Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You know that weak scene? How you wrote it might not be the problem.

Pick up a book, open it to a scene in the middle, and read a few paragraphs. Sometimes that will be enough to convince you to buy a book - it's the way I used to pick up books at the bookstore back when I had the free time to be hanging out in bookstores. But chances are you won't be experiencing that piece you are reading the same way you would if you'd read the book up to that point.

One of the things you learn as you hone your writing craft (as they say) is that story structure is really important. It often gets talked about in terms of making sure that people can detect where the story is going, or in terms of having big ticket items like "inciting event," "midpoint reversal," "climax," etc. That stuff can feel really natural to you, or it can feel very restricting. But what people don't often talk about when they discuss story structure is that the structure of the story supports the strength of the prose.

If you wanted to be logical, you could use a metaphor like building a house. There's no point in having fancy paint on a wall that has no strength and is about to fall down. But it's actually even more significant than that - it's as if the paint on the wall could look more beautiful because of the struts the wall contains. So building a house doesn't really do it gracefully, as metaphors go.

A better metaphor would be waveform vibrations. Let's say you have a simple sine wave. Then you let it interact with another. If the two line up in one way, they cancel each other out. If they line up in another way, they double one another's intensity. Here's a little picture showing two sine waves (green and blue), and the result of their interaction (red).
The summary here is that when the two waves line up, they have more impact. When they don't, they dampen each other.

The same thing happens with words. Not just with words, but also with phrases, images, and other forms of structure in a piece of writing. Repetition creates patterns. We call them arcs. Sine waves are also made of arcs. A climax is when all the arcs line up together at the end of the story. It's something we aim for.

These alignments happen all through the story, however. And they count every time.

Have you ever heard the advice that you shouldn't open with a scene that jumps straight into action, explosions, deadly danger, etc? Well, you shouldn't. Why? Because those are things that are supposed to have impact. To have amplitude. But at the start of a work you've had no time to get your waves going. They *can't* line up. So everything you describe is going to depend solely on the intensity of the prose on the page, sentence by sentence. It just won't have the same kind of impact that it might if you started out by establishing what is normal first - even if only briefly.

Establish the character. Establish what normal looks like to them, even if you do that by having them notice that today is not quite like other days. Establish a bond of caring between your protagonist and your reader. To put this in the simplest way I can, the character is one wave (actually, they are a set of waves, but I'm trying to be simple here). The "normal" is another wave. The departure from normal sets up a new kind of wave. The bond with the reader will cause them to bring in comparisons from their own life (still another kind of wave). Once each of those waves is recognized and in play, you can play with them and line them up to create a catastrophic inciting event that will have some meaning to the reader.

Of course, the further you go into the story, the more waves there are. You couldn't possibly count them all. But tracking as many as you can, at least on some level, is very important. It helps you know how to line them up.

Okay, so let's say you have a scene you have written, and it's not coming across the way you want. But you've done your absolute best with it, and when you read through it you can't really see anything substantial wrong with it. You might try to punch up the prose, but then it might depart from the style you've been using for this story. Or it might depart from being reasonable, or be inconsistent with character, etc.

Don't punch up the prose. Look for weaknesses in the lead-in, and places where the impact of the scene is being dampened because earlier parts of the book don't support it.

In my novel, For Love, For Power, I have a scene which has to be really really awful. But it's not really really awful onscreen - the awful stuff is going on offscreen and the point of view character discovers that it's going on. At that moment, he has to react. He has to have the strongest reaction he's had to anything so far in the book (he's a relatively understated guy). And because he's reacting emotionally, it doesn't make sense for him to explain what he thinks is going on. The surface text looks like this:

He dashed into his room. No way to let her know he was here, but if she was on the other side of this wall, and she needed him, surely she would call. He flicked on the speaker beside the door with the crescent-moon handle, praying to hear her voice, even if it were raised in anger –
Instead, out of the speaker came a bestial, rhythmic grunting.
Nausea swept over him; his entire body shook with rage.
Oh, my Lady! My Lady!

Based on this alone, some things are clear, but others definitely aren't. We don't know who he is. We don't know why he cares. We have no idea who she is relative to him and how she might feel about events. But to try to explain it in this spot would be a mistake. Part of what readers need to know is set up in the time I spend setting up the characters earlier. Other parts of it are set up in this chapter as I get closer and closer to this moment. If you want to see the progression, I spent a blog post on it, here: Heightening Emotional Impact.

One of the most important roles of structure and description is creating a sense of increased amplitude through a story. So if you find yourself with a sneaking feeling that something isn't working right, but can't pinpoint it in the place where it happens, take a look back at how it gets set up.

It's something to think about.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Super Exciting News! "Suteta Mono de wa Nai" to appear in March Clarkesworld!

I'm jumping up and down with this news!

I've been submitting to Clarkesworld for quite a long time (years) - basically every time I have a story that really excites me. I'm not sure if any of you have ever done that, but they respond incredibly fast, and watching your story go down the queue over a period of two to seven days is unbelievably nerve-racking. Well, this time I got a notice on my submission saying "Second Round," so I was trying really hard not to check its status every hour...

Good thing we went out to my kids' Valentine dance! It was a great distraction. When we got home, I was going to go into email and check my status again, but instead I found an email from Mr. Neil Clarke himself saying he wanted to publish the story!

I had some tears and giggles. And not a little disbelief.

"Suteta Mono de wa Nai" is roughly translated as "Not easily thrown away," but also implies a thing that you shouldn't make the mistake of undervaluing. The story features a girl, Kitano Naoko, a sometime Harajuku cosplayer who lives in the Tokyo suburbs. She's having trouble studying for her college entrance exams, and then she starts hearing voices...

Writing this story made me feel very nostalgic for Japan. Of course, I loved going into Google Maps and zooming way in to check the geography of Harajuku and Meiji Shrine, but my favorite part was thinking back to my homestays and remembering small details of life in a Japanese home - things like shoe cabinets, kitchen shrines and kotatsu (low tables with heaters underneath, that have a quilt built into them so you can stick your feet under them and keep warm in winter). I also took some inspiration from the films of Hayao Miyazaki (in some unexpected contexts).

I have special thanks to offer to my readers - Karen Rochnik, Setsu Uzume, Reggie Lutz, Lillian Csernica, and Cliff Winnig! Thanks for your comments and for your support.

I will of course let you all know when it comes out!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Threats and Acceptance - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout Report with VIDEO

This discussion picked up a topic mentioned by Myke Cole in our talk about his new book, Breach Zone, which I then blogged about, here. This is the idea of threats and acceptance as motivators for human behavior, and I thought it would be productive to grapple with it a bit in discussion. I was joined for this one by Reggie Lutz and Glenda Pfeiffer.

When we spoke with Myke, he talked about the threat of violence and death as a prime motivator for people to abide by the law. My own sense was that though threats are an important motivator, the idea of acceptance by social groups is another really important motivator - possibly just as important or more important. Chuck Wendig had a couple of articles about spanking that I found very compelling, talking about how spanking was mostly a way to get children to fear you and hide any ill behavior. (It was more complex than that; his articles on the topic are here and here.)

Reggie said some of what motivates people depends on their personalities. What motivates you to do anything? Some people are motivated by rewards. Some are motivated by the maintenance of harmony, and others by conflict avoidance. Simply positing the situation as consisting of law enforcement and threat oversimplifies the situation.

Acceptance is not the same thing as reward - a valuable distinction to recognize.

We felt that gang activity was very much based on acceptance rewards, falling in the category of finding your own community, which is important to many people for different reasons (which can be legal or not so legal).

Shunning has been used as a punishment for thousands of years. We felt that shunning was the opposite of acceptance, and that giving rewards was the opposite of deprivation, and that safety was the opposite of violent reprisal - but that these three were separate axes that often overlap in specific situations.

Glenda talked about how historically, shunning could be life-threatening. She works with a secondary world where people find it very hard to live outside the protected communities. Adults might be okay, but childbirth and infant mortality would be a huge issue. If you live outside the community, then you don't thrive.

Shunning is more than just a social punishment. The job of baby holder shows that humans need community, acceptance, and physical expressions of love in order to thrive, especially when very young.

Reggie told us about some of the social situations in her dragon novel. Some older dragons are accustomed to threats from humans and want an authoritarian system to deal with those threats. Shapeshifters are the youngest generation and have tried so assimilate with humans. The resulting conflict with the old guard can be directly damaging to them, since it's bad for their health if they stay in one form too long. Should they shift privately? Should they stage open rebellion? She has a character who is a high school student going to school, trying to benefit the dragon community by acclimating. She does this because she wants acceptance, even though if she were discovered it could pose a big threat to the dragon community.

Often, considering these questions is part of asking how to make your story more deep and realistic.

I spoke about my character, Nekantor, and how figuring out his motivations helped me to turn him from a generally (but rather vaguely) mean guy to a man who represents the problems facing his caste in decline, and who is able to become very powerful, but also very vulnerable, because of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Teasing out how his power motivations and his response to threats were filtered through his obsession with control and order allowed me to make him more extreme, and less scattershot - more consistent as a character.

I also mentioned the way N.K. Jemisin set up The Three deities in her book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and let their personal interrelationships - including need for acceptance, and threats between each of them - inform how the world worked along with the plot.

In Harry Potter, Harry has a hard time at the start because he isn't accepted into his adoptive family. This is a sort of Ugly Duckling scenario, where we discover that he wasn't accepted because he really belonged in another sort of community that would accept him. The idea of acceptance among one's own is very interesting, but I liked that there were places in personal relationships etc. where the question of acceptance outside of one's own type were brought up (Harry's family vs. Hermione's family, for example).

Glenda brought up the question of individualism vs. conformity and why there is pressure to conform. Sometimes external threats serve to unite a group that wouldn't ordinarily be motivated to accept one another, and sometimes such threats are fabricated to force mutual acceptance. Calls can be made to a sense of community, but it's always important to be aware that different kinds of community can be invoked.

It's important to note that people don't always react in a logical manner when confronted with basic motivators. People who crave acceptance can feel so emotionally kicked around that they reject everyone and deny themselves the chance at acceptance in order to avoid rejection/reprisal.

Threats can be low-level institutional threats, which are sometimes hard to detect. They can be something as simple as invading someone's personal space by standing too close. It's important to note that the person doing it might not notice they are doing it. I set up a hypothetical scenario with three people, X, Y, and Z. If Y bullies Z, then any social alignment - even the most benign - between X and Y will cause Z to perceive X as a threat.

Reggie noted that the reason she didn't speed in her car was that she didn't want to get hurt, or hurt someone else. She felt that law enforcement was less of a factor than the unforgiving consequences of an accident, and emphasized that law enforcement can't be the whole picture in setting up motivations.

Glenda said, "I don't want to live in a society where you have to be the strongest to succeed, but one where people get a fair shake."

Thanks to Glenda and Reggie for coming and sharing their thoughts! I look forward to speaking with you all again today.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TTYU Retro: Some thoughts on culture shock and cultural sensitivity

I first went to live in Japan in 1991, when I was a senior in college. I was excited. I was as prepared as I knew how to be, having studied Japanese language and culture for two years in California. When I met my host mother, I bowed to her and said "Yoroshiku onegai shimasu" (roughly, please be kind to me) with more sincerity than I'd ever felt before.

Kyoto was a serious adjustment. I was living in the south, so I had to learn how to take the train 20 minutes and then walk 20 minutes to my school. I was not permitted to telephone the United States from my home phone, and there was no international  pay phone in my neighborhood, so I had to call from the international pay phone at school. I tried to continue taking morning showers, but once the weather got cold that became totally impossible (because I was freezing!) and my family let me be first in the bath and then made sure I said "Osaki deshita" when I came out. At the time I couldn't figure out why I was supposed to say it, and my family never explained it to me. They also chastised me for saying thank you when a family member offered to take me somewhere, because I was instead supposed to say "yes please." I also had trouble with a lot of language elements because I had learned standardized Japanese, and my family and most people in Kyoto spoke the Kyoto dialect - which is very different.

I rolled with it. I figured I was the learner here, and it was their way of teaching me what I needed to know. I needed to be culturally sensitive, hard as it might be.

After a couple of months, though, I started feeling pretty irritated about some things. I would get told off if I was hungry midafternoon. I regularly got told off for drinking too much water at dinnertime. I hadn't been allowed to use the air conditioner in my room when it was hot and muggy - but when it got cold (3 degrees C in my room) and they wouldn't give me a heater, I went to my teachers and complained. I had a conversation with someone who was renting a room from the same family, and we noticed a pattern - not being allowed to use the phone, being told off for using too much water, etc. We'd both been so busy trying to be culturally sensitive and accept a degree of culture shock that we hadn't noticed this family was trying to use us to make money, by taking the allowance given by the school center and then skimping on our care, feeding and utilities.

After Christmas break I moved in with another family closer to the center of town, and all the same cultural stuff was there, but I felt like part of the family. I came out of that experience loving my family and not wanting to leave - and also realizing that I had to be very cognizant of my own boundaries, so I would at least talk with people if I was having serious difficulty, to calibrate my own judgments of events.

Flash forward, then, to my most recent time living in Japan, in 2000-2001. On that occasion I was living with my husband in an apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. There was a ton of cool stuff about living there, and we had friends in the area, but we couldn't see them all the time. The thing I remember most of all was the sense of isolation. Without a host family, every conversation in day to day life ended up being a conversation with strangers, and that meant breaking cultural ice every time I tried to talk to someone. Being a foreigner and scaring people, sometimes literally. Having to explain each time I met someone why I could speak Japanese so well (and their reactions to that varied rather widely from excitement to disapproval). With no one to introduce me, to grease the cultural interactions with familiarity, I was defined primarily as a "foreigner woman." Compared to what some minorities go through (both there and here) it was minor; on the long term, though, I found it exhausting. So was traveling around, since it took at least a half hour to get anywhere, and I get quickly overstimulated in crowds. I dealt with it, but I was tired.

Many things hadn't changed. I loved the ancient dignity of the culture, the art, and the stories. I loved the places. I loved my friends. But the logistics got to me. I discovered that understanding how things worked, and appreciating them, wasn't enough to feed my soul. In a way, I felt like I'd failed at cultural sensitivity. I sure as heck knew I was lucky to be able to choose to leave an uncomfortable situation. But I also felt that I'd gained an understanding both of Japanese culture, and of myself.

In my studies as an anthropologist, one of the things that I've learned is that cultures come in all kinds, and almost anything I feel comfortable with due to my upbringing can be brought into question in a different cultural context. I've also learned that language and its cultural meanings are inextricable.

As a descriptive linguist and a discourse analyst I've learned that there is no absolute, "correct" language except as defined by a culture. I've learned that the rules of language are malleable - it means one thing to follow the "rules" as they are laid out in class, but one can discover quite another by getting out on the ground and listening to people talk. A lot of those meanings are social meanings, including those expressed by metaphors that we don't question often enough. Furthermore, breaking the rules doesn't always lead to nonsense - sometimes it means something quite specific, and socioculturally different, in ways we don't expect.

I think for most of us there's an area of wiggle room. To some extent, we are willing to depart from our core comfort zone in order to accommodate to another cultural set. Then there's often a point where we stick, because we feel our identity may be lost.

But what is our identity? If I were to describe how I like to be seen by others, it's as a kind, polite yet forthright person unafraid to share my opinions. In Japan I learned that there was a disconnect between my own self-image, and the behavior that would successfully communicate that image to others. The vocal manner, body language, and vocabulary I use in the US convey my inner vision of myself pretty effectively because I've grown up honing them. However, if I were to use those same cues in Japan I would come across as terribly rude and loud. Thus, in order to convey the same inner vision of myself, to Japanese people, successfully, I had to change my vocal manner, body language, and vocabulary.

One of the things I think cross-cultural experience should teach us is that fewer things are immutable than we might have imagined - even our own identities. Another thing is that there's always room for questioning. Also, though, there is a kind of self-knowledge and deeper understanding of the underpinnings of our own culture, which becomes discoverable only through the process of questioning ourselves, challenging our values and seeking greater sensitivity to others, moving away from comfort. That also, as I have mentioned above, means keeping our own compass, and working with others to determine what discomforts are actually due to the cultural boundaries of another group, and what are the idiosyncracies of individuals. There's a lot of commonality available to be found.

An alternate perspective, to my mind, doesn't weaken my own, but teaches me about itself and about myself at the same time. We should all be lucky enough to have this kind of experience, whether it involves going to a faraway country or simply discovering things about our own neighbors.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Insults, Privilege, and Power Language: a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout report with VIDEO

This is a report on the hangout we held last Thursday, which turned out to be a fascinating discussion! I was joined by Reggie Lutz, Lillian Csernica, and Karen Rochnik - thank you all for being awesome and taking the topic on.

We started out on a light note, talking about insults. Lillian mentioned how great Shakespeare's insults were - mumblecrust, flibbertygibbet, cot queen, lightskirt, etc. Occasionally, you'll see Shakespearean insult lists floating around Facebook and the internet, because they are just so much fun.

Shakespearean insults are often fun because they are so full of meaning, but a word like "fuck" is almost meaning-free. It conjugates, and it can be used in almost every situation... but though we do see it used in its semantically meaningful form, that usage is only a small percentage of its total usage. It's much more of a social posturing move, an alignment move to associate us with one group or another, or even a magic spell to give a child the power to cause adults to freak out!

Lillian mentioned the film "Hope and Glory," where to join a gang, a kid had to say a swear word. The kid in question said "fuck," and was told, "that is a special word." Karen mentioned that swearing can be very satisfying.

I mentioned here, as I mentioned in my post on editing "Mind Locker" for profanity, that we can identify hierarchies of power within the arena of insults and swear words. Fuck is near or at the top - because I would argue that words that are more potent but uglier are more constrained in their usage, leaving fuck as the most important (currently). In a way, swear words are the magical words of our time.

Learning politeness words is very important, and learning swear words is, also. They are both potent, though they have different purposes. Lillian spoke about her son John, and how he was very polite in elementary school. He might not have grasped the semantic content of the words, but he knew how people would respond to them. She mentioned something she'd noticed when critiquing "Mind Locker," which was that Hub Girl doesn't swear in front of her dad - not because she is at all afraid of punishment, but because she's come to do business with him, and doesn't want to invoke the father-daughter relationship as she would if she swore and provoked him to scold her.

Reggie talked about how the potency of swear words varies greatly based on the surrounding context. Swearing is incredibly shocking in Catholic grade school, but in the music industry, it's so normal that the words have lost their power. Some contexts call for these words to be controlled, and some don't.

I talked briefly about Discourses, and encouraged people to go look at James Gee's work on the subject. The kind of language we use - and the kind of language that has power - depends a lot on social context. The example I gave was from English as a Second Language. Language learners in the US tend to pick up the socially valuable English usage that occurs on the playground most quickly, but playground grammar is not the same as classroom grammar. The problem that arises is that in classwork, teachers reward only language use appropriate to that discourse, yet are likely to assume a learner's English is better because of his or her knowledge of casual conversational English.

Using language appropriate to one discourse in the context of another one can sound very strange - or it can be incredibly effective. I promised the group that I'd give them references, so here are two:

Smitherman, Geneva. "Soul 'N Style." English Journal February (1974): 16-17. Print.
AnzaldĂșa, Gloria. "How to Tame a Wild Tongue." Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999. 53-64. Print.

Reggie talked about alignment, which is a very important concept. Whether we speak plainly or colorfully marks us as belonging to, or standing with, particular social groups (e.g. academic, music industry, playground clique, etc.). Reggie told us she doesn't swear when she's angry - that that's not okay. It's okay to swear when being playful, though. A very similar rule operates at my house!

Lillian talked about how we make choices about our language. "Bitch" is a terrible word in some contexts, but in others, it has become a greeting. Any single word can have a spectrum of meaning. We also talked about Reclamation, when a group of people who has been subjected to a particular insult (such as women with "bitch" or African-Americans with the "n" word) will try to reclaim it and make it empowering within that group. Lillian mentioned a comedian who had said that "bitch" stood for "being in total control of herself." I mentioned Chris Rock and how he was in a special position to discuss and critique the "n" word through comedy. Comedy is an interesting topic, because often it's  boundary-crossing and transgression that makes something funny.

We also talked about the kind of playful banter where friends insult each other. Reggie told us the term for that was "verbal jocosity." It's true that sometimes we see friends insult each other and wonder if they are really friends. This kind of joking can really turn bad if it crosses certain types of boundaries - and often when it crosses genders. But inherent in the idea of jocosity is a kind of declaration that "I feel safe with you," i.e. that we can insult each other without fear of reprisal because we have confirmed our alignment.

The internet has its own types of rules and discourse conventions. For example, YELLING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. It's easy to find people who haven't yet been exposed to this "rule," but who think that having caps lock on is insignificant. Swearing on the internet can be hateful and scary, or it can be hilarious, depending on how it's accomplished. (I should try analyzing this sometime!)

I talked briefly about dog-whistle words. The term itself is a reference to "whistles that only dogs can hear," but it is now used to mean words which have a common meaning and are understood by all members of a community, but which have been infused with an additional, coded meaning by members of a subgroup of that community. One example of a dog-whistle word is "urban," which to the general community means "associated with cities" but to a certain type of listener automatically implies "black." Dog-whistle words are used specifically to avoid the dangers of direct insult, but to invoke fear, hatred, and antipathy in insider listeners.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the attendees if they had any thoughts to share from their personal experience.

Reggie said that she' been told that swearing showed a writer had limited imagination, but in her mind, if your story world resembles our reality, you can't dance around your swear words. That would be a disservice to your character and to your art. In the dragon novel she is writing, there isn't much call for insult among dragons. Gay, for example, has no pejorative meaning associated with it. The more important distinction among the dragons is whether they are shapeshifters or not.

Lillian noted that you don't have to say your swear words "out loud" in order to include them in your work. In her Japanese novel, she has a refined, dainty and elegant girl living with a masterless samurai who is in exile. He swears - but he curses under his breath. Lillian can achieve her effect by showing the girl's reaction and implying the social context without actually spelling out the swear words.

Karen talked about working on a story with a future society that was post-religious, and struggling with how many easy contexts there would be for "Jesus Christ" or "God" to be used as oaths. We talked about how much the language might have shifted. There could be alternatives to those oaths, but the oaths themselves might also stick around and lose their semantic content.

I talked about the importance of labeling. When you are worldbuilding, you should keep in mind that people label each other in various ways. Any single social group can have multiple labels depending on who is referring to them - something they call themselves, a pejorative or admiring term that people give to them, and then an official term. In my world of Varin, the undercaste are called Akrabitti officially, trashers as a pejorative, and they call themselves "the Patient Folk." I also mentioned a recent conversation I had about an alternate history project where emancipation had been more effective and former slaves had quickly taken on positions of importance - but for some reason, her readers weren't noticing when characters were dark-skinned, in spite of specific description. I suggested that even in such a situation, the emancipated slaves would be seen as their own social group, and needed a label... but a label that would demonstrate to readers the regard in which they were now held.

The last thought that came up was that people can often get really worked up about the use of swearing, but that it pales in comparison to real atrocities, and often, good behavior/politeness can be used to cover up horrible atrocities. Keeping the surface rules lets you ignore the deeper rules.

Thanks again to everyone who participated! I hope to see you again very soon.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How many fucks (and shits, and hells) do I have to give? - Editing for profanity on "Mind Locker"

So I've got this story coming out. I've mentioned it to you before. Last week I got my page proofs back, which is always fun because it means the story will be coming out relatively soon. It also means a lot of careful reading for spelling, and watching out for which direction the quotation marks are facing (which is why I never use smart quotes!). But this time was a little different.

I got asked to tone down the profanity. Specifically, to reduce the instances of "fuck," "shit," and "hell" by half each.

My first reaction was to laugh, basically because I'm not a person who swears a lot in my normal life. Writing "Mind Locker" I was continually astonished at the way my protagonist, Hub Girl, used her language. But the thing was, it fit with her. It WAS her. Hub Girl is a girl who swears, and if she didn't, it wouldn't make any sense. The way we use language is key to how people understand our character, and to remove that unapologetic swearing would change her character in an unfortunate way. Furthermore, if I took out swear words in the wrong places, it could totally unbalance the story.

On the other hand, I could see what the editor was saying. "Distracting" was the word used in the request. I've seen stories and movies before where the swearing was distracting! Dogma immediately springs to mind - I saw that film on the plane and had never enjoyed it so much before, just because I wasn't emotionally battening down the hatches every time the swearing character opened his mouth.

So here was the question: How do I achieve a precise 50% reduction on swear words without fundamentally altering the feel of the character and narrative?

First, I went through and highlighted all the swear words in the document. Then I listed the different types in a sort of "hierarchy of profanity." The hierarchy looked like this:

1. fuck
2. shit
3. hell
4. crap
5. damn

My sense was that the lower the number, the more distracting the word. So I set about reading through the manuscript. When there was an opportunity to take something out without changing the feeling of the narrative, I took it out. Redundancy was one of the reasons why I found certain words easy to remove. For example, why have her say "shit" three times if she only needed to say it once? If it was a single instance of a word, but important that some swear word be there, then I considered whether it could be changed, possibly to a word further down the hierarchy.

There were quite a number of instances where the word could not be changed without really changing Hub Girl's character. This sentence, for example, where you first discover that she knows how to swear:

"Fuck the Locker, for scaring me."

It's the only swear word in the first scene, and it's a kind of declaration to the reader of the way Hub Girl responds to a threat. No way was I changing it, so I made a notation in the margin...


...and moved on to the next spot.

Another consideration was whether she was in danger in the middle of action, or in a situation where her friends were similarly in danger. Then I was more likely to keep the swear words that were already there. Here's an example, from a confrontation between Hub Girl's gang and a couple of truck drivers, one of whom has just shot a gun at them. She loses track of her closest friend, Fisher, and when she finds him again, she says,

"Fisher, you scared the fuck outta me!"

Then Fisher tells her one of their other friends is trapped in the truck where he was trying to steal some food for them, and her response is,


So that was F2 and S1! And I continued numbering as I went along.

The last kind of context where I really felt it important to keep certain swear words was in places where she used them very creatively. Hub Girl and the members of her gang speak a dialect which is influenced by internet language, among other sources. She's creative with her nicknaming and with her speech generally (which is part of why I enjoy this story so much). Here are a couple of examples of expressions I wanted to keep because they were just so Hub Girl:

Hell'm I glad Fisher's by me.

That smile says not-past-my-shit-filter.

I was totally expecting that I'd get to the end of the story, found I had gone over on my numbers, and have to go back through for a second pass... but guess what? I ended up getting it on the first run-through.

Final totals:

1. fuck - 9
2. shit - 9
3. hell - 9
4. crap - 7
5. damn - (I didn't end up counting, because there were so few! maybe 2 or 3)

It was an interesting process, and more importantly, I felt like I'd done what I needed to do - make the story more accessible to readers without fundamentally changing the character or the narrative.

I hope you find my experience interesting, and possibly helpful in your own projects. And, of course, I hope you'll read "Mind Locker" in the July/August 2014 Analog! :D


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Privilege and Intersectionality: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout report with VIDEO

We got together last week and had a great discussion on Privilege and Intersectionality with Reggie Lutz, Lillian Csernica, and Lesley Smith.

We started by floating basic definitions for these terms. Privilege is the very (extremely!) common phenomenon where one social group gets treated better than others. More opportunities, more acceptance, is perceived to be more beautiful/stronger/intelligent/etc. Members of the privileged group can expect to see the rules bent for them because they "deserve it," while non-members get no tolerance enforcement, criticism, ostracism, are perceived to be lesser in many ways.

Intersectionality is a term that fewer people are familiar with, but it basically talks about how many different criteria are used to define privilege, and how the borderlines between privilege and the lack of it can intersect in many ways. A woman is in the non-privileged group by gender, but may be white (privileged) and heterosexual (privileged) and cis-gendered (privileged). [Cis-gendered describes people who identify with a gender that matches their physical sex.] A gay man has a different combination of privilege and lack of it. So does a transwoman of color. The different combinations can be very complex, and very often, advocates for the underprivileged on one criterion will inadvertently (or purposely) not include people who are underprivileged on other criteria. This is like, for example, when feminists predominantly fight for the rights of white women and neglect women of color. I'll leave researching the lively conversations on this topic to you, but I would argue that feminism is not complete until all women have been raised by the tide, whether they be women of color, gay women, transwomen, disabled women, etc. Intersectionality is an important term in our current debates about equality.

Lillian immediately provided an example from her novel in progress, Sword Master, Flower Maiden. Her character Yuriko is a high-ranking courtesan, and an Englishwoman, raised since babyhood as Japanese with no knowledge of English ways. As a white woman, she is technically a nobody, but she is highly educated. He is a samurai, but is in exile, so his status is lower, and he does not have her extensive education. They take a while to figure out what kind of politeness to use with each other as a result!

Reggie remarked that people who experience connection often "connect over something specific," like an activity or something they like such as music, but then later conflicts come up in the relationship because of larger social divides like race and gender. One can maintain relationships without being blind to these possibly divisive issues, simply by virtue of a powerful mutual interest that brought the people together.

One phenomenon related to this question of privilege is humor. Humor by nature is supposed to tread close to borderlines of discomfort, but some kinds of jokes are appropriate for members of some groups, and not for others. Who is allowed to insult whom and for what reason? Why is Chris Rock able to be so successful with his routine about "blacks" vs. "n**s" but that would be completely appalling from another source? The key is that language use marks us as outsiders versus insiders, and the expectation is often that insiders will use language invoking a sense of solidarity and closeness. This can include slang and colloquialisms, but also face-threatening acts like insults. When I first saw my husband talking with some of his friends, I wondered whether they were friends at all! Social context is incredibly important. Lillian mentioned how in a Japanese context, referring to one's son as "my worthless son" can indicate modesty, though to me it sounds pretty horrible. Lesley mentioned how shocked she was at the language used in Grand Theft Auto, in particular the use of the "N-word." In England, it is simply unacceptable for any kind of use, whereas in the US it has been somewhat reclaimed. Queer is another word that has been reclaimed here. It no longer retains the meaning of "strange," but has been adopted by the LGBT community as a badge of honor. The success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy arose in part from the reversal of the privilege relationship and by giving power to the "queer" side.

We spoke a little bit about slurs, but weren't able to go into a lot of detail, which is why I've got them on my list for a hangout this month! It's always worth thinking about how different people refer to each other. I spoke a little about the "official" names for the undercaste in my novel, which include "undercaste" and "Akrabitti," their official name. For more on that, see this post. Lillian talked about how we can say Mr. Postman or Mr. Policeman but Doctor and Nurse (without the accompanying title). I mentioned how "girl" and "boy" have been used insultingly for adults without privilege by those who have it. Also, as I do when we discuss insults, I emphasized how important it is not just to consider insults but also to consider avoidance behaviors that people engage in, even the building of physical barriers. An example of this would be the upstairs/downstairs nobles and servants situation. Lesley described servants being treated as non-entities. The people who are supposed to be invisible often will have their own ways through streets, places to keep to in houses or in neighborhoods or stores. Lillian mentioned the Tradesman's Entrance.

Passing is another fascinating phenomenon related to this. Basically it refers to a member of a non-privileged group pretending to be a member of the privileged group. This can be difficult or easy depending on how obvious the markers of membership are. Gay people have in the past been (and still are) pressured to act like heterosexuals to avoid censure. People with some African blood who nonetheless are quite light-skinned have sometimes tried to pass for white in order to receive the benefits of membership in the privileged group. Lesley mentioned pretending to be neurotypical, and how draining that can be. We also talked about how some science fiction stories have taken up the question of artificial people pretending to be human. Pretending is very dangerous, however, because if the "truth" comes out, the pretenders are often attacked and even killed.

We spoke about the idea of "default value." The privileged are the ones who most often have their stories told (history is written by the victors?). This tendency is magnified because people tend to expect what they have already seen, and there is fear in the unknown. Fear, while it has some adaptive advantages, is also a severe disadvantage in cases of unwarranted bias. Defaults do change over time, but slowly. When we talk about wanting to change the default of stories about white able hetero cis-males, we don't mean we want to remove them from the picture - merely that we want people to assume that other kinds of people are present in the world and thus should also be present in story scenarios.

Changing bias is very difficult, particularly since we often reinforce bias with our own unconscious behaviors. It requires attention and concentration. We need to ask, "Who do we listen to, and why?"

Thank you to everyone who came and joined in the discussion. I hope to see all of you - an others - tomorrow for "Insults, Privilege, and Socially Potent Language Use."

Here's the video, for those who would like to hear the details!

Dive into Worldbuilding for February - Hangout topics!

Here are the Google+ Hangout topics for February! I hope you can come and join our discussions. All of the hangouts will be at the usual time of 11am PST, ending at noon.

February 6 Insults, Privilege, and Socially potent language use
February 13 Threats and Acceptance
February 20 Religious Privilege
February 27 Literacy and Technology [postponed to March 13]

I hope to see you there!


Monday, February 3, 2014

Character motivations: Threats vs. Acceptance

The other day when we were speaking with Myke Cole (report and video here) about his new novel Breach Zone, he floated an idea that I've been thinking about a lot since. He asked what motivates us to follow laws and have good behavior, and the answer he suggested was that we fear reprisal - ultimately, that we fear the power that our government has to damage or kill us. Without a public understanding that government has the dominant share in the use of force, he argued, the whole system breaks down.

It's interesting when you hear a thought that your gut immediately objects to, but which you can't necessarily put a finger on why. Is it just that this is an ugly truth that I don't want to accept? Or is it that the picture is incomplete somehow?

A dear friend of mine, Deborah J. Ross, is involved with the movement to end the death penalty in CA. Through her I've learned a lot about the death penalty, and one of the many arguments used against it is that the death penalty is not a deterrent. True, the myriad delays etc. may factor into that, but it's an interesting counterpoint to consider, in my opinion.

I think we are far more sensitive to more immediate penalties in our environment than we might think. A fear of death is not what keeps us obeying the social rules of our school cliques. There is a degree to which fear of pain, of bullying and reprisal, are part of rule enforcement for those groups, but if we are going to be talking about the motivation provided by "the stick," I think it's important not to omit "the carrot."

The carrot is acceptance - a feeling of belonging within the group and benefiting from that membership in numerous ways. We benefit from the social groups we are a part of in many ways. They combat loneliness. They help us to formulate our sense of identity and self-worth.

I got thinking about this also when Chuck Wendig posted about spanking children being like hitting children. The whole idea behind the spanking disciplinary strategy is that of the "stick", but as Chuck himself argued, it only makes a child fearful and more likely to hide behaviors he/she engages in. Certainly babies and children would prefer not to be struck, but simply leaving them alone is not enough; they need to be cuddled or they fail to thrive. The job of baby cuddler in the hospital is a very important one. I don't want to veer off into spanking as a major discussion here, but my point is that threats accomplish one sort of thing, and acceptance accomplishes very different things.

And both are extremely strong motivators.

As a storyteller, you can get incredible mileage in terms of character motivation if you think about the kinds of threats and the kinds of acceptance offers that your characters encounter - either on the giving or the receiving end - in their daily lives. The characters I'm working with now, Corbinan and Meetis, are fascinating to me in this department. Both characters are members of the Varin undercaste, so one might imagine they are likely to have their behavior controlled a great deal by threats. Indeed, they encounter quite a number of threats, some of them neither personal nor fair.

When Corbinan's team has bad luck and a piece of shoddy equipment breaks on their watch, they get penalized even though they were not at fault. Corbinan's team is also in fact a gang, because outside of work they need to stick together to keep themselves from being robbed (threat) and also to keep their rent low. If they were found living six people to a two person apartment, they might be penalized (threat), but the benefit of the safety and camaraderie combined with the lower rent (acceptance) is sufficient that they do it anyway. On the day the equipment breaks, several team members are angry enough to leave the girl who "broke" the equipment. Corbinan, however, sticks with her because he knows she will be jumped if he leaves her alone. The two of them are jumped anyway and have to fight off a gang of kids. During this interaction, Corbinan grabs a boy and threatens to break his arm if the boy doesn't order the others to back off. The boy does, and they do back off, but while Corbinan is retreating he tells the boy that he once belonged to the same gang, and offers to teach him to read - a skill that will help the boy escape from the domineering gang leader. Thus, when he lets go of the boy, the boy does not go back on the offensive but leads the rest of the kids away. He uses both threats and a promise of help and acceptance into the larger society to influence the boy's behavior.

Meetis is a girl who was abandoned by her parents when they fell on hard times, and who became a pickpocket at the age of 9 in order to stay alive. That would be a case where the threat of starvation outweighs the threat of legal force. One of her friends in the neighborhood would occasionally give her food, and when that friend died suddenly, the friend's parents offered to take Meetis in. They had two motivations for doing this. One, they liked her, and were already helping her stay alive. Two, they would be evicted from their home (threat) if they did not have their child living with them. So Meetis became their daughter and took her name. This is another case where the idea of acceptance, food, and safety was more powerful than the possible threat of discovery and punishment by the police. Of course, the discovery of her identity becomes the inciting event for her character arc, so the threat of punishment is certainly there - it causes her to leave the home she loved and her adoptive parents and flee the city entirely.

I hope these couple of examples can get you thinking about the various ways in which threats and offers of acceptance can interact in the motivations of your characters. I'm very thankful to Myke for visiting the hangout and also for making me think about such a meaty topic!