Monday, February 28, 2011

What does choice of point of view (POV) mean? How does it challenge a writer?

I can't tell you how many lengthy discussions I've witnessed, and participated in, on the topic of point of view. With every visit to Absolute Write (a terrific site for writers, so check it out if you haven't) I'm almost guaranteed to find a discussion of point of view going on in one form or another... so I thought it was about time I revisited the topic.

Most people come to the topic of point of view through the basic categorization scheme of first person - second person - third person. It's not too hard to learn that first person means "I," second means "you," and third means "he" or "she." Where things get tangled up is in the further categories that get imposed, particularly on third person. So for today's post, I'm going to start by talking about some general characteristics of point of view, and then make a checklist to talk about what effects each basic pronoun permutation has, and what challenges it presents to the writer.

The most basic thing that point of view does is allow you, as a writer, to control information. In any given social situation there is so much available sensory information that you can't possibly capture it all. This was brought home to me in quite dramatic fashion by one of my professors in grad school. He asked the people in the class to write down everything he did from the point when he said "go" to the point when he said "stop." Then he went outside the door, said "go," walked in and up to his desk carrying a book, set down the book, looked up and smiled, and said "stop." After doing that, he had each person read the description he or she had written. Every single one of twenty descriptions was different from every other.

As a writer, you're in charge of what information makes it into your story. What gets in there should be whatever information is most important for the reader to understand - this is true whatever pronoun you choose to use. The different pronouns, however, create different effects - especially when used in conjunction with different verb tenses. I'll try to lay out some of the differences, and the complications that come with them, below.


1a. First person present tense (sometimes, "first person concurrent")
  • How we identify it: "I" is in the subject position when the narrator acts; main action verbs are in present tense, "am," "go," "walk," etc. though there will also be progressives ("am doing") and modals ("should be").
  • The narrator is the character reporting while in the process of experiencing the story. That means that his/her knowledge is restricted. Unless he/she has experienced something, or been told something, he/she cannot know it. He/she cannot know anything about what will happen before it happens. However, he/she is free to speculate, and to judge, and to regret, etc.
  • The narrative feels very myopic and immediate. Often readers will feel an extreme sense of intensity. This makes it a good choice when you want people to identify with the visceral experiences and emotions of your narrator. The narrative also carries the individual voice of the character.
  • The writer has at least three challenges here. First is to make sure to keep all information restricted to the character's own perceptions, judgments and actions without letting author knowledge creep in. Second is to make sure to include enough information and orientation that readers don't become disoriented. Third is to make sure to exclude filter words that distance readers from the narrative, and to include enough of others' behavior, and of judgment-laced description, that the narrative doesn't fall into a constant repetitive pattern of sentences starting with "I."
Example from "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009):
I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker. He never comes to the Ice Home while I attend Cold Council - he must bring important news! I bow to haunches, then excuse myself from Majesty's presence, quickly as I can without inviting snarls from the others.



1b. First person past tense/retrospective
  • How we identify it: "I" is in the subject position; main action verbs are in past tense, "was," "went," "walked," etc. though there will also be progressives ("was doing") and modals ("should have been"). Certain verbs may appear in present tense because of ongoing states.
  • The narrator is the character reporting the story after it has happened. Some authors put the narrator in a sort of nebulous, unidentifiable later time, but I think it's particularly interesting when the later context is more specific. The character may be an old woman talking about her youth, or someone who has just survived the climactic battle reporting on events of the last six months, or possibly someone in the afterlife reporting on the cause of his/her death (so this choice doesn't necessarily make readers doubt the peril the narrator is in).
  • The narrative feels less directly immediate than present tense narration. It may be infused with a distinct sense of storyteller voice, particularly if the narrator's context means he/she is reporting as a storyteller after the fact.
  • The writer's challenges are similar to those of the present tense narrative, in that information must be systematically restricted to the perceptions, emotions and judgments of the main character. It is somewhat easier to keep readers oriented because of the "storyteller" factor. The narrator may also (though not necessarily) make reference to events in the future of his/her past self, because they are in the past relative to the place where he/she is currently sitting while telling the story. It's also good to avoid filter words and overuse of the simple first person subject "I" to begin sentences.
Example from Blue Fire by Janice Hardy:
I watered the lake violets in the front sunroom. Just busy work, but I had to do something other than sit in the town house worrying while my friends were out risking their lives. I should have been out there with them, but I'd been recognized on our last rescue mission, and it wasn't safe outside for me anymore. Not that Geveg had been all that save in the five years since the Baseeri invaded; but being hunted by the Duke, his soldiers, Geveg's Governor-General, and who knew how many trackers added a whole new level of danger.

1c. First person mixed present/past tense
I included this one because it's more unusual, but makes perfect sense if, for example, you have a narrator who is sitting and writing a diary entry, commenting on both things that have happened in his/her past, and things that are going on while he/she is writing.

Example from Through This Gate (Dana writing in her journal about trying to figure out her new roommate Shannon):
Maybe mom was hinting that Shannon has some kind of granola-head thing going and I shouldn't let myself be influenced, but I'm not sure that fits with the makeup, or the computer either. Anyway, when the last box was in, Mom looked around my empty half of the room as if she didn't notice the bare blue mattress or the battered furniture. "This is great," she said, gesturing - I swear, the woman could conduct orchestras.


2a. Second person
  • How we identify it: "You" is in the subject position when the narrator acts.
  • The narrator is placed in a position which is the same as that of the reader. An assumption is made that the reader will accept an alternate assignment of identity. However, the protagonist is not actually usually the reader, but a character in the story as one would expect with other pronouns.
  • The narrative feels demanding and provocative. There may be a sensation that the actual protagonist is standing behind the reader, acting, but mostly invisible.
  • The writer's challenge grows directly out of the problem of narrator=reader. In order to enjoy the story, the reader must accept that they are conditionally being placed in the position of both character and reader. Not all readers are willing to do this. The actual identity of the narrator will grow out of that narrator's judgments and actions. Because of the sensation that the character is standing invisibly behind the reader, the identity of the narrator becomes a major factor in driving the story. Story entry is of special importance, because often the reader will have an easier time accepting this unusual subject position if the writer eases them into it slowly, rather than saying something extreme like, say, "You're a cyborg and you want to take over the world!" It's also important to keep the focus of the point of view restricted to the perceptions and reactions of a single character. If it's hard for a reader to accept being one other person, adding extra information will only make it harder.
Example from If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want you to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.


3a. Third person limited (also, "close third person")
  • How we identify it: "He" or "She" is in the subject position when the narrator acts.
  • The narrator is a character in the story. The information in the narrative must be restricted to what that single character knows, perceives, experiences, or judges, just as if it were written in first person.
  • The narrative feels idiosyncratic, carrying the character's voice. This voice may differ depending on the placement of the narrator either in the action (present tense) or after the action (past tense), but it reflects the character's identity.
  • The writer's challenge is to manage the story while maintaining the limits on the information a character can experience. Since both the protagonist and other characters will be marked with "he" and "she" pronouns, it can sometimes be harder to keep this discipline. Some authors using close third person point of view choose to change from one character to another over the course of the story in order to drive the story from different directions, so that no single character has all the information that the reader does. The challenges in this case become keeping the narrative voices distinct when using different characters to carry the narrative, and making sure readers don't get confused when point of view switches occur. A common means to reduce confusion is to mark point of view changes with chapter or scene breaks.
Examples from "The Eminence's Match" (Eight Against Reality, 2010)
POV 1
Shadowless in the light of two hundred and twelve electric bulbs on his vaulted stone ceiling, the Eminence Nekantor frowned down over his naked ribs. Look: two gold buttons at the waist of his silk trousers. Fastened, both of them, completely fastened. Deceptively fastened. They had been fastened wrong: lower-then-upper, not upper-then-lower. The difference stuck to the buttons like fingerprints. The difference felt like fingers pressing on his mind.
POV 2
Xinta bent into a half-bow, watching a gang of six noble boys surround him. They had a new leader today: Grobal Rennerik, with reddened knuckles on his right fist that matched a mark beside the former leader's left eye. The followers' gazes flickered hungrily between them. Clearly this encounter was to become Rennerik's demonstration that his leadership was deserved. That would mean a difficult task - but if he could carry it out, he could prove his worth in love and loyalty to all of them at once.

3b. Third person omniscient
  • How we identify it: "He" or "she" is in the subject position when any character acts.
  • The narrator is not a character in the story. This makes third person omniscient different from any of the other points of view mentioned above. It means the narrator is free of any restriction of person, time, or place that the story itself may impose on characters.
  • The narrative feels distinctly as if it is being related by a storyteller. Sometimes the voice of the narrator is distinctive (grandfatherly, or like an epic poet, etc.), and sometimes it is more invisible, but it does not match that of any character in the story. Readers don't share the myopia of any single character, though the narrator may show it to them.
  • The writer's challenge is to decide how to restrict the information included in the story. The narrator knows all - everything about the setting, about the characters' motives, perceptions, judgments, emotions and actions - but cannot tell all, for the reasons I mentioned above. Generally the narration will stick relatively close to the main character, because the goals of that person, and the stakes that person faces, are what keep the main conflict of the story driving forward. However, some narrators will create tension and drive by showing how different characters misunderstand one another. Because the narrator is not a character and has his/her own distinct voice, authors are free to show different characters' viewpoints in relatively close succession. The challenge becomes keeping the sense that the narrator is located in a place outside the story, distinct from the viewpoint of any character, so readers don't get confused when they are told what one character experiences so closely after hearing about another.
Example from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
"Here we are, Sara," said Captain Crewe, making his voice sound as cheerful as possible. Then he lifted her out of the cab and they mounted the steps and rang the bell. Sara often thought afterward that the house was somehow exactly like Miss Minchin. It was respectable and well furnished, but everything in it was ugly; and the very armchairs seemed to have hard bones in them.


You may notice at this point that I have not discussed some other variants of third person, like third person limited, or third person distant. These are questions of narrative distance, which I don't have time to discuss in this post. I'll try to take them up in the near future. For now, though, I encourage you to pop over to Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story, where she's going further with questions of omniscient point of view.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The life cycle of Twitter (or should I call it Flutter?)

I have a lot of friends who are on Twitter, and also quite a number who are not. When you hear people talk about Twitter, they talk about how amazing it is with its instant connectivity, all of the cool people you meet, etc., etc. What they're really talking about is the mature stage of Twitter. It's not what you see when you first get there, unless you're being invited by a friend who will begin by introducing you to a large number of pre-existing Twitterfolk. So for those who are less familiar with Twitter, I thought I'd describe the stages of its development for me, by comparing them to the life cycle of a butterfly.

1. Egg stage
You have a Twitter account. You don't follow anybody so the Twitterverse looks like an empty room. You try to find things to say and feel like you're talking to yourself, so you hardly say anything. If you try to invite people to see something you've done online, you're met with resounding silence. Maybe a person or two notices you and gives you a follow but there's little interaction.

How to move to the next stage: Ask your friends if they're on Twitter, and follow them. Take Twitter's follow suggestions if necessary. Find the Twitter accounts of groups you may be associated with. Whenever someone follows you, swing over to their profile and see what they're talking about. They might be a spambot (block!) but if they're human and interesting, follow them.

2. Caterpillar stage
You follow enough people that you're getting some interesting tweets coming in. You're also tweeting a bit more yourself, both socially and with content. You know how to use @ signs to contact particular Twitterfolk. The Twitterverse looks bigger and starts to have people in it: you have an incoming stream of information, and maybe you also have a friend or three, or have made acquaintances who care about your tweets. You get really hungry and start following people, and it becomes more and more likely that these are people you discover through tweets that come indirectly to your Twitter stream, via re-tweet. If you announce something to your followers, a few people click through; if one of your tweets hits a really well-connected person, you may see a wave.

How to get to the next stage: Keep doing what you're doing. Keep your eye out at the edges of your leaf. If you see interesting content, engage with it. Especially if you run across a highly-connected person, interact and engage with them. Follow them, because they will be passing on lots of cool information and new people to get to know. Don't underestimate the importance of simple greetings and expressions of solidarity, like sympathizing with people or cheering for them when they need it. You would do it for your friends, and this is important: These are your friends.

3. Butterfly (Flutter) stage
You're really in the wind now. There are no more walls, and butterflies are in flocks all around you. You've figured out the hashtags marked with # (though you may still be learning how some existing ones work). You're still doing social and content tweets, but you can contribute to hashtags. Sometimes your post will reach a few people, and sometimes it will reach waves of people you never imagined. You can also use hashtags as guideposts to help you know where to fly. Everything is connected, and you can see a tiny connection path when it shows itself, follow it and discover an entirely new "region" of interconnected people. You might attend a hashtag chat or follow a hashtag you're interested in to see what you can discover. You start seeing people you know sending messages with @ signs to other people you know. You might rediscover someone you met twenty years ago because they happen to be on Twitter and the wind blows them your way (this happened to me).

How to handle this stage: read what you want to read. Don't be afraid to unfollow if you're feeling overloaded, but don't feel obliged to read everything everyone posts, either - just read the wind when you stop in and see where it takes you. Tweet what you want to tweet, considering that you're speaking into a crowd; don't feel obliged to report every part of your day, because that's not necessary and it may exhaust you. Realize that there's more out there than you could ever process on your own. Explore and have fun.

I'm sure there are meta-levels of Twitter expertise which I haven't touched on. That's just because I haven't been there yet. Maybe when I get there I'll be able to find myself a new metaphor... Until then, I hope you like butterflies.

You can find me on Twitter here: @JulietteWade

Thursday, February 24, 2011

First sentences should make you ask, "Why?"

My daughter has an interesting habit. As I read her a complex story, I'll read her the first sentence of some paragraph... for example, "The war news was terrible," and she'll instantly ask, "Why?"

Sometimes I find it charming. Sometimes it derails me and I don't find it so charming. But tonight I realized that she is acting out what we all experience as we read a good first sentence. The first sentence of a book - even the first sentence of a paragraph - should make us curious.

When I had my minor epiphany tonight at storytime, I explained to my daughter that she was experiencing something very true about stories. She had caught (and verbalized) the precise sensation the writer was looking for, and that she would learn the answer to her "why" question as I continued reading, if she could just be patient. My son seemed rather crestfallen to think that he didn't do the same thing she did - but I said maybe he just didn't do it aloud, that he might be doing it in his head as we went along. His eyes went wide. "I am!" he said.

Look for that "why" as you write. It's not necessary with every paragraph, but it should pop up regularly. Check the first sentence of your book, of each chapter, of each scene. "Why" is your hook. If a stranger can read your opening sentence without a single hint of curiosity, you may have revisions in your future.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Workshop Delay

My apologies to participants and readers of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop. Due to my basically not sleeping last night - up with a sick child - I'm going to have to postpone this week's entry. The workshop will resume next Wednesday. For now, please enjoy this TTYU Retro: Where are we? Setting versus Grounding.

TTYU Retro: Where are we? Setting versus Grounding

We all know that a good setting for a story is important. I love to build worlds, and I know many people who visit here do, too. Sometimes very extensive ones. Of course, that doesn't mean that mainstream writers don't have to work on their worldbuilding too - they're just building a version of the real world instead of an independent, alternate world.

When we talk about setting, we talk about all kinds of elements that a world has - climate, ecology, flora, fauna, human/sentient communities, demographics, economy, social structure, technology, etc, etc. Everything we think through in our worldbuilding process can be useful to the portrayal of a world in a vibrant way in a story.

Super. But setting on its own isn't enough to make a story take off - every story needs grounding.

This might best be explained with a metaphor.

As a writer, you want to take your reader on a journey. You want to grab them by the hand (or the hair, the shoulder, or the guts, depending on the kind of story) and pull them through the story with you. If you're like me and you want to create a really exciting hook, that means you want to grab them as quickly as possible and start pulling with as much force as you can. Grounding, then, is the difference between having them running alongside you and having them pulled to their deaths behind galloping horses. If you want the reader to come with you - especially at a very quick pace - you want to start by giving them a solid place to jump off from.

On a basic level, grounding is about who/when/where. Who am I (the narrator or protagonist)? Where am I (the physical location)? When am I (the chronological location)? Each of these things can be indicated or elaborated in different ways. The reader isn't looking for every detail of your worldbuilding here - only some basic orientation that can be provided by a personal pronoun (I, he, she) and a sense of voice (who), a description of light or of nearby objects (where/when).

You'll probably tell me at this point that not every story needs all this. What about stories where the narrator is disoriented, lost, disembodied, or otherwise compromised, and doesn't know where he is? What about the confused time traveler?

Well, you're right. The type of grounding required by a story depends on the story. If you're going to have a physical departure from a location, you need a sense (even a confused, internal guess) of what that location is. A pitch-dark place with a hard floor can be enough if properly conveyed. If you're going to have personal interactions, it's good to have a sense of who the narrator is.

Look at your story. Pay particular attention to the place where the conflict starts - the spot where the hook grabs and pulls in a direction. The nature and direction of that pull will tell you what information might be needed for grounding.

Let me give some examples from my recent experience.

I was reading a draft from one of my many writer friends recently, and felt confused. I thought the protagonist was standing in one place when she was standing in another. I looked back at the descriptions, and the sentence was clear: a different character was standing in the spot where I'd mentally put the protagonist. There was no ambiguity. But when I looked back over the previous paragraphs, they were all internalization - excellent grounding for the mental and moral position of the protagonist, but not of a physical position. Because the different character was located physically, I needed to ask my friend to give the protagonist a physical location as well.

When I was drafting my story, "At Cross Purposes," I discovered that first-round readers were confused at the start. Yes, I was trying for a very quick hook. I was also creating a story where two unexpected things happened one right after the other, and I didn't have enough information to have the two departures make sense as departures. I needed to go back and establish physical location (she's on a shuttle!) and ongoing activity (they're flying around servicing machines) in order for those departures to be more tolerable to the human brain (she discovers something that shocks her, and then it turns out not to be at all what she expected). If you think about it, a departure from expectations means little if you don't have any sense of what expectations are.

I'm currently working on a story with a narrator who is supposed to start as an enigma. Reading about him, you're supposed to wonder, "Who is this guy, precisely?" What you're not supposed to wonder is "What the heck is going on?" I was quite happy with my first sentence, which was, "Of course people write letters; I knew that from watching the monks." The grounding here is that we have a character (I) who watches monks, which implies he's at or near a place where monks live. The next hint as to setting was that the character expresses dislike of letters written in Chinese, because he doesn't care about court business - that at least lets us know we're dealing with Asian monks rather than European ones. Then someone writes the narrator a letter, and the letter is composed in a very particular style that is specific to an era of Japanese history. The problem was, the hints were too sparse and too indirect. I needed better location and time grounding if I wanted readers to accept the style in which the letter was written. So I added the name of the temple, Ninnaji. That gives readers a Japanese language hint, and then optional for those who know about temples and Japanese history, is the fact that Ninnaji is an existing temple in Kyoto which has been around since the Heian era. Then I added that my narrator had stolen the letter in Chinese from "the Emperor's messenger." While that's not specific to the Heian era, it at least is an indication that the time period isn't the present day, and I'm hoping it will get readers looking for further clues - in which case, the letter-writing style can be a clue rather than a mystery.

No matter what the setting, every story needs grounding, and the choice of grounding information is critical to the success of a story opening - so keep your eyes out for it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post Today!

I thought I should point out to my readers that I have a post up today at Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story. My post is called "Is world building in stories different from world building in novels?" If that question interests you, head on over!

The expansion of global information, wars, and the "decline" of epic fantasy

Over the last few days I've been watching the discussion of modern fantasy which began with Leo Grin's dramatic decrying of the state of the genre these days, continued with a response by Joe Abercrombie (whose work Grin roundly criticized in his article), and many comments from others (summarized here at Black Gate).

To summarize quite briefly, the idea put forward by Grin was that Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Howard (Conan the Barbarian) wrote works of genius that upheld a sort of superior morality, and that modern fantasists who subvert visions of good versus evil and clear-cut morality are a sign of the decline of modern Western civilization.

"Post-modern deconstructionism," a concept that came up in this discussion, is not an unfamiliar term to me. As someone who has spent time immersed in academic discussions of the history of Anthropology, Discourse (a la James Gee), Cultural Capital (Bourdieu), and how to define Literacy, I feel rather as though I've witnessed the fighting on the front lines of this discussion. The arguments on both sides of this sound very familiar to me, but filtered through the lens of fantasy fiction.

I was most intrigued, I think, by the following quote from the response of Philip Athans:
If fantasy has evolved to take on a darker tone, matured to address adult themes, isn’t that more likely a response to the world around us now—that the myths of the early 21st century will be different in some way from the myths of the mid-20th century—than that there’s some kind of conspiracy to pervert a genre that apparently not only peaked but effectively stopped with Tolkien and Howard?

The force at work here, as I see it, is the general change in what we call "Western" culture, much of it driven by the expansion of information transfer on a global scale. Tolkien and Howard did their work in the 1930s and 1940s, subsequently to the first world war and during the second. This was a world culturally very different from our own - one where feminism was just beginning, and one which had yet to feel the influence of cultural relativism. Several of the commenters in the debate have mentioned that they don't feel Tolkien and Howard's work are quite as pure as they have been portrayed, and I feel this also. Certainly I recognize the mournfulness of The Lord of the Rings (which is brilliant, but I could never really enjoy until I was an adult). I have read articles arguing that The Lord of the Rings was some kind of allegory of the world wars, and counterarguments to that position. My sense is that even if Tolkien was not deliberately referencing historical events, those events had an enormous influence on the cultural ambiance of the time, and that can be seen in his work.

As culture has changed, so have wars. World War I was "The Great War"; in a sense, World War II was the last "great war." In both of those conflicts, there was a sense of good and evil - a kind of clarity which had changed drastically if not entirely disappeared by the time of the Vietnam war. For better or worse, wars have changed. Perhaps it's because the motivations behind our entry into conflict are more widely debated and better understood by the general populace (something I relate at least in part to the expansion of global information). In any case, the earlier wars referenced a very clean and clear-cut morality, while more modern ones are commonly questioned, and their morality seldom is reducible to good-versus-evil. I believe this march of history runs parallel to the developments in fantasy fiction.

I don't really see this as a cultural decline - it is a cultural change. More voices are heard these days than in the past, from more people of different cultures. Morality seen from the viewpoint of several involved parties looks a bit different from what it was when we used only one lens. We're starting to hear women's voices, and the voices of those traditionally ignored or considered "other." To me this is a welcome change. I'm sure some feel threatened by it, but on the other hand, I've never felt that cultural capital was something finite. Giving voice to groups who have previously had none doesn't mean we don't hear the voices we always have. It just means that those voices will ring differently.

Fantasy reflects history, and it reflects reality. Neither heroes nor anti-heroes are new. Hercules himself was a hero who happened to cause terrible collateral damage. I happen to be someone who welcomes the idea of questioning cultural assumptions, and though I've read books where the attempted "realism" in terms of bodily injury etc. is too much for me, I'm glad those books are out there.

Books open our minds and make us think; their compass helps us better understand our own.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Link on Linguistic Illusions

Here's a link I picked up from PBS (go, PBS!). Colin Phillips is using "linguistic illusions" to explore how the brain processes language, much in the way people use optical illusions to see how the brain processes vision. Here's an example:

More people have been to Russia than I have.

Does that make sense to you? Does it really?

You can check out more, and find a link to the academic paper associated with them, here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great link about space farming

This one comes from Patty Jansen, who has considerable smarts in the agricultural area from her past history. Want to know what you'd really need to farm in space? Check out this link.

Girl, Levitating

I came across this lovely link thanks to a friend on Facebook. Natsumi Hayashi loves to levitate... to take pictures of herself in midair all around Tokyo. The images are great, and the description that comes with them is both lovely and culturally revealing. I hope you enjoy it.

What "Home" Means - to Your Characters and your Story

What is home? What "says home" to you? What does "home" mean?

I came across this link on Twitter today, and the moment I started reading it, I knew I'd have to talk about it. Here's a quote from Melissa Crytzer Fry's post:

Home … what defines it? Grandma’s old farmhouse? The whirr of traffic buzzing past the highway in front of your childhood home? Pepsi in a glass bottle from the upright dispenser in Uncle Bob’s auto shop, tugged from its individual, circular cubby behind the swinging glass door? The bleating horns of cabs in front of your urban apartment? The aroma of the Italian bakery on the corner? Family dinners around a bonfire? The dusty smell of soaked creosote bushes after a desert rain?

What I love about this post - and about the comments that follow it - is that it gets people writing down the sensory perceptions that they associate with this highly emotional concept. Because that's what "home" is. It's a fundamental emotional concept that we've learned, and once we've established it, it continues to exist at our core. As Melissa and her commenters remark, sometimes the concept of home can be expanded, or can be associated with more than one location. What she also points out is that it's fundamental to a writer, and can have enormous influence on a writer's stories.

What I'd like to point out is that it's not just fundamental to a writer. It's fundamental to every character in your story. Do you feel different when you're away from home? More scared? More free? Sure - and so will your characters. Furthermore, the stranger your characters are, the more unexpected their concept of home may be. When Bilbo wants to comfort himself, he thinks about teatime at his home in the hobbit-hole. Frodo thinks of the Shire too - and the contrast between their emotional roots and the adventures and terrors they're going through add an amazing amount of dimension to the stories we read. Mind you, if it were me, I'd like to know what Legolas and Gimli think of as home, too... and Gandalf. Why not?

Particularly if you're getting into a character's head, think about "what means home" to this person. Maybe they don't have a home. But if they don't, does that mean that "home" turns into an idea that other people push on them, something that causes them anger? That knowledge is still valuable.

Melissa Crytser Fry mentions that there are writers who write only stories that occur in their own home settings. When we write science fiction and fantasy... um, we're not doing that. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from what those writers accomplish. Take a look at how the commenters in this post speak of their own homes (this ties back to my post Interviewing Characters? Interview Yourself!). Your human characters will likely have a home that they think about in a very similar way, and which they compare to their current experiences. Even your alien or fantasy-race creatures probably have a concept of home. If you can capture it, and capture how your characters think about it, then it will bring depth and realism to even the most far-out speculative fiction.

It's something to think about.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A great site with Japanese art

If you're interested in Japanese art, this is a great site, recommended to me by Harry Markov. So go check it out! It's called Pink Tentacle.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nice post on misused word cousins

Go here if you wonder about lay/lie, literally/figuratively, fewer/less, or such conundrums.

The Images We See, and their cultural messages

After my post Wednesday about the study on male and female reactions to seeing nudes, I got to thinking about the idea of the images we see. One of the points in that article was that there is not only a quantitative, but a qualitative difference between the presentation of male and female nudes, and that there is also a distinct difference in the way males and females react to them.

We're constantly surrounded by images and messages. I remember when I had serious eye strain and was trying not to read or look at things close by me - it was nigh unto impossible! In our society, these images and messages come from various sources, but many of them are advertising related and financially motivated. They are a product of what the culture (or a dominant subculture) is perceived to want, and their presence not only caters to this culture, but reinforces and re-enacts it.

The supermarket, for example, is a barrage.

This isn't necessarily the case in all cultures, however. Some products are sold visually and some are sold auditorily, as were the roasted sweet potatoes that a man sold in my neighborhood in southern Kyoto. He used to stroll through the street with his cart singing, "Yaaaaaki-imooooo!" through a loudspeaker (it drove me bonkers). It hasn't been true in all time periods, either. People used to hawk their wares with their own voices much more than they do now.

Most of the time we're able to move through our familiar environments without noticing all of the images or their messages. At other times we spend more attention questioning them.

When we're writing and creating worlds, it strikes me that there's some value in considering what kind of images our fictional people create. What do they see in their familiar environments? Who is responsible for disseminating those images? What kind of messages do they send about the culture that created them?

I remember being quite struck by a system of political radio advertising that Ursula K. LeGuin wrote into her book, The Telling. It wasn't something I'd seen done for an entirely alien society before.

I want to see more of this sort of thing, because every society has its way of sending messages, both economic and social. Fashion is one major way that people send their own messages about their wealth and place in society. And if print is available and easy, and people can advertise, what would they advertise? What would they consider art, what commercial, what inappropriate?

When I designed Varin I wanted it to have high technology but not to be like our own society. One of the parameters I changed was that of image-acceptance. The Varini believe that art is a perfectly acceptable form of visual expression, but that photography is too disconcertingly realistic (for underlying religious reasons). As a result, their highest forms of technology haven't gone the direction that photography started. The images they create are painted or lettered, and they don't have live action movies or sophisticated graphic computer monitors.

What cultural messages do your people want to convey? What methods do they use to convey them? What images will your readers see when they enter your world?

It's something to think about.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

TTYU Retro: Culture is what we DO

The word "culture" sticks out to me. In almost any context where I see it, it makes me curious, and makes me want to comment.

So what is culture?

Well, whole classes have been dedicated to this topic, as you might imagine. Probably one of the first things that comes to mind is "high culture," what we mean when we say someone is "cultured." Art, music, theater, etc. The finer things in life. That's certainly one of its meanings, but it only captures the tiniest part of what culture really is.

Culture is what we do.

I like to think in terms of what's called "cultural practices." These are the special things we do that form a part of our routine, our habits, etc. The way we interact verbally involves cultural practices. Our sense of objects and how we relate to them.

Whenever we do anything, we are enacting our culture. We aren't contained by culture. In a thread some time ago on the Analog forum, someone mentioned The Force from Star Wars - I loved the analogy. The Force is all around us, it is in us, etc. Culture is more interesting than The Force, though, because by enacting it, we pass it on to others, and simultaneously we bring about change in it.

Culture is a quality of interaction - not a written set of rules that people have to follow, but a way of doing things. We can articulate the rules, and sometimes we've been taught them explicitly, but we don't just follow them - we hold a relationship with them. We discuss them perhaps, or rebel against them, or value them, or defy them, or cherish them...

They're like the road we walk on. We can choose to follow the road to its destination, or we can walk away from the destination. But leaving the road entirely is far more difficult and dangerous.

When you think of culture in terms of interactions and cultural practices, it becomes far easier to grasp what people mean when they talk about "a family culture" or the culture of a smaller group. For every group that engages in regular interaction, a set of conventions will emerge through that interaction. Thus we can have "football culture," enacted by a group that meets in association with football events. We can have "company culture," enacted by the members of a company. An online forum can have a culture, too - witness the online discussions regarding the difference between the Analog forum and its neighbor, the Asimov's forum.

At least one of the consequences of this conception of culture is interesting for writing in sf/f. The idea is that, since we enact culture in everything we do, any smallest piece of interaction that you capture will contain evidence of that culture. To put it in writing terms, the culture of an alien world, a future Earth colony or a fantasy society will show itself in every single scene - and in every part of that scene, and in everything its people say, and in every object they possess, and in every attitude they have, and in every body movement they use to express emotion, etc. etc.

This might sound very demanding.

In a way, it is. But in another way, it's not so bad, because the pieces of a culture flow into one another. Usually there's an overarching world concept involved, an underlying principle, or a set of underlying principles. Even just a large metaphor, such as the metaphor of the hunt and the food chain that I used to structure the world of the Aurrel in "Cold Words." If you can come up with principles, then you can start to push deeper with your expressions of culture in a way that will make sense and that readers will be able to grasp. The important part is that the practices you create must make sense to the characters. They must appear logical and obvious - and if they are strenuous, then there must be a strong motivation for engaging in such strenuous activity.

If you can build culture into the actions, speech, and thoughts of your character, then you won't have to explain, or work hard to have some character in your story explain how the culture works.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fascinating post about gendered responses to viewing nudes

I came across this link today, which was traveling across Twitter, and clicked over. From the point of view of an anthropologist, this is fascinating. Here's the opener from the article by Dr. Lisa Wade (no relation):

Last year in a post about the truism “sex sells,” I asked:

But whose sex is sold? And to who?

“If it was simply that sex sold,” I continued…

…we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture. Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men. So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex”?

I argued that what was really being sold was men’s (presumably heterosexual) sexual subjectivity, the experience of being a person in the world who was presented with images that were for his titillation. Women do not live in the world this way.


The author then follows up with a study on male and female responses to viewing nudes. It's absolutely fascinating, and I highly encourage you to look.

New Design...

Welcome to my new blog design! I'm trying to find a way of organizing things around here to make the blog easier to explore, and I appreciate your patience while I go about tweaking this and that. Suggestions are welcome...

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Description implies narrator focus

Welcome to week seven of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! This week's entry comes from Domini. As I generally do, I'll start by taking a look at the excerpt from a world-entry point of view, highlighting in blue the words that give me worldbuilding information.

***
Clink.

Grrrratttte.

Clink.

Tv-v-v-v-v-v-er.

Clink.

Eirabeth spotted it first. It came from the portalvast out of the Sundown Gate, bronze head forward with a spelled torch protruding from its mouth to light the way, crawling up the rail rungs hand-over-hand and dragging its ironwork carriage behind on its belted treads. "Papa," she said, shoving at her father's legs with small, chubby hands to get his attention, as green and yellow lights whirled above the gate in a frenzy. His hand descended to rest on her head for a second, but he paid her no real notice.

Junamay, Eirabeth's elder sister, did though. She followed her youngest sister's gaze and spotted the portalvast engine coming down the platform, and her eyes went nearly as wide as a Fridan's. And then she screamed.

Clink. Tv-v-v-v-v-er. The rail crawler's matte metal hand drew back above its head to its greatest height, then dropped like a steel weight to latch onto the next rail and drag itself forward. Then the opposite arm was levered high, only to drop and drag the machine forward again. Then it stopped, and waited.

"Hi," Eirabeth said, because the portalvast engine had a face.

Copper-orange irises set in white ceramic eyeballs rolled towards her in their sockets, but the rail crawler's lips were sealed around the butt end of the torch, and it did not speak. Its head, fused to its neck, which was in turn fused to its shoulders, was unable to move left or right.

"For f***'s sake, shut the screeching child up," a Portalvast Magus snapped, striding down the platform, her thin young body encased in a skin-tight banded leather bodysuit. Her fingers dangled at head-height for a toddler of Eirabeth's age, and the tips of her finger-carbinettes glowed like waiting embers. Connected to the gauntlets were lesser copper cooling fins on the arms, and a network of tubes and framework anchored the weapons to the larger primary cooling fins on her back, which made the air shimmer and distort with heat where they arced in a great sweep above her narrow shoulders. Her head was covered by a silver helmet swirled like a snail's shell, and only her mouth and lips and tip of her small upturned nose were visible, uncovered by the breathing mask that dangled by a thong, although a waxy line around her cheeks and over her nose showed where it would seal when strapped tight.

The adults gave her a wide berth, even though if the magus hadn't been a magus, and therefore steeped in contaminating potent mal, most of them would have considered her barely more than an upstart with unwarranted and unearned authority.

"Mama, it doesn't have legs, where did its legs go?" Junamay blubbered at their parents in terror, totally missing the appearance of the Portalvast Magus.

Eirabeth hadn't missed the magus, but when her young mind briefly compared the two tantalizing and exciting things, the rail crawler won out, because it was paying attention to her with that strange, orange-eyed gaze, and the magus already had her back to everyone. "It doesn't have legs," Eirabeth echoed, her own eyes taking in every detail of the humanoid engine the carriage was attached to. "It's playing wheelbarrow." And she pointed at it, if that would make what she was seeing clearer to everyone. The shoulders of the machine were visible, and the ribcage and waist, but its body disappeared into the carriage portion halfway through the buttocks, and it used its arms for locomotion.
***

The world entry is interesting for this one, because Domini chooses to open with onomatopoeia. I'm not sure why, but Clink and Grrrratttte give me the distinct sense that I'm in a human world. More mysterious is Tv-v-v-v-v-v-er, which already throws me off any easy assumptions I might have made about the world I'm in.

The next piece of information comes from the name Eirabeth. This tells me that we're in a fantasy human environment. Further refinement of our sense of place comes from the unexplained word portalvast and from the approaching object with its bronze head and spelled torch. This is a place with machines (bronze) and magic (spelled) - already I'm suspecting steampunk. This hypothesis is further supported by the rail rungs and ironwork carriage. The people are quite human, though, as evidenced by the child calling, "Papa," and by her small, chubby hands. I get one rather intriguing piece of social information from the description, "as wide as a Fridan's." There is no hint of what a Fridan might be within the excerpt as given, but I'm already curious about it.

Now we'll take a look at the excerpt again, this time with my comments introduced in brown. These comments are mostly a think-aloud for me, and are not intended to be corrections. I hope they will be helpful to you.

***
Clink.

Grrrratttte.[This onomatopoeia is interesting. It puts me in an English-based human world, probably because I know how idiosyncratic onomatopoeia is, and how it varies between cultures. Other readers might not be so quickly situated by it.]

Clink.

Tv-v-v-v-v-v-er.[This is an unfamiliar sound, not a common onomatopoetic word. Now I'm looking for unexpected things.]

Clink.

Eirabeth spotted it first. [So we're in a fantasy world.] It came from the portalvast [I wonder what this is.] out of the Sundown Gate[Is the Sundown Gate somehow related to the portal of "portalvast"?], bronze head[this fits with the clanking sounds] forward with a spelled torch [I wonder about the word "spelled," which makes me think of spelling.] protruding from its mouth to light the way[this makes me think we may not be in Eirabeth's point of view, as it implies the intent of the robotic thing], crawling up the rail rungs hand-over-hand and dragging its ironwork carriage behind on its belted treads.[lots of detail on the appearance of the thing] "Papa," she said, shoving at her father's legs with small, chubby hands to get his attention, as green and yellow lights whirled above the gate in a frenzy.[what does this frenzy imply? Does it mean emergency, or something else specific?] His hand descended to rest on her head for a second, but he paid her no real notice.[Here I see confirmation that the point of view is omniscient. I wonder who the narrator is.]

Junamay, Eirabeth's elder sister, did though. She followed her youngest sister's gaze and spotted the portalvast engine [this gives me a speck more information about portalvast, but not enough for me to feel certain I know what it means.] coming down the platform, and her eyes went nearly as wide as a Fridan's. [Simile #1. Interesting. I wonder who the Fridans are, and who is drawing this comparison.] And then she screamed.

Clink. Tv-v-v-v-v-er. The rail crawler's[this is the second term you use to describe the thing.] matte metal hand drew back above its head to its greatest height, then dropped like a steel weight[simile #2. Steel weights sound like they must be common.] to latch onto the next rail and drag itself forward. Then the opposite arm was levered high, only to drop and drag the machine forward again. Then it stopped, and waited.[this whole paragraph is about the machine and its mode of movement. You're putting a great deal of focus on it. This makes me guess that it's going to be very important.]

"Hi," Eirabeth said, because the portalvast engine had a face.[This is very charming. I get a distinct sense that this girl is too young to have developed proper fear of/respect for the thing.]

Copper-orange irises set in white ceramic eyeballs rolled towards her in their sockets, but the rail crawler's lips were sealed around the butt end of the torch, and it did not speak. Its head, fused to its neck, which was in turn fused to its shoulders, was unable to move left or right.

"For f***'s [This is interesting, a very real-world swear word which makes me think this must be some alternate Earth steampunk world] sake, shut the screeching child up," a Portalvast Magus [This fits with the magic implied by the torch, and the word "portalvast" recurs, still rather vague in its reference] snapped, striding down the platform, her thin young body encased in a skin-tight banded leather bodysuit. Her fingers dangled at head-height for a toddler of Eirabeth's age, and the tips of her finger-carbinettes glowed like waiting embers. [simile #3. This implies to me that these are weapons.] Connected to the gauntlets [gives a feel of knight armor] were lesser copper cooling fins on the arms, and a network of tubes and framework anchored the weapons to the larger primary cooling fins on her back, which made the air shimmer and distort with heat where they arced in a great sweep above her narrow shoulders. [again, much attention given to details of the workings of this outfit.] Her head was covered by a silver helmet swirled like a snail's shell,[simile #4] and only her mouth and lips and tip of her small upturned nose were visible, uncovered by the breathing mask that dangled by a thong, although a waxy line around her cheeks and over her nose showed where it would seal when strapped tight.[I wonder who is making all these detailed observations.]

The adults gave her a wide berth,[fits with the train images] even though if the magus hadn't been a magus, and therefore steeped in contaminating potent mal, [interesting; this seems like it might be the underlying basis of the magic system because of the way it's introduced. "Contaminating" is also interesting.] most of them would have considered her barely more than an upstart with unwarranted and unearned authority.[why?]

"Mama, it doesn't have legs, where did its legs go?" Junamay blubbered at their parents in terror, totally missing the appearance of the Portalvast Magus. [So this seems to say that the magus is normal enough to her, and the robot itself may be too, but she's traumatized by the fact that this one has no legs. Or is it that the robot itself upsets her?]

Eirabeth hadn't missed the magus, but when her young mind [I conclude that the narrator is not young] briefly compared the two tantalizing and exciting things, the rail crawler won out, because it was paying attention to her with that strange, orange-eyed gaze, and the magus already had her back to everyone. [mind you, the magus' back seems rather dramatically adorned.] "It doesn't have legs," Eirabeth echoed, her own eyes taking in every detail of the humanoid engine the carriage was attached to. "It's playing wheelbarrow."[This is another very Earthly phrasing.] And she pointed at it, if that would make what she was seeing clearer to everyone. The shoulders of the machine were visible, and the ribcage and waist, but its body disappeared into the carriage portion halfway through the buttocks, and it used its arms for locomotion.[Much of this you have already said or shown through the earlier descriptions.]
***

Domini, thanks so much for submitting this. I enjoyed it, and I find there's a lot of cool stuff to be curious about here.

One of the things I notice as I read through is that the narrator gives a lot of attention to the details of the mechanical objects (the robot, and the magus' equipment) even though neither one takes any action other than arriving during the course of the excerpt. I'm noticing some repetition of information about the robot, particularly, which probably isn't necessary. Whenever a lot of words are devoted to the description of an object or person, that object or person takes on additional significance in the mind of the reader. I found myself thinking, what is the significance of the robot's arrival? And what is the significance of the magus' arrival?

The omniscient narrator here works just fine to convey what's going on, but I'm not sensing that this person has an identity. I found myself looking for evidence of that identity, and I found it in just a few places, as when the narrator calls Eirabeth "young." Similes are also a great clue to the narrator's identity, which is why I went through and counted them. I came to the tentative conclusion that the narrator was an older individual who was internal to this world. The amount of description of the machinery did somewhat run counter to this, however (if we consider that what is normal will generally get less attention).

Developing a clearer sense (even if it's quite basic) of the narrator's identity will help shift focus onto the drive of the story's central conflict. It should also make it easier to express the relative significance of objects and events. Fewer words will be needed to envision the objects we're seeing, and more can be used to flesh out mysteries like the portalvast, the Fridans, and the social status of the young woman acting as portalvast magus (all of which are things I'd really like to have a stronger sense of, because they're fascinating).

Thanks again for submitting, and I hope you find these comments helpful. The constructive discussion is open!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A character of mine on the couch...

Today one of my characters is being psychoanalyzed over at The Character Therapist. The funniest part for me is seeing how she changed the names "to protect the fictional"! If you've been reading my blog awhile, you may recognize one of the characters mentioned. Anyway, thanks to Jeannie for taking the time and running such an interesting blog. I encourage you to check it out.

Character motivations versus plot motivations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A historical Valentine

My friend Sheila Finch pointed this wonderful link out to me yesterday. It's about the earliest known use of the world "Valentine" to describe one's love - occurring in a love letter from Margery Brews and her betrothed John Paston in 1477. They married and their descendants still live in England today, and if you scroll down, you'll find on the right-hand side a place where you can listen to the letter read aloud in the original dialect.

It's just wonderful, so enjoy - and happy Valentine's day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

2000 year old medicine?

I found this interesting link today. It talks about the discovery of a Greek shipwreck which included medicinal pills, still preserved, giving hints about the medicines of the time. Very interesting stuff.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A very enjoyable article

This one is about forms of rhetorical argumentation - and what happened when a father taught them to his kids. Funny and possibly quite useful!

Personal insights into a less-explored culture

Just yesterday my friend Harry Markov put up a post that I really love. Some friends of his (I think including me) finally convinced him to do some posts about the culture of his home country, Bulgaria. This is the first one, entitled "Saint Haralampi, Patron of Plague and Beekeepers." For all of you who may be looking for insight into a culture you haven't heard about before, this is great stuff. I highly recommend you go and check it out. I'm so happy that he's started doing this, and I look forward to his posts in the future.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Story Arcs Again: Repetition and Development

I was fascinated by the response to my post the other day, "Three points makes a story arc." One of the things I noticed was that people in various contexts took issue with my simplification of the arc into a series of three "repetitions." Yes, indeed, repetition makes it seem simple. On the other hand, what I was trying to do was take a look down through all the layers of complexity and try to figure out what the absolutely most basic form of an arc would be. I've seen a lot of fantastic discussions (including this one) of story arcs that look at the arc in terms of its intuitive form, but one of the things I like to try to do here on the blog is tie things down as concretely as possible.

I'm still convinced it is the sense of repetition that sensitizes us to arcs when we read - however, repetition should not be defined in its most simplistic sense. We see something occur. Then we recognize it the second time it occurs, but something gets added. This sets up an expectation for further progress, or progress of a particular type, going forward. The next time we see the repeated element, the development that happened between point 1 and point 2 may be turned in a different direction. What takes a simple repetition and turns it into an intuitively recognizable arc is this development over the course of the story - but in terms of the writing, it's not a smooth progression. There are discrete events that contribute to it.

For the purposes of being specific, I thought I'd lay out a few of the arcs that I'm putting into my current novel. There are lots of arcs in this one, and they do very different things - and many of the smaller arcs also participate in larger arcs.

Arc 1 repeating element: Stranger (I mentioned this arc in my last arc post)
  • Character 1 glimpses a stranger at a concert
  • Character 1 sees a stranger at a second concert, approaches and speaks briefly to him
  • Character 1 goes to a private concert and is vaguely surprised when he doesn't see the stranger
  • Character 1 meets the soloist from the private concert and is personally introduced to the stranger
So with the stranger, we have repetition that appears pretty simple at first. He comes out of nowhere and doesn't have any development in his first appearance; that's because there would be no plausible reason for him to interact with Character 1 in this context. However, it becomes an arc because he reappears, and when he does, something new happens: they speak together. Repetition+development is what gives the arc its trajectory. The third instance, in which Character 1 doesn't see the stranger, helps to develop the arc because it lets readers know that Character 1 has developed a curiosity about this person he wouldn't otherwise have. That curiosity will actually have its own arc as the story goes on. It also sets Character 1 up to be receptive to the opportunity that happens at the next point, when he's introduced to the stranger personally. There are actually more points on this arc, but I haven't written them yet and don't want to give them away!

Arc 2 repeating element: Della
  • Character 1 goes to a concert, is caught in a riot and ends up having to stick with a stranger for his own protection. He never learns her name.
  • Character 1 goes to a second concert and Della is at this one as well. He sees her at intermission and offers her servant a drink but doesn't speak to her.
  • Character 1 sees Della again after the second concert finishes; this time she speaks to him. Someone else sees him speaking with her.
  • Character 1 is coerced into going to an event by the person who saw him speaking with Della (another arc branches off here)
  • Character 1 is told not to see Della again
  • Character 1 gets an opportunity to see Della's servant again and turns it into an opportunity to see her in spite of this advice. Della implies she may invite him to her home.
You can see this one is a major arc, but only for Character 1. Other arcs branch off of it, as when there are consequences for Character 1 being seen with this girl. The repeating element is always the girl, but the things that happen occur in an order of development that increases Character 1's involvement with her, and also raises the risk of him continuing to see her. Just as I mentioned above, it is this kind of continued development and increase of risk at each point which creates the sensation that we have an arc moving upward. Thus as the arc progresses we could imagine a point where Character 1's chances with her are diminished by events, and this point would be perceived as a change in the arc's trajectory, downward for a period of time instead of uniformly upward.

Arc 3 repeating element: Kinders Fever
  • Character 1 sees the Speaker of the Cabinet drop dead of Kinders Fever
  • Character 2 hears that all people present at the event where the death occurred are having their health checked; also an investigation has begun into the source of infection
  • Character 1 learns that the source of the fever has been localized and that news of the source is spreading.
  • Character 3 learns that his father is angry at the people who caused the infection
  • Character 3 goes to the source location and takes revenge on the people there
  • Character 3 learns that another very important person has visited the source location and concludes that another outbreak is about to start.
You might notice that in this arc, the Kinders Fever element repeats across point of view characters and situations. This is an arc that is perceivable by the reader of the story, but not by any of the individual characters (at least not in the same way). As with the first two arcs, at each point new developments, effects, and implications are added. Because this is an arc that goes across characters, it counts as one of the highest-level arcs in the story. The last point listed above for this arc actually then starts a second Kinders Fever arc that is going to take me much further into the novel, with consequences that will reach all the way through.

I hope this discussion deepens and clarifies some of what I had discussed in my last post. I'm happy to talk about arcs in more detail with anyone who is interested.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Edittorrent discusses the signs of amateur writers

I found this link very interesting, and thought I'd share it with all those of you who might be preparing a manuscript for submission. It's a list of things that editors consider red flags indicating that the writer is an amateur (and thus that they might have their work cut out for them if they take the manuscript).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Foregrounding and Backgrounding Information

Welcome back to the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! I can hardly believe we're now in week 6 already. Today's entry comes from Rachel Udin. Thanks for submitting, Rachel. As I generally do, I'll start by marking up this 500 word excerpt with blue to show the words that are giving me world entry information. Here we go:

***
The sound of footsteps echoed in the palace, almost distant to my ears. I realized that the sound of the footsteps were my own and the echo was the slap of my sandals against the marble floor of the open hallway to the men's quarters. The dream-vision still engulfed me, leaving me with the singular purpose of seeing my older brother, Hanuman.

I glanced up into the sky through the pillared pointed archways and saw that the moon was high so I knew the time to be the middle of the night.

I saw the guards in front of the men's chamber doorway, who were sleeping. I ducked their crossed spears and held my thick braid tight, so it would not swing into them. I continued running, letting my sandals slap until the hallway opened to a tall vaulted ceiling and then I reached the door of my older brother.

Servants caught me there and they held me back as I pound on the door. They were male servants--but they dare not touch me too much lest they soil my name and incur the wrath of my father, the King.

"Then you must call for him," I demanded.

"Princess, it is late."

"This urgent--I must see him now."

A servant slipped into Hanuman's quarters.

I neatened my black braid. My bangles jingled. I had not realized I had grabbed them. I saw now that I was still in my night clothes, but shrugged it off.

Hanuman came out in his night wear, tired and yawning.

"Older Brother, I must speak to you--because we must leave."

Hanuman held his forehead and then looked at me through his stupor. "Another dream vision? Must we follow this one, too?"

"You must come with me."

"Younger Sister Shakti--it is the middle of the night. The King will be furious to find that you've come to the men's quarters again."

I came a little to myself and realized that I had come to the men's quarters again, but the dream-vision was too strong and shook me. I could see the Gods beckoning me to action through their incarnated forms. The soft sounds of Sita's voice told me the message while Rama watched. I repeated the words. "Across the sea, my husband is waiting for me. He has been waiting a long time."

Hanuman rubbed his eyes. "Father will never agree. He will find you a husband. Don't fret--you are only fifteen."

He was rambling again. He yawned wide.

"You helped me last time--"

"And I regret it. Let it wait until morning. Why not bother me when the sun is well into the sky and the naan is just baked in the oven?"

He stretched again and shut the door behind him. I pound on it.

The soft click of sandals came down the corridor. I turned my head and saw the servants from my chamber--few as they were--headed by the mistress of the women's quarters.
***

This piece quickly places me in a human world with the phrase sound of footsteps. The word palace makes me think fantasy, but is somewhat less restrictive in sense than "castle." I'm going to be looking for more evidence of the type of palace as we go forward. We get some interesting information in slap of my sandals, because it suggests this climate is warm. Marble floor fits with "palace" but doesn't give us much more to narrow down the type of building we're in; open hallway to the men's quarters does more. "Open hallway" is an unusual phrase, and makes me think the writer is describing something specific. In addition, we're clearly in a culture that has men's and women's quarters in its palaces, which rules out any European-based models. I'm intrigued by the idea of the dream-vision, but the name Hanuman is the first unequivocal evidence that we're in an Indian-inspired setting. The second piece comes somewhat later, with the moment when her bangles jingled, and a third with her name, Shakti. It's interesting, because the environment sets up a mood before I can pinpoint the type of location; the names then put a specific name to this location.

At this point I'm going to go through this piece again, marking it with my comments. Those of you who have read previous entries to the Workshop will know that these are not corrections. They are my thoughts and reactions as I go through, which I'll then discuss below the excerpt.

***
The sound of footsteps echoed in the palace, [this phrasing suggests the protagonist is in the palace listening] almost distant to my ears. I realized that the sound of the footsteps were my own and the echo was the slap of my sandals against the marble floor of the open hallway to the men's quarters. [This sentence quickly puts us in the location, even though I don't have a clear picture of what an open hallway is.] The dream-vision still engulfed me,[this makes me suspect that the palace and the running are part of a dream-vision; in dream visions we often feel disoriented and realize where we are, and often feel a sense of purpose] leaving me with the singular purpose of seeing my older brother, Hanuman.[I wonder why she wants to see him]

I glanced up into the sky through the pillared pointed archways and saw that the moon was high so I knew the time to be the middle of the night.[This sentence establishes architecture and time, but I think you can do more with it. Perhaps also use it to drop hints about culture and Shakti's purpose... How does she measure time? Does she worry how Hanuman will react since it's the middle of the night?]

I saw [this filtering contributes to a dreamy quality, as if we were in a vision] the guards in front of the men's chamber doorway,[I pictured a closed door here, but this is clearly not the case] who were sleeping. I ducked their crossed spears and held my thick braid tight, so it would not swing into them. I continued running, letting my sandals slap [did the guards not hear this?] until the hallway opened to a tall vaulted ceiling and then I reached the door of my older brother.

Servants caught me there and they held me back as I pound on the door. They were male servants--but they dare not touch me too much lest they soil my name and incur the wrath of my father, the King.[This is very interesting world information, but I think you can do more. See if you can tie this piece back to Shakti and her purpose by having her draw a conclusion from it.]

"Then you must call for him," I demanded.

"Princess, it is late."[I'm glad to see this. This fits with her father being the king, but it's also new information, because kings can have more offspring than just princes and princesses. (She could conceivably have been a concubine's daughter.)]

"This urgent--I must see him now."

A servant slipped into Hanuman's quarters.

I neatened my black braid. My bangles jingled. I had not realized I had grabbed them. I saw now that I was still in my night clothes, but shrugged it off.[Interesting that she is concerned with her appearance here. I wonder why - can you relate it to her intent?]

Hanuman came out in his night wear, tired and yawning.

"Older Brother [we're in a culture where people call one another by family relation names; I like this], I must speak to you--because we must leave."

Hanuman held his forehead and then looked at me through his stupor. "Another dream vision? [This was the first place where I realized the action couldn't be taking place in her dream vision.] Must we follow this one, too?"

"You must come with me."

"Younger Sister Shakti [this seems a very formal appellation, especially considering how sleepy he is. It may be culturally accurate, but it stands out and might be interpreted as deliberate feeding of the name information. Any way you could split this up?]--it is the middle of the night. The King [isn't he their father? Interesting that they must refer to him so formally.] will be furious to find that you've come to the men's quarters again."

I came a little to myself and realized that I had come to the men's quarters again,[yes, that's clear. What does it mean?] but the dream-vision was too strong and shook me. I could see the Gods beckoning me to action through their incarnated forms.[I'm not clear what incarnated forms means here. Does it mean she can see them physically right now?] The soft sounds of Sita's voice told me the message while Rama watched. I repeated the words. "Across the sea, my husband is waiting for me. He has been waiting a long time."

Hanuman rubbed his eyes. "Father [oh, so they can call him Father] will never agree. He will find you a husband. Don't fret--you are only fifteen."[Hanuman here seems to be giving us information: Father has to approve marriage; he has to find the husband; she is fifteen. While this is all valuable, I wonder if you can do more. What exactly does Hanuman guess that Shakti is worrying about? He would probably think she's having the usual worries of fifteen-year-old unmarried girls...and what are those? There would be a particular way of assuaging such fears.]

He was rambling again.[she thinks he's rambling?] He yawned wide.

"You helped me last time--"

"And I regret it. Let it wait until morning. Why not bother me when the sun is well into the sky and the naan is just baked in the oven?"[this is a cute expression and very flavorful (mmm, naan!)]

He stretched again and shut the door behind him. I pound on it.

The soft click of sandals came down the corridor. I turned my head and saw the servants from my chamber--few as they were--headed by the mistress of the women's quarters.[From this I deduce she's about to be in trouble. Can we see not just what she sees, but also feel her reaction?]
***

I really enjoyed this piece. Throughout, I felt the presence of small very specific details. Because of these details, I never doubted that the writer had a very specific location in mind, so I was ready to wait and look for evidence of what that location was. I didn't have any trouble with jumping to unwarranted conclusions (like, say, concluding that I had to be in a medieval European palace). I saw a couple of places where more cultural information was asking to be inserted (like how these people measure time), but in general I felt a sensation of trust for the writer knowing what environment she was describing. So this is very awesome.

You may notice that I've put in several places above the words "you can do more." I'm asking that you consider taking a next step in creating really thorough worldbuilding: shifting the information from foreground to background. You have an entire separate paragraph dedicated to Shakti determining the time of night - but if she's motivated by a singular purpose, she wouldn't give so much attention to the time of night. It appears to be there especially to carry world information in the form of the window architecture. That's what I mean by foregrounding the worldbuilding information. But the solution is not taking out the information (because I love the information!). What I suggest you do is take Shakti's motives and purpose - the main thrust of the story - and put them into the foreground, while shifting the architecture into the background. Think about why she's checking the time of night. Give her a purpose in doing that, and have her draw conclusions from what she sees. She looks out - it's midnight, so... what? Her brother will be mad (again)? If you do this, her worries and purpose will be in the foreground driving the story, and the worldbuilding information will sit back in a very comfortable and unobtrusive place.

I'd like to see you do the same thing with the information about the servants. Have her behave bravely and scornfully with them, and justify her behavior with the fact that they can't really hurt her without incurring the king's wrath. The same thing can also be done with the details of her hair and clothes. Why would she be concerned about her appearance? Is it her brother's reaction that concerns her?

Each place you see worldbuilding information inserted for its own sake, it takes the foreground - but it's actually not that hard to slip it into the background, provided that you let it serve as a foundation for some action or motivation of the protagonist.

The last instance that I want to draw attention to is what Hanuman says. I've seen a lot of lines like this, and they're not at all bad, and they carry some good information (protagonist's age, social rules/details). But they can be given more dimension, if you can think through precisely what it is that Hanuman thinks she's worrying about. Right now he's telling her she shouldn't worry, and telling the reader she's fifteen and her father will choose her husband. Okay. But does he think she's worried because she thinks she's too old to marry/becoming a spinster at age 15? That is much more emotionally fraught. Let him try to reassure her and imply what it is that someone in this society would be worrying about. It will really give this line added dimension.

Rachel, I'm so glad you submitted this piece, because I really enjoyed it - and because the question of foregrounding and backgrounding is one that I've spent a lot of time working on in my own writing. Especially when you have a detailed world, it's easy for information to try to sit on its own and pull attention off the main conflict. If you can add in the judgment and motivations of the characters as the primary foregrounded thing, though, then you can keep all the fabulous information and have it serve your story purpose (it serves you) rather than having to take time off from advancing the story to get world information (you serve it). The sense of realism will be greatly enhanced.

The constructive discussion is open!