Thursday, January 31, 2013

Link: A great article on culture and worldbuilding from Mike Flynn

Many of you may know Mike Flynn, author of many superb stories in Analog and also of Eifelheim and The January Dancer. He's an expert on culture and worldbuilding, and he shares some great insights in this article:

Random Thoughts on the White Room

Check it out!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How realistic does a created world have to be? A Google+ Hangout Report

This week I was joined by Lesley Smith, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Harry Markov.

I started the discussion with the caveat that I have a personal bias against magic. While I love reading stories with magic, when I write them I have a tough time because I find magic "slippery." This is one reason why my Varin world's magic long ago (in writer time) turned from plain old magic to a semi-natural phenomenon. I don't like to be put in the position where I wave my hands and things happen the way I want them to. I want magic to have restrictions - and whatever freedoms it has, they often need to be counterbalanced with more realism in other areas. This topic will come up again later in the report.

We turned at first to Science Fiction, because it often has very stringent requirements of realism, in particular the rules of physics. Brian immediately remarked that much of science fiction doesn't conform to the rules of physics, as for example when people use faster-than-light drive for space ships. However, we did manage to agree that there was a difference between a story that takes something like FTL drive and "sets it aside," i.e. makes it a necessary condition for the story to take place, but doesn't have its scientific details play a critical role in the main conflict. For example, my stories take place on planets that must have been reached by FTL drive but in which no one ever travels that way. Brian has a story, by contrast, in which the nature of the propulsion is what the story is about. When you put the main focus on propulsion, then you at least need to have an internally consistent set of principles for that propulsion.

Brian proposed a fantastic Venn diagram of two overlapping circles, one of which would be Realistic and the other of which would be Believable. When we write, we definitely want to portray things that are believable, but not all of them must be Realistic as such. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and often things that have really happened are so far out that if you wrote fiction about them, nobody would believe you. For example, I once wrote a story about my sixth grade class, using a few of the first names of people who'd been in it, and a teacher told me the names were unrealistic.

As an author, you are put in the position of establishing a contract of trust with the reader, where they must believe that you are narrating in good faith on some level. Maintaining a degree of realism in the story can help the reader continue to believe in you as you stretch credulity in limited areas.

I tend to think that character psychology and human emotions benefit from being realistic. Mind you, I do a lot with cultural differences and different ways of thinking - but I always come back to a basic rule of sense-making, requiring my characters to possess drives that we might find familiar, and to explain how they make sense of things if their thoughts are vastly different from ours. If a character becomes so alien it "goes off the rails," then the reader is less likely to stick with the story (without other things available to keep him/her reading).

At that point we turned to the question of language. Conlangs, or created languages, have been increasing in popularity lately. [Klingon, Na'vi, Dothraki are standouts] They can often create a sense of realism for an alien group and its culture. Harry argued that this is only the case on film, that using alien language in written narrative reduces his enjoyment of the story. However, creating a language does not mean you have to fill your story with long tracts in that language. My own approach is to create the grammar and culture and manners of a culture but to use only minimal vocabulary, and allow the alien language to influence my use of English. That way people can continue to grasp what is going on (I hope! but this is what critiquers are for) and yet have the feeling that the language exists, and is real, because of the way that it changes the alien's use of English.

Next we turned to the genre of Fantasy, and specifically to the question, "Does it bother you when magic doesn't follow rules?" Brian remarked that many people in the real world believe in magic in one way or another, such as when we knock on wood, and that magic in and of itself wasn't inherently unbelievable. Lesley agreed, mentioning Arthur C. Clarke's principle that any sufficiently advanced technology is seen as magic. By this argument, much of our understanding of our current technology resembles belief in magic, since a great many of us don't understand how it works.

I argued that in the Harry Potter books, magic follows rules the way English follows grammar rules - that it has areas of order, and areas of disorder. Several of us felt that the magical diversity employed by Rowling went too far in places. On the other hand, Harry mentioned a book he'd read where a superhero was super-powerful whenever he needed to be, and sometimes his powers drained him, but at other times they restored him - that sometimes he needed to touch someone to influence them, and sometimes he didn't. This was the kind of lack of realism that everyone in the group was bothered by.

One thing that can help you keep a feeling of consistency in magic is the use of a consistent metaphor for the magic. Is magic like water? Is it more like air? Are spells like inhalations that come into you and then affect the entire area around you? Or are they like projectiles which you can shoot? Sticking with a consistent metaphor for your magic is a lot like sticking with the rules of physics in science fiction.

Finally we touched on the question of cultural realism. Brian proposed another type of Venn diagram, this one showing the two overlapping circles of "What history was like" and "What people think history was like." History is written by the victors, which influences what appears in it. Fiction has also influenced our view of history, as when we draw conclusions about what the Middle Ages were like based on our Fantasy reading. Harry said there is a common illusion that the Dark Ages didn't experience any cultural advances, but that this was largely a product of the fact that we don't have as many records from this period. Brian observed that while the Roman Empire fell, things were still going on and "advancing" in other places.

It's important to avoid falling into the ideological trap where if it didn't happen to our "favorite" civilizations, or our "favorite" members of those civilizations (be they nobles or men, or members of particular races) then it didn't matter. The historical record is not well-integrated across cultural zones, and widely divided into what matters and what doesn't matter. What you end up with, then, are a lot of cultural assumptions about what history holds and therefore what is "real." Recently there was the example of Scott Lynch receiving criticism for his female pirate  mother of two being "unrealistic," which he responded to brilliantly (there are some great links about it here). There have also been recent discussions of whether the lack of people of color in the movie Brave was historically accurate (hint: it wasn't, but many people thought it was).

Glenda made the excellent point that every author should ask, "Who is my reader?" Your intended audience can have a big influence on how you would like to portray your world. Writers and readers often have different criteria (writers are typically far more critical!). I mentioned the book Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant, which featured three children who fell through a magical portal (not unusual) but who were separated in their magical travel and ended up landing in the magical world at different times, so that by the time they reunited, one of them had aged a number of years and the others only a month or two. Was it realistic? I found it believable when I read it, and the group agreed that it was a refreshingly original author choice. I could, however, imagine that some people might be disturbed to find their expectations confounded.

Thanks again to my guests for the excellent discussion! Join us again tomorrow at 11am PST on Google+ when we will be discussing Worldbuilding Process. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

TTYU Retro: Boy meets girl - how?

You know all about "boy meets girl" - it's one of the most common things we see in stories, even ones that don't have romance as their primary reason for being. But if you're working in a world with alternate social rules, one thing you should probably consider is how boys and girls meet each other. After all, if they aren't meeting each other at all, then that makes it hard for them to fall in love. And if they are meeting each other in very restricted circumstances, that may have a deep influence on what the society considers relevant to choosing a match.

Imagine the situation where boys and girls aren't allowed to meet. The sexes are totally separated as much as possible, so love between a potential husband and wife is probably not considered that important. This is the kind of place where you'd expect to see arranged matches based on criteria that can be assessed within the isolated context.

Imagine the situation where boys and girls play together all the time, but boys and girls tend to be separated for things like team activities, and gender roles are seen to be relatively distinct. Relationships form, and some boys understand girls better because they have sisters or cousins who force the gender-divided expectations to be broken down, and vice versa for girls understanding boys. But there are also going to be large groups of boys who haven't had much contact with girls and know their ways mostly by hearsay and culturally based report. This is sort of the situation my children are currently working in.

Every parameter you change is going to have a huge influence on how relationships form.

In this vein, I was thinking about Disney princesses. When we watched Mulan, I remarked to my daughter how this was my favorite of the Disney princess movies, and she said, "but she's not a princess." It was a good observation. Mulan is obviously a member of a noble family, but really, she's not a princess. And I think the reason why I always enjoyed her relationship with the Captain was that in spite of the deception involved in her pretending to be male, she actually got to know him. They went through rough things together. Compare that with the typical love-at-first-sight scenario that we see basically everywhere else in the Disney princess canon.

If you think about it, the idea of love at first sight in itself isn't a horrible thing - instant attractions happen. But when you look structurally at the positions the princesses are put in, they aren't ever in positions where meeting a boy will happen naturally and allow them to get to know each other. Historical princesses had some of this difficulty as well (though I imagine they were more realistic in their personalities), because the ways in which they were allowed to interact with potential matches were very circumscribed. If you're only ever going to be meeting any member of the opposite sex for an hour at a time, on a dance floor, then NOT believing in love at first sight is going to be a problem, because it will simply mean you have to resign yourself to not loving the person you're going to marry. Which of course does happen, but we like to think of these matches in an idealized way (because thinking of them any other way might be depressing! Just witness the Disney princess annotated portrait that has been floating around the internet lately).

Now, an example from my Varin world. The social parameters in Varin are twisted by the fact that the noble caste is in decline and in desperate need of healthy children (which it finds difficult to procure). As a result of this, women in the noble caste (but not the ones below) are very oppressed, and rushed into babymaking as soon as possible (age 17, which in the global scheme of things is not horrible, but still very early from my own point of view). Because their health and safety is considered a priority, the Grobal women are given bodyguard-nurses at birth, and these companions safeguard them until they are grown. This means that it is extremely difficult for boys to interact with girls. Boys are expected to approach the girl's servant before they approach the girl herself, to the extent that they must speak with the servant first until they get permission to speak to the girl. This means that boys without sisters have very little idea how to interact with girls at all. It also means that arranged marriages are the norm. Arranged marriages are also the norm because of the need for alliances between the Great Families, and they are typically arranged by men in power, so you end up with lots of couples where the man is 20 years older than the woman - because the man is powerful enough to make the arrangement successfully, and the woman is being rushed into childbearing. This has consequences all through the society because love is not generally the currency on which these things are based, and because young people are not able to satisfy their sexual appetites without braving bodyguards and serious trouble (which means they look for various other ways to satisfy them that I won't go into here).

What parameters for interaction have you set up in your world? How do boys and girls meet? What are the expectations for love and marriage? How does that change expectations and behavior?

It's something to think about.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Link: 25 more words that don't exist in English!

On the heels of my last "untranslatable" post, here are some more fun words that don't exist in English! I like this post because it has a lot of Japanese. Interestingly, there's only a single word of overlap with the last post on untranslatable words!

25 Handy Words That Simply Don't Exist in English

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How to keep rich worldbuilding from bogging down your story: A Google+ Hangout Report

I was joined for this hangout by Glenda Pfeiffer, Liz Arroyo, Harry Markov, Lesley Smith, and Sid Schneider. It was great to get back to these live discussions, and I hope more people can join us next time! Social highlights were the presence of new visitors Lesley (from the UK) and Sid, and the new video camera which let us see Harry for the first time, all the way from Bulgaria.

The real trick with detailed worldbuilding is that very often it will take huge amounts of time to do the research and build the details of a world, but we have only the time allowed by a single reading person's attention to make it come to life for our story. This can lead to overloading a story with information and explanation, and this was the challenge we were all present to discuss.

I started the discussion with the following idea. Because, as an author, you are trying not to provide more information than a single person (the reader) can understand, one great way to approach the problem is to use a restricted point of view (either 1st person or 3rd person limited), using the character as a filter. What you give the reader to understand will therefore automatically be as much as one single person can think about at any given time, creating a microcosm of the world. Characters are allowed to have areas of uncertainty or ignorance. They are allowed to be culturally myopic, too - without implying that the author hasn't thought the world through sufficiently.

I did give my guests the caveat that I am not an expert on third person omniscient, so I wasn't going to be able to comment much on how to handle exposition in that format.

As an example of a large world focused through a single character, I gave the example of Grobal Tagaret, from my recently completed novel, For Love, For Power. As a nobleman, Tagaret has no concept of what life is like outside his own caste. He has a set of stereotypical views of what people are like (or are supposed to be like) when they come from other castes (servants, artists, merchants, etc.). He also has knowledge of certain individuals whom he knows personally, and while he doesn't treat them according to stereotype, he never really pushes his knowledge of those individuals into the kind of questioning which might lead him to conclude that perhaps members of the castes aren't all alike, or aren't quite what the stereotypes suggest. Then, as he learns more, the reader can also learn.

The idea here is to establish a character with an individual knowledge set, an idiosyncratic set of judgments, and then set up a situation of conflict and interactions that will press his buttons and make him express judgments.

I also talked about the protagonist of my short-story-in-progress, who goes by Hub Girl (an internet handle). She comes from a futuristic earth where people have the internet in their heads and are able to customize their reality by "overlaying" images from the internet on their surroundings. One important element of the worldbuilding is the idea that advertising can be used to cover up undesirable views, and in fact Hub Girl lives in a slum that is covered over by a layer of advertising (which she always sees from the underside). By putting the reader in Hub Girl's head, I can show how she customizes her reality, and how she takes for granted the advertising that covers over her home.

The other thing I recommend for rich yet concise worldbuilding is to choose unusual details. If you've done a lot of independent worldbuilding, you'll end up with far more detail than can actually fit into the story. However, a lot of that detail can be implied by mentioning one item (buildings like cliffs of glass, for example) that suggests others (a cityscape of tall modern-tech buildings). Then you can look for a detail that is both unexpected and relevant to the situation at hand. Including unusual details can win you a lot more trust than you'd expect, because readers are really good at filling in expected details. In Hub Girl's story, I have a moment where she's walking along the sidewalk and noticing everyone's shoes. One of my critique partners commented that she hadn't ever seen a story of near-future where shoes were mentioned, and she liked that I had included the detail. On the other hand, I don't just say, "and by the way, Cityfolk wear these kinds of shoes." Because Hub Girl doesn't have shoes, she feels vulnerable walking along the street where Cityfolk wear shoes that are both fancy and seemingly dangerous to her. It sets the mood, propels the action, and tells you what kind of shoes people are wearing. Here's the quote:

So many fancy shoes: stilettos jabbing, platforms thudding like hammers. If I flinched, they'd notice I got none.

Sometimes you can convey a lot about a world through the simple choice of a word. How would your character conceptualize the events and things and people around him/her? Be careful to choose a word that has judgmental connotations, or extra implications about the culture and the world around. Vagueness is not going to help you here. I was looking for a word to describe a kind of misfortune that might befall one of Hub Girl's friends (having tech stolen out of their heads), and had begun with the word "fluke" to express that it was something that didn't happen all the time. But the word said nothing about what Hub Girl thought had happened, and thus implied nothing about the dangers of the world. I thought about using "mugging" but that was also too vague, because while it expressed the appropriate idea that people would be held up for something of value, it missed the technical aspect, which was critical. "Head-jacking" was closer, since "hijacking" has long since been expanded to include "carjacking" etc., but I was concerned that people might guess it was a software problem like hacking. In the end I settled on "hardware-jacking," to get the greatest specificity about the nature of this misfortune into a single word.

From there we moved into talking about metaphors and similes, which are also great for concise worldbuilding. Any time a character compares one thing to another, you can learn something about what that character is familiar with, and what they perceive to be beautiful, or frightening, etc.

In our world, we very often compare things we see to elements of nature. Perhaps in the world you're working with, people have a similar relationship to nature as we do, but perhaps they do not. Neither Tagaret nor Hub Girl has the same relationship to nature that I do, for very different reasons. Tagaret lives in an underground city where few people have ever experienced wild nature, and most people are afraid of it. Hub Girl lives in a slum beside a big city, and the river that runs through the slum is polluted, so she doesn't get a lot of nature either. This means that neither one is going to compare anything to a growing tree, or to singing birds and babbling brooks. Instead, I have them compare things to what they have experienced in the past, or things that are common to their world. This gives me the opportunity (and can give similar opportunities to you) to reveal things about their past experiences and about what is common in the world. Sometimes you can take a familiar phrase, say, "blind as a bat" and change one element to suggest worldbuilding. What is "blind" in your world? Tagaret might say "blind as a child lost in an adjunct" (adjuncts are the cave systems surrounding the city). A person from Tagaret's world who travels to the surface is actually liable to reverse these comparisons, and compare elements of nature to more familiar things from the city. Hub Girl is urban, so she is far more likely to compare tiny and enormous networks saying that one is a footpath and one a superhighway, rather than saying that one is a spiderweb and one a river system.

At this point, Harry shared an example of this that he had read in Cathrynne Valente's Six Gun Snow White. The story that places Snow White in the wild west, where the name "Snow White" was given to her as an ironic insult because she is of mixed white and American Indian blood. Valente tells the story using a lot of earth, gem, metal, and rough imagery to fit with the wild west setting.

Harry also mentioned that he's working on a story where two ships are in competition to colonize a planet (only one can stay), and where he'll have the people comparing the wild natural state of the planet to the artificiality and sameness of the ships they've been traveling on. This is a similar reversal to the one I use for Tagaret, and for essentially the same reason: familiarity and unfamiliarity, both of which are really important to establish when worldbuilding.

One thing you can do in order to find ideas for expressing world through character is to ask a list of questions about your character and his/her judgments. What scares them, and why? What excites them? What comforts them? What disgusts them, or intrigues them, or confuses them? (We had a lot of great suggestions from our guests in this section, and I'll also point you toward the questions in my post, Designing Character Interviews that Really Matter, because many of these are directly related to worldbuilding).

Remember that people don't talk about things that are completely normal. If they do, that's when you're likely to feel like the information is bogging down the story. People remark on unfamiliarity or contrast, so use new experiences or departures from the norm to help establish what the norm actually is.

You may ask, "How do I go about conveying information to the reader which is not known to the character?" This can be a challenge, but be aware that sometimes people perceive things that they do not really notice, or even if they do notice they may not understand, or be too busy (due to story action) to analyze thoroughly. They may even observe something and actively try not to think about it, as when encountering an activity that is taboo.

For more information on how to include worldbuilding information more smoothly through grammatical means (backgrounding), I'll point you to my article, Hiding Information in Plain Sight.

Thanks to everyone who attended the hangout! Please feel free to add to the comments if you recall things from the hangout that I may have forgotten. Questions are also welcome.

Our next hangout will be tomorrow, Thursday, January 24th at 11am PST. We will be discussing the balance between realism and fantasy in sf/f, or in other words, "How realistic does a created world have to be in order to be plausible?" I hope to see you there!

Link: Recordings of Animal Sounds (especially Birds)

Here's a link to the Macaulay Library, which has put together an enormous collection of animal videos and sounds. Their specialty is birds. This is the kind of thing I love to listen to in order to create new ideas for alien languages. I hope you find it inspiring, too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

TTYU Retro: Why the Internet is a Trap - and how this writer deals with it

If you're a writer, I imagine you are familiar with the problem of the internet trap. You turn on the computer to start writing, and an hour later you're still on the internet. You think of the pages you have still to write and you want to scream, Why is this happening? How can I stop it?

So I thought I'd begin this week by talking about why the internet is such a trap, at least for me. And also, thinking about how to manage the whole thing. I hope that my thoughts may help those of you out there who experience something of the same thing.

Internet Trap #1. Small flashes of wonderful in a torrent of irrelevant

I've heard partaking of the internet compared to drinking from a fire hose. I don't quite agree with this, because it suggests that if you could manage to take a sip, it would be good water that you were getting. To me it's more like a baseball game: you'd better have good friends with you and be doing something in the stands, because most of what's going on is stuff you don't care about anyway (in this I reveal my bias against baseball - sorry baseball fans!). Each critical play is buried in a ton of waiting around. On the internet, sometimes I'll have a day where I find tons of links I want to pass on to my blog readers. Then I'll go for weeks without encountering anything to care about at all.

Internet Trap #2. News

Yes, this is where I get the vast majority of my news about the world. And though I spend a lot of time in worlds of my own, I do care about what's going on. So I find myself clicking through to read about current events when I should probably be writing, or at least not reading my sixth article in a row about a particular issue. Even one I really care deeply about.

Internet Trap #3. Small tasks

This is a big one for me. Going through emails, making sure to check up on social networks, etc. It feels quick - each email takes very little time to process, either to file or look at or throw away. Each part of the stream goes by quickly. But the tasks pile up, and you can easily lose a half-hour or more in increments of two seconds.

Internet Trap #4. Reminders and notifications

By this I don't mean going to one site or another and checking news streams etc. This is about when your computer beeps to tell you someone is inviting you to chat, when you hear the tone or see the flicker that indicates a new email has come in, etc., etc. It's like when the phone rings. Your first instinct is to stop whatever you're doing and check it. When I'm really concentrating, I don't notice this stuff half the time. But when I'm not super-absorbed, I can get pulled right back out of whatever it is.

Internet Trap #5. The desire for distraction/the risk of missing something/the desire to have "something happen."

Who among us does not procrastinate? Even when I'm not being beeped at I feel the temptation to go on the internet. I might see a cat photo, or a picture of a cool cake, or the face of a friend. Related to this is the sense that something important might be happening (either in the world or with a friend) and I might be missing it. The worst thing I find myself doing is rifling through the internet hoping that I'll run across something that will change my life for the better (like discover that I've sold a story or find out that someone has said something nice about me).

Internet Trap #6. Sense of community, the importance of internet presence

These are actually good things about putting in time on the internet! But they contribute to the draw of it. The internet helps us feel like we're not just alone in a room writing, and for many of us (like me) this is a very good thing. Besides which, we would like to increase our visibility by maintaining an internet presence, and have been told this will help us to succeed. Surely being active in blogging and social networks will make this happen. But how much will it really contribute to the bottom line? And how much will it take away from the critical time we need to spend actually writing? Those are hard questions to answer.

Internet Trap #7. New networking opportunities

How many times have you been invited to a new networking site? There are so many out there, and being a part of one has both good aspects and bad. I have found that if I start participating in a new networking site, it reaps benefits because I get better chances of quality interaction with the frontline participants. On the other hand, it takes on far more importance than it deserves, and thereafter one of two things will happen. Either it will not retain my interest and I'll have to drop out because I just don't have that much time in the day, or it will be worth participating in and I'll have to spend a bunch of time balancing it against my other networking commitments.

Whew! So at this point I'll talk about how I deal with managing these problems. Believe me when I say that my solutions are not perfect. If you have good ideas in this arena, feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

Solution A: Give yourself meta-time, and manage actively.

This is a pretty simple thing, but I can't recommend it enough (that's why it's solution A!). You know you're on the internet. You know it's sucking your time. Take a step back and look at what you're doing, and when. That will allow you to evaluate it and make decisions about changing it. This is what I do to deal with the problem of new social networks - I step back after experimenting with them and ask how I want them to fit into my whole internet picture.

Solution B: Schedule yourself.

This is my way of dealing with many of the issues above, including the fire hose/baseball game problem, the news problem, the small tasks problem, the sense of community/internet presence problem, and the networking opportunities problem. I try to fix, and to limit, the times when I'll be using the internet. Blogging time is limited to during the weekend, or before I get my kids up for school. Networking I often do while the kids are home, since it requires less concentration. Small tasks time I limit by fixing the amount of time I'll spend on it - and this includes networking and news stories time. To keep myself from losing track I'm going to try setting myself a timer with an alarm. This is also going to help me remember to give my eyes a rest every so often.

Solution C: Disable the evidence of notifications

Now, I don't mean that you should dig into preferences to disable all notifications. However, your computer has a mute button for a reason. If you must have your email and internet browser open while you're writing, make sure to take the word processing file you're using and expand it to fill the screen so you don't see those little telltale flashes and such. You just don't need those little sensory distractions.

Solution D: Cultivate a detached attitude

This is, I suppose, the trickiest. It took me quite a while to realize that I didn't need to read every notification of everything on every social network, but just to dip in and sample each time I was there. News stories will wait for you. Every service or game that you are involved with is designed to convince you that you must never leave it alone or you'll miss something absolutely critical, but this is not generally the case. If you do happen to be involved in a game (Farmville leaps to mind) that requires attention at particular intervals, consider stopping for a while when you have a project to complete. Be aware that you need to be the one running your use of the internet, rather than letting it run you. Muses are fickle enough, and we're already trying to fit them into the compartments that other parts of our lives offer us - we shouldn't ask them to bow to internet "needs" that are being cultivated in us by online marketers.

Solution E: Realize that you get out of the Internet what you put into it

This is what I say to myself whenever I find myself searching for something meaningful, or searching to make "something happen". When I put effort into my online presence (mostly by blogging), then I can feel the rewards. When I write a story and get it out there, that also has an effect on the internet - and I like that effect better. So there's no point just surfing around looking for something good, I tell myself. Go create something, and that will make something good happen. If it's time to get my blogging done, then I'll do that. But if it's time to write, I'll either hide the internet or turn it off completely and try to create something fantastic. Because that gives me something even better to talk about.

Am I perfect in my execution of this? Well, of course not. I began this post saying that I do have trouble with the internet taking more time than it deserves. However, this post is going to help me put into words what I'd like to be doing going forward, and I hope it will help me take the strategies I already use, and make them more effective.

So what do you do to keep the internet from taking time it doesn't deserve? Feel free to comment because I'm sure everyone would be interested to hear.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How much internalized self-awareness does a character need?

I'm an author who puts a lot of emphasis on character. Not only is character the most compelling element of most stories for me, it's also pretty important in the markets these days, where you'll see a lot of editors asking for "character-driven" stories. It's pretty important stuff, and so being able to convey your character effectively is extremely important.

My own concentration on character and on worldbuilding has led me to my current technique of using a character as filter and as conveyor of world (I'll discuss this more in my forthcoming article about last week's worldbuilding hangout!). That means putting a lot of focus on how my character judges situations and people and things, and quite often that means putting those judgments into internalization.

It helps if your character is generally contemplative, because then they have a lot of reason to share their judgments of things. Here's an example from an observant and contemplative character of mine, Imbati Xinta:

Xinta bent into a half-bow, watching a gang of six noble boys surround him. They had a new leader today: Grobal Rennerik, with reddened knuckes on his right fist that matched a mark beside the former leader's left eye. The followers' gazed flickered hungrily between them. Clearly this encounter was to become Rennerik's demonstration that his leadership was deserved. That would mean a difficult task - but if he could carry it out, he could prove his worth in love and loyalty to all of them at once.

Of course, you can have too much of this. If you have a contemplative character, try not to let them sit around and think without having anything going on around them (this is one of the ways a contemplative character can kill a story). In the excerpt above from "The Eminence's Match," I start with the arrival of the six boys, and give you Xinta's assessment of who they are and what will be happening next, and what it will mean. It demonstrates that Xinta is observant and also prepares the reader for the interaction which begins at the start of the next paragraph.

Ok, so far so good. But what if you don't have a very contemplative character, who wants to lay out his/her judgments and be super-helpful to the reader? What if you have a person who reacts and does things, but doesn't take the time to explain?

I ran into this with the protagonist of my current short story, "Mind Locker." Hub Girl is a kid on the verge of her teens who lives by her wits. She isn't contemplative. She has no time to sit around and think - but I still have to convey information about the world, the culture, etc.

Let me be clear. "Mind Locker" is in first person present tense point of view, capturing my character's thoughts direct from her head. Thus I do not mean that she has no internalized thoughts. I'm just saying she doesn't analyze them much. Here is an example:

We move out, fanning to circle the junk mountain. Hell'm I glad Fisher's by me - I message the others to make pairs. Soon the tunnels end. Careful feet here: glass, wire, ripped plastic toys. Further along, tires, fridges, dumpsters, burnt-out zipcars. And rats. Adspace's got a lotta crap to cover. I watch every gap, nudge closer to Fisher. Alarm might come from anywhere.

Hub Girl doesn't take a minute to assess a situation before she jumps in. But that doesn't mean she doesn't judge. Her dialectal choices give me opportunities to express judgment, and typically she'll add a word or phrase of judgment into what's going on, like "Hell'm I glad Fisher's by me," which is both telling the reader how she feels and motivating her next action, telling the group to form pairs. "Careful feet here" is a judgment that lets her tell us a little about what she sees near the junk mountain.

The end result is that the pacing seems higher, which is appropriate to the dangerous breakneck pace of the life she leads. I end up with very short opportunities to show her opinions and motivations - and that means I have to take advantage of them to the hilt. Sometimes that means spending a lot of time choosing a single word, to make it do as much as possible. An example of a single word that needed a lot of tuning was the word I use to describe the augmented reality that she experiences. Essentially it means she has the internet in her head, and that she can use it to change the way she sees the world around her. I first called it "aug-reality" (short for augmented reality, obviously) but that didn't seem right because it was clunky, and because very often "aug" is used to describe physical augmentations, when this doesn't have any of that aspect. The other critical aspect of this is that unless they bump heads, nobody can see what the other person has chosen to augment their reality. It's customized, person by person. I did a lot of brainstorming, and finally to take the words "custom reality" and blend them into a single term, "customality."

What I find is that when I can't use as much internalization, I rely a lot more on the surrounding text - the descriptions and actions - to convey judgments. Especially if you aren't working in close point of view, that's where the sense of character is going to come from. I thought Kij Johnson did this especially well in her award-winning short story, "26 Monkeys - Also the Abyss." If you'd like to look further at your options for more distant points of view, I'll point you to the analysis I did of Kij's story, which actually has comments from the author herself! You can find it here.

In the end, I find internalization to be a great tool for all kinds of jobs - worldbuilding, character building, establishing motive and drive, etc. However, not all characters support the same amount of it, and so it's useful to think through what your options are when extended internalization isn't possible (even contemplative characters get a lot less contemplative when there's action going on!). I hope I've given you some good ideas of how to approach the problem.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Link: 14 Words with No English Equivalent

I thought you guys might enjoy this cute link, which describes words in other languages that can't be directly translated into English. I think the two I'm most likely to adopt in my own speech are "tartle," the feeling of panic you get just before having to introduce someone whose name you don't remember (Scotland), and "pelinti," moving hot food around in your mouth so you don't burn your tongue (Ghana).

Don't forget that the hangout is going ahead today at 11am PST on Google+! I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

TTYU Retro: What your character doesn't know can hurt him/her (in dialogue and internalization)

To get this topic started, I'm going to start with an example. The following exchange is one I revised some time ago:

Initial Draft:
"Young master," said the First Houseman's quiet voice. "The Arbiter of the First Family Council..."
"Oh, thank you, Serjer," said Tagaret. "Has he sent a reply?"
"He has come to see you, sir."

Revised Draft:
"Young master," said the First Houseman's quiet voice. "The Arbiter of the First Family Council..."
"Oh, thank you, Serjer," said Tagaret. "What does he say?"
"He has come to see you, sir."

The difference isn't huge, but it is important. I changed Tagaret's question from "Has he sent a reply?" to "What does he say?" The reason I changed it is because in writing the first question, I had lost sight of what Tagaret knows and expects - specifically, that Tagaret would automatically interpret his servant's mention of the Arbiter to mean that a message had been received. He would not ask whether there was a message. He would ask what the message was. That still leaves plenty of room for him to be surprised that the Arbiter has come to see him, and it keeps him from seeming dazed or appearing to point out the obvious. Here's my point:

What your character says and thinks will change completely based on previous knowledge and expectations. 

Possibly the mystery/police procedural writers know this best. Entire plots can hinge on a slip of the perpetrator's tongue, something to indicate the person knows more than he/she claims. "No, I haven't seen Grizelda's goldfish." "Aha, but I never told you what Grizelda had lost!"

This is also an excellent way to reveal a character's bias. Here's another example from yesterday: Tagaret wants to reveal to the Arbiter that his brother has a congenital mental problem, but first he asks the Arbiter to promise not to blame his mother - a promise that the Arbiter readily agrees to because he's a nice person. The way he talks about it afterward, though, reveals his position on the underlying matter.

"You've already said you wish to protect your mother for her involvement..."

The Arbiter, helpful as he is, does believe that the mother is responsible for the problem with her son. If he did not feel that way, he would say something like,

"You've already said you wish to protect your mother from any accusation..."

When I'm critiquing, there are two types of problems I typically see which arise from the writer not keeping the character's knowledge and expectations in mind. The first one is when a character seems not to know basic parameters of interaction in his/her society. This is pretty common in early drafts where all the details of a world haven't yet been worked out, so it's not necessarily a huge problem, but it's still one that needs to be addressed before the final draft. If the character is speaking or internalizing on the basis of a relatively blank slate, in the worst case he or she may appear shallow or stupid. Watch out particularly for the less extreme case, when a character may appear younger than the age the writer specifies. This is very often due to insufficient evidence of social knowledge in the character's actions, speech and thought.

The second type of issue I run into is what I'll call over-instruction. The character doesn't naturally demonstrate bias or social knowledge through phrasing in dialogue and thought, so the writer realizes that the reader may forget that this person is biased and society works in the way it does... and has the character make overt statements of bias or explanations of social structure. This isn't always quite as obvious as "as-you-know-Bob" dialogue, but it's worth watching out for.

Avoiding over-instruction is not the same as avoiding instruction altogether. There are plenty of contexts when people (particularly young people, but also adults) get instructed about how the world is supposed to work. However, it's important if you're going to include instruction to make sure that you're not solely acting as an author instructing your reader, but that the context of instruction is also one that would occur naturally in your society. In my book, the Arbiter's job is something like that of a high school guidance counselor, so he's full of advice, even in the same conversation:

"Tagaret, you need a manservant, and you need one now. Do you want to remain helpless until the end of Selection?"

"You'll need to write your own inquiry letter, but you may use this one as an example."

"You realize any manservant would have [saved your life]... You can't afford to let fondness influence your treatment of servants. Given your brother's current position, we need you to be as strong as possible, politically."

Notice that Erex is ready to tell Tagaret that he's showing too much fondness for a particular servant - but he doesn't bother saying anything about where servants rank, or whether they have value, because he considers that evident (his own servant is standing right behind him at the time). He makes the instructional point in order to get to what he considers more important and central to the conversation, namely Tagaret's reputation as a potentially strong political force.

It's something to think about.

For those of you who have been anticipating my return to worldbuilding hangouts, I'll officially be resuming those tomorrow, Thursday, January 17th. I'm looking forward to chatting with you all about how to keep rich worldbuilding from bogging down your story!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Watch out for ING. It may be weaken-ing your story.

I've heard a lot of writing advice, and I've heard about a lot of things to avoid when writing. Maybe you've heard people tell you to avoid adverbs. Maybe you've heard them tell you to avoid passive voice. I'm not the kind of person to say "avoid doing X at all costs," so I won't tell you to expunge all adverbs from your work, or never to use the passive. I will, however, tell you that whenever you use a word or a grammatical construction, you should know why you are doing it and what its effect is.

On that note, I'm going to try to bring "over ING-ing" to your attention.

The suffix -ing is extremely common. You can find it in places like the question, "What are you doing with that suffix?" or like the statement "Abusing the suffix -ing is unconscionable." I'll tell you right now that you won't be able to avoid it completely. However, overuse of ING can weaken your story significantly. So let's think about what it does.

I found this article about the grammatical functions of -ing that gives you a pretty good idea of your options. They quote the following list of different ways you can use the word "painting" in a sentence (emphasis added):
  1. A painting of Brown’s…
  2. The painting of Brown is as skilful as that of Gainsborough….
  3. Brown’s deft painting of his daughter is a delight to watch…
  4. I dislike Brown’s painting his daughter.
  5. I dislike Brown painting his daughter.
  6. I watched Brown painting his daughter…
  7. The silently painting man is Brown…
  8. He is painting his daughter.
I'm not going to disentangle all of these, but I will bring your attention to the fact that they fall into three groups by what kind of grammatical phrases the word falls into. One group is exemplified by #8, where "painting" is part of a complex verb phrase, in the present progressive form. Present progressive, is very commonly used in stories. Another group has "painting" being used as a noun (#1-4). Finally there is #6 where "painting" occurs in an adjective-like position.

What is the relevance of this to story writing?

Let's start with the present progressive. It creates the impression of an ongoing state by placing us inside the moment when the activity is going on.

I am walking.
I am walking to school.

Notice that if I am walking to school, the presence of school as a prospective end point for my walking doesn't change the subjective impression that I am floating in the middle of the activity, suspended for whatever amount of time necessary. One of the things that the present progressive can do for you is set up a state of suspense that can then be interrupted (I do this a lot in my stories):

I was walking to school when I first saw the stranger girl.

The simple past "saw" is the event that interrupts the sense of suspension inherent in "walking." Terrific, and it's a great thing to be able to do - but as with most things we encounter in our writing, it can be overused. Variation in syntax is really important for flow, because people will notice if you use the present-progressive-interrupted construction too often.

Another use of present progressive is to talk about two activities happening concurrently:

Walking to school, I considered my options.

In this case the simple past doesn't interrupt, but if I had to pick which of these was the "action" of the sentence, I would pick "considered" rather than "walking." I would expect the sentence that followed to discuss details of my consideration, rather than details of how I was walking. Using the present progressive backgrounds the activity of walking to the activity of considering, so you'll want to make sure you have the emphasis where you want it.

People will also notice if you use the present progressive by itself too much. Maybe you have a piece of writing where you read it and it feels dreamy, a bit disconnected, like you're waiting for something to happen... that could be due to the presence of a lot of present progressive -ing forms.

The other ING to watch out for is sneakier. The nominalizing -ing, as I mentioned above, the one that takes a verb and turns it into a noun. You might be familiar with this phrase:

"The scouring of the Shire"

In fact, "The Xing of the Y" is a very commonly used phrasing in fantasy (and maybe sf too?). I think this may be because it gives a momentous feeling to whatever it describes, as though that event were important enough to merit historical significance. However, what it also does is steal the sense of action and movement out of the verb.

This is a problem that can sometimes be mistakenly identified by readers or critiquers as "use of passive voice." Don't be fooled. It has nothing to do with the grammatical passive "was Xed by Y" - and yet, it does make the narrative sound passive.

Rather than the word passive, I prefer here to focus on the word "static," as in "a continuing state without change or drive." Both the present progressive and nominalizing INGs leave you with static prose when they are overdone - because the present progressive suspends you in a state, and the nominalizing suffix takes an action and makes it into a thing or event.

Can you avoid ING completely?

Well, you could - but you probably wouldn't want to. I chose to minimize the use of ING in my story "Cold Words," because my narrator was a wolf alien, and one of my goals was to have him sound very decisive and like a creature of action. In particular, I was trying to avoid the present progressive. That was, however, one of the things that made him sound inhuman. Here's an example:

He, enter audience? I lean close to his ear, since listeners would take offense that I don't dominate him with Cold words in reply. "What, Parker, have your superiors abandoned you? Do the Allied Systems punish you for our previous failure?"
     He shakes his short mane. "No, Rulii. They want too badly to place a spaceport here. They may blame me for the language error that cast insult on Majesty, but they still need me for my own studies. I came to tell you the Systems have granted my request: a replacement negotiator arrives tonight. But if I could speak to Majesty before she arrives..."
     He must fear indeed, to propose such a risk. "What is it? Still the problem of Cold words? Someone of Rank among your people must grasp the dominator's tongue, Parker, or Majesty will brand you Barbarians!"

It's something to think about.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Must-Read Article on Diversity in Fiction

You should read this wonderful, detailed article on the question of diversity in fantasy and science fiction, called PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical.

It makes a lot of great points, but the one that really stuck out for me is this: women have had very important roles - what we would call powerful roles - throughout history, and the modern view that women were historically weak is not due to an understanding of what happened historically, but to the fact that the history writers were biased, and thus silenced the stories of the many, many people of color and women and gays, etc, etc, who made major contributions to the workings of the world. Click through to see the argument, and also to hear it backed up with example after example. Don't let the prejudiced recounting of history convince you that portraying minorities as powerful in historically influenced settings is somehow unrealistic. 

Read it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

TTYU Retro: When do you trunk a story?

I ran across this question on the SFWA website some time ago. It's an interesting question, and not at all easy to answer.

Let's start with the more basic question: what does "trunk a story" mean?
Well, to trunk a story in its simplest definition means not to send it out, or to keep it in your "trunk" at home (at this point, this is a virtual trunk for most of us, rather than a literal one). So, once you have stopped actively writing a story, and have revised it to the point where you consider it "ready", then if you don't send it out, it might be considered "trunked."

Of course, if you're simply not sure you're through with revisions, you may just be letting it rest to give yourself a fresh perspective on it. This is not the same as trunking, and it is highly recommended practice. Distance makes for more effective revisions.

The question of trunking becomes much more relevant after you've sent a story out and it has come back rejected. Many writers will cite Heinlein's rule, that you should not revise a story except to editorial order. I don't actually agree with this. If you've sent a story out, and it comes back rejected without comment, and you look at it again and see some major way to improve it, then go ahead and rewrite. It's just like taking a rest from your editing to get distance. Even better is when the rejection actually contains advice - then you can decide if the advice seems solid, and if it is, revise as necessary. But once you've revised, you need to send it out again. And again. And again.

So when do you stop?

Well, getting demoralized is not a good reason to stop. There are a lot of markets out there, and markets come and go. A story that gets rejected at all the current pro markets might not be good enough yet (and it behooves you to try to figure out if that's indeed the problem with it), but it might just not have matched the tastes of a particular editor. Thus, you should keep going. There are a lot of great semi-pro venues out there (some of which may become pro in the future), and if exposure is what you're looking for, there are also venues such as small anthologies which can be terrific (though they pay less well). You can choose to trunk your story temporarily because you don't want to submit below a certain pay level... just don't lose it in your files! In the future, other markets will surely open up at the pay level you're interested in, and you will be able to submit to them at that point.

Deciding that a story just isn't good enough... may or may not be a good reason. Maybe you just haven't found the right editor yet. But if you're feeling pretty sure it's not good enough, or you're getting pretty uniform feedback from critique partners but you don't feel capable of doing the revisions required, then maybe it's worth setting the story aside and taking a look at it later. If you leave it aside for a few months, or even a few years, then you might be able to come back to it later. At that point you may decide it should be blown to smithereens, or you could have much better vision and better tools as a writer and really be able to make it work. This has happened to me.

Deciding that a story isn't your first priority right now... is a good enough reason. I have a story that I'm keen to revise, but I don't have time. Add to that the fact that it takes place in my Varin world, which not many people know, but in which I'm currently writing a novel, and I arrive at the following decision: I should probably be writing my novel and not rewriting that story right now. It can sit until I have the time and wherewithal to deal with it.

Deciding that you don't want a story to represent you... is a good enough reason. I had a story that I wrote on the basis of a story seed given to me by somebody else. It was fun to write. It was really different from what I usually write, and as such I found it refreshing. But when I started to send it out, the main complaint I got from editors was that the premise was not believable - and the premise was the part that I had been given as a seed. I couldn't change it without gutting the story. I looked at what I had written, and asked myself, "If an editor says he/she likes this, will I feel happy about having this in the public domain with my name on it?" In the end, I decided I really wouldn't. So I retired the story. I have only ever done this once.

I'm sure that my own personal experiences don't cover all the possibilities here. Have any of you decided to "trunk" stories? Why? I'd be interested to hear your thinking on this subject.

New Worldbuilding Hangouts!

It's been a long time - too long! - since I last had a worldbuilding hangout on Google+, and I want to resume. However, with the demands of my schedule, it's taken me a while to figure out how to manage what I want to do. Wednesday, despite its lovely alliteration, isn't going to work for me. Therefore, I'd like to invite you to join me for worldbuilding hangouts on Thursdays.

We resume tomorrow!

UPDATE: 11am PST will be the time. If we are not yet connected on Google+, please comment and let me know how to find you so that I can put you in the appropriate circle. I'd love to see you there.

UPDATE 2: I was sick last week, but am planning to hang out this week!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Who dies in your story?

It's an important question to ask. We used to make a joke: How can you tell the difference between a Shakespearean comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy? In the comedy, everyone gets married at the end, and in the tragedy, everyone dies. This is, shall we say, a bit of an extreme difference. But what about your story? How do you know whether people should die or not?

Age group is, of course, an extremely important factor in your decision. Generally, the younger the story's audience, the less likely it is that anyone will die. Deaths in books for young people have to be very carefully decided upon, and very delicately handled.

Genre is also a huge factor. Murder mysteries begin with dead people, naturally. Thrillers often have a huge body count. Romances tend to veer away from death, for the most part. In science fiction and fantasy, there isn't a necessary expectation one way or the other. So I thought I'd take a look at some options.

1. No one dies
This one always makes me think of children's books, or children's animated shows. There's something weird about it, because no matter how dramatic the attack (and those are pushed to the heights of drama), there's never any gruesome injury or death, even when those might be the most natural result. Odd disappearances often substitute for death. The reason I bring this up, though, is because a lack of death can be handled badly or well. "No one can die" is a tricky arbitrary rule to enforce, and if you try to find easy ways of doing it, like having people coincidentally or luckily just not be injured or killed, it's going to look really weird. On the other hand, if you dig deep into how to handle it, it can also be very interesting. There's another way in which death is a too-easy way out - you can ditch a character and not have to do much except have people mourn and react. Sometimes it would be a lot tougher to figure out what might happen if the character didn't die. A non-death solution requires some ingenuity, especially when the character in question is the Big Baddie. It's never a good idea to avoid plausible and necessary injury or death out of a sense of squeamishness. However, having to deal with the real consequences of an attack that was supposed to be fatal and wasn't can be really interesting.

2. People you don't care about die
I'd also refer to this as "Only extras die." Maybe in the past, people took less umbrage at the idea of only extras dying, but at this point I think audiences and readers are pretty critical. If your story includes fighting and death, don't put a force field around your main characters. It's hard to kill off a point of view character, but it can be done. If you really feel you can't do in a point of view character, do consider important secondary characters. In the end, what you're trying to avoid is a situation where tons of extras die, but nobody in the main group takes a scratch. That would likely be seen as an authorial conceit (or, put less nicely, a cop-out).

3. The people you care about die.
This one is both tricky and interesting. We often care about the bad guy, enough at least to want him to get his comeuppance. So having the bad guy die is often a good thing - but depending on how violent and chaotic the story is, having him/her be the only one to die can be a problem. Please be aware that I'm not advocating killing a lot of people off. Let me say here that I was surprised and pleased when in The Princess Bride, Prince Humperdinck didn't actually get killed. But let's say you want to have deaths in the story which may or may not include the bad guy. In recent years, it's become more common and acceptable to have characters you care about die in stories. The first time I encountered this was in the film Serenity, and I'm pretty sure you are all aware of George R. R. Martin's tendency to make you love characters and then kill them off. The hazard of killing off characters people love is that readers need people to invest in who can carry them through the entire story. Kill the character and you may kill the reader's interest. Now, Game of Thrones has been enormously successful in spite of this, but I know at least one person who put down the books saying, "Every time I start to care about someone, they die." Kudos to George R. R. Martin for keeping so many people enthralled  - but don't assume you can pull off the same thing without some careful planning. Make sure you leave someone behind to carry on the drive and momentum of the story.

I know some authors who get gleeful on Facebook when they are about to kill someone off (not always the bad guy). I remember being thrilled when a character I hated finally got to die. It can be difficult, though, especially if the death is wrenching. Think through whether the death is necessary. It can be necessary for logistical or plausibility reasons, or for emotional amplitude reasons. You don't want to be holding back out of fondness, or squeamishness. On the other hand, you don't want to be needlessly brutal. Once I read a book where the main character was constantly getting injured - so constantly that after a while it became almost comical. I was pretty sure that any normal person would have been dead or hiding out somewhere licking wounds. In any case, you'll want to look at the emotional dynamics of the story, and make whatever happens fit in to match your intent.

The last thing I'd like to mention here is the issue of minorities and death. This has come to my attention in the form of Facebook posts from some respected friends critiquing modern media and literature. Be careful who you kill off and try not to fall into discriminatory patterns. For example, black men who achieve romantic relationships are highly likely to be killed in movies, as are minority supporting characters who sacrifice themselves for the success of the white lead. There is also a tendency for women to be killed off, often in order to provide motivation for a male character (sometimes called "manpain"). Whenever I see examples of this, or see it discussed, I can't help but shudder. When I was writing For Love, For Power, I set up a love triangle between Tagaret, Reyn, and Della, with Tagaret in the middle. I knew that I could not in good conscience resolve the triangle by having Reyn die - because killing off a gay character to make it possible for another character to have a heterosexual relationship would have been despicable of me (!!), not to mention an authorial cop-out. It's far more interesting and valuable to tackle the issues that come up as people work out their differences, even if it can be more difficult.

Take questions of life and death seriously.

It's something to think about.