Thank You to my Patrons!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mythology in Worldbuilding - a Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout report

Special thanks go out to Glenda Pfeiffer for this one, because she and I had a terrific one-on-one conversation about mythology, which covered some things you might expect and other things you probably didn't!

We started out by defining some of the conditions under which we've seen mythology used in worldbuilding. They looked something like this:

1. Building a 'real' world where an existing world mythology is true. This is the Rick Riordan approach, where you have Greek and Roman or Egyptian gods showing up in New York and other real world places. It also includes things like urban fantasy where our own world coexists with vampires or fairies etc.

2. Building a world internal to a mythological canon in order to extend it. This is what people do when they write "new myths" which fit into a particular paradigm. I think particularly of the way Hayao Miyazaki and Mizuki Shigeru have treated Japanese mythology in their work - and the way people like Howard Pyle and Theodora Goss (and others) write new European-style fairy tales.

3. Building a secondary world with its own mythology/mythologies.

This third one is where we put much of our attention. It's something that has also been done by a lot of authors - though it's worth asking what is the difference between creating a religion for a secondary world, and creating a mythology. In fact, mythology is a word that is often used to describe old religions that are no longer widely held - which means it can be offensive to label something as a mythology that is still an actively practiced religion. Mythologies also often contain accounts that sho the layering of historical belief systems, as in the Greek example where Zeus' many love affairs show the way that the belief in Zeus was able to incorporate local female deities into its stories as the religion moved into those regions (and conquered).

Glenda noted that mythology often contains elements of true history that have devolved into mythology over time - or, one might say, evolved into mythology. Elements of true events remain within a storytelling matrix, an archetypal scenario that departs from a precise historical account. Lost colony stories are examples of these; so are origin stories.

One thing you can do as an author is take inspiration from existing mythologies when designing religion or mythology for a secondary world. My own Varin world uses a religion that is very loosely based on Greek mythology, in that the gods are a family with representation among the heavenly bodies, and each one is the patron of something different. Varin also has a mythology of sorts - but this one is an ideological mythology concerning the origins of their society and the role of their hero, the Great Grobal Fyn, in its founding.

Glenda asked a question that neither of us knew the answer to (and maybe some of my readers do). She wondered whether there was a place for tales of genies within the context of Islam, and whether there is a historical connection of some kind.

Getting back to creating a mythology, the form a mythology takes is going to depend a lot on the setting where it exists. Do your people live near a volcano? A river? On an island in the ocean? Then those elements are doubtless going to appear within the local mythologies and origin stories.

You can also ask, "What is the place of the mythology in this culture?" Is it something quaint or "cool" that people recount stories about, or is it an active teaching tool? Is it a driver of actual behavior, like the stories of golden cities and Amazon women that sent explorers searching into the American continents? Is there a mythology that has grown up around specialized settings like the frontier, or the mountains where hermits and "mountain men" might live? Furthermore, any society can have more than one existing mythology. They can have an ancient mythology, as well as a current ideological mythology (like the Varin example above) and also urban mythology. In fact, I had never thought about what kind of urban mythology might exist in Varin, and after this discussion, I was inspired to give it some thought! I'm sure the undercaste characters who are the focus of my next book will have non-regularized urban myths that they believe in. (Exciting opportunity for me!)

At that point we talked a little about origin stories. Do the people in your world believe that a deity or deities created their world? How, and out of what? Was it a darkness-and-light thing, or is the world a deity in itself (herself)? Was the world made from the dead body of an evil giant? Was it a blanket that was woven by the gods? Were people made out of clay? We can take inspiration here from all kinds of existing world mythologies and religions. Greek, Norse, native American Indian, Semitic, Amazonian... the list is endless. I mentioned my own surprise upon reading an English translation of the Kojiki, which is the native Japanese origin story. In that story, the children of gods become islands, but all sorts of divine bodily fluids and excretions also turn into gods, or islands, or other elements of the world.

Another good question to ask involves the roles of animals in the world, and in its mythology and origins. Are they created alongside humans, or are they participating as deities and creative agents in their own right?

We spoke also about Watership Down by Richard Adams, which is a brilliant book that features the mythology of the rabbits as well as their society. It's a great example to look up for the way it features the natural environment and capabilities of rabbits and turns them into sources for teaching tales.

Glenda said that Feng Shui has taken on its own meaning across contexts. We both thought that directionality was very important in mythologies, including all those with personalities for winds from different directions, and those like the Japanese which included directional taboos (days on which you couldn't travel in a given direction). We wondered what a mythology based on an absolute direction system (rather than a relative directions system like left/right) would look like.

What kind of mythologies would develop in a spacefaring culture? Would there be mythologies of the cosmos?

Needless to say, we could only scratch the surface of this topic in the time we had. I hope we'll have a chance to discuss it again soon.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

TTYU Retro: Write from your specialty

Everybody on Earth or in orbit has a unique life experience. No two people are precisely the same. We get told this a lot, but it's a pretty useful thing to consider when you're writing fiction. The things you've experienced, and the topics you've pursued or studied, contribute to a unique persona, and that translates into a unique style of writing. This could, I suppose, be considered an aspect of "write what you know." Or it could simply be a statement that you're going to write what you know whether you intend to or not.

There are a lot of story ideas out there. One might even say there are infinite stories out there. Which ones are yours are going to depend a lot on your specialty. How you execute the classic ones is also going to depend on your specialty.

I came into fiction writing with a specialty in language, linguistics, and culture. Even when I'm not specifically focusing a story on a language or culture-related premise, that's going to show through. I have the knowledge in these areas, so I'm not going to let myself cut corners. I'm not going to do something that's patently ridiculous - and my definition of patently ridiculous is going to be a lot stricter because I've spent a pretty ridiculous amount of time becoming acquainted with these topics!

You might think that the ideas that are "out there" in science fiction and fantasy are finite. I've heard people argue that. The ways of approaching them, however, are not. The reason that people in English classes and writing classes study the historical context of the writing of a piece is that the societal issues of the time are often reflected in the stories being told. Well, so are the life conditions of the author. Your life conditions change those ideas that are "out there." Your special viewpoint makes them your own.

I have a terrific writer friend who has a nontraditional family, and who has a background in theater. That means that she has special expertise in portraying certain types of nontraditional families and the individuals who might be a part of them; it also means she has a great sense of dialogue and movement in her character interactions. Another friend of mine has tons of teen interactions through gaming; that gives her teen characters a lot of realism and intensity. More than one of my friends has experienced intense suffering, and they are able to portray remarkable emotional range in their writing.

I find that people often aren't aware of the ways that their life experiences influence them. They might be very good at something due to personal experience and not even realize it. When I first came into sf/f writing I thought of my studies as a delay in getting to what I really wanted to do; quickly, though, I realized that they were the reason I could do this successfully, and stand out. It's really valuable to consider what might be your specialty. Take a step back from your life experiences and think about the ones that have most profoundly influenced your mindset. Then look at what you've written and see if you can find the footprints of those experiences. If you never have before, consider taking something from that core expertise of yours and putting it at the center of a story. Your specialty will become a solid foundation for whatever you plan to build there.

It's something to think about.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Don't squander your readers!

When I get through with writing a story, my first reaction is to want to show it to people. And since I thrive on critique, I always like to get multiple views on a story, which means showing it to more than one person at a time.

I have to remind myself to have patience.

It's really a better idea not to have everyone read the first draft. In fact, it's better to have only yourself read the first draft (ok, maybe one more person if you're feeling like you can't get distance on it). Have other people read it when you personally can't see a way to improve it.

And even then, have patience.

This may not be as much the case with a short story, but with a novel, at least, there will be many iterations. If it's the novel you're teaching yourself to write with, it will have many, MANY iterations (trust me). That means it needs to be looked at lots of times, to help you move forward. Each person who looks at it will be able to give you unique feedback, and sometimes, the same person will be willing and able to look at the project more than once and help you determine how close you're getting to your vision.

However, there is always value in the opinion of an outside reader - and by that I mean someone who has never seen the story before. Preferably, that person will not even have spoken with you about the story in depth. After all, those agents and editors you'll be sending it to won't have seen it before, or spoken with you about it. And your audience, the readers you're hoping will love your book and buy a million or two copies, they haven't seen it either. Thus, an outside reader can give you an impression that a close friend who has read the story a thousand times cannot.

This is why I recommend not just showing the story to everyone, even if you are super-enthusiastic about it. Outside readers are a precious resource, and you should not squander them.

When my mother was visiting a couple of weeks ago, I asked her to look at my synopsis. Not the whole novel, mind you - just the synopsis. It was a big deal for me, because I'd never asked her to have anything to do with this novel before. I may have mentioned it obliquely, with warnings that it was an adult kind of novel dealing with current social issues. It's hard to ask your mom to look at a book you wrote that has sex in it for some reason - go figure! Anyway, she looked at it, and gave me wonderful feedback. She was able to see where things weren't fitting together, because she didn't have all the extra world knowledge and baggage I had that helped me fit things together in my brain, whether or not they were there on the page. She had a little bit of world knowledge from having read a short story set in the world, but that was it.

It was incredibly refreshing feedback. It was also a really awesome bonding experience!

It really brought home to me - again, and this time literally - the importance of outside readers, even very late in the process of writing. So don't squander your readers, people. Keep a few in reserve at all times, just in case.

They'll be knights in shining armor when you need them.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Language Barriers - a Worldbuilding Hangout Report

I was joined for this discussion by Lykara Ryder (welcome, Lykara!), Glenda Pfeiffer, Brian Dolton, and Jaleh Dragich.

Language barriers are tricky to portray in written stories. There's a danger of excluding the reader if you use too much of an unfamiliar or created language. A lot of stories in the past have used handwavium to get past the problem of a language barrier - "well, they use telepathy!" "Babelfishes!" etc. I'm not even going to go into the reasons why I think telepathy is problematic, but it's the kind of solution to a language barrier that doesn't hold up well to close scrutiny. On the other hand, it's fully possible to get a reader to accept it if you just put it out there and say "Yeah, so trust me, there's telepathy." Many readers will say "Okay." I will say "Hmm, okay... but couldn't you have done better?" Another way of dealing with an  unfamiliar language is having the point of view character not understand the foreign language either, and show him/her dealing with that lack of comprehension (which lets the reader empathize).

Brian was quick to note that language barriers are a huge real-life problem as well, and played a huge part in early European interactions when they arrived in unfamiliar locations and tried to do reconnaissance. Sometimes it worked (surprisingly) well. Other times not so well, as when the locals brought out an array of barter items and those were interpreted by the Europeans as "gifts." As Brian said, why should they have been surprised when they got attacked for thieves later? He shared a story idea with us, where humans are "shipwrecked" in a location with an intelligent creature that doesn't use auditory language, and thus has no way to communicate with them. What do you do then?

I mentioned one story which stood out to me as having zero linguistic communication between an alien and a human - "Spar" by Kij Johnson (where they were having concourse of an entirely different variety). In my own work I looked at the problem of using a non-auditory channel of communication in "The Liars," where the humans were confused because the Poik were using both auditory and non-auditory channels at the same time, but the humans could only perceive the auditory one.

I'm sure many of you have seen the scenario (and all the discussants had) of two creatures comparing objects and assigning names to them. This is a classic way to approach what I call the "code-breaking" language barrier scenario, where one entity has to learn the other's language. However, Star Trek once showed how the object-comparison scenario has problems with it (remember Troi and the cup of coffee?). Also, there is a fundamental assumption involved that both of the entities involved discern objects in their environment (I'll return to that in a minute). Another common code-breaking scenario is hard-SF-radio-waves-across-the-cosmos, where the main goal is to show the interlocutor that one understands math. It's exciting, but I have a really hard time imagining what next steps might be taken. (I'd love to see a story that takes that question on!)

Language acquisition at the most basic level is all about associating language cues with surrounding context. This makes it very difficult when we do not share context, or share only very basic aspects of context. Given the complexity of social context and the fact that it coexists with circumstantial context, this can be quite challenging.

Different languages tend to categorize things differently, and this is one of the most interesting aspects of bilingualism (to my mind). Sheila Finch had a very interesting way of approaching the language barrier problem in her Xenolinguist stories, because she directly addressed the categorization problem. She gave her xenolinguists drugs to take that were specifically geared to dissociate the mind from its traditional categories. It's an important point, because categories limit us in our thinking. Cultural viewpoints already make huge differences in categories, and species viewpoint could take that even further. What if we were to encounter a species that did not recognize objects as objects, but spoke about the world in terms of the salience of differences in texture? I'm not sure we humans would know what to do - and the old point-and-name technique might lead to unexpected results.

Lykara researches conlangs (constructed languages) and was telling us that she has seen conlangs based on a synaesthetic individual's perception of how words taste. Based on this, she speculates that understanding actual aliens is unlikely. I tend to agree with her, and so does Sheila Finch (as Sheila and I have argued this point before on convention panels).

Jaleh mentioned seeing some interesting Bollywood movies where one character only understood a few words, which led to much misunderstanding and trouble. There's certainly a lot of potential for that with language barriers, which is one reason they make for such good stories!

Another approach that people sometimes take to bridging a language barrier is exposing children to the alien language and taking advantage of their natural language-learning skill. This can work, so long as the language is auditory and perceivable by the children! But it is not without its challenges.

We also spoke about translators. They can make an interaction work, but they can also manipulate it. I talked about a friend of my family's who works as a translator in Japan, and she is appreciated by the governor because she translates his jokes. (Apparently Koko the gorilla also translates jokes...) The point about joke-translation is it relates directly to a politician's purpose in speaking, which is more than just basic message-sending. This relates back to what we spoke about earlier, with social context. A politician has social cues he/she wants to send, and those are culturally based, which means that translating them can be a big challenge. Depending on the amount of cultural information implied by the words being used, a translator may be able to turn a long speech into just a few words... or may have to take a few words and explain them at length in order to make them meaningful. This is related to the question of shared metaphors and shared stories, which always brings me back to the Star Trek: TNG episode "Darmok" and my own story using the same language principle, "Let the Word Take Me." The extreme situation of a people speaking only in literary allusions, i.e. references to a set of shared stories, is only an intensification of what we already do all the time in language. A great many of us love to play that game where we start a movie quote and let someone else finish it. It's hard to say "I'll be back," or "Inconceivable," without evoking an additional layer of emotion - and solidarity on the basis of shared experience. As Lykara mentioned, one can also deliberately misquote for humorous purposes, and subvert the basic context.

The problem of language barriers has been around for a long time. Shakespeare dealt with it in several different ways in Henry V, having the French speakers alternately speak French or English as the surrounding scene required for audience comprehension.

In my story, "Cold Words," I used a minimum of alien language but used the style of my English prose to imply that everyone in the story was actually speaking Aurrel (and readers were simply seeing a translation).

Lykara noted that Jean Auel dealt with language barriers in Earth's Children, often with great humor. Sometimes she had two different language groups use two different English words for the same plant to imply the language difference.

Jaleh mentioned The Blue Sword, in which the reader is asked to identify with the protagonist, who doesn't understand the new language at first. Later, when she understands it, it comes to be rendered in English while other characters comment on their lack of understanding.

I mentioned that I thought there had been a lost opportunity in James Cameron's Avatar, because the design of Na'vi was so brilliant but there were no substantive misunderstandings - i.e. misunderstandings that weren't just quaint and charming, but actually influenced the plot proceedings.

If you are creating languages, it's good to remember that languages are not monoliths. They always have variation and dialect within them - different vocabulary, different sayings, etc. You can also make use of shared cognates between languages that grew out of the same parent language, to ease understanding. Word borrowing can lead to some ease of understanding, but totally unrelated languages (like English and Japanese) are much harder. We are also up against the problem that adult brains will often re-interpret what they hear as being a language sound from their own language, even when it most definitely is not.  Jaleh mentioned that there were five people on Babylon 5 with the name "Zathras" which sounded exactly the same to all the viewers (and English-speaking characters) but were treated as different by the five people in question.

Be aware that using spelling changes to indicate an accent can be problematic, and that changing meter and modes of expression can often be more effective. Putting a glossary in a story definitely changes the reading experience.

This was as much as we were able to cover during this discussion - there is always so much more we could say, and we only tend to realize it right at the end. :) Thank you to everyone who participated.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Video: Personal Faith in Worldbuilding and Storytelling

I had a great chat today with Glenda Pfeiffer, Deborah J. Ross, and Lillian Csernica. Here's the video for your enjoyment...

Video: Mythology in Worldbuilding

I'm not sure why I forgot to post this one last week! Here is our discussion on Mythology. I really enjoyed it, and I hope you will, too.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Schools and Education: A worldbuilding hangout report

The Schools and Education hangout was just two of us - me, and Erin Peterson - but we had a great time and talked about a lot of fascinating stuff.

Our first concern was to look at some very basic questions surrounding schools and education in a secondary world. For example, is there a school system? What form does it take? Is there more than one type of school for different types of people? Or is there a single schoolhouse for the community? Do people learn mostly by independent study, homeschooling or home tutoring? I mentioned that Thomas Jefferson did a lot of self-teaching through literature - but it's important to note that he was also very wealthy and had access to lots of books.

Erin asked, "What are people trying to learn?" That question is also critical to understanding the kind of schooling that people will require. A large school system often focuses on basics of citizenship; it's paid for communally and mandated for all, because it functions as a source for good citizens of the larger community. There are also religion-based schools, vocation-based schools, work-based schools. In fantasy, you often find apprenticeships, because they are a really effective way for individuals to pass their work onto the next generation without needing generalized formal training. In the US there is a common cultural view that college should be for everyone. Erin argued that high school prepares you for the American Dream, but that college makes that dream easier to achieve.

Education is an accomplishment. How is education valued in the society? Is it revered? Is it considered overly esoteric "ivory tower" stuff? Both? Depending on where you are and the cultural norms surrounding you, finishing high school may be a big deal, or advanced degrees might be a big deal. Erin said her grandmother lived in Hawai'i in the 30's and for her community, High School was a major accomplishment. Depending on the context, just being able to read might be a big deal. On the other hand, what kind of "big deal" it is may also differ. It could be celebrated, admired, resented...even considered holy or arcane.

I have an example of a very complex education system in my Varin world, because each of the seven caste levels approaches educating its people in a different way. The nobles have a very low population, so all of their children go to the same school and there they are groomed for the government and administrative tasks they specialize in. The officer caste has special academies for firefighters, police, and army groups, etc. The servant caste can work in bureaucracy, law, prison administration, or as personal advisors and servants to the nobles. They are therefore thoroughly educated in the topics they choose to specialize in; the special servants for the nobles have their very own Academy that teaches them everything from grace to bodyguarding to medicine and politics. The University, however, belongs to the caste that includes artists, engineers, electricians, writers, and other knowledge workers. The laborers have apprenticeships and certain kinds of centralized Union-based instruction, while the merchants have their own special focus on mathematics. The undercaste has no structured education but receives on-the-job training, while reading is handled as an apprenticeship-based skill. At every level, each group believes that it is superior to the other groups in some way, and there are different criteria they use to judge how successful they are.

Erin mentioned that schools can be used for indoctrination, especially when they serve as gatekeepers for selection of particular people into elite groups. She suggested that there is a stereotypical pattern, which I have also seen before, where upper classes tend to have individual tutoring, middle classes tend to have schools, and lower classes tend not to have any schooling at all. This is not the kind of pattern that can be considered universal. (No cultural patterns are universal!)

Education systems can serve as enforcers of existing cultural biases, even when they are not ideologically committed to those biases. They can be places of active oppression, or just of subtle institutional bias where behaviors are enforced along double standards, and people are quietly treated unequally without notice (as when boys get called on more than girls).

We made a few general social notes: women can oppress other women in these contexts just by force of precedent and habit. It's important to avoid placing modern beliefs in non-modern scenarios (not all downtrodden people will be jealous revolutionaries). Furthermore, if social roles are complementary, people typically won't be keen just to switch roles with their counterparts - women won't want to reject all their traditional roles and become men with their differently restricted roles, for example.

It's quite common for the US/Western view to see schools and education as being secular institutions, but this is not the case everywhere. Religion is often a form of education. Priests are very often scholars, and the church or other religions can be deeply connected with literacy in a community. A small group of people with specialized education can constitute a knowledge elite, depending on whether they freely share their knowledge or whether they carefully guard it. Knowledge of the Bible was restricted for many years to those who spoke Latin - and translating it into English was a huge deal.

In a small community school there may be differential teaching in the same classroom, as when many children of many levels are studying in the one school. The teacher's job is to teach as much as each individual can handle.

School scheduling is another thing that can vary widely. In a community whose seasonal schedule is determined by the needs of the harvest, schooling may also bend to that necessity, depending on how important the presence of each community member is to the success of the endeavor. The schoolteacher may be exempt from participation, or he/she may not. It's possible that the one person who doesn't need to participate in the work can be asked to take on more than one function (as a priest/teacher, for example).

Erin mentioned Kate Elliott's Cold Fire, which explores the impact of social stratification in school with a scenario where girls are taught differently from boys, and rich kids differently from poor kids. Discipline in the school is also applied differently.

We then turned to the question of science fiction where computers are shown functioning as teachers. Both Erin and I had some trouble with this idea, at least in the case where the computer is not a fully functioning artificial intelligence. Teaching is most effective when there is interaction between the learner and teacher. Another question that is often left unexplored (both in medieval fantasy and in far-future science fiction) is the role of parents in schooling. Do parents help with homework (homework itself is not a given!)? Do they scaffold, or demonstrate, how the knowledge is used or how work is to be done? Are they at work all day, or dissociated from the community that holds the knowledge being learned? Are they somehow abusive? Any change of this variety will have an enormous influence on outcomes. In the science fictional computer learning scenario, there is often very little parental presence shown (the schooling scene in DS9 was a real eye-opening first for me!). Any AI functioning in this environment would have to have extensive social and psychological knowledge. Can it figure out what you are talking about if you are making errors? Can it help you understand what kind of questions to ask to improve your knowledge? These are sophisticated things that need to happen for the education to be most successful. Google, for example, can hypothesize what you are about to ask it - but its metrics are based on what it has been asked previously, so it is still ill-equipped to anticipate questions it has never been asked before. Kids are notorious for making errors and asking questions that are unique and unexpected!

We then talked about how classrooms are arranged, and how learning takes place. Do students sit? Do they learn by doing? Are there lectures, hands-on experiments, or getting out in an environment to explore? Does the teacher employ the Socratic method or something like it? Are students asked to derive their knowledge from examples? Are students expected to work in groups, or does the teacher deliberately separate people who like each other, in order to encourage individual learning? The US focus on individual learning can be problematic for some students, as when a second language learner is separated from a friend who has been scaffolding her language and content learning. There is benefit at a certain point, because the student becomes more independent and must fend for herself, but until that point, her progress may be slowed. A similar difficulty arises when we ask whether to separate twins.

At that point we got around to content. Who decides what is important to teach? What is considered vital, and what is restricted? Are subjects integrated with one another, or are they compartmentalized? What is the role of arts? Are they considered integral, or "extra"? Knowledge is web-like and interconnected, and math and art are everywhere, but the US education system has not seemed to recognize this in its traditional curriculum design.

We also have a rigidly defined school year, with semesters, and a fixed curriculum that must be "covered" by a certain time. This means that constant, consistent attendance is a must, and traveling commitments or illness can lead to "missing the boat" and being significantly delayed in that fixed program. A stigma is attached to missing school, or to repeating a grade. However, repeating a grade can be very helpful. Our own experience has been that especially at the earliest level, repeating a year can lead to dramatic improvements in attention, and social success, which can lead to success later as a student progresses in the system.

Individual learning styles vary a lot, and attention to those styles can be very helpful, but isn't necessarily that common. Teacher and parent expectations combine with those styles in interesting ways. Indeed, at the end of this discussion we agreed that there was a lot more we could talk about! (Like why does math have such a reputation for being hard? Or what about people who establish their own schools for specialized skills like kung fu etc.?)

Thanks very much to Erin for coming to chat with me. I'm a little behind (as you  may be able to tell) on my reports, but I hope to catch up this week. This Thursday's discussion (9/19, 11am PDT on Google+) will be about personal faith in worldbuilding and stories. I hope to see you there!


My part (and your part?) in Diversity in SFF

Last Friday Aliette de Bodard posted a must-read discussion of diversity, racism, cliché, and other features of the diversity-in-SFF discussion. And when I say must-read, I mean it's HERE, so go read it.

I've been thinking a lot about these issues since I read her post, and there are several that strike me deeply as I consider what my part is going to be in the rise of diversity in SFF. First of all, it is rising, and this is a good thing, and I'm planning to help it along to the best of my ability. But what is my ability, here? I think there are two components: identity, and work.

Identity is the intractable component. When we think about diversity, we can think about all kinds of aspects of humanity - race, sexuality, ability, gender identity, gender, etc. These all come together in individuals in different ways, and not in ways that we can control for ourselves, which is one of the reasons that discrimination is so damaging. Thus, my own identity as a white, able, heterosexual, atheist cis-woman in a comfortable financial situation is intractable. I'm active in discussing sexism, and feminism and separation of church and state, and in those topics I can use my identity as a license of authority - of a sort.

Nobody can legitimately claim dominant authoritative knowledge about the world because nobody can know everyone else's experience. I have sometimes in my life been told that my opinion on a topic was invalid because I hadn't shared the experience that another person had had. Sometimes I felt indignant about this; at this point in my life I'd probably be a little less so. However, it's very clear to me that no one person, no single social group owns the truth of the world. The world is like this - and it is like that also. We know only what we see, and what we are exposed to. The difficulty arises when we try to write our own understanding over that of someone else.

Both self-advocacy and advocacy on behalf of others are important. I know what I can use my voice to achieve; I also know that voices carry farther when they are supported by others. This is why I try to seek out diverse voices in the SFF community and amplify them - re-tweet them, or share them, or talk about how cool they are when I get the chance. This blog has on some level always been about expanding cultures in SF/F, and I see that goal as being quite congruent with the goals of diversity in SFF. I'm working on how I can make them even more so.

There's another important message I'd like to get across here, which is part of the advocacy message. When I talk about diversity in SF/F I mean just that - diversity. Not just "me, me, me, include whatever component of diversity benefits ME." Carrie Cuinn just wrote a really great article that says it far more piquantly. Diversity means just that - diversity. The presence of all kinds of people. Hearing all kinds of voices.

Which brings me to the topic of work - and by that, I mean the content of the stories we write. I can easily say up front that different stories have different demands, but one of the fundamental goals of diversity-in-SF/F is authenticity. Why should we demand technological authenticity and not concern ourselves with social authenticity?

Authenticity means diversity.

There are no social groups that do not have smaller subgroups. There are no life philosophies that are held unquestioningly by all those who are supposed to hold them. There are no families - even happy ones - where the people don't have to work hard to understand how to interact with individuals with very different needs. That's why when I make aliens, the aliens are never uniform. They always have some kind of diversity within them. When I wrote the Varin world, I created the seven castes, but then I made sure that there were subgroups within those, and conflicts, and people considered both lucky and unlucky at every level. Even if there is prejudice and discrimination, all the different kinds of people are present. That means there is always another way of viewing the situation, even in a secondary world where you are (ostensibly) not dealing with the cultural conflicts that occur here in ours.

When you are using our world, even if it is just an inspiration for a fictional world, keep this in mind. A non-diverse world is not authentic - or, you'd have to do an extreme amount of work to convince me that it would be. Also, whenever you are using the real world, you need to be using the real world as it is. Diverse, and messy. And chances are, you'll find yourself having to work with characters from groups you're not personally familiar with - worldviews you've never experienced. This is where research comes in. This is why Wikipedia isn't enough. You don't know who wrote that Wikipedia article - and you do know that whoever wrote it was aiming for a discourse style that is associated with academic reference books. It has information - but it has no flavor. It doesn't have the language it needs to tell you what you really need to know. Dig deep. Find original sources. Find the authentic voices to inspire you.

At the same time, realize that you will never be a member of that minority group you've been researching. Don't take that as a reason to back away, never to write about that character who might be so important - just realize that if you are not an insider, you are not an insider and can't make yourself one. I write stories set in Japan because I lived there for three years. I have friends there. I find it fascinating and deeply inspiring. However, living there as long as I did made it abundantly clear to me that I would never be an insider. And that's okay. I can portray the environment, and deal with cultural issues and themes, without claiming that I am the last authority.

Aliette recommends that we be careful when we ask members of a particular cultural group to look at our work for critique - specifically, that we shouldn't take a single member of that group as representative of the whole, and that we should realize that their critique may be influenced by their social relationship with us (the authors). This is excellent advice. I personally like to look for critique from members of the many groups I portray - as much as possible, from people I can trust to be brutally honest with me. If I've screwed it up, the last thing I want is for someone to let me make that mistake because they're afraid to hurt my feelings. This is one of the reasons I like to look for a diversity of critique - the potential readers of a story are as diverse as the people who may appear in it.

The stakes in this movement are high. Feelings are going to be hurt (I know that this is a risk any time I talk about it with anyone, for me, and for them). But it's important to realize that most of these -ims are not about personal animosity. They are about systems of discrimination that are so complex and deeply ingrained that most of the time we can't even perceive them - systems that must be actively countered by as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. So go out and learn more about World SF, and about diverse authors and experiences. Learn about linguistic diversity and realize that the sacred construct of the "native English speaker" is a myth that shouldn't be keeping you from reading the brilliant work of world authors.

I'll be doing my part - keeping my eyes and ears open, appreciating others' work while I diversify my own. It's no use assuming there is any one way to do this; each of us has to find our own way from the intractable to the tractable, and contribute as best we can. All I know for sure is that there is so much that hasn't been heard - so much real emotion, real experience, and real originality out there waiting to be discovered. There is room for it, and a huge, largely untapped audience for it. SF/F is all about discovery, and new frontiers, so this seems a most natural place to look for the genre's future.

It's something to think about.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Culture Share: Northern Ireland - Ach sure the craic's great!

 This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Karen Rees discusses Northern Ireland.

Ach sure the craic’s great!

According to Dorothy from Wizard of Oz ‘There’s no place like home’ and I have to say, I couldn’t agree with her more! Unfortunately though, over the years my beautiful little homeland of Northern Ireland has probably received more bad press than anywhere in Western Europe. For those eager enough to brave the harsh media reports they find themselves  pleasantly surprised and unexpectedly in love with a such a little country that most certainly has been the centre of controversy, bearing scars of a turbulent political past that can still make many a traveller feel wary about what to expect. However, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this charming little land here’s a snippet of what to expect…

Food: If you’re a lover of tiny little portions neatly sculpted in the centre of a vast plate you may be a tad disappointed with our traditional cuisine. We are a nation of potato & bread lovers. Hearty bowls of steaming hot Irish stew, thick fresh farls of soda and potato bread (generally found centre stage in an Ulster fry - accompanied with sausages, bacon, fried egg, mushrooms, tomato) A huge plate of champ which is merely mashed & creamed potato mixed with spring onions (or scallions, as locally referred to) with a little well of butter in the middle of the potato mound is absolutely scrumptious and often ate a delicious traditional Sunday dinner. A generous slice of wheaten bread, smothered in butter & jam with a mug of tea is another delicacy not to be sniffed at – my mouth waters at the thought! Oh, and of course Tayto crisps – the legendary cheese & onion potato crisps that are indigenous to northern Ireland. It’s not unusual for boxes to be shipped far & wide to aid loved ones living abroad and craving the taste of home. You can even visit the Tayto factory in Tandragee where you’re most welcome to sample their range of flavours & meet Mr Tayto himself!

A bowl of tasty champ

There really is so much to do and see. For those who love to explore, one of the most spectacular trips is that of the North Coast. A beautiful coastal drive with impressive views of dramatic sea battered cliffs and quaint little fishing towns. You quickly become surrounded by countless shades of green within the lush natural landscape, confirming the truth in that old Johnny Cash song ’40 Shades of Green’. Any thirsty explorers will be happy to know there’s a multitude of cosy little traditional pubs dotted along the way – all of which will only be too happy to help quench your thirst with a pint of the black stuff, otherwise known as Guinness. Alternatively, if there’s a chill to the air, a measure of the famous Bushmills Irish whiskey won’t be too long in warming you up.

A welcoming traditional Irish pub

A sight not to be missed is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede, proudly situated in an area of special scientific interest for the unique geology, flora & fauna surrounding it. It’s a hearty dander but well worth a hike – the view alone is honey for the soul! Only a few more miles up the road is the impressive volcanic rock features known as the Giants Causeway, a natural wonder perched on the tip of the north coast attracting thousands of visitors each year. Recently the visitor centre has undergone a substantial renovation and now boasts a state of the art interactive experience on the formation of these incredible rock features - not to mention an insight to the legend of Finn McCool, a mythical giant supposedly responsible for it all during battle with Scottish giant Benandonner!
Alternatively you can travel south & take in the breathtaking scenery of the Mountains of Mourne; a small but highly impressive little mountain range situated on the shores of the county down coastline. If visiting be sure to stop by Silent Valley reservoir, the eerily quiet valley sits nestled amongst the Mournes and is always an impressive experience - perfect for those seeking a few hours of solitude. If you fancy a wood-land wander, check out Tollymore Forest Park. Take a trail through the vast tree covered expanse near the foot of the mountains, to explore the wilderness and wildlife of this outstanding area - check out Foley’s Bridge along the way, a hidden gem!

Foley’s Bridge, Tollymore

If you’d prefer something a little more unique (and somewhat challenging) check out the Marble Arch caves located in the Cladagh glen, set within the beautiful lake district of Fermanagh. Host to what is considered as ‘Europe’s finest show cave’ you can take a boat trip through the deep limestone caverns, spectacularly lit to showcase the ancient stalactites that hang majestically from its ceiling. Quick note – not recommended for high heel wearers nor tourists assuming it’s a glamorous cocktail style boat cruise (unlike two young ladies that were bitterly shocked at their own expectations in our tour group!)
Should you crave a bit of city life, Belfast is the place to be. As our little nations capital there is a multitude of things to do & see and with a huge boost in investment it’s now host to a wealth of fantastic attractions malls, hotels, restaurants, theatres, concert venues, pubs, clubs & visitor attractions. Buses tours run daily around the many major sights of this welcoming city which you will find is steeped in history. No place will tell the story of our engineering history better than that of the Titanic Belfast exhibition, step back in time to experience life from the hard toiling ship builders to first class passengers of this infamous liner that made sombre headlines worldwide.

Belfast Skyline

As for us locals, you’ll quickly come to find that we’re a highly welcoming bunch. My hubby happens to be Welsh and has not just travelled but lived all over the globe. With great truth he admits wholeheartedly that the northern Irish are certainly the most hearty and friendly folk he has encountered. I must admit that no matter where I have travelled, coming home has never been a disappointment - even after a week of relaxing on some far flung beach, the grey skies of home have been overruled by the feeling of such receptive warmth.
Our everyday lingo however can be little confusing, particularly for those who aren’t quite accustomed to the bizarre and somewhat comical sayings that can appear a tad nonsensical to those observing a conversation between locals. A few examples of such whimsical words are…

Away on with ya = I don’t believe you.
Bout ye? = How are you?
Banter = good fun
Catch yourself on = wise up
Craic = fun/goodtime
Dead on = Good/alright
Eejit = idiot
Grand = good
Hoop = bum/bottom
Keep dick = keep a look out
Lamps = eyes
Norn Iron = Northern Ireland
Oul doll = old woman
Oul lad = old man
Peelers = police
Poke = ice cream
Scundered = embarrassed
Wee = small
Yarn = chat

Hence a conversation using an example of the above expressions may translate to:

 “What about ye? You’re not grand? Ach, away on with ya.  Aye, it was good craic last night, did you see that eejit land on his hoop? I was scundered for him. The peelers were round looking for the oul lad, but some oul doll from across the road said ‘catch yourself on, he’s at the pub every Friday night. I’ll keep dick for him’. Anyway, great wee yarn, I’m away to get myself a poke from the poke-man.”

I’m sure you can grasp at why many (whom aren’t accustomed to our ‘wee’ sayings) could be ultimately left scratching their head in wonderment as to what exactly was communicated or even if indeed any of it was English to begin with. For the rest of us however – it makes perfect sense.

My advice to anyone considering a trip with a difference would be to book a visit to good oul Norn Iron. Regardless of media hype and the hostility of minorities we really are a friendly bunch of good honest folk who will most certainly show you how to enjoy yourself. I’m personally bursting with pride at my beautiful little country and am delighted to be back residing in it. There’s so much to see, do, experience, touch, taste and wholeheartedly enjoy – all within a relatively short distance. So dust off your passport and prepare for some banter… you’ll not be disappointed!

Karen Rees lives in Northern Ireland.
"My home is just a stones throw outside the quaint little boating town of Portaferry, set within the Ards peninsula, Co. Down.  I live with my husband Steve, our 7 year old daughter Emma, Toby the beagle & four cats Peppa/Peanut/Gomez & Hector. Yes there are more animals than humans!
"Originally born in Belfast, my parents moved to the peninsula when I was seven years old. I've been blessed to live in this beautiful part of Northern Ireland for a large portion of my life, so I consider myself a born city girl with a beating country heart. There's no better feeling than getting up in the morning and eating my cornflakes overlooking emerald green fields, sunshine sparkling on gentle waves of the bright blue Irish sea and bonny Scotland in the not too distant backdrop. It's a sleepy little peninsula, with plenty of working antique tractors (and owners) - it's the kind of place where a traffic jam consists of 2 cars and 22 cows, where neighbours grow their own veg and sell it in the local store. Its steeped in history and the people are always so friendly. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but I love it and I think you would too! Thanks for reading :)"

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

TTYU Retro: Personal interactions reveal character

I was trying to "restart" a character of mine some time ago, because critique partners had told me he didn't come across as having a very strong personality. This character is a particular challenge because he's got a degree of "strong, silent type" about him. One would be tempted to put him first into a situation where he really wasn't interacting with other people, just because he's so comfortable not saying anything. I've read enough Facebook memes about introverts lately that I'm sure I'll have readers who think I shouldn't put him through it.

But I'll still argue that putting this character into personal interaction is the best way to introduce him.

I'm in deep point of view here, and so my readers get to share his internalizations. Thus, if someone is interacting with him and he doesn't feel comfortable with it, they'll know, because his discomfort will be evident. The other thing I find I can do is put him in interaction with someone he does feel comfortable with, and show how he doesn't always make use of an opportunity to comment. How he judges the interaction styles of other people. And what kind of thing would be so unusual that it would actually move him to speak to a group (he gets rather upset about the behavior of some younger students).

My other character is less quiet and hangs around with three of his friends constantly. I chose to start him in a moment of reflection, to give a bit of his mood and backstory, but thereafter I put him straight into interactions with his three friends, to show what their social roles are, and their styles of interaction.

Which is to say that if you're introducing a character, try to put them into interaction with other people when possible. If you've got a wanderer who never sees a living soul, that's a bit different - but chances are the story will still bring that person out of their comfort zone and into interaction with other human beings. Show us those interactions. It will show us so much about your character.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"What does the fox say?" Onomatopoeia, and Alien Languages

How many of you have seen this video by now?

Yes, it's goofy. Yes, my kids love it - I love it, too!

I've heard quite a number of people exclaim that it's pointless because of course foxes have sounds they make, and this misrepresents them as not having sounds of their own. Just for a second, let's set aside the fact that the video is intended to be humorous, and let's talk about the underlying question.

When I first listened to it, I immediately thought about onomatopoeia. This is of course what the whole opening of the song is about: "Dog goes woof, cat goes meow, bird goes tweet and mouse goes squeak..." If you think about it, these onomatopoetic animal sounds are some of the earliest things we learn as kids. It's no coincidence that the song's video features a grandfather sitting with his grandson and a giant book! But you don't find fox onomatopoeia in this context. Foxes tend to do one of two things: either they are silent, or they speak like humans do. It's certainly a testament to the fox's slyness that it's attributed with human speech, which fits quite well with its trickster qualities (and of course there are many myths that have the fox transforming itself into human shape, too).

Today I also read this article at Wired magazine, which says, interestingly enough, that there is some similarity between the song's proposed fox sounds and the actual sounds of foxes. It even gives you the recorded fox sounds for the comparison...and I see their point. It's very similar to what I did when I was writing "At Cross Purposes" for Analog, and I wanted to design a language for aliens who resembled otters. I went online and found recorded sounds of otters, then tried to render that in human phonemes that could be written with the Roman alphabet. It wasn't entirely straightforward! However, it did give the language a great feel that really fit with the other aspects of these aliens.

The other question of onomatopoeia for writers, of course, is whether to use it when we write. Well, don't worry - you are already using it! Not all onomatopoeia is as obvious as bow-wow or meow. The words "knock," "screech" and "splash" are all onomatopoetic but don't stick out really obviously from the flow of English text. The question of whether you should say "Bang!" instead of remarking that your character heard a shot ring out is a good one, however. As usual, the answer is, "if it works." Some prose styles require a kind of flow and fluidity that wouldn't fit well with a sudden break filled with an onomatopoetic flourish. On the other hand, deep POV often cleaves very closely to the perceptions of a protagonist as they happen, which means that including onomatopoeia for sounds that interrupt that character's concentration or catch their attention can work far better. They really amount to an example of "showing, not telling" in that case.

It's something to think about. And in the meantime, I hope you enjoy the song!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Video: Handling Language Barriers in Worldbuilding

Here is the video of yesterday's hangout about Language Barriers. I had a great discussion with Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Lykara Ryder. I hope you enjoy it.

I'll be posting the report on the Schools and Education hangout in the next couple of days. Thanks for your patience!


The Writer's International Culture Share

The Writer's International Culture share is a place on the web where writers from all over the world - including the US - can share folklore, local culture, religious stories and details of daily life that would be difficult or nearly impossible to discover through ordinary web research avenues. We now have more than thirty articles listed in three categories: Cultural Practices, Folklore, and Religion. The Cultural Practices list includes all articles, but those addressing the other categories are cross-listed (some combine all three!). You can use the index below, or (as we grow) use the search bar with the category and country you are looking for.

With your help, our collection can become bigger and better! I am especially interested in culturally diversifying my collection. If you are interested in contributing, please send email to info at juliettewade dot com for more information.

Index: (*F = also appears in Folklore, *R = also appears in Religion )

Cultural Practices
  1. Australia: Through the Looking Glass by Juliette Wade
  2. Brazil: Write About Your City (A Challenge) by Fábio Fernandes
  3. Bulgaria: May 6th, Saint George, Martyr and Dragon Slayer by Harry Markov *F, *R
  4. Bulgaria: Personification of Spring in Bulgarian Culture by Harry Markov *F
  5. Bulgaria: Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers by Harry Markov *R
  6. Canada: Time as a measurement of distance in Canada by Heidi C. Vlach
  7. England: The Routemaster by London Monsters
  8. France: Pierrade, fondue and raclette: French convivial meals by Aliette de Bodard
  9. France: Standing stones, and the eve of the Assumption on L'Île aux Moines by Juliette Wade
  10. Greece: Food and Drink Customs in Greece by Dario Ciriello
  11. International: The United World College of the Atlantic by Emily Mah Tippetts
  12. Ireland: An Ear for Language - They speak English here. Don't they? by Joshua Ramey-Renk *F
  13. Iran: Iranian New Year by Jahan and Tahereh Alizadeh *R
  14. Japan: A Banquet by any other name - and Cormorants! by Juliette Wade
  15. Japan: Bathing in Japan by Juliette Wade
  16. Japan: The Tokyo Subways by Juliette Wade
  17. Japan: Unexpected differences: Japanese Taxis by Juliette Wade
  18. Latvia: Living at the Crossroads by Jelena M *R
  19. Middle East: A Glimpse into an Uncommon Childhood by Margaret McGaffey Fisk
  20. Netherlands: Bicycles in the Netherlands by Corinne Duyvis
  21. Paraguay: The Mennonites of Paraguay by M.G. Edwards *R
  22. Philippines: Engagement and Wedding feasts in Ifugao by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
  23. Philippines: Gates and Exterior Walls by Charles Tan
  24. Scandinavia: Travelers in Scandinavia, and no, I don't mean backpackers by Therese Lindberg
  25. Serbia: Slava, the Celebration of the Family Saint by Alma Alexander *R
  26. Singapore: Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween by Joyce Chng *F, *R
  27. Tanzania: A Scandinavian visits the Masai by Therese Lindberg
  28. USA: Growing Up Baha'i in the American Midwest by Jaleh Dragich *R
  29. USA - California: Eastern Friends on Western Shores by Lillian Csernica *F
  30. USA - Florida: Orlando: What's it Like Living in a Mickey Mouse Town? by Ann Meier
  31. USA - Nevada: The Reno You Didn't See by Colin Fisk 
  32. USA - New York: A Walk to the Subway in Brooklyn, NY, USA by Nicole Lisa
  33. USA - The US through UK Eyes: What's in a name? And Other Language Differences by Laura Pepper Wu 
  34. USA - Wyoming: Wyoming, the Square State by Tamara Linse
  35. Wales - What's it like living in the South Wales Valleys? by Juliette B. Edwards *F

  1. Bulgaria: May 6th, Saint George, Martyr and Dragon Slayer by Harry Markov
  2. Bulgaria: Personification of Spring in Bulgarian Culture by Harry Markov
  3. France: Standing stones, and the eve of the Assumption on L'Île aux Moines by Juliette Wade 
  4. Ireland: An Ear for Language - They speak English here. Don't they? by Joshua Ramey-Renk
  5. Singapore: Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween by Joyce Chng
  6. USA - California: Eastern Friends on Western Shores by Lillian Csernica
  7. Wales - What's it like living in the South Wales Valleys? by Juliette B. Edwards 
  1. Bulgaria: May 6th, Saint George, Martyr and Dragon Slayer by Harry Markov
  2. Bulgaria: Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers by Harry Markov
  3. France: Standing stones, and the eve of the Assumption on L'Île aux Moines by Juliette Wade 
  4. Iran: Iranian New Year by Jahan and Tahereh Alizadeh
  5. Latvia: Living at the Crossroads by Jelena M
  6. Paraguay: The Mennonites of Paraguay by M.G. Edwards  
  7. Philippines: Engagement and Wedding feasts in Ifugao by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz 
  8. Serbia: Slava, the Celebration of the Family Saint by Alma Alexander
  9. Singapore: Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween by Joyce Chng
  10. USA: Growing Up Baha'i in the American Midwest by Jaleh Dragich

Our awesome logo is by Janice Hardy!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

TTYU Retro: Critique vs. artistic vision - how far should we respond to reader reactions?

I have sometimes had discussions with friends of mine about responding to critique where I am reminded that they and I disagree rather strongly about the extent to which one should be willing to change one's writing in response to critique. The question has a lot to do with what I call "writer's compass," in other words, how a writer senses the direction to go with a particular work. How much of what we do is an indispensable part of artistic vision, and how much is open to change at the suggestion of others?

I think the answer will be different for each person, but I wanted to look at where the borderline lies, because it's a tricky question, and a potential pitfall as well.

You've written a story. Let's say you love it, the language you've used and the message it's sending. Then someone else reads it. They tell you...

a. They love it. They think you shouldn't change a word. 
This is heartening, and makes us feel good. But if someone tells you not to change a word, then chances are they are not noticing any possible problems. Every work of verbal art can and will be interpreted in different ways by different readers, so very likely a different reader would catch something to point out.

b. They "get it," but they have issues. 
I don't know about everyone, but I am most likely to take advice when it comes from someone who obviously understands what I'm trying to do. A person who "gets it" is the one who can sense the vision of what I'm trying to achieve - and their vision matches pretty well with mine. In this case I'm going to be very careful before I reject anything they say, because they and I are working toward the same goal.

c. They have issues. 
If you don't get a sense that the person sees what you see as the end goal of this writing endeavor, then you have to go through point by point and ask whether the things they point out, or the things they suggest, match with your vision. Will their suggestion get you closer to the ideal version of the story that you imagined? If so, then make a change. If not, don't.

d. They "don't quite get it."
Be careful with this one. If you really have a sense that your reader's comments aren't making sense, try to figure out if the reader had a vision that really differs seriously from yours. Maybe they imagined a premise that was very different from what you had in mind - then you'll find their comments are serving that premise, and working against what you were doing. Unless you find that different premise really compelling, you shouldn't take this kind of advice. Maybe they disagreed with some of your decisions, either thematically, or in the plot, etc. It's a perfectly good idea to question your own major decisions about the story. There may be a better path. But if you play around with the new direction and it's not working for you, don't go there.

e. They hate it/seriously don't get it.
This is an interesting one. There's a difference between a reader who says they don't like the story without giving reasons why, and one who starts dismantling you point by point. People can reject stories for very simple reasons, often having to do with a point of disagreement with the premise. You see this a lot in reviews of science fiction - if the reviewer can't wrap his or her brain around the idea of people dealing with aliens on a different planet, then they might have hard time saying constructive things about how the premise has been executed.

If they dismantle you on one thing after another, so that you find yourself thinking, "Were they even reading the same story I was?" then something else might be going on. I call it "falling out" of the story, and it basically means that they missed something really important, and/or stopped caring. Do not ever ignore this. If a person has fallen out of your story, you should be taking inline comments with a serious grain of salt (I've had people tell me that my writing style is unreadable. I have ample evidence to suggest that it's not). On the other hand, you must ask yourself why, and where, the person fell out. It might be at the very beginning. I think about it this way: if someone cares about the story, then all the complexities of the Varin world will seem to have purpose; if that reader doesn't care about the story, then the complexities will feel like shackles at every turn. Everything you've worked so hard to achieve can work against you if your reader "falls out." So gulp down the sense of insult, ignore the details of the reaction, and figure out where they fell out. It will make an enormous difference for the story's success.

f. They had struggle points.
Struggle points are places where something causes the reader to get kicked out of the story. Maybe, grammatical errors or anachronisms. Maybe, a word that seems to come from a really mismatched context (like a Harry Potter term showing up in Dune, for example). Or they can be things like my own experience with people who told me, "Every time I see the word Tagret I read it 'target' and it takes me three or so readings to interpret it correctly." I'll go with the name situation because it's one of the most difficult. My character has been named Tagret for so long that I really had a hard time imagining he could be anything else (thus my previous post on changing  names). However, more than one person had brought my attention to this as a struggle point, and the final argument for me is that if a person is being kicked out of my story, it doesn't matter how close that name is to my heart - my readers have stopped reading. If your readers stop reading, you've lost them. And you've lost a potential sale if you run into an editor who gets kicked out by the same thing. So you have to ask yourself some serious questions about what kind of compromise will still serve the vision you had in mind, and still keep people from getting kicked out of the story. In my case, I found after quite a few interesting-yet-all-wrong options that I could change the name Tagret to Tagaret, keep the pronunciation precisely the same (similar to Margaret), and avoid the confusion. Sure, it does mean that some readers will accidentally call him Ta-GAR-et. Do I mind that? Not really. That' s just one of the hazards of having a story "out there."

Every writer is going to have a different degree of faith and commitment to different aspects of a story. Names are some of the hardest things to change. It's always a balance. Every piece of feedback has to be measured against what we're trying to achieve, but at least for me, I realize that what I'm trying to achieve is not necessarily what is on the page right now. What I'm trying to achieve is a story that will work toward a certain set of thematic and other story goals... and also, a story that will engage readers and keep them all the way through.

It's something to think about.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

September's Worldbuilding Hangout Topics!

Well, it's September already, which means it's time for me to announce my hangout topics for this month! Just to remind you, we meet on Google+ on Thursdays at 11am PDT. Contact me in the comments if you aren't sure whether you are in my invited circle of interested people!

Here are the topics:

September 5: SPECIAL TIME - 9:00 am PDT
Handling Language Barriers

September 12:

September 19:
Personal Faith and its role in character and story

September 26: