Monday, November 25, 2013

To name, or not to name? An unusual case involving oppression.

Usually it's pretty clear when we need to name our characters. Main characters, and the people they primarily interact with, should have names. Even if you are writing in first person point of view, it's a good idea to give your character a name by putting it in the mouth of a secondary character early on. Knowing a character's name gives us a greater sense of grounding.

In the story I'm currently working on, there is a very important character. She is something of an antagonist, and the leader of a group of people who are acting as pirates and kidnappers. Because my protagonist becomes her prisoner, she has no need to give her name. And so she didn't. I used the technique that is most common in these cases, to use some physical attribute to describe her. She was "the scarred female."

So far, so good. However, she ends up aligning herself with the protagonist at a certain point, and they travel into the city together. At this point it would not be hard to give her a name. Actually, it would be far better! Once she and the protagonist are acting together, to call her by a phrase like "the scarred female" becomes really long and awkward.

Except that her name is not in a spoken language. It's in a sign language.

I tried at first not to name her at all, but the long-and-awkward thing was really bad. The number of times you have to mention a character who is acting alongside your protagonist is high enough that not naming them is a real problem.

I had a real problem with the idea of giving her a name in the main alien language, though, because the sign language in this case is a language of rebellion, and to call her in the main alien language would be to name her in the language of the people who enslaved and scarred her.

In the end, I made a decision. She needed a name, and I would give it to her in the main alien language, but I would mark it as problematic. She introduces herself like this:

"I have been known as Othua."

At first, my protagonist doesn't realize how problematic this name is, but I have decided that before I got to the end of the story, I would make my protagonist learn the truth about what that slave name means to her. And at that point my protagonist would stop calling her Othua and learn her real name. That real name would be described gesturally and its semantic content - Silent-Speaker - would be used thereafter.

I found it very interesting to work through the complexities of being true to my worldbuilding while handling this name issue, so I thought I would share.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Announcement, and Dedication: "Mind Locker" will be published in Analog!

It's official! I hinted about this earlier, but now I can reveal that I have sold my story entitled "Mind Locker" to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and it will be coming out sometime in the next year (I will let you know when as soon as I find out!).

I'm super excited about this story. One reason for this is that it's my first sale to the new editor at Analog, Trevor Quachri. Another is that this story is not part of my Allied Systems Universe. Instead, it's a near-future story inspired by Google Glass and the changes the internet is making in our language... 

Hub Girl is twelve years old and lives in the slum of a major city. She keeps herself and her gang of friends fed by hacking the radio transponders of vending machines, and coordinating complex raids using the Arkive, an in-your-head internet which allows everyone to overlay customized information upon their reality. However, when the mysterious Locker begins kidnapping the children and disconnecting them from the internet, Hub Girl investigates, and finds a far bigger, more pervasive problem than even the police suspected. Here's the opening:


She's a night-walker, she's a child-stalker.
Won't see her coming, no use running
hands'll snatch you, she'll catch you
She's the night-walker, she's the mind-locker.

Since there won't be room in the magazine for me to provide a dedication, I've decided to do it here. I would like to dedicate this story to a group of amazing authors who have provided me with incredible inspiration, constantly showing me what kind of excellence is achievable, making me think, and opening my eyes to new ways of seeing the world. My deepest thanks to the late Octavia Butler, and to the vital and vibrant Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. I couldn't have written this story without them.


Costumes in Worldbuilding - A Google+ hangout report with VIDEO!

I was joined for this discussion by Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Brian Dolton. It was Halloween, so I was wearing my costume! Unfortunately, that's not precisely evident in the video (not that I suppose it matters that much). We started out by talking about some of the many issues surrounding costumes in our own world, as a source of inspiration for people working in our own or in other worlds.

When we dress up for Halloween, often it's nice to "be a thing," by which I mean dress up as something which other people will recognize. Erin said she usually dresses up using clothes of a certain historical era, but it does lead to people asking, "Who are you supposed to be?" Recognizability is certainly an issue, but a costume that is recognizable to one group may not be recognizable to another (who do you want to be recognizable to?).

There is also the question of when it is appropriate to wear a costume. It used to be that outside of Halloween and the occasional costume party, costumes were simply not worn (I did not mention the theater here, being more focused on costume-wearing by members of the general population). However, science fiction conventions are definitely places where it is appropriate to wear costumes, and cosplay (the Japanese abbreviation of costume play) is expanding those contexts even further. Even on Halloween there are a lot of rules for how and when to wear the costume, especially at school (where they have a parade). Sometimes there are contests.

Then we turned to other cultural issues around costumes. Masquerades were all about wearing costumes that made you unrecognizable (as opposed to recognizable as something else). Costumes are not always for fun. They can be symbolic of ethnic identity or can have religious significance. They may be used in rituals (one could argue that Halloween is a ritual, too!). There are also special ways to dress for formal or festival occasions that are not necessarily considered costumes, such as wearing formal wear or putting on a particular type of clothing which is historically significant within a particular cultural community. Erin noted that we make a distinction between "dressing up" and "dressing up as" but that they both imply a departure from the normal.

There is more to a costume than putting on clothes. There is a spirit that comes with it, a sort of significance to altering our appearance that touches on identity. Allie Brosh has a hilarious take on this at Hyperbole and a Half. This happens in theater as well - I could always feel the difference between regular rehearsal and dress rehearsal as deeply significant.

Erin remarked that having a costume can mark you as a participant, as an insider rather than a bystander. Certainly, clothing is a part of identity politics. I noted that I choose a very specific style of dress when I attend conventions because I want to appear as a participant, but as an author rather than a cosplayer - in part because I don't want to cover up my face and have nobody be able to recognize me. Is my style of dress recognizable as a costume? I'm not sure whether others would call it that. Brian noted that authors will sometimes adopt the same style of dress to make themselves recognizable, as when Neil Gaiman wears all black, Jay Lake wears Hawaiian shirts, or George R.R. Martin has his unique style of dress (which is recognizable enough that people will dress up as him!). Erin told us about a time when she dressed up as her husband, David.

Crafting skills are an interesting issue connected with costumes, as Halloween costumes have started to be much more store-bought, but cosplay is very much an arena for crafters (It's nice to see these skills are not just being lost!). In the Harajuku district in Tokyo, where cosplay originated, it was originally in part just a form of extreme fashion, which sometimes imitated anime characters, but it has changed and been adopted in the US now to mean dressing up as anime or comic characters, or even characters from books. I personally believe that this has led to a resurgence of crafting, because you can see so many cosplayers talking proudly on the internet about how long it took them to create their marvelous costumes. Erin remarked that the internet is a great place to learn how to knit, tat, or crochet, since it's really easy to find instructional videos. Brian says that Pinterest is also important to crafters. The easier it is to share, the more helpful it is for crafting.

Then we took on the question of sexy costumes. There has been a big discussion recently about the trend toward making all women's costumes sexy. Erin says that college kids like to wear them and be sexy - and there must be someone buying these, or they would not make them! She said it was a case of escapism, and of transgressing by doing something that they wouldn't normally do. However, the question of objectification is a big issue, especially when this gets applied to younger and younger girls. Take Back Halloween is a great website for people who don't want to get sucked into this trend.

Another big problem that comes up in the area of costumes is cultural appropriation. Dressing as native peoples, or members of a particular religion, or wearing ritual clothing as a fun costume for Halloween is a big problem. Taking anything which is meaningful within one cultural sphere and appropriating it for a "fun costume" is an insult to the cultural groups and contexts out of which the costume originally came, and thus deeply problematic. A race of people is not to be "worn for fun." Notably, it is possible to wear some costumes like this with respectful intent. However, the effect it has on others is not necessarily about your intent. Just as with authorial intent, the reader owns the story (said Brian), in the case of a costume, the viewer owns his/her own reaction. My own personal recommendation is just to avoid the minefield and not try to engage in cultural appropriation at all.

We looked then at the occasions on which costumes are worn. Holidays are certainly included. Each holiday has a different definition of what is appropriate and why. Is there social complexity behind the wearing of a costume? For example, the masquerade party was an excuse for being in disguise, and this has led to all kinds of great literature over the years (since the time of Shakespeare, and earlier). In Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, there was a costume ball setting where people were supposed to dress as their own historical ancestors, and the host of the party had to work quite hard to make sure that they didn't choose a historical period during which any of the guests' families had been the bad guy. Thus, there was special significance to being able to dress as an auspicious ancestor.

Brian brought up an interesting issue surrounding the use of costumes by superheroes in comics. As he described it, the purpose of a character having a costume was so that the character would be instantly recognizable, even when the artist drawing the comic had changed. However, over time this has become so normal that we take it for granted that superheroes have costumes. Even in the movies, all the superheroes have costumes. This is an entirely new context for costume-wearing, however, and not necessarily a naturalistic one. In Captain America they made a very clever reason why Cap would be wearing a costume - and it had to do with his image being co-opted for theatrical productions, not anything to do with his superpowers. After all, being a super-soldier does not require one to wear a costume! In a sense it can be seen as impractical. Why would superheroes want to stand out rather than blend in? Why do villains not dress up as superheroes and co-opt their image? Maybe the costume is a way of indicating to police, "I am on your side." Interestingly, we did see the question taken up in The Incredibles, with the whole sequence about, "No capes!" Alan Moore took up this cape issue in the Watchmen comic, where he had a superhero sponsored by a bank, who got his cape stuck in a revolving door and got shot... whereupon nobody wears capes any more. Erin noted that no superhero ever wears camouflage. Of course, there is the secret identity issue, where you need to disguise yourself. We had a bit of a laugh about Superman, who somehow became unrecognizable simply by donning a pair of glasses. Jokes have been made about this (and justifiably so!).

Brian wrapped up the hour by telling us that no real Viking warriors wore horns on their helmets. Good to know!

Thanks to everyone who attended. If you are interested in watching the video for details, here it is:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

TTYU Retro: "Mirror scenes" and how to avoid them for both appearance and culture

I think all of us must have written mirror scenes at one time or another. When I was earlier on in my development as a writer, I was far more visual - far more movielike, in a sense, because I really wanted to be able to imagine my characters in detail. I took the time to draw them to the best of my ability, and I thought about how to describe them based on that.

That can work fine so long as you are observing your characters from the outside - either as a character who observes them, or as an omniscient or distant narrator.

However, the further I've gone into writing, the more interested I've become in portraying my characters from the inside, and I quickly realized that if you are using deep point of view, and you put a lot of attention on a character's appearance, it automatically implies (via "show-don't-tell") that the character is vain and puts a lot of attention on his/her own appearance. In other words, put a person in front of a mirror and they will look like a person who spends significant amounts of time in front of a mirror. Put them there and let them comment on the flowing quality of their own dark locks, their own silky skin, or the depths of their own limpid eyes, and it starts to get seriously, narcissistically weird.

If you're going to put someone in front of a mirror, have a good reason to do so. In For Love, For Power, my main protagonist, Tagaret, never stands in front of a mirror. Not even to check if he's buttoned his cuffs properly (he asks a servant to check). His brother Nekantor stands in front of mirrors occasionally, but he's obsessive about having a perfect appearance, and he also finds mirrors very comforting because they're smooth and cold. For him a mirror is a way to keep from freaking out. When I put my third character, Imbati Aloran, in front of a mirror, it's to point out something pretty important: appear at an interview unmarked would be to fail before he began. He went to the mirror he shared with his bunkmate and painted the small black circle between his eyebrows. Then he combed his dark hair into its ponytail, which thanks to Kiit's precise trimming, fell just outside his collar. He shut both makeup brush and comb back into his box of implements. 

Previously in the story, we've seen members of the servant caste with tattoos on their foreheads; here, Aloran is showing us that young people of the caste don't have such tattoos, but must paint a mark on each day. He also takes care of his hair - but for him, personal appearance is a professional concern, not a personal one.

Generally speaking, if I think it's really critical to get an element of appearance in somewhere, I try to sneak it in. That's why I put "his dark hair" in the above quote, rather than just "his hair." One little extra adjective is enough, because the other elements of the description are more important.

Readers can generally fill in a lot of appearance details out of their own imaginations, just on the basis of the personality and behavior of a character. This is pretty amazing; it's also one of the reasons why I'd encourage you to be up front with important appearance details that you don't want readers to guess wrong.

If you're working with a group of people with homogeneous appearance, you need to be cautious and deliberate. I have written stories set in Japan; a friend of mine is working in a fantasy world where everyone has brown skin and black hair, with variations thereupon; the same caution would apply to a world where everyone was pale. What makes this tricky is putting the basic characteristics out there so your reader won't make an incorrect guess, and at the same time establishing the standard appearance without making it stick out as somehow unusual (from an internal point of view, it's not unusual at all). Over-description will make it seem unusual and give a sense of undue concern with appearance; under-description has other pitfalls. Put yourself in the position of the protagonist, and ask, "What does stand out?" If all hair is light, then will a particular style be remarkable? If all hair is dark, will a particular type of hair ornament be what stands out? Put the focus on what stands out to the insider-observer.

I'd like to issue a similar caution for those working with cultural differences. A "cultural mirror scene" would be one where the character is called upon to declare, "I am a X and because I am a X, I value this and I behave like this." Real situations where people have to do this are actually uncommon. They usually arise in conflict (politics on Facebook comes to mind, where people are anonymous yet called upon to take sides). In another type of cultural mirror scene, a character has to come face to face with an outsider to the culture, and take a big (figurative) step back in order to look at both conflicting cultures from a distant point of view, observing the difference between the two ways. You can also create situations where children are being taught, because those give adults a good opportunity to say, "We are this, and as this, we are supposed to behave like this."

More often, a person will notice the cultural behaviors and manners of others, rather than his/her own behaviors. Often you can just dial it back by a step - have a person remark on another person's culturally based behavior, but not include an explicit comparison with their own. Very often, the observer is only aware of the other's behavior as behavior, and not as culturally influenced behavior. As I see it, we're trying to avoid writing our characters as anthropologist/ethnographers unless they actually are anthropologist/ethnographers.

Try to be very sensitive to when and why you are putting "mirrors" around - and by that I mean whenever you have someone explicitly notice a contrast of manners or cultural behavior. In the same way that you don't want to have a character walking through a hall of mirrors and noticing another detail of their appearance every two or three steps, you don't want to exhaust your reader's cultural sensitivity by having your point of view character be hyper-aware of every last cultural contrast or detail in the surrounding environment. Make sure that when you use them, you are using them to demonstrate something important to the character, and to the story.

It's something to think about.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Diversity in Fictional Worlds - how I handle it.

Yesterday I read a terrific article by Mary Robinette Kowal about diversity in historical fantasy, entitled "Don't blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That's your choice, as an author." I highly recommend you click through and read it as well.

I've written posts about diversity here as well, most recently "My part (and your part?) in Diversity in SFF," which itself contains links to a couple of great posts by Aliette de Bodard and Carrie Cuinn on the subject. One of the things I did in that article was talk about how populations of any variety are naturally diverse, and portraying diversity in such contexts is more authentic than not doing so.

I thought I would take this opportunity here to do two things. First, to look at the diversity of characters in my own fiction, and second, to talk about how I handled diversity in my Varin world, because it was an interesting challenge.

First, characters in my own published (or soon-to-be-published) fiction. When I tried to do a survey, I found it difficult to count characters, because I didn't know whether just to count the protagonists, to count focal characters, or to count all characters! Since these are short stories, they don't have huge populations. I decided to look at focal characters. The drawback here is that I may be missing patterns in minor characters, but it's still instructive.

  • "Let the Word Take Me" had featured two white males (Arthur and David Linden), a white female (Monroe) and an alien female (Allayo).
  • "Cold Words" featured an alien who was a member of an oppressed minority on his planet (Rulii), the king on that planet (Majesty), and two humans, a man of African descent (Parker), and a woman of Japanese descent (Hada).
  • "At Cross Purposes" featured a white female (Lynn Gable) and her companions, a white male (Kenneth), a Korean male (Sung), and another white female (Doris Grabko), while the aliens (ChkaaTsee) were a male and female of the dominant phenotype. 
  • "The Liars" featured a white male (Adrian Preston) and a female of Chinese descent (Qing), a female of African descent (Alam) and a female alien who was disabled and a persecuted minority on her planet (Óp).
  • "Smoke and Feathers," out now, was set in modern Japan, and featured two Japanese schoolboys (Tenjiro, Ryuuji) and their grandmother (Baba).
  • "Lady Sakura's Letters," forthcoming, is set in Heian Japan, and features a woman of the Japanese imperial court (Lady Sakura), the Captain who betrayed her, and a male spirit.
  • "Mind Locker," forthcoming, features a mixed-race female (Hub Girl), a white female (The Locker), a white male (Mister Questions), an Asian person of indeterminate gender (The Pit Boss), an Indian male (Fixer Singh), and a male of African descent (Fisher).

Total characters: 30
Ratio of male/female humans: 6/5
Ratio of male/female aliens: 4/3
Ratio of white/nonwhite humans: 9/14
Ratio of dominant/non-dominant aliens: 4/2
Ratio of able to disabled characters, including aliens: 23/1
Representation of non-cis-heterosexual characters: 1

I did better than I had feared. I don't have much representation of disability, however, and I don't have much representation of the possible variations in sexuality. I think this is in part because these are short stories that do not have sexuality issues in their focus. Disability was a minor aspect of "The Liars," but something that would definitely be worth looking at in another story. I feel strongly that the issues surrounding diversity make for incredibly compelling stories.

In general, I would expect to see more axes of diversity in novels, because they are larger and encompass far more of the worlds that they feature. I'm pleased to say that I have deliberately touched on issues of gender, disability and sexuality in For Love, For Power. The biggest challenge in the Varin world is the question of white versus nonwhite, and because of a conversation I had on the subject this morning, I thought I would explain how I have approached it.

Varin is a world where it would be really easy to make everyone white. It is an isolated continent, not directly connected with diverse source populations. Its population is small and thus highly inbred. Also, all the cities are underground. The major social divisions there are caste-based rather than racial. Furthermore, I designed it with quite a lot of cultural resemblance to Europe, because I wanted it to feel very familiar to American or European readers, so I could then bring into question a lot of those familiar assumptions.

Long ago, I realized that Varin did have source populations, however. These source populations are from another area of the planet that they live on, and they are in fact diverse. The people of Varin live where they live because they were persecuted for religious reasons and fled. When they fled, they took members of their religion from many different countries with them. That means they have racial diversity, but it also means that the nation they established was started with the explicit goal of unity on the basis of religious culture. The population was also quite small, and thus has had a lot of interbreeding over the course of its thousand-year history. This actually makes some basic racial diversity very helpful for the overall health of the population.

So, what does that mean for the current population of Varin and its phenotypes? Basically it means that in the cities, skin color is pretty muted most of the time. However, there are different hair colors and types, and there are different skin colors - but these mostly range from pale to light brown, which the Varini call "gold."

It is very important that there not be any major correspondence between caste and skin color, so I try to be very careful about distributing skin color in various places. The only exception to this is the nobility, because they are an inbred group within an inbred group, and tend toward reddish hair. There are still gold-skinned nobles, though.

The other thing that makes skin color more interesting -and more specifically Varin - is that there is one single caste group, the laborer caste, who actually spend time on the surface, hunting or farming. There, caste does align with skin color. However, rather than aligning with phenotype, it aligns with "brightness." The skin variations that would be muted and less than evident among people who never leave the cavern cities become very evident, so some laborers are freckled and others are dark-skinned.  The primary impression these skin colors leave on a Varini who sees them is that they are a sign of courage, because venturing onto the surface is fraught with danger, and these people have survived it. One of the characters specifically identifies brown skin in a member of the soldier caste as a sign of ambition, because this woman was clearly guarding farmers before she became a member of the Eminence's personal guard.

All this is to say that secondary worlds deserve as much attention to diversity as our own - and I also agree with Mary Robinette Kowal that historical fiction deserves as much attention to diversity as modern. Some may argue that this is merely political correctness, but I don't think so at all. This is the way the world has always worked, and furthermore, it is such a source of richness for your world, and your fiction in general, that neglecting it would be a terrible missed opportunity.

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

TTYU Retro: Wrestling with reader expectations and cliché

I like to turn things on their heads.

It's fun. When you've been reading science fiction and fantasy for a long time, you see patterns in it, and you start to see common models that everyone uses - these are things like "abducted by aliens!" or "evil king!" or "getting in over their heads!"

These are the kinds of things that start to become cliché.

They also are lots and lots of fun to subvert, or turn on their heads. When I come up with a story idea, I like to try to turn as many of the reader's expectations on their heads as possible. Every time a piece of the story has a familiar ring to it, I try to say, "What can I do to make this turn out in a way that people won't quite expect?"

It's an interesting task, and a tricky one, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it's really hard to avoid the patterns entirely. The longer the story, the more likely that some familiar situation is going to creep in. I suppose it's a bit like the "All roads lead to Rome" phenomenon. You can be going toward Rome, or away from Rome, but you're still on that road. Getting off the road is really difficult, and a slog, as you can imagine. Creating a new smooth road in a place no one has ever been before is amazing and cool if you can do it, but it's a huge challenge.

For another thing, if you do like to subvert patterns, you may discover that people don't notice. This has happened to me at least once (probably more, since I don't know everyone who reads my work). I dig into a story, try to make each character distinct with history and cultural background etc., try to play out the way that these identities and distinctions cause the expected pattern to twist back on itself and end up in an unfamiliar place. But sometimes readers will recognize the pattern early and decide, "I know what she's doing," relax their attention and miss the differences.

I don't blame anyone for this. Readers will read as they will, and research shows that a great deal of what we understand from what we read comes out of our own mind and experience. It does, however, inspire me to dig deeper, to push further, to make the subversion just that bit more obvious.

If you are working on something like this, and you are interested in creating distinctions and differences, my best piece of advice is this: put a strong piece of evidence for the difference you're creating right up front. If you're dealing with a historical-style social system but you're putting it in a futuristic world, make sure the old and new features co-occur as early as possible in the story. If you have an evil king but he's not just evil, he's got special issues, make that clear as soon as you can. If you're working with a character who is sexist, but you want readers to examine that sexism instead of thinking you are in on it as an author, then deliberately work against the misconception - strengthen the non-sexist characters, put a character in a position to do something unexpected, let characters have misconceptions and learn their way out of them, etc. I've heard the expression "hang a light on it" or "hang a flag on it" - don't be afraid to let people know that a feature of your world is there, and different from what they expected. Or even if it is like what they expected, make a point of poking the reader and pushing them off the ramifications of that expectation in whatever way you can.

It's something to think about.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Link: Body Language Reference Sheet from Writers Write

I've had many questions posed to me about body language over the years I've been blogging, and I highly recommend this link, which has illustrations of features of body language, intended for comics folk but also super useful for writers.

I hope you find it interesting!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Roads and Infrastructure: A 'Dive into Worldbuilding!' Hangout report with VIDEO!

Our hangouts forge ahead, in spite of sometimes odd technical conditions that had one participant looking like a pair of shadowy floating glasses...! I was joined for this chat by Erin Peterson, Harry Markov, and Brian Dolton.

When you think of roads, I'm sure a lot of associations come up. Road to Glory. Silk Road. All roads lead to Rome. Highway to Hell. Path to Redemption. Armies walk a lot faster on roads, which was one critical factor in the success of the Roman empire. Erin remarked that soldiers, news, and commerce all can travel on roads. Whether those things get mired in mud makes a huge difference to their success. Roads can hurt the land, but they can also cause towns to spring up (railroads were mentioned especially in connection with this). Towns spring up to feed people as they travel, and give them places to gather. It's actually good to look at the travel patterns around a town and ask why the town would be there in the first place - the reason probably has a great deal to do with roads. Harry said roads are about progress. Stable infrastructure makes travel and trade more reliable. It certainly helps if you're not in danger of losing an entire ship full of goods at sea!

Take a look at how your roads are constructed. How are they made? How much work is required to create them, and how much to maintain them? Are there choke points on the road, like bridges or forests? Those points are most likely to be targeted by bandits who may demand tolls from those passing by (governments can also use these points similarly!). Brian suggested that one should not provoke the authorities. Roads are not always safe. People, wild animals, stampedes, weather, and washouts are all potential dangers to travelers and to their cargo. Erin remarked that when one is on a road through the wilderness, there are not always a lot of support structures for travelers.

I remembered how in Tolkien there were roads... but that Frodo was encouraged to stay off them. I always got the sense that this was somehow a magical problem, but certainly, a road will make your  path far more predictable. Indeed, even if you are traveling through a wilderness, everyone who must travel will probably be on the road, so the road itself may be more populated than you think. Brian said that Tolkien underpopulated his landscpe. Wilderness is a big thing in fiction, but there isn't all that much of it. The American Pioneers may have seemed to be going into an area with no population density, but that was unusual because smallpox and other diseases had devastated the local populations. In Europe, the plague sometimes left entire villages empty.

Climate is important to roads. Dirt roads don't last, even in the desert, unless you maintain them. Asphalt breaks down after 30 years. Erin remarked that there may still be signs that roads once existed, but that doesn't mean that they are usable, or even passable. We discussed Alan Weisman's book The World without Us, which talks about how quickly things break down when nobody keeps building them up again. (Answer: more quickly than you might think.) People scavenge from things.

We talked about the movie Cars, which took the road as one of its central concepts. The road acts like a river, following the contours of the landscape. New technology allows the road to cut through the hills, and changes the area and its surrounding towns. Those places no longer accessible by the main road (i.e. the biggest road) can "dry out." Erin mentioned the town of Butte city, which was once a place where barges were loaded, but when the transportation changed, the city dried up.

We talked a bit about ports. In modern ports, cranes transfer giant boxes from ships to road vehicles.

Harry mentioned an island community with a mine. The town there was for miners and their families who were shipping materials out. When the mine stopped producing the entire town and port were abandoned. A similar situation is depicted in the Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky, where the skill of mining the most valuable material has been lost and the mining towns are struggling to find any more of the lesser materials, causing the towns to decay.

We talked a bit about the cultural significance of roads. Diners are designed to be next to roads, and can become the social center of an entire community. Roads can create environments where the people who meet are all travelers. We didn't touch on this in the hangout, but there was a recent fascinating article about gender and roads, talking about how when a man steps onto the road, his story begins, but when a woman does, her story ends. You can read it here. Brian mentioned how crossroads have been culturally significant for thousands of years, even featuring magical spells that can only be performed there, gods of the crossroads, and traditions of burying people - or murdering them! - at a crossroads. Lonely crossroads appear a lot in horror.

Fine-tuned cars run on fine-tuned roads (US roads and the Autobahn come to mind). Harry wondered about flying cars and how roads might work in the sky. In movies, you might see cars traveling roads in the sky, going over and under one another without any traffic jams or collisions. How would you enforce those roadways? Brian remarked that air traffic corridors were like roads in the sky already, because for example the I10 highway in the southern US is a route traveled by cars, but above it is the plane route, which is almost the same. One reason that planes need to travel predictably is a control issue. Car collisions are bad; air collisions are a disaster. You have to be able to control the flow so that nobody gets lost (which is much, much easier in the air!). Ships on water are slower and much less likely to collide. On the other hand, maps of shipping do suggest "roads" of a sort. Winds and doldrums are somewhat predictable, and it is always valuable to travel through known terrain (or sky, or seas). If you have trouble, someone will be coming along. In the era of the pioneers, hundreds of wagons would set off each day, because they were restricted by the seasons and had to leave in spring in order to reach their destinations before winter (the Donner Party learned that lesson the deadly way).

Erin said air traffic mirrors ground traffic. She also mentioned hazards and how horses, which can think for themselves, are able to avoid crashing into each other most of the time. Cars crash more and at higher speeds. This leads to a need for stop signs, traffic lights and modern traffic laws. Brian remarked that paving was originally intended to make maintenance easier, but now it's for speed. I talked about how when I was on a panel about the 7 wonders of the world, and how Paul Chafe had mentioned that the modern highway system was a wonder of the world, even though it was unlikely to be viewed as such. Erin noted that the rules for roads etc. evolve as the need for them evolves.

In science fiction, "roads" have other issues. Erin said she was always bothered by instantaneous information exchange across interstellar distances. She prefers the model where travel leads to information flow. Brian says he doesn't mind faster-than-light travel but prefers information to travel FTL rather than instantaneously, because of the way it affects communication. Until the telegraph was invented, information traveled at the same speed as people on Earth as well. We talked about how CJ Cherryh's Merchanter universe has an interesting variant of this, where the ships have black boxes and nobody messes with them, because every time a ship arrives it brings a flood of information with it.

This led us to talk about communication. I mentioned Nancy Kress' sunflashers, from Probability Moon. We also talked about Tolkien's beacon fires, which were really cool but seemed implausible inasmuch as they would have had to be maintained as permanent camps with supplies etc. in those remote and nigh-inaccessible locations. We remarked that people can skip technological "steps," as in modern Africa where laying networks of cable is being skipped in favor of cell phone towers. We imagined Google wifi balloons. So when you are thinking about infrastructure, make sure that you consider how your world got there - they may not have taken all the same steps our world has. My Varin world has messengers to get information to travel quickly, but not because they are low-technology. They used to have cable telephones, and then developed a wireless method for communication and recycled all the old cables. The problem is, they then lost the ability to repair the wireless technology, and by that time all the cables were gone. So they're stuck with people running or driving across town with notes! Erin said that in her parents' community, they don't have cable, but they do have satellite dishes. Peripheral areas in the US won't have cable sometimes - infrastructure varies from place to place.

It was only at the end of the hangout that we started to move off roads, and we certainly didn't get to everything! That's why we'll be discussing water today, and power generation shortly!

I hope to see you at a hangout soon! Thanks to everyone who attended this one. And here's the video!


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'Dive into Worldbuilding!' - November Topics

I've been swamped with Halloween and the Convolution convention, so thank you for your patience. Here are the worldbuilding topics for November:

November 7: Water

November 14: Generating warmth and power

November 21: The contrasting narratives of Conqueror and Conquered

November 28: (no hangout, because it's Thanksgiving!)

As you may recall, our hangouts begin at 11am Pacific. Watch out, because we just ended Daylight Saving, so our clocks now read an hour earlier!

I hope to see you on Google+! And please, feel free to contact me if you would like to be added to the invitation circle.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

TTYU Retro: The First/Last sentence experiment

Have you ever done this?

Take your novel manuscript, or story manuscript if it contains multiple scenes. Take out all the first and last sentences, and put them in a separate file, in order. Then see what the story looks like. (You can actually do only first sentences, or only last sentences, but each of those will give you a very different result.)

The result won't look like a story, but you will be able to tell some things about how the story is progressing. I do this usually when I'm in the revision stage of a story, and and it can be an interesting measure of how much drive you're getting in your scene openers and cliffhangers, and whether there appears to be any link between them. To give you a sense of what a story might look like in this form, I'll give you the first and last sentences of each scene in "The Liars," which appeared in Analog this year:

1 (first). If it was possible to make a security area "adorable," Poik-Paradise had done it.
1 (last). By the time you've been here a couple days, either you won't notice it any more, or it'll be driving you crazy.

2 (first). The song was driving him crazy.
2 (last). When you hear it, you will understand.

3 (first). "Little Qing," Adrian asked, "you don't want to understand?"
3 (last). With a wordless sound of fear, Óp squirmed free of his grip and vanished.

4 (first). It was a long climb down, followed by an additional hike to the Tauth party, so Adrian uplinked to the orbiter while he walked.
4 (last. She might know he's suffering, might know the Paradise Company is hiding him to preserve its reputation, and might not give a damn."

5 (first). The communicator chimed.
5 (last). The Liar wrenched free of his captors, seized the broken champagne glass off the table, and stabbed it into his own throat.

6 (first). "Oh, God!" Adrian cried.
6 (last). "Yes, Óp, I think we do."

One thing I notice when I look at this is that I often try to link the first sentence of a scene with the last sentence of the previous one. Writing them out like this lets me test whether each opening sentence of the scene gets me curious to read the scene itself. It also helps me consider the kind of resonance I'm getting from each final sentence (by which I mean the feeling which continues on into the pause between scenes). It also helps me to tell where the largest amount of change is happening in the story, because there will be less of a connection between the sentences when a lot of change has happened and new information has been introduced.

Here is the same thing, done with the first six chapters of the novel I'm agent-hunting for right now.

1 (first). Tagaret believed in music the same way he believed in the sky.
1. (last). After five years away in Selimna, Mother would finally be coming home.

2 (first). The Speaker's death last night, like the tumble of a stone from the roof of some forsaken cavern, had the entire Imbati Service Academy holding its breath, listening for worse.
2 (last). "This much I can promise: if she accepts you, she will protect you."

3 (first). The scariest part of Tagaret's health check had been his examiner: the Health Master of the Imbati Academy, a woman built like a cave-cat, with whisper-gentle fingers and eyes like iron under her bodyguard's tattoo.
3 (last). Mechanically, Tagaret walked Reyn to the door, then returned to his room and locked himself in.

4 (first). Nekantor stared at the locked door for a long time.
4 (last). When Benél understood, he was powerful.

5 (first). Not until the lock clicked did it really hit him.
5 (last). "It's a surprise."

6 (first). Grobal Tagaret was not the person he'd wanted to see.
6 (last). Thank all the gods he had been born Imbati.

This one is less tight-sounding because the scope of the story is much larger, and there are three point of view characters. However, I can still check each first and last sentence for drive and resonance, and I can also notice other things, such as the fact that I've put a lot of importance on the locking of Tagaret's door. I might be inclined to change this if it were less important to the story, but as it is, I'm keeping it because it has an important role.

I encourage you to try this with your manuscripts and see what you can learn!


Monday, November 4, 2013

Why Good Fiction requires as much hard work as Good Nonfiction

This weekend I was going back and forth to the Convolution convention with my friend, awesome writer Lillian Csernica (here I have linked to her blog, which is always fascinating). While we passed the driving time talking about science fiction, fantasy, and romance, she told me about an insult that one of her writing acquaintances had leveled at her half-consciously, so many times that she finally had to call her on it. The insult was this:

Fiction is so much easier to write than non-fiction. You're just making stuff up!

I've never had this said to me, and I'm glad, because I'm not at all sure that I would react well. I've written both nonfiction and fiction quite a lot by this point. They are very different. However, I wouldn't say that either one is more difficult than the other.

Writing nonfiction requires research*. [*NOTE: This does not mean that writing fiction does not! I'll return to that in a moment.] It requires knowledge of the subject matter you are writing about, and it requires the ability to compose an argument effectively. Writing academic papers about empirical research requires a lot of knowledge about how to describe the research, how to talk about the methodology used, how to talk about the way in which one deduced results, etc. It also requires the ability to bring in the voices of other scholars to help back up one's own arguments, and in this way it somewhat resembles conducting a choir. I used to imagine myself waving my baton and saying things like, "And now, Vygotsky!"

Nonfiction does require the ability to organize information and create a narrative arc. This arc in a research paper won't be the same as one in narrative nonfiction, but it's still an arc. It still requires that you take your reader along with you through the "story." And you might be surprised to hear that both these varieties of nonfiction involve a certain knowledge of "show, don't tell."

Writing fiction also requires research, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves!

Say you're using a real-world setting of some variety. You have to know a great deal in order to portray that setting accurately. If it's a place where you have lived, your life experience serves as research...but you haven't seen everything, so research into relevant aspects of the place with which you are less familiar is always a good idea. If you haven't lived there - and if you don't speak the local dialect natively, for example - you need to get deep in. Talk to people who do live there. Dig into local history. Go there if you can. It takes a lot of effort to get things right, and readers will notice if you don't.

Say you are using a secondary world, either science-fictional or fantastical. You have to make sure that the world you've created works, and that it makes sense...which is not as easy as it sounds. This is where research on the way that the real world works comes in extremely handy. If the secondary world isn't to come across like large paintbrush strokes on thin cardboard, you have to dig in deeper. That means considering sociology, culture, environment, and all kinds of other factors. More than that, the elements that you will need are not necessarily going to be things we can bring up in our minds readily. It takes research just to know in which areas we'll need to be doing our research! (Which is one of the reasons I keep an index of my worldbuilding topics!)

Placing ourselves within a world that doesn't exist creates an additional challenge inasmuch as we have to work to keep our real-world judgments out of the process of creating the fictional world. Checking the integrity of the created world is an entirely separate step - one that is generally unnecessary for writers who are using the real world. That step is best accomplished through research into the areas of anthropology, psychology, sociology, architecture, climate and culture, etc., etc...

I've seen aspersions like this cast by science fiction writers on fantasy writers, too - but in my opinion they are similarly off-base. It's a parallel to this nonfiction-fiction dichotomy, just to a lesser degree. Put it this way:

Yes, we are making everything up. But we're not making it up randomly (we're making it up brilliantly, through very hard work)!

Some might ask whether created worlds really have to make sense, and really require reference materials in the real world. I would argue that all the best ones do. Even Alice in Wonderland, one of the most surreal pieces of all time, has a sophisticated and subtle grounding in real-world knowledge, and its own special internal logic.

Moral of the story:

Don't let anyone talk down to you, or belittle the work that goes into your creations.