Thursday, May 30, 2013

Video: The Body as a record of personal experience and cultural identity

Here is last week's discussion of Bodies in worldbuilding. We had a very good discussion; it wasn't so much about clothing etc. as piercings and tattoos, wrinkles and scars etc. Gender transitions were mentioned but only briefly, since none of my transgender friends were able to attend. I hope to take up that topic at some point in the future.

Video: Families in Worldbuilding

Here is the video for the Families in Worldbuilding discussion which we had a couple of weeks ago. It turned out well even though technical difficulties meant there were only two participants! I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Deepening in" to a scene of oppression

How many of you have read, or written, a story which begins with a scene of oppression? I think there must be a whole lot out there, particularly since righting wrongs and freeing oppressed people can be really exciting in a story. Generally speaking these scenes will show the oppressed interacting with their oppressors, being insulted indirectly or directly, or even being physically assaulted. These scenes often strike me as very broad-brush in approach. They are extreme. I'm not trying to say that oppressed peoples never experience extreme oppression - far from it. What I am trying to say is that because this is the kind of scene we are accustomed to, it can be done too simplistically, using default values, and therefore ring false.

If you've read my blog for any length of time, you have probably heard me talk about conveying what is normal. Normal is the hardest setting to establish, because people typically don't notice the things that are normal in their lives. However, the normal is extremely important, because unless we establish what it is, we can't accurately express to the reader the significance of departures from it. In the first chapter of For Love, For Power, my young nobleman Tagaret goes to a musical concert, which he does quite often. He sets up its emotional significance for him, and then is immediately able to talk about departures from his expectations, like the larger number of guests, and the annoying intrusion of an official speech before the concert starts. These departures are nonetheless part of the normal, so that when something really terrible happens, readers have something to compare with Tagaret's extreme shock. Without the initial norm, the shock is robbed of significance.

And that's the problem I see with an opening that features extreme oppression. Is this the norm? we ask. Or is this a departure from it? How can we know?

Therefore, as I start my next Varin novel (temporary title, Fires of Change, Book 1) among the undercaste, I'm looking to do something like the same thing. I want to start with something normal, and then have the departures from that norm become more and more extreme, so that their significance can be perceived more effectively.

This is harder than it looks, so I thought I'd tell you about some of my discovery process.

The main character in scene 1 is a man named Akrabitti Corbinan, 29 years old, who works as a trash collector. I therefore thought I should start with him on the job. However, his job is not where he's going to get himself in trouble. In a multi-caste world like Varin, it's really important to show inter-caste interaction from the very beginning so that you get a sense that the castes do interact. On the other hand, Corbinan would almost never find himself having to interact with someone in the street. The undercaste are avoided, more than anything else. Besides which, the inciting event I'm driving him towards has nothing to do with meeting Highers in the street, so that option is out.

He can, however, interact with his bosses, who are members of Higher castes. The garbage services are run by the government, which means that Corbinan's boss is a bureaucrat and a member of the Imbati servant caste. Knowing this, I thought maybe he should have an interaction with his boss, so I drafted a scene in which he was going to get his pay from his boss, and the boss acted as though he didn't know Corbinan, and then underpaid him.

It wasn't right, for several reasons. First, it set up the boss as too much of an antagonist. We're not even close to meeting the real antagonist yet. Second, how many of us get our pay directly from our bosses? And why would the boss put himself through meeting all of his employees every week? Even more important than that, the undercaste get paid in cash, but the Imbati make a point of avoiding cash money. Of course, I only figured this out after I'd drafted it and wasn't feeling right, and called up Janice Hardy to ask her advice (she saw the problem right away, bless her).

We decided I needed an intermediary from the Melumalai merchant caste (which is lower than the Imbati, only one rank higher than undercaste). A cashier.

At this point, things started coming together. Corbinan goes with his work crew to pick up his weekly pay from the cashier, and they are underpaid. It was important that there be a reason behind the underpayment - this is a working national system, and can't be subject to the whims of lowly cashiers. Even vindictive bosses have to track payroll, and would find other ways to be vindictive. Janice and I came up with the idea that there had been a piece of equipment that failed while one of the team members was using it, and therefore the entire team would have been docked as a penalty. This is a more realistic type of institutional injustice that requires absolutely no ill will on the part of the Imbati boss or the Melumalai cashier in order to make Corbinan's life miserable. The trash workers would have known this piece of equipment was on its last legs, and been passing it around like a hot potato (to use an Earthly simile) trying not to be the one using it when it finally broke. Corbinan wasn't the one who broke it, but one of his teammates (Basi) did, and was too embarrassed to tell the group, so they end up learning this at the pay window in front of the Melumalai.

They are all angry. However, they can't take their anger out on a Higher without facing unpleasant repercussions, so instead, they take it out on Basi who was unlucky enough to have broken the machine and then didn't tell them. Basi will respond by proposing to lodge a protest with the Imbati boss. However, Corbinan won't let her go, because he doesn't want her to get in trouble. This strengthens the sense that avoidance is the preferred method, and that the Higher the person, the scarier they are. It also helps Corbinan be a good guy, even though he's definitely on the rough side. By the time he's convinced her not to take the risk, the rest of the team has left in retaliation.

You may notice that I'm deliberately having the group be unfair to each other as a result of pressure coming from above. One of the things that took me ages to figure out is that the undercaste would prey on each other when they were desperate. So in order to make this chapter take one more step toward the extreme, I'm going to have Corbinan and Basi get attacked by a gang on the way home.

Let me stress that this kind of thing (a gang) can't be random or arbitrary. The societal underpinnings of the gangs have to be clear. The undercaste gangs are run by the occasional unscrupulous adult, but most of their members are people too young to hold down a job within the system, or who can't get a job for other reasons. They prey specifically on the trash workers, because the trash workers are paid in cash (prison workers are paid in food and clothes and housing). Corbinan used to be a member of a gang himself because he ran away from home to distance himself from his parents, who were crematory workers (who are disparaged even within the caste).

So at this point, after Basi has lost some of her money to the gang, there is a more serious problem: the team doesn't have enough money to pay rent for their shared apartment. Corbinan, who was helping Basi to fight off the gang on the way home, gets asked to teach her a lesson for putting all their housing in danger. He's not going to do that, but the two of them will hatch a scheme for him to go looking for a big stash of money. Imagine it like treasure hidden by Basi's family, and she's got the map but can't decipher it without Corbinan's help.

And there's (finally) our real inciting event, that takes Corbinan fully off the path of the normal.

Of course, it's fully possible that I'll still find something wrong with the scenario and have to change it again. But I did want to show how much thinking - thinking in layers - it took to get to a place where I felt like I was engaging real oppression. I'm trying to portray the kind of situation that doesn't require anyone to fling insults or to commit assaults. A situation based on avoidance, and institutional oppression, and desperation. I'm also going to be working hard going forward to keep these factors in play, because the kind of inequities that I want to draw attention to are the microagressions that so often slip beneath notice.

I hope you find my musings interesting.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Nebulas! and BayCon Report!

As I sit down to write this I'm reminded that I never wrote up a report of my experience at the Nebulas. The fact of the matter is that I've been so overwhelmed by these conventions that I'm scarcely able to gather my thoughts. So, quick summary of the Nebulas:

Amazing people! Great ideas! Late nights! Lots and lots of amazing people! Interviewing Aliette de Bodard! Talking to Stan Schmidt and Sheila Williams meeting Trevor Quachri! Aliette won a Nebula! Did I mention lots and lots of amazing people?

Okay, deep breath....

Basically, a week of school with lots of extra activities is not the best way to recover from something as overwhelmingly awesome as the Nebulas and really be ready for another convention. However! Here I go, to tell you about BayCon.

Summary: BayCon was terrific. Better than it has been in a number of years, in my opinion.

I got off to a rocky start on Friday because I was relying on my knowledge of past years as a guide to this one, and thus didn't figure out that Meet the Guests had been moved from 8pm to 7pm. So I missed it. On the other hand, I was able to get my registration handled, get my bearings, and meet some friends and some new people as well, so it was worth going down.

On Saturday, my first panel was at 9am, and we talked about creating settings for science fiction and fantasy. One of the things we discovered, logistically speaking, was that all the panels had gone from 50 minutes to 90 minutes in length. Once we got over the initial shock, it was actually a really nice change. Our moderator was Todd McCaffrey, who was a good moderator and clearly a super-nice fellow. Other panelists included my friend Chaz Brenchley, Analog buddy Paul Carlson, and Aaron Mason. After the panel I met my family and we surfed the convention a bit, then had lunch. I saw my friends Margaret McGaffey Fisk and Colin Fisk and also my friend Lillian Csernica, who was wearing a really hilarious "Loki Charms" shirt. This one:
After lunch I had a 2:00 panel on Fairy Tales and Mythology, which the group convinced me to moderate. All in all I thought we touched on a lot of interesting things. Fairy Tales as teaching tales, and how they change over time as the storytellers perceive that different things need to be taught. We tried to get to the bottom of what endured at the center of each, but that was trickier. Any given story (for example, The Little Mermaid) can have different interpretations depending on the version you're hearing, and even single versions can end up with multiple interpretations.

Sunday was my crazy day. It started out at 9am with a panel on Worldbuilding which I moderated. That was a lot of fun (well, no surprise to you folks since you know how I love the topic). We had a great mix of people on the panel including David Peterson, expert on language design and language-culture links for HBO and SyFy, Paula Butler, expert on creating planets and ecosystems as part of the Contact conference, Aaron Mason, novelist, and Leslie Ann Moore, novelist. This was a great panel, mostly because everybody on it had such great things to say. Because we had 90 minutes, I was able to let each participant have time to really dig into their views on the issues of created worlds, and we covered everything from "the alkalinity of the soil" to language and cultures and still were somehow able to tie it all together.

After lunch with my family and with David Peterson, I headed into the BayCon Writer's Workshop. This is actually a really fun workshop where you get to sit around the table with (in our case) five people who have submitted stories and three professional writers, and one moderator. We'd received the stories in advance and written up critiques, and we were then able to deliver them and discuss them with the group for each person who had submitted. I like to participate in this workshop because it was actually the first place I submitted a short story (back when I'd only ever written one), and I like giving back to the community as well as looking out for good new writers who may not even realize how good they are.

The workshop ended at 3:30, and at 4:00 I was back in a panel, this time with David Peterson and Taunya Gren, about creating alien and fantasy languages. Taunya brought the perspective of a non-linguist faced with having to create a language (for a TV pilot), and was a great contributor to the panel not least because she kept me and David from getting incomprehensibly geeky. David and I actually complement each other quite well because he works in the visual media and I work in the written medium, and each of those requires a different kind of language design. Of course, it's always a kick to talk about the range of human languages and how to explore different features while creating something workable yet fascinating. Some of the languages discussed were not auditory ones.

Between 5:30 and 7 I sneaked down to dinner at the hotel restaurant with Deborah J. Ross. They had a nice buffet, which was tasty, and I managed not to get too much food (which can sometimes be challenging). Thereupon Deborah and I went up for our last panel, which the lovely Programming directors allowed us to add at the last minute: Worldbuilding discussion and reading. This was just a kick. Basically Deborah and I spent about half an hour talking about worldbuilding - but not in a general sense. She talked about the world she had created for her novel Collaborators, which was inspired in large part by the city of Lyon in France, and I talked about Varin and the inspirations behind it, including the pervasive metaphor of being trapped (trapped underground, socially trapped, trapped in a marriage, trapped in one's own head). Then she read from Collaborators, and I read the first chapter of For Love, For Power. I really enjoyed the sections she read, especially the use of detail to provide world information but simultaneously to further character and plot. It reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness in that the aliens here have no gender - but it was fun to see her approaching it more from the insider's point of view than from the human point of view. I have to admit I loved reading my chapter. Normally when I'm on a panel I feel a bit like I used to when I was teaching, but this time I felt like I was on a stage. We had a terrific audience of about 15 people, and they really got me amped up! Both Deborah and I autographed and gave away the pages we had read from, and we left the room grinning and giggling with how much fun we'd just had. I really hope we get to do something similar next year.

At this point I've had a day to fall in a heap and so I should be back to blogging today and tomorrow, with a hangout on Thursday at 11am. I know I'm behind on some hangout reports too, so I'll catch up on those as best I can.

What a couple of weeks it has been!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Different voices in your narrative - you're weaving them right now, and you might not know it.

Today I'm working on developing a voice for a character in my new novel (which doesn't have a good title yet). He's a hard guy to work with because he's a member of the Akrabitti undercaste in Varin, and he speaks in heavy undercaste dialect. I'm caught in a rather funny position. If I used a narrator that was omniscient and far from him, I could speak about him in any way I wanted. If I used first person narration, I'd have to put everything in his dialect, and that might be tough for readers to understand. In the Varin novels, though, I use close third person narration, which is somewhere in between. And I find that I'm trying to make decisions about how much dialect to use in each sentence as I write it.

This dialect question brings to light something very interesting about close third person narration: it mixes voices.

What are these voices?

1. Dialogue
It's easy to think of dialogue as voices, because when our character says something we get to put it in quotes, and write down exactly what it was that came out of his/her mouth. We can contrast the voice of one character with another.

Examples:
  • "We'd like to smack that calm right off him."
  • "Oh, crap. Tabby, hon, let me look at you."
  • "Fool sheep, putting me to this trouble!"

2. Internalization
These are essentially the reported thoughts of the point of view character. Some authors put an internalized voice in italics, or go so far as to label it with the phrase "he thought" or "she thought." I don't, because I want really close point of view, and don't want to use filter words or other stylistic indicators that we're "switching into" someone's thoughts. However, the internalized thoughts of a character should match with that character's established voice, and this includes dialect. If anything, the dialogue should be more responsive to surrounding social context than the internalization, because how often do we censor our inner thoughts?

Examples:
  • Handing over money shouldn't take this long. All-they'd have been home by now if not for one soul-dark Higher.
  • She's dark, fact. Like a sock to the stomach after how long I spent cleaning out that weird 'test population R' malware she straggled in with.
  • One lamb from the seaward field was missing. Not caught in the fence, nor mired by the stream. Fallen into the sea? Not possible, since the tide was out, with no water in sight across the sunset flats.

3. Internalized Dialogue
Yes, there are some cases where you'll combine 1 and 2, directly reporting the internalized thoughts of your character. In my own writing, these are the only cases where I use italics for thoughts. You can often recognize them because they'll be in present tense (because a character is thinking about what's going on right now) even though your general narration is in past tense. In first person present tense, they typically don't need any special markers.

Examples:
It's only a fool makes trouble on payday.
How's that! Maman doesn't have a complete shield in her collection yet.


4. Narration
This is the voice that tells you what the character is doing. How it's handled will depend on where you place the narrator. A first person narrator who is reporting from the action, or immediately thereafter, will typically match the voice of the dialogue and internalization. A first person narrator who is reporting from a retrospective distance may sound different - as, say, when an older person is reflecting on the events of her/his young life. A third person narrator is to some extent always external to the character. However, a dramatically distant third person narrator can be someone with a completely different voice who isn't even from the same world as the character. By contrast, a very close third person narrator should match the tone of the whole, but can be more problematic to manage because it must be kept distinct from internalization. Who here refers to themselves in the third person?

Examples:
  • He ducked and pushed in, work's-end hands adding to the layer of grime on the door.
  • I look up, into the adspace. 
  • Corise trudged the shore, calling, dried salt crunching on the grass under her boots.

The Question of Description
Descriptions are tricky. Which voice do they fall into? In fact, as the author, you get to choose. Certainly you can make the descriptions part of your narration, and voice them accordingly. If you're describing anything that the point of view character would be incapable of perceiving, that's definitely what you have to do. On the other hand, if the point of view character can perceive it, then you can choose to put the description into the same style as internalization (and there's some description in my examples of internalization, above). When you're working with extremely close point of view, or Deep POV, you want to make everything internal to the character if you can. So imagine how the character would perceive this place or thing or person, and how he/she would describe it. Use the voice that you use for internalization, and make sure that your character's judgments are coming through.

When do I switch voices?
You're probably doing it without thinking, all the time. It's not something that happens without some kind of marker, but switches don't always happen between sentences. You probably could go into your work right now and find a sentence that switches voices in the middle. Maybe you've been writing along and you get to a sentence that really feels like it needs something, maybe a dash, or even just a comma, some way to show that the two parts of the sentence are separate from one another. The reason behind that instinct could be that you're switching voices.

Do I really need to worry about this?
Chances are, you don't. It takes a particularly challenging kind of narrative (like the one I'm working with now) to be difficult enough to require conscious thought. On the other hand, I always find that some conscious awareness is helpful. If you start thinking about these voices, it might help you tease out the reason why one punctuation seems awkward and another doesn't, why a particular passage isn't working the way you wanted, or why your instinct (or your critique partner) is telling you to use slang in one place and not in another.

It's something to think about.

Monday, May 20, 2013

TTYU Retro: The illusion of "natural" electronics interfaces, and the book


Ever since the advent of the iPad and iPhone I have noticed people talking about how "natural" the touch-screen interface is. I have seen people on Facebook posting video of their children trying to make a magazine perform like an iPad (with little success, obviously). Quite recently I have also seen advertising for new products that involve flexible circuits, where you'll be able to bend and flex your little phone or what-have-you in order to make it work, and how "natural" this is compared to everything that has gone before (I'm assuming, by implication, this includes the touch interface).

I would like us to take a little step back and examine this idea of what "natural" means. "Natural" means something that we do as part of our nature - but our nature is quite complex.  Humans are capable of all kinds of complex learned behaviors. When I examine different kinds of interfaces with electronics that we've used, what it commonly comes down to is a question of metaphor. Interestingly enough, the creation of metaphors is a very natural activity for human beings.

The original computer interface may not have felt natural, but really it involved learning a typed foreign language in order to interact with a user of that language (albeit a non-human one). This is something that has been done a lot, historically. It's not as natural as learning spoken language, but we all learn to write as children, and many people have the opportunity to learn foreign languages. The PalmPilot device allowed us to use handwriting as input...so long as we wrote it according to the language rules of the device. Would it be more natural if we could speak to a computer and have it understand us? Star Trek certainly seems to believe it is (and so does Dragon, not coincidentally subtitled "naturally speaking").

So here are a couple of possibilities for "natural" - one, that "natural" means we only need to learn something that can be done easily, and two, "natural" means that the computer should have to adapt itself to our modes of communication rather than vice versa.

The graphic user interface does something interesting. It moves the computer away from purely language-based self-expression into a visual mode of expression (though I remark this graphical mode is built on the basis of underlying layers of computer language). The visual interface takes advantage of the metaphor of art, expressed wonderfully by the painting "La Trahison des Images" (The Treachery of Images) by René Magritte:

The text reads, "This is not a pipe." And indeed, it isn't, just as a "button" on your screen isn't really a button, but an image to which we assign the name "button." Icons take the place of real objects, and they can be manipulated in the image-space.

What we use to manipulate them is another place where we might question "naturalness." The mouse, the touch pad, the tracking ball, and the tablet can all be considered less natural than the touch-screen interface, but what is "natural" here? Is it the indirectness of the interface? We work with indirect relations constantly without much trouble, every time we use tools. Think of cutting a piece of paper: tearing the piece of paper apart might be considered most "natural" but it's messy. Surely folding and tearing isn't particularly natural (at least in the "ease" sense of the word). The straight stroke of a knife down the paper is already starting to be indirect, though it is much simpler. And what of scissors? Would you call them natural or unnatural? A grasping action of the hand isn't at all obvious in its relation to cutting along a straight line, but we do it constantly, easily, starting before we even hit kindergarten.

The Wii was hailed as a much more "natural" way to play video games - instead of translating strenuous activities like fighting or boxing or skiing all the way down into a tiny joystick or keyboard arrangement, it used a wandlike apparatus that captured the momentum of the user's motions (and occasionally led to TV breakage). Now we have Xbox Kinect which apparently is able to take body motions within a particular region and translate them into video-game moves. This does seem to follow the pattern of making the machine conform more to our communication patterns (in this case, our physical movement patterns) than we do to its own patterns.

Three-dimensional theater is a slightly trickier example. It may be more natural to perceive images as three-dimensional, but it certainly is not natural to have to watch everything through a pair of glasses. Notice that I say that with authority, but I do bear in mind that I am among those people who (at this point in my life) observes reality through glasses all the time. Certainly we are able to perceive objects in two dimensions as easily as we are three.

So I'm going to go back to the question of whether the iPad interface or flexible electronics interface is more "natural." I'd argue that neither one  is, really, more natural than the other (if anything, the flexible electronics interface is less natural). The touch pad interface uses the metaphor of a flat desk space with folders laid out on it, where one can influence objects by poking them or metaphorically putting one's fingers into a small opening and pushing outward to expand that opening; the flexible electronics interface uses the metaphor of (from what I've seen) the yoke of an airplane, pulling or pushing to move inward or outward, etc.

Last, but not least, let's compare this to the book interface. I'm not sure anyone would argue that listening to the story read aloud would be a more "natural" way of experiencing it. Certainly that's the way very young children interact with stories - but are the pictures in their books less natural than those of their movies? Maybe they are, and that illusion of no intervening mechanism is what makes us perceive something as "natural." The book is in a sense a metaphor for the process that the writer went through in writing it, if less so now that so many of us don't actually write on real sheets of paper, but on metaphorical sheets of paper made out of light. Still, our eyes follow the visual representations of words along the same path that the writer used in writing them out. The stack of paper sheets becomes representative of story time, the magnitude of the story measurable in weight and in width, and the reader can judge "how far she's read" with a glance. It's just another technology, with another type of operating system. It's been around longer. Because it is a three-dimensional object that can be manipulated with hands, it has a naturalness that the electronic version does not have.

In the end, it's all a question of learned behaviors, familiar objects/tools and agreed-upon metaphors. The child who tries to make a magazine behave like an iPad doesn't think that the magazine "doesn't work," he merely observes that despite superficial similarities, the two don't work in the same way. Any judgment of the magazine's "failure" comes from the adult observing, not from the child himself. Replacing one metaphor with another doesn't necessarily lead to an increase in "naturalness." If we make the user experience simpler and more similar to things the user already knows how to do (like speak, or manipulate objects on a desk) then that frees up some cognitive effort to be used elsewhere. That might be valuable. Or it might be unnecessary - humans have been learning and automating complex behaviors for a very long time.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nebulas! and Baycon! So come and see me...

I'm having a busy two weeks. This is a good thing. This weekend I'm attending the Nebula awards, which is in San Jose this year. This is a great event for authors and agents and editors to attend, and I'm very excited to see some people that I rarely ever see because I'm so often head-down in my writing and real-life demands. I'll also be having the chance to interview some of the award nominees, and I'm very excited about it! I'll let you know how that turns out, and where to find the interviews afterward.

Next weekend, Memorial Day weekend, is the BayCon convention, and I'd love to see you there! I'm on some really terrific panels this time:

Location, Location, Location -- Setting Your Story in an SF World
 Saturday at 9:00 AM in San Tomas
(with Paul Carlson, Todd McCaffrey, Aaron Mason, Chaz Brenchley)

World Building Basics 
Sunday at 9:00 AM in Winchester
(with Bob Brown, David J. Peterson, Paula Butler, Aaron Mason, Leslie Ann Moore)

How Do You Create a Language for a SF/F World?
Sunday at 4:00 PM in San Tomas
 (with David J. Peterson)


Busy but awesome is the name of the game. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TTYU Retro: Measurement questions in sf/f and secondary worlds

Have you ever been writing along and found yourself writing, "The town was ten miles away," or "The city was thirty kilometers away," or "The gap was about ten feet wide", etc. and wondering if it was the right thing to do? You can't write without ever giving anyone a sense of the scale of things, can you? But if you're writing in a secondary world, or on an alien world where measurements are not the same as the ones we've been using, or in a far future where it seems a bit iffy for measurements to have remained the same, what do you do? And what happens if you're on a planet where days are of different lengths, or working with an interstellar empire where local time is going to vary ridiculously? What then?

I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this because I work in secondary worlds a lot. And basically, there are a number of solutions you can use - which one you pick depends on the context of your world and what kind of "feel" you're looking for.

Option #1A: Use an existing measurement system, directly
Yes, that means using miles or kilometers or feet or centimeters (but unless we're quite close to our own world, probably not both). This can work well for future science fiction contexts where you can plausibly argue that one of our existing systems has been retained. Often in science fiction, measurement and specificity can be important, and you don't just need a measurement system, you need a really precise one that people can easily grasp. Unless you really need to make a major story point about a different length of day or year, etc. you might as well be using days and years and seconds. There's no comparison in terms of ease of use for your reader.

Option #1B: Use an existing measurement system, plausibly
You see this a lot in fantasy, where a world that resembles medieval Europe will use medieval English measurements. Since here in the US we're pretty used to feet and miles, and we've at least heard people talk about leagues, it works well enough for us not to notice it. Not noticing it is, of course, the goal here. We don't want readers struggling every time they have to figure out how big something is.

Option #1C: Use an existing measurement system, in translation
This one is a bit riskier, but let's just assume you've got yourself a really fabulous secondary world or alien world that you're portraying from the insider's perspective - you really can't claim that these people are using the same measurements we would, but you use our measurements anyway, trusting readers to understand that this is just authorly shorthand for what's really going on. It's not actually that hard to do with days and minutes and seconds, or with a person's height (and this is actually what I do with in Varin), but it can require more faith when it comes to measurements of length or distance, where we're more familiar with multiple different options. Watch out for this one and check with your critique partners for plausibility.

Option #2: Use non-standard measurement/compare to objects
This is the one that I use most when I'm working with my Varin world, because it requires no leap of faith on the part of the reader, and because it works wonderfully in a context where the precise measurement of things is not critical to the success of the story. It's not necessarily a problem even when you're dealing with relatively scientific things (for example, medicine can be measured in "doses"). Distance can be measured in "paces." You can measure height relative to a character or to another object of relatively predictable size, like a chair. You can measure distance relative to objects whose parameters have already been introduced. You can also measure distance in the amount of time required to travel from one place to another via a typical mode of transport.


Option #3A: Create a new measurement system that is actually just like an existing one
This is sort of the translation approach in reverse. Give your measurements a new name that fits better with the world they're in, but make them basically function like our existing measurement systems. Again, this is authorial fudging and requires some faith on the part of the reader. However, it can work well.

Option #3B: Create a new measurement system
This one I've found compelling in many ways, but ended up avoiding like the plague. I love the idea that in a different world, or on a different planet, people would measure the things around them differently. However, it takes a lot of work for people to learn a new measurement system. Thus, I really don't recommend this one unless you have a story where the contrast between the local measurement system and the measurement system we're accustomed to is actually a major plot point. There has to be a really good reason to make a reader do this much work, and "well, so they can tell my world isn't our world" isn't a good enough one, at least for me.

It's worth taking the time as you design a world to figure out which of these approaches you're going to take, so that you can make the choice consciously and maintain consistency.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Body and Identity in SF/F - a rich source of inspiration

This weekend I was reading a couple of stories in preparation for the Nebula Awards weekend (my own small role in which I will tell you about a little later) and I got to thinking about the way bodies are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy.

Bodies are a big topic, and an important topic. In our modern world, we have a vast, complex culture of body image and body shaming all around us. We also have the ability to change our bodies through tattooing and piercing, and in more extreme fashion through plastic surgery. At the same time, there is a strong current in our society toward concentrating on the mind to exclusion of the body. The work a person does is often considered while the effect it has on the person's body is ignored. People spend their entire days working and sitting at desks, accomplishing things that are abstract and cognitive, and from the corporate point of view their body has little to do with it. But those workers are the ones who have to go home at the end of the day in the physical body that results from all that lack of action...and either make up for it with physical activity, or not... and then live with the consequences. Other people spend their entire days working with their bodies, picking fruit or building houses or playing sports (to take three very different examples), and the effects of their work are written in strength, but also in scars.

I've seen a lot of stories that involve body-thematic elements. These are often very powerful, and the topic has by no means been overused or plumbed out. Science fiction and fantasy are uniquely positioned to offer opportunities for this topic as well. How often have you seen transformation in a fantasy story? How about body alteration? Just the other day I read a classic Irish fairy tale about a hunchback who had his hunch removed by the fairies because he helped them to improve a song they were singing (the hunch was later given to someone else who wasn't as nice to said fairies). The Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation were always frightening and fascinating because of the way that they invaded the body and changed it without permission. Science fiction also offers opportunities for us to explore non-human bodies and their parameters. Many stories feature tattoos or scarification in one way or another, as ways that we change our bodies permanently to indicate something about our identity or life experience.

We can change our bodies to better represent our identity, but body identity isn't always in our control or subject to our own choice. There is always the possibility of coercive change to our bodies (and in this category I include rape and rape pregnancy). There is also the more subtle question of how our bodies "come out" when we are born - and by this I mean our racial identity and our gender identity. Both of these are aspects of body that can vastly change the course of our experience, and are highly resistant to change. Another issue which has always fascinated me is that of mismatch between body and identity, which can occur with race or with gender in various ways.

It would take me twenty articles to go into depth about all these various topics, but I wanted to let you know I was thinking about them, because there are hundreds of rich stories available here.

I hope you feel as inspired by these ideas as I do.

Note: My hangout for this week (5/16) will be a recap of Families, due to technical difficulties during our last session, but next week (5/23) I'll be taking on Bodies as a topic. I hope you can join me!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Worldbuilding hangouts resume tomorrow, May 9!

Well, it's been a hectic month or so, but I'm keen to get my worldbuilding hangouts restarted, so I'll be on Google+ tomorrow morning at 11am PDT.

The topic of the day will be Families.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Link: It is in our nature to need stories

I really enjoyed this article from Scientific American, entitled "It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories." Great thoughts about the role of storytelling in our development and our lives.

I hope you enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

TTYU Retro: A Character-driven Approach to Kissing Scenes and Sex Scenes

The day I tried to write my first sex scene was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I'd avoided it for a long time, and then I realized that the story I was writing demanded it (not the first time I'd changed what I felt I was capable of due to the demands of a story). I had this idea of what had to happen, and I tried to write it. When I got through I realized it had devolved into a succession of meaningless generic actions and disconnected body parts.

It was awful. And, I realized, it was "sex-driven" in a bad way, the same way that stories can seem pointless and over-wrought when they are too heavily driven by plot.

Something changed for me at that point. I realized that that the point of a sex scene was not the sex.

Why do we need sex scenes? I suppose for erotica that they would be part of the point, but in my stories that's not it at all. In my stories, I have two people developing a relationship, and what is most important is what that relationship means to them, and how it changes them. I had already figured that out for kissing scenes, so that was where I went when I had to re-think the sex scenes.

As I see it, a first kiss is a form of communication between the characters. Tension may be building - and this is something I do by having the characters become more aware of one another physically, say, noticing for the first time the way the other person's throat moves when he drinks - but somebody starts it. The other person then has to decide whether to permit the kiss, and whether to return it. Internalization is critical here. Too little internalization and it will seem like I've slapped the kiss on from my position as author. More internalization may make it seem like the poor character is in agony trying to make the decision (which he or she may be!). Occasionally, since this is a big turning point in a story, I'll switch points of view and place the kiss itself at a chapter break so I can then move into the recipient's head and gauge the reaction.

What is important is not the movements. Yes, we can say "oh, this is how far they went this time." But what is important for me in a kiss is the nature of the communication - the psychological conditions that permit someone to take the chance, and the experience of the other person in response.

A sex scene is the same for me. The question is much less "how far did they go" but "what did they decide to do and why, and how did it affect the way they will interact in the future?"

I therefore place my focus on the characters. I start by asking, "What significance does this scene have for the characters, and for the story as a whole?" That will help me gauge what is necessary. If the scene is incidental, like a scene demonstrating that a character has sex as part of his everyday life and doesn't think much of it, then it will get a lot less attention. You'll see where the couple make their decision, and follow through with little detail, the critical ingredient being what the act means, and what it does for the characters, rather than what they do. I have one scene where a character makes love with his girlfriend because this is something relatively normal that they do often, and it helps him to release anxiety from the earlier part of his day.

The buildup for a first sex act is usually much longer. This I think is natural because, compared to kissing, the first occasion of such intimacy has far greater significance - and much greater possible disasters associated with it. Romance novels, after all, can spend almost the entire book getting there! What I have found, though, is that in this case the physical act itself is far less important. I can build up the psychological conditions necessary, and once the two characters have made the decision to act, I can end the scene. The only reason I might include physical details is if there is some consequence of the act itself that must be experienced in order for readers to understand the characters as they carry forward.

All of this is to say that I recommend including only the most character-relevant details in a story, either when you're dealing with a kissing scene or with a sex scene (or anything else, for that matter!). Keep the motivations, the decisions, the justifications, whatever it is. Keep the mental states that matter in the front of your lens, and let all physical details follow directly from them. It's the best way I have found to create a scene of intimacy that actually fits the characters I'm working with, and matters to the story, without letting things fall into clichéd motions and lists of body parts.

Update:
I thought I'd revisit this post because I recently wrote a scene that demanded more than my usual amount of attention to the "sex part." Note that I didn't say "parts" - but this scene was one I had been building up to for a very long time, and it required me to go all the way through the sex for several very specific reasons. The process I'd been going through as I went through the story over the long term was making a mental list of ways that the two people were not compatible or would not consider one another, and then knocking them down one by one through the events of the story. At the point where they became intimate they had to have quite a deep discussion about it - so that was how I covered the "why," but because both characters were important, and both viewed physical intimacy in vastly different ways, how they did what they did became very important. What did each one consider "too normal" to be appropriate in intimacy with the other? What did each one consider frightening? What did they consider not worth noticing (say, whether the lights were on or off) and where did they put special attention? The other reason that I had to carry through was that the fact that they consummated the sex is actually very important to the way they will interact in the future. This is to say that the relevance questions haven't changed, but in some cases the story and relevance questions will demand the entire scene, and sometimes they will not.


It's something to think about.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Why use simple words? Because it's easier to control connotations.

On Friday I took one of those quizzes. You know, the ones that claim they're going to tell you something really deep about your writing, revealing the grand master of writing whose style yours resembles. I was excited. It looked easy. Out of these four words, which would you use to describe a particular condition or state of being? Choose, choose, choose, choose, and the result...

Ernest Hemingway?!!

Any of you who have actually read my work will know that Ernest Hemingway does not write like me. I do not write like him. At all. So what gives?

I chose simple words.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. I don't write simple prose, but I do love to use simple words. Why? Because for me, the social and cultural underpinnings of a word are hugely important. I can't use a word to describe Varin, or Garini, or Poik Paradise, if it sounds like it comes from the United States of America on Earth in 2013. By that I mean that pop references are out. So are specific cultural references.

The most effective way to strip out these unintended references is to use simple words.

A word that appears most often, in the most diverse contexts, is by its very nature the most generic. Psycholinguistically speaking, whenever we encounter a word, our brain activates all of the possible meanings of it that we have ever heard. Therefore, a word with only one particular meaning for one particular context is going to bring up that context for us. A word that has been heard hundreds or thousands of times will not bring up any one context very strongly, and that frees it up for use with new ones that won't allow for a strong contextual association.

By working with simple words, or generic words, I don't mean that your writing should be simple or generic. Your job is to teach the reader to associate this word with the features of your new context. I teach my reader that whenever I use the word Higher, it refers to people of a higher caste status in Varin (marked as having special meaning in this case through capitalization). I teach my reader that the word Cold (marked again) doesn't just mean of low temperature, but also means unkind to the point of mercilessness, and also means exalted in status.

When you pick words that do come with contextual associations, make sure they have the contextual associations you want. When I work with the nobility of Varin, I will often use words that are commonly associated with nobility in our world. That association works; that association is important.

Connotations have immense power. They can bring up entire scenarios, rafts of context. A single word can evoke ancient Egypt. Or a single word can imply an entire history of technology. Words are powerful tools, and must be chosen with care. Choosing a simple word allows you to blank the canvas so that you can paint what you want, even if you're not Ernest Hemingway.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Link: When is the moon visible? And how does it affect the tides?

In many children's stories, and in many adults' stories as well, the moon automatically rises with the sunset and sets at sunrise. Except this isn't really how it works. In my research for a current short story draft, I decided I needed to learn more about the phases of the moon, and about how the moon creates tides. I found this link about moon phases, and this one from the same site about how these phases correspond with tides. I had no idea that the new moon rises at sunrise, and sets at sunset (which would explain why it's so hard to see!).

I hope you find it interesting as well!