Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Smoke and Feathers" will appear in When the Hero Comes Home 2!

After much hinting, I'm finally able to release the news. My story, "Smoke and Feathers," will be appearing in Gabrielle Harbowy and Ed Greenwood's anthology, When the Hero Comes Home 2. My story is in a special set of longer pieces which are special to the electronic version of the book, so make sure to keep your eye out for that! Here's the Table of Contents (starred stories are in the special ebook set):

*Bagabones by Jacquelyn Bartel
Beginning by Jillian Boehme
Bringing Back Raby by Chaz Brenchley
After the Winds by K.T. Bryski
Living Bargains by Suzanne Church
Vasilissa’s Doll by Elaine Cunningham
The Last Perfect Heart by Fanny Valentine Darling
Remnants by Erin M. Evans
*Prince Goldgriffin Rides In by Ed Greenwood
*Closure by Gabrielle Harbowy
Jack Crochety by Larry Kay
Juan Carceres in the Zapatero’s Workshop by Derek Künsken
Safe Within You by Mercedes Lackey
Broken by K.D. McEntire
Narcolepsy by Bob Neilson
The Last of the Unicorn Hunters by Diana Peterfreund
Waiting For You by Leah Petersen
*Blood Runs Thicker by Mary Pletsch
*Come is the Wolf in her Wounding by Dan Rabarts
*The Return of Hobard the Vanquisher by Mike Rimar
The Hero of Abarxia by Deborah J. Ross
*The Stiletto by Maggie Sokoll
A Spray of Bittersweet by Andrea Stewart
Faces of the Revolution by James L. Sutter
A Sword that Heals by Clint Talbert
*Smoke and Feathers by Juliette Wade
Call of the Sky by Cliff Winnig
Faith by Chris Wong Sick Hong
The Clever One by Jamie Wyman

I'm honored to be appearing in the company of such amazing authors!  Here's a link for more information from the editor.

TTYU Retro: Writing Action Sequences: a process of layering and research

I find action sequences to be challenging. It's not that I can't write them well, I just don't find that they come together spontaneously in my mind. I need to break it down. The action sequence is built by a process...and that's why I thought it might be interesting to blog about the process.

I have some issues with the idea of extended fight scenes rendered in words, and these issues form a basis for a lot of the decisions I make in putting together an action scene. First is the boredom issue, and second is the plausibility issue.

What makes a fight boring? When I watch a martial arts movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I'm visually entertained enough to put up with flailing arms and legs and flying bodies for quite lengthy periods of time. Not so when I'm dealing with text. I can appreciate the fact that a fight has changing dynamics of one person over another, and I find the psychology of the participants interesting - what they want, what weakness they think they are going to exploit, etc. - but extended descriptions of one fight move after another start feeling like they're all the same, and I start skimming.

What makes a fight implausible? Well, mostly when the fight seems to be the whole point of an action sequence, and the reasons behind the fight, or the context surrounding the fight, get neglected.

So now that I'm through the caveats, let's get on to specifics. As an example, I'll be using the sequence that I just wrote for For Love, For Power (which is now finished). I came into the writing of the sequence knowing several key things: the identities (and thus the basic fighting prowess) and main goals of the two opponents, the general location, and the starting positions of the two opponents.

The two fighters are both members of the Imbati servant caste, and their names are Aloran and Sorn. These two guys have been at odds through most of the book, and I came into this knowing that people would expect them to have a fight. Possibly a big fight. They are both trained bodyguards and martial artists, and their martial art is somewhat inspired by Kung Fu but differs from it in specific moves.

Sorn has two goals: first, to deliver a vote to a group of people below the stage, and second, to receive an inquiry letter from someone on the stage. This might not sound like much of a big deal, but the delivery of the vote was his master's final charge, and thus he has to carry it out first; by contrast the receipt of the inquiry letter is actually close to a life-or-death matter for him. Essentially Sorn is wanted for crimes by "the wardens" and the only time they can actually nab him is 1. when he has no master, and 2. when he is out of sight of the nobility. The minute he receives the inquiry letter, their chance at him is gone. If they get him, they will take away all his honor and imprison him for life, so he's pretty motivated to carry out these two tasks.
Aloran has the following goals: to intercept Sorn before he can receive the inquiry letter, and to get him to step into a place where he will be out of view of nobles (thus making him vulnerable to the wardens). I knew coming in that Aloran would realize that Sorn had to deliver the vote first, and that he would try to steal it to force Sorn to pursue him.

General location and starting positions:
The confrontation occurs in and around the Hall of the Eminence, where a major event is about to take place (the vote is intended to be used during this event). It's a long hall with high arched ceilings and a raised stage at one end. Aloran enters the room through a door at the back of the stage, which puts him behind a number of people who are onstage waiting for the event to begin. Sorn enters the room through an archway from another room, which is located on Aloran's left at the base of the stairs to the stage. They're maybe fifty feet from each other.

At this point you may notice something. I've got a lot of information about the surrounding circumstances but no idea what kind of moves these guys will be putting on each other. So I started writing by just getting the two balls rolling toward each other, so to speak. Aloran makes a move and gets close to Sorn, realizes he's delivering the vote and that the vote is his chance to get his attention. Grabs the vote when Sorn isn't expecting it, and runs. Part of me thought that at this point they would have a really dramatic martial arts battle here in front of everybody. But then I ran afoul of my plausibility guideline. Letting two experienced fighters battle it out in front of the entire nobility, with important leaders present, when they have to pass through security just to get into that room? Are you kidding?

This was the point when I called my friends Janice Hardy and Lillian Csernica to talk through things, and over the course of a couple of conversations I came to the conclusion that Aloran was going to try to make a run for it, and Sorn was going to come after him, and then they would both be apprehended by the guards who are there to guard the audience members. Bystanders are actually really critical, and they were the deciding factor in this change for me. This was actually good for me, because I realized that Aloran and Sorn would have a verbal argument trying to get the guards to let one or the other of them have his way. I can handle arguments. Neither one of them wins this one, and the guard has them expelled from the event.

As a part of an action sequence, I like this, because it gives them an unexpected setback. The setback is, of course, bigger for Sorn than for Aloran at first glance, because it takes him farther away from the place where he must deliver his vote, and the person from whom he must receive the inquiry. I immediately decided that it had to be something of a setback for Aloran, too. So essentially I worked with what I knew of the architecture of this building and decided that it's a lot harder to access places that are out of noble view when you're in this section of the place. Aloran has to leave the foyer through a very heavy bronze door, cross a waiting room full of chairs, and then there's a hidden door on the other side of the room into the servants' halls (which is where we know the wardens are waiting).

So by this point I knew that they were going to have it out in the waiting room, in relative privacy. I had to ask myself whether either one would possess any weapons or armor. The answer in both cases was "no": Aloran has just run out of his home with zero notice to try to intervene, and Sorn has been spending the last several days at the hospital with his dying master, unwilling to leave for any reason because if for some reason he's not present when his master dies, he might be apprehended before he knows it has happened. So while Sorn is a pretty unscrupulous guy, it's not plausible for him to have weapons or armor on him.

Unscrupulous had to enter into the fight somehow, however. This was the point when I decided I needed some actual fighting moves, and my major sources for these were my friend and fellow Analog author Brad Torgersen, who is also a Chief Warrant Officer in the US Army Reserve, and my friend Deborah J. Ross, a fabulous author and heir to the worlds of Marion Zimmer Bradley, who is a black belt in Kung Fu.

Brad's major - and awesome - contribution was to introduce me to the Army Combatives choke out. It gave me some serious heebie-jeebies to do so, but I went at his suggestion and watched some videos of the technique. This was actually an enormous help to me, because it not only gave me a sense of how the move was accomplished, but what it would look like if it were done voluntarily vs. involuntarily (some of the videos show "example" applications and others show fighting). I realized that I could use this move in two different spots in the novel, one where it was done voluntarily, and one involuntarily. I immediately hopped in and changed the place where I had written something lame like "she jumped on him and he collapsed" to incorporate the move.

At that point I needed to have a sense of realistic response to this move. Given that my fighters are martial artists, I wasn't sure whether I'd be getting a martial arts response to the choke move through the army fighting videos, and my only other visualization of this was the battle between the Man in Black and Fezzik from "The Princess Bride." So that was where Deborah's major awesome contribution to the fight came in. She talked to me about possible responses to a choke, including tucking your chin down as far as possible, grabbing backwards and twisting flesh (preferably tender flesh), stomping backwards on feet, flinging oneself backward against walls or obstacles. We discussed not only what these moves were, but how they could go wrong.

In the end, the way it played out took me by surprise, and I hope it will take my readers by surprise as well. If I'd had the kind of initial engagement that one sees in an Old West duel, with the two fighters facing off down an empty stretch of road, then this whole fight would have turned out differently and would probably have been a lot longer, as they both used all their skills to keep from direct engagement while hurting one another as much as possible, looking around for things to throw, etc. However, the fact that Aloran has stolen the vote and is making a run for a place where they won't be seen completely changes the dynamic and weakens his position as a prepared fighter.

So at this point I'll conclude with a summary list of the things I needed to think through to write this sequence:
  • identities of the fighters
  • martial skills of the fighters
  • goals of the fighters
  • physical location of the fight
  • positions of the fighters as they begin the fight
  • presence of bystanders
  • interference of bystanders
  • conditions for the resumption of the fight (physical location, position, bystanders)
  • attack moves 
  • response moves
At any point in the fight, the attacks and responses may change the surrounding conditions, so the last few elements of this list can cycle through multiple times if you're constructing your own combat. In any case, I hope laying this out can help those of you who have to think through fights a bit at a time the way I do. It took all of these steps and all this research for me to get to the point where I could see the conflict with clarity, step by step in my mind - and if I don't achieve that, then I don't feel like I can write the sequence in a plausible and engaging way.

It's something to think about.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Why not apply John Cleese's model of creativity to your revisions?

Yes, we know John Cleese is awesome. This week for the first time I encountered this video he made some years ago, talking about the nature of creativity. I highly recommend you listen to it, because it's perceptive, fascinating, and also quite funny (I don't think he can do anything that isn't at all funny).

I was particularly struck by what he talked about between 7:47-10:00 of the video. He talks about creativity being an "open mode" and efficiency being a "closed mode." Each of these is valuable to us as writers, and I think that they particularly apply to the process of revision.

I typically find that revisions come in two types. The easier of the two is what I'd call edits: going through to tighten up language, make sure that there are no inconsistencies and no redundancies, etc. The second of the two is what I call revisions: taking larger problems with character or story structure and thinking about how to change them. This involves looking for a better way, a different feel, or a different opportunity.

Revisions are much harder, and are often the result of some intangible sense that the story isn't quite right. When I'm planning revisions, I can't look at my existing text. Any view of the text itself will drag me back into that fixed pattern and prevent me from having the insights I need to fix the larger problem.

I'm sure you're already seeing the parallel: edits correspond to Cleese's "closed mode," and revisions to his "open mode."

If you've never stepped back off your text, just stepped away from it, during the revision process, I highly encourage you to do so. Thinking it over in the shower, or while washing dishes, or while doing daily routines, can be helpful. So can talking your thoughts through with a writer friend. I find that stepping away from the words themselves helps me to see the story's structural pieces, the larger arcs and patterns that are the result of the words, which cannot be easily "seen" by looking at any given small stretch of text.

I hope you enjoy the video, and I hope you find these thoughts on revisions helpful to your process.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Link: How language change is turning "slash" into a conjunction!

This is a great article. It demonstrates the process of language change, and shows how our use of text influences our use of speech. The punctuation mark "slash" "/" is starting to be used verbally as a conjunction with a meaning a bit like and/or. So much fun!

Link: How babies learn to read intention

I just came across this great article on Slate. Having studied child language development, and having had children myself, I've always been amazed at how little babies really know when they are born, but how incredibly quickly they learn. The article talks about some studies that have been done about "sticky mittens" and reaching, and guessing intention. It's fascinating stuff, and I hope you enjoy it.

How Babies Learn to be Human

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TTYU Retro: "Superpowers" for non-superhero characters

I often joke about my characters having superpowers. None of them are superheroes - what I mean by this is that they have special skills, or special powers of intuition, that allow them to get through the story. It makes sense to do this - if your protagonist is going to beat the bad guy, likely enough he or she will need to be a good sword fighter, or an expert thief, or able to put two and two together at critical points in the story.

Be careful.

First off, there's the danger of employing Superman in your story. You don't want your protagonist to be so powerful that nothing can hurt him. Vulnerabilities and self-doubt can go a long way toward making a protagonist relatable. It may be a product of our modern age that people are less interested in seeing an uncomplicated hero - on the other hand, look at Hamlet. He had issues, too (not that they were called "issues"!)

The other danger is that you can't give people sudden unexplained skills - because then they will be superpowers. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter gets handed a sword and suddenly knows how to use it - something I always ascribed to magic in the sword, but I've had friends tell me that it always bothered them.

This is something where backstory becomes critical. Give your characters a chance to learn the things they need in order to be who they are. What that background needs to be will depend on the character and the power or skill. Sometimes it will be a process that must be shown in the story so that people can see the characters developing their abilities. Sometimes it can be alluded to in backstory that this character went to a special school, or had a martial arts mentor, etc. etc. To that you can then add whatever natural intuitions etc. the character has.

Let's look at some examples.

Ender from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is a genius kid. I'm sure you've seen more than a few genius kids in your reading history. Ender has the advantage that the author has specified that he's part of a deliberate breeding program that is trying to create genius kids. The idea that a genius kid would arise spontaneously (with two more genius kids as his brother and sister) would stretch credulity. That there could be a deliberate program trying to achieve this, and that they could then achieve this in different ways in the same family, is much less improbable. Much easier to accept as a science-fictional conceit.

Another character who is gifted with both natural characteristics and training is Phèdre from Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Her supernatural ability is her tolerance/enjoyment of pain, and her training comes from her long years of specialized education  in Anafiel Delaunay's household. 

My own character, Xinta, from "The Eminence's Match," is a bodyguard and a political assistant as well as a personal valet. When I first wrote him (many, many years ago!) I noticed he was coming across as graceful, polite, incredibly dexterous, awesomely powerful in martial arts, etc., and all of it was completely unjustifiable. He was a superhero. Since I didn't want superheroes in my story, I turned to education. In the complete model of my world all manservants are intensively educated from age 6 at a special academy where individuals who don't possess the mental or physical qualifications are slowly weeded out and sent into other lines of work. The ones who succeed are trained in various academic subjects, manual dexterity as well as bodyguarding and (for those serving men) how to read people's faces. Their manners come from their upbringing within the culture of the servant caste. My character Aloran from For Love, For Power has been trained to work for ladies, and that includes special training in medical care. To that I can add an edge of intuition that serves him well in the story, but isn't so unusual that it could be considered supernatural.

When I'm putting together a story, I often find it helpful to think in terms of superpowers. It's my playful way of talking about the special skills and qualities each major character brings to the story. It also helps me keep these qualities balanced between people, so that everyone can contribute.

It's something to think about.

Monday, April 22, 2013

N.K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon, and elements of deep worldbuilding

A couple of weeks ago I recommended some authors who have atypical cultures - African, Russian, Islamic, etc. - represented in their work (here's the post, if you haven't seen it). This week, I thought I'd take a closer look at N.K. Jemisin's novel, The Killing Moon. Let's look at some of the layers of complexity she builds into her worldbuilding.

1. Physical Environment

The Killing Moon does a great job with environment, by using a technique that I highly recommend: taking an existing world environment and translating it into a fantasy setting. In the case of the Dreamblood series, that environment is Egypt in ancient times. A hot climate, cicadas, papyrus, a city divided into districts by caste. There are descriptions of travel through city buildings that allow us to grasp a sense of the distinctive architecture. There's also food in abundance, as for example in this passage:

"...crisp vegetables flecked with hekeh-seed and sea salt, balls of grain held together with honey and aromatic oil, medallions of fresh fish tied into bundles around wine-soaked raisins."

One of the things that Jemisin does best is use very specific, carefully chosen details. The passage above contains only a single non-English word, but conveys the nature of its ingredients very effectively, and thus also implies the presence of those ingredients in the surrounding environment. The sea is clearly nearby, and people grow grapes to dry or ferment, etc.

2. Language

The first thing you'll probably notice about language in the book is that Jemisin has chosen a very specific "feel" for the foreign words and names. These fit with the environment and the classical language associated with it. She quickly takes it further, though. She does a lot with modes of address, titles, etc. People from the city of Gujaareh have two names, one for waking and one "in dreams." This fits in beautifully with the cultural concepts surrounding waking and dreaming, which I'll return to below. There's also a mode of address which involves appending a word of (metaphorical) relation onto the name of the person, as for example with Yeyezu-elder, Manthe-mother, Ehiru-brother etc. I'm just scratching the surface here, of course. Read the book if you really want to feel the language.

3. Cultural Diversity

Gujaareh is a chaotic place, a trade city where many groups come together. One of the things that makes that most convincing is the kind of cultural diversity that Jemisin sets up in her city. Gujaareen people come in several different castes (including servant, merchant, and two varieties of noble); there are also the people of Kisua, Bromarte, Jijun, and Khanditta. Because of my own natural desire to "figure things out" I put a lot of effort into trying to memorize all these distinctions at the beginning, but it's actually better - and truer to the spirit of the book and Gujaareh - to let them flow a bit. This is a very realistic kind of cultural diversity that means we can only have very solid social expectations of people we know well, and you'll find that the characters you know well have very distinct cultural traits. The uncertainty of social expectations with others mirrors that of naturally diverse environments in our own world.

4. Cultural Concepts

Developing cultural concepts is something I encourage everyone to do. Religion covers a lot of these, but usually not all of them. In every culture we have an understanding of right and wrong that is culturally based, and in this book you can see the concept of Death being interpreted differently by two different cultural groups; indeed, it's central to the main conflict. The other thing I love here is that each group's view of death influences its suspicions about what's going on in the central mystery of the story... and neither group is entirely correct, which keeps readers guessing. Peace is another cultural concept that is viewed very differently by different groups in the book, and lies near the center of the conflict. So are waking and dreaming, which for some of the book's cultures are just what you'd expect, but for the Gujaareen most certainly are not. This is how you know that the world and the story are one: you can see the evidence that culture is not an add-on, but goes right to the core. Concepts are associated with metaphors that influence description, and also the action of characters.

5. Character Placement

In this book, we experience the story from several different points of view. The worldbuilding, and specifically the sense of the world's completeness, are greatly enhanced by the fact that each of the main characters has been placed in a different cultural position relative to the world. Sunandi is the Kisuati ambassador; Ehiru is a distinguished priest and Gatherer, originally from a high caste; Nijiri is an apprentice Gatherer, originally from the servant caste. What this character placement does is allows us to see multiple interpretations of the story's central thread, and thus also to expand our sense of the way that conflicts would play out in this world, even as we're only experiencing one of them.

I hope these thoughts can get you more interested to read The Killing Moon, and also that they can get you thinking about your own stories and worldbuilding.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

TTYU Retro: Language Design, with Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson (also Leigh Bardugo!)

I thought it might be fun to revisit this terrific, invitation-only hangout that I had last year, featuring special guests Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson, and great participants including Barbara Webb, Leigh Bardugo, Leigh Dragoon, and Megan Hutchins.

We started out with introductions, talking about what brought us to the evening's discussion.

Lawrence Schoen is the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. He has a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics and also a man with a great sense of humor; he says he is where he is today because he "fell in with a bad crowd," and that soon he'll be teaching Klingon to people in Atlanta. He had us laughing quite a bit during the session.

David Peterson is the president of the Language Creation Society, and has been creating languages since 2000. He's best known for his work creating the Dothraki language for HBO's Game of Thrones series, based on the works of George R.R. Martin.

At this point there was a digression about who would most likely win in a fight: a Dothraki or a Klingon. Opinion was somewhat mixed but the general consensus was that the Klingon would come out on top. We learned that Lawrence has a real mek'leth at his house. Trespassers beware!

Barbara Webb is a writer who loves second world fantasy and making up random words.
Leigh Bardugo is a writer whose Grisha trilogy I recommended last week, the first book of which is called Shadow and Bone. It's a fantasy based on 1800's Tsarist Russia, using a Russian-inspired fantasy language that she designed with David Peterson's help.
Leigh Dragoon is a writer who is looking to add structure to the words she's already been using in her work.
Megan Hutchins started conlanging as a teen and gravitated to linguistics in college; she enjoys Mayan glyphs and language invention. Both she and David knew Dirk Elzinga, a linguist at BYU.

From there we started with basics of language construction. Lawrence stated quite clearly that his favorite thing is to tie culture into language - it's something I love too! - but we moved quickly into the question of language sounds, which are often the first element people start working with. David recommends asking for the purposes of languages which will appear in written stories, "What sounds can I represent with the Roman alphabet?" Although, as Lawrence observed, there are typewriters and fonts for the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and SAMPA (Speech Assessment Method Phonetic Alphabet), these aren't going to be much use for typical story-writing. David mentioned that not too many people know that the Mexican "x" indicates a "sh" sound, and said one should stay away from it; he does think that George R.R. Martin did a good job rendering Dothraki using the Roman alphabet. My own sense is that so long as you're not wedded to readers pronouncing your words accurately (a big if!), you can develop Roman-alphabet shorthand for some of the sounds you're creating and leave it at that.

Barbara mentioned how critical it is to figure out names early on; names are often the first (and sometimes also the last!) place where unequivocal evidence is available for an underlying language system. Lawrence urged everyone to make sure that whatever names you use in your work, they fit into the system of the underlying created language. I mentioned my own experience in my early years working with Varin, which was that I'd created all kinds of names and some years in realized that I wanted to have them to conform to underlying language systems, so I had to sort them into piles by what kind of system they seemed to match with, delete some, change others, and figure there were three different languages underlying the use of names. As David aptly remarked, the earlier you start with the idea that you want a language system to underlie your story, the less work you will have to do later on back-forming it.

Lawrence mentioned a character of his who had been cursed with the inability to use voiceless consonants (these include t/p/k/s etc.). Instead of having him mispronounce words, he had the character very carefully select the words he used so that he never had to use the sounds he couldn't pronounce, which apparently made his language use rather unusual! He recommended to us China Miéville's book Embassytown, which he said (and I have also heard) is wonderful for language geeks.

David explained three ways he's encountered to incorporate a created language into a story (and did so heroically, in spite of technical difficulties!). The first way is that used by George R.R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire. He uses the Dothraki words in his text and then follows them up with an immediate English translation in the same line, written in italics. Lawrence mentioned that this is actually a real-life approach to foreign language translation, where an Anglo-Saxon word in English would be immediately followed by the word with the same meaning in French. The example everyone has heard of is "Will and Testament." We briefly mentioned how Tolkien sets his elvish language poems and songs apart from the main text; this can work well because non-linguists and those not interested in the language itself can skip those sections. Mind you, as David noted, that means it's important not to put critical plot information in those sections!

The second way was the approach taken by the folks subtitling the Japanese TV series One Piece. With certain Japanese words - the example mentioned here was "nakama" - the English translation is not entirely accurate, so after translating it for a while, the group basically said, "okay, we're not going to translate it any more" and that way they could allow the watchers to learn a more Japanese-like interpretation of the word from the contexts where it appeared. Letting readers deduce the meaning of an unfamiliar alien (or foreign language) word from context is a very useful approach. David also mentioned the word Khal from Dothraki, whose interpretation is not entirely translatable (he's the head of a Khalasa, don't ya know...). Lawrence suggests (mischievously) that you teach just a few words for beginners, but give poetry and word games to those deeper in.

The third way David mentioned was one the used by Juliette Wade (cue sound of my jaw dropping) from my story Cold Words, where the language Aurrel was used as a translation template to alter English - another way of saying this is that the English I used was a relatively literal translation from Aurrel. David compared this to taking the phrase "Me encantan los tacos" in Spanish, and instead of translating it to the English "I love tacos," reflecting the literal Spanish meaning by translating it as "Tacos enchant me." One of the special things that my character Rulii did linguistically was that he never used the present progressive tense - which dramatically changed the flavor of his narrative.

I mentioned that my favorite elements of alien language, the ones I most enjoy incorporating into my stories, are cultural concepts and pragmatics. These are much less commonly used by language creators whose work I've encountered in the past, but Lawrence and David are both into them. Lawrence in particular says he'd love to see aliens who make speech errors or who don't speak properly, aliens with different speech styles, etc. For those of you less familiar with what pragmatics is, it's basically how you get things across that aren't restricted to the literal meaning of the words you're using - this includes manners and social posturing, speech acts like requests and refusals etc., implied meaning, and things of that nature. As an example of cultural concepts I explained how in Cold Words, I took the concept of "friend" and made it feel foreign to readers by showing how Rulii struggled with it - a "friend" is not "skin-close, as a littermate or consort," but closer than "huntmate" because somehow (and he can't figure out how) it's supposed to be independent of Rank. One can do a similiar thing, backwards, to teach alien words and cultural concepts to readers.

David mentioned a special technique he uses to enhance the realism of his created languages, that is, to invent them and then to "age" them by about 100 years. The language you've created gains a much more authentic feel if it has been subjected to the forces of language change. Lawrence notes that too few authors consider language change when dealing with time travel. He suggests that we have people time travel in Iceland more often because the language has barely changed since its ancient roots. This made me think of Stargate (the movie) in which the linguist had knowledge of a language that was an ancestor of the language spoken by the aliens he met, and therefore had to try to "update" his knowledge to learn the new language. I also have a similar book idea where a Tolkien-like student of ancient languages and religions accidentally discovers the descendants of the ancient people whose archaeology he's exploring.

Leigh Bardugo also gave us a glimpse of the language she's using in her forthcoming book; both the fantasy setting and the language are Russian-inspired. She notes that in YA you have to be very careful with fantasy language, because though Game of Thrones may have changed some things, people reading YA aren't generally prepared for the high fantasy approach to language. Each word has to have resonance even if you are skimming. She used her first person narrator to help scaffold the language, allowing what didn't make sense to the narrator to be opaque to the reader as well. She used little tricks like using cognates with Russian.

Watch out when you're writing stories. A linguist will tend to know too much about the language, and want to push it too far. A writer (i.e. someone who is primarily a writer) will tend to embed it more subtly into the story.

David pointed out that he liked Leigh Bardugo's language because, since it used Slavic, it had a real sound-feeling. If you use a particular Earthly language as your basis for naming, then it will often sound more authentic and integrated. Leigh was looking for a non-medieval setting around the 1800's which would feel textured and present yet exotic. Russian, including slang, worked well for this. Janice Hardy did a similar thing by using Afrikaans as a linguistic source when she was writing The Healing Wars series. Avatar: the Last Airbender (the TV show) also did a wonderful job with this kind of linguistic and cultural incorporation. Lawrence mentioned Shogun as a very successful instance of language use, because you get to learn Japanese along with the character.

This was a fantastic and inspirational discussion for me, and I hope we can have another one of these in the future. If you missed it and would like to attend a future session, please do contact me so I can put you on my Google+ language hangout circle and make sure you are informed about any future dates. Participants: please let me know if I have made any errors in my report (based on your recollections) and if you would like to have me provide a link to a web page for you, please do give me the URL and I'll add it.

Thanks so much to everyone!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Conflict: it doesn't only mean fighting, so why are we so stuck on war?

Conflict. Tension. Stakes.

If you've been around the writing boards, or conferences, for very long, you'll hear a lot about these. You'll be told that your story has to have conflict. There should be tension on every page (that's a quote from Donald Maass). The stakes should get higher and higher as you go.

I've heard folks say that these views are culturally based - which in fact they are. Some will argue that these are not "rules," or even if they are, they should be broken more often. You might want to consider those viewpoints, indeed, and look for alternatives. But say you want to work within those "rules," and write a story about conflict and tension, with escalating stakes.

Does it have to have a war?

This weekend I was reading a book, and when I came to the big revelation that there was a war brewing, I hardly blinked. Okay, I thought, is that all? It's not the author's fault, really. It's the fault of the majority of books and films I've encountered in the last several years. So much war. So much, in fact, that it ceases to surprise me as a narrative element. I think the last time I got excited about giant battles was for The Lord of the Rings. The most interesting part of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the series) for me was not the big battles, but the struggles of the individual characters.

When you think about it, war is one of those giant-stakes macroscopic conflicts that can easily lose its significance - in much the same way that ongoing conflict in the world gets forgotten in the distractions of life for someone who isn't directly experiencing it. The most successful stories of war that I've seen always establish what the direct personal consequences are for the persons involved. After all, real wars have very direct personal consequences. The experience of reading The Diary of Anne Frank is very different from that of reading a history book summarizing World War II.

You have a lot of options. After all, The Hunger Games has extreme conflicts and brewing revolution that struck me deeply without having to occur on a massive scale. By the time I got to Mockingjay the conflict had escalated enough - and more importantly, the involvement of Katniss had diminished enough - that I cared a lot less.

Okay, yes, there are ways to do war that are still fresh. I haven't lost hope for my current book, because I trust this author deeply. I found the war in Janice Hardy's books to be different from any other I'd ever read about, in part because it wasn't looming (war always seems to be looming), and in part because of the pain-centered healing economy that made ongoing war necessary (still something I've never seen matched). Myke Cole's books I find fascinating because they put a very personal face on the modern military, and I haven't seen that done previously. Other models, other viewpoints, all of these things are worth considering in the name of making fictional wars seem more fresh. Fine.

But I also know there must be other "ultimate stakes" out there that we haven't seen much of yet.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

TTYU Retro: Can you "know" a character if you're not in her/his head?

Quick answer: yes, you can.

Most often, though, I see this question in internet writing discussions, and it's not framed as a question. I see people saying, "I think I need this point of view in my story so people will be able to know the character better."

No, you don't necessarily.

I like to think of it this way: we don't "get into the heads" of people we know in real life, yet we do feel we know them. The way we get to know them is by observing their actions, listening to their words, and drawing conclusions about what they are thinking. Babies typically learn to construe others' emotions on the basis of facial expressions at age 9 months, and this changes everything about the way they interact with others. What I mean by this is that as humans we have a very strong basic instinct to read emotion from facial expressions - and this extends to construing motives etc. on the basis of others' behavior.

As authors, we can take advantage of this instinct. Non-POV characters, treated properly, will reveal their own thoughts and motives. The key, however, is that the author must know the auxiliary character's thoughts and motives. Thus in order to make it possible to write characters without having readers need to be in their heads, the author must be taking a look into their heads.

I can't tell you the number of times that I've written a scene and felt it wasn't really coming across quite right - but when I went back and looked over it, I discovered the problem was that I really didn't understand the emotional state and motives of an important secondary character. Sometimes a non-POV character can be so minor that his/her emotional states aren't particularly relevant (like a guard who takes no action, for example). However, I urge you not to underestimate how often people construe others' motives without even realizing they're doing it. It's always my habit to have point of view characters move through their world judging people and events, and thus I will occasionally find opportunities for characters to toss off a guess at what a minor standby character is thinking. By doing something like this, you can accomplish two things: first, you can say something about the main character's state of mind (like having him be self-conscious and wondering what others think of him), and second, you can imply that any character is potentially worthy of having his/her motives guessed at. This can encourage your readers to guess at the motives of minor characters more often, and give your entire world a greater sense of depth and dimension.

So when is it a good idea to make a character into a point-of-view character? I'd say that it's a good idea to use a character's point of view 1. when that character "owns" a vital piece of the main conflict and 2. when knowledge of that character's mental states enhances the main conflict rather than detracting from it. This previous post, Multiple POV or not?, considers some of the issues of including or excluding a character's point of view. Basic summary: just because a character has opinions, or even an important role, doesn't mean that you should include his/her point of view. My point here, however, is that it may be very important to understand what the character's point of view would be like.

What I suggest, in a case where you really want to know a secondary character deeply, is to write a piece from that person's point of view. This can be a part of the work-in-progress, but generally when I've done it I've done a completely separate piece, almost a short vignette story, having to do with some backstory event that helps form that character's personality and motives. I initially wrote my Panverse Eight Against Reality piece, "The Eminence's Match," as a piece of backstory for a major non-POV character in the trilogy I was writing at the time. I can't tell you how valuable that experience was for me, or how inspiring. I then was able to go further back in time, and get further insight, when I started writing my current novel. The more complex a character is, the more valuable it can be to know them deeply. That way their words and actions will make ten times better sense, and come across as real to readers, even when they are acting without the support of internal point of view.

It's something to think about.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Beyond the same-old fantasy culture: Nine authors worth reading

I've been reading some really amazingly cool books lately (and I'm proud of myself, because for me, finding reading time always takes effort). One of the things I've been doing to get inspired is looking for books that take me outside the tried-and-true Tolkien-inspired fantasy model, which is heavily inspired by Iceland - details here!. One of Nancy Marie Brown's points in her article is that introducing the legend and narrative quality of the Icelandic sagas made Tolkien's work seem recognizable yet fresh:

By “fantasy” Tolkien meant “a quality of strangeness and wonder” that frees things and people from “the drab blur or triteness of familiarity.” The Hobbit does all that—thanks to its Icelandic roots.

This was back in 1916. By now the world of elves and dwarves has become so familiar that authors are starting to look further for cultural inspiration, which seems to be exactly what Tolkien was doing and indeed is exactly what we should be doing! The more cultures we incorporate into our fantasy mythologies, the better, as far as I'm concerned - so long as we're doing it with respect. Here are some books you might like to look into:

1. The work of Nnedi Okorafor. Everything I've read of hers has been fantastic, and her fantasy-Africa settings are rich and fascinating. Absolutely inspirational. The books I'd recommend (besides just saying "all of them") are The Shadow Speaker and Who Fears Death

2. The work of Nora Jemisin. Another author I just love. The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is wonderful, diverse and rich, not to mention that it turns all kinds of expectations on their heads. I'm also loving the complexity and detail of the world in The Killing Moon, a current Nebula nominee, which is a great example of how you can take an underlying culture (in this case, ancient Egypt) and thoroughly convert it into a fantasy setting that stands on its own merits.

3. Howard Andrew Jones' series The Chronicles of Sword and Sand. He's doing some really wonderful work of high fantasy adventure inspired by the cultures of the Islamic world. I particularly liked the way the characters in The Desert of Souls incorporated their cultural beliefs into all of their actions and judgments.

4. The work of Saladin Ahmed. I'll point you specifically to his novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is on the Nebula nominee list this year. It's taunting me in my to-be-read pile at the moment, but the sneak peeks I've taken at its pages are making it hard to wait, and his cultural worldbuilding is fantastic. This is also Islamic-inspired fantasy.

5. Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. This is a really interesting book, and in particular I love the way Fox handles the culture of China. It's a fantasy world, but not the kind of dreamy fantasy alt-China you may have come to expect. Very gritty, with characters who judge and act based on what they've learned from rock-hard choices they've made in the past.

6. The Lays of Anuskaya series by Brad Beaulieu. Brad does a great job of creating a fantasy world based around Russian culture. There are other cultures in the book, too, which have been inspired by the real world, and I think he's done a fine job creating a flavor that's really exciting and refreshing. The Winds of Khalakovo is the first book in the series, followed by The Straits of Galahesh.

7. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. I'm in the middle of this one right now. It's also Russian-inspired fantasy, and includes some surrounding groups inspired by other cultures of Europe. It manages to feel familiar on one level but very refreshing, and the parallels with known cultures enhance our sense of the supernatural adventure and war.

8. The Fallen Queen by Jane Kindred. Here's a third Russian-inspired book that I've come across - no surprise that people are reaching out to this culture, because it's just wonderful and full of ideas that aren't like the ones we see every day. This one manages to merge Russia and the realms of Heaven into a sexy, adventure and action-filled book. I really enjoyed it.

9. The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson. This isn't as new as the other books listed here, but was one of the first books that really inspired me as a writer. Kij Johnson reaches deep into Japanese mythology and culture and creates an incredibly rich, moving story. Highly recommended.

Of course, these aren't the only people who are writing wonderful things right now, and moving outside "the usual suspects" culturally. Please feel free to comment with your own recommendations below.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

TTYU Retro: Translating "issues" from our world into fictional worlds

In science fiction and fantasy very often we find ourselves dealing with instances of real-world phenomena, translating them into the alternate environment of a fictional world. In fact, I believe it to be a major motivator behind many fantasy and science fiction stories. It's also the reason why Analog magazine is called "Analog" - because of the idea that stories provide a sort of analogy of our own world.

However, dealing with issues from our own world in the context of fiction is not as easy as it seems. If you've been reading and/or writing science fiction and fantasy for any length of time you may have detected this danger before: sometimes a recognizable real-world "issue" can stick out of the story and break the sense of an integrated world.

Now, this is a fine line, which won't be in the same location for every reader. For example, I remember talking about Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness with a friend, and he told me that he couldn't read it because the feminist issues stuck out too far and it just seemed like a lecture to him. I never felt that way - to me it always felt like the gender issues had been beautifully integrated into the story.

In For Love, For Power, I'm dealing with a lot of issues that are relevant to the modern real world. Some are even currently topical. Though their immediate relevance is entirely accidental, I have to watch out. I can't let them kick my readers out of the story. I can't let people think I put them in there just to pound them on the head. So just on the off chance any of you might be dealing with similar situations, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about dealing with these issues.

Rule #1: Every issue has to have an independent basis/motivation in the fictional world. 
Rule #2: Every issue has to have obvious differences of detail and language from its real-world incarnation.

What this means is you have to know why this issue matters to these people (as opposed to real world people): where it originated, how people talk about it, what kind of fundamental concepts and values (religious or non-religious) they relate it to. And the more potentially salient an issue is, the more work you have to do to support it.

Let's get specific. Here are the issues I've been dealing with, and the kind of historical and cultural support I'm building for them in Varin.

1. Human equality/difference
The caste system of Varin is so ingrained in its people that essentially no one believes in the equality of all humanity. This is a pretty common conceit with caste systems, but to be believable it has to have some basis in fact. So I designed the history of the world to provide a backstory for the origin of the castes which would give each one (except the lowest) a strong motivation for pride in caste identity. While this backstory doesn't come out in the current book, evidence of it is all around, and it shows in caste attitudes. Each of the Varin castes has a strong sense of caste identity, with different ideals and values, as well as different manners and behavior. These people do think significantly differently from each other for cultural reasons. In this context, then, having a character who does believe in human equality would make very little sense. I have a plan for future books which depends on the existence of someone like this, but this cultural attitude seems to belong more to our own world and would stick out by a mile. So I'm going to make sure that my character doesn't actually believe in human equality. Instead, I've given her a backstory where at the age of nine she was forced to steal the identity of a dead person in order to keep herself alive, and as a result does not believe that a person's name is inextricable from that person's identity. Since each person in Varin is identified by caste name first, personal name second, that gives her a kind of skepticism that will allow her to question some of her assumptions without being a farcical crusader for human equality.

2. Contraception
Because of the shrinking population of the noble caste, the nobility have outlawed contraception for their own people, though contraceptives are readily available to other castes (and encouraged for the undercaste). They have also made it illegal for their servants, who have no restrictions on their own use, to buy contraceptives on behalf of their masters and mistresses. Oral contraceptives are available for use by both men and women, but the one that is used in the plot is the male version.

3. Marriage/Homosexuality
The nobility requires all of its people to enter into marriage with a member of the opposite sex, for the same reasons mentioned above, namely that the caste is shrinking and desperately needs children. Newly married couples come under intense pressure until they produce at least two children. These rules apply regardless of the sexuality of the people involved. So among the nobles, homosexual relationships are supposed to be kept quiet, and exposure can lead to a pretty serious loss of reputation (potential loss of employment or other opportunities). This is not the case in the larger population. However, if I were simply to say that both what we call traditional marriage and what we call gay marriage were okay, it would be completely non-Varin. What I did in response to this was re-vamp the concept of marriage in terms of Varin's major religion, a polytheistic family model somewhat along the lines of the ancient Greek gods, in which people invoke different gods on different topics (each god or goddess is a patron of a particular type of activity). Heterosexual marriage is modeled on the relationship of the Youth Sirin with the Maiden Eyn, and the expectation is for the man to be romantic and faithful and establish the home (Sirin was originally a planet), while the woman is so inspired by his love that even though she may wander far afield, she remains faithful and always returns home (Eyn was originally a comet in a somewhat different orbit). Homosexual unions, by contrast, are modeled on the relationship between the Twin brothers Bes and Trigis (a planet/moon pair of roughly equal size) who never abandon each other, and who support one another in spite of difficulty with their other siblings, physical hardship etc. So if two men or two women want to be together in Varin, they enter into a brotherly or sisterly partnership, which works on the basis of entirely different assumptions.

I have read some books (and perhaps you have too) where I was reading along and suddenly an issue stood out as not belonging in the world I was reading about. Maybe it was that the phrasing of the issue was too similar to what I'd heard in our own world. Or maybe it was the subtler problem that even though the words used were different, I couldn't see that a person from such a different background would accept our own concepts so easily. This has (as you can see) led me to do a lot of restructuring of my world's underpinnings, and so far I think it has been pretty effective. I hope my readers agree.

In any case, it's something to think about.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Which novel should I sell first?

This is a trick question, because there's no simple answer. You might not have more than one novel to try to sell. On the other hand, you might have more than one idea, and be wondering where to start first. Or, you might have had an idea that you've been working on for a long time, and you might have come up with another one just to challenge yourself, to see if you have more than one idea (this is what happened to me).

So you know, I do have more than one idea. But the fact of the matter is I have one CORE GIGANTIC IDEA. My core gigantic idea is Varin. I've developed it for nearly thirty years. And yes, I have other ideas - I have another whole novel all written, in fact - but the fact remains that Varin is in my heart.

So what does this mean?

Well, because Varin was my big idea from the beginning, the first novel I ever tried to sell was a Varin novel. And it wasn't ready. This should come as no surprise to you internet experts. It needed more time. I needed to write more, and I needed to solidify my craft and develop my voice and all that. One of the ways I did that was by testing myself to see if I had any other ideas.

I did. I had a really good idea, that turned into a pretty cool novel that I still really really like. But at this point I'm realizing I may have been lucky not to sell it when it was ready. Why? Because one's debut novel should be indicative of one's future career writings. The novel with which one woos an agent should be indicative of the path of one's future, so that the agent knows what he or she will be representing in the future. After all, you want your agent to be ultra-excited about you, and that means having your agent be ultra-excited about what lies at your core.

So here I am, and I finally have a Varin novel that really does Varin justice. And I'm realizing, not only that this is what I should sell first, but that it is what I should always have planned to sell first. It represents not only a bunch of work on a cool idea, but an entire world in which there are more stories than I can count. It's a little scary. Maybe a little like having all your eggs in one basket. But I believe in Varin, and I need to try my hardest to make it work.

So what does this mean for you?

I'm not sure, but I think it means that you have to follow your heart. You have to identify what you love, love, LOVE to write, and write it. Make sure you don't decide it's "done" and can't be improved, though. Don't be afraid to revise. The book you want to write - the book that everyone will love as much as you do - is out there, and if you keep imagining, and you keep looking, and keep working, you can find it. It's hard to wait, I know. Ten years ago I was already thinking, "I want to be published now now now!" But I think it's better to be standing here, unpublished in novels and holding in my hand a novel that I truly love, than to have set the wrong expectations in the first place.

It's something to think about.