Friday, March 30, 2012

An Update - Thanks, Convention this weekend, Hangout next week

Today I went through and discovered all the wonderful comments you all had put here, which I hadn't yet had a chance to moderate! So now they are all up and I will respond... Thank you, and sorry. Coming off the completion of my novel I've been feeling a bit burnt out and I hope I'll be able to resume being on top of things very shortly.

This weekend I'm looking forward to attending FogCon in Walnut Creek, CA. I really hope any of you people who are local will be able to attend. I know there are going to be some stellar authors present. I have panels on Saturday and Sunday as follows:

Saturday 10:30 am Best Alien Ever
Come hear me join Ann Wilkes, Theresa Mecklenborg, and Chaz Brenchley talk about classic aliens and what makes aliens awesome.

Saturday 8:00 pm Reading
I'll be reading alongside Steve Boyett. I'm really looking forward to this because I'll be giving a sneak peek at Chapter 1 of my new novel.

Sunday 10:30 am Make Your Reading a Performance
Come discuss sharpening your reading skills with me, Mickey Phoenix, Madeleine Robins, Greer Woodward, and Ann Wilkes.

Sunday 1:00 pm Let's Design Some Aliens
Just what it says. Come design aliens with me, Vylar Kaftan, Erin Hoffman, and Phyllis Holliday!

I'm also back doing my weekly worldbuilding hangouts. I hope to have a couple of reports up in the next few days. This coming Wednesday, April 4, I'm going to be talking in detail about the world of Varin and about the novel I just finished - taking questions and specifically dealing with worldbuilding challenges I've worked on there. I hope you can join me!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Maps: Why to use them, and how to create them in Excel

One of the things that I've discovered is very helpful for worldbuilding and description is the creation of maps. I am pretty good at visualizing things in my head - far better than my husband, for example, when someone says, "okay, so imagine if we put this piece of furniture here, and moved that one over there..." On the other hand, when it comes to imagining complex spaces and how lots of different rooms intersect and feed into each other, I can get lost.

So it was really obvious to me that I needed a map of Varin... I drew it out years ago, looking at all the different climatic regions and where the cities were located, where the Roads between the cities led, and what the coasts looked like.

I'm afraid that was a picnic, however, compared to trying to map the cities and the buildings. The city of Pelismara remains mostly in my head, because it is quite large and has five vertical levels. One day maybe I'll discover either that someone is dying to map it for me, or that there's some awesome computer program that can do it. For now, I have sketched maps of the grounds of the Eminence's Residence, the basic layout of the Residence itself and some of the landmarks here and there.

Yesterday, I decided I'd better tie down precisely the layout of the suite that my characters live in in my newly completed novel. It is very complex, and in order for it to work properly everything has to line up, because it has two areas: the noble family's dwelling, which has to be relatively compact compared to what people often imagine for rich people's homes, and then the servants' areas, which have to articulate with the rooms used by the nobility but also make independent sense. I was reviewing my mental sense of the place and realizing that I had two overlapping models for at least one of the rooms, and wasn't sure where closets were, etc. etc. So I sat down and tried to draw it with a pencil, and it was a mess. Once I'd re-sized things several times and started wanting to move things around a bit, I was ready to scream.

So I went into Excel. To use Excel for mapping, take all the columns and re-size them so that they are 0.2 inches wide. This will mean that instead of big long rectangles, you're working with tiny squares. I have tried this before but it was a bit unwieldy, and last night I discovered how to make it much easier. Don't try to use borders at first. Map your spaces using the "fill" tool. I used an algorithm of one square = one square foot. That way I could select a space, keep the mouse held down and look in the upper left corner and let Excel tell me exactly its dimensions (in columns and rows), and then fill it with color, move it around, expand it by using the format copying paintbrush, or shrink it by moving other pieces over it. Once you have you layout, add the borders at the end to mark walls and doors (if they are thin enough). I've actually had to count one-foot-thick stone walls, so I'm building them in the same way I did the rooms.

It was the easiest time I've ever had wrestling with this complex map. I hope the technique may help you with similar challenges.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Completion, and Resonance: why the first chapter is like the last

I finished For Love, For Power last night. It's hard to describe how I feel about it - not only is it a wonderful feeling, but the intense focus and drive required to get to this point has released, leaving me feeling rather shaken. Part of the reason for this is that I've been working on Varin for so long, but this is the very first time that I've completed a novel in this world using all of my skills as a mature writer.

When I got to the last chapter, something interesting happened. I discovered that I needed to go back and look at the first chapter again. In fact, I sent the first chapter off to my lovely and amazing friend Janice Hardy, and she gave me some comments about it, and then I revised the whole first chapter before beginning the last.

If you've been writing for any significant length of time, you've probably heard people say that last chapters should come full circle, and that they should resemble first chapters in some critical way. I think there are a couple of main reasons for this. The first is completion; the second is resonance.

Completion is what I'm calling the internal logic of story arcs, which brings the final chapter to reflect upon the first. The grand arc of the story will involve the inception of something - a quest, a goal, a process - in the first chapter, and then achieve completion in the last. The quest will be completed, the goal achieved, the process will resolve itself into a new state. If you get to your last chapter and you find that you've veered off into some place where the ending has no clear relation to what happened at the beginning, you might have a problem. In my own case, looking at where my protagonist arrived at the end of the story showed me where the endpoint of his overall arc was, and that helped me to go back and clarify what his initial state should be, and launch him into it more effectively.

Resonance is a language issue, and something that I feel instinctively. Essentially what it means is that little phrases from the beginning of the book should show up in your last chapter. These can be small, but they are terribly important for the overall effect on the reader. I'll give you two examples. In Chapter 1, Tagret's brother walks in on him while he's bathing to tell him about political developments, and with each advance in his logic he keeps saying, "and you know what that means..."  Then in Chapter 36 he's whispering to Tagret and he says, "and you know what that means..." again. Part of the resonance comes from the repetition of the phrase. The other part comes from the change that the reader observes in Tagret's reaction to it, because in Chapter 1 he basically blows him off, while in Chapter 36 he responds, "Tell me." What it does is act like a waving flag to show the reader that what they expect has actually occurred: between the beginning and end of the book, things have fundamentally changed. And speaking of change, in the first chapter Tagret is going to a concert hoping that the music he hears will make a difference in his life - he has a moment where he whispers to himself (and to the evening), "Change everything." Then in the last chapter - and the last line - he gets to say "We're going to change everything." His entire thematic story arc is encapsulated there, and thus the parallel phrases cause a resonance that extends all the way back through the entire book.

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My thoughts on "Farewell Chapters"

I wrote a post over at my author website about how it feels to get so close to the end of a major project that takes years. I'm writing my three "farewell chapters" now, and it's a challenge. Go here for more... :)

TTYU Retro: Combating Writer's Envy

I was inspired by this post that I found through Elizabeth Craig on Twitter, a fantastic one called "When Going Green's Not So Cool: A Writer's Antidotes for Envy". My favorite antidotes were: enjoying the things you love, and exercising. I highly recommend those for all writers, especially since a lot of us (including me) need to exercise more.

I personally find that I'm not immune to jealousy, but that my jealousy is rather limited in scope. My jealousy will make me feel upset at myself, but not angry with others (I feel lucky about this). Even when I notice a bestseller whose work I don't particularly like, I figure that person has found something that a lot of people like - I just may not have grasped what that thing is.

The other thing I continue to believe is that writing is not a competition. It's not about whether my writing is better than someone else's. It's not about two writers with similar styles trying to fit into the same too-small market niche. It's simply about whether I find an editor who finds that my work speaks to him/her, and whether readers then are willing to pay for what I do. Honestly - why should I worry about whether I'm similar to my favorite authors? When I read, I don't say, "Ursula LeGuin is my sf author, and there isn't room for anyone else." The more someone's work is like hers, the more likely I will enjoy it too. Reading appetite is not finite. Reading quality work does not satiate; it only makes you hungrier for more brilliance.

The last thing I hope writers will remember is that statistics only operate effectively on large numbers. The fact that 99% of submissions get rejected at a particular magazine should not deter you; whether your story succeeds is about your story, and that editor, and it has nothing to do with anyone else.

Keep up hope, and keep submitting. So long as there are readers hungry for stories, there is room for more authors.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Link: How did Shakespeare's English sound?

I found this great article today about the sound of Shakespeare's English in his own time. You should go check it out and hear the three recordings they've put up on the site. Real fun!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Religion in Worldbuilding: A Google+ Hangout Report

This was an engaging, in-depth discussion. I was joined by Barbara Webb, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Jaleh Dragich, Jules Sharp, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt. As Harry drops in from Bulgaria and Jules from Australia, one of us remarked that "the sun never sets on Juliette's hangouts." I confess I loved this. Now, on to the discussion!

I began by mentioning that the first time I became aware of the possibility of using religion in fictional worlds was when I read Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. With the enormous influence that religion has on culture, behavior and discourse, it's actually surprising that more secondary worlds don't feature it. Harry registers the opinion that if you're writing in a secondary world, religion should be present, at least in the background. He mentioned that magic and religion were actually seen as two sides of the same phenomenon, even in the real world, and that in fantasy it makes sense to draw a link between magical power and the priesthood. He's not actively using religion in his current writing, but does have an urban fantasy where people have magic powers that are linked to deities. In another of his worlds, religion is outlawed because of the history of persecution associated with it.

Barbara is fascinated by religion and its use in fantasy, but feels that not enough of a line is drawn in fantastical settings between faith and religion. In a world where gods are real, is there any faith? What is "faith" in such a context? Also, she mentions that churches are often taken for granted as a part of religion, when they need not necessarily be so.

Brian says that in his world, people believe in the religion and its powers as real, but readers are left to decide for themselves whether the religion is "real" or not - and the evidence is ambiguous between one conclusion and the other. He mentioned that he finds it annoying when he sees worlds where everyone follows the same religion - particularly if they all follow it the same way.

Monoculture in religion (as in any context) may be a sign of lazy worldbuilding.

But not necessarily always. I described my own development of the Varin world and its religions: the general religion of Varin is based on the stars, whereas the undercaste has its own religion based on the glowing trees and will-o'-the-wisps that are found there. The first religion is entirely faith-based, and the second is based on fact, but nobody realizes it. There was a point, however, in my development of the world, where I realized everyone except the undercaste held the same religious beliefs, and instead of diversifying them, I decided to use this as a basis for backstory. As a result, my sense of the origins of the Varini entirely changed. At this point they are former religious fugitives from lands on the other side of their planet - but their religion was shared, as was their persecution, and that was how a multinational group of people wound up populating Varin and having a single shared religion.

Jaleh told us that she feels strange using Christianity-based religion. She has a story set in something like the real world, but with a "tweaked" real-world religion. "The Church" in this context is like the Catholic church, but only loosely. It's in the background, though people use its power and authority to influence broader events in a sort of inquisition. There is a delicate balance between chaos and order which involves divine entities in combination with natural forces, and people who work to keep this balance. The bad guy, meanwhile, uses the Church's name to create chaos. She also sees it as having a Celtic influence as in Lugh and Balor.

Harry remarked that often people will have a church as the representative of organized religion and its power, but that this is very Christianity-based and not all religions in the world are like this - so similarly, not all religions in secondary worlds should be like this.

If you're designing a religion, it's good to consider whether there is a "Church," and whether there are source texts like the Bible or Koran, the Buddhist sutras, etc. Consider also where the authority lies, and who is licensed to speak for God, or channel a deity of one form or another. Is the divine force invisible, unified and everywhere? Is it linked to physical or celestial phenomena, or objects of special significance (for example, relics or natural features like trees or stones)? Are its deities patrons of particular activities in daily life? In the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, deities are relatives of the protagonist! It's also important to ask who and what organize behavior. Does the religion set out a set of ethical and moral rules? What kind of politeness behavior does it require? What kinds of taboos does it establish? Keep in mind that religion has an enormous effect on the way that people think and speak - this is a great tool for creating flavor in your world.

Barbara remarked that she doesn't often see enough variety in taboo. She feels that too often, people simply follow the Abrahamic taboos without questioning or varying them, and that there isn't enough questioning of why taboos exist. A lot of Judaic taboos were originally about cleanliness and stopping disease.

Glenda pointed out that some taboos are explicitly targeted at competing religions, such as the way the First Commandment states "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."

Commandments are an excellent example of how behavior can be regulated by a religion, but it isn't always necessary to have them put in such a fixed format. A lot of religions function on the basis of traditional daily practices that aren't written down.

Harry said that he felt the commandments were a way for people to exercise control over society in ancient times, thus creating and contributing to a healthy and functioning society. Tying an ethical and moral code and to something beyond the self with implied punishment for transgression probably made a lot of sense in societies that didn't yet have laws and a legal system.

In fact, there can be an inherent conflict between the ethical and moral codes of behavior based on a particular religion, and those of a secular legal system - we can see that in the conflict between the Roman laws and the Christian tenets which is recounted in the Bible (not to mention that we can see it happening around us right now).

 Are there rewards or punishments? Barbara asked. As you work to create your religions, consider what those might be. Are there Heaven and Hell? Is there shunning and ostracism (Jaleh)? How about karma (Harry)?

Next we turned to the question of religion's influence on language. Taboo is a salient example, but metaphor is also heavily influenced. I read a fantastic article recently in National Geographic talking about the way the King James Bible influences the way we speak today (read it here). This is the basis for what I call "secular religion," the way that religious imagery is retained in language for emotional and metaphorical use even if the beliefs themselves are not held by the people using the expressions.

Brian noted that most religions have names for their god or gods, but that Christianity does not (or at least not one that can be used), something which he called a "huge linguistic coup" because it allowed them to claim other deities as instances of their own. Harry noted that it can be difficult to use the singular word god without appearing to refer to the Christian God, and that people go out of their way to specify "gods" or "the divine" when trying to describe this without confusion.

Of course, we then got the question of swearing by gods. This was so much fun that we decided to do Swearing generally at (today's) hangout. There are a thousand examples. "Goodness gracious me!" "Oh God" "For the love of God" People invoke gods often, and often without even thinking about it. Jaleh says she knows a bunch of old English curses because her husband is involved in the reenactment of an ancient battle. Jules commented on books that feature religion and swearing, in that it can be difficult to attain the visceral effect of swearing when all of your words are essentially translated. One way to counteract this is to give your swear words a lot of surrounding grammatical support that resembles how such words are used in our own world. "Holy ____" is pretty darn generic, though, so don't stop there. "____'s bones" or "____'s boots" can work, and so can "___'s balls" or "as ____ is my witness." It's important to have a diversity of these constructions, and to think about how they might relate to class.

I did a bit of explaining about how people swear in Varin. Since they have nine different deities, each of which is patron of a different thing, they swear by the deity most relevant to what they are thinking of at the time. Romantic love it will be Sirin and Eyn, mercy it will be Heile, anger it will be Varin or Plis, justice it will be Mai. Because people swear without thinking, often which god they choose to swear by will divulge something about what they are feeling that they may not be consciously willing to divulge, as when one of my characters involuntarily swears by the Twins (who are patrons of homosexual love as well as other things like balance and loyalty) in an awkward circumstance.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt stopped in at the very end to talk about his book The Worker Prince, which is a retelling of the story of Moses and deals with questions of ideological bigotry. He said it's important to deal with faith, even if it's not necessarily actual real-world religion.

Thanks to everyone who participated. I'm now going to have to shift straight over into discussing Swearing at the hangout. I hope to see you there!

Today's worldbuilding hangout - and Twitter Chat!

Come join me today at 11am PDT on Google+ for my worldbuilding hangout, during which we will be discussing Swearing. It should be fun (and likely funny too)!

Also, this evening at 9pmEDT/6pmPDT I'll be joining the Twitter chat hosted by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, #sffwrtcht . So stop by and talk more worldbuilding if you're interested!

Here's also a wonderful link I just discovered from NPR about a Dictionary of Americanisms - and not just those marketing phrases that invade the world, but local dialectal gems from our history. It looks like wonderful stuff!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pets in Worldbuilding: A Google+ hangout report

For my hangout on pets in worldbuilding I was joined by Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, Janet Harriett, and Harry Markov.

We started out by talking about how pets are deeply integrated into our culture. The simple fact that we have so many people posting cat and dog photos or videos on the internet says a great deal about their importance, as does the fact that almost anyone can be ready to engage on the question of whether you are "a cat person" or "a dog person." For those who are wondering, I'm a cat person. Jaleh mentioned horses, and while those are too big to be considered house pets, they did bring up a rather interesting idea: that of the coevolution of domesticated species and humans (the linked article mentions dogs but focuses more on horses).

According to what I've read in National Geographic, on the internet and elsewhere, it's looking like early humans didn't go out and deliberately domesticate these animals. Instead, the animals came around human communities because food was more easily obtainable there, and the people started interacting with them, deliberately caring for them (naming them, as Janet mentioned) and taking advantage of their natural traits as hunters.

Dale came in at that point with a wonderful example of the cultural significance of pets from a scene he designed, where a runaway boy who has just obtained a sandwich meets another boy who has a dog; the runaway offers half his sandwich to the boy with the dog, and is rather offended when the boy with the dog splits his half in half and gives half of it to the dog. The idea of course being that the dog has a kind of value to the boy keeping him that the runaway boy simply doesn't grasp.

Returning to the topic of National Geographic, we then discussed the example of the fox-breeding experiments, where scientists have found that foxes can be bred to be instinctively friendly to humans, unlike, say, big cats, who can only be friendly to humans if they are taught to do so since kittenhood, but whose friendliness will not be passed on to the next generation. We speculated that in dogs the affinity for humans might be an alteration of the pack instinct, while in cats it might be a sort of neoteny (thanks Dale for the word) where kittenhood characteristics are retained into adulthood.

There are all kinds of cultural references to dogs, cats, and other animals which are kept as pets. The dog is "man's best friend." The cat "used to be worshipped in ancient Egypt and never got over it." People can be described as dog or cat people. Snakes can be seen as scary or sexual (due to the imagery of the serpent in the garden of Eden, but they are kept as pets and have a lot of metaphorical significance (I'll return to this). Someone recommended Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake in which snakes where familiars and assistants. Other unusual pets were mentioned, including crickets in China, and horses, and birds. It's also good to consider whether the humans in the world you are building have working animals like herding dogs, cattle dogs or sight hounds - or hawks. Glenda mentioned that in a bare subsistence lifestyle, pets might be less common unless they have additional utility as working animals.

You can also really help the sense of richness in your world by considering what types of qualities are associated with particular animals - we often use dogs to represent faithfulness and loyalty, cats for grace and nobility, but we also will use dogs as an insult to people we don't like. In Varin, people will say that someone is selfish as a cat - cave-cats are large, selfish and threatening. Calling a person a tunnel-hound refers to the tendency of the eyeless tunnel-hounds to snuffle all over people (it implies that they are fawning); one can also describe a person as "defensive as a tunnel-hound" because they are notoriously tough when cornered before their dens. Note, however, that though the Varini keep tunnel-hounds as working animals, they don't keep them as pets because they're not good-looking enough. Instead they typically keep birds or ferrets.

If you're looking for books with animals in them, you can go to Jack London for dogs (and some of the problems with them!). Dean Koontz writes of superintelligent telepathic dogs, and Andre Norton includes cats. Anne McCaffrey's work features the working watchwhers, and the firelizards, who are great pets but only if they are impressed upon hatching.

We made a list of "pets that suggest special things about the people keeping them": Siamese cats, Falcons, Corgis, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shih Tzu dogs, racing dogs. I would include "evil villain cats" in this list, which are traditionally long-haired but can also be hairless. This kind of thing - i.e. the idea that the keeping of a particular type of pet informs people about your identity or character or socioeconomic status - is something that can be very flavorful in worldbuilding.

Harry Markov told us about dogs in Bulgarian culture, where herding has been very important for hundreds of years. The traditional good dog's name is not "Fido" there but "Sharo" - a Sharo is a bit like a "Lassie." There has been a long tradition of shepherds with dogs in the villages, and livestock is still very popular (sheep, cattle, goats). As a result, there are lots of stray dogs on the streets and not enough adoptions, to the point where you can have problems with dangerous street dogs. Dogs on the street are seen as both positive and negative. People will feed the wild dogs while they have snacks. The dogs learn as a result how to cross streets, and where to go to get the best food. (Janet remarked at this point that she has heard that some dogs know how to navigate the Moscow subway.) The other interesting aspect of the culture surrounding dogs in Bulgaria is that most people don't care if their dog is a mutt, and many more people adopt strays and keep mixed-breed dogs than keep pure-blooded dogs. I was reminded of the city animal populations of cats and crows in Tokyo, and the spoiled deer in the city of Nara. If you're looking for an element of interest for a city you're working with, you might consider whether there is a native animal population alongside your people.

As a few final thoughts we talked about Canada geese and how they have become so populous in some communities that they are being herded off golf courses by dogs, about elephants that are used for transportation, cows in India that may or may not be considered sacred depending on which religion you hold, fish, and rats (rats have their own complexity, being symbols of dirt but also highly intelligent, kept as pets and used in labs).

I enjoyed the discussion. This week's worldbuilding hangout will be on this coming Wednesday, the 14th of March at 11am PDT (watch for the time change, international folks, because if you're not careful you'll miss it! We're an hour earlier from here on into the summer.) We'll be talking about Swearing, so that should be a very colorful conversation. I look forward to seeing you!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TTYU Retro: Transitions - linking forward through the story

I'm not sure if you run into this as often as I do. You're writing along, and you write a line and the narrative seems to stop. Suddenly you can't think of a way to start the very next sentence. Sometimes you stare at it, and sometimes you walk away, but when you break that block, you realize the problem was in the last sentence you wrote: it was "turned back" toward the previous text rather than being "turned forward" toward the next part of the story. Once you change it and turn it forward, the next sentence appears with no trouble.

Transitions can be tricky. So what is it that "turns" a sentence forward rather than backward?

The answer is in the content - but that's too vague to be much use, so I'm going to consider a couple of examples from my day of editing.

I've been working with integrating existing material for a chapter with new material that takes the ending in a different direction. In the existing material, a newly hired servant (Aloran) gets introduced to his new colleagues and shown his quarters, but when he realizes he's not fully prepared, he's too frightened to ask his mistress permission to go out and get new supplies. In the new ending, one of the things he needs in order to be prepared is to take her measurements for a pair of gloves, so in the end he must go back to face her despite his fear.

Here are the two lines where my scene ground to a halt:

Every member of the Pelismara society in a single room pressing hands, when one of their own had just died of Kinders fever? How could he stop Lady Tamelera from touching anyone?

These lines set up a significant question - the question of how to take Lady Tamelera safely to a party where disease might be passed around. However, they could serve quite well as the cliff-hanger ending of a chapter. I think this is because there's the declaration of a serious problem that Aloran will face at an upcoming event, but no hint of what solution he might need. Thus the final sentence has a threatening ring - perfect for a cliffhanger ending that will send readers forward across a chapter break looking for an answer, but not so good for a smooth shift of the chapter into the next section where Aloran pursues a solution. I therefore revised it as follows:

Every member of the Pelismara society in a single room pressing hands, when one of their own had just died of Kinders fever? With that kind of contagion risk, he'd be tempted to wear his treatment gloves.

Suddenly I had the way forward. The sentence about contagion risk references Aloran's medical training, and in that context the solution is obvious to him. The idea of "gloves" appears right where it needs to, and can easily be extended conceptually from "I should wear gloves to protect myself" to "I should get my Lady to wear gloves to protect herself." That's a motive he can act upon right away.

I ran into another block in a spot where Aloran decides to leave his room (because he wants to figure out what she'll be wearing, so he can make gloves to match). He faces a decision of whether to exit into his Lady's room or not:

He found his service speaker and flicked it on, but heard only silence in his Lady's chamber. If he opened the small door with the crescent-moon handle, he could go and study her wardrobe. But if she were still there, sitting quietly, she would be angry because she wanted to be alone. Lady Tamelera, angry.

In the earlier draft, his next thought had grown directly out of the idea of her anger; he'd decided he had to get away from the whole situation. This no longer fit with the requirement that he deal with her in the course of the chapter. After some thinking I decided that he was too rattled just to steel himself and go in, but that he could ask for help from someone who knows her better. I could have continued with "He went looking for Serjer," but I wanted to use a word-link to smooth the transition. In this case, since there are two doors out of Aloran's room, I chose opening the door as the link. The next line became:

He opened the door into the Maze, and went looking for Serjer.

This created an explicit parallel between "If he opened the small door with the crescent moon handle" and "He opened the door into the Maze", thus bringing attention to the fact that in the end he decided not to open his Lady's door.

I enjoyed working through this material and trying to create links where there had been none before. It put me in mind of something I learned about when I studied classical Japanese poetry: the idea of a "kakekotoba," or pivot word. A pivot word has two meanings. It serves as a pivot because one of its meanings should fit with the lines of poetry that precede it, but its other meaning should fit with the lines that follow it. If, for example, the pivot word were "matsu," then on one side of it we should find lines that speak of pine trees (matsu=pine), and on the other side, lines that talk about waiting (matsu=to wait). This concept spoke to me, because in each of these cases I could identify a critical element that allowed me to make the link forward to the next section: gloves, in the first instance, and the door in the second.

I suppose the main things I took out of this afternoon's editing were these:
1. The implication of a large unsolved problem is good for a cliffhanger, but not for a minor transition.
2. At the end of a sub-scene, consider "seeding" a motive for the sub-scene that follows, in order to smooth the transition.
3. If the implications of the last sentence you wrote seem to take you in the wrong direction, look back further, because you may find something you can use to turn the text the way you want it to go.

Tomorrow's Google+ hangout: Religion in Worldbuilding

Tomorrow (March 7) at 11am PST on Google+ I will be hosting a discussion of Religion in Worldbuilding. I hope you can join me!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The illusion of "natural" electronics interfaces, and the book

Ever since the advent of the iPad and iPhone I have noticed people talking about how "natural" the touch-screen interface is. I have seen people on Facebook posting video of their children trying to make a magazine perform like an iPad (with little success, obviously). Quite recently I have also seen advertising for new products that involve flexible circuits, where you'll be able to bend and flex your little phone or what-have-you in order to make it work, and how "natural" this is compared to everything that has gone before (I'm assuming, by implication, this includes the touch interface).

I would like us to take a little step back and examine this idea of what "natural" means. "Natural" means something that we do as part of our nature - but our nature is quite complex.  Humans are capable of all kinds of complex learned behaviors. When I examine different kinds of interfaces with electronics that we've used, what it commonly comes down to is a question of metaphor. Interestingly enough, the creation of metaphors is a very natural activity for human beings.

The original computer interface may not have felt natural, but really it involved learning a typed foreign language in order to interact with a user of that language (albeit a non-human one). This is something that has been done a lot, historically. It's not as natural as learning spoken language, but we all learn to write as children, and many people have the opportunity to learn foreign languages. The PalmPilot device allowed us to use handwriting as input...so long as we wrote it according to the language rules of the device. Would it be more natural if we could speak to a computer and have it understand us? Star Trek certainly seems to believe it is (and so does Dragon, not coincidentally subtitled "naturally speaking").

So here are a couple of possibilities for "natural" - one, that "natural" means we only need to learn something that can be done easily, and two, "natural" means that the computer should have to adapt itself to our modes of communication rather than vice versa.

The graphic user interface does something interesting. It moves the computer away from purely language-based self-expression into a visual mode of expression (though I remark this graphical mode is built on the basis of underlying layers of computer language). The visual interface takes advantage of the metaphor of art, expressed wonderfully by the painting "La Trahison des Images" (The Treachery of Images) by René Magritte:

The text reads, "This is not a pipe." And indeed, it isn't, just as a "button" on your screen isn't really a button, but an image to which we assign the name "button." Icons take the place of real objects, and they can be manipulated in the image-space.

What we use to manipulate them is another place where we might question "naturalness." The mouse, the touch pad, the tracking ball, and the tablet can all be considered less natural than the touch-screen interface, but what is "natural" here? Is it the indirectness of the interface? We work with indirect relations constantly without much trouble, every time we use tools. Think of cutting a piece of paper: tearing the piece of paper apart might be considered most "natural" but it's messy. Surely folding and tearing isn't particularly natural (at least in the "ease" sense of the word). The straight stroke of a knife down the paper is already starting to be indirect, though it is much simpler. And what of scissors? Would you call them natural or unnatural? A grasping action of the hand isn't at all obvious in its relation to cutting along a straight line, but we do it constantly, easily, starting before we even hit kindergarten.

The Wii was hailed as a much more "natural" way to play video games - instead of translating strenuous activities like fighting or boxing or skiing all the way down into a tiny joystick or keyboard arrangement, it used a wandlike apparatus that captured the momentum of the user's motions (and occasionally led to TV breakage). Now we have Xbox Kinect which apparently is able to take body motions within a particular region and translate them into video-game moves. This does seem to follow the pattern of making the machine conform more to our communication patterns (in this case, our physical movement patterns) than we do to its own patterns.

Three-dimensional theater is a slightly trickier example. It may be more natural to perceive images as three-dimensional, but it certainly is not natural to have to watch everything through a pair of glasses. Notice that I say that with authority, but I do bear in mind that I am among those people who (at this point in my life) observes reality through glasses all the time. Certainly we are able to perceive objects in two dimensions as easily as we are three.

So I'm going to go back to the question of whether the iPad interface or flexible electronics interface is more "natural." I'd argue that neither one  is, really, more natural than the other (if anything, the flexible electronics interface is less natural). The touch pad interface uses the metaphor of a flat desk space with folders laid out on it, where one can influence objects by poking them or metaphorically putting one's fingers into a small opening and pushing outward to expand that opening; the flexible electronics interface uses the metaphor of (from what I've seen) the yoke of an airplane, pulling or pushing to move inward or outward, etc.

Last, but not least, let's compare this to the book interface. I'm not sure anyone would argue that listening to the story read aloud would be a more "natural" way of experiencing it. Certainly that's the way very young children interact with stories - but are the pictures in their books less natural than those of their movies? Maybe they are, and that illusion of no intervening mechanism is what makes us perceive something as "natural." The book is in a sense a metaphor for the process that the writer went through in writing it, if less so now that so many of us don't actually write on real sheets of paper, but on metaphorical sheets of paper made out of light. Still, our eyes follow the visual representations of words along the same path that the writer used in writing them out. The stack of paper sheets becomes representative of story time, the magnitude of the story measurable in weight and in width, and the reader can judge "how far she's read" with a glance. It's just another technology, with another type of operating system. It's been around longer. Because it is a three-dimensional object that can be manipulated with hands, it has a naturalness that the electronic version does not have.

In the end, it's all a question of learned behaviors, familiar objects/tools and agreed-upon metaphors. The child who tries to make a magazine behave like an iPad doesn't think that the magazine "doesn't work," he merely observes that despite superficial similarities, the two don't work in the same way. Any judgment of the magazine's "failure" comes from the adult observing, not from the child himself. Replacing one metaphor with another doesn't necessarily lead to an increase in "naturalness." If we make the user experience simpler and more similar to things the user already knows how to do (like speak, or manipulate objects on a desk) then that frees up some cognitive effort to be used elsewhere. That might be valuable. Or it might be unnecessary - humans have been learning and automating complex behaviors for a very long time.

It's something to think about.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Come see me at FogCon!

It's official - I'll be attending FogCon at the Walnut Creek, CA Marriott hotel, on the weekend of March 30-April 1st. This promises to be a very interesting convention, and I know a lot of really cool folks who are going, including Rachel Swirsky, Madeleine Robins, Christie Yant, and Vylar Kaftan. I'll be reading a sample from my nearly-finished novel on Saturday night at 8, so come and join me!

Here's my schedule:

Saturday, 10:30am (Salon C) Best Alien Ever with David Levine, Theresa Mecklenborg and Ann Wilkes

Saturday, 8:00pm (Santa Rosa) Reading with Steve Boyett and Daniel Marcus

Sunday, 10:30am (Sacramento) Make Your Reading a Performance with Mickey Phoenix, Madeleine Robins, Greer Woodward and Ann Wilkes

Sunday, 1:00pm (Salon A/B) Let's Design Some Aliens with Vylar Kaftan, Erin Hoffman and Phyllis Holliday

I'd love to see you there!