Tuesday, October 29, 2013

TTYU REtro: Must we always have monarchies? Seriously?

Some time ago on SFSignal, a number of notable authors were asked to weigh in on the question of why monarchies are so overwhelmingly chosen as the governmental systems of fantasy stories. The article is here. It's actually quite a fascinating question, so I thought I'd give a few of my own thoughts on the subject.

I find it really easy to see why monarchies are so often chosen. Not only is there a certain romanticism in our cultural hearts concerning the age when monarchies were the dominant social structure around the world, but they do give you some big advantages in storytelling. The biggest one is simplicity.

Think about it. One Dark Lord. One Good King/Queen. It gives you focus. If you decide to go into more depth, it gives you a single character to go to the hilt with. It also saves you a lot of work. The workings of a democracy - as has been abundantly demonstrated in the US - are full of characters and underlying influences that we don't always understand. Somehow recreating, or redesigning, those influences in an entirely new world would be... messy. Difficult, to say the least. Please notice that I'm not saying we shouldn't do it - but this might be one reason why we typically don't.

Another reason is that we strive to achieve a feeling of difference in our fantasy. The familiarity of democracy would need to be explicitly counteracted in any fantasy setting, so that that sense of wonder would not be lost.

Of course, there are other options. I'd love to see someone tackle a communist government sometime - Ursula LeGuin did something along those lines with Orgoreyn in The Left Hand of Darkness. Of course, I'd hope whoever took on this type of government (or any other type, for that matter) would take their job seriously and look at the actual impact of example governments in order to explore both its advantageous and disadvantageous features.

The Varin government (from my novel) might look like a monarchy at first glance, but it isn't quite. I suppose you'd call it an oligarchy with one member who is more important than the others. The Eminence is the ruler, and has a throne, but wears no crown. He also has an official Heir, but the Heir is elected by vote of the fifteen members of the Cabinet. Each of the twelve great noble families provides a candidate, and they run off against one another in several rounds if voting until only one is left. It fits with my vision of Varin inasmuch as I strive to achieve a world that seems very familiar, but is marked with major differences from our own expectations.

What kind of governments are you working with in your projects? How diverse can our concepts be? What makes a familiar system work? What makes an extremely different system work? Must we always have monarchies? Seriously?

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Come see me November 1-3 at Convolution!

I have a convention coming up! On the weekend of November 1-3, I'll be attending Convolution in Burlingame, CA. If you happen to be in the Bay Area at that time, come and see me!

Here is my speaking schedule:

Friday, November 1 at 4:00pm - Storytelling as Cultural Learning
With Gregg Castro and Davidson L. Haworth

Saturday I'll be around the convention because I'm participating in the writers' workshop. You might be able to catch me in the lobby...

Sunday, November 3 at 1:00pm - Girls and Tech
With Wanda Kurctu and Barry Kercheval

Sunday, November 3 at 3:00pm - Creating Languages
With Gregg Castro

This should be a convention with a great intimate feel, and I have several great friends on programming, too (like  Lillian Csernica, Gregg Castro,and Wanda Kurctu). The highlight of the weekend promises to be the Goblin King's Masked Ball on Saturday night (which I hope I can attend!).

I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

TTYU Retro: How Sports Impacts the Wider Culture by Tim Wade

World Building: How Sports Impacts the Wider Culture
by Tim Wade

I have lived in the Australia, Japan and the U.S., and as a huge sports fan I have really enjoyed watching the sports of each country and the culture of those sports. You see, Sports has a culture just like anything else, and it should be considered in world building. People have a natural instinct to play sports and compete. Even if your characters are not interested in sports, and even if your society does not have an official league, there is sports somewhere. Is there a city league, semi-informal that competes with the other areas of the town? Remember that baseball competition in the US was developing for years before the National League was established. And being exceptional is not necessary, everyone wants to play and cheer on the home town team.

So now there is a place for games. Who plays them? Or the fascinating question: which sports are meant for which people? In the book Playing the Enemy about South Africa's triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup (the movie was titled Invictus), the author discusses outsiders on the team. He covers the roles of the black player but also mentions the "Englishman" in the team. You see, in Apartheid South Africa rugby was an Afrikaaner sport, cricket an "English" sport and football (soccer) for Blacks. The place of the black players was revolutionary but the English South Africans were also out of place, in a different way. I recommend the book (I just wish he had explored the game tactics as much as the politics).

Sports also is often the first place for minorities to get wide social recognition. Sports are a meritocracy by virtue of their scoring structure, and when a starting five from Texas Western beats the mighty Kentucky Wildcats to win the college basketball championship, it becomes time to recruit black players to Lexington. I just saw the movie this week with the family on DVD - Glory Road - and recommend it. I have been moved by the stories of Jackie Robinson and other pioneers and that story continues all the world over, from the Ella brothers in Australian rugby to Konishiki and Akebono in Japanese sumo. In your world, how do sports challenge restrictions on social mobility?

Sports does not only challenge on a racial level but also on a class level. In my home town of Melbourne, there are Australian football teams are associated with the upper class: Melbourne, Carlton, the working class: Richmond, Collingwood, and the middle class suburbs: Essendon, Hawthorn. A lot of those distinctions are not relevant to the players in this era of a nationwide draft, but the clubs still promote these identities. What are the class distinctions between teams or between sports in your world? Are there sports that are too uncouth for the upper class, or sports too refined for the workers? Are some games officially banned? Think dogfighting or cockfighting; underground violent sports have always shown the seedier side of society.

I'd also like to look at the fascinating sports-cultural case of Hideo Nomo, who left Japan to play baseball in the U.S. He was one of the best players in Japan, and won the best pitcher award at least once. His team was mediocre and he wanted to win, so he offered to take a lower salary so his team could make a trade to improve their chances. When his management refused to do so, he asked to be traded so he could play for a good team. His team did not want to trade him to a rival, and as he was playing in the less popular league (Pacific League) they did not want to trade one of their few superstars to the Central League. So Nomo was offered a contract allowing him to leave Japan, but giving up his rights so he could never play in Japan again. The Japanese press pilloried him for being a traitor to his team and for shunning the team concept. He took the challenge and played for the LA Dodgers. The very first year, he played in the All Star game, won Rookie of the Year and set a team strikeout record. I watched him a lot that season and thoroughly enjoyed a one-hitter complete game he threw at Candlestick, striking Barry Bonds out 4 times, and getting two hits himself. A huge Japanese crowd turned up and my wife and I were speaking Japanese to our neighbors. Well, after such a successful season he was treated like a hero upon returning home. He broke the ice and now there are Japanese players in all positions, all through Major League Baseball. Nomo had an up-and-down career in the US because he was over-pitched in Japan and never could deliver his best stuff in the US. But there is a special category of pioneer in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I hope it is considered for Hideo Nomo as people look back on his accomplishments.

So what sports are in your world? Who plays them? How are they supported? Let's please not leave J.K. Rowling and Quidditch as the most famous sport in speculative fiction! I love Quidditch, but any sport where Ireland wins a World Cup final is clearly fictional. ;)

Tim Wade is an Australian and American dual citizen, and a huge sports fan as well as an avid reader in all genres - not the least of which are science fiction and fantasy. Tim, thanks for sharing your insights with us!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Setting and Worldbuilding: Not quite a case of To-ma-to, To-mah-to

I'm going to be giving a worldbuilding workshop soon, for a local writer's club. I'm really looking forward to this. Mind you, I love going to conventions and talking about worldbuilding topics with people for an hour or so... but this will be different. Hands-on. Analyzing quotes to see what authors are doing, interacting with people face to face, spending several hours engaging in the worldbuilding topic.

Several times, I've been asked by the organizer to make sure that my workshop is accessible to non-genre writers. Several times, I have assured him that it will be. We'll be working with quotes from nonfiction, mainstream fiction, and genre.

I suspect, because the activity we're doing is labeled worldbuilding, that most of the people in attendance will be genre folk. I hope not, though.

In mainstream fiction, and in nonfiction, we talk about "setting," not worldbuilding. I really feel that using the word "worldbuilding" is more effective in describing what writers do, for one critical reason.

The world is not on the page. Only the words are. The world we feel when we read is in our minds.

This may seem obvious, but in fact, I can't emphasize this enough. The reality that we feel while reading is only in our minds, evoked by the words that we read. Any writer, in choosing the words to use, is choosing what aspects of a world to evoke. That means that certain words will evoke our own world in a non-fictional way, certain words will evoke our own world but place fictional events within it, and still other words will create a sense of a world that is somehow fantastical. It's like a magical spell - the realities that it creates are so strong that we can believe in them (at least for a time) quite as much as the reality we see and hear and smell.

This is why the word "worldbuilding" appeals to me so much. Each word we put on the page is a small piece of the whole. Not a brick, though. In my head right now I'm imagining each word as a pebble dropped into a pond, with ripples surrounding it that represent all the different possible contexts in which the reader has previously seen it. Each word then drops in a different spot, and the ripples join together to create a most amazing work of art in multiple dimensions.

Not only is it an amazing process, it is not an entirely reliable one. The author controls the pebbles, based on the patterns the ripples make in his/her own mind. But the author only controls the pebbles. In a reader's mind, the ripples created by those pebbles will be different - possibly, vastly different - because the contexts in which the reader has heard the same words can be so different.

You could say that worldbuilding is a bigger challenge for the genre writer. Why? Because we can't rely on readers to have the same vision of our worlds that we do. We can't use the word "house" and expect a person's natural gut sense of what "house" means to fit within our model. All this is true. However, mainstream and nonfiction authors who are really good at what they do manage to create a very specific sense of place, and not only of place but of emotional association with that place. Stieg Larsson in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo puts us in Sweden with incredible effectiveness. To me, that is also worldbuilding.

Good writers cannot rely on "default settings." This is in part because default settings are generic and boring. But it is also because we can't know what our readers' actual default settings are. This is one of the traps that is all too easy to fall into. I think immediately of prejudice. If a writer is relying for his/her worldbuilding on male gaze, or a default that is either all-straight, all-white, all-cisgendered, all-able, etc. that will not only be evident to the reader, but detract from the effectiveness of the worldbuilding for anyone who does not share those defaults.

I guess you could say that I've expanded the contexts in which I use the word "worldbuilding," so it suggests not just setting but character, not just the unreal aspects of a fantastical world but also the unreal aspects of a real world - since, after all, all we're doing is putting words on a page.

It's something to think about.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dialects and Voice - a 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout Report with Video

Boy, I had a great time at this hangout last week. I was joined by David Peterson, Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Lesley Smith. I apologize for the misspelling of the video title (Dialect and "Vice"?? yes, a typo I didn't notice until it was too late, lol).

I started out by asking David whether he works with dialects on any of his HBO shows. Basically, dialects do exist in the worlds he works with, but the extent he works on them depends on what is going to appear on screen. Defiance is localized to a single town, and therefore there isn't much diversity of dialect there, since all of them use the dialect of the local area. However, he has asked himself what might happen elsewhere, since the Defiance aliens are present all over the world. We imagined that pidginization (simply put, when populations take some words from one language and some for another to cobble together a workable shared language) would occur differently in each location, such as South America (Brazil), France, etc. and in those locations the influence of English would be much lessened. We also got a hint that a dialect might start to appear in Game of Thrones next season...

How do we define dialects, linguistically? Basically, when two modes of speaking are mutually intelligible (they can be understood by speakers of the different modes), then they are considered dialects. When they are unintelligible, they are considered different languages. Imagine that two modes of speaking might have the same grammar, and 90% of the same vocabulary - those would be dialects.

On the other hand, this most basic definition can change. There are some grammatical differences that occur across dialects, like verb endings in Japanese dialects. The biggest difference, however, is when languages are defined as "dialects" or "separate languages" for political reasons. Hindi and Urdu are very close in their linguistic features, but are associated with different countries and populations, so they have different names. Portuguese and Spanish were in the distant past mutually intelligible, but at this point are not. The different languages of China are mutually unintelligible, but because of the ideological importance of unified cultural identity in China, they are called dialects. At the Barcelona Olympics, an agreement was apparently made that people would only speak Spanish, so it raised some eyebrows when the Mayor of Barcelona got up and spoke Catalan. Arabic is spoken across great areas of the middle east and north Africa, but the Arabic dialect spoken in Egypt would probably be near-unintelligible to a speaker of the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, while the differences between Egyptian dialect and Tunisian would probably be less extreme. In the case of Arabic, the disparate populations are helped by their general knowledge of modern standard Arabic - which nobody really uses in daily conversation, but everyone shares. Japan also maintains a "standard Japanese" which is not really spoken locally, but which everybody learns in school and which is what is spoken on newscasts.

My own experience with the difference between standard and dialectal language was that I'd learned standard Japanese in class - since standard Japanese is the only one that gets taught to foreign speakers - but when I first went to Japan, I had a homestay in Kyoto. I landed and discovered that I was having terrible trouble understanding what people were saying, because I had learned none of the special features of the local dialect! Believe me, I put some effort into catching up on the differences after that - but my host families still refused to teach me to speak the dialect, because they felt it would be a problem for me (dialect is often criticized, especially in Tokyo).

Erin noted that sometimes people can "understand" related languages that are not their own, but they can lose nuances, and also they can fall into "false cognate" traps, where a word that sounds similar between languages has a very different meaning in the two different languages. (Wikipedia distinguishes between false cognates and false friends, but my own experience is that what they call false friends can also be called false cognates). The words "embarrassed" and "embarazada" mean "embarrassed," and "pregnant" respectively - and if you misuse them, you will end up pretty embarrassed!

When it comes to considering dialects, it is also important to consider sociolinguistic and socioeconomic dialects. That is to say, dialects don't just differ between regions. They can also differ widely due to social groupings within a single area. My Varin world has two dialects of this type: one is used by sailors and the people who interact with them in the city of Safe Harbor, and the other is a dialect spoken by the undercaste.

David warns that you should try not to use stereotypcially stigmatized variants of English as flags for dialects in a created world. Just because your people are high class doesn't mean you should write their language in an English accent; just because they are low class doesn't mean you should try to write in a Cockney style, or some kind of dialect that is seen as low class in your geographical area. Someone is going to end up insulted.

We noted that many films set in France have the actors using British accents. This is a kind of shorthand, since we know that there are different dialects associated with class in Britain. It can work decently well in a film, but it can also be done badly. I always wondered why the Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon would have Scottish accents, while the protagonist was American. One of my guests asked, tongue in cheek, "How else would you know he was normal?" This kind of thing makes me want to pull my hair out a bit. Lesley noted that the same thing was done in the movie Chocolat, which was supposedly set in France but could easily have been set in English. I believe it was David who found the method used in the movie Amadeus - where all the actors spoke in their own native dialects - very distracting.

We talked a bit about rendering dialect with spelling. This is not something I personally recommend, because it can make your dialogue hard to read, and has historically been used in some very insulting and racist contexts that you might not want to associate yourself with.

I asked a question that had come up in our last discussion, whether literacy and/or television slow down language change. David had a great way of thinking about this, which is that you maintain the linguistic structures in your head that are most useful to you. Thus, if you read a lot of classical literature, you will maintain classical linguistic structures in your head to help you understand it. If you keep up with a lot of international stories, you might maintain more British vocabulary. The simplicity of global communication makes a lot of different ways of speaking accessible to us. It is useful to talk to people in various areas rather than just people around you, because it will keep your language use diverse and complex.

Dialect also has a social value, because it marks insiders and outsiders to a particular language community. If you are writing in a context that requires you to use a particular existing regional dialect, be very careful and make sure you have done lots and lots of research - including running your work by (ideally) more than one person who speaks the dialect in question. You don't want to get it wrong, because people from that population will be able to catch your mistakes and will likely feel disrespected. I mentioned Stina Leicht's book Of Blood and Honey, because it's a really great example of a book that uses dialect well. The book deals with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and crosses them with fae folk in our world - and it's amazing. She did years of research and reading of Northern Irish literature, watching movies, etc. to perfect her language use, and the effect is amazing. I read a bit aloud, which didn't sound at all Irish because I can't do a Northern Irish accent - however, my intent was to show that she got the dialect across beautifully even without having to change spellings (she uses some special local words). When this is done right, readers will "feel" a dialect even if they are not familiar with it in the real world.

Using fictional dialects is different, because you have no accountability to a world population. However, it's a good idea to make sure that you don't accidentally have world accountability, as I mentioned earlier. Mike Flynn is an author who does this great. I read a sample of his work, showing how he uses just a few made-up words, and other words with older etymologies (words with an archaic feel) to create a mood surrounding the language of his stories.

Glenda particularly noticed the rhythm of the language in the Flynn story, and therefore we talked briefly about how meter, or rhythm, can be a really great way to create a sense of dialect.

Word choice is also very important. When we hear a word, it brings up all the contexts in which we have ever heard it, simultaneously in our brains (yes, it is cool). Thus, words that are associated with narrow contexts always bring up a sense of that context. When have you heard the word "unrequited" and not thought, "love"? Words that appear in lots and lots of contexts are the ones that become generic.

It was at this point that I brought up the idea of voice in writing, because for me, dialect and voice are closely related. Any story that uses a close point of view can (and in my view, should) try to capture the voice of the character in the narration. This can be done badly. However, it can also be done very effectively. As an example, I read the opening of Janice Hardy's book The Shifter (called The Pain Merchants in the UK). The main character, Nya, has a very distinctive voice that comes from several things - the mention of chickens, her frequent mentions of her grandmother, who goes by "Grannyma" (there's a dialect feel for you!), and her frequent citing of her grandmother's proverbs.

Dialect issues can cause book titles to be changed! I mentioned that I thought The Shifter was changed because marketers in the US didn't want to create an accidental association with drugs by using The Pain Merchants. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because marketers thought Americans wouldn't know what the Philosopher's stone was, and might get turned off by the word philosopher (sigh). We were all saddened by the perception that Americans are stupid and need things to be simplified for them.

I mentioned how one can change grammar to convey alienness and alien voice. The examples here were Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and my own short story, "Cold Words," both of which use wolflike aliens but in very different ways. You can learn more in depth about "Cold Words" and its language use here.

Lastly I read a piece of a work in progress, where I'm working on the dialect of the Variner undercaste. It involves a special use of plural pronouns instead of singular ones, which means that I can't entirely write the surrounding narrative in the dialect, because critical information about gender would be lost, making it hard to distinguish between characters. David mentioned that it's pretty common to use plural pronouns to refer to people in dialects across the world, because it's considered less direct. Indeed, the formal "vous" pronoun in French, which has analogs in many Romance languages, is a plural.

Someone recommended the play "Not I" by Samuel Beckett.

This was another one of those discussions where I felt we were rolling right along at a terrific clip, and could have gone on a lot longer! Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed.

Here's the video:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Handling Continuity Markers Across Chapter Transitions

So you're reading a book, and as you read along, you get to the end of a chapter. What is the relationship between the end of the chapter you just finished and the beginning of the chapter you are about to start? I thought I'd look at some of the different ways that one can transfer between chapters.

Isn't it just what happens next?
Sure, okay, sometimes it is - but let's talk about what that means. The events of a story grow out of one another organically, which means that every event is connected to every previous event in several ways. The motives and actions of the protagonist are critical to creating a sense of continuity across chapter borders. That means that it's a really good idea to end a chapter with the sense of the protagonist having a plan, or intending to do something. Having people fall asleep at the end of a chapter is often cited as a no-no, because so often it implies that the person is relinquishing their sense of forward drive. However, it can work. Here are a couple of examples of the "and then..." transition.

From Gustav Gloom and the People Taker by Adam-Troy Castro (end of Chapter 3/beginning of Chapter 4):
 "...It was nice to meet you, Fernie What. Maybe I'll see you again."
 And then he walked away.
But there was also something very strange about the way he walked away, something about the way the gray mist at his ankles bubbled up around him with every step, the way the air seemed to thicken and turn black  the farther he went, until it was hard to make out his black hair and black suit against the darkness that surrounded him even in daylight.
That night Fernie enjoyed one of her favorite dreams: the one about the atomic zombies. [...] Unfortunately, all the zombies in tonight's episode looked like Mrs. Everwiner, and all she had to throw at them were cash registers.

Really, saying "it's what happened next" doesn't tell us a whole lot. How much time has passed between "now" and "next"? What is the next important event? In this example, there are two things linking the two chapters together. The first is the phrase, "that night," which tells us how much time has passed and thus helps us to orient ourselves to the resumption of action a few hours later. The other thing is the reference to Mrs. Everwiner and the cash registers, which shows us the impact of the events of the previous chapter on the character's state of mind. She's sleeping, but she's doing it at the beginning of the chapter, and in spite of sleeping, she is able to show that the events of the book are beginning to affect her.

Keeping a reader oriented to time, place, and character, is very important when you have a break in the story, and I'll continue to talk about it. Nnedi Okorafor's book The Shadow Speaker has two consecutive chapters that begin with the phrase, "The next day..." but this kind of phrase is so useful to orient a reader that it's near-transparent (i.e. you'd never notice that the temporal orientation was accomplished the same way twice, and even if you did, it wouldn't seem problematic). This same book has a really great example of a character in bed at the end of a chapter without causing any loss of momentum.

"As daybreak neared, finally - maybe it was due to a clarity brought on by fatigue or maybe it was that Ejii finally pushed aside her subconscious reluctance - for whatever the reason, Ejii could suddenly understand the shadows for the first time ever. She listened to them. And what they told her dashed sleep from her body for the rest of the night."

That wasn't restful. It sets up an intense curiosity about what the shadows said, which carries over into a scene of cooking that opens the following chapter. The interesting thing about the cooking scene is that it keeps us from what we want to know... but it also shows Ejii trying to do normal things while she gets around to asking her mother some pretty serious questions. We perceive those questions as having been inspired by her experiences of the night before, and the two chapters get tied together.

Do I need cliffhangers?
The quick answer to this one is, "no." But you do need to have drive. A cliffhanger helps bridge a chapter break by making the reader curious about whether the character will get out of her/his current predicament - but it's not the predicament that creates the bridge. It's the curiosity. One big mistake I've seen people make with cliffhangers is deliberately setting one up at the end of a chapter, but then failing to return to the resolution of that cliffhanger at the start of the next chapter. Note: sometimes we can change points of view and depart from that story arc for a while; that's all right so long as you address the resolution of the cliffhanger the next time you return to that story arc. What doesn't work so well is if you go to the beginning of the next chapter and completely skip over the cliffhanger's resolution, shoving it into the background so that you can get on with the important action that follows it.

If your cliffhanger is not important enough to merit a full narrative of its resolution, then it is contrived and shouldn't be there.

Sometimes all you need to do is have your protagonist ask a question or formulate a plan. Chapter Five of The Shadow Speaker ends like this:

I need to talk to Arif and Sammy, she thought.

Bam! There you are, motivated to see what happens when Ejii talks to Arif and Sammy. And then when you see the opening of Chapter Six, which begins, "The next day, they met at Mazi Godwin's house," you've been set up to know who "they" are, because Arif and Sammy were mentioned, and thus set up as referents, at the end of Chapter Five.

The last example I'm going to put here is from Janice Hardy's book The Shifter, also known as The Pain Merchants in the UK. It demonstrates both a cliffhanger and what I call a "direct resumption" of the plot arc, meaning that the action resumes in the same moment that it broke off, with no time delay. The protagonist, Nya, has just been accosted by a League Elder "in full gold cords."

Disobeying would make me equally suspicious. I'd never make it past the guards anyway, no matter how much that fellow liked me.
"Now, girl."
Nothing good ever followed just two words.
I stepped forward, wondering what time they served lunch in Dorsta prison.
The Elder stared down at me, looking as solid as the thick columns that supported the entrance-hall balcony behind him.

Believe it or not, here the most important word that establishes close continuity is the word "the." "The" sets us up to anticipate that the noun it accompanies is one known to us, and thus makes it clear when we hit "Elder" that this is the same Elder who just spoke to her at the end of Chapter One. The other thing that establishes time continuity is the location (entrance-hall) which had already been established in the previous chapter. It's easy to conclude as a result of this - and given the absence of any indicators of the passage of time - that we are resuming directly, i.e. picking up in the same instant we left off. I'll say more about direct resumption in a minute, when I talk about "direct handoffs."

So far, we've seen continuity set up several ways. One is time continuity. One is continuity of motive. Another is continuity of location. Still another is continuity of referents. You can use any one of these, or more than one at a time (even all at once!). It's important to be aware of these continuity markers because readers will be actively (if subconsciously) searching for them as they read.

What do you do if you are switching points of view?
 A switch of point of view is a pretty big point of discontinuity. It's also one that has become pretty common, as point of view switches have become a very popular method in storytelling. In the case of a POV switch, you need to have both discontinuity markers, and continuity markers.

I'm going to start with "direct handoffs," because they're most closely related to the previous examples. This is when you are in the middle of a scene, pick a moment, and then switch point of view without leaving the scene at all. Here's an example from my novel, For Love, For Power:

In his parents' room, the chairs from the lounge corner had been pulled out into the middle of the floor. Between them stood an Imbati – Aloran, the one from the play session.
No tattoo on his face for now, but maybe not for long.
Dear gods.
Father grinned. "Now, don't tell your mother," he said. "It's a surprise."

Grobal Tagaret was not the person he'd wanted to see.
Aloran fought the urge to tense his arms and shoulders.
Distance yourself, the lesson said. Measured breaths relieve the body. Relief of the body calms the mind. The calm mind is observant and prepared.

Basically what we have here is that at the end of Chapter 5, Tagaret has just walked in and discovered someone whom he refers to as "an Imbati" (a caste identity reference), before identifying him as someone he has previously seen. He's pretty upset about this, and his father asks him not to tell his mother, something that is (a) very unlikely and (b) in itself, upsetting to Tagaret. This establishes curiosity about what Tagaret will do next. Across the chapter break, then, we are likely to be waiting to see what Tagaret will do. The first sentence of the next chapter does refer to him, but importantly, it refers to him by his full name, which Tagaret himself never does. In that first sentence, Tagaret is being observed by someone who has clearly just discovered him... and thus when we see Aloran appear as the subject of the next sentence, we can conclude that we have not left the interaction. We do get to see what happens with Tagaret, but our concerns are different, since we've suddenly switched into Aloran's head and are now experiencing his motives, and observing Tagaret with his judgment - and also, with his ignorance of Tagaret's true feelings.

This kind of point of view switch is actually pretty unusual in my experience. It features a lot of continuity markers, which makes the presence of discontinuity markers so important (or we might erroneously conclude that we were just doing a direct resumption, rather than a direct handoff).

So let's look for a minute at point of view switches where the new point of view character is not in the same place or interaction with the one from the previous chapter. What happens there?

Here's a switch from Gustav Gloom and the People Taker

Fernie screamed in rage and frustration while the People Taker left to take her family.
Pancakes would surely not be involved.
The neighbors had always thought Gustav was the saddest little boy in the world. They thought this because he looked lonely behind the fence, and because he never seemed to smile, never seemed to show that he even knew how to smile.
But he had never truly known despair until he saw the People Taker stuff Fernie in his sack, pull the drawstring tight, and strut out the front door of the Too Much Sitting Room.

This one is a cliffhanger. Castro leaves Fernie trapped and unable to stop the bad guy. The sudden switch to "the neighbors" zooms us way out away from the protagonist's point of view, but since we're hearing what they thought of Gustav, we're already feeling the discontinuity and preparing for something relevant to Gustav. Critically, he has already become the main referent and been reerred back to as "he" three times by the time we hit "But he had never truly known despair..." and land with a thump in his head. We're also given a chance to recall the events that led to his despair, and from there we get to move forward in his point of view.

There are other kinds of switches where discontinuities require special types of fixing. If you're switching between two first-person points of view, indicating the name of the new point of view character in a chapter title is a good method I've seen used by authors like Kij Johnson and Rick Riordan. Some authors use fictional quotes to establish context for the new chapter's opening. Some use small snippets of other material.

I was recently working on a chapter transition that got me thinking about these issues. The transition is between chapter one and chapter two, and moves between two point of view characters in my Varin world. Now, these two people will meet each other later on, but as yet they are in two different towns. That means that I have to make sure to create markers of the difference in character and voice, and establish a difference in location. The other challenge is that they are members of the same caste, so I have to make sure to include some similarity markers as well. Whew!

What I decided to do was to pick up on a piece from the middle of the first chapter that looked like this, in which Corbinan (POV #1) dissuaded his friend Basi from taking a complaint to their Imbati-caste boss:

She [Basi] adjusted her hood, and turned away toward the steel door of the office, marked in black paint with a long spike that pierced through a hovering oval. "We have to make it right."
That didn't sound good. Corbinan jumped into her path. "Basi, don't go to the boss."
"But maybe if —"
"Look. Melumalai are one thing, but Imbati? No good comes of talking to Imbati, ever. Promise ye sure, it'll only make things worse." Imagining that same pierced oval tattooed between an Imbati's expressionless eyebrows made him shudder.

I decided to use the door as a marker of both similarity and difference, so when I open up Chapter 2 with Meetis (POV #2) planning to go talk to an Imbati-caste boss, it helps to establish not only the different location and scenario but also a sense of foreboding:

In proverbs, the door to adulthood did not have Imbati warden's diamonds on it. Akrabitti Meetis hesitated before the central office of Daronvale prison, straightened her hood and loosened her too-tight grip on her identity papers. Proverbs also said that good folk approached the door with their hearts free of secrets.
She lived as proof that reality didn't follow the proverbs.

All through these examples you can see me talking about "markers." I find it a useful way of talking about continuity, because any tiny little similarity or difference, even one word, or one referent, falls on the scale of continuity or discontinuity somewhere. Sometimes all you need is that one word (or phrase), especially if you are using a "what happened next" transition where you're able to re-use a lot of the context across the borderline. On the other hand, if you're working across a transition and you see only discontinuity markers, it's a good idea to see whether there is any kind of context you can give a reader to help that person see where your new chapter opening fits into the whole (be it quote, location/time markers, or other methods).

It's something to think about.


Monday, October 14, 2013

TTYU Retro: Can I use signature phrases to distinguish between characters?

When I think of signature phrases, or catch-phrases, I typically tend to think of superheroes (I imagine a lot of you do as well). Spider-man is known for the piquant phrases he uses to taunt villains, and he's not alone. Ordinary novel or story characters certainly don't have to be so flamboyant, but I find that signature phrases can actually help them as well.

A signature phrase doesn't need to be so incredibly sassy that it's unmistakable. Though that typically works well for superheroes, it's usually too much for a novel character - even an important one. On the other hand, you can give relatively innocuous phrases to characters as well.

Here's an example. One of the characters in my novel, a man named Erex, tends to say, "In fact." Not once or twice, but in just about every lengthy speech turn that he gets. It fits with his character, because he's a sort of guidance counselor, and the phrase helps him to sound the role. It's only two words, but it gives him a very distinctive speech quirk to match his personality. Here's one of his interactions:

"Are you feeling all right, sir?" Tagaret asked, shaking the hand he offered.
Erex nodded. "I am well. You're kind to ask. In fact, I needed an excuse to come and find you."
"I didn't forget to report my grades, did I?
Erex smiled. "No."
"Then Father invited you."
Erex's smile diminished. "In fact, no. However, when I became aware that Garr had invited certain individuals, I made sure to come. He knows I'm here."
"Individuals?" Oh, gods, how just like Father – he'd probably invited half the cabinet!
Erex spread his hands. "Individuals with whom I'm quite well acquainted, in fact, so I thought I might be able to help."

One of the reasons that signature phrases can work so well is that people have speech habits, and those will stand out. I'm sure you know someone who uses the phrases "you know" or "like." Do you also know someone who overuses one of them, or both? I knew a young woman once who said "you know" so often that it nearly interfered with comprehension. She knew how to say "you know" compressed into an inhale!

I was revising through my manuscript yesterday and one of my characters said "Oh, dear." This surprised me. On the other hand, it was rather a nice thing, because my main character typically says "oh, no" when something bad happens, and I was happy to hear the other character saying something different. Then a little bit later I ran into someone else saying "Oh dear" and became alarmed. Maybe it was a phrase that happened to be on my mind that day, and suddenly it started sneaking into everybody's dialogue. That didn't make me happy. However, I decided I'd change the second instance of it to "Dear me" instead. I don't think that "dear me" will become anything like Erex's "in fact" for the character involved, but it was useful to think through how two different characters would be distinct in their reaction style.

In fact, ;) this is what we're really looking at - ways to keep characters distinct from one another. I would hope that we also spend a lot of time making characters distinct in other ways - personal history, emotional range, backstory, cultural background, etc. But it's also good to take a look at a character's first reaction to a shock, and make sure that he or she doesn't have the same reaction every time - and certainly that he or she doesn't have precisely the same reaction style as another character. In this respect, signature phrases can become very helpful.

It's something to think about.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Travel - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout report with Video

We had a great chat about Travel! I was joined for this discussion by Erin Peterson and Glenda Pfeiffer.

I started out by proposing some basic topics that one might consider when looking at the role of travel in a world or story. These were:
  • Logistics of travel
  • Place of travel in the culture
  • Place of travel in one's life
  • Effects of travel on a person.

A good place to start is by asking questions like the following:
  • What are the underlying conditions of travel? 
  • Why do people travel?
  • Who travels?
  • What kinds of technologies are used to make travel possible/easier?
  • What kind of environment are you in, and what are the hazards and time demands of travel?

Danger is important to consider. A stroll in Sherwood Forest would not really be recommended, when the place was full of bandits! We often hear in traditional tales about young men (third sons particularly) going off to seek their fortunes - but this was a culturally driven activity. The reasons behind travel are very different between cultures, and they drive the features of travel. Consider the differences, for example, between the travel experienced by brides in ancient China and that experienced by modern Australian college students off to backpack through the world.

Erin pointed out that you only travel if you can. Travel for fun requires a specific socioeconomic level. If you live in a subsistence culture, you only go places for critical reasons - traveling to find work, or traveling as part of your work (as a performer or a trader, for example). Working the land was a very important job that didn't lend itself to travel.

Glenda mentioned pilgrimages. Pilgrimages have occurred throughout history all over the world. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales come to mind - and even today we have people making pilgrimages to holy sites like Lourdes, Mecca, or the great temples of Japan. Glenda recommended Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, in which a great lady wants to get out, and uses a pilgrimage as an excuse to justify her travel, but then has to assemble a great number of guards and attendants as well as supplies to make it happen. Do you need an entourage in order to travel? Or are you alone? Shakespeare's Twelth Night involves a shipwreck, but Viola's solution to having to travel alone was to dress as a boy, so as to avoid an appearance that might draw predators. That kind of advice is still applicable today, where people are told not to stop and look at maps in public, so as not to "look like a tourist" and potentially draw trouble.

Ancient travelers were often at the mercy of fate and had nothing to fall back on in terms of support structures. By support structures we are referring to the kinds of places one can access or communicate with in advance in order to make travel easier.
  • Can you call ahead or use the internet to reserve a hotel? 
  • Do you have a tour company that will arrange everything (but which might keep you isolated from local culture)?
  • Are you traveling abroad to study where you might have a university or other school to help make arrangements, set up lodging with host families, etc.?
  • Are you traveling to see family, where you might be made an honorary member of the local structure and be integrated into the group, but which might lead to obligations which make it hard for you to enjoy the same things that tourists do?
Some places have an economy specially geared for people who travel. Take Disneyland, for example, or other common tourist spots. There is an island I visited in France whose population increases tenfold during the summer tourism months. Erin noted that in the case of Disneyland, people who live near it don't see it the same way that tourists do, and get passed in, or get yearlong passes so they can go after school.

Here are some of our travel pet peeves in books:
Erin hates when characters travel across a continent but experience no regional variation.
She also hates it when the currency is gold, but no thought is given to how heavy the gold would be, or how you might carry it all with you.
Juliette hates it when an author's ease with travel gets projected onto story characters whose environment and lives would make travel very scary and/or difficult, and they therefore make light of it.
Erin is bothered when you find grain merchants very far from their homes (grain is heavy!). And when it comes to the involvement of merchants in your plot, why would a merchant whose local reputation makes him successful want to implicate himself in your escape? Why would he be in the city in the first place?
Juliette also asked, why would that merchant have full bags when he was leaving the city?

Travel is a mental as well as a physical hurdle. I run into it often when people talk to me about taking their children on planes (Oh, it must be so hard!). Sometimes it is - but it isn't always. Babies who are pre-mobile have far less trouble on planes than toddlers do, so I was really glad I got my kids accustomed to planes during this period. There was also the example of my nephew who went on a plane for the first time at age 9 and was not frightened at all because he had no experience of what to be frightened of! Erin said she was worried that she'd be afraid of planes, but she wasn't. Some people have travel  phobias. It makes much more sense to be afraid of a boat's sinking than to worry about plane flights. Also, watch out that you don't divide your characters between "seasick and feeling like they are going to die" and "born sailor." There's a range here!

Glenda mentioned that her grandmother nearly fell overboad on a boat, but was caught by another passenger.

Technology has a huge influence on travel. The "road trip" in a car is very different from the jetlagged plane trip, and very different from a voyage in an ox-drawn pioneer's cart. Roman roads were a considerable innovation that made an enormous difference to travel. So did conquest and imperialism. (I was imagining the little Indiana Jones airplane traveling across the map!) An empire has a center, where things flow both to and from it, exporting the imperial standard as well as importing from the provinces. There is both forced assimilation and appropriation, in other words. This was true of the Roman empire, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and certainly the English empire.

Thank you to everyone who attended! Next week's hangout topic will be Infrastructure - which includes buildings, roads, bridges, dams, etc. etc. and has an enormous influence on daily life and culture. It should be fun... I hope to see you there!

Architecture - A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with image links and video!

For this discussion, I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer and Brian Dolton. Brian had obviously been looking forward to talking about Architecture because he brought a huge heavy book to show us, about architecture of the world through history: the World Atlas of Architecture. This is a good resource to seek out because it gives you an idea of world architecture across ages, nations, and cultures, and can make an excellent source of inspiration. It also shows how different styles of architecture are influenced by climate and by the availability of materials.

Here are your two big starting questions for architecture:
1. What does the climate require?
2. What materials are available?

Homes created in the tropical heat in a rain forest are not going to be at all the same as homes created in colder locations, not to mention the arctic. You can see these kinds of differences in architecture around us all the time. American homes typically don't use stone - they will build a wooden frame, then put the windows in, and close the walls up last. English and French homes will start with brick or stone and do the windows last. There are also distinctions within the US, as you will seldom see brick or stone in California - they tend to have trouble with earthquakes, either requiring special reinforcement, or not lasting that long! New Mexico is typified by adobe and wood dwellings. If you build with wood in England, it rots unless you can protect it, which is why the wattle-and-daub technique was employed when wood was used in construction.

I mentioned how I had been to Himeji Castle in Japan this summer and had seen some of the restoration efforts there. One of the things that made it most interesting was how they had set up all kinds of videos to explain how the reconstruction was taking place. The roof featured layers of wood tied over with rope, then tiled, then plastered in a very particular way with white plaster. The architecture of the castle as a whole is in spiral formation with gates to bar the way, and plentiful slots for archers to shoot, which shows what kind of attacks they were expecting: army attacks without major siege engines or heavy artillery. European castles will have the portcullis, or trapping people between two gates method to achieve similar results. Moats are common to both styles of castle, but the Japanese castles are more decorative, while the English ones are more forbidding. Japanese castle-builders were thinking about battering rams, but not trebuchets.

You should also consider the cultural context of any castle's construction, and the intent of the builders. The cathedral of Albi, for example, was built to look imposing after a conquest, to symbolize power and victory over the Cathars.

Population density has a big influence on architecture at all levels, from the size of buildings and the density of their spacing, to the design of rooms and their uses. Americans have an unusual expectation of having a lot of space, which influences both land use and the design of homes. Cities will tend to build upwards, having many more people to house. Sometimes, buildings will be designed vertically more for fashion or aesthetic purposes than for functional ones.

I encountered an architectural challenge in my writing when I was drafting "Cold Words." I had put in a sort of generic entry hall, and my illustrious friend Tom Ligon encouraged me to think it through more thoroughly, so I asked myself what kind of entry architecture would be used by a species with a strong sense of smell. I turned it into the "confronting room" where there would be slots in the door between it and the inner areas of the house, to allow folk in the home to identify visitors and prepare either to welcome them or to fight them.

Ask yourself also why people build doors. How many doors do they build in a building? What is the expectation for behavior surrounding different kinds of doors - front doors, bathroom doors, doors at the bottom of the stairs, etc.?

Glenda asked whether the culture had nuclear families. Family structure is another really strong factor influencing architecture. Do people live in large family suites? In common halls? In round rooms that will keep in the body heat of those present? What is the expectation of privacy? Do families even live in buildings? Brian brought up the native American Indian dwellings of Mesa Verde and the surrounding area, and mentioned that a lot of spaces were used ceremonially or for storage, less so for family homes (he specifically mentioned Chaco canyon). Family might have different structure or meaning, and there might be no expectation of private individual space defensible by individuals.

Are rooms built with corners? How does this change expectations for the use of the space? This is a question that links back to building materials, as certain kinds of materials lend themselves more easily to straight lines, and others do not. Igloos are most effective when they take dome shape. Large stone bricks are rectangular, and tend to lead to rectangular buildings. Cut wood also tends to lead to rectangles. Lighter, thinner material works best with circles. Brian suggested that a people's spacial and geometric thinking will tend to be defined by their architecture rather than the other way around.

I mentioned C.J. Cherryh's book Wave Without a Shore, which featured interesting architecture because she specified early on that this was a colony in early stages where they had been provided with ultimately regular-shaped building materials and hadn't run out yet. This led to a lot of uniformity of structures and also of thinking.

Brian mentioned how Japanese rooms are still often measured in number of tatami mats - 8 mat room, for example (drawing) or 12.5 mat room (image).

Richard Adams' book Watership Down gave a surprising amount of attention to architecture, in particular talking about the role of tree roots in creating burrows, and having a rabbit warren where the proximity of man had influenced their thinking about how to burrow and design the warren. Practicality also came into the planning, which was discussed in great detail.

Glenda mentioned a documentary she saw featuring a Scottish geologist who discussed how architecture was influenced by the type of rock available in each area. Egypt had sandstone and limestone, which had great strength for stacking but wasn't as strong in creating open areas. Once you got to Greece's granite and Rome's marble, those had better strength for creating different kinds of spaces.

Brian also mentioned monuments. Lots of societies have monuments! What would your people do if they wanted to create something big and impressive? He mentioned that in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there are pyramids and ceremonial earthen platforms still being discovered that covered hundreds of acres. The only limitation is the materials. With stone, you can build obelisks and pyramids, but with earth you can still build pretty amazing things so long as you have the required manpower. So when you are designing a society, stick something amazing in there!

Make sure to think through whether things are actively being constructed. Large stone buildings have tended to be built over generations, but it's less common in literature to see things in the process of being built. Often, people began building and then learned how as they went along, with no overall plan. There would be scaffolding, and walls would be built, expanded, etc. Remember that architecture is dynamic rather than static (I'm always wanting to remodel my house!). Buildings also die, and one of the big causes of ruins is scavenging of the building material to use in other buildings. There should also be variation between old buildings and new, unless there is some specific destructive event that would remove old constructions from the picture. Cultural and social change is also reflected in architecture. History has a huge influence on how things are built and how they are destroyed. As Brian noted, Venice ran out of room in 1550, while Paris is a planned city that has been maintained with a core of 18th century architecture surrounded by 20th and 21st century architecture (La Défense, for example). The Champs-Élysées thus becomes a sort of walk through history. There are some buildings, like the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse, which are infamous before they become famous.

I hope this has given you a lot of ideas for exploring architecture in your work. Thanks again to Glenda and Brian for attending! Today's hangout will be Dialects. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

TTYU Retro: Cutting edge tech - from the 18th century? A worldbuilding challenge

Some time ago I visited Mount Vernon with my mother and my kids. Mount Vernon is where George Washington lived with his wife Martha (some of you may already know this). It wasn't our first visit to the estate, so this time I was able to notice some things I hadn't seen the first time around. In particular, I noticed elements of 18th century technology.

Very often in fiction I think we encounter technologies from our era, from some imagined future, or from ancient times - either medieval or even earlier, back to bronze age. But there are so many more opportunities out there for worldbuilding! This was a great visit for me because I really enjoyed seeing how George Washington and the people at Mount Vernon were innovating technologically. Here were some of the cool technologies we saw - I hope you find them similarly inspiring.

The most obvious piece of technology is the cupola on the roof of the house, which is very evident in pictures.
You might not imagine this to be technology, but in fact it is (even independently of the architecture and the craftsmanship required to make it). The cupola was actually designed to concentrate rising hot air in the house, and so on hot days the family would open its windows in order to cool the house off.

Another architectural technology we saw was the sixteen-sided barn that George Washington designed, a replica of which now stands in the Mount Vernon farm. It has sixteen sides, making it roughly circular, and two stories.

 This illustration shows how it worked. Between the upper and lower floors was a layer of narrow but sturdy planks with gaps in between. Workers would lay out wheat on that floor, and then horses would be brought in to trot in a circle, which would break the wheat grains free of the straw. The grains would then fall through into the lower area, and be swept up, winnowed, and taken to the mill to be ground into flour. We actually had quite a laugh because the fellow there explained to us how important it was to keep the horses trotting constantly without letting them stretch. If they stretched, they would be likely to urinate and ruin the wheat below. In any case, there is an earthen hill built up on one side so the horses can walk directly in to the second floor, and a separate entrance to the first floor on the opposite side. It's as close as you can get to automating this part of the process without actually using machines.

Inside the house were a couple of other marvels. One was a chair that had a board suspended above it. This board was connected to foot pedals below the chair, so that you could sit in the chair, push the pedals with your feet, and the board above you would wave back and forth and fan you on a hot day. We actually had lovely weather the day we were there, but I've been there when it's been hot enough that I would have enjoyed that chair myself!

Last, and possibly most impressive, was an innovative design in the kitchen. We walked in and I immediately noticed that there was a rack before the fire where spits were set - the spits were instantly recognizable, since they were long iron rods sharpened at one end and with a turning-handle on the other. But there was also a very interesting pulley apparatus there. A gear at one end of a spit had a chain that extended up into the invisible recesses of the chimney. I asked the volunteer docent to explain this, and was amazed: the other end was another gear attached to a metal fan. The idea was that the rising smoke and hot air would cause this convection fan to turn, and that would turn the gears, and thereby turn the spit. That meant that nobody had to stand there and constantly turn the spit; so long as the fire was going, the rising hot air would cause the spit to turn on its own.

Get creative with your worldbuilding. Remember that technological development is a long process with lots of twists and turns, and that it doesn't necessarily jump from one "age" or "level" to another. You can even forbid yourself to use certain types of technologies and see how that might change the other technological developments around them. What if these people didn't have the wheel? What if they had never discovered the steam engine? Challenge your mind and see what clever solutions you can come up with for local problems like heat or food production.

It's something to think about.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Is it worth revising a Trunk Story?

Do you have a story that you could never make work? Maybe more than one? Well, you're not alone. I have quite a few of these, and so do a lot of authors. Among these stories, is there one that still haunts you and taunts you with a premise that insists, "I could work!!!"?

Then you are tempted to revise a trunk story.

This shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Just because we aren't able to write a story to our own satisfaction doesn't mean that the idea is bad. I personally believe that it's a great idea to write with ambition, that is, to try to achieve something in writing that you're not sure you have the skill to accomplish with complete effectiveness. After all, writing is a constant process of learning, and ambition is what gets us to learn new and exciting things. How do you know if you can accomplish something in your writing unless you've attempted it? 

However, sometimes when we go back to these stories we that the text is so far from what we want that we're ready to disown them and trash them permanently. (I have several stories like that.) Here's my recommendation.

Don't trash them.

Hold onto those stories, because you never know when your Muse will suddenly whisper in your ear and say, "I think you might be ready to try that one again."

Let me be clear: a draft that will not yield to treatment but fights you at every turn is not worth flinging yourself at over and over. I'm working right now on a story that I haven't attempted in ten years. But at this point in my writing ability, I'm able to get a lot more exciting ideas for it, and I can imagine it turning out utterly different, though its ostensible core story is the same. Here are some steps to take:

1. Stay away from the old text until you have your new outline or premise clearly thought out. (You don't want your old level of skill to confuse your planning)

2. Spend time thinking through the story without looking at it and write down the bits you remember, because chances are you remember the best bits.

3. Only go back to the text if there's some critical event that must play out in a particular order, and you can't quite remember what order you put it in... or some such logistical information that you need to pick up from the old draft.

4. (You may have picked this up from the above) Don't let the old draft restrict you.

5. Never stop writing new things!

I put that last one in there because it's terribly important. Maybe you'll pick up your old story and try to do it right this time and it won't work. Yes, this has definitely happened to me. Don't let it discourage you; keep the file and save it for the next time the idea won't leave you alone. Always keep writing new things, because it keeps you learning and growing. At the same time, don't write off old stories that never worked just because you wrote them when you knew less. I'm sure we've all read enough to realize that the same premise can be executed in all kinds of different ways, successful and less successful. If you have an epiphany about an old story, that might just be what you need to give it the spirit you always imagined for it.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Personal Faith - A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with Video

I was joined for this hangout by Glenda Pfeiffer, Deborah J. Ross, and Lillian Csernica. It was a treat to have new people at the hangout - and super-thoughtful ones, too! I hope you find the discussion as fascinating as I did.

The last time we spoke about religion at a hangout, we'd spoken about world religion, and what kind of evidence one could put into a story to show that the world had religion, and religious diversity, in it (that post is here). So this time I wanted to look at the question of personal faith - characters who believe very deeply in their god/gods. This question is not an insignificant one because there are many stories out there in which the gods are real, and can interact with people. In that case, can the character's belief really be called faith? Or is it more acceptance of reality? N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy took a really interesting approach to that question, because while the gods were real and people took them on as patrons, there were also "atheists." What is an atheist in a land where the gods walk among us? Well, in her book, it was someone who believes that the gods should not be worshipped, because the gods old no relevance to their life even though they clearly exist - thus, more of an ideological stance than a religious one.

This contrasts sharply with the more Earthly view of personal faith that we find in, say, religious fiction and religious-inspired fiction, where plot, character, metaphors used, and many other aspects of a story will be directly inspired by elements of a real world religion. Some of these can be parables or stories from a religious text (like, say, the Bible) translated into a speculative environment. Bryan Thomas Schmidt's The Worker Prince, a science fictional retelling of the story of Moses, falls into this category.

I have always felt that because religion is such an important and pervasive cultural influence in the world, an author needs to make a deliberate choice about what kind or religion will appear in any given story. A lot? A little? None? Any of these options will likely be significant to the way the story is received by readers.

Glenda noted that you can pick and choose aspects of religion that are relevant to the story. You don't want readers to be bothered by the sensation of "something missing," and you should certainly make sure to avoid any inconsistencies in religion. You can have religion, and still have non-religious characters.

Religion is something that often comes into play during rites of passage. Birth, marriage, death, and other major events come to have metaphysical significance, and aspects of them will probably stay with your characters. Glenda remarked that there was a time (the middle ages) when you would have three baths in your life (birth, marriage, death). The final bath was a ritual of cleansing of more than just bodily significance - "not just getting rid of the lice before they put you in the ground."

I asked what kind of works people thought of as having handled religious faith very well. My own pick was the first book where I ever noticed the presence of a non-Earthly religion, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Glenda mentioned Harry Turtledove's "In the presence of mine enemies," Jo Clayton's A Bait of Dreams, and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller. Marion Zimmer Bradley did a lot with spiritual discipline of women warriors. Recent books that have great use of religion - and specifically non-European types of religion - are Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones, Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, and The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon also includes earth mystics and pagans, for a different religious approach.

Lillian made an important point by noting that people don't just stand there with a list of Dos and Don'ts. They have a relationship with their faith and its morality, which often involves a lot of deep thought. Religious faiths themselves are held in diverse ways.

Glenda also recommened Katherine Kurtz's Derinyi series, and Lillian mentioned Frank Herbert's Dune, where the Bene Gesserit women were a huge force in the society, and steely down to their bones.

Deborah Ross spoke about her own new series, The Seven-Petaled Shield. It has three major cultures, each with its own religion. The main religion is influenced by the Hebrew scriptures, while a second takes a Rome-like pantheistic approach with gods who look after you, and the third, a group of nomads on the steppe, have a nature-based religion whose deity is the "Mother of Horses."

Land and life have a deep influence on religious beliefs. Lillian asked, if you are in a survival-level culture, what do you conceptualize as a higher power? To a land-locked culture, would the ocean itself be a deity? Historically, some slaves from inland cultures who were shipped suddenly across the ocean had a terrible fear of it and thought of it as some sort of underworld. One could imagine the same kind of reaction from desert people seeing mountain forests. Would they suspect a different land gives rise to different gods?

When a person holds a particular religious faith, they tend to be steeped in the stories of that faith. While the Star Trek episode Darmok, in which an entire race of aliens speaks only in allusions to their own canon of stories, is a bit extreme (which is why I responded to it with "Let the Word Take Me"). However, the metaphors and analogies and imagery of those core stories permeate the thinking and language use of any member of that religion, and indeed can permeate the thinking and language of anyone in a society which was primarily based on that religion, whether or not they hold the religion for themselves. English is full of references to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian concept of God. Other languages are similar.

Lillian brought up Thailand, where there are stories of spirits who don't yet know they are dead, who may ask for a ride to the airport in a taxi and then disappear. Concepts of lucky colors can come from an underlying religious viewpoint.

In ancient Japan, traveling in certain directions on certain days was considered unlucky for religious reasons. This got us thinking about The Awakeners by Sherri S. Tepper, where there was a North Shore and a South Shore, and with the river flowing in one direction, people never traveled in any other direction. There was an underlying secret involving learning what happens to dead people if they travel backward, and the priesthood guarding that secret. Directionality can thus be an interesting cultural concept.

Prophets came up as a topic, though we didn't have a lot of time to discuss them. It would be interesting to consider the faith that prophets hold, and how they are viewed during their lifetimes versus how they are viewed years later. We talked about the character in Babylon 5 who wrote a book while in jail and accidentally ended up founding a religion of people who became caught up in the letter of the book, not the author's intent, even though he was still alive to argue with them about it!

Religious texts are yet another topic that deserves later discussion. You have the original text, then the commentaries, the historical discourses on the topic, and all of this is complicated by the translation issues. Lillian particularly mentioned Mary Magdalene and how her identity is interpreted differently in Orthodox Christianity and in later forms of Christianity. We also spoke about how texts - and the people and events portrayed in them - can be reinterpreted by people with specific political agendas after the fact, and how those people's oppressive or suppressive interpretations can substantially influence the interpretation of the text thereafter.

I always end these discussions feeling like we've just barely begun! But I hope we'll be able to pursue some of these subtopics later. Thank you, Glenda, Deborah, and Lillian, for being awesome discussants.

And here's the video!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Body as a Record of Personal Experience and Cultural Identity - A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with Video

I must say I was really happy to find the notes for this one, because I always wanted to write out this report! I was joined for this one by Erin Peterson and Glenda Pfeiffer.

I was initially inspired to this topic by encountering a number of articles in the media, one of which was an article about the incredible risks of Botox injections. One of these risks is that of losing the ability to form emotional connections with people because Botox causes you to lose the ability to echo other people's facial expressions. Not even kidding here - it scares me. The lure of Botox is the promise that you will lack wrinkles on your face, but that's not all you'll be missing. Your body, and particularly its wrinkes, scars, etc. is a record of your experience, what makes you who you are both individually and culturally. That is quite an incredible thing to erase!

As Erin said, this is a topic that gets us into the double standard of gender where women are valued first, and most importantly, on the basis of their appearance as beautiful, youthful and attractive, where men are valued for their power and experience - even in the arenas of sports and politics. Discussing inequity was not the main focus of our discussion, however.

We talked about how tattoos are often used to mark experience and identity. Many people choose to get tattoos as talismans of experience, often after some event they feel has changed them dramatically, marked a life transition or a big accomplishment. Glenda mentioned that tattoos can signify membership in a particular social group. Even tattooed eyeliner isn't just about ease, but it's also about claiming membership in the group of people who think makeup is a daily essential. The same would go for tattooed lip gloss. In my Varin world, the Imbati servant caste voluntarily (and proudly) take forehead tattoos as a symbol of both adulthood and their caste's special vocation of service.

Not all body markings are taken by choice. There are imposed social markers like the brands that used to be put on criminals in colonial America for a first serious offense (a brand on the hand, rather than an extended imprisonment, was the norm. For the second it was hanging). You hear horror stories about people being forced to take tattoos to "mark" them as belonging to someone else emotionally (which borders on slavery in my opinion). Scars are also marks of experience that may not be voluntary. There is voluntary scarification, as Glenda mentioned, but we also have things like mastectomy scars, Caesarean section scars, scars from accidental injuries of all varieties. Our interpretation of these marks can be various - they can be marks of shame that must be hidden, or they can be worn with pride, depending on the context in which they came about.

We spoke about intersex children, who are sometimes given surgical procedures to alter the appearance of their genitals so that they can conform physically to gender norm. This is often a mistake, because the doctor's opinion of what the child's physical sex looks most like is not necessarily what the child will identify as as they get older. Being raised as one thing when you are mentally another is thus a problem not only experienced by transgender people.

Clothes, though not a part of your body, definitely interact with it in the way that we display identity. One big issue that comes up, which we felt was relevant to this discussion, was which parts of one's body one is expected to display. There are tons of articles out their about unfair dress codes where women's bodies are required to be hidden because they are considered "distracting" to male students. There is much potential to display a society's cultural values in the way that one handles the exposure of different body areas and parts. Indeed, there is a very interesting display going on right now (ages after this original discussion!) about Japanese erotic woodblock prints, where unlike European erotic art of the same period, the bodies are typically covered with beautiful clothes and only the critical erotic parts are exposed (European art tends to do the opposite). You only have to look at the history of swimming suits in order to see that these values also change over time. Swim shirts are now coming back into fashion as a result of our knowledge of sun danger! And of course changing skirt lengths have always been a big topic for fashion.

Many things write our history on our skin - we can see the long-term effects of extreme sunburn and tanning in how the skin changes, and also the effects of long-term smoking. Glenda pointed out the interesting fact that tanning used to be considered lower-class because it was associated with agricultural work, and wealthy people were protected from the sun. But after the rise of industry, people worked in factories where they were not exposed to sun, and the mark of wealth became a tanned skin because the wealthy had leisure to tan. 

Other kinds of experiences that are recorded in our bodies are our first experiences of sex, as well as pregnancy. Pregnancy not only changes one's body but changes all kinds of expectations around us about whether our bodies are our own and whether our personal space can be invaded. There is also a strong cultural belief that the effects of pregnancy on our bodies should be erased as soon as possible - but should they? There might be cultures where such marks of motherhood would be displayed or at least treated with pride.

Lastly there are myths about behaviors that might potentially change our bodies (but really don't!), like masturbation. It turns out that Queen Victoria didn't think it was happening, at least among women.

I think we all felt at the end of this discussion as though we'd only scratched the surface of what is available to this topic. However, I really enjoyed talking about it and maybe we can pick it up again sometime.

And here is the video if you'd like more details!

Political Systems - A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with Video!

This one is a blast from the past - I'd lost my notes and found them again quite recently, which means I have some catching up to do! I had this discussion with Glenda Pfeiffer, Erin Peterson, Lesley Smith and Misha Gericke.

We started out by listing some types of political systems. Monarchies, especially absolute monarchies, are quite common in European-centered medieval-style fantasy. Lesley suggested Theocracy, where the system is run by religious leaders. I mentioned that in The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, she sets up two quite distinct systems, one a monarchy, and the other called a "commensality" which resembles a communist state. Erin mentioned that there was a form of communism in a book she read where there was a generation ship, where everything was shared and nothing inherited, and that the system worked until a religious group tried to control it. My Varin world has a rather mixed political system, where an underlying socialist system was hijacked by some powerful people and as a result the society is run by a single powerful monarch who is elected (indirectly - Heirs are elected) by the members of his Cabinet. That makes it a sort of monarchy/oligarchy with twisted democratic aspects.

Erin said, intriguingly, that people don't have the government they think they have.

When you are setting up a political system, it's interesting to ask who controls the money, and where they get it from. Does land ownership lead to wealth? Does business or corporate investment lead to wealth? How does money influence politics?

Misha talked about how she was working on a story where there were two neighboring nations and each one had a different political system. I think this is a really good idea, because in the real world there is quite a diversity of different coexisting systems.

We spoke for a bit about the system in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, where the Lords of particular areas are subject to the Targarian kings. Then madness crops up and leads to serious tyranny (the mad king was going to blow up the capital so was killed by his own guard). At that point the legal right to rule came under dispute and led to further fracturing of power, and uprisings by low-level nobility. I think it's interesting to note that kings can layer over one another - the concept of the High King is probably familiar, but I don't see it quite as often these days as I remember hearing about it when I was younger. Also it's interesting to note where resistance comes from when a monarch is a maniacal tyrant (guards vs. rivals).

This made me think of a historical king of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was a High King over quite a portion of the British isles and even some areas of France in around 400CE, and maintained control over his subject kingdoms by taking their queens hostage (with the result that he's part of the bloodline of about 1 in 8 Irishmen).

N.K. Jemisin set up quite an interesting variation on the hereditary monarchy model in her novel The Killing Moon. In their system, which centered around worship of the moon goddess, the monarch upon his death would become the husband of the moon goddess, and thus the "king," so the living ruler of Gujaareh therefore bore the title of Prince.

Erin brought up the importance of women, and how it differs in different political systems. For example, marriages between the prince of one country and the princess of another were very important for peace, centered around the idea that when you (the prince) cared about your sister (the princess), you'd be less likely to attack a nation where she resided as the leader's wife. Women can also be an active, powerful influence in government, whether as queens and princesses or elected representatives of various varieties. We noted that the English monarchy is changing the rules of inheritance so women will have the place of their birth order in it, rather than being skipped over unless there are no male heirs. In our world, inheritance by primogeniture regardless of gender is becoming more common for monarchies.

We spoke a bit about the Emperor of Japan. Back at the very beginning of historical record, we see some Empresses, but this stopped over a thousand years ago. Historically, the Emperor was thought of as a deity, a status which was forcibly changed by the Americans after World War II. Even now his role as moral leader of the country is very important. Some years ago there was a failure of the rice crop, and Japan imported rice from Thailand - but nobody would eat it, until the Emperor went on television to eat Thai rice and vouch for it. That solved the problem.

There are lots of stories out there about changing types of government. Kings being overthrown. Oppressive systems crashing down. Successions and such. We clearly care about this stuff! Also, historically, governments change. French history involves a monarchy becoming a democracy and then becoming an empire for a while before becoming a democracy again.

Misha noted, quite importantly I think, that the character of a monarchy depends a lot on the personality of its monarch. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons why monarchies are so common in fiction, because they can be personalized, and change in government can be conveyed through the examination of a single person's experience.

I apologize if I missed or mischaracterized anything that went on in this discussion because of the long delay... you can always visit the video for details, because it's right here!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Dive into Worldbuilding! - Topics for October

Wow, another month is already here! That means I get to come up with more fun topics for us to talk about during our Thursday 11am hangouts on Google+. This month we had a few new people join us, which was very exciting! I hope I get to see you again, and maybe even there are more interested folks out there who can come and join the discussion.

October 3  Travel

October 10  Dialect and Voice

October 17  Roads and Infrastructure

October 24  Money

October 31  Clothes and costumes!

TTYU Retro: Writing crowd interactions

Today seemed a good opportunity to look at some of the factors involved in writing large-group interactions. Here are some of the possible permutations (I don't claim to be comprehensive!).

1. The chaos crowd
In the chaos crowd, nobody is really interacting with anybody else. The chaos crowd is faceless, usually moving. I tend to approach a POV protagonist in a chaos crowd by establishing the chaos of the scene (magnitude, degree of movement) and thereafter relying on just the character's impressions of things that happen nearby. The character is as likely to encounter body parts and interact with them as to encounter whole people. Dialogue is usually either uttered to one companion or shouted at anybody within reach, so not a lot of complex management there.

2. The speechmaking situation
Here you have one person who is communicating something to the whole group. That person is the center of the interaction, as it were. If that person is the POV character, then you can have the speechmaker remark internally on reactions within the crowd of the audience. They may recognize some people in the audience and note those particular reactions. If the speechmaker is not the POV character, then there will be little sense of the reactions of individuals in the crowd, unless they are right next to the POV listener. However, the POV listener will definitely react personally to what the speechmaker is saying, and will also have an impression of the general mood of the crowd. Hecklers will be noticeable auditorily to either a POV speaker or a POV listener, but unlikely to be visually identifiable unless special conditions are in place.

3. The single-center group
This is a smaller group, with a single person who is the center of attention and/or perceived as the leader. The leader is more likely to be able to manage the conversation of the others, because he or she will be the one to whom most speech is directed. Every time you have active interaction between three or more characters where their identity is important, it's critical to keep track of the interactive style, favorite topics, and personality of each participant. Dialogue tags can be critical for keeping track of whom you're hearing at any given time.

4. The multi-center group
This is a group where all or most members are known, but where two (or more) people have come in with agendas and want to be the group center. Essentially what will happen is that these people will come in and make a move for the attention of the whole group, and then the group will split one way into smaller groups. In the scene I'm writing today, Garr grabs the attention of one person and Selemei gets the attention of the other two. What can happen here, however, is that other characters can make conversational or physical moves that either unify the entire group momentarily, or cause it to break up again into another configuration. There are a lot of possible permutations here, but they will be directly influenced by the agendas of the individuals involved. Some people will tend to stick to each other while others will not. I will remark, though, that groups of four or more will have an increasing tendency to break up into smaller subgroups.

The physical position of the people involved will also have a huge influence. If it's a cocktail party or other free-form situation, people's ability to form and reform smaller groups will be enhanced. If the entire party is seated around a large table, then one will tend to choose one of the people sitting nearest and begin a conversation. Speechmaking can be started from the head of the table, and larger groups can form between people who are around a table corner, or seated across from one another, etc.

The main point of this is to say that I don't often see large-group interactions taken advantage of in all their possible permutations. It's worth putting some thought into how this stuff can work, particularly if a lot of important characters are interacting at the same time.

I also suggest you look at Deborah J. Ross and Dave Trowbridge's comments below, for some great crowd-related questions and a book recommendation on the topic.