Friday, April 27, 2012

Link: Where do you get your ideas?

I highly recommend this article by eminent science fiction author Mike Flynn - and not just because I appear in it several times! Mike surveyed many of his friends to learn where they got their ideas for stories, and he's got a lengthy, wonderful and inspiring post for you all to enjoy.

Check it out!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Link: Language is cultural, not biological

I loved this article, which I received from NPR today. Linguist Daniel Everett has worked for years with the Pirahã people of the Amazon, and become convinced that culture is the defining shaper of language, rather than some inborn biological structure (take that, Universal Grammar!).

A quote:
In between, Everett found that the Pirahãs have no words for "please," "thank you," "you're welcome" or "I'm sorry." They have no color words, but instead deploy phrases such as "it is temporarily being immature" for green. They have a limited kinship term system, one that does not distinguish between parent and grandparent or brother and sister. And their sentences lack recursion. This means there are no embedded clauses, as in the English sentence "Bring me the fish that Mary caught."

And this doesn't mean that their language is somehow "primitive." Read the article and learn why. I'm going to be looking forward to seeing more articles in this series.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Psychology in Worldbuilding: a Google+ hangout report

We had an interesting discussion of psychology in worldbuilding, focusing mainly on the question of how psychology relates characters to their surrounding circumstances. I was joined by Jaleh Dragich, Kyle Aisteach, Brian Dolton, and Glenda Pfeiffer. There were some technical difficulties which meant that Erin Peterson only joined us for a few seconds, and Deirdre Murphy couldn't get in. I wish I could explain these! Technology can be fickle at times, so sorry about that.

The idea for the discussion came from my recent blog post about character intelligence. My guests called it the "idiot plot," where otherwise intelligent people suddenly make really bad decisions, or act in a way inconsistent with their general level of intelligence. Jaleh mentioned an example from Body of Proof where a doctor sees her love interest go down with a knife to the gut and just sits there trembling and saying "hang on." She's a doctor. She's trained for this kind of thing, you know?

Over the course of the discussion, we discussed three major layers of character psychology, all of which are very valuable to consider as you're teasing out character motivations for a story. For the purposes of this report, I'll list them up front and then elaborate on the discussion below. They are:
  1. Fundamental personality
  2. Backstory/personal history
  3. Recent current circumstances
Fundamental personality is both the easiest to see and the hardest to understand fully. Elements of fundamental personality include things like introversion or extroversion, optimism, earnestness, straightforwardness, perfectionism, and the tendency to joke. In children they tend to become evident as patterns very early. When your character is scared or angry, does she get ready to fight? Or does she laugh inappropriately? This kind of reaction often comes out of the fundamental personality. I myself have a tendency to laugh aloud when I am delighted by something, which causes people to tell me they aren't joking (hint: I know they're not joking!).

Of course, there are plenty of reactions that are learned, or are responses to experience. This is the backstory layer, and in this the group decided to include cultural knowledge as well as personal life experience. A character's cultural background sets up expectations that let them define what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior, what kind of people are worthy or rude, etc. This kind of thing makes an enormous difference in how they will react to events. I also include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in this layer, because it sets up a set of fundamental fears and intense reactions as a result of specific traumatic experiences.

I have a character, Tamelera, who suffers a great deal of stress and fear because of her husband's abuse. She is disinclined to trust men - and as a result, in the course of the story she has difficulty trusting her male servant, especially since he was chosen for her by her husband. Interestingly, however, once she comes to trust him on the basis of his servant status, this allows her to get past her fear of men in his particular case.

Kyle mentioned a character he's worked with who is a Chinese man set in a world where the US has lost a war with China (and atrocities have been committed on both sides). The main character is angry with Americans for killing his parents, which sets him up for a struggle when he must work with an American character who was involved in the attack that killed him, in order to save Americans... Kyle is making the character's job a bit easier by giving the two a common enemy (a good strategy when trying to reconcile enemies). In this vein I mentioned Ken Liu's Hugo and Nebula-nominated story, "The Man who Ended History." If you're looking for an example of a story with complex character psychology, this is an excellent example.

Family issues can also be central to a character's psychology. Kyle gave us an interesting personal example involving Murder in the Cathedral. Apparently he had a low opinion of the three knights involved in the assassination when he was involved in the play, but his opinion changed when he learned he was actually distantly descended from them. Jaleh talked about working with a character whose father had been publicly declared a traitor and executed, which gave her a far better reason for a second character to get involved and care for her - Jaleh simply had the second character be a person formerly acquainted with the character's father. This transformed the narrative because it gave the characters proper motivation to care about one another.

This brings us to the layer of current circumstances, which includes any kind of events that have occurred within the course of the story, but particularly those which have just occurred and which influence a character's mental state and agitation level. Kyle related to the problem of how mental states can influence behavior, noting that severe stress can cause people to make idiotic decisions. He said he wouldn't recommend that someone climb out after swimming the English channel and then try to perform brain surgery.

Mental states can also influence moment-by-moment plausibility of characters' reactions. My character Tagret gets caught in a mass panic trying to get out of the ballroom, and when he gets home, the First Houseman tells him something has happened with their caretaker (a servant). At that point, due to previous events, Tagret is very agitated and worrying about people in the panic, and he immediately makes an incorrect guess that the caretaker was somehow caught in the panic. When the First Houseman tells him that the caretaker has resigned his position, it takes a second for Tagret even to realize what he's talking about. Characters need to change gears sometimes without being rushed. In fact, the importance of ongoing mental states is one of the things that motivates me to write in strict chronological order, rather than hopping around through the story. Jaleh notes that it's still important even if you work like she does, filling in the early parts of the story to get to a fully envisioned and written ending. (Kyle notes that he does this too).

If you're looking to have mental illness come into the picture, I recommend you do some specific research on different kinds of conditions and their symptoms. A great example of a book that features a lot of carefully integrated mental illnesses is C.S. Friedman's This Alien Shore, which even includes a planet where everyone has some kind of mental problem - and those are perceived as sources of unique talent. My own experience was that my antagonist, Nekantor, began just as a sort of vaguely mean and evil guy, but became a far more interesting character when I figured out that he was mentally ill with paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you want your characters to be "insane," do your research - you'll be able to take their behaviors a lot further without losing plausibility, because they will have a grounding in actual psychology.

This brought us to the question of antagonist psychology. Kyle said, "Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to be evil today.'" Brian says the antagonist always should see himself as the hero of his own stories, and observes that people generally have reasons for what they are doing - even terrorists. I urge all of you reading this not ever to allow yourself a blind spot for the psychology and motivations of your antagonist. One of my guests (Jaleh?) recommended the following book: Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to write the bad guys of fiction. Kyle mentioned the bad guys of Greek tragedy, who had to be heroes, because they would change from good guy to bad guy between one play and another. Antigone features a conflict between someone doing the right thing for the country and someone doing the right thing for her family.

Do look beyond protagonists and antagonists, too. Not every character needs to have a complex psychology, but knowing the thoughts and motives of secondary characters can really lift the interactions you portray from simplistic to complex and real-seeming.

Thanks again to all my guests - and to my readers, I hope to see you at a future hangout!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tomorrow's hangout on Google+

Please come and join me on Google+ tomorrow at 11am PDT. We'll be having a discussion of suspension of disbelief in worldbuilding - i.e. how easy or hard it can be to get people to believe in what you're showing them. This is a topic that I think has a lot to do with concepts of "show, don't tell," which apply to worldbuilding just as much as to anything else. I hope you'll come and join us!

TTYU Retro: Do characters really need to be likeable?

I've seen multiple discussions recently, in various locations, of whether characters in stories need to be likeable. At last I was inspired by Janice Hardy's post yesterday on what makes one POV "better" than another to write out my thoughts.

I don't personally think that all characters have to be likeable - not by a long stretch. I can see the point of those people who say much of a story may be lost if everyone has to be likeable. But I do remember feeling that I just couldn't stand the characters of "Seinfeld" - and for that reason I couldn't be bothered watching them for more than five minutes without feeling they'd robbed me of valuable time. What is the critical criterion?

My answer is going to seem overly simple, but I think characters have to be relatable, not likeable. There has to be some quality about them that makes you feel like you recognize them, and that they are real.

So what makes a character relatable?

This is a question that I've done a lot of thinking about. I write science fiction and fantasy, and that involves creating lots of alienness - alien languages, fantasy cultures, characters who are not human and characters temporally or physically (even physiologically) far divorced from our day-to-day experience. I don't get to work with the girl or boy next door, unless that person is about to encounter something really unexpected! However, in my writing I always strive to give my readers the insider's viewpoint. That means that if I want the story to succeed, particularly if I want to push a reader out of his or her usual way of thinking, it's absolutely essential for me to try to achieve that relatability, in order to invite reader investment in even the most unusual characters.

Every point of view character should have at least one relatable element - even antagonists. It's also likely that you'll want to find relatable elements for non-point of view characters. This kind of element could be:

  • a relatable goal - e.g. wanting to fall in love, or wanting monetary or other success, wanting freedom or justice, wanting to create or protect family, or even just wanting to keep a full stomach and a roof over their heads, etc.
  • a relatable external conflict - e.g. being up against racial or other discrimination (in the case of sf/f, we often see "other"), facing peer pressure, facing bullying, dealing with bureaucracy, dealing with a rival for the same goal, etc.
  • a relatable personal characteristic (good or bad) - e.g. being deeply religious, being dedicated to one's work, having a disability, experiencing self-doubt, depression, or a recognizable mental illness, trying to pursue a virtuous life, being haunted by one's past mistakes, caring deeply for others, being unable to make a decision, etc.
At this point I'll give some character examples from my own writing, to try to make this a bit more concrete.

From "Let the Word Take Me":
David Linden is a kid who is trying to win the approval of his father.
Allayo is a gecko-like alien. She is deeply principled and understands her life through her faith.

From "Cold Words":
Rulii is a 6'4" wolflike alien. He is discriminated against as an oppressed minority, and has paid a steep price for the power to help his people: he's addicted to a cocaine-like substance because it keeps him from shivering and thereby losing his ability to work toward justice.

From "At Cross Purposes":
Lynn is an engineer who loves her work and resents a boss who doesn't understand what she does.
Tsee is an otter-like alien. She would do anything to protect her twin brother, and she loves science and beautiful things.

From my WIP "For Love, For Power" (with special thanks to beta reader Jamie Todd Rubin for pointing this out):
Tagret is a privileged boy who loves his mother, suffers because his mother and father hate each other, and experiences awkwardness in trying to approach the girl he likes.
Aloran is born a servant, but believes in gender equality and becomes angry when he sees anyone abused.
Nekantor is a power-hungry boy (the antagonist) who suffers from mental illness including paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

From this list you may notice that I find character psychology to be a great ally. Even a character like Rulii who seems very strange, or someone very unlikeable like Nekantor, can be relatable. Funny enough, suffering for a recognizable reason - and by that I mean really experiencing distress - has huge potential for increasing relatability.

What about your characters do you find relatable? Are they likeable? Do you see a difference?

It's something to think about.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Social Stereotypes in Worldbuilding: A Google+ Hangout Report

This turned out to be a fantastic discussion. I was joined by Janet Harriett, Erin Peterson, David Peterson, Bryan Schmidt, Kyle Aisteach, Elizabeth Arroyo, and Glenda Pfeiffer to talk about social stereotypes.

The reason I decided on this topic was because I'd just the day before had an extensive conversation about social stereotyping with my children, over the Tintin stories by Hergé (which they both love). We're a family which strives for a great deal of social awareness and self-awareness, and the two of them didn't bat an eye when I told them we shouldn't stereotype. But it became more subtle when I started talking about the stereotypes that appear in Tintin and also in Astérix, and how one might look at those and draw the wrong conclusions. I ended up having to explain what caricature was as well, since neither of them had encountered the term. Thus it was that I ended up talking about stereotypes in worldbuilding.

In fact, stereotypes can be exceedingly useful to science fiction and fantasy writers, because we often focus on social issues and, for example, take existing social boundaries and make them more extreme, more codified, in order to bring them to a reader's attention. There are lots of caste systems, downtrodden groups, etc. out there who are helping readers to engage with questions regarding similar groups in the real world. Of course, social structures are quite complex in the real world, more like complex Venn diagrams with subsets and overlaps then discrete and identifiable groups.

Bryan mentioned the idea that people will often criticize others for doing something that they themselves would do, and feel guilty for. In fact, I had just recently encountered a study suggesting that homophobia has a strong basis in the externalization of self-hatred (here). As Jaleh eloquently put it, "we recognize our faults in other people."

At that point we decided to take a look at kinds of social categories. Jaleh mentioned wealth as an important social category. Bryan mentioned tribal divisions in Ghana. Erin talked about how we build narratives to make sense of those elements of our world with which we're less familiar.

Creating generalized categories and assigning things to them is an adaptive trait. To put this in concrete terms, if we saw a lion and weren't able to put it into the larger category of "lion" because it was younger and lacking a large mane, or because it was strangely colored or formed in some way, then we would be killed by it. There is also a social value to rankings and group membership. In this, biology and social structure can be linked, as in Kyle's example where it was found that in Rhesus monkeys, the effectiveness of their immune systems was linked to their social rank. It has been established that humans are able to detect people more genetically distinct from them by their smell. From here it's a surprisingly small leap to the point where we start saying things like, "Rich people are X and poor people are Y."

Erin suggested that social class is one category we feel able to discuss because it doesn't fall under the umbrella of political correctness the way that race and ethnicity do. Social class in America is an interesting topic in fact, because part of American discourse relies on denying its existence - in part because of the early social distancing from England and its class structure. Jaleh mentioned the importance of the idea of the American Dream, in which people can rise above their initial class assignment and become wealthy. Kyle noted that England's social classes are not simply based on wealth, since you can have East End rich cockneys and destitute barons. This brought up the question of Old money and New money. Just because we can attain a level of wealth does not mean we can be accepted into the group of people socially established as the rich. I mentioned Richard Sheridan's play, "The Rivals," which featured the hilariously fascinating character Mrs. Malaprop. She engages in constant malapropisms, which is to say that she tries to imitate the language of the upper classes, but constantly gets it wrong in hilarious ways. She's a pretender.

Pretenders are actually a fascinating topic. These are people outside a group who try to take on the social features of an insider, but are insulted for attempting to do so - a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. It's not just money that makes a pretender, either. I mentioned that Ashley Judd's recent article on women and beauty features an incisive example of this. Women are divided into beautiful and not beautiful, and everyone should try to be beautiful, but must not seen to be trying too hard. And if a woman like Judd appears to be beautiful beyond the accepted age, then people look for ways to disqualify her beauty, by theorizing that she's cheating in some manner (surgery, etc). So if you aren't beautiful, you're toast. But if you are, chances are you're cheating and you're still toast. And if you are beautiful, that's the only important thing about you... Argh. Ashley Judd says it so much better than I can here, so go and read the article.

We moved at that point into discussing the kinds of ways that social status can get marked. Janet mentioned how it's really important to know which fork to use for what, if you want to prove your social worth. Jaleh talked about who sits above and below the salt cellar at the table. She even showed us a really cool crystal salt cellar from the 1930's. David mentioned an example from the stories of Bertie Wooster where there was incredibly complex consternation about who should sit where at the table. There's always the question of who sits at the head of the table (a very very old question), and even at the Round Table one can still consider who sits at the leader's right, and at his left. Handedness is another feature that has been stereotyped for centuries. Kyle mentioned that in Murder by Death, a rearrangement of the seating of people at the table spares the protagonist from death.

It is extremely common for people to use exclusion as a method to create a sense of inclusion. The examples above merely scratch the surface, and in secondary worlds there are many opportunities to use unusual criteria for inclusion and exclusion. One can always use politeness style (friendly vs. standoffish) as a criterion, but there are many possible variations even in this.

Jaleh recommended Tamora Pierce's Magic Circle books as some with an interesting use of class distinctions. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is an example of class distinction featured in a classic book.

The role of Bohemians among the upper classes came up as an example of the question of patronage of artists. How accepted would be patronage of artists? Probably more accepted than social association with them.

There is also the question of language distinctions, as in My Fair Lady (mentioned by Jaleh, David and Janet). These have to be treated carefully, especially if you're using existing dialects. The Phantom Menace did some intentional (if clunky and stereotypical) things with dialects, such as giving an Asian-flavored dialect to the Trade Federation, and having the Gungans use a stereotyped Jamaican accent.

Stereotypes are startlingly convenient. Kyle mentioned that they are used extensively in TV and film in situations when the writers don't want something to stick out. A cab driver in a TV show is very likely to be Arab and male because if he weren't, the cab driver character would pop out as unusual and watchers might expect the character to do unexpected things. This is fascinating to me - simultaneously understandable and uncomfortable, because it reveals how audiences expect certain people(s) to be invisible in their places within society.

Lastly we considered the difference between a stereotype and an archetype. Erin suggested that an archetype was the prime exemplar of a category, while a stereotype was applied to every member of the category. Archetypes are the "ideal" members of a category, the way that we might imagine an eagle as the ideal bird. Kyle also said that archetypes are a literary device.

In a secondary world, we can actually teach readers to share the stereotypes possessed by our characters, and this can be a very useful trick in establishing the social model that governs the world. It's important, though, not to overuse them and not to suggest that the character's stereotype is an entirely valid assessment of your world's social order. Much as stereotypes are prevalent yet problematic here, they should be prevalent yet problematic in our secondary worlds, too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TTYU Retro: Never "just description" - making description subjective

Description is never just description.

It took me quite a long while to figure that out. I suppose when one first starts writing, one begins by exercising one's access to words and images, and thinking of the most beautiful, or the most visceral, or the most fill-in-the blank way to describe what one imagines. When you're using your own voice as an omniscient storytelling narrator, that can work just fine. However, once I started writing in close points of view, I started to realize that every time I went into a "description," I'd lose the sense of closeness. And that was a problem I had to fix.

The fact is that description is always subjective in some way. It is literally impossible to capture every detail about something in the real world. Every time we notice and name an object, that is a subjective choice. Every time we put an adjective on something, that is also a subjective choice. Subjectively, we decide what is noticeable and what is too normal to draw anyone's attention to.

If you keep this in mind, then it becomes possible to discover just how subjective your descriptions can be. Particularly if you work with close point of view, the identity of your character is going to change the way that things are described. Every word you choose is an opportunity to show something about your character.

To make this more concrete, let's play with it a little. I have a room in my work-in-progress, and I just had my main character walk into it. That means I had to describe it. But before I show you how I described it for him, I'll describe it in a few different ways (all third person, just for the sake of consistency).

As myself:

The Hall of the Eminence is a long, rectangular room with stone walls, columns and ceiling arches in the style of a European cathedral. The arches are decorated with mosaic tiles of variegated blue with occasional tiles in gold. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The floor is covered in a white silk carpet patterned with the green swirling insignia of the Grobal caste. There are embroidered hangings on the walls, and there is a wooden dais at the end where sits the carved wooden throne of the Eminence.

This description is very informational and makes reference to the real world. It shows no positioning words to indicate any physical point of view. I might as well be hovering above it, or nowhere near it at all. I'm certainly not interacting with it in any way. It reads like a blueprint - good for my personal notes or outline, but useless for the story.

As a member of the merchant caste walking in alone, having never seen the place before:

The room made him want to shrink and retreat. Its arches stretched probably two stories high, and with every step of these ordinary shoes, he risked defiling a symbol of nobility. The chandeliers above and the embroidered hangings on the walls all around would have fetched a pretty price at the Exchange, but nothing compared to the wood of the stage at the far end. Not to mention the throne itself - a single piece of wood so large it would bring more than the worth of his entire family.

This description has a lot more to it. There's an emotional reaction to the sight of the room, and the person assesses its size ("probably two stories"). There's positional information ("the far end"). He draws a contrast between ordinary and noble. His actions have social consequences (defiling). He also shows his own idiosyncratic knowledge base and his personal priorities as he assesses the worth of various objects in the room.

As a fugitive:

She whipped around a corner and burst through the first door she found. Damn - just her luck she'd find the one room in this place where there was nowhere to hide. The place was bright and open, and even the wall-hangings were too flat, too high off the floor to give any cover. Maybe that stage with the big throne? She sprinted toward it, but it was worse - wooden boards that thudded under her feet, sure to announce her presence to any pursuers. With so many doors all around, they could come from anywhere!

Unlike the last person, this person has an urgent purpose in the room. She doesn't care about the richness of the room, but swears about finding a place so large and open. I can let her assess possible hiding spots, and thereby get in a little about the room, but really she doesn't care much about what's in it. She judges what she encounters, and pays no attention to the value of anything except as it serves her goal.

As my protagonist:

Tagret straightened up fast. The Hall of the Eminence was packed with potential enemies. To be on guard, he needed his eyes open. And to be the man Mother wanted everyone to see, he had to stand gracefully, making the high mosaic arches of the ceiling his portrait-frames, and the crystal chandeliers his spotlights. Father's hand stayed on his arm as the rest of their party came in. From the wall-hangings all the way to the dais with the wooden throne, the crowd glittered in ostentatious clothing, muted somewhat by the grieving yellow of mourning scarves. More and more eyes watched him as people entered through the doors around the Hall, clustering by Family. From this vantage point he couldn't see anyone he could clearly identify as either Sixth Family, or Ninth. Eleventh seemed like it might be in the far corner.

Tagret cares far more about people and the interaction he's entering than he does about the place, which is very familiar to him. Therefore, all the information about the room itself is backgrounded to his other concerns. In this scene, the conflict all comes from the interaction, so there's no reason for him to give any direct attention to the physical location at all. However, it's important for readers to know what the place looks like, so I let Tagret use the room's features incidentally to serve his own focus. He's also taller than most people in the room, so he has a pretty good view across the crowd, which affects how he describes it.

I hope these examples give you a sense of how widely descriptions of the same thing can differ from one another. In your own writing, as you approach a description of a place, an object, or a situation, here are some things to think about:
  • Does this place/object/situation have a special social significance to my character?
  • Is it unexpected, abnormal, or otherwise unusual (will appear in description)? Or is it normal (less likely to appear; more likely to be backgrounded)?
  • What is the current mood of my character?
  • What is my character's goal and primary focus as he/she encounters this place/object/situation?
  • Does the physical position and/or size of my character affect how he/she would describe it?
By thinking through these things before you start to describe, you'll discover many more opportunities to make your description subjective, and thereby to make it unique.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Manners, Round 2: A Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout

I was joined for my discussion of Manners by a rather large group, including Barbara Webb, Brian Dolton, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Jaleh Dragich, and Kyle Aisteach.

Manners are often invisible or subconscious, but we use them all the time for beginning and ending interactions, and for smoothing interactions. They are how you present yourself socially. I shared with the group my experience doing educational research in a 5th grade class in Japan, where the pedagogical manners focus of the month was "greetings," and it was written up on the board in front of the class. In fact, when I came in the first day, apparently the class members didn't greet me properly, and they received a full five-minute lecture on the topic from their teacher. You should have seen how they all came in and greeted me the following day - some of them very resentfully!

Manners are taught. This is a very important thing to remember. We don't come by our manners instinctively, but through lots and lots of explicit instruction by parents and people surrounding us. Kyle noted with some humor that every generation thinks the next generation has no manners. For worldbuilding purposes, it's important to think through not only what the manners of your society are for different social groups, but how and in what context those manners are taught to the young people, and whether as Kyle noted they are seen to be changing or "declining."

Bryan mentioned that the modern internet-and-electronics era has brought about an expectation of multitasking and constant interruption, where everyone jumps in. The electronic media we use certainly have altered manners in a very specific (if non-systematic) way. David remarked that the internet has a very specific type of etiquette. For example, parents who embarrass their children by showing up and commenting on their Facebook posts are breaking one of the unspoken rules about what kind of discussions one is licensed to participate in - i.e. one doesn't generally comment on threads commented on by a family member which were started by someone one doesn't know. It's an unusual expectation of privacy, but a very strong one. We maintain expectations of privacy in the online environment which come from our experiences with face-to-face interaction, or possibly regular mail, and are surprised when those are breached by other individuals or by the social media company itself. We mentioned the convention that writing in all capitals implies that one is yelling, rather than that one is emphasizing. Not everyone who uses the internet realizes this, but those who don't will likely end up offending someone inadvertently.

At this point, Brian Dolton arrived and apologized for being late, which gave us all a lovely laugh given the topic of the week. Note for readers: it's nice when participants can arrive at the top of the hour, but I never mind it when people appear and join in! This turned onto the question of accents and their association with politeness. The English accent is often associated with politeness, though there are many variants of it (like Cockney) that would not be. We have a long history of literature and media which have cultivated the association of the English accent with careful manners. David pointed out that people from England will often phrase criticism in terms of a question - when they intend underlyingly to criticize, but use the question strategy to mitigate the strength of the criticism.

David also brought up an interesting aspect of manners, the manners of the Deaf community. He noted that deaf people typically teach their children ways to act politely when in the presence of hearing people. The idea is not to make noises while in hearing company, because those noises disturb the hearing people (though not the deaf people). This rule can be broken deliberately (as can most politeness rules) in order to be annoying, or as a form of protest. David described a situation associated with the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet School for the Deaf where a speech was deliberately interrupted by noises.

Closely related to this was a great story from Kyle, who told us about an underwater scuba instructor who once taught a class of deaf students. Given that most of the instructor's students were hearing, he'd never had to tell people to pay attention in class and not talk over the instructor. It's pretty convenient, actually, when your students' mode of communication is disrupted by water! However, it wasn't the case when he had a class of deaf students, and he had to tell them to pay attention because they were "talking" over him. (I really sense a story coming from that one!)

We also talked about dress. The way we dress is a form of social positioning and is involved in manners just as verbal expression is. Jaleh noted that we dress in a special way to go to church. Our dress helps us to align ourselves socially. I have personally noticed that in the science fiction and fantasy community, there are generally distinctions between the way editors dress, the way authors dress, and the way fans dress. These distinctions are not completely predictable - I mean, I've seen authors wear full costume and I've seen people in suits besides just editors - but one does notice a pattern. I have also noticed that when I'm on the street somewhere and I see a young person whose clothes are half-destroyed by rips, whose available folds of skin are full of holes and metal adornments, and whose hair is in many lengths and many colors, my own instinct might say that I don't understand why this person dresses that way...but my inner anthropologist tells me this is a look that required a lot of effort and sacrifice, and it is not only deliberate, but hard-won, and is intended to convey a particular message. As such, I can't help but feel a degree of respect for it, even though I wouldn't choose that look myself.

I asked David about politeness in Dothraki, the language he invented for Game of Thrones on HBO. In Dothraki, there is a distinction between the second person (you) formal and informal, similar to that found in Hungarian. David noted that in French and Russian the second person plural becomes the formal, and in some languages the third person plural becomes the formal - something he attributes to the idea that it's impolite to address someone directly (and plurality makes it more indirect).

From there we digressed a bit (but we'll come back!) into some other languages and their strategies of informality and formality, talking-around, etc. David mentioned that in Turkish the negative command form is different from the positive one, because it's negative, passive, and impersonal - more like, "that isn't something that is done," than "don't do that!" A lot of politeness strategies can be understood in terms of "face," (which I addressed in my previous Manners hangout) protecting oneself or others against threats to face that come from verbal acts like requests or refusals or negative commands. A handshake comes from the reassurance that one is not holding a weapon in one's hand, and a similar principle applies to verbal interaction. Manners can be seen as in opposition to honesty in many cases (here's a previous post on the topic). Jaleh mentioned the case of the Mbari (correct my spelling, Jaleh!) on Babylon 5, a people who never lied, but who it turned out had exceptions to their rule in cases where it would save face for somebody else.

I mentioned how grammar is often construed to be instruction in "the right way" to say things, but how this is terribly unrepresentative of grammar and its real potential. My son gets worksheets home from school where he's supposed to check a box indicating the "correct way" to say something. Interestingly, one of the options is the one they want, one is ungrammatical to the point of being incomprehensible, and two or more are examples of dialectal speech expressions. Needless to say, I find this very troubling - there's a big difference between "the right way to write a sentence in this class and in general school assignments" and "the right way, period, and anything else is the wrong way."

I also mentioned that in Japanese, there is no "default" politeness level, but that you make a statement about your social positioning (in a casual or formal mode) with everything that comes out of your mouth.

At last (sorry, David!) we returned to Dothraki. David explained that people who know each other will use the informal pronoun when speaking together, but that they will use the formal if others are watching. Thus, people will be aware of their social surroundings, and there is a subset of vocabulary that you would only hear if you peeked into a private tent. David did warn us not to peek into tents, though, since eavesdropping might lead to fighting and tearing out of tongues!

My own story, "Cold Words," had a system of status language that was used non-reciprocally. In any interaction, the person of higher status would be expected to take the stance of dominator and the person of lower status the stance of submissor, each of which would be associated with a different mode of speech. The dominator would use Cold words, and the submissor would use Warm words. As with Dothraki (and many real languages) there were also special conditions under which the rules might be bent. Because the Majesty was considered too Cold and exalted to be exposed to any warmth, only Cold words could be used in his presence, defeating the usual rule of non-reciprocality. The other place with exceptional usage was in private with a person of intimacy like a consort or littermate. This gave some trouble to the relations between the main alien character, Rulii, and the human linguist Parker.

David brought up the question of eye contact, particularly in classroom settings. There is a rule of politeness in many cultures that one should not look one's elders in the eye; David particularly mentioned Mexico and the problems Mexican immigrants experience in American classrooms where eye contact with the teacher is interpreted as a sign of attention and intelligence. Thus, the children are unwittingly, and unconsciously hurting themselves by conforming to a culturally different view of politeness. Because they are quieter and don't look the teacher in they eye, they are often unfairly interpreted as being stupid and rude.

Kyle said that he's very tired of seeing alien first contact stories without social gaffes, even though such problems are very common.

I recommended Aliette de Bodard's work, including the Obsidian and Blood series, for non-traditional views of culture and manners. Mary Robinette Kowal also does a great deal of work with historical manners, in her books Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass (coming out now!).

We remarked that historical manners are worth looking into. Kyle mentioned that in his time, Sherlock Holmes was shockingly rude, but his rudeness doesn't translate well into our time. This is one of the things that the modernization in the recent TV series "Sherlock" handles really well - Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes is quite as irritating as the historical Sherlock would have been, and now modern audiences can appreciate the critical role played by Watson as his buffer from the rest of the social community.

Thanks to everyone who came to the hangout!

TTYU Retro - Revisions: your story isn't you

I've heard many authors talk about how the characters in their stories seem to do things of their own volition, or about how the story seems to be outside of them rather than something they have created. It's easy to get this sensation when you're in the midst of creating - somewhat harder, I think, to retain it when you go back and start revisions.

In some ways, that sense of the story existing on its own can make us balk at revising. It's outside of us now, it has its own internal form and structure; the characters are who they are, and do what they do. In other ways, it's the sense that the story represents us as authors - that in a way, it is us - that causes us to hesitate.

I think considering the story as existing outside of us is perfectly fine. It may resist revision in some ways, but as long as we can consider the characters, the form and the structure from the outside, revision is possible. It's when we feel that we are the story that the revisions process can really defeat us. Then critique and requests for edits can feel like insults, and restructuring like an assault.

It's not that what we create isn't great. It isn't even that it's not publishable. I've seen whole books and famous movies that made me think, "needed one more rewrite." But though those books have been published and those movies produced, I always think it's a shame that that final revision never happened.

I've tried to train myself to take a particular view of my own work. To me, the story isn't me, and it isn't even what I've written. The story exists somewhere else - a plane of ideas, or some kind of Platonic dimension - where it exists in an ideal state. What I'm trying to do by writing it is capture that perfect spirit, that resonance, and convey it to my readers. Thus, revisions are the means by which I bring the story closer to the ideal. Maybe this is why I enjoy it so much!

Critique shows me how my readers understand what I'm doing; it gives me a sense of the pictures they see, and the resonance and intensity they feel. They aren't seeing the ideal form of the story any more than I am, but we're all trying, looking at it from different angles, and in that process we jointly get insight into what the story could be. Then once I feel I've glimpsed the way to get closer to what I want, I set about making it happen. Sometimes when I realize what the story really requires, and I feel a resonance come into place, it gives me goose bumps.

I'm not saying everyone has to think this way. What I'm trying to do is explain why I find revisions exciting instead of daunting. If what I'm sharing here helps any writer out there to take on the process of revisions with more relish and less sense of personal injury, then I'll be happy.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Link: 19 Regional American words

Here's a little something to spice up your morning! This article will give you unique sample words from different regions of the US, just in case you felt your expressions were lacking in flavor. Great stuff from Joan Houston Hall's five-volume Dictionary of American Regional English. Have fun with it!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Link: The Creation of Dothraki (Game of Thrones)

Here's a great link to CNN where David Peterson gives us a glimpse of how Dothraki works, and where they also have a short clip where you can hear Dothraki spoken (if, like me, you don't get HBO). Really fun stuff, and it looks like there will be more to come on Sunday!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Swearing: A worldbuilding hangout report

For our discussion of swearing, I hosted Brian Dolton, Dale Emery, David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Janet Harriett, Leigh Dragoon, Jaleh Dragich, and Glenda Pfeiffer. This one was really fun, and funny. How could any discussion of swearing in worldbuilding not be? Be aware that swear words will appear below!

We started by introducing some of the general bases of swearing, which include religion and oath-taking, and taboo topics like sex and excrement. Different cultures can take various of these as underpinnings for swearing. Because religion is something that we typically build for our worlds to distinguish them from the real world, they can take on a much more world-grounded feel than swearing expressions based on sex and excrement, because the latter will resemble our own swear words more closely.

Jaleh mentioned that she read a story where people use "carp" in place of "crap." This led us into a discussion of how real-world swears will be altered. David observed that when you're not allowed to use the real swears of our own world, people will tend to vary them a lot. This leads to usages like "pr0n" and "f**k", snap as a substitute for shit, or Oh Mylanta as a substitute for Oh my God. Dale mentioned "Gorram" and "Frak" and Janet mentioned "piece of gosse." Brian said he's heard "Godfrey Daniel" as a substitution for God - and of course there's always "goodness gracious me" which has served a similar purpose.

Some lovely examples:
Gosh darn, heck, jeepers, son of a biscuit eater, son of a mutated sea monkey, misbegotten son of a camel-seller, colder than a witch's uncle...

There is a certain extent to which you can take an existing swearing phrase and play fill-in-the-blank. "Son of a ____" is one good example of this, and Jaleh suggested "In ____'s name". However, one should be careful with "Holy ____," because it is so common that it can appear to be overly simplistic, especially if it is overused or used to the exclusion of other swearing forms. One of my guests said it had a Batman feel (watch out)!

When you're coming up with a swearing system, use your creativity! Do a bit of thinking about the grounding that exists in your world and its culture. If you're going to use "by my honor," then one would imagine that the construct of honor would be culturally important.

We also had a link recommended as a source for Victorian lower-class slang, here.

David told us about an interesting phenomenon in Austronesia, "taboo replacement." In the society he mentioned, people were often named after natural objects. This led to some interesting results for example when a chief died, because it was taboo to mention the name of the dead person at all, which meant they had to replace the name of the natural object itself to keep anyone from having to pronounce it.

David also mentioned that when you're creating a language, one thing that can make it look more real is to follow the natural-language pattern of having pejorative meaning associated with female terms. He compared Mr. vs. Madam (which also means a brothel-keeper). Apparently the rather vile Spanish word "puta" originally meant a scullery-maid or cleaning lady rather than what it has come to mean since. Obviously this is something to watch out for, because it's not a choice that you'll necessarily want to make, for reasons of principle. In fact, Glenda said it would be fun to turn this on its head and see what one could do to make male terms turn pejorative. That would be another option - it's good to think about whether there are any major categories like this (gender categories or racial categories spring to mind) that cause words to gain bad extra meanings and thus be euphemized as time goes on.

Swearing itself doesn't have to have the same cultural meaning. I gave the example of swearing in American and Australian culture (as exemplified by my own view vs. my husband's view). In the American view it's a way of posturing so that other people will be shocked, and feel what I'd call "ugly power" coming from the person swearing. In my husband's view, it's more like pepper on a pizza - it just gives the language more flavor. In most cases, the literal meaning of the words bears little connection to their function in swearing - it's all about the emotional impact.

In Varin, my people are expected to swear, and it's more indicative of sincere feeling and emotional involvement than it is of ugliness or shock. I've mentioned this in past hangouts, but each of the Varin gods is patron of a set of activities, and when you're swearing about one of those activities, you're expected to swear by the activity's patron god in some manner.

Historical settings can pose challenges in the swearing department. Sometimes, using the actual swear words of the era can appear comical to a modern listener's ears. It's a delicate balance, therefore, between accuracy and the desire to evoke the appropriate listener response.

Some more examples we discussed: kek replacing "crap," used in the Northern UK, but Jaleh has also heard the word in gypsy contexts (Jaleh, can you be more specific here?). Brian Dolton says he's heard keks as a word for trousers, and he thinks it's related to "kack" as a word for excrement. David mentioned that he's seen "kek" in World of Warcraft, where it becomes a translation of another faction's swear words. Then there was "chuff" in England. Brian's example was "chuffing chuff the chuffing chuffer," which had us all eminently amused! "Chuffed" also means "proud" in England and Australia. There was also "smurf" as a substitute for everything in the smurfs animated world, and "smeg" from Red Dwarf.

If you're designing a swearing system for your world, it's good to decide whether you're going to use a substitution strategy, where you take all the basic swears we have and substitute new things in for them, or whether you are going to design your swearing from the bottom up with a new religion and a new linguistic approach. Who swears how can also depend on class and vocation. Jaleh suggested that biologists might prefer excrement-related swearing. David mentioned that there are certain phrases in academic language that are considered terrible insults, such as "your reasoning is reductive" or "that won't lead to a formalized theory." Politeness is intertwined with swearing, and it's fully possible to say things that sound polite, and have their meaning be insulting.

A few final examples: "Mother"/"mamma" is constantly used in swearing and insults, while "padre" in Spanish means "cool." Opposites can be used, as when "bad" means "good." The more recent developments in this area have seen the word "sick" or "wicked" used to mean "good." In Australia I've heard the same meaning carried by the word "feral."

In Shakespeare, "get thee to a nunnery" implied "go to a whorehouse." Erin Peterson suggested the link came from the fact that brothels and convents were the only place you could find a society of all women. Dale observed that "nobody has topped Shakespeare for subtlety of swearing." "Country matters" were sexual matters.

Jaleh said that swearing can reveal world setting. In a science fictional setting you might have people swear by "black holes and supernovas" to evoke images of destruction. Brian mentioned "vack" as a swear word, short for "vacuum" (the vacuum of space).

In short, it's worth giving some time to the idea of how people swear in your world, because it will both reflect and reveal the world you are using, and its history. Thanks to everyone for coming and making this such a serious - and seriously amusing - discussion!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Link: The relationship between Monsters and their worlds

I really enjoyed this article from Adam Roberts at Arcfinity. Bigger isn't always better; it's the world grounding of a monster, or of an edifice, that gives it real meaning. The two feed into and support one another.

Check it out!

TTYU Retro: Leading into a Scene vs. Including Backstory

We hear a lot about how it's important to get to the core conflict as quickly as possible, and not get bogged down in backstory, to keep pacing up in our stories. Indeed, quick pacing is one of the characteristics of YA literature that has made it so successful, and I certainly have seen a trend toward faster pacing in adult literature as well. On the other hand, if you leap into the core conflict of a book, or even of a scene, too quickly, you'll be doing yourself a disservice.

The impact of any one sentence, paragraph or scene does not stand on its own. Think about horror. There is far less shock value in coming upon an appalling scene if your character has not had a chance to build up fearful anticipation, and your reader has not had a chance to feel the increasingly spooky ambiance of a place. For fantasy and science fiction - and indeed for mainstream work - the principle is the same. Each piece of a story stands upon the piece that came before it. It's therefore critical to give some thought to what kind of foundation each piece of your story needs in order to be maximally successful.

In my current novel, I have an instinctive sense of the pattern that needs to be followed for each chapter. The chapter needs to begin with tension, a goal for my protagonist and something that makes that goal risky or difficult to accomplish. Because of the society in my book is very tightly wound and people's success depends greatly upon reputation, very often setting up the initial stakes means setting my protagonist's goal up against a background of public watchers who may take his actions amiss, and pass that on to others of influence. Then as I go further in, the main conflict develops and is influenced by that background, much in the same way that the flow of water is influenced by the presence of rocks or islands. At a certain point in the scene comes what I have been fondly calling "the left turn" - a change in the situation that abruptly raises the stakes and gives an entirely new meaning to everything that happened before.

Here's an example. My protagonist, Tagret, gets invited to a tea party - not just any tea party, but a party given by his father's worst political enemy. The risk here is higher because previously, I have set up the fact that the woman who invites him has seen him with a young lady his father wouldn't approve of. Thus, Tagret goes to the event feeling that he has been blackmailed into attending (raising tension). He decides to bring along his best friend so it's less clear to any people at the party whether he or his friend initiated the decision to attend. This decision is logical given the social stakes, and Tagret feels that having his friend along will make it easier for him to get through the event with his reputation intact. At the tea, his father's enemy makes a compelling case for why Tagret should be on her side rather than on his father's (which he is only reluctantly anyway). The strategy of bringing his friend seems to be a good one even though his father's enemy manages to speak to him alone. But then an external emergency crops up, and suddenly all the people in the room - but most particularly Tagret and his friend - are in danger because they are not at home where they can be safe. Tagret's mother's servant appears to take both of them home to safety, but now Tagret's leaving the house appears irresponsible for an entirely different set of reasons, and bringing his friend along has become an even more irresponsible act because his friend was also exposed to danger. Even the servant who takes them home must suffer because she is seen as having been complicit in Tagret's disobedience and risky behavior.

All of the pieces of this sequence link together. The enemy seeing him with the girl, the invitation, the decision to take his friend along, etc. I almost began this scene at the point when Tagret was just arriving at the tea party, but when I did that, the tension and stakes didn't seem high enough. I hadn't thought through the lead-in thoroughly enough to realize that Tagret would take his friend with him to try to protect himself. If I had in fact left Tagret's friend out of the scene, I would have lost much of the larger impact that was brought about by the change in stakes. The change in stakes, i.e. the larger emergency, has huge consequences and puts Tagret's life in danger - but it hits home much more effectively if his friend is with him, because Tagret endangering his friend has a far more personally damaging set of consequences. What seems like a cautious and safe decision in response to one set of circumstances is in fact what lets the later set of circumstances be far more dramatic.

While somewhat different, I think this question of foundation and setup is related to the question of how and when to include character backstory. Very often I hear people talk about backstory in terms of "information readers need to know to understand what is going on." I'm not sure that's the best way of thinking about it, however. I like to think of it in terms of the character I'm working with. The backstory this character has is the foundation for his/her understanding and emotional reactions to events. Similarly to what I spoke about above, where scene setup helps give a foundation for the emotional impact of the core conflict and the raising of stakes, the inclusion of backstory detail gives us a foundation for the emotional impact of events on our character. This then translates into the impact of those events on the reader. Think through backstory just as you would think through scene setup, identifying those critical elements which are needed to support a given character reaction. Then, include those elements. Usually what this means for me is a clearer way to identify which elements are necessary and which are not. The smaller elements that support a character reaction are much easier to build into the narrative subtly, without having to resort to paragraphs (or pages!) of backstory explanation.

It's something to think about.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Aliens, Readings, and more Aliens! (#FogCon Report)

So I went to FogCon this weekend for the first time. It's a new convention, and this was its second year. I had a really good time, despite the fact that it involved much driving in pouring rain!

Saturday I went up for the morning panel called "Best Alien Ever." This was a really fun one, as it turned out. Not only did we get to talk about our favorite aliens from books we'd read, but we also discussed what aliens are for. My fellow panelists were terrific - Theresa Mecklenborg was a great moderator with cool things to say. Anne Wilkes has obviously thought a lot about aliens and what makes them great. Chaz Brenchley came with a lot of great examples from he literature, and well-articulated opinions. Essentially we agreed that aliens are great for metaphor and allegory, allowing writers to take on social issues that might be too close to home and uncomfortable in a realistic setting. They don't have to be intelligent, necessarily... Chaz mentioned the sandworms of Dune, and we all agreed they were brilliant and universe-changing. They can resemble actual Earth species. I mentioned Alan Dean Foster's grasshopperlike aliens in Nor Crystal Tears as well as the aliens that I typically create for my stories. They can also be very very alien - even a whole planetwide consciousness, as one finds in Alan Dean Foster's Midworld or in James Cameron's Avatar. Essentially the rule of thumb we came up with was that the more you are trying to identify with the alien point of view, the more it's important to have them resemble familiar species and to have humanlike motivations. Otherwise, no one will want to follow their story. If you're working with extremely alien aliens, then those work best in a story where a human is trying to "figure them out" - whether to figure out whether they are intelligent or not, or try to communicate, or something of that sort. In any case, it was a terrific group and the discussion was great.

Saturday afternoon I watched my son get his gold belt in Kung Fu, but then I was back at the convention in the evening. I had a great dinner out with a very large group of people, including Rachel and Mike Swirsky, Na'amen Tilahun, Steve Boyett, Lisa Eckstein, and others (whose faces are clear in my head but whose names are defeating me for the moment - argh!) After that I did my reading of the first chapter of For Love, For Power. I was reading alongside Steve Boyett, who is an awesome reader and gave us a sampling of his latest work that was moving and also rather gory and horrible (in an effective way!). We had an audience of four, but they seemed to enjoy what they heard! That got me energized so I had no trouble with the long drive home.

On Sunday I came out and had a lovely morning panel with Madeleine Robins, Anne Wilkes, Greer Woodward and Mickey Phoenix about how to make your reading a performance. There were a lot of great tips that I took as inspiration (and quite a few I took as comfort, given that I'd just had my reading the previous evening!). It was really cool to see how Madeleine and Greer integrated their drama experience with their reading experience. Some of the points mentioned were making eye contact with your audience, projecting your voice, modulating your volume and attack, and not reading too quickly. We also talked about the value of "doing voices" versus just giving more subtle cues to differentiate characters and character points of view (like voice pitch and tension but not full accents). A fabulous group and a great discussion! As I had suspected going in, Mickey was a friend of mine from college whom I hadn't seen in 20 years, so that was an unexpected kick!

My last panel was "Let's Create Some Aliens" and we did exactly that. We started by picking out climate and environmental details and then came up with some aliens who would live in that environment. It was audience-participation, and my fellow panelists were Vylar Kaftan, Erin Hoffman, and Phyllis Holliday. Phyllis actually did some sketches of the aliens as we created them, Vylar moderated, and Erin had her iPad at the ready to do online image research to give Phyllis additional inspiration. I had fun taking the environmental and physiological aspects of the aliens and brainstorming about their lives and culture, etc. We had one low-intelligence salamanderlike creature, one shrimplike creature that lived near underwater volcanic vents, and one tundra tortoise sort of creature (that I think was nevertheless warm-blooded!) which kept records of its history by carving them into its shell. A good time was had by all, and I think I'll be going back in the future!