Tuesday, June 26, 2012

TTYU Retro: Past Tense, or Present Tense, or Both?

Recently I read this short piece about whether it's okay to mix past tense and present tense in your writing, and my inner linguistics geek stood up and started stomping her feet, so here I am.

Let me remark something about grammar:

The effective use of grammar is not about what features of it appear on any particular page. It is about what the choice of a particular form allows you to do.

I hear the phrase "mix past and present tense" and I blink. What does that mean, "mix"? Does it mean, just write along and don't pay attention and whichever one comes out is okay? Well, then I'm entirely against it. On the other hand, I have written an entire novel which uses a diarist's point of view, and in her diary she discusses things that have happened to her - in past tense - and things that are going on at the time when she's writing, including things happening around her and her assessment of people's current qualities - present tense. In early drafts I had a couple of readers, confused by the unpolished prose, call me on "tense-mixing" - but it wasn't tense-mixing, it was just that I hadn't shown enough of the setting for the current ongoing events part, and so the proper context for the use of present tense wasn't clear. Once I properly established that, the problem went away. My use of verb tenses didn't change at all.

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

There are a lot of "traditional" past tense narratives out there in the fiction world. We grow up with them, and because they are the environment we're steeped in, we've long since stopped finding the use of past tense remarkable. On the other hand, if you're really paying attention, I think you'll find that all these past tense narratives also contain uses of the present tense - you'll certainly find them in dialogue and direct expressions of a character's thought. I hope you haven't been thinking that those examples of present tense in a past tense narrative "don't count." Sure, they count - they are in present tense precisely because they are doing something different from what the rest of the narrative is doing. If we were listening to a narrative read aloud, the tense (along with prosody and dialogue tags) would be a major indicator of when we were listening to dialogue.

Example from The Once and Future King by T.H. White:
Kay looked at his father. He also looked at the Wart and at the sword.
Then he handed the sword to the Wart quite quietly.
He said, "I am a liar. Wart pulled it out."

We also shouldn't forget that we change our verb tenses all the time when we narrate stories verbally. We'll be in the midst of recounting something that happened and when we get to the crux of it, we'll switch into present tense to place the listener more inside the moment when that exciting thing happened.

Example: "I went to talk to my boss about it yesterday, right? So I'm walking in there and I say..."

Honestly, I'm not sure this one works effectively in written narrative - but I do think that it is realistic to have such use of verb tenses in dialogue when one of the characters is engaged in that kind of storytelling.

I've also seen tense used what I might call "aggressively." The term is an exaggeration, but what I mean is, the tense gets deliberately changed for a particular effect. In her book The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood begins in present tense, creating a dreamy effect where there's no sense of the passage of time; then, as the main character's viewpoint changes, she switches to past tense and suddenly the story begins to achieve a sense of momentum. It's unusual, but it's deliberate, and really cool. As for me, when I'm working in alien point of view, I deliberately choose present tense, and I do it so as to force the reader to align more thoroughly with my alien's impressions, emotions, and judgments. I've been told my alien point of view stories are "challenging, but worth it." The fact is, present tense gives me a kind of intensity that I can't achieve with past tense.

Example from "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009):
I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker. He never comes to the Ice Home while I attend Cold Council - he must bring important news! I bow to haunches, then excuse myself from Majesty's presence, quickly as I can without inviting snarls from the others.


So I guess I'd conclude by saying I don't think it's okay to "mix" present and past tense - because that implies a lack of care and precision. It's perfectly all right, however, to challenge yourself and your narrative, and your reader, and use whatever verb tense you need in order to serve your own purposes.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Culture Share: USA - Wyoming, The Square State

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Tamara Linse discusses her home state of Wyoming.

The Square State

by Tamara Linse

One of Wyoming’s politicians once said that Wyoming is a small town with very long streets, and that is certainly true on many levels.  It has such a small population—just over 500,000—and no town larger than 60,000.

We are rural. The state is made up of a few spots of beautiful mountains separated by very long distances comprised of boring sagebrush flats.  We joke that that’s why Wyoming has the smallest population of any state—the interstate goes through the most god-awful parts, and people driving through think, who would live here?  I actually think it’s quite beautiful even there, but I would, wouldn’t I, being a native? And the weather. It’s high plains desert, mostly, so it’s cold winters, dry hot summers, and lots of wind.  Oh, the wind.

It’s small-town friendly.  When you drive down any road that’s not an interstate, you’ll often get the finger-off-the-steering-wheel wave.  If you are broken down beside the side of the road, someone will stop for you.  Even back when I was a single young woman, I’d stop for people—though I would be cautious about stopping for a man by himself if I was in a part of the state I hadn’t been before. But even then I didn’t much worry.  Wyoming is very safe, and doors are most often unlocked, and purses are left on car seats with the windows rolled down.

The steering wheel finger wave is symbolic of the way Wyoming people are.  Understated and stoic and laconic, with a dry sense of humor.  One popular joke goes like this: Wyoming—where the men are men and the women are too.  Or another: Wyoming—where the men are men and the sheep are nervous.

They’re understated in a lot that they do.  Another joke goes like this: A rich man from the East who’d just bought a ranch advertised for a cowboy to work for him.  In came a brand-new duely pickup with a guy looking the part—a shiny black cowboy hat and new jeans tucked into his boots. The guy hired him on the spot.  The guy turned out to not know a thing about ranching, so he had to be fired.  Again the owner advertised and again he got a spiffy-looking guy. Again, the guy didn’t know what he was doing. The third time around, a guy came up in an old beater truck and hopped out wearing carhart coveralls, old tennis shoes, and a sweat-stained ball cap. “What are you doing here?” the owner asked. “I was looking for a cowboy.” The guy took off his cap, scratched his head, and said, “What does a cowboy look like?”  The owner described the first two guys.  The guy nodded his head and said, “Oh, well, if you wanted a trucker, you should have said so.”

This is typical.  A lot of residents are suspicious of appearances. People regularly attend formal occasions in new clean jeans and a dress shirt, sometimes with a bolo tie added. Part of the reason for this is that there isn’t much money in the state.  Sure, there are roughneck and mining jobs, but that’s about it.  A lot of people are barely getting by working two or three service jobs, but you can make it comfortably as a teacher or in a government job, which can be rare.  It’s hard though.  So people put a lot less emphasis on money.

The story about the ball-cap points up something else—a ball cap, carhart overalls, and tennis shoes are practical for much of what a rancher does, and people from Wyoming tend to be very practical, whether or not they have much money.  You’ve got to figure out how to get things done on less.  I’ve interviewed people who grew up in Wyoming and are now in the foreign service or high up in the military or world-renowned heart surgeons, and they all point to their Wyoming upbringing as uniquely preparing them for what they do.  You figure out what the problem is and you fix it.

Example from my life.  When I was 18 and coming down to college—from the northern part of the state to the southern part of the state, which is 400 miles—I had an old hatchback car that had a short in the dome light.  I was so tired, I stopped at a truck pull-out on Interstate 80 at 2 in the morning and slept.  When I woke up, trucks rumbling around me as their drivers slept, my car would not start because the battery was dead.  I did not want to knock on truckers doors at 3 a.m., and so I thought for a bit.  Luckily, I was driving a stick shift and I was parked on an incline.  Unfortunately, it was backwards.  So I waited until no cars were coming for miles, I got the car rolling backwards, I jumped in and let the momentum carry me back and then around, so I was headed the wrong way down the interstate.  Then I let it roll forward, put it in gear, popped the clutch, and then it started.  I flipped a quick u-turn and I was on my way. A practical solution to a sticky problem.

Another thing about this story.  Wyoming people tend to be self-reliant. They never shook that pioneer ethic of doing for yourself because you had to.  You change your own tires and you don’t ask for help unless you really really need it.

Live and let live pretty much sums things up.  I’ll do what I want to do on my property and you do what you want on yours.  That’s why the impression that Wyoming is homophobic is wrong (originating from the sad murder of Matthew Shepard).  People generally don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t make it their business.  Throughout its history, people have been much more likely to be hanged or give offense for property crimes than for moral ones.  I would extend that to race as well.  I’m sure we have bigots and homophobes like the rest of the population, but generally that’s not the case. Hence, the joke about the sheep.

I’ve made this sound pretty homey, but there’s a dark side to all this independence.  First of all, people are fanatically conservative and antigovernment, sometimes at the expense of their own best interests.  The Republican Party can count on the Wyoming vote, with only Albany County (Laramie, where the state’s only university resides) and Teton County (Jackson, where the rich come in from around the country) the only counties whose majority voted for President Obama in the last election. But votes are sometimes less about towing the party line as voting to keep perceived rights and about keeping the federal government out of people’s business.  There’s a lot of people who are rabid about gun-rights because there are a lot of hunters in Wyoming. I mean, we have drive-thru bars/liquor stores.  (Full disclosure: I am Democrat and liberal.)

Square is more than the shape of the state.

Another dark side is the gender gap.  Wyoming has the largest wage gap in the nation, with women earning 64 cents to every dollar a man earns, on average.  This is emblematic of a larger patriarchal bent, and it’s not just the men.  I know a lot of women who try to be men.  They wear men’s clothes, they value themselves on what they accomplish, they have all men friends and no women friends, they often hunt and drink beer and watch football, and they hate themselves.  Anything female is thought to be weak and frivolous and not worth a hill of beans. Strength is valued above all.

Not having much else, Wyoming is pretty wedded to its cowboy past, even though trailer parks and rough necks might be closer to the truth nowadays.  Our university sports teams are the Cowboys and Cowgirls, and Cowboy Ethics, based on a book by James P. Owen (http://www.amazon.com/Cowboy-Ethics-What-Street-Learn/dp/1931153957), have swept the state.  The idealist in me chokes up at videos like The Code of the West (http://vimeo.com/7931683), which portrays all that is good in that ideal of the cowboy, but then the cynic in me knows that the West was settled on the principle of Might Makes Right, as evidenced by the Johnson County War and the Indian “Wars.”  As a female raised on a ranch, I’ve always had a double consciousness about it all, like a naturalized prisoner-of-war—because I was that cowboy on the ranch yet never felt a part of it.  (I say “cowboy” because the term “cowgirl”—pronounced cuh-gerl—in that context is often used derogatorily, like tourist—pronounced toor-eest.)

And some outsiders who have come to Wyoming have found it to be closed-minded and cliquish. Sure, people are friendly but distant, and if you weren’t born here, you’re never considered native. A good example is the book by James Galvin called The Meadow (which was actually set just south into Colorado).  It gives a picture of harsh weather but a comforting feeling of close-knit independent people.  After reading the book, some people have come to this part of the world looking for that welcoming, only to be told in no uncertain terms to get the hell off the property. This isn’t everyone’s experience, though.

People drink a lot in Wyoming, and meth and huffing have become quite a problem.  We have pockets of dire poverty, such as the Wind River Reservation, where there is a lot of violence and rape and other things.  I have friends in Wyoming who weren’t from the Res but still were surprised they survived childhood. We have our problems, just like everywhere.

The State ran an ad campaign a while back with the slogan: Wyoming Is What America Was.  That brings to mind some glorious ideals, but as we all know there were parts of America that weren’t so grand in those halcyon days.  I am proud to be from the state and it sets me apart when I go on trips and to writers’ conferences, but the feeling is not without ambivalence.

If you want to know what it’s like, read James Galvin’s The Meadow.  Read Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming.  Read Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories (but know that it’s not often that dark).  Read Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction. Read Gretel Erlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces.  Read Craig Johnson and C.J. Box mysteries.

And come visit.

Tamara Linse lives in Wyoming, where she writes short stories and novels.  To support her writing habit, she also edits, freelances, and occasionally teaches. The novel she’s working on is about love, death, and socks.  Well, not socks exactly. She can be found at www.tamaralinse.com.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Link: A fascinating article about the genetics of language

I discovered this article yesterday and thought you all would find it fascinating. Apparently there is a family in England whose members have difficulty associating word sounds with meanings. Obviously this has a large effect on their ability to deal with standard modes of education, and also influences their social interactions. The cool part is, they have traced this difficulty to a gene called FOXP2, and are getting insights into the genetics of language.

And by the way, for those who might be wondering if we have a "language gene," it's not as simple as all that. FOXP2 occurs through a lot of nonhuman world species as well. So a further exploration of the complexities of FOXP2 is here

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

TTYU Retro: Merging Experience and Fiction (write what you know)

Recently I finished writing a chapter that I would not have been able to write ten years ago.

This is not entirely true; I could have written the chapter, but it wouldn't have come out the way it did. I mean, I know my characters really well. I've thought through their personal histories and their cultural backgrounds and all of that, which puts me in a good position to delve into the layers of their reactions to events. I know, for example, that my antagonist is not going to respond to a pass in the way normal people would because he's more interested in experiences that can stop him from entering obsessive thought cycles than he is in falling in love, or even experiencing simple physical pleasure. Since I'm not subject to these obsessive cycles myself, this kind of writing does not access my own personal experience...except inasmuch as I'm very good at internalizing certain kinds of language patterns, so I've "learned his language."

But for the chapter I just wrote, I used my own experience - of childbirth, and motherhood.

I've spoken to a couple of people about this chapter, and on both occasions I was asked whether this was my own experience. My husband even asked me if I was ever afraid that my son was going to die. In fact, I wasn't at all - never once.

So what did I actually give to this chapter from my own experience?

In this chapter a critical female character is speaking to her servant about the birth of her son, while the two of them watch over him in a sickbed (he's in danger of dying). My gloss for what she would speak to him about was this: "She talks about what her son means to her." Super-vague. When I got to the point of writing it I realized that she could explain what her son means to her by telling the story of how he was born, and illuminate aspects of her own life experience at the same time. I didn't hesitate to go to my own experience at this point - as a resource which I could then fit to the needs of the story.

Here's sort of how the process went.
  1. "I need to have her describe a difficult first birth experience."
  2. "Hey, my first birth experience was difficult!"
  3. "Yeah, but she can't have had a C-section. No problem, I'll just say she didn't have one."
  4. "Even if she didn't have a C-section, her baby can still have been weak at birth and taken away for treatment, like mine. That totally fits with the whole weak-blood-of-the-nobility thing."
  5. "But because she's scared in this chapter that he'll die, she has to have been scared back then too that her baby would die. So I'll say they kept him away longer than mine."
  6. "Hey, I bet I could also use that frustrated feeling I got with my second child when they didn't show her to me for an hour. An hour would be a good time frame."
  7. "Shoot, and she's got this cad of a husband (unlike me!!!) who cares more about sustaining the population of the nobility than he does about her, and so she must have been really worried about how he'd react if the baby died."
  8. "Boy, I remember how I felt when I realized my son would be okay. So that means she won't have been able to be happy precisely, but that she'll have cried and promised him the two of them would be okay."
  9. "And that means that she'll want more than ever in the current scene to promise him that he'll be okay."
  10. "And imagine how helpless she'd feel! Wow, that's exactly what I've felt like when I have been up late at night over a baby with a fever and the telephone next to me in case the advice nurse calls back."
It was therefore on the basis of this thought process that I wrote the chapter in question. I think it's interesting to note that I didn't use only one of my own experiences. I used three. The framework was my own first birth experience, but on two occasions I accessed other emotional states that I had experienced with my children - the delay in seeing my newborn daughter, and the fear of sitting up with a sick child.

What is in the chapter now isn't my experience at all. It's entirely hers - her trials and her fears in her social context. But because I experienced something like it, I know that the feelings that I'm trying to evoke are real, and that the chapter is stronger as a result.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pregnancy and Parenthood: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

Pregnancy and Parenthood are topics that are much easier to write about if you've had direct experience with them. However, if you haven't had the experience, you may still need to write about it! Don't fall into the trap of ignorance - if you're writing pregnancy or parenthood, do your research. I was joined in the discussion by Barbara Webb, Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, K Richardson, and Spencer Ellsworth.

When we see pregnancy in the media, it always seems to involve morning sickness - and that always seems to involve throwing up in the morning. In fact, there is a range of symptoms. Some people have no nausea; others have constant nausea for 9 months. My own experience was that I never actually threw up, but I had nausea on and off for 15 weeks, especially when I let my stomach get empty. There are other changes that can occur in pregnancy as well, including enhanced sense of smell. Cravings are real, but they aren't always for the same things. I craved meat during my first pregnancy and fruit during my second. Jaleh said she craved dairy during one and pickles during the other. I had recently read an article that was trying to link cravings back to an instinct to ingest particular nutrients and avoid poisonous substances of various sorts. One thing appears to be constant (and so should be constant for humans even on another planet or in a fantasy world) is increased eating and increased urination. On the other hand, there are outlier cases where women can't tell they are pregnant until they go into labor.

K told us some interesting things about her own experience. Because she and her wife are both women, they had planned to carry one child each, and had a very basic assumption of equality between partners. However, that plan didn't end up working, because pregnancy and parenthood - especially breastfeeding - have an enormous impact on the childbearing partner. (As I personally tend to put it, the buck stops on Mommy's chest). K's wife had to leave her job and resume it later. Meanwhile, K had to assume the role of primary breadwinner, which put a significant amount of stress on her.

Jaleh was also forced to leave her job because of the hours required for childrearing.

My own worldbuilding thoughts for those who might be interested in setting up a more equal childbearing/breadwinning system is that making personal attitudes and assumptions pro-equality is not sufficient; you must also build equality into the institutions of a society, such as medicine, child support and employment.

Some people feel extremely fulfilled by parenting, but this is not an entirely safe assumption in worldbuilding terms. Many people prefer to have balance between parenting activities and personal intellectual or economic activities. Jaleh really enjoys working at a bookstore. We all agreed that social networking on the computer can be hugely important for stay-at-home moms, who might otherwise feel extremely isolated.

K brought up the idea of how close an eye one is expected to keep on one's children. Things change constantly, and we recalled that in the 1970's parents were more likely to pursue their own social lives and let their kids wander at certain hours of the day, something which would not be socially acceptable in our times. Jaleh recalled walking to school alone in second grade, but told us that in her area, kids had to be in 4th grade before the school bus would drop them off at an empty house. That kind of institutional requirement means that one parent has to be at home to receive the kids, so the need for one stay-at-home parent is higher. These days we hear a lot about "helicopter parenting" where the parents are constantly hovering nearby and intervening, trying to lead children's lives for them.

Parenting changes parents. How does it change them? We touched on it with the economic factors above, and I personally recall having severe sleep deprivation for a year with each of my children. It changes more than that, but the idea that "she just needs to have a baby and that will settle her" is a myth, as is the idea that "children keep couples together." Children can make couples feel legally obligated to remain together, but they do put significant stress on the relationship. As for the idea of being "settled" by having a child, that impression might conceivably come from the extreme exhaustion associated with having an infant, or from the change of priorities (need to think of children puts restrictions on the kinds of activities the primary caregiver can engage in outside the house).

Jaleh remarked on the "mommy club mentality." This is the sense that you "belong" if you have experienced pregnancy and had children. Pregnancy, as she put it, is a "trial membership." Once you've joined the club, you can open conversations with random strangers at the park! Kids give you an opening to speak, a shared experience and membership in a community. They can often serve as social smoothers.

K noted that once you have children it becomes the dominant shaper of your life. This may or may not be the case in cultures where parents do more group child-rearing, but in our culture it is certainly true. Were you accustomed to sleeping through the night? Were you accustomed to napping? Don't count on either of those things any more. It totally changes your social activities and the kinds of characteristics you share with other families. Your own age becomes less important for making alliances, and the age of your children more important. Kids bring the greater culture to bear on you, and for families with gay members, that means feeling more constrained.

Erin told us about an experience her own dad had shared, about the change of life that comes with children. The morning of the birth he went to buy a vacuum. Suddenly because there was going to be a baby in the house, it was important that the floor be clean.

Jaleh told us about a friend who stopped smoking to spare his pregnant wife, and then his baby.

Parenthood can also make you far more casual about discussing bodily functions. I often joke that in my family I am the "primary poop processor." When my kids were tiny, that applied both to them and the cats, and believe me, there was a lot of it. 5-diaper changes (that means when you start changing the diaper and the child soils each one continually so that you've used five before the change is finished) definitely put you in touch with your earthy side. My motto was always, "that's what diapers are for." On that note, Erin told us that since she was around lots of little kids, she kept talking casually about poop until junior high, when people told her she should really stop.

Spencer joined us late in the converstion to propose a specific worldbuilding example. He was working with a woman character, the wife of an assassinated Emperor, who went on the run from a harem with her tiny baby (and had to avoid telepaths on the way!). This got us thinking in a new direction.

Jaleh mentioned that you would have to think of diapering, whether you'd need washable cloth diapers, pins, etc. and how you would do laundry if you were running from pursuers. I mentioned non-diapering alternatives, and Spencer told us that for some time he'd practiced "elimination communication" with his kids, where even very small babies can be trained to pee in response to a particular sound. If the child is mobile and in the outdoors, many more possibilities open up. I once heard of a situation where a mother took her child to a house with servants and tile floors, and just let her child go on the floor and had the servants clean it up! That is certainly a different kind of approach, but I did wonder what that mother would do when her child was sleeping in bed.

Magic diapers were mentioned as a possible solution to Spencer's worldbuilding roblem, but Erin noted that even magic diapers would have a cost. My own opinion was that taking a more realistic approach could enhance the story more than going with the magic diaper option.

K mentioned that the woman on the run would need to eat a lot of food, and Jaleh added that this would have to be the right kind of food. These things are big considerations for women who are nursing. Nursing is an incredible drain on your systems (including your immune system). We also discussed how difficult it is to begin nursing, and particularly in a case where the child and mother are not accustomed yet to nursing together, it could make for a long period (up to 3 weeks) of considerable pain and difficulty for both parties.

The only constant in child-rearing is change.


I encourage participants to correct any errors I may have made in this report!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

TTYU Retro: The Scope of the Conflict

When you're writing a story, there needs to be conflict. Person versus person, person versus extreme environment, whatever it is... conflict is a necessary ingredient for making a story work. You may also have noticed that it's good to have both internal conflict and external conflict - conflict within the main character gives that person more dimension and also gives them a trickier time resolving the save-the-world conflict part. It's important also, I think, to consider the scope of the conflict that you are working with.

When considering scope, you can always start with two basic questions:
  • how many people are involved?
  • how many people are affected?
The scope of the conflict will influence how much work you'll have to do to make your story hook readers.

If the scope of the conflict is too small - only one person is involved, and nobody is affected - you may find readers going "so what?" You can make a story work with a conflict that involves and affects only one person, but in that case it will be very important to answer the question of why it matters that this person get through the conflict. Maybe in the case of personal moral dilemmas the significance comes from questions about the nature of human morality - the individual symbolizing us all, and thereby giving the small scope a larger meaning.

On the other side of things, you have the save-the-world/universe conflict, in which you have a large number of people involved, and absolutely everybody is affected. The number of people involved will be somewhat limited by what the narrative can bear without confusing readers. In The Lord of the Rings, we're dealing with all of Middle Earth falling into darkness, and so many people are involved that the narrative splits in order to deal with them all. Furthermore, almost anyone can be enlisted from the population of passersby to act on one side or another of the conflict, because it affects all of them.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, everybody knows about the conflict and it's easy to get everyone involved. In the Harry Potter books, I found it interesting that the scope of the conflict kept increasing. At first it seemed like just Harry was involved, and maybe a few more people. Then the further we went the more it became clear that all of the wizarding world was involved, and by the end we were starting to see that even the Muggle world was involved. Good stuff.

But if we're to talk about potential problems with the scope of story conflict, I have to mention the Harry Potter books here too, because I had a quibble with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the level of scope. I entered that book with the impression that the conflict would center on Harry and his friends as both the primary people involved, and those affected - but it turned out that there were many more people involved, and that Harry and his friends were occupying a small corner of the affected area, in such a way that I wasn't convinced there was any way they could actually have resolved the conflict on their own. This isn't something that will bother everyone, but it bothered me at the time.

If the scope of your conflict is too large, readers may be confused. Make sure that you're showing all the people involved, and taking the necessary steps to imply the number of people affected. If the scope is too small, relevant only to the main characters and not to anyone else, make sure that you're showing readers why such personal stakes matter.

The reader's understanding of the full scope of your conflict isn't something that should necessarily remain the same, either. Expanding the scope of the conflict - at least in terms of the number of people affected - is part of what raises the stakes as the story progresses. You can plan ahead for moments that reveal expansions in scope: that moment when suddenly you realize that more people were involved than you ever suspected. Or the moment when you realize that a single decision that rests on one character's conscience will affect everyone you have read about so far.

Of course, the issue is more complex than I can really explain through generalities, so here are a few of my thoughts about scope from my writing of my new novel, For Love, For Power.

I'm finding that I have to keep reminding myself about issues of scope. The main characters are all members of a single nuclear family which has lots of internal struggles, and at the same time, they are involved in a larger-scale conflict over the leadership of the nation of Varin that will affect everyone. Where the question of scope becomes more complex is in the fact that their nuclear family is part of the larger group called the First Family, and that there are twelve Great Families in the nobility, all of whom have a stake in the leadership struggle. Because of this, I have to decide how many of them are involved in events (say, attacks and attempted assassinations, meetings and negotiations) that directly affect the First Family and my characters. Logically, since everyone is involved in the process, the events that affect my characters are not the only ones that are going on at any given time. I'm finding that I have to build in ways for my characters to get information about aspects of the ongoing conflict that don't directly affect them. Otherwise it would appear that the First Family is the only important group here, and then why would the struggle for leadership have any meaning? Thus, if the First Family is attacked, then very likely several other families will suffer attacks on the same day (and some may be initiated by the First Family!). If people who attended a particular event are getting sick, then maybe my small group of First Family members should get a message letting them know how many people are ill and how far it affects the nobility as a whole. At the same time, I also have to realize, and try to hint to readers, that the First Family is not the only group experiencing internal struggles. Otherwise their efforts to affect the First Family would be too effective. In fact, I am planning deliberately to have some of the other Families' efforts to affect the power struggle fail because of internal problems in their group. I guess I would call it a question of making sure that I imply the scope of the type of conflicts and setbacks that the First Family suffers, and not just the scope of the overall power struggle.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hangout today (last one for a while): Misunderstandings

Please join me today at 11am PDT on Google+. We'll be discussing misunderstandings - mostly linguistic and cultural ones, but also the ones between individuals. Gather up some anecdotes of misunderstandings from your own experience, and you might also want to check out this cute post by our regular attendee Jaleh Dragich, where she has some cute clips of misunderstandings from Babylon 5.

I'd love to see you there, so I hope you can make it!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

TTYU Retro: Worldbuilding for Short Stories

Is worldbuilding for short stories different from worldbuilding for novels?

Yes and no.

You might guess that a short story would require less worldbuilding than a novel - but the size of the world itself is not the primary difference between the two. Short story readers will perceive world gaps, and be confused of frustrated by them, just as easily as novel readers. The biggest difference is that in a short story, you have very little room to explain or explore. Everything you do has to be done in as few words as possible.

Imagine that you're building a house. The first room of that house is the place where your reader enters the world. In a novel, that first room is full of doors. In a short story, it's all windows.

Doors can be opened. The novel format gives you the opportunity to send your reader through those doors, allowing you - and also requiring you - to explore a lot more of what lies in the rooms beyond. The most you get from an open window is the scent of fresh air. The short story format keeps readers confined, but if there's nothing to see outside, then they'll know something is wrong.

One of the wonderful characteristics of societies that I learned about while studying anthropology and linguistics is that large-scale trends in a society will tend to be visible even in small-scale interactions. I take advantage of this in my short story worldbuilding all the time. If you know a lot of large-scale things about your world, see if you can tighten your focus down and make them play out - i.e. be demonstrated, shown not told - on the smaller level. An entire system of phonology can be implied using a single unusual name. A system of social hierarchy can be implied by including small details of politeness in a single interaction between individuals. An economic model can be demonstrated by exploring the conclusions a character draws about the provenance of a single object.

Thus, in a short story, you should try to make every object and every interaction count. These things are not just working for your story but also for your world: they are the windows in your room. Realize that when you describe food, you're not only giving your character something to eat but potentially opening a view onto climate, agriculture, economy, socioeconomic conditions, and food culture. Realize that when you mention clothing, you're not just creating fashion but saying something about the value clothing has in your world. Realize that each person your character meets has a social role that illuminates the entire society - and that the opinion your character has of each person will give insight into that character's place within the system.

Of course, all this is true of novels as well. The demand for multi-tasking may be lower because you have more room with a higher word count, but it's always good to have your text do more than one thing at a time. Novels are expansive, so there are many opportunities to have the reader's sense of the world grow and expand.

The funny thing about short stories is that thought the amount of worldbuilding effort often seems disproportionately large, that effort will pay off. Readers can tell when the house has no windows - it's dark, and there's no air. If you choose the proper telling details to include, then you've placed your windows to maximize the view.

Give your readers something to see. They will thank you for it.

This post originally appeared at Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story.