experiences, and the vampires, and set the whole thing in the real world during the era suggested by the language use. I generally like to accept the author's suggestions, so I don't like myself for it, but I find myself asking, "Why hasn't our author done that?"

I suspect this world is complicated enough that it needs some signposting. Signposting is what I call it when the author deliberately introduces details that fly in the face of a reader's expectations. The trick to effective signposting is to do it very, very early - as early as you can possibly manage, so as to nudge the reader off a set of expectations before those expectations become firmly fixed. I have to do this with my Varin world all the time, because people see noblemen and women moving through stone halls and immediately jump to - medieval castle! So I have to stick in Varin's high technology right up front: "two hundred and twelve electric bulbs on his vaulted stone ceiling" in sentence #1 of "The Eminence's Match", or "the crystal chandeliers dimmed slightly overhead, and Tagret looked at his watch" to begin paragraph #2 of For Love, For Power.

So for this piece, what kind of a signpost might we be looking for? I can't read the author's mind, but already I can see one thing that sticks out as an excellent possibility: the idea of the Taster, and the social system of which that office is a part. I would love to see the focus of the piece put squarely there, on the events surrounding how the protagonist was chosen for "blood bonding," because I feel intrigue and conflict there, and because that would make it harder for a reader (in this case, me) to step back from the cues given by the dates into the overly "easy" model of the Victorian Vampire scenario.

Che Gilson, thank you so much for being brave and submitting! I hope you find my comments helpful. Please, readers, recall that this is intended to be a helpful discussion. You are welcome to comment, too, so long as the comments are constructive.

The discussion is open.



Note: for those who are interested in past "issues" of Wednesday Worldbuilding, they can be found in the Classics and Series area in the left sidebar.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TTYU Retro: Don't make them all the same

Because I've had a couple of three-day weekends that seriously cut into my work time (and have me stressing about how to keep blogging enough, while writing enough at the same time) I've decided to go back and revisit a few posts from way back at the beginning (2008), when this blog was new and relatively unknown. I'm calling them TTYU Retros, and I hope you find them interesting. Today's was my first very successful blog post, which took me over 100 hits for the first time (a number which I didn't revisit again for a long time). I'll be posting Wednesday Worldbuilding as usual, tomorrow - but for now, here's:

Don't make them all the same

Keeping characters different from each other can be hard. I've noticed this especially when I read a large number of books from the same author; at a certain point, some of the characters will start to blend together across contexts. As a reader I never appreciate this. As a writer I'm always on my guard.

My attempted solution - not that I can swear it won't happen eventually, but I'll do my best - is to make my own characters as grounded culturally and linguistically as I can. To think about them in terms of their genetic background, physiology, upbringing, and personal experience.

I've seen a couple of "character sheets" floating around the forums this week, where people have been asking if they have to know all these different things about all their characters, or if they need to write journals from the character's point of view. I think these things can help, but they can also be hard to do when you're sitting down to start a book. I'd say start with a general sense of the person, their motivations and goals and why these things are important to them. Then, as you go forward, just keep awareness of the different kinds of questions you might like to answer on the more subtle levels. The more you write about a character, the better you get to know them and the more nuance you can add. In my experience, for getting to know a character and how they operate, there's no substitute for writing a story from their point of view - even just starting and attempting one that will never get published. It makes you dig in more than you need to if you're just using a character sheet and looking at them from the outside.

The other thing is, don't make every character from a particular alien or racial group exactly the same. This is what I've earlier referred to as "running true to type." It's fun to have a group of people from different races, whether that be elves, dwarves and humans, Braxana and Azeans (thanks to C.S. Friedman) or the people of Sendaria, Arendia, Nyissa etc. (thanks to David Eddings). But if the belief systems of these people are entirely uncontested, uniform across the race or alien group, the story won't have all the dimension it could.

There are two ways to approach this. One is from the character direction, making sure that your characters are three-dimensional and have motives and inner conflicts and all those important things. That's certainly true of the characters from the authors I've mentioned. The other is to think directly about the character's relationship to the social group they belong to. I couldn't say whether other authors have thought about this; they may well have.

Take a social group that has a particular vocation, belief, or ideology that they are meant to follow. You end up with a situation where children of that group are being told "this is what you are like"; "this is how you are supposed to act." How do the kids then react to that? Do they embrace it? Are they resentful of it? Resigned? Subversive? Do they reject it directly? And if they reject it, do they keep some of the beliefs subconsciously without realizing it? All these are available options.

Ask yourself another question, too: what does it mean to be fortunate among these people? What about unfortunate? Even a group of poor or undercaste will have a difference between the fortunate and unfortunate among them, and so will a group of nobles. And groups like these will always have inner conflicts over things of value, which coexist with conflicts between groups.

Once you've thought through a few things like this, making characters different can be a bit easier. And fun, too!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Subjective Point of View: expressing judgment with adverbs and verbs

I've been tracking a number of discussion threads recently about point of view and narrative distance. I've seen advice in several contexts that essentially says, "in order to get close to the perspective of your third person point of view character, remove filter words like thought, saw, heard, felt, wondered, etc."

With filter:
He saw her enter the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
Without filter:
She entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.

This is very good advice. Removing the filter word takes the actual event and promotes it up from a subordinate clause to the main one, thus giving it more immediacy. However, it's good to be careful in your execution, because one of the functions of these filter words is to create a link between the character and a particular observation (because with the filter word, your character is the subject of the sentence).

If you remove filter words, your sentences won't have the distance that the filter words created, but neither will they necessarily have any markers directly connecting them to your pov character (since the pronouns are gone). If you have already created a really strong sense of intimacy in point of view (through voice or other means), this can work just fine. If your point of view is already less intimate, though, you may find you're losing a sense of connection to the character - falling into a more "neutral-description" mode suggestive of an independent narrator.

Fortunately, there are some great grammatical tools available for creating a connection between your character and his/her perceptions: evidential adverbs (1, 2), and modal verbs. These are fantastic for a writer striving to achieve subjective point of view, because they express the character's judgment of events.

Let's get specific.

Evidential adverbs are adverbs that express certainty or uncertainty. They include such adverbs as: obviously, clearly, evidently, surely, no doubt, of course, naturally, probably, likely, etc. I'm sure you can think of more than I can list here. There are lots of them!

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that change the meaning of the verbs they sit next to, in a very particular way. The nine modal verbs and their definitions are below (this list comes from a terrific article that you may want to read in depth at Bright Hub):
  • can – ability, permission, possibility, request
  • could – ability, permission, possibility, request, suggestion
  • may – permission, probability, request
  • might – possibility, probability, suggestion
  • must – deduction, necessity, obligation, prohibition
  • shall – decision, future, offer, question, suggestion
  • should – advice, necessity, prediction, recommendation
  • will – decision, future, intention, offer, prediction, promise, suggestion
  • would – conditional, habit, invitation, permission, preference, request, question, suggestion
There are also expressions, like have to and it's impossible to, etc. which serve this purpose.

Both the adverbs and the modal verbs are doing something - by their very nature - that we want to do: drawing a reference back to someone who chooses them. Thus, even without the subject pronoun present, the modals give us a sense that the character is still there. If he/she were not there, it would be grammatically nonsensical for these words to appear. Very good news for us.

Of course, if we are to use evidentials and modals properly, it means we have to know what our characters think and feel about what is happening - but to my mind, that is never a bad thing! I'll return to the above examples, and then add a couple of adverb/verb judgments:

With filter:
He saw her enter the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
Without filter:
She entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
With adverb #1:
She entered the room wearing a stole that was obviously real mink.
(This person evaluates the look of her garment as she enters. Note that "look like" can be independently evaluated; "obviously" is necessarily subjective)
With adverb #2:
Of course she entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
(This person evaluates the predictability of her action as she enters.)
With adverbs and modal verb #1:
Of course she had to enter the room wearing a stole that was obviously real mink. (This person isn't happy about her entry and thinks the stole is pure show-offishness on her part)
With adverbs and modal verb #2:
She must have entered the room - the smell of her mink stole was unmistakable. (This person is deducing that she has entered the room and commenting on how the deduction was made.)

I hope this gives you some ideas about what you might be able to do to make your point of view feel more subjective and closer to your character. When you use modal verbs and adverbs, you're not always saying precisely the same thing that you might be without them - but very often, what you can say becomes more interesting (and your character just might, too!)

Play around with this, and experiment. You could discover some fascinating subjective results.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cool post about forensic linguistics

Linguistics, as it turns out, is big in law and criminal investigation, too! Check it out here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Seeking Uniqueness? Make a Twist

I've been thinking lately about what makes a story unique. I'm working with young people right now, and I hear a lot of ideas from them, many of which bring in familiar elements from stories that I've read, or archetypal plot elements from the classic fairytales, etc.

Just because we've heard an idea before doesn't mean it can't be done in a novel way. But what can we do to make sure that the story we have is unique, and not like others of its type?

Twist!

A lot of the stories we're familiar with come with a set of underlying assumptions about their execution. Settings in which they're expected to take place. Characteristics that their characters are supposed to have. Ways their cultures are supposed to work. Technologies that are supposed to go together.

But why?

There's no real reason why these things have to be maintained as they are. Pick one and change it - not a little, but in a way that will make your story utterly different, so you'll really have to sit back and THINK: wow, how far do the consequences of that change really go? Here are some ways to try.
  • Set the fantasy story in a technological setting. Steampunk did this, and look what happened!
  • Take an expected technology away. I rarely see this done, but I'm doing it myself: Varin has no visual tech, for cultural reasons (no movies, computer monitors, etc. and a sense that even photography is inappropriate). And what if you did something really radical? Took away fire? Or the wheel? What would happen then?
  • Change gender roles. Reverse them, okay sure, but what if you altered them? Ursula K. LeGuin did that by taking away gender in her own way, and bang! You could even have gender roles look one way in one part of your society, and totally different in another part, so long as there are solid cultural reasons behind it.
  • Change diet. And don't stop with what's on the table, but contemplate the consequences for agriculture, for lifestyle organization, for food culture and values.
  • Change character. I usually do this by changing culture, because that then changes the fundamental way that a character thinks - changing the metaphors they use to describe the world, and changing the rationale behind the decisions they make. You want readers not to be able to predict what your character will do? Alter their cultural morality and see what happens!
What I'm advocating here is not easy to do. A change as fundamental as the ones I'm describing has lots of far-reaching consequences for your world, for your characters and for your story.

But that's the whole point.

If you can make a twist, and explore its consequences on a larger scale while maintaining the internal consistency of your world and its cultures, believe me, you'll have something different.

It's well worth thinking about.

Missed you yesterday

Yesterday I had all these great plans for writing and blogging, and well, fortunately much of the writing took place, but almost none of the blogging! These things happen. Today I have a post up at Science in my Fiction called Nonconformist Aliens: pushing physiology further. I also recommend this humorous and refreshing post from Hayley Lavik, A cry against democracy, gender equity, and wise rulers in fantasy.

I'll be back later today with the post I planned for yesterday! See you soon...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Surnames across the world!

I found this cool link today, to a site which can graph the prevalence of your surname across the world with very excellent graphics. I had no idea Wade was more common in Australia than the US. I can only imagine what I'll find when I explore other names...

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Managing the Juxtaposition of Normal and Abnormal

Welcome back to Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop (Week 3)! For those who are visiting for the first time, I do these sessions every Wednesday, using 500 word excerpts generously provided by my readers. If you're interested in submitting, you can find the link on the left underneath my photo, or here (which will take you to that same page). I'd love to see what you're working on!

I had a question from someone on the forums regarding whether I should take submissions of descriptions of people's worlds, rather than excerpts from stories using those worlds. While I think I might have some things to say about a world description/outline, I think the story excerpts are what I can work with most effectively. I'm always looking for submissions, so please do pass the submission link on to your friends and neighbors!

This week's submission comes from David Marshall, who has worked with me on worldbuilding before - long ago when I was first doing worldbuilding workshops in a quite different format. Thanks for submitting, David! As in previous weeks, I've marked the worldbuilding words and phrases that I notice in color, but this week I'll be using two colors. I'll bet you can tell why; I'll discuss it below the excerpt.

***
The black marble slabs that paved the entrance hall cracked under my feet. This required a great deal of effort on my part, for my cloven hooves were sharp-edged and petite, and not really made for stomping on stone. And even though my batlike wings were still immature, more delicate fairy-gauze than leathery flight membrane, I was so angry that they kept slashing the air and lifting me off the ground.
Not very far off the ground, but far enough to spoil any chance of a good, hard, satisfying stomp.
I forced my wings to fold, and the sacred things promptly sprang open again! I lashed my barbed tail, snarled, and tried to keep my feet firmly on the ground. With limited success.
I tried stalking down the hall, but what I achieved could more accurately be described as bouncing. Wherever I grounded, I left cloven hoofprints with a halo of radiating cracks like stylised lightning bolts.
I had undergone the tortures of Inhuman Health & Hygiene classes, so I understood what the metabolic sparks shaking my body were supposed to do. Some day soon, those irritating sparks that bubbled through the ichor in my veins would become a raging inferno of potent alchemical reactions, ensuring my reaction to any given situation would be either Fight, Flight or Fornicate.
But how the heaven would an alchemical know which F-word was most appropriate in any given situation?
I had grown long-limbed and lean over the past year, but I hadn't filled out into anything like my mother's dangerous curves. And I still wasn't used to the way my body had changed. The way my body was still changing. I was always tripping over, or bumping into things.
Sometimes I felt like my body was a fallen empire that had fractured into a bunch of warring city-states. If this was puberty, you could keep it.
Mother said I would fill out soon enough. She said I would develop finer control over my muscles and limbs. You're too eager, too impatient, she said. Give it time, she said. You're just a late burner, she said.
She said other things, when she thought that I couldn't hear her. She said that I remind her of a stiletto, slender yet dangerous, but wielded by an untrained, clumsy hand.
Well, this stiletto had just been sheathed, after being ichor-stained once too often.
At least my mother was working late. Again. I had at least four hours to kill before I had to explain myself. Again.
Time enough to think of some excuse. Surely.
'Arriach!'
My wings collapsed, slamming so hard against my back that I feared that they were going to break my ribs, wrap themselves around my spine, and come to rest in my lungs. My tail whipped up under my skirt, in an attempt to find an even less dignified hiding place. Electric sparks crackled across my skin, raw magic earthing itself in my squirming embarrassment.
***

David is being ambitious - and deliberately humorous, I believe - by creating two worlds at once. One of these worlds, referenced by the purple words, is relatively normal to us. It's the world of the spoiled teen girl, using words like "petite" and "Health&Hygiene classes" as well as "puberty" and "F-word." The other one, referenced by the blue words, is not normal. It's a devil world with black marble floors, cloven hooves and magic. The total effect of the excerpt thus lies in the juxtaposition of one world with the other. I'll comment in the text below - please excuse all the crazy colors; it just worked out that way!

***
The black marble slabs that paved the entrance hall cracked under my feet. **[At this point there's no reason for me to believe that marble slabs in the entrance hall and feet are inconsistent, world-wise. I imagine a castle, perhaps an evil one, and a person there in trouble. A pretty quickly accessed setting, if not an elaborated one.] This required a great deal of effort on my part, for my cloven hooves were sharp-edged and petite**[this qualifier seems external to her. Does she wish to be seen as petite? Can you indicate that?], and not really made for stomping on stone. **[The great deal of effort comes as a surprise, which I think was your intent, since it appears to imply that the cracking of the slabs was accomplished by the feet. However, there is a direct contradiction between "feet" and "cloven hooves" as I see it.] And even though my batlike wings were still immature, more delicate fairy-gauze than leathery flight membrane, I was so angry **[this is the first phrase where we see the subject pronoun "I," and it tells us only that she is angry, which we already knew.] that they kept slashing the air and lifting me off the ground.
Not very far off the ground, but far enough to spoil any chance of a good, hard, satisfying stomp.
I forced my wings to fold, and the sacred **[This and "heaven" below fit well with humorous devilry as direct opposites of the words that would be used in the teen girl world.] things promptly sprang open again! I lashed my barbed tail, snarled, and tried to keep my feet firmly on the ground. With limited success.**[Is she trying to break the floor, or trying not to break the floor? It's not clear to me.]
I tried stalking down the hall, **[To accomplish what?] but what I achieved could more accurately be described as bouncing. Wherever I grounded, I left cloven hoofprints with a halo of radiating cracks like stylised lightning bolts.**[This makes it sound like she thinks they look cool, but I thought she was irritated with the bouncing.]
I had undergone the tortures of Inhuman Health & Hygiene classes, so I understood what the metabolic sparks shaking my body were supposed to do. Some day soon, those irritating sparks that bubbled through the ichor in my veins would become a raging inferno of potent alchemical reactions, ensuring my reaction to any given situation would be either Fight, Flight or Fornicate.
But how the heaven would an alchemical know which F-word was most appropriate in any given situation?**[This is commentary on her physical state. The juxtapositions here are amusing but I'm missing a sense of the meaning and drive of her current situation.]
I had grown long-limbed and lean over the past year, but I hadn't filled out into anything like my mother's dangerous curves. **[Interesting perspective on her mother.] And I still wasn't used to the way my body had changed. The way my body was still changing. I was always tripping over, or bumping into things.
Sometimes I felt like my body was a fallen empire that had fractured into a bunch of warring city-states. **[This makes me wonder where our devilish creature would come up with this idea.] If this was puberty, you could keep it.**[This whole phrasing fits in the teen girl world.]
Mother said I would fill out soon enough. She said I would develop finer control over my muscles and limbs. You're too eager, too impatient, she said. Give it time, she said. You're just a late burner, she said.**[This is a nice phrasing of juxtaposition]
She said other things, when she thought that I couldn't hear her. She said that I remind her of a stiletto, slender yet dangerous, but wielded by an untrained, clumsy hand.
Well, this stiletto had just been sheathed, after being ichor-stained once too often.**[makes me wonder what just happened. Should I be wondering what just happened, or what will happen now?]
At least my mother was working late. Again. I had at least four hours to kill before I had to explain myself. Again.
Time enough to think of some excuse. Surely.
'Arriach!'
My wings collapsed, slamming so hard against my back that I feared that they were going to break my ribs, wrap themselves around my spine, and come to rest in my lungs. **[I wonder if this kind of hyperbole is part of her personality!] My tail whipped up under my skirt, in an attempt to find an even less dignified hiding place. Electric sparks crackled across my skin, raw magic earthing itself in my squirming embarrassment.
***

Overall I think this piece has a lot of good juxtaposition points in it. A great deal of humor and interest can come from this kind of two-world management - though I'd be careful of all-out contradictions, which can come across as the writer having a joke on the reader. I'm seeing a missed opportunity for world-building, however, in the lack of drive from the protagonist. If she is our ambassador (to borrow a phrase from week 1), then I don't think she's doing all she could to help us understand her world, because she's not doing much acting, or choosing, or judging of her own actions.

The two worlds here are clearly drawn, but only in relation to one another and a situation, not a person with a problem. It's important to see this protagonist as the subject of sentences early on, to allow her to show us just what kind of problem a person bridging these two worlds would have - rather than focusing on body parts or development alone to draw the contrast (which creates distance despite the first person narration). I think this would add to the humor rather than detracting from it, and draw the world juxtaposition more clearly by giving us a more solid grounding in the protagonist's character. She is the reason that the juxtaposition exists, and it is her world, and her sense of that world that brings the two contrasting sides to unity.

The other thing that your protagonist can do, which she isn't doing to full effect here, is give us a sense of what is normal and what is not normal in her world. What is normal in one of the worlds presented here is not normal in the other - so what is normal to her? The things that someone considers normal will typically not be at the top of her mind, or indeed noticed at all, unless they have been called into question in a specific way. Revealing the nature of this young (ahem!) lady's problem may be just what you need to show us what about her normal life has been called into question. The myriad great juxtapositions here are inadvertently pulling us to greater distance from her because they don't allow for any sense of normality within the context of her judgment. However, if you give her a problem to solve and something to do, those things that are normal to her can fall into their proper background context (even if they are quite striking). And you probably won't need everything you have here for the first 500 words, so you can save a lot of this great stuff for later story action, when more directly relevant elements of her life are called into question.

Thanks for being our brave Week 3 submitter! I hope you find these comments helpful. The constructive discussion is open.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Good link on Body Language

Here's a link which gives a list of body language signals and what they mean. Keep in mind, of course, that these are culturally defined and may differ in different countries or contexts!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Multi-character scenes and conversations

Some time ago, I wrote a blog entry called "Three-Person Conversations." Now that I'm writing a book where my main character has three friends, and he's going to parties and public events a lot, I'm finding that I'm revisiting this context, and considering it in terms of multi-character scenes.

These scenes can be disorienting at times for a writer - and if the writer is feeling disoriented, imagine how the reader must feel! My main technique for avoiding confusion (all over my writing) is close point of view. The point of view allows me to provide a single person's understanding of the situation, and to control information by limiting it to that person's perceptions and judgments. Here are some more things to think about as you head into that crowded situation.

1. Consider the entry.
A. Is your character prepared for this situation? Does he/she expect it? What is his/her state of mind? What is his/her purpose in entering?
B. Is your character alone as he/she enters the situation, or does he/she have someone to bring him/her in who will give purpose and direction to their entry?
It's funny, but sometimes when I can't figure out how to get a character to walk into a room cold, I can help myself with the dynamics by giving him another person to walk in with.

2. Consider the character's general impression of the situation.
What does he/she notice first? A particular person, or group of people? An overall impression of chaos? Of bustling activity? Of subdued general chit-chat?
Establishing an initial overall impression of the scene will allow you to set up the general dynamic in the reader's mind; then you can focus on smaller interactions within it, and return to the general dynamic in transitions between those interactions.

3. Consider the drive of smaller interactions.
Is your character's goal the primary thing taking him/her from one interaction to another? Or is your character being buffeted by circumstance from one interaction to another, and trying to stay afloat?
Knowing whether your character or the situation is the primary driver will help you decide how to begin minor interactions and move between them.

4. Consider the dynamic of smaller interactions.
Is your character engaging in one-on-one interactions within the larger situation? What are the conditions under which more people would join each interaction? Interruption? Being brought in by one of the conversation participants? How does your point of view character react to this kind of complexity? Easily, or with some kind of emotional reaction? Are there any times when a single individual gets the attention of the entire group?

5. Within smaller interactions, make sure to consider each participant's motives, background and state of mind.
Even if you're not using other characters' points of view, keeping track of who is interacting and what they want will help you to differentiate between participants, which is especially important when many characters are present.

6. Consider how long each interaction should last.
Is there room within the larger situation for people to have long private conversations? Or does the larger dynamic keep smaller interactions relatively short?

7. Consider how to maintain the reader's awareness, both of the participants in smaller interactions, and of the larger situation.
Is your character aware of things going on outside the interaction in which he/she is engaged? How does that affect his/her engagement in the smaller interaction? Are there people present in the smaller interaction who don't say much but can be noticed in their body language so readers don't forget they are there?

I hope these thoughts give you some ways to analyze those party scenes, playground scenes, ballroom scenes, cocktail lounge scenes, and all the different kinds of multi-character scenes that may present themselves in your writing. I find that thinking these things through can help me improve a scene I've written on gut instinct, or head into a new scene that I'm having trouble starting.

So jump into the group dynamic and have some fun!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Worldbuilding is not just Fantasy: the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In the last two weeks since I started my worldbuilding workshop (Submit here!), I've run into a number of comments about worldbuilding on the forums where I've announced it. One of those comments is that genre people should head over here and check out the workshop. Of course, I do actively encourage this! But the flip side of a comment like that is that if you're not writing science fiction and fantasy, you must not be doing worldbuilding, so you might as well give it a miss.


I couldn't disagree more.


Every story builds a world. The only difference is that a mainstream world has many more known or expected elements. So, if you're building a fantasy or science fictional world, each word that contributes to worldbuilding will be expanding or refining the reader's sense of what that created world is like. The reader can't reasonably assume that all rules of our own world will apply, and will continue to have a sense of the fantasy world expanding. By contrast, it doesn't take more than a few words to establish that we're in a mainstream world. Each word that contributes to the world thereafter comes with a lot more automatic baggage. Thus, our focus in mainstream shifts quickly away from "what world are we in?" and starts to focus more on the specifics of the location and time period, and on the particulars of the milieu we're exploring.


To demonstrate the importance of worldbuilding in mainstream fiction, I've decided to do a little worldbuilding analysis - in roughly the same style as my workshop - on a book which immediately impressed me as having fantastic worldbuilding: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


Think about it. The title alone doesn't tell you what world we're in - I could easily imagine a science fiction or fantasy book with the same title. Imagine if you found this book and had read no clues as to when and where it takes place. How much could you learn about the world of the book in the first 500 words?


In fact, you could be certain it occurs in our own world within the first three words - "A Friday in November" - since these time measurements are restricted to our own world. But it doesn't end there. This book may have been written by a Swede, but it wouldn't necessarily be set in Sweden. So what I've done below is taken the first (roughly) 500 words of the book and blue-highlighted the words that I feel contribute to an ongoing sense of world, time period, specific location, and social context. Some of them provide new information to refine our sense of location. Others simply confirm and reconfirm what has already been established, but are words that might be used differently for worldbuilding in a genre work. Either way, they are everywhere. Take a look:


***

A Friday in November

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day – which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

"It arrived."

"What is it this year?"

"I don't know what kind it is. I'll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It's white."

"No letter, I suppose."

"Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones."

"Postmark?"

"Stockholm."

"Handwriting?"

"Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering."

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy commentary or any sharp question which would shed new light on the case. Those days had long passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across.

The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. Someone at the botanical gardens in Uppsala would later confirm that it was a plant seldom cultivated in Sweden. The botanist wrote in her report that it was related to the tea tree and that it was sometimes confused with its more common cousin Leptospermum scoparium, which grew in abundance in New Zealand. What distinguished them, she pointed out, was that rubinette had a small number of microscopic pink dots at the tips of the petals, giving the flower a faint pinkish tinge.

Rubinette was altogether an unpretentious flower. It had no known medicinal properties, and it could not induce hallucinatory experiences. It was neither edible, nor had a use in the manufacture of plant dyes. On the other hand, the aboriginal people of Australia regarded as sacred the region and the flora around Ayers rock.

The botanist said that she herself had never seen one before, but after consulting her colleagues she was to report that attempts had been made to introduce the plant at a nursery in Göteborg, and that it might, of course, be cultivated by amateur botanists. It was difficult to grow in Sweden because it thrived in a dry climate had to remain indoors half the year.

***


If I were to comment about the process of world entry for me, it would look something like this:

  1. I figure out that we're in the real world by word #2.
  2. I figure out that we're in a region of the world where birthdays are celebrated by word #18.
  3. I figure out that we're in an era following the invention of the telephone by word #37.
  4. Word #51 is our first direct hint that we're in Sweden; for someone unfamiliar with the place, like me, it serves to show that we're not in a place I'm familiar with.
  5. The certainty that we're in Sweden arrives for me with word #139, "Stockholm," and word 313, "Sweden."

Other blue-marked words confirm these deductions and start pointing me toward the genre of the book (thriller), as well as the nature of the narrator (detail-oriented observer and examiner of evidence).


This book would not function as it does without these words. Our own writing must reflect the world we've chosen - real world or created world - in details, continually, or it will start to feel vague and disconnected.


Call it worldbuilding or what you like; it's not solely a genre issue.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Grammar link: Ever wonder about appositives?

I found this link today. Even if you've never wondered what an appositive is, you still use them all the time, so it's worth checking out. Very cool linguisticky stuff!

Something to look forward to

As I was going through my files last week I ran across an old version of a story I wrote some years ago, called "The Valiant Heart." This is a story that I posted on a now-long-defunct version of my website - a story I'd always liked but never been able to sell.

Lo and behold, when I started looking at the text, I started wanting to rewrite it and make it better. I told this to a writer friend of mine, and she suggested that I keep the old version and do a comparison of the old and new versions, talking about what I'd changed and why.

I was immediately excited about the idea. Therefore, my current plan is to sneak some revisions for this story in between my other projects, and eventually (when the revision is done) post it up at my author website alongside "Let the Word Take Me," at the same time bringing out a discussion post here talking about revisions and what I've learned as a writer since the last time I tried to write "The Valiant Heart."

This should be fun! I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Very cool link: climate and changes in civilization

Hayley Lavik put me onto this cool link today - paleoclimatologists have reconstructed climate information for the last 2500 years by looking at tree rings in preserved wood. They can see correlations between major historical changes in civilizations, and climate changes. Interesting link for worldbuilders!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Making the Amnesiac Work for You

Welcome to Week 2 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! I'm not always going to be counting weeks like this, but it feels good to be past week one and know that my methodology is going to work for all of you. As I did last week, I'll start by picking out worldbuilding words in color, then discuss some of the issues, and then go back through the excerpt with my thoughts and chit-chat.

This week's excerpt comes from Megs, who describes her world as "a doozy to walk into." Let's give it a shot.

***
Surfacing was hard. Her mind spiraled slowly upward through the dim fog of unconsciousness. Her eyelids cracked open and a wave of nausea crawled over her. Her stomach heaved, but she held it in and sat up, battling her own weak limbs and empty body.

She waited for her vision to clear.

Pale rose chiffon curtains hung down around her on a wide, soft bed. The coverlet was silken smooth with fire red and gold threads weaving circles of light and dark—joy and pain, her mind whispered—beneath her hands. Light streamed faintly in through the layers of sheer fabric all around her. No way out. She caught a shaky breath and lifted her hand to the chiffon, letting her fingertips touch it, see where she could barely see from the heaviness weighing down her eyes and hurting like a spreading ache throughout her entire body.

Her stomach rebelled again and she leaned over the side of the bed and emptied the emptiness in her stomach onto the stone slabs of the floor, etched with their ruby and flashing gold.

"You're awake."

She did not look up.

"I had hoped you would wake soon." A man's smooth, rich voice rolled over her, dark and deep, a low murmur beneath it drawing her out.

A flash of fire in her gut, her mind recoiling, sharp resentment spiking. She did not know why. She did not answer.

The man chuckled low, rumbling in his throat. "I have been waiting for you," he said.

Her hand clutched the chiffon curtain, grinding fingers into sweaty palms, marking the spread, scoring the curtain. She heaved again, then shook with the effort of staying alive.

Emptiness threatened to swallow her up.

Nothing. Nameless. Cryless. She swallowed at the emptiness inside her, heaving from the emptiness, losing what was not there to lose.

The man did not speak.

She answered, "You are?" The word was soft, lilted out in a heavy voice, strange to her empty ears. The language... It was nothing like the language of this man with his low, rumbling, smooth, drawing—manipulative, her mind whispered—voice.

"Ah." The man drew forward.

She felt him nearing her, drew her body up with effort and pulled away, but he was there, so close, his eyes and hair dark, skin fair, smile curving the lips pleasantly, dark clothes, hand rising and cupping her chin to make her look at him finally.

"You have come out of a place of darkness, my child," he said soothingly. "You are home now."

She stared at him wide-eyed, breath rasping between them, staring into the dark and knowing eyes.

A place of darkness...

It is something else, her mind whispered. A place—

But there it stopped. Words stilted. Memory bent.

His hand was warm against her skin and she leaned back her head just slightly, eyelids shuttering. She yanked her chin away and looked up at him with eyes of resentment, an unnamed fury boiling beneath her skin.
***

In this excerpt, we've got many fewer worldbuilding cues than the last one, but it's important to keep in mind that the avid SF/F reader is going to be thirsty for the world and surrounding context. Therefore, you can expect that they will extrapolate from anything available. Though many readers will come to a story with expectations (or at least having seen the cover!), I'm going to approach this as though I have no previous idea of what kind of story this is.

The first paragraph gives me "surfacing" and "wave," which tells me this is a world where people know water; "dim fog," suggests some possible climates and natural environments, but so far we could be almost anywhere, even a science fictional alien world. That's why I marked "eyelids" and "stomach," because they're suggestive of human anatomy. Indeed, people who are working with aliens often go to extreme lengths to mention strange elements of physiology, so these unremarkable body parts actually are a pretty solid indicator that our protagonist is human.

Our first concrete world indicator is the chiffon curtains. These could actually be present in our own world, as could the bed, but a silken coverlet has a very fantasy feel to it, and the red and gold threads contribute to that effect (I don't see a lot of red and gold silk in the homes I visit!). The next useful piece of information is the stone slabs of the floor. My vision immediately expands outward and I have her in a castle. I could be wrong - after all, this could be a rich merchant house with a stone floor, but castle is the first prototypical location on my list that fits with a stone floor under a curtained bed with silken covers. Especially once the word "ruby" is used (though I don't think there are actual rubies in the etched floor - are there?).

I'm also getting something interesting in the language. There are obviously two groups involved here, and two languages, and our protagonist speaks both of them. That added to the rage and hatred she feels for the man in the room suggest there may be enmity between these two groups, though we don't yet know much about it. It also makes me pretty sure that the man isn't telling the truth when he says that she's home. It gives me considerable curiosity about what will happen next (well done, Megs!).

As I read this scene, I can't help remembering that scene in the film, The Bourne Identity, where Jason Bourne is sitting at a diner and listing all the things he knows he can do, but can't explain. It's the contrast between what the amnesiac remembers, and what he or she doesn't remember, that teaches the reader the most. Most importantly for the purposes of world entry and grounding the reader, an amnesiac can generally still judge his/her surroundings in spite of considerable confusion and lack of specific memories. It's those judgments that will teach readers the most and make the author's job easier.

Okay, my thoughts and comments are below. For those just joining the workshop, please be aware that these are not corrections. It's more of a think-aloud critique exercise than anything else. Because I'm working with an amnesiac narrator, I'm going to be talking a lot, because I want to make sure we're noticing as many opportunities as possible.

***
Surfacing was hard. Her mind spiraled slowly upward through the dim fog of unconsciousness. Her eyelids cracked open [we might feel more grounded here if you used the subject pronoun "she" and let her open her own eyes. Our lack of a sense of place here seems to stem from her unconscious state, suggesting that we're in her head, but using a body part instead of a personal pronoun keeps us feeling more distant and less grounded.] and a wave of nausea crawled over her. Her stomach heaved, but she held it in and sat up, battling her own weak limbs and empty body.
[I notice that even though we're restricted here by the half-conscious amnesiac narrator, there are about seven metaphors in these first two sentences. 1. surfacing. 2. mind spiraling. 3. unconsciousness as a dim fog. 4. eyelids cracking open, perhaps like eggs. 5. nausea as a wave/6.? nausea crawling. 7. battling against weak limbs/body. Metaphors offer a terrific opportunity to show the terms in which your narrator thinks. Her memory may be gone, but her categories of reality will not have changed. Already I can hazard a guess that she knows how to swim (possibly plot relevant) and that she's got a strong will (surely plot relevant). These metaphors can be even more powerful if you align them with her personality and background.] She waited for her vision to clear.

Pale rose chiffon curtains hung down around her on a wide, soft bed. [If she can recognize chiffon curtains, she's probably still capable of judging things as familiar or unfamiliar, agreeable or disagreeable. What does she think of the pale rose chiffon? Does it suggest wealth to her? Is that good or bad? Does it seem like something she ought to recognize but doesn't?] The coverlet was silken smooth with fire red and gold threads weaving circles of light and dark—joy and pain, her mind whispered [I like this. It makes me wonder whether there is some personal or cultural association between those colors and the emotions she identifies] —beneath her hands. Light streamed faintly in through the layers of sheer fabric all around her. No way out. [I'm surprised by this. Yes, the fabric is all around her, but it's not binding her and it's pretty filmy; light suggests there is an exit nearby. So I'm not sure where she's getting this impression. It could be an instinctive assessment of her situation, but if so, maybe you could put in a "but" to contrast it with the curtains/light description] She caught a shaky breath and lifted her hand to the chiffon, letting her fingertips touch it, see where she could barely see [her being unable to see seems surprising because she had waited for her vision to clear, and her previous impressions are for the most part visual. Maybe this is a resurgence of fatigue?] from the heaviness weighing down her eyes and hurting like a spreading ache [a simile provides another possible place to hint at her background through your choice of what to compare the pain to] throughout her entire body.

Her stomach rebelled again and she leaned over the side of the bed and emptied the emptiness in her stomach onto the stone slabs of the floor, etched with their [maybe an adjective of judgment here. Does she think they're pretty? overly extravagant?] ruby and flashing gold.

"You're awake."

She did not look up.

"I had hoped you would wake soon." A man's smooth, rich voice rolled over her, dark and deep, a low murmur beneath it drawing her out.

A flash of fire in her gut, her mind recoiling, sharp resentment spiking. [This is interesting, because she's got such an ambivalent reaction to this man. I'm curious particularly about the fact that he attracts her first, repels her second. This seems like it should be meaningful. I wonder if there's a way you can identify one of these reactions as the reaction of her confused self, and the other as that of her core self, somehow.] She did not know why. [This is also interesting, because this is the point at which she becomes self-aware, i.e. aware of her own ambivalence and lack of understanding] She did not answer.

The man chuckled low, rumbling in his throat. "I have been waiting for you," he said.

Her hand clutched the chiffon curtain,[this is another place where I think a "she" subject might improve our grounding. She's having an intense emotional reaction, but we're only given the external effects of it. In fact, we've already seen that she's capable of verbal internalization (joy and pain), but we haven't heard any internalization from her since then. Is this a continuation of her revulsion for the man? How does she feel about the idea that he has been waiting for her?] grinding fingers into sweaty palms, marking the spread[so is she also holding the spread?], scoring the curtain [how, with her fingernails?]. She heaved again, then shook with the effort of staying alive.[this surprised me, because the grounding so far hasn't shown her emerging from a deathlike state, so much as a sleeplike state. I think a better picture of her judgment of her own internal states, even if confused, could clear this up.]

Emptiness threatened to swallow her up.

Nothing. Nameless. Cryless. She swallowed at the emptiness inside her, heaving from the emptiness, losing what was not there to lose.

The man did not speak.

She answered, "You are?" The word was soft, lilted out in a heavy voice, strange to her empty ears. The language... It was nothing like the language of this man with his low, rumbling, smooth, drawing—manipulative, her mind whispered—voice.[This is one of the most interesting points in the 500 words for me (language geek!). Given what I know about the differences between native languages and learned languages, I'm not sure about her being surprised by the sound of the language she herself speaks. Maybe, surprised that she has unconsciously chosen not to speak his language (which would be the polite option)? Does she have some reaction to the language he's speaking when he starts to speak at first? It is very common for people who speak multiple languages to place different kinds of moods and values on each one; you could take advantage of this.]

"Ah." The man drew forward. [You've used "draw" to describe his voice pulling her; this reappearance of the same word gives me the gut impression that the pulling is happening in a different direction. Did you intend this?]

She felt him nearing her, drew her body up with effort and pulled away, but he was there, so close, his eyes and hair dark, skin fair,[are there races in your world? any emotional reaction to this combination?] smile curving the lips pleasantly, dark clothes,[perhaps a single detail or two to help us see him (and his world) more clearly by grounding a sense of fashion?] hand rising and cupping her chin to make her look at him finally.

"You have come out of a place of darkness, my child," he said soothingly. [what is his view of this place of darkness? Does it have some special significance (religious or other) that might be reflected in his wording of the dialogue?] "You are home now."

[as I said, I get the immediate impression that he's lying. Even if she's going to believe him, this moment of mental vulnerability might be a good place to have her feel uncertainty, if not actual disagreement.] She stared at him wide-eyed, breath rasping between them, staring into the dark and knowing eyes.

A place of darkness...

It is something else, her mind whispered. A place—[and an evaluation. Fear? Awe, for something religious? Maybe part of this is that she has a different sense of what darkness means, or that she thinks the darkness was possibly caused by him; these things can potentially be expressed in metaphor.]

But there it stopped. Words stilted. Memory bent.

His hand was warm against her skin and she leaned back her head just slightly, eyelids shuttering. She yanked her chin away and looked up at him with eyes of resentment, an unnamed fury boiling beneath her skin.[This is the same sequence we see earlier, of appeal followed by revulsion. I like the way you have the ordering match. I'd like to see some internalization cues to give me a clearer sense of her internal struggle.]
***

Thank you very much to Megs for her courage in sending in this excerpt! I hope you find my comments helpful.

I've spoken in the past on the blog about cultural metaphors for life and daily activities; those metaphors, and gut evaluations of the value certain types of situations - racial appearances, objects, materials, etc. are all potentially very valuable to you. When you are working with a self-aware character, they can form an under-layer of cultural identity; when, as here, you are working with a character who is amnesiac, they can provide the reader with valuable cues which nonetheless don't detract from the reader's conviction that the person truly does not remember who they are.

I welcome any questions, or constructive and supportive comments.