Thursday, April 28, 2011

Culture Share: Iran - Iranian New Year

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Jahan and Tahereh Alizadeh introduce Iranian New Year.

Nowrūz
(also, No-rooz or norooz) is the name of the New Year in Iranian calendar and the corresponding traditional celebrations. Nowruz is also widely referred to as the Persian New Year.

Nowruz is celebrated and observed by Iranic peoples and the related cultural continent and has spread in many other parts of the world, including parts of Central Asia, Caucasus, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Crimea, and some groups in the Balkans.

Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21 or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed.


With the passing of a year and the coming of another, Iranians set a traditional Nowruz table called "Sofreh haft-seen" with of seven (7) kinds of food. The number seven has been regarded as magical by Iranians since ancient times and is symbolic of heaven's highest angels. Each type of food has a name starting with the letter "sin" in Persian (Farsi) - similar to the letter "s" in English. They symbolize life, health, wealth, abundance, love, patience, and purity. The tables with their seven articles symbolize the triumph of good over evil. This belief dates back to antiquity but the practice is still very much alive.

The seven articles usually used are:
  1. Serkeh (vinegar)
  2. Seeb (apple)
  3. Seer (garlic)
  4. Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree)
  5. Somaz (sumac)
  6. Samanu (creamy pudding made of wheat germ)
  7. Sabzeh (a dish of specially raised wheat or other seed sprouts).

Each of these items has special symbolic significance. Vinegar represents old age and patience. Apple symbolizes health and beauty. Garlic (which is considered medicinal) represents health. The dried fruit of the oleaster tree represents love. Sumac berries are the color of the sun and symbolize the victory of good over evil. The samanu pudding is regarded as holy, and the wheat/lentil sprouts represent rebirth.

There are other things you can place on the table which may not begin with letter 's' but have significance. For instance, a book symbolizing wisdom: Muslims place the Holy Qur'an and Zoroastrians put the Avesta to implore God's blessings; some people may also put poetry books from Iranian poets.

To reconfirm all hopes and wishes expressed by the traditional foods, other elements and symbols are also on the sofreh:

• a few coins placed on the sofreh represent prosperity and wealth;

• a basket of painted eggs represents fertility.

• a Seville orange floating in a bowl of water represents the earth floating in space.

• a goldfish in a bowl represents life and the end of astral year-picas.

• a flask of rose water known for its magical cleansing power, is also included on the tablecloth.

• Nearby is a brazier for burning wild rue ,a sacred herb whose smoldering fumes ward off evil spirits.

• A pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus is also set on the sofreh.

• A mirror which represents the images and reflections of Creation as we celebrate anew the ancient Persian traditions and beliefs that creation took place on the first day of spring.

On either side of the mirror are two candlesticks holding a flickering candle for each child in the family. The candles represent enlightenment and happiness. A jar of water is sometimes added to symbolize purity and freshness, along with bread, a traditional symbol of the sustaining of life. It is also usual to see fresh milk, cheese, fruits, dates, pomegranates and coins on the New Year table.

Jahan and Tahereh Alizadeh live in California. Jahan came to the US from Iran in 1977, and Tahereh in 2001.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wonderful article on the King James Bible

My husband found this article for me at NPR, about the 400th birthday of the King James Bible. It features a list of all kinds of modern expressions that find their origins there. Great stuff - enjoy.

My apologies to the Wednesday Worldbuilding folk, but due to a spring break camping trip with my family, I won't be able to offer you an entry this week. I'll be back with another entry on May 4th. Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flirtation, mean jokes, and some observations on humor

I noticed something the other day. Flirting and mean jokes are very much alike.

In both cases, the talk is presented as playful. Tossed off lightly, as it were, intended to make people smile if not laugh. In each case, the talk is aimed at a borderline of discomfort. In the case of flirting, the borderline of discomfort is that of invasion, though the message of the talk is usually positive. In the case of mean jokes, the borderline of discomfort is that of insult, and the content is negative.

In both cases, the speaker who uses flirtation or mean jokes is protected by their status as "deniable" messages. If the person receiving the message feels invaded or insulted, the speaker can always say, "I was just kidding." What I've found in the case of mean jokes, though, is that people aren't usually joking. They're using the convenient deniability to protect themselves while delivering negative messages that they really mean.

Humor is difficult.

A lot of humor is based on borderlines of discomfort. These borderlines are culturally defined, which means that humor doesn't necessarily translate well.

I admit I laugh at "Wait, wait... Don't tell me." And Jon Stewart gives me quite the chuckles. The hardest I've ever laughed was at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Monty Python - English humor. Some of the jokes, of course, went right by me. They didn't make me groan, but instead made me go, "Wha...?" The ones that got me, on the other hand - whoa! Monty Python's parrot sketch brought tears to my eyes.

I think a lot of humor is like that, because if humor didn't tread borderlines, it wouldn't be funny. My preference is for humor along the random/weird borderline, because if I don't get it, it just leaves me behind. I laugh at some types of uncomfortable/taboo borderline humor, but when I don't get it, I can hardly stand it. With Mr. Bean, for example, I have to leave the room after about five minutes - same with Mike Myers at his worst. Profanity generally leaves me cold, but it "fits" well with certain types of humorous content. Seinfeld was always firmly on the borderline of inanity/pet peeves, and I couldn't stand it.

But in English generally, even if I don't "get" the humor, at least I understand what it's trying to do. Humor in a foreign language is much tougher.

French humor was always a rewarding effort for me. I thought Asterix and Tintin comic books were hilarious - Tintin went more for the physical slapstick humor that was relatively familiar, while Asterix added a dimension of puns that is difficult to describe. I think puns in English are often considered to be low humor, though they are used constantly in the area of sports, and often in news headlines. The puns in Asterix were so thoroughgoing that you just had to love them. And the cultural borderlines they played with were somewhat familiar.

Japanese is harder. I've studied a heck of a lot of Japanese, lived there three years, watched a lot of Japanese television shows, and I have yet to get it completely. Some stuff I've figured out. The physical humor - I can understand the ridiculing/embarrassing/fooling/injuring people borderline to some extent. It was a little like America's most sadistic home videos. The humor satirizing extreme elements of Japanese culture, I could also get - like a sitcom-style show that depicted a number of families going to extreme measures as their children passed through rigorous testing to enter kindergarten. Or like Juzo Itami's The Funeral - a great movie - which satirized the societal expectations of behavior surrounding a funeral for a man whom everyone in the film disliked. But some of it, especially comedy-dialogue, left me totally bewildered.

So what about in writing stories?

Well, as I've told all my critique friends, I can't write humor. Not jokes, at least. So I don't try to go for ridiculous situations or funny twists or wild over-the-top comedy. On the other hand, I love to have my characters be funny just because of who they are. Like the gecko Allayo in "Let The Word Take Me" (Analog, July/August 2008), who because of her cultural background drew the utterly serious and sensible conclusion that the young Human man David Linden was possessed, simply because he talked so much.

When I started writing this post it made me wonder what an alien or fantasy society would look like if it were designed with its own particular brand of humor - or have humor take a different role, maybe a larger role, in society as a whole. I'm not sure if I've ever seen anyone do something like that - not having the entire story be a comedy, so much as having the people in it make humor an important and integral part of their lives. If any of you have encountered such a thing, do tell me where, because I'd love to see how it was done!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cut words? Or add words?

Does your work-in-progress have too many words? Or too few?

It's a hard question to answer. Over the last decade of my writing I've run into a lot of "too long"/"too short" situations, and after I saw this interesting little piece for copywriters about how cutting more words might not be such a good idea, I thought I should write a bit about it. I'm going to try to put this in terms of different examples I've seen and/or experienced myself.

The Mega-Work
What you might find yourself saying: "I have this novel, and yeah, it's 350 thousand words long..."
This one is hard to diagnose. Chances are there's more than one thing going on (see "Long Experiment" below). When I wrote my mega-work, I was astonished to find that my first thorough revision cut out thousands of words, and put thousands more back. The total word count barely changed, because I was figuring out where the words really needed to go. An agent gave me great advice: "This is probably three books." It had other problems that needed editing, but guess what? It's three books.

The Short Experiment
What you might hear critiquers saying: "I have a hard time accepting your premise"/"You're doing too much telling"/"You're gesturing at the story"
This one is probably too short. I'm not saying that pieces like this don't sell (I've seen at least one in Analog!). However, if the premise isn't sticking, you may not have used enough words to flesh it out and give it a strong foundation. If you're being accused of "telling" or "gesturing" you may want to get closer to the story and dramatize more of it. Make sure you're not just talking out the message of your story, but enacting it by placing readers in scenes that demonstrate the truths you want to capture.

The Voice Piece
What you might hear critiquers saying: "I love the voice in this one"/"The thing that really worked for me was the texture..."
Be very careful about cutting words out of this one. Yes, there may be words you can cut (I just took a piece like this down from 8300 to 8000 words), but make sure that you're keeping a close eye on which words are contributing to voice and texture at the same time they contribute to plot and character. Those are going to be the ones you'll want to keep. Of course, there are more stripped-down voices out there - in the case of a stripped-down voice, the process of going through and identifying which words contribute to the voice might be a really good way of figuring out which words can be cut.

The Long Experiment
What you might hear critiquers saying: "I'm hearing refrains (repetitions) in your work"/"You're always saying the same thing more than once"
Sometimes I'll use words to feel my way into a piece. I used to do this a lot more when I was first writing and exercising my storytelling muscles, seeing how beautifully, dramatically, etc. I could describe something. One indicator of refrains is when you find yourself using comma-delimited phrases like "Her hair was soft as summer, as all-encompassing as the sea." There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but you've just described her hair twice. Which one works better for the story context? You should probably keep that one and leave the other one out. The same thing can also happen across sentences or even paragraphs - you might find that you're both telling and showing, like saying, "He was shocked. His face went white, and his hands shook." In this case, if his face is white and his hands are shaking, it's evident that he's shocked and you don't need to state it explicitly.

What about publishers/agents and their word count guidelines?
This is a tricky one. What I've found is that ideas typically come in different sizes. There's the idea that's naturally flash (<1000), or short (<7500), because if you look at it for too long things will start poking out that detract from the effectiveness of the idea. There's the idea that wants to be a novelette (<10K), because just talking about events isn't enough. There's the idea that wants to be a fast-paced novel (60-75K, common for YA); there's the idea that wants to be epic (100-120K). Within that, however, there is a lot of room for wordcount-wiggling. A lot of words can be cut if you just go through saying "I need to take out 30 words per page" (you'd be surprised)! Those are word cuts on the sentence level. If you're 30 thousand words over your target count, though, then it's best to consider the story structure as a whole, and see if you're putting a lot of words on tangents or subplots instead of sticking to the backbone conflict of the tale.

In the end, it's all very dependent on the individual story. Listen to your audience to get clues about where and how you're hitting them. And it may turn out that you need to cut words and add words, because you needed those words; they were just the wrong ones.

You just have to try it and see.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Insightful discussion of the recent kerfuffles over fantasy

If you've been following the uproar over the NYT and Slate reviews of HBO's Game of Thrones, or the petition against the BBC's book night, you would do well to take a look at this link from John H. Stevens at SFSignal. He has some really interesting and insightful things to say.

Living in deep head space

I try to compartmentalize. Sometimes I fail.

Back when I first started writing, I thought I was busy, because I was studying for my Ph.D. Really, though, what I was doing was switching between two head spaces - the studying one, and the one associated with the trilogy I was writing.

Looks so simple now.

After I had my first baby I had to re-boot the system and figure out how to fit in writing again. I got the hang of it. I had my real life children-motherhood mode and found tiny places where I could have enough room to escape into a small bubble of my old head space. I gradually grew those bubbles bigger until I could alternate more.

The more I write, though, the more head spaces I need. My writing depends on being able to immerse - to put myself deep into a place that isn't at all like the way I would ordinarily think. Recently as I've been writing For Love, For Power, I've been reaping the rewards of putting myself so deeply in: small moments are happening in the text that jump out to me as "real." Not only as things that are likely to happen in my caste system, but ones that would happen all the time there, and whose significance isn't exaggerated, but which fit precisely into the whole context - like when a servant replies to a question with "I couldn't say, sir" and my noble boys glance at each other with a shared look that says, "yep, he's under oath."

The hardest part is that I have more than one story I need to write. Three, in fact. And the head space issue is precisely the same for each one. There isn't a story that I can write by just skimming along the surface. I have to give myself to it, or it doesn't happen. I try to build in time that lets me drag myself out of one and put myself into another, but it's still hard. Yesterday the novel was rolling, and I could hardly manage to get back out again into real life, much less give any thought to the other two stories I'm currently working on.

I don't think I'd change this. I don't want to start skating on top of a story. I'm just going to have to decide when to take a breather from one and engage the other, or the other. The deep head space is that place I always loved going when I read books as a child. That I can find it for my own stories as an adult is exciting and rewarding - worth the sacrifice. I just keep trudging along, figuring that somehow it will all get done, and that keeping the balance will get easier.

Good luck with all your writing today. I hope you find that deep head space that I love so much.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Culture Share: Ireland - An Ear for Language by Joshua Ramey-Renk

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Joshua Ramey-Renk discusses language habits in Ireland.

An Ear for Language - They speak English here. Don’t they?
by Joshua Ramey-Renk


I recently spent a year and a half living in Dublin, Ireland, living among people who, like me, grew up speaking and writing the same language I do. Or so I thought.

While there, I had a chance to interact, mingle, and absorb many of the unique twists on language that the Irish use and which sound so foreign at first but after time become second nature. In fact, some of them became FIRST nature, and I found many of those same twists and changes crept unconsciously into my writing and had to be edited out later. Of course, the tricky part is recognizing that they’ve crept in in the first place. And it wasn’t just my writing, my spoken vocabulary changed as well.

These language shifts had three major types: Spelling, “Britishism vs. Americun” and Irishisms. Here are a few examples of each.

Spelling

It’s no great thing for an American writer who is also a wide reader to recognize that “colour” is the same as “color”, or that tires come with a “y” to become “tyres”, which touch the “kerb” instead of the “curb”. But when you realiSe that you should have realiZed something and spell check doesn’t help, you’ve started to go native.

And let’s not get started with the liberal use of the possessive apostrophe. It’s mine, it’s your’s, and it is it’s own rule in much written material. I include this under spelling because I was never able to figure out if the construction was official or not.

The chilli peppers in Dublin were so spicy they needed an extra “l”, but there are plenty available after students enrol in school. Unless they’ve already enrolled.

And what chance does a foreigner have when the Glendalough Hotel is near the Glendaloch Hostel, or the you get off at the Balally tram stop to visit Ballawley park?

Britishisms v. Amurican

I use the term “Britishism” advisedly. Implying that they are still under the linguistic thumb of the British Monarchy is a fighting argument for most of my Irish friends, but I have a pass because I drink a lot of Guinness and always stand my round at the pub. These are things that go beyond mere spelling and address more of the way language is used differently among our cousins across the pond. I think they are as common in the 26 counties of the Republic as they are in the six of the (“occupied”, some would say) North.

I found the largest differences in surprising places. I’m not a sport-type, but I do believe that San Francisco is a good baseball team, whereas the Gaelic Athletic Association would claim that Cork are a good side for the hurling. Similarly, while I visit a doctor at the hospital in the US, when I was in Hospital over Christmas for a kidney stone, Doctor’s opinion was paramount and both he, and the location, were devoid of either definite or indefinite articles. But both did get capitalized.

The things I found creeping into my writing, and speaking, the most were everyday expressions that replaced their more barbaric American counterparts. I stopped calling people on their cell phones and began ringing them on their mobiles. I no longer waited in line, but I did queue for a long time. And lastly, when my wife and I argued over something we stopped saying “Don’t you think..?” and began up-scaling the argument with “Would you not agree..?”

Irishisms

These were expressions and words that I started using which, on investigation, were pure Irish gold. That is to say, unique to the island, sometimes based on particular Irish-Gaelic language usage, and occasionally involved leprechauns.

When I was told by a colleague that they were after having a meeting with the CEO, I suggested that they should knock on his door because I had seen him in his office. I got an odd look, and was asked “Why would I do that? I just met with him.” Oh. I’m told that this version of “I just had a meeting…” comes straight from the Irish Gaelic usage.

At some point in my stay, I stopped talking about “my wife” and began telling people what “Herself and I” had done over the weekend. I stopped visiting the restroom and started hitting the jacks, which is a country expression that I blame on my good friend Lorcan D. for sticking me with the first week we worked together. And my favorite four-letter word became the more socially acceptable “Feck”.

Traveller’s advisory: Don’t ask an Irishman what they think about leprechauns. Apparently belief in such creatures is for the Plastic Paddies who buy souvenir trinkets to send to their American cousins. Or those claim to have seen them but who have drunk too much Guinness and are totally locked.

At the pub, I wouldn’t refer to “that guy”, but could point out that “yer man” had showed up again and was harassing the bar staff. And that cute woman at the bar? Well, yer wan is married and it’s best to stay away. Good enough for me, since Herself wouldn’t approve of it anyway and she’d be giving out to me the rest of the night, which is much worse than being scolded or nagged.

Lastly, I was never sure if I was supposed to “Come here to me now” and pay attention or “Go away!” because I had said something surprising. I blame both of these additions to my vocabulary on the linguistic stylings of Michael H., but he’s from Galway so that’s a whole different story.

I’ll be straight up and say that I’m not a linguist. Any or all of these observed language differences may be based on something completely different that I understand, and my adopted usage itself could be completely flawed. All I can say is that I’m an observer, a writer, and like all writers, to some degree I’m a chameleon. I listen, I write, and when I edit I have to look at strange new vocabulary that has snuck into my sentences and wonder “Just how the feck did that get in there?”


Joshua Ramey-Renk
lived for a year and a half in Dublin, Ireland, before relocating back to California’s Bay Area - but you're still likely enough to find him with a pint at an Irish pub!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Defining foundation concepts

This week's entry for the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop comes from Lxndr. Thanks so much for submitting! As usual, I'll begin by marking words in the text that give me clues to worldbuilding (with the color blue!). This excerpt is unusual because it seems the main character shares my name!

***
At first she thought it was just the shock of having a burning building fall on top of her. But when Juliette stopped to take a breath, she realized she wasn't feeling any pain - and while her clothing was damaged and torn beyond belief, her skin underneath remained unblemished, just porcelain smudged with ashes and dirt. Her bones were unbroken. Even her hair was untouched, no singed bits, not even any split ends. And that just wasn't normal.

Unlike Papa, she had no Gifts... and it was that Einstein fellow who'd said that there wouldn't be any more Awakenings unless something like the Rapture happened again - and the chances of anything else falling from the sky out of space were remote. Is that what happened at the warehouse? The rest of the City didn't seem in the kind of uproar another Rapture would have caused, so it must have been just her. That warehouse was a laboratory full of strange contraptions and devices - perhaps one of them repeated the Rapture, maybe in miniature? She had to ask Frankie, or Papa.

Papa... she glanced back down the alley at the burning wreckage of the warehouse. Memory started trickling into her foggy mind - an explosion, then the warehouse collapsing. It was probably too quick for Papa to have blinked out. She wanted to run back to the wreckage, see if she could find him - but then she heard the sirens of fire trucks. The police wouldn't be too far behind.

If Papa had survived, the old bastard would kill her if she'd let herself get caught. And if he hadn't survived, he wouldn't want her to waste time in mourning. She looked up at the almost-full moon and muttered a little invocation to Athena - a superstition she'd picked up from her father. She shook her head at the foolishness of it, wiped her eyes, and dashed off into the night.

She had to get home, and without her father's Gifts, home was a long way away. She looked down at the tattered, scorched remnants of what was once her favorite body-stocking. Now she was showing more skin than a burlesque dancer, and that would get her more attention than she wanted. Before anything else, she needed to get herself some clothes.

On the top of a nearby building, she saw a clothesline. A cotton frock was dangling, swaying in the wind. She felt a knot in her stomach, telling her she could get there, if only she just jumped. She remembered what Papa told her about his Awakening, when he'd learned what to do with his Gifts. It was almost an instinct, he said - it just felt natural. When an opportunity came up, he just knew what to do.
***

As far as world entry, we don't really get any big hints until the end of the first sentence where we hit burning building. I see this as a degree of evidence for a world like ours (though it could be elsewhere). The name Juliette confirms a human environment - clearly a different one from ours, since she wasn't feeling any pain. But she wears clothing (at least under normal circumstances) and thinks of her skin as unblemished and porcelain, both of which are real world attitudes that I associate with traditional girl appearance messages (marketing?). Similar to this is her concern with the lack of split ends in her hair. Ashes and dirt contribute to the sense of setting begun with the building.

In paragraph two, we start getting hints of what it is that's different from our own world. Papa fits in our world just fine, but there's the concept of Gifts, and that of Awakenings, both of which are new. These are set against the familiar real-world name Einstein and the concept of the Rapture, which readers will almost certainly be familiar with. Falling from the sky out of space says that we are on a planet and our main character is aware of this fact. The warehouse gets us back to setting, and the City suggests slightly more than we've seen previously. We get some technology ideas from the laboratory full of strange contraptions and devices, but alley, sirens of fire trucks, and police mean that most of our expectations stay with a modern real-world scenario. There's a gesture toward unusual beliefs with Juliette's response to the almost-full moon and her invocation to Athena, but then this is minimized by her referring to it as superstition. It will still keep me looking out for similar things going forward.

Now I'll go through the excerpt adding my think-aloud comments in brown.

***
At first she thought it was just the shock of having a burning building fall on top of her. **[A nicely startling first sentence, and opens up unusual possibilities, like that of someone surviving being landed on by a burning building.] But when Juliette stopped to take a breath, **[this "stopped" has me wondering what she was doing before she stopped. Running from the scene? I had been imagining her lying under the building.] she realized she wasn't feeling any pain **[interesting; the place is human enough that pain would be our expectation] - and while her clothing was damaged and torn beyond belief,**[at this point I'm imagining her in shirt and pants, which is my default setting for clothes] her skin underneath remained unblemished,**[this word might just be artistic for "unhurt" but on some level I associate it with a concern about skin care] just porcelain **[this sounds like it's out of a fairy-tale, and seems odd as a judgment of her own skin; more external-observer] smudged with ashes and dirt. Her bones were unbroken.**[I can assume pretty easily that she's checking, but it would be interesting to know if she's actually giving herself the physical once-over.] Even her hair was untouched, no singed bits, not even any split ends.**[Here's another one that makes me think of modern marketing for girls.] And that just wasn't normal. **[Certainly not normal for someone who's had a building landed on them. But normal in general? It would be interesting to know whether she feels that she herself has changed and that something must have happened to cause this.]

Unlike Papa, she had no Gifts... **[The capitalization points this out as something unusual that the reader must pay attention to, but there's no hint here of what Gifts might be. My default guess would be something like psychic powers.] and it was that Einstein fellow **[Which one? The actual Einstein, or someone named after him? It seems like this should be referring to the real Einstein.] who'd said that there wouldn't be any more Awakenings **[I'm confused at this point, because you're telling me Awakenings are also important, but there is no evidence yet of any link between Awakenings and Gifts, and no indication of what Awakenings are independently of Gifts either.] unless something like the Rapture **[I know what the Rapture is supposed to be. Second comings, heaven, etc. Interesting that it might have happened already but I can't see the connection with her situation.] happened again - and the chances of anything else falling from the sky out of space were remote.**[This seems to say that the Rapture occurred when something fell from the sky. Jesus falling out of the sky is an extreme image, but that was what I got, and then "out of space" made it only more bizarre. This was the point where I started thinking maybe the Rapture referred to here might not be the one I'm familiar with. But by this time I'm extremely confused.] Is that what happened at the warehouse? **[Does this mean some kind of Rapture must have happened at a warehouse? Is the warehouse the burning building? You never referred to it as a warehouse before.] The rest of the City **[Ah, she's in a city. I wonder if it's a real city I might know; no indication of that here.] didn't seem in the kind of uproar another Rapture would have caused, so it must have been just her. That warehouse was a laboratory full of strange contraptions and devices **[begs the question of why she was there. Did these things belong to her father? Was he doing something with them that might have caused the event - say, trying to find the causes of recent events?]- perhaps one of them repeated the Rapture, maybe in miniature? She had to ask Frankie, or Papa.

Papa... she glanced back down the alley at the burning wreckage of the warehouse.**[I didn't realize she was in an alley. My sense of her immediate location is a bit minimal at this point.] Memory started trickling into her foggy mind **[her mind hasn't seemed foggy so far. If it were, I'd expect the internalized narrative to be much more disjointed.]- an explosion, then the warehouse collapsing. It was probably too quick for Papa to have blinked out. **[Not sure what this means in this context. Disappeared, yes, but if it's connected to his Gifts, then there's no indication at this point.] She wanted to run back to the wreckage, see if she could find him - but then she heard the sirens of fire trucks. The police wouldn't be too far behind.**[Something about this makes me think she doesn't want to see the authorities, but there's no indication of why that might not be a good thing, or who she is that this would be a problem. What is her motivation here?]

If Papa had survived, the old bastard**[doesn't like her dad?] would kill her if she'd let herself get caught.**[Ah, so she doesn't want to meet authorities.] And if he hadn't survived, he wouldn't want her to waste time in mourning. She looked up at the almost-full moon and muttered a little invocation to Athena - a superstition she'd picked up from her father. **[This is interesting but another thing out of the blue. I don't have a sense of the cultural context that would make this meaningful. It's specified as a superstition, but superstitions can be good or bad, important or unimportant.] She shook her head at the foolishness of it, wiped her eyes, and dashed off into the night.

She had to get home, and without her father's Gifts, home was a long way away. **[It's a long way because he's not here? Or because she can't teleport? I'm not even quite sure if he could teleport...] She looked down at the tattered, scorched remnants of what was once her favorite body-stocking.**[Really? that is what she was wearing?] Now she was showing more skin than a burlesque dancer, **[this makes me wonder about her age, and her social context, that she knows about burlesque dancers and that would be the first thing she thinks to compare herself to.] and that would get her more attention than she wanted. Before anything else, she needed to get herself some clothes.

On the top of a nearby building, she saw a clothesline. A cotton frock **[a British expression. Interesting; we havent' had a sense of actual location previously.] was dangling, swaying in the wind. She felt a knot in her stomach, telling her she could get there, if only she just jumped. She remembered what Papa told her about his Awakening, when he'd learned what to do with his Gifts. It was almost an instinct, he said - it just felt natural. When an opportunity came up, he just knew what to do.**[If she's suddenly feeling this, and has never had Gifts before, wouldn't she be surprised?]
***

Thanks again to Lxndr for submitting. There are a lot of interesting mixed real-world and fantastical elements in this piece. It does give me the opportunity, though, to talk about defining foundation concepts in worldbuilding. Part of the reason for my confusion as I read was that there were several concepts underlying the piece that I needed to understand. One of these was Gifts; another was Awakenings; the third was an alternate meaning for the Rapture. All three were introduced within the same paragraph, and in large part were dependent on one another for their understanding. If I didn't understand Gifts, I wasn't going to understand Awakenings, and the Rapture as a cause for both didn't compute. Major concepts like this need to be marked as important, but also given surrounding contextual support. Occasionally I find instances where it was the author's choice not to give the contextual support, in the interest of creating mystery, but it usually does more harm than good. Supplying capital letters to make a word stand out is something I do a lot (and have had to tone down before); it's effective at drawing reader attention, but then we need just a little more. If Gifts are too normal to be explained, then you can always give the protagonist a chance to muse on the relevance of a particular Gift to a given situation - for example, be specific and say that if she'd had her father's Gifts, she could have teleported right out of there before the building (warehouse) fell on her. When a conceptual explanation would be too clunky, providing a relevant example can go a long way. Awakenings could have been supported by phrasing it as "there hadn't been any more people Awakening to their Gifts since..." As far as the Rapture is concerned, it really needs support so that readers don't choose the default understanding of Rapture. My choice would be to explain the event that occurred, and then indicate that it had changed everything and everyone so much (creating chosen ones?) that people had started calling it the Rapture.

I'm not sure if right here in the narrative is the best place to do this. The Rapture requires enough support that it might take away from what is going on right now - grounding the location, her identity and her attitude toward police, the activities going on in the warehouse, for example. You could slow way down with the distribution of these main concepts and start her off mostly dealing with the strange aftermath of the explosion, not really knowing why she's okay, and thinking it's odd, but mostly concentrating on getting out of there. Gifts could come up in the context of whether her father is all right, and Awakenings could happen after she discovers she is able to jump to fetch the hanging frock. Then once she realizes she suddenly has Gifts, and is safer, she can muse on how it might have happened.

Very often we'll have a set of core concepts or beliefs that underlie a story, ones which require some explanation because the story can't work without them. They deserve the time it takes to set them up with support so that readers won't be confused. The trick is searching through the narrative, and what you're trying to achieve, to find the place where the concept has most relevance, and where the protagonist has time to pause and think things through.

Lxndr, I hope you find these comments helpful. Any constructive discussion is welcome.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TTYU Retro: Not hiding information that readers need

This post is intended to be an extension - a reversal, in fact - of my post entitled "Hiding Information in Plain Sight."

In the same way that you can use backgrounding to slip in world information, you can also do yourself a disservice by "hiding" critical information that should be taking head billing. I've made comments to my critique buddies about how they shouldn't "hide X under Y" and it usually takes me a while to explain to them what I mean. So I figure it's useful to discuss here.

If you have a critical piece of your plot, especially a voluntary action by your protagonist, then you should not hold back from describing that action. Don't imply that it happened. Don't make it passive. State it as directly and actively as possible.

I think this is the kind of thing that people are talking about when they tell you not to use "was" or "passives" in your writing. Though the instruction never to use "was" or "passives" is extremely overgeneralized, it does make an important point. If you've got a character and that character is acting, changing things, etc. then chances are you should stick him or her right in the subject spot in the sentence and use the most interesting and exciting verb you can come up with to say what he or she is doing.

The other way that writers might inadvertently hide critical information has to do with (gasp!) sentence structure.

I suppose there must be folks among you who have spent time diagramming sentences in school. I did. Well, don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to get out your pencils! But if you've got even the vaguest image somewhere in your head of what those diagrams looked like, you might find it useful. The basic distinction I'm thinking of here is the one between the main clause of the sentence - the one that used to be on the main line when we diagrammed - and the subordinate clauses that attach to it. Here's an example:

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that Mom made.

Now I'm going to put main clauses in bold text and subordinate ones in italics.

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that mom made.

Now, when I say information is "hidden" in a sentence like this, of course, that's a relative statement. It's still available - in exactly the way that makes subordinate clauses so convenient for slipping in worldbuilding information. But - and this is the important part - its impact is blunted.

Take this sentence, for example:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

The structure of this sentence looks like this:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

Essentially what I've done here is "hide" the action of hitting, and bring primary attention to "he cried out." In most action narratives, this makes no sense at all. I'd almost expect that this was a sentence coming from after the event itself - someone describing what happened, for example. Or perhaps I'd expect that the actual hitting event had been described before this sentence. As a method for actually conveying the occurrence of the action, it comes across to me as weak. This isn't to say that I never do stuff like this in my own writing - but if I catch something like this on a first draft, I might change it to the following:

I hit him over the head with the frypan, and he cried out.

Conjunctions like "and," "but," and "so" do not create subordinate clauses. They keep both coordinated clauses on the same level of structure, and in an action sequence, work far better to keep the hitting and the crying out at the same level of importance.

I'll conclude by giving a few examples of words to watch out for - words that create subordinate clauses. But before I do, let me be clear: I don't mean that these words should never be used. There may well be a context when you want one element of a sentence to be backgrounded to another, and be given lesser importance. It's like the whole "was" thing. If you try to forbid yourself a tool of grammar in writing, you're just shackling your own feet. Just make sure that you're not using these words inadvertently.

As: As he ran through the door, the horse neighed loudly.

Because: Because I'd paid for the pot, the barkeeper gave it to me.

When: When she found the harlot in bed with George, she took out a knife and killed him.

I'll also mention "that" and "which." These guys make subordinate clauses in a different way from those above, because they allow a writer to describe more about a particular noun, as "the pie that Mom made" in the earlier example. I think they're not nearly as much of a trap for the unwary. However, they do background information, and if you want to direct attention deliberately to the attributes of an object or person, you should probably try to avoid using a subordinate clause, and give the description its own space and sentence.

That's all for now. I hope all your writing goes really well today.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How and where to begin a story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 15, 2011

The importance of pathos

I confess I have a tender spot in my heart for a pathetic character. When we hear the word "pathetic" these days, it's usually derogatory - as in, "Oh, that was pathetic," or "What a pathetic attempt that was." But that's not a definition that fits with the original concept behind "pathetic," which is pathos.

Wikipedia says (warning: this will be heavy, but the discussion afterward will not!):

Pathos (pronounced /ˈpeɪθɒs/ or /ˈpeɪθoʊs/; Greek: πάθος, for "suffering" or "experience;" adjectival form: 'pathetic' from παθητικός) represents an appeal to the audience's emotions. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric (where it is considered one of the three modes of persuasion, alongside ethos and logos), and in literature, film and other narrative art.

Emotional appeal can be accomplished in a multitude of ways:

  • by a metaphor or story telling, common as a hook,
  • by a general passion in the delivery and an overall emotion and sympathies of the speech or writing as determined by the audience. The pathos of a speech or writing is only ultimately determined by the hearers.

Pathos is often associated with emotions, but it is more complex than simply emotions. A better equivalent might be appeal to the audience's sympathies and imagination. An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the writer's point of view - to feel what the writer feels. So, when used in tragedy, pathos evokes a meaning implicit in the verb 'to suffer' - to feel pain imaginatively or vicariously. Pathos is often employed with tragedies and this is why pathos often carries this negative emotional connotation. Perhaps the most common way of conveying a pathetic appeal is through narrative or story, which can turn the abstractions of logic into something palpable and present. The values, beliefs, and understandings of the writer are implicit in the story and conveyed imaginatively to the reader. Pathos thus refers to both the emotional and the imaginative impact of the message on an audience, the power with which the writer's message moves the audience to decision or action.


Whew! But I bet you know a lot of characters who make an appeal to our emotions. Possibly the best known is C3PO, from Star Wars. He goes through the whole sequence of IV V and VI doing what he needs to do, all the while saying things like "We're doomed!" and always expecting the worst. Other pathetic characters include Eeyore, from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books, Dory from Finding Nemo and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle from C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair.

Interestingly, these characters are not cynics, nor are they pessimists (who can be spiteful). They simply feel suffering and expect to have to endure. They feel a certain gloom about their prospects and lament the deterioration of the situation, but they are extremely grateful when things turn out well.

When you're putting together a story, it's worthwhile to consider whether any of your characters have aspects of pathos. Pathos can be a hugely strong draw for a character who would otherwise be unrelatable (see my earlier post on likeable characters here). That points of course to antagonists, but also to others. My friend Josephine pointed out the character of William Randolph Hearst in The Aviator as someone who was fascinating because of the extent of his suffering, even when his behavior in general was off the charts and hard to relate to. My own character Nekantor from "The Eminence's Match" is a "twisted piece of work" to quote my author friend Lillian Csernica (she notes that she meant this in a positive way!). He does cruel and evil things but is motivated at least partially by his own obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I can't leave the topic of pathos without discussing Star Wars again - specifically, the fact that there were no pathetic characters in I-II-III that I could identify. Even C3PO had lost his pathetic outlook and turned into a kind of one-line fall guy. I can't watch those movies without thinking how differently Jar Jar Binks would have turned out if they'd actually allowed him to be pathetic instead of just goofy. Think about it - banished for being clumsy! If the movie hadn't just dropped that backstory by the wayside and it had actually made Jar Jar a bit more hangdog - a person who tries not to be clumsy but causes trouble inadvertently and suffers terrible guilt as a result - it would have made a big difference for the film, in my opinion. Think about how Dory came across because of her lack of memory. If she hadn't been pathetic, it would have been awful - instead, she was transcendent (in my opinion!).

What about your writing? Is there anyone whom you would describe as pathetic? Is there any character who might benefit from having pathetic elements added to his/her character?

It's something to think about.

Fascinating article probes the origins of language.

This one comes from the New York Times, and was forwarded to me by my lovely mother:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/science/15language.html?emc=eta1

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Culture Share: Food and Drink Customs in Greece by Dario Ciriello

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Dario Ciriello discusses food and drink customs in Greece.

Food and Drink Customs in Greece by Dario Ciriello

In the course of a dinner party, or during a social occasion where hors d'ouevres are served, it's not unusual for me to catch people eyeing me with mild disapproval. It's true: even after twenty years in the US, I still forget that reinserting, or 'double-dipping', the same chip or carrot stick you have just taken a bite of into a bowl of salsa or dip is simply not done. While I doubt this would raise a hair in Europe (see Fondue), I've more than once seen people drilling their kids on this point.

I, on the other hand, find it distressing to see even the most well-mannered Americans pushing food--peas, say--onto their fork with their fingers, a cultural oddity which must have something to do with the Old West, or perhaps the Great Depression. Why on Earth can't they use a knife in their off-hand? It drives me crazy.

In Europe, we believe that soup should be served piping hot, something that is universally ignored in the US. Salad comes after an entrée, not before—the idea is that the fresh, crisp greens or vegetables clean your palate after a rich main dish. Dessert is something for special occasions, and a plate of fruit, and/or cheese, is a tasty and healthy way to finish a meal And why is water always iced in the US, even in winter?

In Greece, where my wife and I spent a wonderful year on the small island of Skópelos, customs concerning food and drink are even more different, and sometimes challenging.

If you have the fortune to be a guest at a Greek table, you'll find that bowls and serving dishes are set out family-style, but without serving implements. Diners simply use their forks or spoons to pick at the dish, a mouthful at a time. To someone who's at all concerned about hygiene and matters bacterial, this is easily as disturbing as the business of double-dipping.

The first time I encountered this, I surreptitiously noted where my hosts—all apparently healthy, but one can never tell—inserted their utensils into the various dishes, and tried to serve myself from in-between these 'hot spots'. At first, it was easy, like keeping a mental count of the last few numbers that come up on a roulette wheel. But between the growing number of dishes, the shifting patterns of spoon- and fork-insertion as gaps appeared on the plates, the difficulty of keeping up a conversation in a language which I only vaguely grasped the outlines of, and my frequently-replenished wineglass, I was soon forced to abandon my efforts and simply hoped for the best. I was in Greece, and would have to learn Greek ways.

Nor are Greeks shy about using their hands to serve food, as we discovered when we were invited to an Easter celebration. When, after several hours on the spit, the lamb was done, our host and his future son-in-law manhandled it to the table and set it down in front of Máhi, our hostess. Máhi made a couple of big incisions, plunged both hands into the steaming carcass, and began to tear big off big hunks, laughing as she piled them onto our proffered plates. We'd never seen meat served this way at a dinner party, but at least it must be tender.

Then there's the business of heads. At Easter, the lamb carcass on the table still bore the charred remains of its face, complete with pointy teeth and cooked, milky eyeballs, facing us not two places away, a sight that is still vivid in my memory. And if you order mezés (snacks) at an ouzería, you'll at some point find yourself confronted with fish which still have the head attached, and which you're expected to eat.

When it comes to drink though, Greeks (and Southern Europeans generally) exhibit a good deal more sense than Northern Europeans or Americans. Drink is never, never served without ballast to accompany it and cushion the drinker's stomach against the too-rapid absorption of alcohol. If you visit an ouzería or tsipourádiko (oúzo and tsípouro joints, though the terms are somewhat interchangeable), every round of drinks comes with a selection of different, strongly-flavored mezés, or snacks: vegetable and kalamári dishes, spicy sausage stews, or small broiled fish. So over the course of a few rounds of drinks, you end up eating a good-sized meal.

Another interesting custom is that traditional Greek tsipourádikos and ouzerías serve their shots in sealed 50ml. miniatures, which makes billing easy for the server—at the end of the evening they just count the bottles on the table. It also gives the customers a growing array of decorative little empties to play with. Retsína, on the other hand, is sold by weight rather than volume, and served chilled in a cheap aluminum jug. After a little while, ordering wine by the half-kilo seems normal.

Greeks also dine late, in keeping with tradition in Latin and European countries. The normal dinner hour is 10 p.m., and 11 p.m. is not unusual. Of course, when businesses close for four hours in the middle of the day, typically between 2 and 6p.m., this is understandable. Most people work until 8 or 8:30 p.m., but the emphasis is always—and correctly, I believe—on family and social life rather than work. So what if you regularly get to bed at one or two a.m.? At least you were having a good time, and the office doesn’t open until 9 or 10 a.m. anyway.

We could learn a lot from this culture.

Dario Ciriello spent a year living in Greece on the island of Skópelos, and has written a memoir about his experiences entitled Aegean Dream.

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Superiors and inferiors in a magic system

This week's entry for the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop comes from Nicole Sheldrake. Thanks so much, Nicole! It's hard to believe I've been doing this for fourteen weeks now, but I really enjoy seeing what you all come up with, and I hope you enjoy hearing my opinions. Special thanks go to all those who have shared this workshop and invited their friends... we wouldn't still be doing it if not for you!

As usual, I'll begin by marking words in the text that give me clues to worldbuilding (with the color blue!).

***
When Benjamin Skyhammer opened his office door, the Relic collector remained seated, hidden behind an open newspaper. The collector was early and Skyhammer was alone. He glanced at the bare brick walls, the two shuttered windows, and the three lone pieces of furniture, one table and two chairs. Higgins was definitely not there. He swallowed and stepped into his office.

"About time you got here, Skyhammer. I had to waste energy on a spell to unlock the door. Where's my Relic?" Kelhenia, collector of Relics, tossed her newspaper on the wooden table, then crossed her arms over her pristine white jacket.

Skyhammer's jaw tightened as he shut the door. He strode to the table in the middle of the room, nose wrinkling at a waft of her heavy floral perfume. Eyes trained on the jiggling jowls of the overweight woman across from him, he lifted his backpack off his shoulder.

"I said where's my Relic, Untouchable scum?" Kelhenia slipped a red, rectangular glass slate from her pocket.

Skyhammer's eyes widened. She was going to perform a spell on him! With a swift movement, his right hand gripped the hilt of his longsword, then fell away. He was defenseless. He could haul out his sword and attempt to slice her in half but like most humans who lived in the Royal Circle, she would be protected by a magic shield.

Kelhenia's sausage fingers drew in the impressionable glass, a sketch that looked like nails had pressed hard into sunburned skin, creating white lines. She blew across the drawing.

First the drawing then the table disappeared, leaving the newspaper to plummet to the wooden floor and land with a soft smack.

He clutched the strap of the backpack he'd been about to drop on the table. "In here," he muttered, relieved that she'd used her magic on the table instead of him. He didn't consider himself good-looking but over the years he'd grown attached to his spiky brown hair, six-foot-four height and prominent ears.

"Well? Aren't you going to put the table back?" She sniggered, then raised her eyebrows.
Two years. Two years he'd been selling the woman Relics and every time they met she had to taunt him about his lack of magic powers. His teeth clenched. It wasn't his fault he was an Untouchable, born without magic.

His backpack thumped onto the ground.

"How dare you abuse my Relic!" Kelhenia leapt up, face red, fingers starting to trace another pattern on her magic slate.

"It's not yours yet." Skyhammer knelt and opened the clasp of his bag. Maybe he could distract the collector. Higgins wasn't due to arrive for at least another ten minutes. Kelhenia could easily steal the Relic from him before then.

She gasped as he withdrew the Relic.

Thick cyan liquid filled a simple red clay bowl to the brim. Three inches above the bowl, a stream of the liquid erupted out of the air and poured down like wine from an invisible bottle.
***

As with many stories, we get our first worldbuilding clue from a name, in this case Benjamin Skyhammer. It's an interesting name with a lot of possible connotations, including 1. anyone named Benjamin is likely human 2. an evocation of Luke Skywalker and 3. an evocation of detective Mike Hammer. Location-wise we see an office door, which suggests Earth - but the title Relic collector isn't a very familiar one. Without further information it could be Indiana-Jones-ish, or fantastical. Seated reinforces the humanity of the participants here, and newspaper gives us a very specific technology level and possible era. In fact, the constellation of Hammer, the office door and a person seated behind the desk holding a newspaper may already have evoked the classic private detective scenario. We soon discover more about the office with bare brick walls, shuttered windows, and three lone pieces of furniture, one table and two chairs.

Things change a bit when we hit the phrase waste energy on a spell. Now it's clear (if it wasn't already) that this isn't our typical private detective scenario. The visitor's name, Kelhenia, fits with this, because it is fantastical. She does, however, use human body language with crossed her arms. In the next paragraph things seem to fit with the expanded vision we have of humans, a detective scenario, plus magic, until we hit the phrase Untouchable scum. This phrase instantly invokes the idea of caste, since Untouchable is a concept common to numerous caste systems including the Indian and the Japanese (remnants of which still remain). The caste idea isn't much expanded on, but we soon get a red, rectangular glass slate that she takes from her pocket. This illuminates the magic system that we'll be seeing. We get another piece of the fantastical from Skyhammer's instinct to grip the hilt of his longsword (rather than reading for a gun). More social hints come from the phrase like most humans who lived in the Royal Circle, and more magic information from magic shield and impressionable glass.

I'm going to stop there because that is my sense of the world entry. Now I'll go through the entry again with my comments in brown and marked by **[ . For those of you visiting the workshop for the first time, these comments are not corrections. They are my thoughts as I read through, and I may make note of points of confusion.

***
When Benjamin Skyhammer **[that's an evocative name! We're most likely dealing with a human] opened his office door **[this is consistent with a human model, and we're clearly in a place that supports offices and their doors] , the Relic collector **[unusual title; I'll be looking to learn more] remained seated,**[this person is also probably human] hidden behind an open newspaper**[newspaper places our technology in a certain era on earth. I'm not certain whether the Relic collector is seated inside the office or outside it]. The collector was early and Skyhammer was alone.**[Since I assume this is relevant, I'm guessing there is some kind of peril here for Skyhammer. I wish I had a clearer idea of what he thinks it is.] He glanced at the bare brick walls, the two shuttered windows, and the three lone pieces of furniture, one table and two chairs.**[A lot of physical details of the office. It's starting to look like a familiar detective scenario. I don't get much evidence from this description that it's Skyhammer's office, however. More judgment words might help this.] Higgins was definitely not there.**[I wonder who Higgins is and why he is supposed to be there, and whether that would be a good or a bad thing.] He swallowed and stepped into his office.

"About time you got here, Skyhammer.**[So she's his superior.] I had to waste energy on a spell **[oh, we have magic in this world too - and it costs energy.] to unlock the door. Where's my Relic?" **[So he's supposed to be bringing her a relic?] Kelhenia, **[definitely a fantasy name; this fits with her use of magic.] collector of Relics, tossed her newspaper on the wooden table, then crossed her arms **[she uses pretty human body language.] over her pristine white jacket.**[I notice that this world is familiar enough that color values remain the same, as well as some fashions.]

Skyhammer's jaw tightened **[more quintessentially human body language, but it sounds as though it's being observed from the outside] as he shut the door. He strode to the table in the middle of the room, nose wrinkling at a waft of her heavy floral perfume.**[I like this sensory detail. It places us back in Skyhammer's viewpoint] Eyes trained on the jiggling jowls of the overweight **[If she's got jiggling jowls, I'm surprised to see the word "overweight." I associate it with a time period following that of the detective scenario, and also with a weight considerably lower than the jiggling jowls evoke for me.] woman across from him, he lifted his backpack **[more interesting technological grounding]off his shoulder.

"I said where's my Relic, Untouchable scum?**[Wow, there are castes here?] " Kelhenia slipped a red, rectangular glass slate **[this is very distinctive and I'm curious, watching for its significance.] from her pocket.

Skyhammer's eyes widened**[external body language]. She was going to perform a spell on him! **[That explains the significance of the slate, so we know the magic system is based on some kind of objects.] With a swift movement, his right hand gripped the hilt of his longsword,**[This surprised me. I was expecting a weapon to fit with the detective scenario technology level, not with the fantasy elements.] then fell away. He was defenseless. He could haul out his sword and attempt to slice her in half but like most humans who lived in the Royal Circle,**[this is interesting social information. I wonder where her position, Relic collector, places her in the Royal Circle. Probably not among the royalty.] she would be protected by a magic shield.**[I wish I knew more about this magic shield. It must be invisible; I wonder what he expects would happen if he made the attempt.]

Kelhenia's sausage fingers**[this is very earthly] drew in the impressionable glass**[this is very unearthly; a nice contrast.], a sketch that looked like nails had pressed hard into sunburned skin,**[I like how this evokes pain] creating white lines. She blew across the drawing.**[I like what we learn by seeing her work magic. This reminds me of the magic system in Howl's Moving Castle.]

First the drawing then the table disappeared, leaving the newspaper to plummet to the wooden floor and land with a soft smack.**[what disappeared? Is the whole tablet gone?]

He clutched the strap of the backpack he'd been about to drop on the table. "In here," he muttered, relieved that she'd used her magic on the table instead of him. He didn't consider himself good-looking but over the years he'd grown attached to his spiky brown hair, six-foot-four height and prominent ears.**[This surprised me. Did he think she was going to alter his appearance? I'm not sure he'd be thinking of the details of his own appearance if she was just going to make him disappear.]

"Well? Aren't you going to put the table back?"**[Who says this?] She sniggered, then raised her eyebrows.
Two years. **[This is a real-world measurement of time, which fits] Two years he'd been selling the woman Relics and every time they met she had to taunt him about his lack of magic powers. **[This makes it sound like teasing. Teasing from a position of power is very unpleasant] His teeth clenched. It wasn't his fault he was an Untouchable, born without magic. **[Wow, it's a caste system? I'm surprised to see that the Untouchable category is people without magic. Everything about Kelhenia, her power position and her magic makes her appear to be part of a magic-wielding elite. This seems to reverse that impression.]

His backpack thumped onto the ground.**[Did it fall or did he drop it? Why? Is he trying to upset her?]

"How dare you abuse my Relic!" Kelhenia leapt up, face red, fingers starting to trace another pattern on her magic slate.**[When I got here I was surprised to see the slate because I thought it had disappeared along with the design she drew. Maybe I don't have a clear picture of it in my head.]

"It's not yours yet." Skyhammer knelt and opened the clasp of his bag. Maybe he could distract the collector. Higgins wasn't due to arrive for at least another ten minutes.**[That seems like an awfully long time] Kelhenia could easily steal the Relic from him before then.**[I wonder about their relationship. Her power and position seem like they would make it easy for her to have taken all the relics without recompense, without the label of stealing. It would help if I had an idea of what Skyhammer thinks Higgins is going to do for him (if he's a transaction-recorder, or a policeman, or a free agent, or a magic-wielding friend of Skyhammer's).]

She gasped as he withdrew the Relic.**[Taking it out will distract her; that's interesting, since it could also inspire her to take it. This must be something special. I'm curious at this point to see what it is, for a further glimpse of this magic system.]

Thick cyan liquid filled a simple red clay bowl to the brim. Three inches above the bowl, a stream of the liquid erupted out of the air and poured down like wine from an invisible bottle.**[I can see that the materials of the Relic are relatively simple. Presumably there's something about it that will become evident as the story continues.]
***

First, let me say thanks again to Nicole for submitting this piece. It's a mixed real-world and magic-world piece, which is very interesting. One of the things I do as I go through a piece which mixes real and fantastical is try to determine what principles separate the two parts. In this case, I had assigned the local technology, buildings and such to the real-world side, and magic objects, social structures and professions to the fantastical side. This is the reason why I tripped up when I hit the reference to Benjamin Skyhammer's sword.

I also want to bring some attention to the social structures here. At the start I find myself accessing the scenario in which the private detective returns to his office and finds someone has broken in without his permission. For me this places Kelhenia in the role of boss and Skyhammer in the role of employee...which fits generally with the idea of the Relic finder and the Relic collector. Because I don't know much about this world yet, I wonder if the position of Relic collector is institutional, like the role of tax collector, or if it is personal, like the role of art collector. A better sense of who Higgins is and what Benjamin expects him to do might illuminate this a little. Then there is the question of magic users and castes, which appear to be interrelated. When the boss is a magic-user, that falls easily into a model in which magic users are few and take positions of power. The idea of Benjamin as being untouchable because he isn't a magic user therefore came as a surprise to me, and made me revise my concept. If everyone is a magic user, then I start looking for common everyday uses of magic (like Mrs. Weasley's kitchen in The Burrow). I start wondering whether there is something specific about the magic that would lead its users to believe that people who were deprived were worthy of ostracism (does it change them physically? is it considered cleansing? etc.). The place of the Relics in such a system is then more mysterious. Are these relatively common objects, or is the magic use restricted to the drawing of pictures that leads to particular effects - and thus, actual magic objects are unusual? Our guide to the answers to these questions is Benjamin. If magic objects were commonly available, he might have purchased some for the purposes of protecting himself from people like Kelhenia. He should show surprise at objects that are unusual, and help readers contextualize what they see. It might be helpful too for him to think of his own group as "us" and "my people" rather than labeling them as an outsider might.

I found this piece whimsical and intriguing. There's a lot of really interesting stuff here, and only a little time and space here for me to explore it. I hope these comments have provided a few ideas on strengthening how the world and the magic system come across.

As always, I welcome constructive comments.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

TTYU Retro: Laughter

There are lots of different kinds of laughter. That is to say, the activity may be similar across different occasions, but what it means is very different. Think about the number of different verbs we have in English for different forms of laughing: guffaw, titter, snicker, giggle, chuckle, just to name a few.

One of the things I notice about laughter is that there are appropriate and inappropriate times for it.

When someone else tells a joke, that's an appropriate time, usually. But it will depend on the perceived appropriateness of the joke to the social situation, and also on the rank of the joke-teller and the listeners.

When your father tells you he's angry with you, that's not an appropriate time. I have seen this in my household (and experienced it myself, so you can substitute "mother" for "father" too), and believe me, when you're mad and someone laughs, it makes you even madder.

When you're playing a game or otherwise sharing social experience, and experiencing delight, this is an appropriate time.

When someone tells you something you've never heard before, and you think it's interesting, this is not an appropriate time.

But there's a lot of gray area. In particular, laughter is often a response to nervous discomfort. Humor often takes advantage of precisely this in order to get people laughing about taboo topics, or about other areas that make people feel on edge.

And when you think about it, isn't that most likely the response you're getting from a child when you say you're angry? What sounds like insolence may be nervousness (and yes, a degree of recklessness).

And when someone tells you something you've never heard before, and you're delighted, what do you do?

Well, I often run into situations where people will say things to me that I find so charming, so delightful, or simply so perfectly true and illuminating that I will laugh. And then people say to me, "I'm not kidding." Lucky for me, I'm not doing this in a work situation where I might be penalized for my behavior. Still, I'm stuck saying, "Well, I know you're not kidding - I was laughing because what you said was just so perfect/great/etc."

When you think about it, this is a great element to play with in your worldbuilding. What kind of alternate attitudes about laughter might there be? What would be an appropriate time to laugh that humans didn't recognize but someone else might? What would constitute humor in another culture very different from our own?

It's something to think about.