Monday, June 30, 2014

Back with a bang! SALE to Clarkesworld!

Sorry for being away so long from the blog! I had a lovely trip to Washington, D.C. to visit my parents, and now I'm back. I have more than one cool story to share from the trip, but the most exciting news is something that happened just yesterday: I sold a second story to Clarkesworld!

"Soul's Bargain" is special to me because it's a story from my Varin world, making this the first time I've ever sold a story from Varin to a pro market. It's actually a peek into the world's distant past, 750 years before the "present" (as represented in the novel that I just signed on with my agent Kristopher O'Higgins).

Pelisma has worked passionately her entire life to expand and strengthen the cavern city where she lives, which has borne her name ever since she saved it from a catastrophic flood. But the city of Pelismara can never achieve its greatest potential, because the surface wilderness of Varin is dominated by wysps, tiny floating sparks that pursue and burn anyone who builds a fire or attempts to clear land.

Now Pelisma's eyes have failed, leaving her dependent on the assistance of others, able only to ask in frustration, Is this all the ambition we have left? To beautify and perfect a confined existence?

Something more alarming has also changed: wysps have begun to approach her without warning or reason, piling fear and uncertainty atop her frustration. Are the wysps a force of nature, or are they souls? What possible explanation lies behind their anomalous behavior? Can she find it before they consume her in flames?

The story comes out tomorrow, July 1! I hope you enjoy it!


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Domesticated Animals: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout report with VIDEO

We had a great discussion about domesticated animals that took a science-fictional turn at one point into domesticating humans! I was joined by Reggie Lutz, Pat McEwen, and Glenda Pfeiffer.

We started by trying to define domesticated animals. Mostly, I see a lot of lapdogs and lap cats in movies and in books, so we were trying to expand the framework there a little bit. Really, you can include all kinds of things in this list, from horses to food animals to silk worms and even escargots. If you are setting out to build a world, it's a good idea to think about all the different kinds of animal raising that would go on, and why.

Reggie mentioned that in her world, a cataclysm which affected humans also affected animals. Pets were pretty much lost, as were many large work animals, which means if you see animals and humans working together, it will probably mean that magic is involved, or something is wrong with the animals. Dogs have become large enough to crossbreed with coyotes and wolves, so there is an identified population of fairy dogs.

Animals can be very important to worldbuilding because they are often used as a gauge of character. Working animals and companion animals can be part of this. A writer can use a character's interactions with animals to show whether that person is kind or merciless, or insincere, etc.

Pat remarked that half-feral dogs are generally medium sized, rather than large. She also pointed out that the rate of genetic mutation in populations that interact - like humans and dogs - is higher than when they don't interact. She mentioned the populations of Russian foxes that had been bred for docility (and actually, at the same time in parallel, for hostility), and how quickly the changes had occurred. These changes also came in sets. Not only personality changed, but also coat color and a number of other characteristics. Here is an article from National Geographic about animal domestication that you might find interesting.

We use watchdogs, we use animal companions, we have service animals that help the blind and deaf. We also use animals for fiber, like sheep, rabbits, alpaca, etc. Animals can serve as familiars. They can help to keep us sane. Pat mentioned a service dog that had been trained to smell endocrine imbalance in her mistress and remind her to take her medicine. We have probably all seen the airport dogs who are trained to sniff for drugs or explosives.

Are there helper monkeys? Some animals are not as easily domesticated, and domestication is not the same thing as taming. The above linked article addresses that question to some extent.

When I was designing Varin, I realized I needed to have some unusual animals to make clear that this was not Earth. I did various things - including using English animal words as rough translations for animals (like the rabbit) that were too similar to Earth animals for a whole new word to be helpful. I also hyphenate to make clear that distinctions are there, when I don't want to confuse with an alien word. So Varin has cave-cats and tunnel-hounds, for example. I went into quite a bit of depth with the tunnel-hounds. These look a bit like black-furred puppies, but have no eyes. They have sharp teeth and sensitive noses, and also have the ability to sense electricity, a bit like the platypus. They are not kept as pets because their appearance is disconcerting, but they are used as security animals to sniff poisons and sense if people are carrying energy weapons.

We asked, "How would aliens domesticate animals?" As we reflected on what domestication really meant, we noted that it was unclear whether we really domesticated cats. We certainly developed a symbiotic relationship with them. Pat said that domesticated cats have smaller brains than wild cats relative to their size, but they are not less intelligent; it's possible that they lost certain areas of the brain that became unnecessary within the symbiosis.

If you are trying to develop a very alien world, you have to try to find a balance between things that can be described in a familiar way and those that can be described in an unfamiliar way. Too many alien words for creatures and plants will end up doing two things: creating a memorization burden for the reader, and making the world more sparse than it needs to be. The second result tends to come from the author's desire not to make the memorization burden become a barrier to enjoyment and comprehension. If you think about Watership Down, Richard Adams uses a huge amount of description of nature and names plants that I had never heard of, but at least if you wanted to, you could go and look them up. That creates a level of trust that lets readers say "okay, I'm going to let that plant term slide." Creating the same level of trust in a made-up world is much trickier.

We spoke a bit about geese and ducks, and less commonly seen things like walking a cat, or carrying a parrot on your shoulder. The idea of the pirate parrot was intriguing, though. If you are working in a very different world, what kind of person-animal pairings are iconic (like the pirate)? Why are they iconic, and how did they become so?

We then thought about what would happen if humans were domesticated by aliens. Would it be for hunting? For entertainment? How would they change us to fit them? We thought about the mice in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the giants who wanted to eat the protagonists in C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair. It seems fully possible that aliens would try to improve us without really understanding us. They might try to eliminate mental illness but end up reducing human creativity. What other factors might change at the same time? David Brin looked at this a bit with his Uplift series, where the gorillas and chimps weren't happy with the result of their uplift.

Pat said that much of mental variation has to do with input filtering. Schizophrenics filter out a lot, but their filters are unreliable. Autistic people tend not to be able to filter out anything. Creative people filter things, but they pay attention in an unusual way.

We talked about otters. I mentioned my otter aliens and how their metabolism and natural modes of attention made the bridge of their space ship look like a nightclub to humans. Otters are too energetic to make good pets for humans! What kind of aliens might keep very active pets?

Reggie mentioned circus bears, bringing us back to the question of taming vs. domestication.

Can domestication go too far? Pat mentioned that male llamas have to be raised with other male llamas, because if they are away from the herd they will get aggressive if not "fixed" early. Reggie said that parrots also can develop bad behavior if they have not bred. Elephants rely on the herd to civilize young males. Is it any wonder that humans geld so many of the animals they keep as pets? People also abuse their animals, as when elephants are given drugs to get more work out of them (since they ordinarily eat 18 hours a day). Animals are given everything from supplements to special food to tranquilizers. What would happen if humans were domesticated by aliens while earth was left to the "wild humans"? What would be left?

It was a great discussion. Thanks to everyone who attended. Today's discussion, coming right up, will be about "Killing your darlings." I hope to see you there!


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cultural Ideologies: A Dive into Worldbuilding! Hangout Report with VIDEO

I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Lillian Csernica, Lesley Smith, and Reggie Lutz, who were all just wonderful and helped me have a great hangout on a pretty rocky day.

We started out by referencing a post I made early on at TalkToYoUniverse, called Don't make them all the same. One of the points made in that article is that social groups, which will often have "values" that all their members supposedly hold, are not as uniform as you might imagine. Some members of the group will likely be totally bought into the group's ideological statements, and maybe even justify their actions based on their group membership, but not all! In fiction, far too many characters fall into that pattern of using identity to justify actions, rather than using personal convictions that have grown out of a complex relationship with one's own identity.

Lillian mentioned her protagonist in Sword Master, Flower Maiden, who both belongs and doesn't, because she is an Englishwoman who was brought up as Japanese from a young age. She has to play by the rules but can't use her non-Japanese identity to justify any part of her behavior. She has to honor her obligations anyway.

Glenda mentioned individuals who are cross-cultural as having reasons to question their own ostensible ideologies.

In young adult fiction we often see young men and women struggling against the expectations that society holds for them.

When it comes to farmboys turned mage/hero, however, there seems to be little conflict explored except for a sort of general nostalgia. If you must take a farmboy and turn him into a mage or hero, I'd love to see you delve a bit deeper into the cultural mindset of the farm and see how that influences events!

Lesley mentioned how a lot of people in stories want powers but don't want to consider the crap that might come with them.  Lillian felt that the new Superman was, also, because he was trying not to show his powers. The X-men is a notable exception to this, since mutant powers are seen as bad in the general society and different members of the group approach their mutant identities in different ways (Magneto vs. Professor X alone is an excellent example). Mutants are victims of ideology and struggle with their own identities, whether they can "pass," etc. Spiderman is also notable for portraying a superhero who has nonetheless to maintain a normal life (make money, take out the trash, etc.).

Where do ideological divisions in a society come from? They grow out of a historical context. This historical context often involves past wars and imperialism, greed over resources. Wars lead to "othering" or demonizing of the enemy, and the effects of that demonization last for an indefinite period of time. Lesley asked whether there was such a thing as a just war. When is war justified? Can it be? Is the justification for a war just another kind of ideological stance? Wars lead to stereotyping and lasting animosity between social groups. There is also a kind of cultural ideology that develops within military groups, which soldiers carry home with them after the war is ostensibly over. Soldiers are affected, but so are civilian populations. Reggie mentioned the British empire, and problems faced by British people living in Africa after the empire had withdrawn.

After that we moved on to sexism, that ideological monster from our own world. Lillian mentioned that often modern veterinary schools still have student spaces reserved for men. Glenda described this as due to a belief that large animal veterinarians "require strength," which of course implies that women do not have this.

Women have the vote, but only because of the tireless bravery of the suffragettes. And even though we have the vote, women can still all too easily fall into the ideology of patriarchy and vote against their best interests. We still have inequity. People look for all kinds of evidence of gender, not just physiology, to draw distinctions and change their behavior. Women in sports are invasively checked if they appear too strong. These kinds of trends, and others, can be extrapolated into a fictional world.

What is the consensus reality of history in your world?

Reggie told us about a project she is working on that has a "high group" restoring a city while the villagers around the city subsist and then are asked to help with the restoration and feel obliged to comply. There is another group of people, the hunters, with slightly different beliefs. All of these people share the ideology that places the restorers on top until something happens to cause them to ask questions. There is lost history. As far as the population knows, there were no wars after the cataclysm that caused current conditions on their world. The challenge for her as a writer is to leave the traces of history without creating a sense that these people have a general education or knowledge of their history.

Glenda mentioned how political borders are often created by outsiders, as when Europeans came in and divided up territories they colonized without any regard for cultural identities. This created national boundaries that don't reflect the identities of the people living within them. This can be a problem any time the colonizer is drawing the maps. Lesley had recently learned about the colonization of the United States, which involved many of the same phenomena: the English took over and cut things up. I mentioned the exception of West Virginia, which is ideologically interesting in and of itself because it took place legally during the Civil War and then remained that way permanently.

We spoke about the idea of separation of church and state. The tension between the two has existed in changing states for thousands of years. In the US, the introduction of the word "God" in the pledge of allegiance was an ideological response to the perceived threat of communism, which was associated with the word "godless." Thus, counter-protestations came to use the word "God" by purposeful disassociation, even though they are parameters that vary mostly independently.

If you are looking to examine the ideology of empires, it's good to look up the British Empire, but also the US concept of manifest destiny.

If you want to see a great example of the imperialist mindset examined in fiction, I highly recommend Ann Leckie's Nebula award-winning novel, Ancillary Justice.

Lesley brought up the contrast between the Scots independence movement and the Indian independence movement, which would be fascinating topics to research.

Glenda remarked that there seems to be a "new" idea that political boundaries are permanent and can't be changed. I speculated that perhaps this consciousness had been strengthened after World War II.

Also, if you will be working with ideologies in a fictional environment, it's good to ask, "How are these ideologies taught?" Sometimes they are taught explicitly in schools or by mentors, as with Lillian's character Tendo who has grown up in bushido. They are taught by parents and older siblings. Also by schools, and by media, in various ways. These messages sneak in all around us, like gender roles and expected behaviors, etc. It's good to consider how such teaching would take place in your world.

As often happens, we reached the end of the hour and felt like we'd just gotten started! Thanks again to everyone who attended - it was a pleasure to have you there.

Today at 11am Pacific we'll be discussing Domesticated Animals, so I hope to see you there!


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dive into Worldbuilding! Hangout Topics for June

All right! Here we go...

Coming into June is a bit rough for me because of school transition. Our hangouts will look like this:

June 5: Domesticated Animals

June 12: "Killing your darlings"



I'll be out of town during those last two weeks visiting family. However! Unlike in other years, I'm planning to have hangouts during the summer months. So I should put a post just like this one up at the beginning of July.

I hope to see you tomorrow at the hangout!


What's close to our hearts is hard to judge...

Just over a week ago, at WisCon, I sat down for lunch and an agent took his time talking about how and why my book was worth representing. Yes, I've already told you I signed with Kristopher O'Higgins, and we know how the process works, right?

It's just that the impact of that statement is much larger than it seems.

We spend a lot of time working on our worlds, our stories. Strengthening them is a continual process of trial by fire. "Killing our darlings." Seeking out critique and criticism. The author bares her soul and says "tell me what is wrong with this."

I don't know any authors who don't care about the worlds they create. In order for us to spend the time we do accomplishing what we do, we have to care, at least on some level. I can tell when I don't care - those are the stories I put down and never finish, the characters I delete. We spend hours and hours on research, and on development of characters, cultures, environments, etc. etc.

After all this, it feels as if we live there. And when you live in a place, surrounded by it, it can become hard to judge. The whole process of critique is geared to help us gain distance from our worlds, to see them through others' eyes, and to identify flaws they might have, etc. I used to have a terrible time whenever I wrote a story set in Varin because I would write as an insider and give insufficient grounding to people who were less familiar with it than I. Too many characters, they would say. Too many different places, people, categories, etc. My first solution was to create lists, to help people. Then I realized lists might disambiguate, but they created distance, so I stopped using lists and started using personal character judgments to decide what was important. And I looked also as an author to make sure the number of characters/alien concepts in the cardstack didn't get too high.

Critiquers started finding fewer problems. But the impact of those original criticisms of this world, its size, its complexity, never went away. (Be careful, don't spend so much time on world that you lose character or plot...)

The result is that now, even as I write Varin with my improved skills, filtering its complexity through culturally grounded characters - and even as I believe in it, deeply, deeply - I often feel I have no reliable sense of its merit. I have one thousand years of history in a place that doesn't exist, and I can say to myself, "this moment is important; it deserves to be written," yet as I write it I don't know how others will see it. I know the setup; the development of the story often surprises me, as do the themes that emerge, but I know all the punchlines. Ask me, "What will readers find unique about this?" or "Where will readers feel wonder?" or "Where will readers laugh?" and I have no idea.

The longer a world like this has grown inside you, not even yet an iceberg because so little of it has seen the surface (special thanks to Dario Ciriello who published "The Eminence's Match" in 2010), the higher the stakes are. You can get so you're almost embarrassed to talk about it, because you're so convinced that everyone is too busy with their own projects to care, and after all, it's all in your head! I spoke with Ann Leckie at WisCon about her experience of the world she created in Ancillary Justice, and I felt an incredible sense of kinship with her because she expressed some of the same feelings I'd had. I look at her success, and cheer, and hope, and wonder if this place I have cared about for so long will be worth it.

This is a long process, and far from finished. But to sit down just for an hour and hear someone tell me yes, it really was worth it, means so much. (Thank you, Kristopher!)

If you believe in your world, don't lose hope.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Announcement: I have an agent!

I'm very excited to announce that I have signed with agent Kristopher O'Higgins of the Scribe Agency. This means that very soon I'll be moving into the publisher submissions process with my novel, For Love, For Power. Wish me luck!

It's really wonderful to find an agent who "gets" your book. From my point of view, it was so important to find someone who really understood what Varin was about as well as the depth of my commitment to it. Those of you who have been hearing about this world in my worldbuilding hangouts for years will get what I'm saying best of all!

Thank you ever so much to Kristopher, and thanks also to everyone who has supported me for so long in my writing process and in my search! If not for your support, your introductions, your warmth and good words when I was feeling discouraged, I think it would have taken me a lot longer to get to this point.

Now, to cross fingers for the next bit...