Thursday, December 20, 2012

Link: How to laugh online in other languages

Here is an awesome article that explores what the rough equivalents are for "LOL" or "hahahaha" in other languages. I'm sharing it here because it's so funny and interesting - I hope you agree.

55555, or, How to Laugh Online in Other Languages

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

TTYU Retro: Must every scene be different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Designing character interviews that really matter (including genre-inspired questions)

I'm sure you've seen a lot of character-interview posts, but I'm hoping this one won't be like most you've seen elsewhere, so stick with me. I'm writing it as an update and expansion of one of my most popular posts of all time, "Know Your Character Inside and Out." The post will have two parts: first, a discussion of what criteria make questions more useful and less pointlessly trivial, and below that, a list of questions that deal with world and identity, and with genre (so you can skip down if you like).

Okay, so why should you conduct a mock interview with your character? What is it that makes a character interview more than just a bunch of random silly questions?

You can learn a lot from an interview if you conduct it the right way. The first thing to do is to think about who you are as an interviewer. You are the author who will be telling this character's story, so the questions you want answered have to do with the character and his/her role in that story. You won't be wanting to ask the kinds of questions that a neighbor or relative might ask, or the kinds of questions that an entertainment TV interviewer might ask. It's possible you may have some overlap between your own questions and those types of questions, but only if there is neighbor, relative, or TV entertainment content in your story.

You will want to ask the kinds of questions that help you understand your character and where he/she fits in his/her world. Don't ask what an alien thinks of coffee, for example, unless that alien will be encountering coffee in the story. You will want to know about what kinds of expectations your character holds, because story events will be judged on the basis of those expectations, and you can construct a backstory based on the type of expectations that person needs to have. You will want to know a lot about your character's emotions, because emotions are what give dynamics to your story. The questions you choose should grow out of what you already know about the plot and conflict, and the needs of the story, which will differ according to genre. Here are some of the many things that interconnect for a character:

world, culture, personal history, psychology, judgment, reaction, motive, action

You can enter into this web at any point, but from there you should follow the interconnections to get insight into other areas.

Before I head into the questions, let me make one last point about judgment. Judgment to me is one of the most important things you can understand about a character. This does not necessarily mean that you have to show or explain that character's judgment on the page (I like to, personally) but people need to have reasons why they do the things they do. For that reason, I like to angle my interview questions to elicit judgments, not just information. For example, I think "how many brothers and sisters do you have" is a far less helpful question than, "What do you think of your family members?" Answers to the first type of question will be numbers. Answers to the second could range from "I don't think about my family at all because I'm too busy" to "Every time I think of my eldest brother, terrifying memories well up in me and I can't bear to think about it."

The last suggestion I will make is that you should always let your character answer in the first person, because that means you'll be more likely to discover things about character voice as you go along.



The Interview Questions

Worldbuilding and Identity Questions
These questions are potentially useful for all writers, not just those who work in created worlds like those in science fiction and fantasy. The goal here is to establish what the character considers normal, because stories generally rely on pushing their characters outside the normal, and their reactions to stress will change depending on what they do consider normal.

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries? How would it affect me if I needed to leave it?

2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What conditions would cause me to react with strong emotions such as fear, awe, wonder, or discomfort?

3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort? Is physical exertion normal for me, or difficult, or somehow socially disparaged?
 
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What architecture, vistas, shapes, or textures give me comfort, or discomfort?

5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both? What expectation of respect for authority did I grow up with? Did I accept it or struggle with it? How do my current circumstances compare?

6. How do I show who I am in the way I maintain my appearance? How far do my social and economic circumstances allow me to control how I appear to others? What clothing or adornment feels comfortable to me? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of meeting social expectations of beauty or power?

7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?

8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?

9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?

10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?

11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

12. How do I prefer to express my emotions? Do I express them verbally, or through action? Do I hide them from others? Do I hide them from myself? What expressions of emotion are considered acceptable in my society, and how has this influenced my emotional strategies?

13. How do I feel about social interaction? Does it feed me or drain me? Do I expect to have many people around me, or few? Do I expect those people to be relatives, people I know, or strangers? How do I feel about being alone?


Genre-Inspired Questions
The following questions are inspired by some of the issues that become central in different fiction genres. Be aware that these are not useful exclusively to the genres listed, but can certainly apply across genres as well, depending on their relevance.

Science Fiction
  • How do I react to things I have never seen before? 
  • Do I respond to the unknown with curiosity or fear, or both? 
  • How do I react to swift change?
  • How do I visualize the future?
  • How do I feel about the past - including my own past history, the history of my society and its technology?
  • What is my definition of "the latest" technology? How do I feel about it? Where do I imagine it going?

Adventure
  • What is my emotional response to privation? To physical danger? 
  • What kinds of equipment do I consider indispensable, and why?
  • Am I good at thinking on my feet? 
  • How important are team members to me? How much might I sacrifice for them?

Romance
  • What do I find attractive? Unattractive?
  • How do I define masculinity and femininity? How do I respond to those qualities emotionally or physically?
  • How do I respond emotionally to the sensation of physical arousal?
  • Do I have any physical or mental quirks that might influence my sensual life?

Horror
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What do I find creepy?
  • What contributes to my most extreme feelings of anxiety, and what factors might contribute to creating a spiral of growing fear?
  • How do I feel about the fear of others? Is it worthy of scorn, inspiring of courage, or inspiring of greater fear in myself?


I realize that this list, in spite of all the things I've covered, is incomplete. For example, since I'm not a horror aficionado, I'm sure I've missed some great questions for that genre. I welcome other questions to be proposed in the comments. If you'd like to see some other great interview questions, you can look back at my post Knowing Your Character Inside and Out, and at Nicola Morgan's questions on Help! I Need a Publisher!
I hope this list has given you some useful ideas about how to explore your characters through interviews. Good luck!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Questioning the Monologue of Evil Triumph

We're all familiar with the Monologue of Evil Triumph. Many of us have written at least one - some may have written more than one. It's that moment when the Hero is in a tight spot and the Bad Guy decides to explain every motive and action that took him up to that point. In fact, one of my favorite sequences from The Incredibles was when Mr. Incredible and Frozone are talking in the car about past battles - the part that ends with Frozone saying, "I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won't shut up!"

It's so familiar it's being called out on the meta-level...and then later, the Bad Guy (Syndrome) still launches into a monologue before catching himself.

I've wondered sometimes how realistic the Monologue of Evil Triumph is. Do people do this in real life? And another thought - how many real life bad guys do it because they've been taught to do it by evil characters in stories?

A Monologue of Evil Triumph does some nice things for the author - at very least, it allows the author to show how clever she/he is in designing what the bad guy has done. By the time we get to the point where the good guy is "on a platter," we're often wondering just how much evil the bad guy has got going, and unless the good guy has already discovered all of it through experience, it helps to have the bad guy explain things (especially personal history and motive).

I suppose the Monologue also serves a certain psychological purpose for the villain. After all, he/she has gone to a lot of work to get this fantastically complex evil thing done, and it would be a shame if nobody knew just how cool he /she really was. That's the one aspect that makes me think that evildoer monologues are potentially realistic - they seem so for a person who is naturally self-centered and wants everyone in the whole world to know how big and powerful they are. A lot of bad guys fall into the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder/Megalomania.

Here's another funny thing I've noticed, though. The Monologue of Evil Triumph bears some odd similarities to Mansplaining, in its definition of "to explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening" (definition from UrbanDictionary.com). It's enough to inspire me to pay closer attention when I'm reading and watching movies, to see if I can find any gender differences in the way the Big Bad goes about claiming victory. Is the co-incidence of the male villain and the "Mansplain of Evil Triumph" just that - a coincidence? Or is there something gendered about villains' approaches to (near) success?

It certainly has me rethinking what I was doing for a scene in my WIP, a short story called "Mind Locker." The baddie in my story is a woman, and I got to the point where a Monologue became tempting, and my mind rebelled. No, I don't want a Monologue in this story. I want something else.
A conversation, maybe. A villain who is perhaps less Narcissistic and Megalomaniacal, and more maternal. It's a tricky twist, but one that I hope will be interesting and thought-provoking for readers.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

TTYU Retro: Writing male point of view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Some Gender-related thoughts about How to Train Your Dragon

Last week my kids and I have watched Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon more than once. Usually I can't watch a movie more than once without starting to think about the underlying social issues, and this must have been the tenth time I've watched this one, but for some reason this time I started going back over my thinking about gender in the movie.

One note before I start: these are thoughts about the movie, not the book (which I have not read).

I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon far more than I expected to when I first saw it. However, I never saw it as cutting-edge in a gender sense. I liked that there were both male and female Vikings, but although the female Vikings seemed to be out fighting alongside the males, most were just incidental rather than main characters. Hiccup's mom was out of the picture. Ruffnut was ostensibly female but hardly distinguishable from her brother in behavior. I guess you could say that woman characters exist in the movie but aren't really put into the focus of the story.

It's not as if they couldn't have been, either. For the sake of argument let's put aside the question of faithfulness to the book, and ask if the story could have worked with different genders. I mean, why couldn't Gobber have been a woman? A female blacksmith with a peg leg and detachable hands, who can double the amount of time that an army has to get away, how cool would that be? Or why wasn't Toothless female? There's absolutely nothing that dragon does which is particularly masculine, that I can think of. There's no reason to act like just because a dragon species is stealthy and powerful and awesome that any particular individual of that species must be male. All other things being equal, there is no reason I can see why Toothless could not have been a female.

So now we get to the main characters.

Astrid, I liked. She was tough but not too boyish, had judgments of things, used her head, and had ideas that took her both in opposition to Hiccup and into alignment with him. While her habit of whacking Hiccup came across to me as over the top, it fit with the whole Viking idea. And I did appreciate that the habit didn't go away just because she started liking him.

So now we get to Hiccup. For some reason, this time I found I liked him better than I ever had. Let's set aside the easy comments, "He's a boy, why can't we have girl protagonists" etc. and take a look at what he's really doing.

He is advocating for feminine strengths in a world of masculine strengths.

Hiccup's main problem isn't that he's weak but smart and people don't value his brains (which is relatively more common as a story message). It's that he isn't any good at fighting even when he tries, and he obviously isn't cut out for it. It's his heart that he is faulted for - what Gobber says, "It's not what you look like, it's what's inside that he can't stand." He's faulted for his inability to occupy a proper place as a soldier in the war that has been going on for generations between the Vikings and the dragons. He tries to take part in it (by shooting Toothless) and discovers that his success in bringing down the dragon is the greatest regret of his life. His turning point is the moment when he holds up his knife trying to kill Toothless, and doesn't just choose not to do it, but risks his own skin in order to undo what he has done. He goes from being a someone who knows what he is supposed to do but is unwilling to do it and therefore gets into all kinds of trouble, to someone who knows that what he was supposed to do (be big and strong and fight and kill) was wrong and will go to all kinds of quiet lengths in order to stay on the path he knows is right.

The moral of this story, as I see it, is "take your time to think and be compassionate." Hiccup's major victory comes from holding course firmly - even when his father won't listen to him. He doesn't have to battle his father to convince him. He doesn't have to kill a dragon, either. Yes, the big mega-dragon has to be stopped, and there's the battle and self-sacrifice and all that, but to my mind, Hiccup's big victory comes when his father sees the truth. When Stoic realizes that Hiccup's way of seeing the world was correct, and that he was wrong to disown him.

I've spoken before (in my post about Strong Female Characters) about the value of femininity. Feminism has taken us to a place where it's often okay, approved of, encouraged even, for women to behave in masculine ways. So far, so good (even though we know there is plenty of work to do). This still puts an unfair emphasis on masculinity as the goal, however. Gender equity means equity - and that means putting value on femininity as well, allowing boys to behave in feminine ways, with feminine strengths. I came out of this viewing of How to Train Your Dragon feeling like Hiccup's journey was a step in the right direction, because what made him a hero began in his feminine side.

I'd love to see more of that in movies, in books, and on the playground. I'm taking it as inspiration for my own work, and I hope you'll consider doing so as well.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Link: Lead Character Goal Selection and the Preservation of Self-Concept

I really enjoyed this article by Lydia Sharp today. Her idea is that the first major goal of a main character must be somehow to preserve his/her concept of identity. I'm not sure I entirely agree with this, since my main characters don't necessarily do that - however, the concept of identity and its relation to a main character's story goals is really important. She also emphasizes that there should be a critical fit between the character's identity and the nature of the plot - they should be in the most extreme opposition possible.

Anyway, take a look, and you might get some good ideas.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A character's mental voice is like all the goofy (or not) quotes they've ever memorized

I know a lot of you who play this game. Start a quote, and have your friend finish it, or take the next part. Quotes from The Princess Bride. Or from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This week I was playing the game with my son and daughter, quoting from Rise of the Guardians. Sometimes it only takes one word ("inconceivable!") or maybe a couple of words to bring a whole quote or sequence of words to mind.

It's not just entertainment stuff, though. We have quotes from the internet, but also quotes from the deeper books we've read, or the Bible, or just sayings that have been in the family for years. The frequency with which we have whole chunks of language float up in our consciousness is quite remarkable.

In the study of language and language learning, people have discovered that a lot of what we learn is based on phrases that come into our repertoire in chunks, rather than single words that get put together using rules. In America we often like to vary those phrases in (usually predictable) various ways. In Japan there are a lot of set phrases that must be delivered as is, in the required situations (and variation is discouraged).

What I'm getting to here is an idea about how to make the inner voice of a character come alive. How to get the character's mind to demonstrate the culture he or she is a part of, and how to weave backstory into the character him or herself.

Think about what your character has been exposed to. What kind of colloquial sayings? What kind of family sayings? What kind of books? What kind of other media? All of those things will be folded into the way that character thinks. A character who has spent a lot of time using the internet may use internet slang, but will also likely be inclined to drop themselves from the position of sentence subject, because that is one of the major grammatical features of internet talk (due to the presence of an identity marker on each post).

For each feature of the backstory, or feature of the culture, or feature of literacy and education in your world, try to think of a way that feature would be expressed in your character's internalization. Your character might be a direct quoter, as Janice Hardy's Nya was, always quoting her Grannyma. Or he might be someone like Herbert's Gurney Halleck, who quotes from the Orange Catholic Bible. Your character might also be someone whose language patterns are influenced by a particular cultural tradition or set of metaphors without actually involving direct quotes.

Regardless of what the different contributions have been to the internal voice of your character, it can be very helpful to think of a character's mentality as a symphony of different voices. The character him or herself becomes the conductor, deciding when each voice is most relevant. Letting aspects of different philosophies come to the fore as they become relevant, and choosing which of them to express in the judgments he or she makes. If you can make this happen in a character of yours, then you can achieve a sense of complexity and depth in many fewer words than you otherwise would.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TTYU Retro: Tightening your plot by layering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Easy as Pie"? How easy is pie? (a writing post about mental hurdles)

Yesterday's Thanksgiving cooking got me to thinking about something. A lot of people these days, who aren't accustomed to cooking, think cooking is difficult. I think I've roasted a turkey all of twice, possibly three times in my life, counting yesterday. I got out my cookbook, found a recipe and followed it. But I confess that before I got the recipe out, I was in a panic, going, "I don't know how to roast a turkey!"

It made me think of the expression "easy as pie," which remains in the English language even though a great many of us wouldn't find pie particularly easy.

There are several different elements that go into perceiving some form of cooking as easy or difficult.
  • How often you cook.
  • How easy the ingredients are to procure. 
  • Whether you like to use cookbooks.
  • Whether you find following directions easy.
 If you've only ever tried to cook a cake out of a box, then it might seem really tricky to bake one from scratch. It isn't, really, though it might take more time. If you're an expert cook, you only have to have one or two tiny hints about how to vary a recipe before you are able to do something amazing.

What we're really looking at here are mental hurdles. What seems normal and easy to some people seems inconceivable to other people, just based on their culture and their personal experiences. This strikes me as something we should all be trying to fit into stories about aliens or stories about people from different cultures. After all, we can have extreme differences in skill and comfort in the kitchen, even compared to our own neighbors - surely there would be more such contrasts between people with greater differences.

I am continually amazed at how stories reduce friction between the people they portray, in service of a single main conflict. If there's cultural contrast and misunderstanding, often it's done in a peripheral or token manner. But this kind of thing is everywhere. Think about how different people are and what they are comfortable or uncomfortable with, what they find normal, what they find easy. Let that weave into the main conflict, serve it and drive it forward.

It's something to think about.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hazards of TMI, or, Why the real world is trickier than the one you created

So let's say you are writing a story. In order to give the story the flavor you want, you need to use a particular body of knowledge. Either this is a body of knowledge that you've created yourself - say, through extensive worldbuilding about climate, geography, etc. - or a body of knowledge that can be accessed through research, such as the history of English language and culture, or that of Japan.

With a created world, this problem is almost more straightforward. You can assume that readers unfamiliar with your world will simply not know anything at all. There's a great solution for this sort of thing, even if you are so steeped in your own world knowledge that you can't judge how much is making it onto the page. You find a "naive reader," i.e. someone who is totally unfamiliar with your world, and let them loose on the story. They'll be able to tell you where they stumble, where they are confused, etc. They will be a perfect model of your target audience.

With the real world, it's much trickier, because you can't anticipate how much information your reader will have. Some of your readers will share this information. Some will know nothing about it. Some will be experts And you, believe it or not, are trapped in the middle.

I encountered this strange difficulty with a story I wrote, using a Japanese setting. Some people have loved hearing the story. Some have felt totally lost, and appear to have problems because they don't know enough about Japan or Japanese mythology. Some have felt like the story was too transparent, because they already know so much about Japan and Japanese mythology.

It's enough to make one throw up one's hands and go, "Argh!"

There's another issue here as well, and that is the issue of trusting the reader. Some readers will be okay with not knowing quite what is going on, not quite understanding everything; others will not. This actually means that the number of people who have serious trouble with the story will be smaller (fortunately) but the underlying problem remains.

My best suggestions are as follows:

1. Get a wide range of feedback. Take this feedback seriously.
2. Provide subtle contextual scaffolding.

What I mean by subtle contextual scaffolding is that you want to give hints that will eliminate confusion without actually giving too much information and making the informed people scream. I had one reader be confused when I included a direct translation of a Japanese idiomatic expression, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Now of course, I can't actually explain the idiom in context - but what I can do is support it in other ways that will be more relevant to the main character and to the conflict we're dealing with. If he doesn't just think this in an unquestioned way, but thinks of someone who always says it, for example, it will make more sense, and people who already know the expression will gain character and setting insights so that the information provided won't be entirely superfluous. This is the perfect kind of place to make sure that whatever you include serves more than one narrative purpose at once - advancing plot, deepening character, reflecting and deepening setting, etc. People will be bothered by explanations that are only explanations. But they might be more interested if the explanation they already know gives them an insight into another area of the story that they know nothing about.

It's something to keep your eye out for.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

TTYU Retro: When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?

These writing projects of ours take a lot of time and effort. Some folks I know can pound out short stories (and more power to them!), but I know I'm not like this, and certainly novels demand more. Even those who write NaNoWriMo novels often spend a lot of planning time in advance of the writing period, and then more time revising and cleaning up afterward.

So let's say you've invested a large amount of worldbuilding time, design time, and writing time into a project, but no matter what you do, it refuses to do precisely what you want. It might be that you've dived into something but it has petered out in the middle. That was what happened to me with For Love, For Power after I'd written around nineteen chapters. It might be that you've rewritten something over and over but every time you fix one thing, beta readers keep finding something else that bothers them. That one happened to me with a work in progress called The Past Unhealed, and the things they kept finding weren't tiny fix-its, but major rethink-this-whole-section stuff. It might be that you've got whole books which are sequels to other books that aren't quite working (yep, I have those too). Or maybe your work in progress is just acting ornery and doesn't feel right.

Walk away.

Don't just leave it alone for a weekend. That's fine, and it helps, but by this time you've probably already tried that. What I mean is, go and write something else.

Yes, it can feel like failure. Holy cow, I put years of work into this! How can I abandon it? But I'm not suggesting you take all your precious hard-won files and toss them in the trash can (either literally or figuratively). I'm suggesting that you refresh your brain by giving it a different problem to work on. A challenge - particularly if it's something you haven't done before.

When I walked away from my first four novels, I started writing short stories at first. That felt different. A good number of those were in the same world as the novels, and were up against some big hurdles because of that, but it was good to give them a try. Why? Because I'd never forced my brain to think short. I'd never tried to create a story small enough to balance in the palm of my hand. Slowly I started learning that when the story was small, I could visualize all its pieces in my head at once, and I started understanding how the parts of the story related to one another. Writing the short stories took on a new fire for me, and my rejections started getting better.

Then I picked up a new novel. Totally new - not in the same world, with none of the same characters. I applied what I'd learned from short stories to this novel. Lo and behold it was working. I wrote the whole thing in (for me) record time. Revising it was still brutal, and I had a few very embarrassing failures with agents before I had it in the right place, but when it came out finished, it made me happy. And my agent liked it too!

Because it was a novel that used none of the same parameters, I exercised my brain on it in a different way. I did different things trying to revise it, and set my brain against different kinds of problems. For a writer, trying new things is really important. We have to try things that are challenging, because they help our minds and skills to grow.

For me, more than four years went by before I went back to my previous material.

I wouldn't have had to, necessarily. There are a lot of people out there with "trunk novels" that never see the light of day. I could have left mine in the dark, but there were some factors that drew me back to them.

1. The world wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be going along, and learn something about language or culture or writing, and a new connection would form in my head. Wow, I'd say to myself, that could really apply to Varin in an interesting way.

2. The story shifted whenever I started thinking about it again. My new ideas of structure gave me new ideas for how to approach it, and I started seeing things here and there that would change for the better.

3. The characters grew without me writing them. They kept coming back to me and whispering things in my head - but even more than that, I started seeing things about how they interacted on a larger level. And when I spoke about them with friends, I figured out even more. The fact that Tagaret had to be the protagonist in For Love, For Power (shoot, why didn't I realize that before?). The fact that sweet little Xinta can't be sweet little Xinta any more, but has to start out as the antagonist in the first novel where he appears (and I mean scary). The fact that one character whose head I've never visited has something terribly important to say that will add to the structure of the entire novel when I get back to it.

When I get back to it. Not if, though it was if for a very long time.

How do you decide to go back? I can't speak for others, obviously, but the thing that convinced me was when I decided experimentally to go back and think through the stories, reorganize my thoughts and outlines - and I discovered how much better everything would be. By writing for four years on other projects, I've improved my skills immensely. When I look at those old versions, I find some things that embarrass me, but other things that I think still have value. Those old words aren't a waste. They've created something in my head that has grown while I let it rest. They stand behind me now as I go back and write again. I'm not fool enough to try to revise them any more - empty files for me! - but if I need a reminder of what should happen next, or if I remember a phrase I loved, I can go back.

Here's the reward. Even before I'd finished For Love, For Power, I could tell it wouldn't die in the middle this time. I wrote a chapter in the beginning and I can feel everything in the story interconnecting. I could just  feel it was better. I could handle everything more confidently and more subtly because I'm a better writer now. I even feel ideas coming together for the books I wrote before this one, the really old books I wrote when I had no idea what I was doing yet. I'm excited now to think of those books, not embarrassed. I know I'll go back because I feel what I'll be able to do with them. The underlying structure of the world is still sound, even when I'm good enough to test it in totally different ways. It deserves a better writer to write it - and while I have no illusions of perfection, I know that I'll be good enough to draft something worth sticking with this time.

It's hard to walk away. But if you can do it, it might be the very best decision you ever made for those books you love.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Is character more important than worldbuilding?

I'm known for my worldbuilding at this point, but I must admit: if I were asked to choose my favorite element of storytelling, I would have to choose character.

World is something I really enjoy, and the better done it is the happier I am, typically. However, if I find myself reading a book where the world is terrific and the character doesn't make me care, it's not enough. I'm quite serious. Recently I abandoned a very famous book, one famous in particular for its worldbuilding, and one everyone told me I should read, because though the worldbuilding was masterful, the character couldn't make me care.

Characters have emotions. They have goals, and they have fears. Those are the elements that keep me reading.

Some of you will already be anticipating what I'm going to say next.

When worldbuilding is done well, it seeps into character. To my mind, any character who has grown up in a world will have judgments informed by the structure of that world. Their internalized goals will be appropriate to that world, even if they struggle with them. Their fears will also be rooted in the world, for what do they have to fear but what exists in their own world?

The character's emotions will be emotions we recognize - what you might be tempted to call universal emotions - but the more sophisticated the emotion, the more culturally informed it will be. Everybody will fear a hungry bear. But everyone will probably also fear loss of reputation on some level, and the way you maintain your reputation in one world versus another will be vastly different.

The commonality of feeling brings us together with a character in spite of the world's differences. We feel alongside the character, and then our logical understanding of the world tells us whether these emotions make sense in context.

That was one of the things I loved about the characters in N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Every single one of them felt strong emotions, each for different reasons. There were the enslaved gods who were scheming, not arbitrarily, but out of deep anger for their betrayal and enslavement. I could tell that they used their emotions to inform every action they took, even when I didn't understand them. Lady Yeine was sharp, and driven, and full of emotions that grew out of her history - both her personal history and her cultural history as a Darre. You could see how the Darre emotions were expected to be more overtly passionate and the Arameri ones more calculating, but neither was any stronger at its core than the other.

Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is constantly showing emotional reactions that grow out of her world. Bread has an alternate significance because of its scarcity, and informs some of her most important decisions about friendship. The food on the train carrying her to the games isn't just amazing, it's offensive and near-inedible as a result. Yes, she's subject to the Games themselves and there's a life-and-death reason why she has to survive, but everything about her life to that point is a life-and-death struggle, which to me is the more interesting aspect of the book. It's that personal, emotional aspect of the struggle that makes the Games themselves so much more than watching a gory video game.

It's important for characters to have problems, both external and internal. Worldbuilding should make its mark on both kinds. I love working with troubled characters, but I don't want them to be troubled for arbitrary reasons.

My character Nekantor is mentally ill, but it's not just because I want to tell a story about an insane brother. It's also because I'm telling the story of a world that is failing, of a Race that is dying out, and of what kinds of things that slow death will drive its people to do. The fact that Nekantor is obsessed with control, with making sure things stay in their correct locations, and behave in the appropriate manner, and that the First Family is always first, grows directly out of the nature of the world he lives in. It's the larger societal problem faced by the noble caste, played out on a personal scale, with the inbreeding as its cause.

My character Rulii from "Cold Words" is addicted to a substance called molri, and this gives him a lot of trouble, but it's not arbitrary. I didn't mean make him "an addict" the way we consider such things, and in fact the human characters in the story have trouble understanding his addiction because they assume more human reasons why a person might take drugs (for pleasure/escape). Rulii eats molri because it keeps him from shivering in the cold, and because shivering with cold would get him cast out of the Majesty's council, thus keeping him from helping the cause of his oppressed people. The reasoning, and thus the trouble and the emotions associated with it, grow out of the world.

To me, character is more important than worldbuilding. But there's no point in asking whether I would choose one or the other. Because to choose one over the other implies that the two stand separately, and they don't. Character and world should always be inextricable. When they are thoroughly entangled, a focus on character won't mean that your world is obscured - in fact, it will be even more visceral and more sharply defined.

It's something to think about.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

TTYU Retro: Secondary characters can add dimension and tension

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

Generic is not allowed in my book.

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for you?

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

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

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Monday, November 5, 2012

"Eagerness to please," and the weakness of database marketing for directing the future of SF/F

Today I read this fascinating and challenging article from Damien Walter on the state of SF/F, which says essentially that science fiction and fantasy are too eager to please, and mentions among other things that Walter thinks Ursula K. LeGuin would have trouble getting published as a debut author today. His idea is that we aren't seeing the really edgy questions asked and explored because publishers want to please as many people as possible.

The whole thing reminds me of the response I got when I overshared (I meant to share it, but inadvertently overshared it) a petition asking LEGO to include more girl figures in their sets and to take girls into account in their marketing. I was told by a few notable folks that people send a message to LEGO when they purchase, and that LEGO has received the message and is acting accordingly, and too bad if I didn't like that.

In the current model of marketing, purchase patterns dictate how a company responds. I'm very familiar with this, and how these patterns are researched and how they are used to make planning decisions. In fact, my husband is a direct marketer and works in precisely this area: the analysis of purchase and customer behavior databases.

This is why I know that these people aren't seeing the whole picture.

Think about it. The premise here is that we base base marketing decisions on detailed analysis of purchase history and other customer behavior over a period of time. The problem is that purchase history and customer behavior are all made in relation to an existing product line, which is itself the result of analysis of customer behavior in relation to the last iteration of that product line. Even if a company is looking at the product lines of its competitors, the whole process is inbred. It is not possible for a company to receive any data on the probability that customers will buy something they have never seen in the product line before, unless that company already has a history of bringing out startlingly new products on a regular basis (after all, to define a trend, we need a large sample size!). There are some companies that do this (I'm immediately thinking of Apple, but there are others).

The longer this method is used, the more likely that the products that result will become more and more refined to existing usage patterns. This might be fine for electronics, or office supplies, but for books, music, or anything else requiring leaps of creativity, it is stifling.

The immediate response that I expect to hear will be how indie publishing is the way to go and that this is the trend that will refresh our experience of science fiction and fantasy. However, I really think that what we're looking for is a balance between traditional publishers, small publishers, and independent publishers. Amazon is a huge corporate wrench in the mix that will also have to be dealt with.

The world is complex out there right now, but I personally don't think it's a good idea to stay conservative and stick with the tried-and-true because creative endeavors thrive on the new, and desperately need innovation, whether it's a novel combination of classical elements or something no one has considered before. I hope that we'll soon see a shift away from the marketers and back toward the editors in what kind of books are chosen for traditional publication. If it's a question of handing that decision to someone who has read the book, or someone who's looking just at the numbers, I'll give it to the person who has read the book every time.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Culture Share: France - Standing stones, and the Eve of the Assumption on L'Île aux Moines

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses the L'Ile Aux Moines.

As many of you know, I was in France during the month of August, and so I'd like to give you a peek into one of the marvelous places I experienced there. Our family was staying with French hosts on L'Île aux Moines, which translates as "the island of the monks." I'll return to why it's called that in just a moment. It's a tiny island, located in a bay on the south coast of Brittany that is almost completely enclosed (le Golfe de Morbihan), where a series of valleys were invaded by water when sea levels rose a very very long time ago (and yes, people were living there at that time). We accessed the island by a three-and-a-half minute ferry ride on this boat:
Upon arriving at the island, we waited for a taxi. L'Île aux Moines has only three taxis total, all of which are minivans and take groups of people at a time. This is probably because the island is only 1.7 kilometers long, and the roads are only just wide enough to pass one of these minivans. You only rarely see cars, which do manage to pass each other at strategic locations. Sometimes the minivan passes between tall stone walls that seem close enough to scrape the side view mirrors on both sides at once. The best way to get around on the island is by bicycle or on foot (we used the latter approach, when we didn't have luggage). 

The houses on the island tend to be several stories tall, without a large footprint. They are often built of stone covered over with plaster. The gardens are fenced in with tall stone walls. In our host's garden there was a stone tabletop built into one of the walls, which our host explained was once used for washing clothes. There was also a special stone set up next to the wall, which he told us was intended to be stood upon so the residents could gossip over the walls with neighbors passing in the street. The house we stayed in was three stories, with a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor, and bedrooms on the two upper floors. The second floor had a shower room, and the third floor had a tiny triangular toilet room. I had the impression that these were "introduced" rather than original to the house. There was another bathroom with both shower and toilet in a detached stone building in the yard, which was the original location. 

One of the fascinating things about the island was the way that the people living there fell into two groups. The first group was tourists, who were out there to enjoy island life and conditions in the summertime, and the second group was the residents. The residents typically were members of families who had lived there for generations. Our hosts were more on the resident side than the tourist side. The husband had lived on the island with his grandparents as a little boy, and he and his wife now own a house there where they go to stay during the summer. He was amazing, and full of stories that made the history of the island come to life.

In this region, we discovered that the tides made conditions vary enormously. The picture below was taken from one of the island's many walking paths. It shows a derelict boat sitting out on a mudflat. That boat is in water when the tide is in, but far, far distant from it when the tide is out. In fact, this affected us personally because we had an event (described below) where we were sitting out on the beach... and when we passed the "beach" the following day, it didn't exist any more. Everything was covered with water.
 

One of the most awesome things about the island was that it had standing stones. The picture below shows my family walking in a very large semicircle of stones (yes, it continues all the way around past the edge of the picture on the far side). For a long while this area was overgrown with forest and the stones were hidden, but now most of them are visible. The stones are estimated at 7,000 years old. You can just imagine the people who lived here in that era, and how much work it must have been to set up such large stones in this way! We also loved it because we are fans of Asterix, and so we all were able to think about Obelix and how he carries around his menhirs. We would not have wanted to try to carry these!

The stone in the first picture below is the largest one on the island, and for hundreds of years (almost no time at all relative to its lifespan!) has been known as "Le Moine," or "The Monk." I believe this is the reason why the island itself is called the Island of the Monks. We estimate that this stone probably weighs more than 5 tons. While we were on the island, we took pictures with the stone, and we also saw pictures of people standing with this same stone that were taken in the 1800's. I guess it's been popular to have one's photo taken here for quite a long while! The second picture shows a dolmen, or a stone table. You can see my daughter peeking out from inside it. We climbed up on top of it - it is really huge. If you go into the shelter of the table, you can actually see ancient carvings on the inner surfaces of the supporting stones.



The last thing that we experienced on the island was a wonderful festival, which occurred on the evening of August 14th, the eve of the Assumption, which is a holiday in France. There was a big gathering in the central market square for the "Bal des Enfants," or the "Children's Dance." There was a DJ, and there were stands where you could buy popcorn, or you could buy glowsticks, or you could buy paper lanterns and candles (which I'll tell you more about in a moment). The dance started while it was still light, and the DJ played French children's songs including "Savez-vous planter les choux" (Do you know how to plant cabbages?) and "L'histoire de Petit Jean" (The story of Little John). Since my kids knew this second song from their French classes in California, they really got into it at that point. Kids came from all over the island to dance, and their parents stood around the edge at first, many of them having an evening drink of wine. Then as things got darker, the kids got a little older and the music switched to being a bit more pop. The parents also started dancing. I found myself at one point leading a group of about 10 kids dancing the "Macarena," which was really fun and a blast from the past for me! It was an amazing atmosphere, with some people still standing around the edge talking and watching, and tons and tons of kids dancing, with the glowsticks wrapped around wrists or heads, or waists.

Finally the dance wound down, and everyone who had bought a lantern set up the lantern and lit it. These lanterns were cylindrical paper lanterns with bright color patterns on them, and each one had a stand for a candle inside it. They hung on copper wire from long thin dowels, so that they would be guaranteed to hang straight and keep the candle flame away from the paper (I did see a few lanterns with holes in them, but they had obviously been treated so they wouldn't burn easily!). Then just about the entire population of the dance in the square processed down the narrow street to the harbor and everyone took places sitting on the beach. Once most people had arrived, the street lights were extinguished and the homes on either side put out their lights, so everyone sat in the darkness with just the lanterns, until finally those were blown out too. That was when the fireworks started. There was a boat out in the harbor setting them off, so close that you could actually see shooting sparks illuminate the boxes of fireworks on it. The fireworks went off right overhead - I've never seen such a display of fireworks so close up. It was awesome, in the literal sense of the word. The fireworks finished with a grand finale and then the street lights and home lights came on, and we all walked back home. It was a magical night - and the following day when we went to look where we'd been sitting, the beach was completely underwater. It felt almost as though it had been a dream.

This was an amazing visit for us, and made me really want to return to L'Île aux Moines and experience more of it in the future. We are all so thankful to our generous French hosts who were able to give us such an intimate experience of the island during our short time there.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

TTYU Retro: Hard Choices Require Consequences

One of the most compelling things you can encounter in a story (either short or long) is a hard choice. The character gets to a certain point in the story and has to decide whether to take this path or that one, whether to hurt someone by doing one thing or hurt another person by doing something else. I don't know about you, but when I sense a hard choice coming it engages me wonderfully. Oh, my goodness, look at the conflict that is going to come out of that!

This is good. However, the big risk with setting up a hard choice is that you have to follow through.

I've read a number of books recently that involved hard choices, and at least two of them have let me down. The author has gotten me deeply engaged in the question of what choice will be made, and what the consequences of that choice might be... and then suddenly changed the game. Either the choice became unnecessary, suddenly, or the protagonist decided she was going to have her cake and eat it too, and for some reason that was okay with everybody.

I found this very disappointing, but when I think about it now, I wonder to myself why it is that I feel so disappointed. Why shouldn't I be happy that this horror for the protagonist isn't going to take place? Why shouldn't I be pleased that in the end, everything is going to work out?

In part it may be because this feels to me like what Janice Hardy calls "nice writer syndrome," where an author isn't hard enough on his/her characters and the story has less impact as a result. It's important to remember that one of the reasons we care about a character is because that character might have something bad happen to him or her. If there are no consequences, it's easy to think that the character's choices simply don't matter. As you can imagine, Janice herself doesn't suffer from this! (Just read The Shifter and all will become clear...)

The other part of it, I think, is the sneaking suspicion that the author might be playing with us as readers. That we're being led to anticipate an enormous consequence, getting worked up with excitement at the prospect, and then told that it really wasn't important anyway. The only way I think one could get away with this as an author would be by leaving so much evidence through the story that there was another way out of the situation, that when readers finally got there the whole thing would click together and we'd say "why didn't I see that option before?"

I realized at a certain point that I'd set up a big choice in For Love, For Power. Unlike in the last novel I wrote, the choice isn't central to the climax of the book (does she go into the magical world or not?); in this case it has to do with the relationships that happen between the characters. I hadn't really thought through it until recently, but I'm realizing that readers will think Tagret has to choose between his relationship with Reyn and his relationship with Della. If I had defused that question too early, say by having Reyn lose interest, or (God forbid) die, then I wouldn't have been taking advantage of all the potential conflicts that my book offers. I think of it as an opportunity that I'm happy not to have lost through lack of attention. Once I started thinking about it as a hard choice, then I realized some changes that could happen in later chapters of the book that would really make things fraught with tension, conflict, and doubt. Since tension, conflict, and doubt all increase the amplitude of the story's impact, I'm definitely going to head in the direction of facing the choice rather than defusing it. There have to be potentially bad consequences either way the choice goes, because a choice that is too obviously good on one side and bad on the other really isn't a choice at all.

What choices do your characters have to make? What kind of consequences do they entail?

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TTYU Retro: Designing a dialect without changing spelling

I'm sure most of you have read books where the author changed the spelling of words in order to express the pronunciation of a particular dialect. It used to be done all the time (Huckleberry Finn, A Little Princess etc.). Even now it can be done well, and even brilliantly (I think immediately of the dialects invented by Mike Flynn for The January Dancer and Up Jim River). However, if it isn't done right, it can be embarrassing, inconsistent or even incomprehensible.

This is why I don't do it. I still do dialects, though, so this article is about how to make dialects sound different without actually changing spelling to reflect pronunciation.

Fortunately, there is a lot more to dialect variation than pronunciation alone. There are also variations in pronoun usage, variations in syntax, variations in prosody (intonation and meter), variations in the use of the verb "be," and variations in vocabulary. Because I'm talking about writing in English, I'm going to stick to these - but it's good to be aware that in other languages, you can also have variation in other parameters (in Japanese, verb endings also vary by dialect!).

So let's do these one at a time, with some concrete examples. Pronouns (I/you/he/she/they/etc.) are a wonderful tool. Any change you make in the way you use them will be highly visible, because they resist change rather wonderfully (it's extremely difficult to get a reader's mind to accept a new made-up pronoun unless it resembles an existing pronoun very closely).

A great science fictional example of pronoun change comes from the work of Aliette de Bodard, who works with the Xuya Empire, a wonderful far-future version of the Chinese empire. In this universe, the Emperor is always referred to as "The Emperor ytself." I'm not sure about you, but the moment I see this I know that I'm looking at a genderless pronoun. There are two things working for me when I interpret this. One is that the pronoun would be pronounced just like the pronoun "itself." The second is that it has a very simple spelling change that tells my brain "look out!" This spelling change also leads me not to expect the default interpretation of "itself," i.e. that there is some kind of genderless object running the empire. There's a lot of mystery surrounding the person of the emperor here, but I don't immediately guess that the place is being run by some sort of machine.

I decided to change pronouns when I was designing the undercaste dialect of Varin, but in a more extensive way. These people start using plural pronouns for each other as soon as they reach adulthood. Now, surely most of you are familiar with the pronoun "y'all" from the American south. When I first learned it I thought it was used as a plural form of "you." Interestingly, though, at least in some regions it is a singular.

y'all = you (singular)
all y'all = all of you (plural)

This was a good thing, because I knew that the idea of pluralizing a pronoun wouldn't push people too far outside their comfort zones. However, I pluralized more than just the second person.

I => we
we => all-we
you => ye
you => all-ye
he/she => they
they => all-they

The result is extreme, but comprehensible once you get the hang of it. I was trying to make sure I introduced it in a very comprehensible context, so the first line that contains one of these pronouns is this:

"Give it to us, then."

Perhaps you notice the similarity to existing English dialects from the UK? This was fortuitous, but I'm ready to use it to the hilt, and you should be too, so remember this: the dialect you create may well evoke existing Earth dialects, and if it resembles one that bears some social similarities (casualness, lower-class) to the group you are working with in your world, this will really help your readers to get the picture.

Variations in syntax are cases when you change the order of words. For most of you, I'm guessing Yoda will leap to mind. He's weird (and possibly annoying) but he is comprehensible. One of his main strategies is to take the object of the sentence and promote it up to the front of the sentence, so that instead of Subject-verb-object, you get Object-subject-verb:

Your father he is.

Now, if you go in and start doing an analysis of everything Yoda says, you'll find he's not particularly systematic. However, when you're altering syntax for your dialect, I encourage you to be so. If you can stick to a particular pattern, then the learning and comprehension burden is reduced for your readers.

I did my own syntactic alterations when I was designing the alien voice for "Cold Words" (Analog, Oct. 2009), and I've analyzed it here on the blog, so I'll direct you to that article if you want lots of details about how it was done. That was a case of rendering an alien language in English, so it had a lot of different feature changes! [An Introduction to Aurrel]

Variations in prosody can be huge. This is intonation and stress, and all you have to do is choose words carefully and put them in a particular order to get it done. You don't have to change spellings, and you don't have to use special words. I have at least a couple of characters whose dialects are distinguished only by word and rhythmic patterning. Here is one example:

Pelismara (standard) dialect:
"You're all right now. How do you feel?"

Safe Harbor sea level dialect:
"Oh, young Master, sir, please tell us now you've not gone deaf or blind, and ease us all our worry?"

I shouldn't forget to mention "be." This is a verb that does a lot of helping but isn't very heavy on content, so perhaps that's why it ends up changing so much. Some dialects of English don't conjugate it at all. "I be going..." "They be good people..." etc. Change your default language on Facebook to "Pirate" and see what happens! This means that not only are people accustomed to seeing the word "be" used in variable ways (and thus will tolerate your alterations more easily) but that using the unconjugated "be" gives a very particular flavor to the dialect you're creating. This can definitely work to your advantage.

The next one to look at is changing vocabulary. In fact, if you're writing in another world, you're probably doing this already. Science fictional neologisms like viewport, commlink, etc. all would fall into this category, and so would created words for objects in fantasy worlds like "laran" psychic power in the Darkover world of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross. The thing to watch out for here is not to create so much new vocabulary that you're interfering with comprehension. SF neologisms have the advantage that very often they're pieces of existing words, like "mods" for modifications. However, if the context is not clear, they can also become confusing. One great thing you can do with vocabulary is create a sense of judgment and perspective. I've mentioned before that any object in a world will tend to be called different things by different people. A weapon used specifically by one group of people will tend to have the name of that group associated with it (in Varin, Arissen weapon or Imbati shot) - but only when being referred to by an outsider group. Arissen would never refer to their energy weapons as "Arissen weapons," because that wouldn't make any sense. They would have intimate knowledge of the variations in these weapons, and so would categorize them based on their function, as bolt shooters vs. arc zappers. Their familiarity with the types would show in the casualness of the terminology. We see similar things in our own world when we're looking at how laypeople versus clergy refer to objects having to do with the church, or how laypeople vs. medical practitioners refer to health issues.

As you can see, changes in vocabulary can hint about attitudes and culture within the group that uses those words. The terms we choose will have flavor, so as you make these alterations, think through which flavor it is you want to impart to the dialogue. If you want to go even further, you can think about how the usage of a particular dialect reflects historical developments, or cultural developments, in the community you're working with (the undercaste plural pronouns have a cultural and historical motivator, for example).

All this is just to say that if you restrict yourself from using spelling as a major tool in creating a dialect, you're really not "restricting" yourself much at all.

Now, go forth and have fun creating dialects!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

TTYU Retro: Aligning characters ambiguously (remember The Princess Bride?)

I'm a sucker for ambiguously aligned characters. Good guys who turn into bad guys, bad guys who turn out to be good guys, those folks are just plain fun. I write stories with this kind of character all the time, but I was reminded of them recently when my kids and I watched The Princess Bride.

I'm sure most of you are dearly familiar with Inigo and Fezzik. During our first viewing I became fascinated by the fact that these two characters are immediately likeable despite the fact that they've just kidnapped the princess along with Vizzini. So during our second and third viewings (since people, especially children, like to see fabulous things more than once) I took a look at our introduction to these two characters.

Basically, after our first view of them which involves them knocking out Buttercup, we immediately shift, not to her point of view of them on the ship, but to their own internal squabbles. Inigo demonstrates curiosity about what exactly they are doing ("what is that you are ripping?"), showing that he's not entirely aware of their mission. Then when Vizzini describes the basics of of his plan to frame Guilder by killing Buttercup and leaving her on the frontier, Fezzik reveals that he wasn't totally in on the plan either, and that he has morals well-aligned with our own ("I just don't think it's right, killing an innocent girl."). We then get an opportunity to witness Vizzini's cruelty applied to his own accomplices as he dresses them down.

This is a good start, but on its own, I don't think it would be enough to convince me that Inigo and Fezzik were anything more than weak bad guys, or at a stretch, decent guys forced into nefarious deeds by circumstance. The point where I really start liking them is when I see Fezzik clearly have hurt feelings as a result of Vizzini's tirade, and then Inigo comes over to him and starts deliberately consoling him by starting the rhyming game. At this point, these two characters are no longer simply henchmen who do their boss' bidding. They are actual people, friends in fact, who care about each other and also have a sense of humor... a sense of humor which they are entirely willing to use at Vizzini's expense ("Anybody want a peanut?"). This pattern is then confirmed as we go forward into Vizzini's mercilessness and Fezzik's inability to use his considerable power (the fact that he's literally dangling Vizzini over a cliff) to win an argument. It continues into Inigo and Fezzik's interactions with the Man in Black, where we are also given glimpses into the backstory of each character. In fact I don't think that it would be nearly as difficult to guess the identity of the Man in Black if we immediately concluded he had to be a "good guy" because Fezzik and Inigo were "bad guys."

I think there are some good lessons to be learned here about what it is that makes a character likeable. Readers and viewers collect evidence in a character's interactions which they use to establish that character's qualities and alignments. Clearly even criminal behavior (kidnapping) can be quickly outweighed by evidence of reluctance and human caring. It's good to remember this if you're creating ambiguously aligned characters, and even if you have a protagonist who has to do bad things. We don't blame Janice Hardy's Nya for stealing, because she's stealing eggs when she could potentially choose to steal something much worse, and then only because she's starving. Her human qualities come to the fore much more quickly.

What do your characters do to show us that they are human? Does it make them seem more complex? Does it make them likeable?

It's something to think about.

Monday, October 15, 2012

So, I bought Scrivener...

Yes, I'd been talking about it, and I finally did it. I think the thing that pushed me over the edge was taking my four separate Microsoft Word files containing my novel, and trying to make them into one big file so I could send it to friends. Simple cut and paste led to weird font shifts, and lots of extra work, and I thought to myself, "I'm not in mid-process any more. I have time to figure out a new program."

I had heard about Scrivener from my friend Jamie Todd Rubin, and I started in on my tutorial last night. First impression? I think it's going to be awesome for me. I'm a big outliner and organizer, and this program lets you do all kinds of labeling that will be fantastic, like marking whose point of view different chapters are in, etc.

I will let you all know how things look as I continue on through the process. I'm hoping to move all my writing over to this program so I have one "home base."

So far, it's looking really cool.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

In which I address the "Next Big Thing" Meme (because Mike Allen tagged me)

My friend Mike Allen, who blogs over at Descent into Light tagged me, among others. I'm supposed to answer ten questions about my work in progress, so I'm going to use the book I just finished revisions on.

So here goes:

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

1. What is the title of your book?
For Love, For Power.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
This book came to be as a result of a trilogy I had written. I had written about the downfall of a complex caste society, and I found at the end of it that I had a lot of unanswered questions about the society before it fell - how people lived, and why the nobles were so unhappy (because I was convinced they were unhappy) and how a society in decay managed to keep itself operating. The book was born out of my desire to delve into the intimate operations of this decadence, and also to explore the adolescent psychological development of some of the characters who played large roles in the later story as I had imagined it. Part of this also stemmed from my desire to get past the archetypes of "good ruler" "bad ruler" "nobility" "servant" and "undercaste" and really try to expand these traditional fantasy roles into a sociologically, anthropologically, and psychologically accurate environment, as if they were real (or perhaps science fiction).

3. What genre does your book fall under?
The book is definitely fantasy, but skews toward the science fictional in its advanced technology and in the scientific underpinnings of its events.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I love to try casting my books, though I'm limited in my knowledge of current actors. Here's the best list I've been able to come up with:
Tagaret (protagonist): Kevin Michael McHale
Reyn (Tagaret's friend): Chris Colfer
Della (Tagaret's love interest): Molly Quinn
Nekantor (Tagaret's insane brother): D.J. Qualls
Lady Tamelera (Tagaret's mother): Miranda Otto
Aloran (Lady Tamelera's servant): Harry Shum, Jr.
Grobal Garr (Tagaret's father): Alfred Molina
Sorn (Garr's servant): Viggo Mortensen
The Eminence Herin: Will Smith

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?
A young nobleman battles his insane brother to keep him from seizing power.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm represented by the Grayson Agency, and I hope Ashley will be excited about this book!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took just over two years. That is, if you don't count the first time I tried to write it and only got 40% through before it ground to a halt. The world design took a lot longer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?
It's something like Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, only without the S&M; also something like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, but without the gods/magic system.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As I mentioned above, it was initially inspired by questions about a trilogy I had written. However, I was also inspired by deep social issues that I've been encountering recently, such as the paradoxical effects of politics, the experiences of oppressed women, the question of sexual preference, and the question of how one can begin to recognize the effects of social privilege in one's life.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Three things, I think. First is that it takes place in a glittering cavern city with an ancient history. Second is that including Nekantor's point of view meant I could write an obsessive compulsive paranoid sociopath from the inside (fun!). Third is that we get to peek not only into the noble viewpoints, but into the viewpoint of Aloran, the servant. Members of the servant caste are high-ranking personal servants with a very different view on service and selflessness from what you might expect, and they consider themselves fortunate not to have been born into the nobility!

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged. Mike Allen tagged me, as I mentioned above. I have a few people I'd like to tag, too: Lillian Csernica, Janice Hardy, Dario Ciriello, and Doug Sharp. Tag - you're it!