Thursday, December 18, 2014

Aliette de Bodard: a Dive into Worldbuilding! hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a fantastic discussion with Aliette de Bodard, who kindly joined us all the way from Paris!

She has a new book coming out from Gollanz in 2015 entitled House of Shattered Wings. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic Paris that was "nuked" during the Magician's War, roughly equivalent to World War I. The story was apparently a merging of two concepts, one of a society where magician families controlled banking etc. and one involving a drug made of ground angel bones. Aliette described this world as being more free-form than the world she explored in her Obsidian and Blood series.

The Obsidian and Blood series was very research-intensive and involved much history so as not to make mistakes. Delving into the details of a culture that has been exterminated is very difficult. She said that if she had it to do again, she would like to reach out to the contemporary indigenous population. Much of the research information was written by the Spaniards. The Aztecs considered pain and blood sacred, and their concept of war was fighting just until the temple fell, not actually bringing about total destruction.

She said she went about picking the point of view to be an insider because she is something of a contrarian, and she didn't want to play into the common narrative that presupposes Aztec society as doomed. Thus she needed to change the entire mindset - a difficult and to some extent impossible task. She used as many primary sources as possible and also some insider-vs.-outsider analysis. One of the challenges of using insider sources is that they don't explain things that they consider to be normal. For example, a Chinese story of a certain period will describe a woman as being carried in a palanquin because she can't walk, but won't mention that her feet have been bound. The risk involved thus becomes that we tend to apply our own biases when we try to fill in those blanks left by insider descriptions.

We then moved on to talk about her Xuya universe, an alternate history universe using a different blend of Chinese and Aztec cultures. In this universe, China has discovered the Americas first, and the Aztec civilization does not fall. She has the history sketched out on a basic level from this divergence point all the way to the space age. The west of the current US is Xuya, the south belongs to the Mexica (Aztecs) and the east is a smaller version of the US. She picks up many of her stories after these groups establish colonies in space.

There are tons of incredibly interesting ideas here. One is "ship minds," artificial intelligences that are a mix of organic and non-organic components. Part of their development is that they are carried in a human parent's womb. People in this universe have different attitudes to the technology. The Xuya tend to integrate ship minds into their families, and design them to have long lives. The Mexica use them as enlisted soldiers and do not extend their lives, while the people of European descent are catching up, still somewhat disgusted by the idea of incubating a ship mind in a human mother. Reggie asked how this intersected with women's rights. Aliette explained that the Xuya think it is an honor to have a mind as a child. The minds with their long lives and long memories are of great value to society and to a family. The Mexica see it as s duty, and the surrogate mothers are paid. The Mexica society has a degree of gender role segregation, but changing your gender is easy, which changes the game quite a bit.

Family is an important theme in the stories of Xuya, which are based on Imperial China and Vietnam. Aliette explained she likes to include families, and if possible, extended families (which is not done much in SF/F). She explores how technologies change the relation between family members. Ships participate in family life through avatars. The idea of ancestor worship, where ancestors help from beyond the grave, takes a technological twist in which people can get implants of simulations of their ancestors - not to pray to, but to receive advice from. In this universe, the Imperial examinations still exist, and put a huge memorization burden on people. It becomes much easier to pass if you have ancestor implants of people who have taken the exams before. The Imperial family has an entire wing of their palace dedicated to ancestor simulations. The more distant the ancestor, the more likely there is to be corrupted data. These are not alive; it's the advice but not the person. In contrast, the AIs are people, relatable and personable. Ancestor implants can conceivably be removed; AIs can potentially be hacked, but you don't want to anger a ship! A ship can run away from home, and it's more complicated than bringing a child home.

The ships have human crews who provide company for the ship's mind and who operate the life support systems and weaponry. Ships are used for transport through "deep spaces" which operate like hyperspace, to allow travel faster than light. In the deep spaces, time and space "get weird." Ships are necessary to use the space. There are also places where ships can go but humans can't. Ships can have ulterior motives or lie. They must be raised like children to have a strong moral framework. A ship could conceivably jettison its entire crew, but it would then face consequences.

Aliette tends toward selecting female protagonists. Sometimes people do ask her "where are all the men?" Her Vietnamese alchemist character from House of Shattered Wings was female in early drafts but became male. She does try to put women in positions they ordinarily would not occupy. The head of the most powerful House in Paris is a woman. If a character dies, she doesn't want it to be "fridging." There are enough books showing men in a dominant position.

Her favorite part of research is buying the books. She researches general background, and then follows up with specifics necessary to the story. She prefers to research in English because it's easier to transfer the information to an English language story. She also does research in wikipedia Vietnam, books in English, and books in Spanish. To name an Empress, she retro-engineered the Vietnamese dynasty and used Google translate between Chinese and Vietnamese. She says she researches slowly but writes fast. "Big changes are cost-efficent at the outline stage." Generally she will do about a month of research for a draft that takes her only a few days.

Aliette, thank you so much for joining us and giving us these great insights into your process! My report on our chat with Maurice Broaddus will be out soon, and today's hangout will be at 5pm Pacific, featuring Joyce Chng, who writes as J. Damask. I hope to see you there!



#SFWApro

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Diversity: A Dive into Worldbuilding! Hangout summary with VIDEO

I really enjoyed this discussion. We opened with an acknowledgment that due to circumstances beyond our control (the announcement of no indictment in Ferguson) many people who would have been able to provide great insight were unable to make it to the hangout session. However, we did our best to represent diversity fairly and thoroughly, with that awareness.

Uniformity is a problem no matter where you find it. Planet, flora, fauna, people, culture, at every level. Glenda remarked that diversity issues in a secondary world may not be the same as those in our world - and that's one of the great things that a writer can do with a secondary world. You just need to be very specific about what you intend to do with the parameters you create, set up the culture to be supported by the environment, and "hang lights" on it. Also, if you are working with humans, you need to address the problem of skin color and ethnicity in some meaningful way.

I spoke about how I struggled to address the question of skin color because I had already posited a population that was highly genetically mixed and which lived underground. In the end, though, I was able to find a way to deal with skin color, which would still express itself in the phenotypes of individuals and would have to mean something specific. In the Varin instance, skin coloration intersects with caste identity in that the castes who work on the surface are the most likely to have a thoroughly recognizable skin coloration.

Of course, skin color is not the only physical indicator of different ethnicity - there are also things like eye or nose shape, hair texture, etc. that can be mentioned.

Religion is another important parameter on which one might expect to find diversity. With religion, the link to physical features is less direct. It is also important to ask how people deliberately mark themselves as members of a social group (Houses, clans, or clubs, cliques, etc).

I highly recommend Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's book, Writing the Other, for valuable insights.

Do your research as you build worlds! Where does diversity come from? How does it develop? Who are the traders? Who are the mercenaries? Why do people travel?

io9 recently had an article about bad worldbuilding, and one of the things they suggested getting rid of was planets with only one biome, i.e. the "Single-Use World" - all ocean, all desert, etc. The article is here. Different regions have different climates, and different climates provide for different resources, which makes for different cultures.

Furthermore, make sure also to think about your world's history. History casts a long shadow. If there are empires in your world, that means there will be imperialists, and there will be a history of conquest that leaves footprints in how people view each other.

Think about gender, gender roles, and gender identities also when you are considering diversity. Think about how these fit into your world. Whether you are trying to invent an entirely new gender system or not, the categories you create will not be clean and uniform.

Think also about age diversity. Are there children? Where do they fit and what are their lives like? How are they regarded? Are there elders? Where do they fit and what are their lives like?

Think about socioeconomic status. In all likelihood, there will be differences between rich and poor. Even in a society that strives for economic equality, people will strive to differentiate themselves. How?

Diversity has something of a fractal structure. You can find it at all different levels. Take a single society, for example; it will contain social groups. There will also be social divisions within those social groups. Even single individuals can be multicultural. As Glenda mentioned, there are also situations where people are nominally equal, part of the same group, but in practice they are not really part of that group. Intersectionality - the coexistence of multiple parameters on which variation occurs - can be at the root of some of that diversity.

Deborah Ross told us about some of the diversity in her trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, where she has societies based on 1. a Scythian or Mongol horse-based model, 2. a highly literate Semitic model, and 3. a Roman model. Within this larger framework, she also includes smaller groups of various types.

People don't necessarily agree on anything. Given any set of established roles, there will always be people who step out. How do they do it? Skin color, given that it is linked to geographic origin, it is very likely to have some important influence on culture. But perhaps it is not the most critical distinction in your society - what is that most important distinction? How does it interact with skin color and other cultural variation?

Is there a "default"? Falling back on pseudo-western-European models is clichéd and problematic. Relying on stereotypes of noble peasants or savages, etc. is insulting (not to mention boring).

Things get a lot more interesting when people with different sets of assumptions must learn to work together.

Disability is another parameter you should consider when looking at diversity. Not everyone in your society will have perfect health. How does society deal with that? What kinds of accommodations are made?

We touched briefly also on general biodiversity. It's important to think through whole ecosystems with their plants and animals and not just use a few tokens. As you create your world, look for places where a single situation can allow you to go into great detail, thus implying the presence of great detail in other areas of your world. Implication can take you a long way (which is one reason why you should also be careful with it! You can imply things without meaning to...)

Oversimplification can hamper the sense of reality in a story and thus the sense of enjoyment. The phenomenon of "alien of the week" is something like this, where travelers through space will meet up with some group of aliens and end up connected with a couple of "typical" ones. What is a "typical" alien? Can we define a "typical" human? Aliens would be similarly diverse, and so would space travelers. Our own International Space Station puts people of many different backgrounds together.

Here are some books that handle diversity well: N. K. Jemisin's Dreamblood series (I love the diversity of Gujareeh), Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death (taking on ethnic conflict and genocide), and Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon (another great diverse city environment). There are of course many others - Deborah Ross' The Seven-Petaled Shield comes to mind - so feel free to recommend more in the comments!

Look to the real world for your research and inspiration, because when it comes to diversity, there is no substitute for the richness you will find there.




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Monday, December 1, 2014

Welcome to Guest Author December! This week: Aliette de Bodard

December is here! How did that happen?

I'm excited for this month, when Dive into Worldbuilding will be featuring three fantastic guest authors. This week, Wednesday, December 3 at 10am Pacific on Google+, we'll be talking with the amazing Aliette de Bodard about her Xuya universe, her worldbuilding in general, and her new novel.

Join us also on Saturday December 13 at 5pm Pacific on Google+ to talk to author Maurice Broaddus about his work, and...

Join us on Thursday, December 18 at 5pm Pacific on Google+ to talk with author Joyce Chng about her unique take on worldbuilding.

This is going to be a month full of really cool ideas on Dive into Worldbuilding, so I hope you can join us! If you have never attended before and would like an invitation, comment below or contact me on Twitter (@JulietteWade or @WorldbuildDive) or on Facebook. I'll be starting each of these hangouts 10 minutes early to try to give attendees an opportunity to get their tech connections in order, so if you've never attended before, or if you know you sometimes have trouble getting in, feel free to look for us a few minutes early.


Here we go!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hobbies and Crafts: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

This is a topic that sounds really light and fluffy on the surface, but turns quite serious when you get beyond the surface. It was inspired in part by the mention of leaf currency during the discussion of Economics a few weeks ago.

These include knitting, weaving, making clothes. They also include pro crafting, Etsy, Maker Faires, etc.

When I was reading Hild by Nicola Griffith, I was really impressed by the way that women would spend all day working on textiles. That kind of effort changes daily life drastically. It can also have special significance, as when Celtic knotwork indicates identity, or sweater patterns are used to identify sailors as members of a particular clan should they be lost at sea and then found again. Crafts are also common souvenirs, allowing you to bring something of a place back with you.

The kinds of crafts used depend greatly on the resources available. Persian carpets were mentioned as an example of something that varies widely based on designs and materials. They are often made of wool, and the designs have culturally local meanings. Often children are employed to tie tiny knots. They may be finished by getting run over by cars! (or livestock or wagons, perhaps), then washed. I mentioned George Washington's octagonal barn, where wheat was processed by having it stamped on by horses.

Craftspeople often have their own organizations. They will have juried shows, etc.

Craftspeople are sometimes spoken to as if their crafts do not count as work.

Many crafts are aided by the invention of machines such as the spinning wheel or the sewing machine. Before machines were invented, crafts often took a person's entire day every day. I mentioned a lace-making display I had seen in the museum of Caen which showed the spindles used for complex lace-making. It brought home to me how the rich ladies of France were not just wearing fancy clothes, they were practically wearing someone's entire lifetime of work! Che mentioned couture fabric with embroidery, and Lillian brought up the symbolism of embroidered designs on Japanese kimono.

Sewing took up so much time that it was more a lifestyle than a craft.

Crafts have generational traditions, "schools" of practice, and also (sometimes) academic-style schools. They include things like furniture-making and carpentry. Colonial Williamsburg is an amazing place to visit in part because they have people practicing the crafts of the era, including wig-making, shoe-making, carpentry and window/door-framing, etc.

Many of our discussants enjoy crafts. Che sews clothes for dolls, and paints with watercolors. Lillian makes jewelry with wire, beads, and elastic. Glenda does some needlepoint. I sew Halloween costumes. Raj has worked with precious metals.

When people have other work they are doing, crafts can be beneficial as a break for the brain. Sometimes even if you are good at the craft, you don't want it to be a constant task so it won't become work. There is a great benefit to taking pleasure in crafts and feeling a sense of leisure.

Some craftwork is toxic! Paints can have toxic fumes, and so does the process of precious metalwork. Making hats involved mercury and led to poisoning.

Sometimes you don't see crafts in a story because characters are too busy with plot to engage in crafting. We all agreed it's fun to get a glimpse of the workings of life in a fictional world. What do people do with their free time? What do they do when they want to keep their hands busy? Games? Sports? Music? Collecting things? Birdwatching?

For some people, hobbies become obsessions. That would be an interesting thing to do with a character!

Glassblowing was mentioned as an art that constantly keeps changing and growing. Pottery is also great, involving traditional techniques and modern ones. Japan has local styles of pottery making, so that items will take their names from the local area ("Unzenyaki", "Kiyomizuyaki")

To do research on crafts, antiques roadshow can be a really good resource, because you get to hear expert appraisers talk about the ways that different objects were made. Delving into research can be really rewarding.

There are many crafts associated with religion, also - calligraphy, painting, stone carving, etc. Cathedrals were a project of hundreds of years...and think of how much the techniques of making them must have changed over the lifetime of their construction! Mosaic is another technique that has been used for thousands of years. Cameos, shell carving, creating musical instruments... the list goes on and on.

Can a craft development change social environments? Is crafting gendered in your world? There are so many questions that can be asked to help make your fictional world richer and more real.

Thank you to everyone who attended! This week's topic, discussion at 3pm today, will be Diversity.

Next week, we have a specially scheduled guest author hangout... Wednesday, December 3 at 10am Pacific, we will be joined by guest Aliette de Bodard, who will be talking about her new novel and about her worldbuilding! I hope you can join us.


#SFWApro

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Making Up Words - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

Making up words is one of the most wonderful things about working in science fiction and fantasy. Have you heard the word gargantuan before? That came from Jonathan Swift. What about the word grok?

Why do we make up all these words? Well, as one of our discussants said, sometimes English just doesn't cut it! (And sometimes we can make English even better! Lillian invented the word hemomancy on the spot...)

I described how in my story At Cross Purposes I had been happy to use the word "purpose" to capture my aliens' conflation of art with purpose, but that I had a much harder time finding a word that would successfully describe the principle of twin relationship, which included both a feeling of closeness and a feeling of conflict or pulling away. In the end I invented the word apfaa to do the job.

We agreed that in general when writing in English, it's a good idea to use English as much as you can until you can't capture something critical to the story. If it's a horse, or a rabbit, there's hardly any point in calling it something else. I mentioned that a reader had criticized me for using the English word "grouse" in Cold Words - but I had done it as an intentional translation of a bird that had the same characteristics as a grouse. So author choice is involved, and readers don't always agree on what is needed! (Grouse may also have been too non-generic a bird for that reader.)

Sometimes the words we make up are in English. For example, we can create compounds that give a sense of meaning without too much familiarity. I mentioned my own word "tunnel-hound," and another discussant mentioned "lizard-lions." Another good one is "ornithopter," used in Dune, which uses morphological play within the word to suggest the novel meaning, and also gives us a great sense of how the machine works. You can also use conlangs for made up words, but it's a good idea to think through the underlying structure of the language, both phonologically and morphologically, if you want to do that.

You can also borrow words from another language. One discussant mentioned that Theoden means king! Tolkien was very literal with a lot of his names, using translations of elvish or of other languages. Make sure, though, to check the meanings of the names or words you pick to make sure they don't mean anything nasty in another langauge! Lillian mentioned working with a culture based on Vikings and using Old Norse inspirations in naming. I mentioned how Janice Hardy used words from Afrikaans to name some of her characters - and how this did throw off some Dutch-speaking readers.

The feel of words we create often comes from onomatopoeia, which has some universal characteristics across language, such as the association of unvoiced consonants and high vowels with small things, and voiced consonants with larger, heavier things. The resemblance of the created word to existing words in English can also give it a "feel." We talked about the name Voldemort, and it turned out that I and one discussant had parsed it differently! She had thought of it as vol-de-mort "flight of death" where I had parsed it as volde-mort "wanting death." There are certainly lots of possibilities! I named a character Nekantor, which for me had some associations with death - "necropolis" has that "nek" sound, for example. However, I didn't want it to be explicit, so I didn't use the full morpheme "necr-".

Glenda talked about looking for a name for a social group that didn't quite fit with the concepts of clan, family, or house. She was looking for root words in other languages to help. Raj mentioned naming some catlike creatures "skald cats" because they were found by Norwegians, but having their appelation change later to "tregols" meaning forest gold.

If you decide to use existing Earth languages, do your research. Japanese people making up names in Japanese won't do it the same way that an English speaker would. Learn from Anime; research actual meanings; Lillian suggests looking for real names in credit lists from Anime or other foreign films.

Words from Earth languages bring context in with them, and that means baggage. Watch out for cultural appropriation. You don't want to slap on the trappings of a language or culture without honoring the core, so watch out for stereotypes. Similarly, if you are using the cultural details of a particular group but don't use the language, that comes across very oddly, as if you are trying to erase the language.

You can't always anticipate how people are going to pronounce the words you make up. Words have a visual as well as auditory aspect.

When making up words, consider having multiple terms for things that might be named differently by people in different social groups. Think about honorifics, endearments, curse words. Especially when you are applying names to a social group, consider how they will be named differently by people who relate to them in different ways - insiders, the government, outsiders, people who hold them in contempt, etc.


Thanks so much to everyone who attended! It was great to have you. This week's discussion will be tomorrow, Wednesday, November 18, 2014 at 3pm Pacific, and we will be discussing Hobbies and Craftwork. I hope to see you there!




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The Culture of Sports with Tim Wade: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Sports! How many fictional worlds have them? Not so many, considering how important they are in the real world. A lot of people make fun of Quidditch, but it's actually a pretty stellar example of a sport in fiction, given that she thought through the players' roles, the rules, how to cheat, etc.

Sports are a cultural phenomenon in our world. In some places, sports are associated with class, as in England where soccer is considered a lower-class sport and cricket an upper-class sport. In some places, sports are associated with race, as in South Africa where soccer was considered a black sport, rugby a sport for white Afrikaners, and cricket a sport for whites of English descent.

Sports are a means of cultural interchange. Some companies will have sports events together even when they will not maintain diplomatic relations. The Olympics are a huge deal across the world, particularly in smaller countries where all the medals are given more value.

Piers Anthony featured both sports and games in Split Infinity, and he also had the Unolympics. Jack Vance has sports in his work. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game has the battle games, which are a kind of sport. And of course J.K. Rowling has Quidditch. One of the things that makes Quidditch special is how she weaves it into the characters' lives the way that real sports would be woven into our own lives - and at the same time, uses it to amplify the social and magical conflicts occurring in the book.

Where do you find a sport if you are looking to put one in your world? Glenda noted that many sports evolve from survival skills, such as hunting, shooting, running, etc. Archery is a big deal in Robin Hood! Ask yourself: who are the participants? Who are the spectators? How do people become invested in the results of sports competitions? Are there coaches? Organizers? How do people make money on sports, and where does that money go? Are there animal-based sports like horse or dog racing? Are there fighting sports?

In our world, sports took on a new significance and its current institutions developed in the late 1800s.

We discussed pod racing from The Phantom Menace. This was a sport that missed a chance at greater significance because it failed to connect the stakes of the races to the economy and social structures of the world it was a part of. It came across as too frivolous, and though the crashes were spectacular, the risks seemed relatively distant.

Raj asked what kind of sports would exist among non-competitive aliens. What might shape their leisure activities, and would they be considered sports? Can you remove competition from the premise of sports? Would achievement be sufficient as a core drive?

Sports bring people together who wouldn't ordinarily interact. It can bring people together across socioeconomic status, and across nations.

Sports have their own language. In addition to the way that sports announcers speak and the puns used in newspapers, the language of sports in our world becomes a way for men to communicate with one another emotionally when direct talk about emotions is heavily discouraged. Is it any wonder that sports become so important as a social outlet for men?

We spoke about sumo, which has its origins as a competition that occurred during religious festivals at Japanese temples. While it has now moved out to become a national phenomenon with special venues of its own, the sense that the ring is a sacred space has been maintained. This idea of the playing space as sacred has influenced the sport of baseball in Japan as well - Japanese baseball players will be thrown out if they ever spit on the field.

How does technology mesh with sports? It's very important in measurement. Instant replay has become quite important! Are sports centered around schools? Are sports events something that working-class people attend when they are not working?

In our culture, athletes are often considered heroes or paragons. Do we watch them because of this? Is it a desire to watch heroes perform? Athletes become a prestige class. Do they also become a protected class who can do no wrong? Sports have benefits for bodily heath and also for confidence in the workings of one's body.  Measurement in sports tends to create the idea that sports involve meritocracy - and to some extent they do, but we only have to look at Jackie Robinson and the struggles of female athletes to see that merit is not the only measure.

Do sports provide an outlet for aggressive feelings, or do they enhance aggressive feelings, or both?

Are athletes abused by the institutions that make money off them?

What kind of social conflicts arise around sports? In our world sometimes parents will fight one another in the stands over the results of their childrens' sports games.

Different sports have different cultures of toughness, rules of speech, etc. In rugby, only the team captain is allowed to speak to the referee. Soccer players tend to be good-looking - is it because they are on TV, or because they can't bump heads? Is there a perceived proper body type for each particular sport, or for positions within the sport?

Athletes come in all sizes and shapes, even though our stereotypical perception of a healthy body is much more limited. Different sports require different kinds of fitness and body type. American football requires explosive power but not sustained stamina. Soccer and Australian Rules Football require sustained running.

Gambling is inextricably linked to sports. Sometimes it drives sports; fantasy football would not exist if not for gambling. Betting goes way back to the roots of sports in history.

Another good question to ask is "who are you competing against?" Another team? Your own previous measurements? Golf and bodybuilding are very individual sports where you are not really competing directly against another person. What are the judging standards? Do they lead to problems?

Thanks to Tim Wade for joining us to talk about one of his favorite topics, and thanks to everyone who joined us for the discussion!




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Monday, November 10, 2014

Doing things that matter - a big change comes to Dive into Worldbuilding!

I've been thinking a lot about how important it is to do things that matter - things that make a difference in our community of SF/F writers and readers. There are many of them. Speaking up for people who are being abused is one. Combating the suppressive cultural institutions that silence people and keep them from their full potential is another. Participating in a community that questions itself and renews itself, and keeping eyes and ears open to others' viewpoints, as well as to documented evidence that might run counter to one's own gut impressions, while participating in public discourse.

Recently, it's been brought home to me how all of these goals are not necessarily aligned with one another.  The discussions surrounding Requires Hate have created a constant demand to "take sides," but there isn't just one simple set of sides in an intersectional world. Our statements and actions cannot be extricated from our identities (and our construed identities). There is no way I can find to make a statement about her attacks on me, or her use of social justice language, without having my intent - or my unintended effect - cause more harm somewhere than good. For what it's worth, I believe today's post from Jim C. Hines, Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes, effectively parallels many of my thoughts.

So I've decided to take a different approach, and ask myself a larger-scale question:

What kind of change do I want to see in the world as a result of all our struggles over the last several years? I want to see more diverse voices showcased and valued in SF/F.

In my own writing, I'm doing my best to portray diverse voices and cultures. But in the grander context, my efforts feel small. I may help representation in fiction this way, but this struggle is not just about that. It's also, critically, about supporting real people in this business who have diverse and fascinating viewpoints that might go unheard. I'm not an editor, so I can't advance these writers and their voices by buying stories. But I do have my own project: Dive into Worldbuilding!

Beginning in December, Dive into Worldbuilding will become an ongoing showcase of important, diverse voices and perspectives in SF/F.

For those of you who may not be familiar with it, Dive into Worldbuilding started when I discovered that Google+ allowed video hangouts. I started getting together with a few of my friends to talk about worldbuilding topics. This turned into a much more official thing very quickly. I'm grateful to all of the participants and special guests who have come to share their viewpoints and unique insights.

The goal of Dive into Worldbuilding was always this: to discuss worldbuilding topics from a cultural and linguistic perspective that went beyond the superficial, and to hear many different people participate in the discussion and share their views. At this point it has become a long series of YouTube videos and topic reports that I've written up, which you can find here. I've also been lucky enough to have special guests who are experts in particular areas of worldbuilding come and talk about their work.

Now, I'm going to take that further.

During the month of December, I'll be having three specially scheduled guests to kick off my new model, and I'm very excited. Please note that the scheduled times are chosen by the guest authors:

Aliette de Bodard  Wednesday, December 3, 2014 10am Pacific on Google+

Maurice Broaddus   Sunday, December 13, 2014 5pm Pacific on Google+

Joyce Chng   Thursday, December 18, 2014 5pm Pacific on Google+

During the weeks of Christmas and New Year's there will be no hangouts. However, in the new year, I plan to feature at least one author per month who can give us special insight into the worlds they have created, their own worldviews and special expertise. I will announce these guests here and on social media as I'm able to schedule them. Guest authors will be specially scheduled, but the remaining weeks of the month, we will meet at A NEW TIME, 3-4pm Pacific on Wednesdays, to discuss various other Worldbuilding topics. As I have done to this point, I will write up each hangout after it occurs so that people who wish to scan the discussion without watching the video can do so.

To me, worldbuilding has always been about trying to go beyond, to ask deeper questions. Deep investigation of our own world and its complexity is critical to being able to create unique, fascinating fiction. In my own way, I hope to amplify the voices and visions of more people in our field, and I hope you can join me!

If you wish to participate as a guest author or as a discussant, you can contact me in the comments here, on Google+, Facebook, Twitter (@WorldbuildDive or @JulietteWade), or Ello, and we will make the necessary arrangements to get you in.



This week, please join us on Google+ at 3pm Pacific, Wednesday, November 12 to discuss Making Up Words! This should be a fun one - I hope to see you there!





#SFWApro

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Economics of Resources and Magic: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Economics is one of those topics that should never be skipped in worldbuilding, whether in realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc. It's such a basic underpinning that a world will feel flimsy without it. You've got to know where resources come from, and why the rich people in your world are rich. Do the rich people own land? Are they merchants with good connections?

Think of the English impoverished nobility, a concept I always struggled with when I was a kid and simply associated noble with rich, without actually understanding the underlying economic issues. You have nobles trying to get money by marrying merchants, merchants who want to buy into a title because it gives them political or social legitimacy, etc. There are lots of very specific consequences, which we spoke about more than once in the course of the hangout. Maintaining appearances is a really important one, whether that be conspicuous consumption, or simply having a few expensive things to allow a person to "pass" in a critical interaction, such as someone who wants a bank manager to take them seriously. When there is a general sense in a society that poor people are not worth engaging with, it's critically important to consider what those people can do to get themselves looked at differently.

What is money like in your society? We get used to seeing paper money, but lots of different things have been used for money throughout history (rice, rum, etc). If the government makes too much money, you get hyperinflation, which actually first appeared among the Mongols! In designing my Varin world, I have spent quite a bit of time examining the different ways that different castes look at money and its value, as well as the ways in which they use it.

Reggie has a system based largely on items that can be traded. Landed people there tend to be okay because they have things to trade, but shopkeepers end up in trouble, because they don't produce anything, and not everything they have is necessarily useful at any given time. Hunters always have things to trade, but the underlying identity of the items restricts their utility as trade goods (one of the reasons why people have moved to money systems). Glenda mentioned that old country doctors were often paid in chickens!

If you're dealing with currency, you don't necessarily have a single currency controlled by the government. You can also have guilds, each with their own currency. Which currencies are reliable? Or you could have lots of small interconnected kingdoms with different currencies. How sophisticated are the means of payment? Is it all cash? Is there such a thing as banks, checks, credit, debit, etc?

One of the really critical things that can grow out of understanding how people are paid, and in what form, is a sense of how the social system works and where crime arises, and why. I spent a bunch of time working out how different members of the Varin undercaste would be paid, and when I did, it really changed everything about how I understood them. The trash workers, who are paid in cash, are naturally subject to attack by thieves who wish to make off with such an easily reusable form of money, so they band together into gangs to protect themselves. The prison workers are paid almost no cash, but have their housing and clothing and food paid for by their employers, which makes them into a sort of undercaste "impoverished nobility" - because they are taken care of, but they are trapped in their situations with no ability to flex to circumstance. The crematory workers are paid in housing and clothes, but not food - and they receive cash, because it's not a job most people want to do. The association of their work with death makes it so that nobody wants to steal their "death money," but at the same time, they are something of a pariah class even inside the undercaste. The real value in exploring this kind of thing in detail is that critical story elements like crime and the need for self-awareness in the street, for different social groups, is motivated and explained on a really basic level, and the world's sense of reality is immeasurably enhanced.

Small details of economics lead to enormous consequences for the success of your worldbuilding.

Genre, anything that takes us away from the realities of our own world, makes a great vehicle for questioning how we do what we do. It allows us to move outside our assumptions and privilege groups. Research on our own world, and its cultural subgroups, is super valuable here.

One of our discussants mentioned a real-world situation in which the women of a local society would make their own form of money using leaves and rubbing. It was a handicraft fit in between other tasks, and as such had value. Large ones would be worth more, and they would dry out and become tradeable. The system was dying because exposure to external money systems was undermining belief in the currency.

Currencies are all about belief. We discussed a real-world situation where some economics professors were able to bring hyper-inflation under control in Brazil, by creating a second currency whose value was constant while the other currency's value fluctuated. By paying people in the stable currency, they were able to create a real sense among the public that the currency was stable, so when they finally converted to it, the hyper-inflation problem stopped.

We also talked about magic as an economic system. Magic is a resource, and if it's not used properly, you can end up with Magic Inflation. If magic has no cost of use, and is too easy to use, it ends up being used all the time, to the point where nothing you can do magically will have any value because it's all just to common and easy! What is the price of magic? This question can not only be practical, but an incredibly good driver of conflict in your story. A great example of magic used as an economic system is in Janice Hardy's The Healing Wars. Reggie told us about her work in progress, Spectra's End, where magic can't be counted on because talents are too random and can't be replicated; when people with a magic skill die, their ability is lost and people have to fall back on real world solutions.

Magic users become targets when their talents are in demand. You can build economic connections between armies, kidnappers, magic users, healers, and merchants in this way. Glenda talked about the "gilded cage" - where a magic user would have everything she/he wanted, but not be able to escape obligation to someone who needed those magical skills. They could also be asked to do things that are distasteful or immoral.

Consider also the money vs. time equation for your society. Who has money? Who has time? It's hard to be a person with both, and even for those people, they may be paying in some other form.

Thanks to everyone who attended! This Thursday's discussion, on 11/6/14, will be The Culture of Sports, so I hope you can come talk with us about it. Remember, Daylight Saving is over so keep your eye out for 11am Pacific Standard Time. See you there!



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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Illnesses, Ailments, and Medicine: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO


It always feels a bit odd to me to come into a hangout with a smile saying "Let's talk about Illness!" but that's what we did last week.

Illnesses and ailments often get oversimplified in worldbuilding - a sort of "massive plague or nothing at all" situation. It's not as though no character has ever been portrayed as having a cold/flu (Glenn Cook has done it), but that minor ailments and physical inconveniences tend to be treated as unnecessary and distracting. Meanwhile, in real life, people get sick and have to deal with it.

In fiction, must illnesses and ailments always be plot-related? It's certainly possible to treat them in an unnecessary and distracting way - but it's also possible to do this well. We all agreed that the events that occur in books should have consequences, and illnesses should be no different.

I talked a bit about the situation in my novel, For Love, For Power. The noble caste is severely inbred, so every family has at least one person with something slightly wrong (heart condition, hyperthyroidism, mental illness, etc.). Furthermore, they are all deathly susceptible to viruses that for other castes would be more like the flu. In this book, all of these things are part of the larger picture of the caste's decline, and so including them was very important.

Often in genre we have quests and big tasks that must be performed, which would be hampered by illnesses and ailments.

We don't often see dental problems, vision or auditory problems in fictional worlds.

Pat pointed out that treating yourself for an illness is pretty rare. It's important to ask, "Where are the doctors/healers/midwives?" Kameron Hurley's Beldame Apocrypha was mentioned as a great example of a book with hedge witches. Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake also features a healer. Janice Hardy's series The Healing Wars features an entire economy based on magical healing and the taking and giving of pain.

I pointed out that First Aid kits were an invention of the great Clara Barton, and so it's worth thinking about what kinds of things people might carry with them for healing purposes. Ointment? Are there any first aid-related movements in this world that would make kits available?

There's also a lot of history in which people are treated for illnesses and the treatments kill them. People used powdered mummies to ward off plague - but some of those had died of plague, which only spread the plague further. You still see weird treatments today, many being propagated via the internet.

People believed in miasmas and humors and didn't understand the functions of organs. How much knowledge about the human body and germ theory is present in your world?

Reggie mentioned her own work in which she has village healers who help when home remedies don't work. They sometimes use magic, but sometimes use herbs and potions, etc. I liked the idea of a multi-pronged solution to health problems.

Pat mentioned that she's working with the idea of a disease that causes a disconnect between a person's recognition of faces and their feelings about a person. She said this would lead to a delusion that everyone had been replaced by impostors, and cause a paranoia plague.

Take a look at your world and its health care resources. Are those resources scarce? Which ones are? Who gets good care and why? Is it all about money? Can you trust people in the hospital to take care of you, or will you get turned away for social reasons?

People might want to restrict medical care for the "wrong sort" of people, but contagious disease makes that a ridiculous proposition for public health.

Pat brought up that if you get medical care, you might be incurring obligation or an ongoing relationship with the person who provides that treatment. You might have to pay off bills after death, or be obliged to serve someone for life.

What is the situation for mental illnesses in your world? Is care available? Are the illnesses well understood? Are there limitations on care? Is there a stigma associated with mental illness?

What about drugs? Are there controlled substances? What does drug addiction look like? The substances used will depend on the time period, as will the kinds of medicines used for the treatment of illness. Opium and laudanum were used at a certain point. In Tintin we see chloroform and quinine used constantly. The Romans used poppy seeds, and the native American Indians used willow bark. There is also a wide world of poisons out there. People didn't learn how to tell reliably whether someone had been poisoned until the 1920's. There are also medicines that people have used to treat people which will actually be more harmful than helpful (such as mercury).

It can be exciting to see people figure things out about what makes an effective medical treatment. Medical experimentation can be cool, or it can be scary, or both.

We didn't even get a chance to get into all the details of cultural practices surrounding health and health beliefs before we ran out of time!

Today's hangout topic is going to be Economics of Resources and Magic. We'll be on Google+ at 11am Pacific today. I hope you can attend!





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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Research - Applying it to Fictional Worlds: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Last week we talked about Research - and found that it wasn't nearly as dry a topic as many thought coming in!

We started off talking about optimal research methods. There are substitutes for finding a person who is an expert on your topic, having a conversation and asking questions - but none are nearly as good, especially if you are dealing with cultural details. If you're going to be using Wikipedia, it's a great first source but you need to find contrasting sources, given that it can be inaccurate and/or tampered with.

If you are going to be dealing with a culture from an outsider's viewpoint, you might have an easier time. Most research sources turn out to be outsider viewpoints. Finding insider viewpoints is much harder. This is why conversations with real people can be great. However, if you're looking for something historical, it's good to go back to literature of the time to look for details. Putting yourself inside the viewpoint of a character who is unlike you can be hard. Research helps, but there is also an imaginative leap involved. Sometimes this leap is easier than others. If your narrator is the same as your character, there can be more challenges involved.

Primary sources (journals, recordings, etc.) are great resources for research. So are documentaries, books, and non fiction books.

Reggie mentioned that physiology impacts point of view. Research on Earth animals can help with this kind of detail.

Personal experience in a subculture or field of study (like Jay Werkheiser's expertise in Chemistry, or mine in anthropology and linguistics) is a great resource.

How much research should you really do? We hypothesized a fictional world with two moons, but had various viewpoints on how much research should be done on how two moons would affect worldly details like climate, tides, etc. If there will be no mention of any phenomena linked to the two moons, it makes sense not to go into great research detail. However, different story markets like to see different levels of research accountability (Analog, for example, would definitely want you to know about the planetary consequences of double moons).

Science fiction can seem to be a genre requiring more research than fantasy, but that's mostly an illusion. J.K. Rowling did an enormous amount of research when she was putting together the Harry Potter books, on everything from etymology to witchcraft, etc.

Accuracy in small details can be a great treat for experts among your readership. Easter Eggs!

It is easy, however, to get lost in the process of research to the detriment of the story. Keeping a strict criterion of relevance is very important to stay focused on your story. Research topics can grow out of a story, but stories can also grow out of research topics as well.

Worldbuilding, and the research involved in it, is different for novels and short stories, but not as different as one might imagine. I referenced my post about story worldbuilding being like walking through a house looking out windows, while novel worldbuilding involved leaving the house and knowing about what was outside.

As an example of intensive research by an author, I talked about Stina Leicht, who did years of research on Northern Ireland and the Troubles before (and while) writing her series The Fey and the Fallen. She even took lessons in Irish Gaelic. That research shows - in spades - in her work.

When you are working in a secondary world, it's often helpful to write short pieces set in various areas of the world as a form of research. Research on general scientific topics can be very helpful, but applying it to the secondary world requires a different mindset. I find myself doing mini-ethnographies of different social groups in my Varin world, for example.

Some more great sources include:

Libraries
News
Nonfiction books (read widely!)
Children's nonfiction, for topics we have very little experience with
Public lectures and interviews (radio or podcast)

Thanks to everyone who attended! Here's the video:



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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Elysium by Jenn Brissett: a Dive into Worldbuilding (interview) hangout summary with VIDEO!

First I have to offer a big thank-you to Jenn Brissett for coming and talking with us about her book! We discussed Elysium, which will be coming out very soon from Aqueduct Press.

Since the book features a very layered and complex reality, I started by asking about her process of discovery in learning about it. She explained how it grew in complexity as it went on, and she had to be very careful about keeping it under control! She starts writing beginning with the character, and the story, and then she builds out and creates the world based on that. She says it's much like the way that cities are built, organically.

She began with difficulties in a relationship between characters, and then swapped genders, and then as she went it became a memorial to New York. Thematically, it began to explore aspects of the experience of 9/11. A lot of what really excited her was being able to dig in and explore broadly, to see how far the story could be pushed in various directions.

In the book, she creates an amazing sense of constant flux and change that gives readers a sense that the ultimate reality behind the story is not what readers are seeing in any single piece of the story, but of a much deeper significance. She uses as a unifying theme the history of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his relationship with his lover Antinous. This image of deep loss to the point of insanity functions as an anchor for the story, and the story revisits that loss over and over in different forms, which she refers to as a "spiral narrative." The idea of revisiting loss over and over connects deeply to the feeling of New York after 9/11. People disappeared for various reasons, but loss was everywhere; it connected with Jenn's own experiences of running her bookstore and having clients disappear without any knowledge of what had happened to them. It also connected with the fact that memorials of the event cause people to relive the loss and trauma every year. Brissett explained that the 9/11 connection flowered out of the book naturally. She describes New York as a "city of renewal." It has renewed itself many times.

Brissett explained that the way the theme of 9/11 blossomed naturally out of the book, as an aspect of it but not the primary focus, was one of the true strengths of science fiction as a genre, that "there are so many aspects of life that you can explore." Authors end up finding things subconsciously that they have layered into the scenarios they have created. It's important to be able to explore real issues in a non-real way. I said that science fiction and fantasy are like playgrounds where we can play with dangerous stuff without hurting people as badly. It's a unique way to address difficult issues that people need to process. The book itself is an examination of love and loss in a larger context than just this single event.

Brissett is very detailed and specific about sensations and emotional connections in her writing, and it's one of the strengths of the book that keeps readers tied into the story in spite of all the flux. She talked about the switches of genders and character relationships etc. She described each piece as ending when the person gets to the part where the mourning process begins. It switches "just when you're getting a chance to absorb the blow," creating a rhythm within the story.

She uses index cards to do her planning. This was a book where she had planned gender swaps from the beginning, but it changed as the writing continued. The index cards helped her to look for options among the ideas and images she'd come up with, and find the most natural place to go next inside the story. Playing with the parts felt like playing with the puzzle. She described enjoying particularly when the two characters both became children.

She described her next book as being based on the story of Demeter and Persephone. Elysium uses all kinds of relationships - male lovers, female lovers, father and daughter, father and son, brothers, etc. She is saving mother and daughter for the next book!

There is an interesting pattern of repetition within the book as well, recurring images that draw connections across the different iterations of the loss scenario. Brissett said she enjoyed rewriting song lyrics for the book. She did get personal permission to use a poem by Saul Williams as a tribute to the world of hip-hop "before it was hip-hop."

Brissett describes her book as a struggle, a deliberate sort of controlled chaos. She wanted the feeling of chaos, but also a feeling of control. I noticed that there were a lot of things people didn't understand, and had no hope of understanding - an interesting contrast with stories that rely on the idea of solutions to problems. We like to have a feeling of control but we generally don't know on a certain level, and we just have to deal with it. She described finding someone to love as the most important thing to do in life.

I asked whether there was particular recurring imagery that she wanted to share her thoughts on. There are elk, owls, etc. and many images of wings. She described wanting to show nature invading a computerized space. She's fascinated with the idea of how quickly cities would degrade without people maintaining them, and also the idea of animals that appear in an urban space like New York. She used many images of wings to explore the idea of flight as well as having a different perspective on the city from above.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story was not just the gender-swapping, but the way that each scene changed the social structures and rules of the societies around the main characters. Brissett described doing research on the Vestal Virgins in order to create one of the worlds she uses in the scenes within the book. She deliberately wanted to switch power structures over what one sex can do, and one sexuality can do.

There is a very interesting reversal in Elysium of the normal pattern in which readers keep track of what changes between one scene and the next. Because so much changes between scenes, on a large scale the reader ends up tracking the patterns of stability in the book - the patterns of what does not change.


I wish Jenn Brissett all the best with her book launch! Go pick up Elysium by Jenn Brissett when it comes out this year from Aqueduct Press.


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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Place Names and Geography: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

This was an enjoyable discussion following on from our discussion of character names into place names and geography. Many of the issues of sound and association are similar to those we spoke about in the discussion of character names, here.

Sometimes we leave out place names to create a more diffuse sense of place and to help people feel immersed, as though the location belongs to them. Sometimes we use specific places. Sometimes we pick a real-world region, but not a specific city. A specific name can send someone looking on a map. Sometimes we can choose names, like Springfield, that come across as generic, or recombine parts of known place names to create names like Midwich, plausible but not anchored.

If you are thinking of a place name, do some research and figure out where it may have appeared before.

Morphology, the study of parts of words, can be very helpful for place names. Suffixes like -burg and -ville are called morphemes, and can be very useful. You can also create your own suffixes to indicate place.

In Britain, a lot of place names have specific meaning in context. The same is true for Native American Indian names for places, which are often linked to local landmarks and other features of place. The English re-naming of locations created a dissociation between the land and its place names by overlaying an imported context.

Uniformity is to be avoided, because it gives a sense of perfect newness, or of monocultural imposition. However, linguistic consistency is important if you are using a conlang.

When it comes to geography, it's important to consider issues like climate and biomes. Research is critical for developing this aspect of your story. Geographical features like mountains can be good for adventure, but they should make sense within a larger system. If you have a mountain range and one side of it is wet and the other dry, it's good to know why that is the case. Consider your planet's rotation, and consider placing your story in the southern hemisphere (because the fact that we have more land in the northern hemisphere is just coincidence).

Brian noted that before the Renaissance, the placement of north vs. south on the top/bottom of maps was not standardized, and you often saw other approaches. (And different projections!)

If you place your story on a different planet, or in a different place on our planet, consider how that might change the night sky. On our planet, different stars are visible, and they move differently, depending on whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere, or near the equator. On other planets, stars could potentially vary in brightness, concentration, etc.

Thanks to all who attended!




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Monday, October 6, 2014

Check it out - Not Our Kind: Tales of (Not) Belonging, and "The Valiant Heart"!

So... I have a story in this, and I want you to help me make it happen:


When I was approached by editor Nayad Monroe, I was instantly fascinated by the idea of this anthology, and so I was thrilled when the story I submitted got accepted! Now that it's up at Kickstarter I've discovered who else is in the Table of Contents, and I'm blown away:

Wes Alexander, Alex Bledsoe, Maurice Broaddus, Jennifer Brozek, Amanda C. Davis, Sarah Hans, Janet Harriett, Tyler Hayes, Michael Haynes, Erika Holt, Gary Kloster, Marissa Lingen, Remy Nakamura, Andrew Romine, Ekaterina Sedia, Lucy A. Snyder, Reinhardt Suarez, Juliette Wade, Tim Waggoner, Damien Angelica Walters... OMG!

The story they have from me is called "The Valiant Heart":

A nobleman of Varin, Pyaras, has fallen in love with Captain Melín, a woman of of the Arissen officer caste. He believes their relationship is secret and safe, but then Melín's adjutant challenges her to a duel to the death, and Pyaras is called before the Eminence himself to account for his actions in turning traitor to the noble Race. The two elope, believing that once he has Fallen to become Arissen, he will be out of the Eminence's reach and they can be happy together. But other Arissen are not so willing to see a gutless nobleman among them, and Pyaras must fight for his new identity. Will his heart be valiant enough?



 


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Naming Characters: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a fantastic discussion of character naming. Most of the participants began with the idea that they name characters on gut instinct, but we quickly started digging into what lies behind those gut instincts - and the resulting discussion was very interesting! There's so much hidden in our subconscious...

Very often, people like to have the name reflect the nature of the character. The choice of a name like "Cain" or "Thor" says something very specific, because these names already exist and bring along context ("baggage") with them. We made a list of six factors that can contribute to a choice of name.

1. intertextuality (a name that has occurred before in another context, literary or not)
2. onomatopoeia (emotional/semantic associations sound of the vowels and consonants making up the name)
3. etymology (the origins of the name-parts making up the word suggest meaning, as in Voldemort, wanting death)
3. personal experience with people who have the name
4. similarity to actual words (in English or another language)
5. ethnic or foreign language associations (the name is common to a particular cultural group)
6. gender associations (the pattern of female names ending in "a" for example)

We knew of several cases where authors had deliberately tried to break the gender-name pattern link. Using gender-neutral names can be confusing for some readers, but it worthwhile in many contexts, and overly uniform use of a particular gendered name pattern is unrealistic.

Morphology can be part of names. This is when different pieces of meaning get added onto a name through the addition of meaningful affixes (prefixes, suffixes, etc). Brian gave us the example of "Sim" which would have the suffix "on" added to it for males and "el" for females. There can also be honorific suffixes added. A great example of this from N.K. Jemisin is the following:

"My name is Yeine. In my people's way I am Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre, which means that I am the daughter of Kinneth, and that my tribe within the Darre people is called Somem."

We discussed how, if you are choosing to use names associated with a particular nationality or cultural group, it's a really good idea to research those names (start on Google, but don't stop there!). Tolkien used names that had actual literal meanings in the elven languages he created. My Varin world has names from at least three different language groups.

You can also take a look at alliteration if you have a reason to link names, and considering the metric compatibility (rhythm) of names is also valuable. Kimberley gave us the example "Brighton and Rice."

We looked at the phenomenon of Apostrophes! in fantastical names. They are overused, but still can make sense if they are motivated, like the apostrophes that abbreviate the Dragonriders' names in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. In general, though, names don't need distracting decorations.

We also spoke about whether we should care if readers pronounce our names correctly. If the language used is an existing world language, then accuracy is a really good idea, especially for audio/podcasts. I myself made a recording of myself saying all the Japanese words in my Clarkesworld story "Suteta Mono de wa Nai" to make the task easier for the (awesome) narrator Kate Baker. Generally, if mispronunciation of the names in your book makes you cringe, consider having a pronunciation guide as part of the book.

It's best not to let names get too similar to each other. Often it's helpful not to have the same first letter for more than one character name - if you get three people in the same room, all with names starting with M, it can be very confusing. You can also vary number of syllables, and final consonants.

Sometimes you'll find you need to alter a name mid-process, when it comes into a context where it bears too much similarity to another name. This happened to me quite recently when I discovered Yaniss and Innis were too similar in sound, so I changed the first name to Yanir. I also went through a process of spelling-changing when readers had trouble with the name Tagret, reading it as "Target." I tried a whole bunch of alternatives before landing on "Tagaret" (like Margaret).

We also spoke briefly about nicknames. Some people hate seeing them in fiction; others don't. Some cultures use nicknames a lot, while others tend to do so less. Nicknames are full of interesting information about community membership and relationships. They can mark people as insiders. They can also give people a very different feel for a character, revealing something about the difference between the way outsiders view them, and the way insiders do.

Join us next week, Thursday, 8/9/14 to meet guest author Jenn Brissett and learn about the worldbuilding in her new book, Elysium!

Here's the video:



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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fashion: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a great time with last week's discussion of Fashion!

The importance of fashion in fiction varies across genres. Some genres, such as steampunk, historical, and romance, put a great deal of emphasis on fashion details, while others, such as science fiction, tend to spend far less time. A focus on fashion detail in a genre where it is not expected can come across as irrelevant and unnecessary, but fashion is actually far more useful than it may appear.

Fashion is about world. It is also about cultural and personal identity.

What a person wears tells you a lot about the world, because it reflects available materials in the environment. It can also tell you a lot about the character, because we use our fashion choices to show our identification with different social groups as well as to distinguish ourselves as individuals.

The "what" of fashion may not be as important as the "who," the "why," and the "how."

Often in science fiction, fashion gets de-emphasized or even made unrealistically uniform. Literal uniforms are common to many scenarios, especially military ones. Utopian societies and those that strive for equality will often be given very uniform fashion choices.

Costume designers work on symbolism in their fashion choices, and so can authors.

There is a pretty common view that fashion is frivolous, that it is frippery. This feeds into the sexist view that it is a feminine thing to care about (hint: it's not). The identity marking that we engage in with our fashion choices is common to both men and women - it's just that the two are typically associating themselves with different social groups, and thus differentiating their choices.

I explained how the caste marks work in my Varin world as an example of how you can have a regulated system of identity markers without falling into uniformity. Some fashion choices are regulated; others are traditionally associated with caste identity even though they are not required by Varin law.

School uniforms are often accessorized for individuality by their wearers.

There is also a utilitarian aspect to fashion. Dune has the stillsuits, which are a means for the inhabitants of Arrakis to retain their precious water. Armor is also utilitarian - but even utilitarian items are often decorated as much as a person can afford. Wealth shows in detail.

There was a trend in 1960's futurism toward stripping away detail both in fashion and in architecture. However, at the same time, there was a trend toward more detail, more art, more reference to world ethnic traditions, in the counterculture.

We talked about the contrast between visual media and text. In visual media, an entire outfit in all its detail can be conveyed in a split second. In text, words and implication are required. You don't want to put a lot of words on fashion choices without a very good reason. That said, character judgment and other reasons can function very effectively as supports for the relevance of fashion detail.

I gave an example of fashion being relevant to plot and character from my novel, For Love, For Power, and from my WIP.

Fashion and its significance are all around us. We can choose to notice or not.

Fashion has a lot of very specific terminology that comes with it. Within the industry are formal terms. There are also colloquial terms and regional terms. These are very important to research and track when we work with fashion in our fiction. When you work with a real or quasi-real (i.e. period influenced) context, accuracy is very important. Specific time periods bring with them certain kinds of value judgments, and those will be brought along with the fashion unless the author deliberately changes or subverts them. There is a lot of subtext. Words and terms come with baggage. When you find generic terms being used, and fashion choices being made generic, that can be a method by which authors try to avoid subtext.

Kim suggested it would be hard to create a context in which a Hitler mustache was considered endearing.

Ask how beauty and ugliness are defined within the cultures you're working with.

Reggie pointed out how some kinds of simple visual cues become iconic, such as the Groucho Marx nose/mustache combination. You could have something like this in fiction, but none of us could recall seeing it used. In the 1800's facial hair fashion was the rage for men. It influenced not only itself but other things such as the invention of the mustache cup. An unusual object like that can bring real interest to a story. Fashion has also influenced other things, such as how sidewalks and saddles were constructed. Other inventions influence fashion, such as how bloomers arose when women wanted to ride bicycles.

How much detail matters? We reveal as necessary, but small details can make for big implications, and even have multiple functions in the narrative. Details help us to avoid a sense that the world only exists for this story. They also help us to define what is normal and build reader expectations.

It's interesting to ask what value is placed on newness (of fashion or other things) and by contrast, what value is placed on old things such as antiques or vintage fashion. Also, if you are designing fashion, be careful to avoid too much uniformity of time frame in fashion (different generations will often dress differently).

Thanks to everyone who attended! Today's discussion (in 20 minutes from the time of this post) will be about Naming Characters. I hope to see you there!





#SFWApro

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Come see me at Convolution!

Next weekend I'll be making an appearance at Convolution, taking place in Burlingame, CA. I'll be reading on Friday night and in addition to the writer's workshop, I'll have panels on Saturday and Sunday. Here's my schedule - I would love to see you there!


Friday, September 26, 8-10pm    Reading

 This is going to be an awesome time. I'll be reading aloud from my work alongside a number of wonderful authors: Deborah J. Ross, Helen Stringer, Setsu Uzume, and Christopher Villa.




Saturday, September 27, 9am-12pm    Writer's Workshop

Saturday, September 27, 2-3pm    Autographing 
Come and see me, and bring your copies of Analog and/or Clarkesworld... I'll also have a few copies available for purchase!


Saturday, September 27, 4-6pm    Handling Rejection in Writing
 Sometimes your skin just isn't that thick. How to cope with a chorus of "No" on the path to a "Yes!"
with Gail Carriger, Matthew Marovich, and Deborah J. Ross.

Sunday, September 28, 10-12am    Bend it like Bechdel
 Finding an alternative to the Bechdel test. The Mako Mori test isn't quite right either. We know when we've found a movie or story that we feel is at least some better representation of women. But it doesn't always pass the test. So, what does it need? What do we want? Or, what are we willing to accept?
with Elanor Hughes, Lance Moore, and Michael Rhodes

Sunday, September 28, 12-2pm    Social Worldbuilding
Let's talk about designing societies and their behaviors and institutions, and the kinds of real interactions those will lead to between characters. While we're doing it, let's try to look beyond traditional European-based models and get really diverse and interesting.
with Marie Brennan, Steven Mix, and Madeleine Robins

We're going to have a ton of fun and talk about loads of great stuff. I hope to see you there!


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Villains: a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Here's my summary of last week's discussion of Villains! We had a great time, and talked about a lot of great stuff, so I hope you'll think of this summary as a way to get ideas and possibly follow up by checking out the parts of the video you may be interested in.

We felt that villains were distinguished by their motivations. Good villains have motivations that make sense to them, and are grounded in them as people. You can answer the question, "What makes them bad?"

One of our participants said Stephen King had felt that even bad guys have friends across the street. We all agreed that it was better to make villains complex rather than simple.

They stand in opposition to the hero, which means that their goals, and/or the means to accomplish those goals, are socially unacceptable. Note that this will mean different things depending on the cultural and social context.

Generally we felt that villains were destructive and chaotic rather than creative. However, we do see some pretty destructive heroes like Superman leveling Metropolis in his last battle. It's a good thing if a hero has concern for bystanders; generally a villain does not.

We talked about the question of killing in fiction. Are characters being killed off too often and too easily? It's a big problem if a character dies and we don't see the effects of loss, or other effects such as legal ones. Game of Thrones provides a cultural environment where there is no concept of a modern police force that's not supposed to be in the rulers' pocket. However, being in different social circles can change the expectations for accountability for deaths. Soldiers of a regime are different from police (even if those police are somewhat corrupt).

How do we create villains? One participant immediately said "they're really hot." Certainly there is a recent trend toward attractive villains. The much older style of villain typically had the evil within expressed in their physical form, and thus were marked with "unattractive" qualities, whether that be deformity, overweight, underweight, etc. These days we're more inclined to treat villains as human beings and separate things like body form from the quality of the spirit. (There's a pretty horrid beauty standard/ableism problem in using the old way, too.) Villains often get to wear the coolest outfits!

Raj noted that there was a time when the unspoken rule was that you couldn't kill heroes, and that killed the tension in stories. There was a time when such deaths were very powerful because they were unusual, but now we are becoming more desensitized. If we know that "everybody's safe" there is less tension, but too much killing can cause people to detach themselves from caring about the story.

There are fates worse than death. Also, there are consequences for the living when someone dies.

Saving the world is not enough. Killing the villain is similarly not enough. The stakes have to be personal. It's best if both the hero and the villain have personal stakes in their own victories. Revenge motives are tried-and-true, but old.

All-powerful villains are boring without limitations and character. Tolkien, in The Silmarillion, ended up creating backstory for his villains because he was seeking reasons for their evil. Moral restrictions create more interesting situations, because they put systematic restrictions and expectations on what your villains are willing to do. Without these, they can seem too random and unmotivated, or motivated simply by the author. Examples came from Alphas, X-men, and the 4400.

We talked about insanity in Bad Guys. Just saying "he/she is insane" is sloppy (and insulting to people who deal with mental health issues in their daily lives). Go into the research and figure out exactly what these people struggle with, and how it affects their behavior and decision-making.

Raj noted that it's good to ask if the ends justify the means, and whether the villain believes this. Are they willing to do horrible things?

Sometimes we see stories where a single event breaks a bad guy's soul, but it's more interesting if they have a complex and developing psychology. It's good to have the villain change over the course of the story, not just the hero. Look at the social and power dynamics surrounding the villain as motivations for their behavior. A villain can change to be much more evil, or much more good, as the story goes on.

Villains are often given a personal agenda that is more important than "justice" as it's defined by the larger society.

Villains can also just be people who are acting within the confines of an evil system. The evil system can be designed to break people down (it's always good to read about the Stanford Prison Experiment in this context). In my own Varin world, I have villains, but in fact the larger system is where the true problem lies; the villains are, in part, explorations of how people would develop within that system.

Zero-sum games, where one person OR another person can win, but not both, can cause characters to do villainous things. If you want to protect yourself or another, then someone else has to suffer.

It's good for villains to have plans and a worldview. Also, it's good to know where villains get their money to do all their nefarious things, hire their clones or build their high-tech hideouts.

Thanks to everyone who attended this discussion.

Next week (9/25): Naming Characters! You are welcome to "bring" examples of names you have developed or changed or love from your own work.



#SFWApro

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Heroes: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a great discussion last week, with a record number of people attending! Due to the demands of my current schedule and the amount of time it takes to write up what are almost field notes on the content of these discussions, I'm going to try to take a slightly different approach. This will mean somewhat less detail and direct attribution, which is why I'm calling it a summary rather than a report. The purpose of this post is to give you a sense of what we talked about, so that you can follow up by looking at portions of the video if you'd like to know the precise details of the discussion. Thanks for understanding!

So, Heroes.

Note: I'm not going to use the word "heroine." All instances of the word hero apply to all genders unless specified otherwise.

We discussed the need for heroes to have human qualities of compassion and care, and possibly to engage in personal self-sacrifice. This led us to discuss how a sociopathic hero (such as Sherlock Holmes) is most effective when framed by a supporting cast with these compassionate qualities, allowing the sociopath to keep an element of mystery without ruining the sense of caring.

The goals of heroes must align in some sense with the audience's goals.

Bad guys have to be worse than good guys (good guys need not always be good). Context is everything.

Heroes need not be effective individually, but may be more effective in groups, as in Guardians of the Galaxy. Superman suffers, narratively, from his overwhelming powers, especially as we continue to write stories about him. He doesn't make a good team member. He is something of a prototype hero. Groot, by contrast, starts out seeming useless and then becomes more and more amazing as he develops abilities.

Animal heroes, incomprehensible heroes like R2D2, and "strong silent type" heroes are similar in that they are mysterious and often need translators. A silent and mysterious hero lets the readers/audience project emotion onto them. They speak with their actions, and sometimes with internalization in close point of view narrative. Silence may also imply a past they can't talk about, or be a "sign of badassery" (Thanks for that phrase, Che Gilson!).

Heroes have a kind of simplicity when it comes to knowing the right thing to do and not letting other motivations or problems get in the way of them doing it.

Heroes often get thrust into impossible situations, and this helps readers relate to them because people get thrust into difficult/impossible situations also, regularly.

Heroes are known by their actions. These actions lead to results that are judged as "good" by the people around them and by the reader or audience. "Good," however, is culturally defined. Thus changes in worldbuilding can significantly change the nuances of good action done by the hero. Motivations can complicate actions, while silence tends to magnify action.

Are female and male heroes different?

Certainly they are portrayed differently. Chihiro from Spirited Away is kind, reliable, and always cleaning things. Miyazaki often has female heroes cleaning things as a sign of their strength. Pazu from Castle in the Sky runs errands and fixes things but doesn't clean. The trend toward the Strong Female Character tends to pull female heroes toward the stereotypically masculine, aggressive side, but we shouldn't neglect the importance of feminine qualities. Cleverness and trickery often work for a female hero, much as for a male hero who does not possess overpowering strength.

Evil is typically depicted as being overpowering, but dilute (lots of soldiers, none of whom can aim, while the hero never misses). Heroism is often distilled into a single character, but the qualities of the hero can also be distributed across the team (as in the Guardians of the Galaxy reference above).

More recent depictions of heroes spend a great deal of time exploring gray areas. This could be an interest of more mature writers who have more life experience dealing with ambiguity, or it could also be a historical trend.

As I mentioned, more detail and examples can be found in the video, which lasts roughly an hour. I've tried to report this in order, so if you want to click through and find a piece of the discussion, you'll have a rough sense of where it may occur.

Thanks again to everyone who attended! You're all fascinating to talk to!
#SFWApro