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Monday, December 29, 2008

Schoolhouse Rock: Pronouns

Last week I got the DVD compilation of Schoolhouse Rock from Netflix. This dates me, but I remember really well watching TV as a kid and hoping and hoping that one of those songs would come on, all the while never quite being able to track when they would appear. So having the DVD at home has exposed me to some songs I was familiar with, and also some that I've never heard before. Blast from the past for me, and my kids love it. Niall is constantly coming out with snippets of songs and information now. It's great fun.

My favorite song of the moment is the pronoun song. For those who may remember, it's entitled "Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla" and the most memorable line in it for me is "'cause saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down."

Needless to say, that got me thinking. In fantasy and science fiction there are a lot of tough names and concepts, and sometimes when I read I feel people are overusing nouns when I would prefer a pronoun. The trick of course is to have the pronoun link back properly to the noun so the reader can track it. ("It"=a pronoun linked back to "the pronoun" :) ) My son is working on tracking pronouns in his reading right now.

I would encourage people to look through their prose and track their hierarchy of reference. This just means how you refer to something when you introduce it the first time, refer back to it the second time, then the third time, etc. The most flexible element in this hierarchy is the straight pronoun, i.e. he/him/her/it etc. but there are also phrases using demonstrative pronouns like "this man" and "that alien" and of course there are definite noun phrases like "the alien" etc. Generally the complexity of the phrase undergoes a successive decline across the number of references, except when there is a possible confusion and you need to reestablish the reference in contrast to that.

This isn't the only thing that pronouns make me think of.

Since I have a language design workshop coming up in February, I'm going to start doing a few language design topics to get people thinking, and pronouns are wonderful things to play with. The English pronoun system says a lot about our concepts of individuality, gender, and relative position, for example. Compare our use of the word "I" with the Japanese pronouns for "I": we've got one pronoun and we use it all the time, while Japanese has more than six different ways of saying "I" but much of the time people don't use any of them at all. They just drop the subject of the verb completely and leave the listener to infer the information. The pronouns themselves vary depending on whether the speaker is a male or a female and how formal the situation is - demonstrating the importance of gender and formality in Japanese society.

So what do you do with pronouns if you've got a language of your own? Well, think about the social structure of the place and try to determine what identity parameters are important. Do your people think of themselves as individuals? Do they divide themselves primarily by gender, by some other criterion, or both? Do they consider the formality of the situation to be relevant in how they refer to themselves or others? Or are there other factors involved? For example, would they refer to themselves in one way in the presence of a member of an oppressor race, but in another when alone with their own kind?

The tiny little pronoun can do an enormous job in showing (not telling!) how the social structure of your world works.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Designing a Story

So Chicago has been great.  And busy.  And I'm still here, but I'll be flying back home on the 28th.  Being so busy having fun that I can't think straight does put a damper on my blogging, unfortunately.

Okay, so I've been designing a new story.  Making a sale tends to inspire me in that way.  I thought I'd share some thoughts.

When I do a linguistic/cultural story I tend to start with five questions (or so)

1.  What is the linguistic problem?
This is the toughest one.  What is the exact phenomenon that our linguist hero (whether it be his POV or not) is trying to pin down?  What is the punch line?  Without this, no story can work.

2.  Who are the aliens?
Here I'm talking about what kind of animal to base the aliens on.  Yes, you can design an alien from scratch, but it puts a huge processing demand on the reader.  If the nature of the alien is part of the central point of the story, then by all means go to the trouble of designing their physiology from the ground up.  A great example of aliens of this type is the story "Doctor Alien" by Rajnar Vajra, which appeared in the January/February issue of Analog.  I loved that story.  But because for me the way the aliens speak is the main issue, I don't want to send a lot of my reader's attention toward understanding the physical and physiological nature of the aliens.  Sometimes I like to select an animal that fits well with the language phenomenon I'm looking at, like wolves for status language.  Other times there isn't a really good parallel between an animal and a language phenomenon, so I can pick something else.  But after I pick an alien, I try to look at their diet and behavioral patterns so I can use that information to expand my understanding of how the aliens might live.

3.  What is the alien technology level?
This is one of those details that has to be pinned down, of course.  I like to try to make their technology real in an atypical way, by considering how the aliens make light, and what kind of objects they would keep in a home, etc.  This one has two sub-steps:  first designing the objects, and second, figuring out what they mean to the aliens.

4.  What is the plot?
Those who know me will laugh at this one, because honestly, the plot comes as number 3 or 4 in the list for me, every time.  Once I've got a sequence of events to work with, I continue tuning it throughout writing and rewriting.

5.  What is the language?
This is not the same as the language problem - it's the structure of the language, mostly the phonology and morphology.  That means the sounds and the way the sounds are put together.  I also have to know aspects of the language that relate to the language problem listed above, but this is where I have to figure out how the alien physiology meshes with the sounds they make, what words they might use in the context of the story, how the names and titles work, etc.

These are of course only the entry points.  But the nature of these stories is so complex that I can't just sit down and start something; I have to figure out this kind of stuff first.  I know I'm getting close to sitting down when I start hearing names and alien phrases in my head, and seeing a scene where two entities are talking to one another.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not far from the tree...

I went to my Ph.D. advisor's Christmas party last night. They're always potluck, and they're always fun, and they're always full of people who love to talk about what they're studying/researching/working on. Last night there were a lot of people working on language learning and technology. Lots of discussion of foreign countries and languages and cultural differences.

The great thing is, I still fit in with this group. My advisor and the folks there loved hearing about writing science fiction. Thing is, I'm still doing a lot of what I was doing then: working with foreign culture and subtleties of misunderstanding in communication; looking closely at language and analyzing it for how the message is delivered and all that. I told several people that I really have gotten where I am with my writing because I took Claire's (my advisor's) discourse analysis class. Yes, Claire said, but you also have the creativity and imagination.

I see her point, but the fact of the matter is, she really contributed something crucial to where I am today. I gave her a copy of Analog magazine containing my story, "Let the Word Take Me."

For the title and illustration page of that story, Dr. Stan Schmidt wrote an exceedingly astute summation, namely:

Language is more than just words. Sometimes much more.

Whether in academia or science fiction writing, fundamentally, that's what it's always been about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Exciting News!

I'm over the moon this morning, and I thought I'd share.

I just sold my second story to Analog Magazine!!!

Cold Words is a story that features the point of view of an alien dealing with Humans. I built the world and the language from the ground up, so it would probably interest my visitors, and my workshop participants as well. I don't yet know when it will appear, but I'll certainly make an announcement here when I know more.

I've also been giving some thought to when I might run my Language Design workshop, for those of you who are interested. What with the holidays and my writing schedule, I think the beginning of February might be a good time for it. I'll keep you posted, and in the meantime, I'll be posting more musings and Ridiculously Close Looks as you've come to expect.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Workshop: A Question for Participants

A comment that Catreona submitted today led me to ask this question:

Are you all interested in receiving direct critique on your revised work from

1. me?
2. other participants?

Please comment here and let me know. I had anticipated that other general worldbuilding topics might come up, and those are cool. I also always find for myself that a range of critique is very helpful. However, I didn't originally envision the workshop as a group critique session. So please do let me know your preference, and that will help me organize our wrap-up discussion.

Thanks! More soon...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Workshop: Revised Submissions

K had the great idea that I should put up a new post where people could put their revised drafts. So here it is - please put all the revised drafts under comments here so I can find them most easily.

More soon...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Workshop: Discussion of Revision Questions

Because the comments area on my earlier post got so crowded (yay!), and because I don't want questions or comments to get mixed in with my long question+manuscript posts, I'm starting another post here. Participants, if you have questions or discussion, please attach them as comments onto this post.

More soon...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Workshop: Detailed Questions

Before you go into the comments area and look at your questions, I'd like to say the following things about them. These are intended to spark thoughts for you about how to tune your excerpts - NOT as explicit instructions for changes.

You might want to look back at my blog posting titled "Critique and the Writer's Compass" for further discussion of what I mean, but I'll say it again.

These are not commands or explicit instructions. They are opportunities.

Follow your instincts for balance and tone. For example, if I have made similar comments in two different areas of the manuscript, and you feel that the issue is sufficiently addressed in one place and doesn't need to show up in the second, trust yourself.

Also, if you have questions about my questions, or don't know what I mean in any spot, please ask me. This is not a test and it is not a puzzle for you to solve. What I've tried to do as I read through these manuscripts is to point out places where things could be changed subtly to expand the sense of world, sometimes through clarification but many times just by the addition of an implication or two.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Workshop Next Steps

Thanks to all of you who have taken on the world questions and posted answers. I've read all your responses with great enjoyment and I'm going to take the weekend to put together some more specific questions for each of you. Just to give you a hint of what they will be, I'm going to try to formulate questions that will help you integrate the world knowledge of your point of view character into the 500-word excerpts that you've given me.

I'll make this clear again when I give you the questions, but I don't intend the individualized questions to be answered like the eleven you've been dealing with in the last couple of days, but instead I'd like you to use them as guides for fine-tuning your original submission pieces. Once all the revised versions are in, we'll discuss any questions or issues for going forward and that will be the end of the workshop.

My thought is to give you questions on Sunday or Monday and ask you to revise for Thursday the 18th. That would give us Friday for final discussion. I can't really go beyond that because I'm going to Chicago for Christmas.

If that time schedule sounds prohibitively tight for anyone, please let me know and I'll try to get you your questions earlier (I know K has a new baby in her schedule, for example).

Questions are welcome, as always. More soon...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An interesting link about plotting

I just thought you might be interested in this - a very good discussion of plot from J.A. Konrath's blog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My ulterior motive (Mwa-ha-ha-hahhh)

I see I've got some comments already telling me about the larger story context for these excerpts. Thanks so much for your speed, guys.

My plan is to use this material for a devious purpose. :-)

With well-developed worlds like the ones I'm seeing, very often writers develop their own world-related notes and research at home. For a novel-length piece, it might even get its own file on the computer. A world developer will probably have worked to answer some of the following questions:

1. What is the nature of the environment? Planet? Nation? Underwater world?
2. What is the climate? What are the physical dangers?
3. What is the geography where the story takes place?
4. How do people live? In cities? In an air bubble on an inimical world? What do their homes look like/feel like?
5. What is the political layout of the area where the story takes place?
6. What do people wear? How does this reflect the climate and their social status?
7. How do people move goods around? Is it easy to obtain supplies in this environment?
8. What do people eat?
9. What kinds of objects or substances have value? Is there an economy? What kind?
10. Are there regional differences?
11. Are there religious differences?

Obviously there are many more questions that can be answered, and some questions are more relevant to a story than others. On the other hand, while you wouldn't expect regional differences between the different areas of Mars in Bill's piece, you might discover that the characters come from different regions of Earth, and that could conceivably have bearing on the plot. Which is just to say, think about all the possible ways that these world details can influence the story before ruling any of them out completely.

In this workshop, I didn't want to work with world descriptions so much as world demonstrations. So now that we've considered knowledge sets in each piece, I want to zero in on something else.

Consider how your world saturates your point of view character.

Let's take the questions above and put them differently, from the protagonist's point of view.

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

Changing these questions from general world questions into personal protagonist questions can deeply change the way you write about your world. This is why I have asked you to tell me about the point of view character and the main conflict. Once I have all the descriptions in hand I'm going to go off and think, but I'd like you guys to start thinking too, because I'm planning to give each of you a set of questions geared to your particular piece, and in the end I'm going to ask you to make changes to your text.

Here's the central issue:

Think about who your main character is, and what that person's goals are in this scene that you've given me. What does he or she want? Then think about how that person's goals relate to the world that you've created and the personalized questions above. Why does he or she want it? What value does it have, and why? What is standing in the way of him or her getting it?

The goals of the protagonist, and the worldview that lies behind him or her, including any specialized knowledge or experience in his or her untold backstory, will influence the protagonist's judgment of everything.

So to summarize what happens next: once I have a sense of the main character and the main conflict from everyone, I'll post a set of questions for each of you that relates specifically to your own piece, and we'll see where we can go from there.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Knowledge Sets - advantages and disadvantages

Thank you to the participants who have responded about posting their work. I'm putting the pieces up in the comment section of the Workshop Participants area, for those who would like to see them.

I want to talk a little about using knowledge sets, by which I mean using words in your manuscript to access interrelated pieces of knowledge in a reader's mind. Knowledge sets are powerful tools for setting expectations, and because of that, they can be a really big advantage - or a really big disadvantage - to the writer who uses them.

In this workshop group the person with the most easily and completely accessed knowledge set is Bill Moonroe, with his mars explorer piece. The minute we hear the "giant leap for mankind," we're set. We can imagine the moon lander, the astronauts and their gear - let's face it, the entirety of human history up to this point. This lets us feel grounded immediately with a sense of "I know where I am," and it also frees us up to stop paying attention to certain things.

Our reader antennae, which have been reaching out for clues, start to focus in and look for what is new about this situation. Bill then has the job of making sure that what is new is fully in focus. The space suits, for example - he says the woman's suit accentuates her figure. This makes a reader pause momentarily and revise the worldview established by the existing set. He also talks about the Second Space Age. This changes the game considerably, but there's not much sense of what it means in the current piece. Yes, we'll learn more as we read more, but I think even in a short beginning bit like this one there are great opportunities to demonstrate what it means. More on that later.

Along with the responsibility to make clear what is new, there is another thing to watch out for with a very complete knowledge set, and that is, not everyone who reads the piece may be in possession of every part of the set. This is an issue that has to do with how broad the appeal of the story will be. Because I am not well versed in space history, the name Squyreston doesn't ring any bells for me (also, could "pulling a Ford" be related to this?). Without the expert background knowledge of Bill and Ryan, a reader might become confused.

On the other end of the set spectrum we've got David Marshall's underwater piece. There isn't much of a comfortable set to be had here - and in fact, that discomfort is probably intentional. I personally love to create an alien point of view that really makes people rethink what they know. But it has the disadvantage that it may create confusion. It may be a testament to my lack of sleep, but it took me several readings to figure out what the "Lesser Void" and "Greater Void" were, and what the protagonist was actually doing.

Yes, this is great stuff: creating a mind that labels things we find familiar in an unfamiliar way. But the job of the author then becomes that of dropping hints of orientation that will allow us to comprehend the analog being used. I'm thinking that in this case the addition of directions, up and down in particular, would be informative. A sense of the size of the "veil" might also help to orient a reader. When most of the terms are unfamiliar, people will jump more slowly to accept a very complete set. It is important to include as much of the familiar as you can to evoke the set you want.

Even a very few words can be enough to evoke a set. Kerry Thompson expressed some surprise that I would pick a Victorian English knowledge set for her sailing piece. For me it wasn't the sailing that evoked that set for me, but the names of the two men, and the way that they spoke to one another. By the time I got to "my dear fellow," the set was in place, and this was one reason why I guessed fantasy for her piece rather than science fiction.

If you ever end up with a set that is doing something you don't want it to (as in this example, evoking fantasy and not sf), you've got two options: either ground the set, i.e. talk about the planet Nova Britannia and how it was settled by Englishmen; or break the set intentionally. Breaking the set involves choosing and integrating some distinct differences that will stand out and change the reader's expectations, much as with Bill and his slimline space suits.

I'll give a little example from my own work. My Varin world has a complex caste system which is not at all feudal, but which can appear to be so at first glance. So though Varin is a high-technology world, I've had many test readers say the technology took them by surprise. So what I have to do is every time I start a Varin piece, I have to make sure to place the setting and technology in plain view as early as possible. I break, or defeat, the set. If I don't, the set will continue to work against me.

In Ryan's piece, I find myself suspecting a set - the Andean set - because of the people's names and the scenery description - but I don't feel certain. This is in part due to the use of the fantasy bird, pharu. It puts me on my guard for differences, and makes me want just a little bit more information to justify or defeat my suspicions. As the story goes on we may get more information to sway us one way or another, but we'll still be looking out for pieces of the Andean set, and for differences.

In K's piece we've got layered sets. The technology she mentions will cause us to anticipate other types of related technologies - all good. We've got enough unfamiliar information that we don't assume this is earth, and the relation between it and earth can remain a mystery. It's not critical to know the relation precisely at this point. Yes, K has chosen to use words like car and ComBud, which use familiar concepts, but this works to our advantage in visualizing them. There's no point in labeling them in an unfamiliar way simply because they are not earth-related; we can consider them translated for our purposes. Because the technology is not critically in question here, it's fine to leave those things under the radar. More intriguing is the question of the words "linked" and "psychic." Those words evoke some very strong associations, both in our world, and in the history of fantasy and science fiction writing. If this world has a unique combination of mental abilities, and if it impacts on the plot (which it already does here, in the form of the distinction between regular people and Corpa, and in people's behavior and morals), then this is probably a context where defeating the typical sets is recommended. Giving details and specifics about the way the linked affect works, for example; even possibly staying away from the most commonly used words to describe mental powers.

My final note for today has to do with knowing too much. The more time you spend in your world, the more it will tend to resolve into sets for you - which is to say, that words and phrases local to your world will evoke other aspects of that world for you. The trick is, it won't necessarily do the same thing for a reader who doesn't share your extensive knowledge base. I have this problem all the time. This is partly why it's so important to me to have "naive" readers who are unfamiliar with the world I'm using. They have a unique perspective on the issue of world entry, and whether I've made it reasonably easy, or unreasonably difficult.

In the earliest parts of a piece, the knowledge sets you rest on are either real-world sets, or sets that come from a reader's previous experience in the genre. What I've been talking about here is how to tune those so they start to become the sets you need for your own world. Pay special attention to the sets that will be directly applicable to the main conflict of your story, beause a reader's understanding of the whole story may rest on how the relevant set is established.

Participants, by Friday can you please give me a brief description of the main conflict of your story, what your protagonist's role will be in it and where this scene stands relative to it. Please also tell me the approximate length of the story, i.e. short, novella, or novel.

Thank you so much! Questions and comments are always encouraged. More soon...

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sets Engaged, Questions in Focus

I've got five very interesting pieces in front of me, and since I'm waiting to hear back from the writers about sharing their work, I'm going to start by talking about initial impressions and the expectations that are set up for me in each piece.

From K Richardson we have a high-technology world with shielded vehicles and telephones (ComBuds), microphones and surveillance. It's not earth, though, because it everyone is expected to be psychic and have "linked affect." My sense is that the two are not linked in this universe at all (tell me if I'm wrong!), and that familiar technologies on this world are not related in any way to their analogues on our own world. I'm seeing politics, with the Presidi; I'm seeing higher power, with the Collective. I'm seeing something like police, with the Corpa. As yet these terms are used unquestioningly, as terms known to the protagonist, Lison. This is consistent with an insider point of view, but I would expect to learn more going onward. I'm curious, though, as to what the structure of dwellings is - this will tell me some things about how people organize themselves and what expectations of privacy are. In a world of psychics, this seems highly relevant.

From Ryan Anderson we have a lower-technology world, where goods are carried up mountains on llama-back, and people travel on foot or on large birds called pharu. The presence of the pharu points me toward identifying this as a fantasy world (tell me if I'm wrong!). The protagonist, Curo, appears to be heading into a political plot with the Choque, who may be invaders or may simply have annexed Curo's native territory. We have terrace agriculture carried out by peasants, and the Emperor's tower, so a good view of the social structure in the infrastructure. Another view out to the Flatlands is less clear in its significance. I'm curious as to what Curo's social position is precisely, and what exactly his goals are relative to the Emperor. The names and places suggest an Andes-analogue location. As yet I see no indication of belief in a greater power. I'm curious about about what the people are wearing, which might show climate and also hint their social status.

From Bill Moonroe we have an earth future, as indicated clearly in the first paragraph with a reference to Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind." This has some advantages, as the technology set is generally well-known. Elements of this technology can be anticipated, and they're also expected to have advanced - so we see images on the face-plates of the space suits that can fade in and out, and suits that are light enough to accentuate a woman's figure. These particular people are landing oan Mars. There is much reference to light gravity and to red dust. The characters refer to the Second Space Age, and to someone called Squyreston, who perhaps has been there before and less successfully. The protagonist, Perry, tries to protect his female colleague from falling but doesn't want to offend her dignity. I'm curious as to what happened in the First Space Age and how that might resonate in the goals of this crew; also as to how much time has passed, and how that might have affected gender relationships like those demonstrated by Perry.

From Kerry Thompson we have a world with islands and travel by ship, clearly indicated by the word "astern" in the first sentence. I conclude that it is a fantasy world based on the combination of unfamiliar place names like "Falibar" and "Splangliborn" co-occurring with very English-sounding personal names like "Morrow," "Shepherd," and "Miss Emma." I'm assuming this juxtaposition is intentional (tell me if I'm wrong!). This appears to be an English, possibly Victorian, cultural set which brings an array of expectations with it for behavior, belief systems, etc. although divorced from the typical geographical considerations. I'm curious where the story starts, because it was hard for me to tease apart the shipboard location and the grain-merchant's office location (a switch indicated only by tense change with "had" instead of plain past tense). I'm also curious about Shepherd's background. He could always have worked as a sailor and that may have influenced his worldview; or it could be that everyone in this world sails from an early age and so he has an entirely different source of income and a much easier life story. There's little indication here of politics on a larger scale, though some is hinted in the tension between the sailor and the grain merchant.

Finally from David Marshall we have a non-human protagonist with a head and shoulders but "anemone gills" and "hearts," who lives in a watery place where a veil lies between her home in the Great Reef and a place called the "Lesser Void." This one comes with an submarine climate set, implying certain types of ocean inhabitants - these include "bloodrays," "kraken," and "sandlurkers." I'm curious about the general physiology of the arcati race, particularly in the tail end. Coughing implies lungs, and I'm not sure whether she has both lungs and gills or not. There's a belief system here, in the form of a tentacled Eater of all Life who eats the Sun every night. I'm curious whether this entity is merely legendary or at least partly real; this could be an issue in the story. I'm also curious about the nature of the veil and the precise relationship between the livable water world, the veil, the Lesser Void, and the sun. I'm also curious about why our protagonist would be interested in peeking into the unlivable water on the other side of the veil.

I'm enjoying all of these, and we've got some great stuff to work with and explore. Again, please ping me to tell me "okay" or "not okay" on posting the content of your piece (I'd probably do it in the comments area). These are my first impressions; feel free to comment or ask me any questions you have about what I've said here. Seeing these has got me thinking about knowledge sets: above we've already got some climate sets, technology sets, and cultural sets.

More soon...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Workshop Participants

Thank you to everyone who submitted story excerpts. I will be working with the following people this time:

1. David Marshall
2. Bill Moonroe
3. Kerry Thompson
4. Ryan Anderson
5. K Richardson

I hope all of you are okay with me posting parts of your work on the blog. If you're not, please let me know right away.

More soon...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Critique, and the Writer's Compass

I'm thinking about critique today.

No single thing has been more critical for my progress as a writer. Showing my work to other people and asking what they think helps me to step back from the words and look at them from the outside. I can work and work and make a story the best I think it can be, but then when I show it to others I find my eyes opened to entirely new parameters of consideration. This is why I always, always have my work critiqued before I submit it anywhere.

Taking critique is an acquired skill. It's not just a matter of listening to someone tell you what they think you should do with a story, and then doing it. If that were all, then you'd never have a finished product, because everyone who reads it has different tastes, different preferences, and brings something different to their reading of the story. You'd just get pushed around. This is why it's important to have what I call the Writer's Compass.

The Writer's Compass is basically an instinct that holds onto your own idea for what you want the story to do. You want character A to come across as sympathetic. Or you want the city to be impressive. Or you want the scenery to be bewilderingly complex. When you set down a first draft, you make your first shot at achieving an effect, and you (hopefully) achieve it at least partially.

Then people start to critique. Remember that a great deal of the meaning of a story does not come from the story itself, but from the mind and experience of the reader. A reader will say, "I'm confused." Or they'll say, "I pictured him with black hair." Maybe they'll say, "The dialog sounded stilted to me." Or "I don't like him/this whole story."

This is part of where writers develop their thick skins. The other part is of course from the editors who say the same kind of things, along with the words "alas" or "I'm sorry."

But let's not think about editors yet - or at least, consider them as another voice in the process of critique. Say you wanted a particular effect, and you didn't achieve it for one of your readers. The next step is not to do what they think you should do. The next step is to try to figure out why they said what they said. Dig in and analyze the critique along with the manuscript. They may have pictured a character with black hair simply because you didn't specify his hair color early enough. Or because they found dark elements in his character. They may have felt the dialog was stilted because of the dialect that you used when writing it. Or because there was something unnatural about the situation in which the dialog occurred, which made the words themselves come out oh-so-slightly funny.

What I'm trying to say is that the effect you want to achieve should never be forgotten, and a critiquer isn't always going to suggest exactly the way to get there. So evaluate your manuscript with an eye for the difference between what you wanted, and what the reader wanted, and try not to say, "They just didn't get it." Try to ask yourself, "Why didn't they get it?"

It's a hard question to ask, but if you can find the answer, sometimes it can raise the story to a new level.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Some thoughts on Meter

I'm talking about poetic meter. You know, what we learned when we learned Shakespeare, mostly iambic pentameter, but also spondaic tetrameter or trochaic hexameter or any of those other bizarrely named things.

Here's a brief review of a few terms, with examples.

foot: a set of grouped syllables that form the most basic unit of a metrical pattern.
iamb: a foot with one weak syllable followed by one strong syllable. x X "She comes."= 1 iamb
trochee: a foot with one strong syllable followed by one weak syllable. X x "Hit her." = 1 trochee
spondee: a foot with two stressed syllables. X X "Bob Smith" = 1 spondee
anapest: a foot with two weak syllables followed by one strong one. x x X "He has gone to the edge of the road."= 3 anapests
dactyl: a foot with one strong syllable followed by two weak ones. X x x "Gone are the days of the foresters."= 3 dactyls

Meter is not just for poetry and Shakespearean plays.

Whether in poetry or prose, meter is all about flow - the feel of the language as it streams by. I read a discussion on the Absolute Write forum recently which concerned the difference between "on" and "upon" and which should be used in a particular context. My own sense came far more from an instinctive desire to align the meter of the sentence in question than from a general preference for "upon" versus "on."

It is often said that the natural meter of English is iambic. This is because we generally like our sentences to have an alternating pattern of strong and weak syllables. I have a character I'm working on who speaks entirely in iambic pentameter, and while he does sound archaic at times, my goal is not to have any of his lines come across as ta-TUM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM. Fortunately, there is some flexibility in the metrical rules which allows for the occasional foot with reversed stress, and the occasional extra syllable.

Here's a random couplet of iambic pentameter (totally unrelated to my novel!) which doesn't sound much like poetry to me:

"In utero, the baby undergoes a lengthy process of uneven growth."

By altering this natural rhythm, you can achieve effects that act a lot like onomatopoeia. In action and situations of stress you can use strong syllables to break flow intentionally: a few trochees and spondees can go a long way. This is one of the things that can help you create the effect of a regional accent, for example, without requiring extensive alterations of spelling.

When I'm looking for a voice for an alien, I make sure to consider the meter of his or her speech, even if I don't use that meter strictly in the alien viewpoint. The gecko-girl Allayo (Let the Word Take Me) spoke in an unmeasured meter that I based on the intonation of sacred readings, because that fit well with the fact that she considered her language to be sacred. When I thought about designing a wolf alien, I tried to use anapests to influence the dialogue so that the speech would come across in a loping rhythm.

All right, that's enough for now. I'll let you go have fun with it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

If Aliens were like Cats

Right off the top of my head I can think of two examples of aliens based on cats: Larry Niven's Kzin, whom I've read about in Paul Chafe's novel, Destiny's Forge, and Anne McCaffrey's Hrruban from Decision at Doona.

There's something about cats, isn't there? Having two new kittens at my house, I can testify to this.

Okay, so what about making them into a group of aliens?

My thought is this: don't stop with physiology and its immediate consequences.

With the feline physiology you get great hunting capabilities and a carnivorous diet. But in case you were thinking that these aliens would only eat raw meat, think about the little kitties eating kibbles in your house. If they have an advanced society, they would also have a sophisticated sense of cuisine, at least among the wealthy. Maybe raw meat would be a delicacy - or maybe it would be associated with poverty, because these people couldn't afford fire to cook. Either way, it should have a localized cultural meaning.

So then, what about social structure? A lot of times people will come up with structures that are elaborate and cool but somewhat arbitrary relative to the species in question. That's fine, as long as you can make your felines fit into it without going against their native ways (and you can always alter the felines!). However, if you want to match more closely, you could always work with a very social group of felines, like lions. They've got prides with dominant males and hunting females; that would be fun to work with.

I'm going to challenge myself a little by working with housecats - or at least, a group of cats that is very territorial, typically not hanging with other cats unless they are siblings or mates. This can still translate into a societal structure for a civilization.

Imagine a society of semi-nomadic feline hunters that guarded its core territory, yet possessed a superstructure of civilization and government based largely on the interactions of mates and siblings. An individual would have a compound where he/she lived with a mate and their juvenile children, but siblings would be welcome and would probably live in territories nearby. Those territories would be linked to the first by blood ties to create small interlocked communities. Intergroup marriages would take on great importance, especially between larger linked groups - like the marital interactions of the European royals. At the same time, siblings would have very close relationships and would add to the possible links. It might be that the only way to get "into" a rival group would be to marry off one of your daughters or sons, because then that other group would not be able to deny access to that person's siblings, and thus information might travel.

I can see thorny political plots growing already. And therein lies the story.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Welcome to the Worldbuilding Workshop!

Here it is, as promised...

Let me first extend congratulations to all the NaNoWriMo participants. Whether you hit your 50K or not, it looks like every one of you I've seen has taken some significant strides in their writing. It's a cool endeavor, and one I could never manage myself. I'll try to go easy on you.

I've decided to start with worldbuilding, and then once the worldbuilding part is done, to continue on into language design. At that point, anyone interested in language design can join, or if you would like to continue in the context of a world you've been working on in this workshop, you may feel free to do so.

Here's what we'll do. I'm going to ask any of you who are interested in participating in the worldbuilding workshop to submit a 500-word scenelet to me in my Comments area by December 7th. This scenelet should have the following characteristics:

1. It forms the beginning of a story or novel. (This does not mean it has to be the beginning in your final draft, but I want you to assume that the reader has no prior information.)
2. It has a protagonist and a main conflict, i.e. it is not simply a description of the world you're working with.
3. It demonstrates the characteristics of the world and situates the reader.

I will be reviewing the comments before they are posted publicly, so your work will not automatically appear to public eyes. I'm hoping we can get some examples out in the main sections of the blog as I pick topics to discuss, but I don't want anyone to worry about premature exposure of their text!

I will then post blog discussions and expect all participants to comment and push their worldbuilding forward. Because I will be "digging in" and being very involved in the work that is submitted, I will need to keep the number of participants to five. Given that I had four people express interest, that should be possible... I'm hoping not to have to turn anyone away, but I must keep my sanity. I hope that if anyone misses out they'll get a chance to do this with me on another occasion.

Please feel free to comment with any questions you have, or contact me at the address in my left navigation bar. I'll look forward to seeing your ideas by December 7th!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Syncretic Traditions (Happy Thanksgiving!)

Once there were some Native Americans, and they had this harvest festival. Then they made some new friends who had something to celebrate - and voilà!

The world is full of syncretic traditions. These are traditions that once belonged to separate groups that then become shared or combined. What fascinates me is the various ways in which the combinations result in the original traditions being reinterpreted and taking on different meanings.

Remember Zeus, and how he beat Kronus and then decided to share power with his brothers and sisters? Remember how many wives he had, and how jealous Hera was (even though she wasn't his first wife)? Once I heard it explained that Zeus' wives explained how the Greek pantheon took on the religions surrounding it. Female deities of conquered peoples became "wives" of Zeus, thus giving them a place in the mythology as a whole. Interesting enough that I'm tempted to go research it...

Have you ever heard that the population of Japan is about 75% Buddhist and 75% Shinto (not precise figures)? Well, Buddhism is highly syncretic, and so lots of Shinto gods have been integrated into its system; at the same time, many Japanese believe in both religions at once. The two are not mutually exclusive. Coming from the Judeo-Christian background as I do, I found this surprising and fascinating when I first learned of it.

Christianity has done some conquering in its time, and some reinterpreting. I think immediately of Halloween and the dark flavor that Christianity laid over it - but also of the timing of Christmas, which so closely matches the time of the winter solstice.

When you're doing your worldbuilding, consider the religious history of your world. If there are two or more conflicting traditions, don't make it too simple - consider how they interpret one another and where they just might overlap. Also consider that a religion that denies the validity of all others is not the only option, even in our world. You might just find a way to deepen yours in a fascinating and unexpected way.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Character revisions

Character is a big topic for me.

When I write a story, it's all about the character (the area where I need help is usually plot). I tend to be obsessive about editing in chronological order because I want the story to reflect subtle changes in the character's judgment based on the progression of his or her experience.

I'm currently in the middle of a complete novel revision as a result of this operating principle, and I thought I could elaborate on the idea a little so you can see what I mean. I'll be trying to avoid spoilers, yet be clear.

The character: Dana. Some of you who have explored the site may recognize her name. She's a recent high school graduate heading into a grand adventure as she goes to college for the first time.

The revision: Dana was originally written as an only child, but now I'm giving her an older sister who went off to college the year before, failed, and is depressed and living at home.

The changes: These come in three types.

1. Factual changes. I'm reading through to make sure I don't ever forget that she now has a sister. This one requires attention so I make sure I don't miss any of the instances where a sister-reference might occur.

2. Character Judgment changes. This one is actually requires more attention than the first. The sister is not just a body; she brings with her an entire backstory and set of experiences. The trick is to get these in without actually writing out the backstory. I look for things like this:

Dana makes a comment about how hard it is to sleep in the same room with her new roommate; now she thinks of it in terms of "I haven't shared a room with Caitlyn since I was six."

Dana gets disturbed by the sound of crying in the dormitory hall; now she thinks of it in terms of the awful feeling she gets walking past Caitlyn's door at home.

Dana decides not to tell her parents that she wants to change her name; now she approaches Caitlyn first and her sister calls her stupid before she can even get the whole announcement out, so she never tells anyone else.

Dana hates to hear her mother order Caitlyn around; later when she hears other people getting ordered around, she reacts with extreme revulsion toward the person giving the orders.

3. Changes that make themselves. The best thing about this revision is the stuff I don't even have to change. Writing a story to me is like making a bell: adding a bit of material here or there can change the resonance of the whole, even in areas where not a single word has changed. In the case of story revisions, slight changes in the beginning of the story can drastically alter the feeling of drive in the story, and the sense of emotional magnitude associated with later successes and failures on the part of the protagonist.

The last thing I would say here is not to make changes for no good reason. In my case, I was looking for an opportunity to enhance drive and character motivation, and the "sister change" turned out to be the best option. But before I dived into rewriting the whole darned thing (yikes, but it's a chore!), I made sure to think through in my head some of the major repercussions of the change. When I realized they all looked good, good, good, that was when I took the plunge. Now I'm more excited about the book than ever.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Accent changes in individuals

We had some friends over last night, and I observed something very interesting about my husband that made me think about our recent accent discussion here: his accent changes depending on context.

You may have noticed this about yourself, or others, already. Does your friend who grew up in New Jersey sound different when she talks on the phone to her relatives back home? Does your Southern buddy twang more when he gets around others from his region? This stuff happens all the time.

My husband, as I've previously noted, has a halfway-accent after his fifteen or so years here. Aussies think he sounds American, and Americans think he sounds Australian. When we go back to Australia, or when he talks to his mother, his accent starts to gravitate unconsciously back toward the Australian norm.

However, when he intentionally "puts on" an Aussie accent, it's not his natural one; it tends to come out exaggerated, and often he clicks at the end of what he says. The clicks have always surprised me - they're the kind in the side of the cheek that people make to get horses to move. Since I only noticed them recently, I'm not really sure whether they have some basis in a local Australian accent, or in someone's idea of the "ocker" Australian accent, or even in some comedy routine. If you're Australian and/or you have any clue about this, I'd be curious to hear it.

The other time that his accent gets stronger is when he's telling jokes - it's clearly not put on, but unconscious, and yet it's a significantly stronger accent than he gets when speaking to his relatives.

I think there's got to be some great application for this in a story, so I'm going to be looking for a place to use it. Maybe someone undercover who gives himself away by joking, or losing his accent in a critical situation... You can keep your eye out for it, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

In mourning

I'm going to need a day or two break because we lost our beloved kitty, Folly, today. I'll be back writing as soon as I can.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Last Thursday evening I took my husband to the emergency room at 2:30 in the morning because he was experiencing intense pain in his left arm. The interesting thing about pain is, although it's adaptively very important because it lets you know that something is wrong, it doesn't always let you know what is wrong, because internal pain is hard to pinpoint and describe. My husband strained a muscle; but for all I knew at the time, he could have been having a heart attack.

It's made me think about describing pain. I remember seeing a TV show once where the host was taking typical descriptions of pain - in particular, I remember "stabbing pain" being featured - and trying to debunk them. Or at least, that's what it seemed like he was trying to do. The show talked about the phrase "stabbing pain" and then went and talked to people who had actually been stabbed to ask if it hurt and what it felt like; then it pointed out that this didn't match the idea of "stabbing pain" at all.

I took issue with their conclusion. "Stabbing pain" doesn't have to mean "pain like that of a stabbing"; it describes the way that the pain is experienced, the way that it seems to move quickly and sharply through the body. Then of course we have "thudding," "throbbing," "pinching," "stinging," "aching," etc. etc. I honestly don't think they all have to follow the same type of derivation. Pinching probably is "pain like that of being pinched." Lots of different experiences of pain lead to lots of different types of description.

This of course makes me think of aliens and fantasy peoples. How would aliens experience pain, and where in their unusual bodies? How would fantasy peoples describe their pain? Even if they felt it the same way we do, their alternate histories and backgrounds could lead them to describe pain with completely different metaphors. A description of pain could show a reader a lot about how a group of people conceptualize the internal organs of the body, and where health comes from.

Short entry today because I've been stressing out, for obvious reasons. My man's feeling better, so that's good, but he's still got his arm in a sling. And I'm starting to feel pain in my head... I wonder how I could describe it...

Friday, November 14, 2008

More on Accents

First tonight I'd like to draw your attention to an exceedingly cool visitor I've had the last couple of days, Mike Flynn. If you haven't had a chance to look at his comments on Accents, I encourage you to do so; he has also commented on A Crazy Pattern in English and Cultural Diversity in the Future. His Accent comments include some terrific examples of dialects he has used in his own published work, so check them out. Also he has a new book out, The January Dancer, which you can find on Amazon if you'd like.

I thought I'd just add a little something to the accents discussion tonight, in particular about how people hear accents, not just how they utter them.

Early in life we begin to hear speech sounds and learn them. Studies show that children can recognize speech sounds very early, and like them, and pay more attention to them than to simple noises. By the time we are around six, our ability to learn totally new speech sounds usually shuts down, making it hard for us to sound nativelike in another language. During this critical period, what we're doing is processing the patterns of the speech sounds we here and creating phonemes.

Phonemes are not sounds. They are the ideas of sounds. "t", for example, is the idea of a sound, because depending on where it appears in a word, it can sound quite different, but English speakers still interpret it as "t."

I'll give you an example from my daughter. Until the age of three, she wasn't able to pronounce complex consonants at the beginning of syllables, like the "st" in "star." Her solution was to say the word without the "s" at the beginning. The problem was that the "t" in "star" is not aspirated, unlike the "t" in the word "tar." So when she said "star," to many people it sounded like "dar," because in English the voiced consonants are never aspirated.

The thing I find fascinating about this is that she had the "t" sound totally right, but because it lacked the context of the preceding "s," adults had problems interpreting it.

A chaos-theory view of language considers phonemes to be attractors. In the mind of a person who has well-established phonemes, like an adult, this is certainly the case. An adult mind will unconsciously regularize all sounds that closely resemble "t" and call them "t," even if they aren't quite. This is what's happening when the adult takes the unaspirated "t" and calls it "d." It's a really excellent skill to have, because it helps us interpret sounds that are degraded by surrounding noise, or over the phone, etc. But it makes it very hard for us to learn sounds that don't already form a part of our existing set.

Children who are still learning words as well as phonemes can interpret things in the most fascinating ways. Take my mom, for example, who as a child heard "Hail Mary full of grace" and thought it was "grapes" because the world "grace" didn't yet make sense to her.

My son loves Star Wars, and loves to recite things. He had a really interesting interpretation of General Grievous' speech, because of Grievous' unusual accent. He did regularize certain words into words he knew, because at five years old he knows a lot of words. For example, he turned "I have been trained in your Jedi arts" into "I have been dreamed in..." But on the other hand, he also has a very good ear for new sounds, and so he doesn't automatically regularize everything. He interpreted Grievous saying "the Outer Rim" as "The Outer Reem" - because that's exactly how Grievous said it.

I think this sort of thing gives writers great opportunities in dealing with people learning alien languages. I sometimes see hand-waving in stories about the misinterpretation of something that an alien or human said, but it would be great to see people actually dig into the nature of said misinterpretation. It also seems to me that this could be a great point of view tool, because it would enable people to show a contrast between the ways that different characters hear and interpret language.

Dig deeper. It will make your story fascinating.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


My husband suggested that I write about accents today, so here goes. I'll try to dig a little deeper in than when I was trying to deal with dialects as a whole.

Anyone who hasn't read or seen Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw should go out and do it if they're interested in accents. Henry Higgins in the first scene identifies the personal history of at least three total strangers just by listening to them talk. There are indeed some gifted people out there (and not just fictional ones like Henry Higgins) who can listen to the way you talk and thereby place not only where you're from, but where you grew up and how you were educated.

I'm not one of those people. I take pride in my ability to tell the difference between Australian, New Zealand, South African, and English accents and that's about it. Still, accents fascinate me.

Typically, accents will have what I'll call major and minor features. Major features are the ones that stick out and play a critical part in defining the accent, such as r-dropping and "a" sounding like "i" in Australian. Minor features are ones that form a part of the whole but usually go unnoticed, like subtle changes in vowel quality.

When a person like my husband moves to the US, having no particular desire to alter his accent but nonetheless possessing an ear for such things, the first thing that will change is the minor features. People with an ear for accent will change their speech unconsciously to match their surroundings. I am terrible with this, and in fact sometimes I'll even pick up my friends' speech quirks, like a dentalized "t," extra-rounded vowel or slightly lisped "s".

When a person moves to a new region and wants to assimilate to the accent, but has less of an ear for the subtleties of accent, you see the opposite - people who have deliberately changed the major features of their accent, but are nonetheless unable to change the more subtle aspects of their speech.

My husband has changed a few of his major features to reduce confusion, and has changed his minor features somewhat but not completely. The amusing (and sometimes irritating) result of this is that while Americans comment on his accent, his mother teases him for sounding "so American." Poor guy.

Of course, dialect is more than just accent, which is why it's so funny when Eliza Doolittle announces in her perfect accent "they done her in." Those of you who want to find my other dialect post can now search for it in the search bar!

When listening to foreign accents in your own language, it is generally easier to decipher what is meant when you have a sense of the person's native language. My husband, who never started learning Spanish until he came here (no reason to!) still struggles sometimes to feel fully in control of his comprehension of Spanish-flavored English. I found that once I started learning Japanese it became far, far easier to understand people with Japanese accents.

An accent is a system. It is not random. Not only does a person's native language make a systematic change in the pronunciation of a foreign one, but native accents are systematic as well. Take the English vowel system, for example. What we in America call "short i," as in "hit" is called a lax vowel, while "long e," as in "heat" is called a tense vowel, and then you have the diphthongs like "long i" that change their value over their length (a--->i = "i"). If you compare that to Australian vowels, it's actually pretty fascinating. In Australian English, all our lax vowels are pronounced as tense, and all our tense vowels as diphthongs, and all our diphthongs as more extreme diphthongs. It's like someone took the whole vowel system and shoved it towards the tense end of the spectrum. The relation between the vowels is pretty much the same, even though every individual sound value is different.

When dealing with accents in your fiction, don't forget that they give you a great opportunity to animate attitudes in your characters. Once you have a reason why the accent (dialect) diverges - isolation of a population geographically or socially, greater or lesser contact with speakers of another language etc. - then you can give your characters a judgment of it. Do they associate it with poverty? Arrogance? Ignorance? And don't forget this last question: Why? If you can give us a sense of where your characters' attitudes come from, then they will seem much more grounded and you can push them further than you would otherwise.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Poll and Workshop Update

Thank you to everyone who responded to my poll. It looks like worldbuilding and language design have the same number of fans, and if all of you are involved, then a workshop would work quite well. Goodness knows I don't need to overwhelm myself with participants!

I'm going to begin the workshop in the beginning of December, date to be announced, to give the NaNoWriMo participants a chance to breathe a little (just a little!). My current idea is to run the worldbuilding workshop first, and then to do language design afterward: this seems a natural progression given the number of world factors that become relevant to issues of language design.

Anyway, I think I'll begin with an initial set of questions, so I'll be posting those first as December begins, and then picking up a little later once you've had a chance to formulate some answers.

As this is my first workshop, any suggestions are welcome! I'm looking forward to it.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cultural Diversity in the Future

I've always loved Star Trek for the way it bucked trends on race, and even species, for the way it could have an entire episode about whether Data could be considered his own being with rights or not. It has a certain sense of undying optimism as it portrays human beings in an era beyond racial discrimination, after poverty has been eliminated from our civilization.

It makes me wonder.

My husband, who always looks at America with a certain degree of humorous distance (being a self-professed Aussie descendant of convicts), has been talking a bit about a post-racial generation, ever since the election of Obama. I think in a sense that America may be moving toward this, or at least, that in a couple more generations race may not mean the same thing it always has.

But what will it mean? And furthermore, what will it mean in the far, far future?

I've seen lots of science fiction where alien invasion or at least the appearance of aliens on the scene brings squabbling humans together against a common enemy. But on the other hand, the persistence of human divisions, such as those in the middle east and even in Ireland, continues to amaze me. The other thing I noticed when I was in college was the way that certain racial groups which received public recognition proceeded to splinter further into subgroups. The particular example I'm thinking of from my past was the Asian student union, which began to break up into multiple groups by nation.

I admire the authors, C.J. Cherryh and C.S. Friedman being only two of them, who have portrayed a cultural difference between planet-dwellers and non-planet-dwellers in their science fiction. I encourage all of you writers out there to consider what kinds of distinctions between people would have staying power in a future universe.

Where are the barriers? What kind of people might be hidden from public sight, even by purely logistical factors such as jobs servicing the innards of a ship, or long hauls between stars, such that others might be inclined to fabricate perceptions of them?

Ask yourself also: where are the points of pride? Who feels indispensable, and why? Who feels superior, and why? And how do those people mark themselves, whether it be physically, linguistically, behaviorally, or all three?

History shows us that when people stop separating themselves in one way, they will often separate themselves in another, often based on new categories that take on new meaning for those who experience them. The richness of diversity will never be lost, but only shift. It's worth seeking out those places so that your universe will thrive with depth and difference like our own.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Story Structure

Whenever I take one of my "ridiculously close looks," I dig into the word-by-word construction of sentences, because reader sensations like point of view and mood are built up in the reader's mind from the tiniest little pieces. This is something I studied before I started writing seriously, so I had it as a kind of resource, but it took me a while to figure out how to use it for my own purposes.

In fact, it was the larger-scale structure of stories that was more difficult to grasp. I think this is probably because of how hard it is to back off of words and sentences and grasp their larger-scale function. Backing off and editing larger structure can be painful, too, because it can mean that sentences we love are completely eliminated.

I had a small epiphany the other day, after teaching my third grade writing workshop. I had written out a series of "story parts," essentially, functions for sentences in a story, and I was trying to have the kids see what part each of their sentences played in the story.

The stories looked something like this (I made this one up myself):

I got hurt one day. I was eight years old. It all started when I was riding my bike in the street in front of my house. I didn't see a big rock and I ran over it. I crashed on the ground. I hurt my knee and cried. My brother called my mom and she gave me a band aid. Then I felt all better. I was glad they were there to help me.

The list of functions (with the sentences from my story in brackets) looked something like this:

Title: the name of the story

Opening (Topic Sentence): tells what your story will be about
[I got hurt one day.]

Setting: talks about the time and place of the story and creates a picture for people to see
[I was eight years old. It all started when I was riding my bike in the street in front of my house.]

Lead-in to the main event: sets up the causes of the main event [I didn't see a big rock and I ran over it.]

Main event: what the story is all about (connects to topic sentence)
[I crashed on the ground.]

Consequences of the main event: what happened after or because of the main event
[I hurt my knee and cried. My brother called my mom and she gave me a band aid.]

How you felt about the main event: your feelings about the event.
[Then I felt all better. I was glad they were there to help me.]

The epiphany I came to was this: on some level, this is still what story structure is like. I've explained to these kids that it doesn't really matter how many sentences they give to each function so long as all are present and feel balanced - and in fact, it doesn't matter how the functions are executed either. Maybe your opening is actually one topic sentence - or maybe it's a whole scene, executed in the height of the show-don't-tell style. But it still has to tell the reader what the coming story will be about.

The variability of the model is actually quite high, allowing for great differences in execution. And in some sense I think the model may be almost fractal for longer works, with small sequences of the same kinds of functions within each larger piece. But when you're writing and editing a story, it's still a good idea to ask yourself: what function does this piece play within the context of the larger story? What other pieces of the story have similar function, and should these occur together? Is the amount of material given to each function well-balanced?

Outlining is one technique that gets close to these functional questions, because it forces me to take the long view on a story and look at how it plays out overall. But on its own, outlining doesn't address the function questions, and I find it tends to guide me more to consider the chronology of the plot (of course, this is not a bad thing to consider!). Maybe the next time I outline a story I should make parenthetical notes to myself about what each piece is doing for the story, rather than just what happens in it.

Hm, I think I will.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Crazy Pattern in English

Yes, I am a linguistics geek.

I was driving to pick up my daughter today and thinking about the old meaning of the word "stupid," which was "stunned by grief or other strong emotion." Then it struck me that this word was probably related to the word "stupor." So I tried to think of some other examples of words with this -id/-or pattern, and within a minute or so I'd come up with valid/valor - except I wasn't sure if my extrapolation was (pardon me for this one) valid.

So after dinner tonight I pulled out my etymological dictionary (everybody should have one! :-) ) and I checked it out.

This pattern is bigger than I suspected.

The -id suffix makes adjectives out of old Latin verbs, while the -or (-our, for Brits) suffix makes nouns. Not every -id word has a corresponding -or word, nor does every -or word have an -id word, but check this out:

stupid / stupor
vapid / vapor
valid / valor
candid / candor
fervid / fervor
rigid / rigor
splendid / splendor
rancid / rancor
torpid / torpor

Valid/valor, the one I'd been wondering about, comes from the Latin vale, "to be strong or well."

I thought of another one, too: languid / languor

For interest's sake, I'll give you the ones that don't have correspondents:

-id: torrid, acid, fluid, morbid, gravid
-or: ardor, clamor, color, dolor, favor, honor, labor, odor, savor

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dune: A Ridiculously Close Look

Here I am to look at Dune, as promised. But I've decided not to do the very opening of the book, where Frank Herbert starts with a piece of an (ostensibly) historical document. What I want to concentrate on here is the omniscient narrator and the phenomenon of "head-hopping." Head-hopping, of course, is what people call it when it irritates them, but it's essentially the tendency of an author to switch points of view continually through the narrative.

This is a contrast to my earlier entry on The Sparrow, because in that case I was looking at a segment that used a disembodied external narrator who knew everything about the story. On the other hand, the deeper you go into The Sparrow, the more you get this head-hopping thing, where the omniscient narrator dips into one character's viewpoint or thoughts after another.

The most common criticism I've heard of head-hopping is that you can never tell whose head you're in. So I thought I'd start churning through a piece of Dune and taking a look at where and how the POV switches happen.

"The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam sat in a tapestried chair watching mother and son approach."

Here we have a sentence with three characters, but only one of them gets a name - the one who is currently the subject of the verb. This puts us in the Reverend Mother's viewpoint by keeping "mother and son" demoted to identities that are non-unique, defined relative to one another. Here's the next piece:

"Windows on either side of her overlooked the curving southern bend of the river and the green farmlands of the Atreides family holding, but the Reverend Mother ignored the view. She was feeling her age this morning, more than a little petulant."

I think the "windows" sentence is interesting because it describes a view that Reverend Mother is ignoring. Okay, so it could be the omniscient narrator pointing out the view to us, but it still makes the description relative to Reverend Mother's position, and gives her opinion on it. "She was feeling her age" definitely gives us privileged information that only she could know. So we're still with her point of view. Next piece:

"She blamed it on space travel and association with that abominable spacing Guild and its secretive ways. But here was a mission that required personal attention from a Bene Gesserit-with-the-Sight. Even the Padishah Emperor's Truthsayer couldn't evade that responsibility when the duty call came."

Blame is another POV-internal piece of information, and I love how Herbert takes us into a description of "that abominable spacing Guild and its secretive ways." The adjective "abominable" keeps us solidly in the Reverend Mother's point of view for the remainder of that sentence by showing us her judgment of the Guild as she describes it. Then when Herbert describes the mission, he says "here" was a mission. This again links the mission with the Reverend Mother, implying both that it's her mission, and that we're witnessing her thoughts about it. The "Padishah Emperor" sentence is the least aligned with the Reverend Mother, but it still uses the verb "came," implying that the call to the mission came toward her. So after a complete paragraph that uses the Reverend Mother's viewpoint and judgments, it's easy to accept the following:

"Damn that Jessica! the Reverend mother thought. If only she'd borne us a girl as she was ordered to do!"

Now, here's where it starts to shift:

"Jessica stopped three paces from the chair, dropped a small curtsy, a gentle flick of left hand along the line of her skirt. Paul gave the short bow his dancing master had taught - the one used 'when in doubt of another's station.'"

Here, suddenly Jessica and Paul both have names. Jessica's actions are of a type easily observable by outsiders, but though Paul's special bow may be something the Reverend Mother knows about, it seems less likely to me that she would know his dancing master had taught it to him. So in these two sentences, Paul is coming into sharper focus.

"The nuances of Paul's greeting were not lost on the Reverend Mother. She said: 'He's a cautious one, Jessica.'"

Okay, so here the Reverend Mother is noticing Paul's caution. Because we've had the Reverend Mother earlier, I think here we're probably inclined to think we're in the Reverend Mother's head, but consider this: what the Reverend Mother says can be considered externally observable evidence of what Herbert gives us in the sentence about nuances. Which is to say that we haven't landed solidly back in the Reverend Mother at this point. The next piece takes us still further away from her:

"Jessica's hand went to Paul's shoulder, tightened there. For a heartbeat, fear pulsed through her palm. Then she had herself under control. "Thus he has been taught, Your Reverence."

Though Jessica's action of tightening her hand is observable by everyone present, the fear pulsing through her palm is observable only by Paul, not by the Reverend Mother. The measurement of time, "a heartbeat," is very personal - it could be just a generically counted heartbeat, but it could also be Paul's heartbeat, given this context. Thus Herbert prepares us for the following:

"What does she fear? Paul wondered."

I find this interesting because Herbert doesn't just give us Paul's thoughts whenever he feels like it, but he subtly transitions us to his internal perceptions and judgments before he does it - making this point of view shift less of a "hop" and more of a glide.

It certainly worked for me.

A New Poll, and more about Following

I could also title this post, "I know you're out there."

Let me start by saying I appreciate every one of you. I'm so glad you like to come and listen to me muse on random topics. I'm also glad I have a stat counter, because if I went only by posted comments, I might not know there were so many of you...

So I've decided to do a couple of things today. First is to create a poll, which you can find in my left menu bar, in which I propose to do a workshop here. The poll will close in a week, so if you could check it out and let me know if you're interested in doing a mini-workshop/discussion with me on the topics of language design, worldbuilding, or point of view, that would be great. I would love to discuss people's ongoing creations as I did early on here with language design, and I assure you that I will be respectful of all proprietary story content.

Secondly, I'd like to encourage you to consider "following" my blog (look for the "Followers" area in the left menu bar). Followers make me happy, but not because I like to feel like I'm leading! I think this function is cool partly because it means my visitors can have their avatars show up on my site, and maybe my readers will click over to them - but also for purely sentimental reasons, because it helps me to feel more in touch with the people who visit.

I'll be back tomorrow with a ridiculously close look at Frank Herbert's Dune.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

History and Societal Homogeneity

I'm guessing the election is at the top of everyone's mind today, but I'm afraid I couldn't come up with a topic that was election-related yet not political. So I'm going in another direction...

I'm thinking about the history of worlds. The reason it's valuable to consider a world's history is essentially that it's impossible to create a world without history. Every artifact or object you place in the world is a product of and a clue to its history. Every bit of architecture or infrastructure. It's there, begging to be considered and deepened.

I think as a basic example about the architecture I've seen in California versus Boston, or in the US versus in Europe. The longer the people have been in the area, the more you'll find remnants of the past, buildings that were put up and never taken down. Monuments and ruins don't appear out of thin air. Look at Greece or the Middle East, where cities have been built, rebuilt, rebuilt again layer upon layer over thousands of years. If your world has a long history, that will show in its present.

If the past doesn't show in the present, that is, if the society is extremely homogeneous, then that's usually a different kind of clue as to its history. Look at the city of Tokyo, which was essentially completely destroyed by the Kanto Earthquake, and then by the firebombings of World War II. A lack of visible history will point to great destruction such as this, or it will point to a vigorous standard of reform and modernism - possibly something born of a culture where renewal is highly valued, or where a past history is being suppressed. It can also result from new arrival, i.e. the fact that people haven't been on a planet very long. One example of this would be Wave Without a Shore by C.J. Cherryh.

However, even when the past doesn't show in obvious ways, it can still show. A new colony on a planet will have artifacts from its arrival that suggest the deeper history of the colonizers. Peripheral cultural groups, or oppressed ones, or geographically isolated groups, can preserve elements of a history that are lost to the population at large. I think here of Ursula LeGuin's The Telling, in which the human Sutty goes about discovering a suppressed and overwritten culture.

There's something of a trope in SF/F about the old nursery rhyme, or the long-lost book of science or prophecy, that has greater meaning than anyone suspects. While I'm not suggesting that every world has to have something like this, that goes from seeming unimportance to deciding the fate of the world, it's still good to consider how the past of a society is carried forward in its details, both physical and cultural.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Third Grade Writing

My babysitter teaches third grade, and for the last month, every week I've been going to help the kids learn to write stories. They all ended up writing a story called "Ouch!" about a time when they got hurt. Let me tell you, it's really fun to see what these kids come up with. And interesting, to see how storytelling isn't that much different at this level from what I do.

This is not to say that I haven't learned all kinds of artifice, pretty words, sentences, and all that. But what I do notice is that the story itself has some of the same structural elements. There's still the opening. The setting. Setting up the conditions for the main event. The consequences of that event, etc.

I'm finding it's tricky for some of these kids to grasp the idea of functional categories in the story. I asked them today to take each sentence of their story and tell me which part of the story it belongs to.

It might be easy to say they're having trouble because of their age, but somehow, I don't think that's it. If they were older, I suspect they might have been too far indoctrinated into thinking about writing in expository terms, or in terms of pretty grammatical sentences and single words they use to string those sentences together. It can be amazingly difficult even for adults - including me - to see past the pretty sentences and into the function, to consider what the sentences DO.

I'm hoping the students and I can talk about it a little bit more during next week's visit. If we can get it working, then they just might get a little better view on their writing from here on out.

At least, that's my hope.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Costumes

Maybe this entry should be titled, "where my time has been going for the last month..."

I've always loved Halloween, and even celebrated it when I lived in Japan with the other Americans I could find. My mother always sewed costumes for me and my brother, so now I do it for our family. Isn't it marvelous how a costume can change how you feel? Not too many cultural musings today, as I'm seriously sleep-deprived from all the sewing. But I thought I'd share photos. The little kitty is my daughter (age 3, with her gymnastics teacher) and the Batman is my son (with others from his kindergarten class). The clowns are me and my husband. I have heard rumors that the clown costumes may be all too appropriate for us...

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My grocery store in Tokyo

Our grocery store was called Kitamura, and to get to it we could either ride bicycles or walk (we had no car, and it would have been highly impractical to have one). It was down a steep hill from our apartment building, on the main road of the neighborhood which was lined with cherry trees.

There were two halves of Kitamura: the food half, and the dry goods half. These stood across the street from one another, and both were very small - but enormous compared to the buildings around them.

The dry goods half included basically everything from toilet paper to pots and pans, clothing, hardware, etc. It also contained a bookstore section, which was where I got my Japanese cookbook. I walked in there shortly after we arrived and said (in Japanese) "I'm looking for a cookbook of Japanese food with lots of pictures." When you don't know the basics of ingredients or of cooking terminology, the pictures are very important. I ended up walking home with a little book from the "new housewife series" called "Yummy! Simple!" (oishii! kantan!) It would have been embarrassing except that it was so exceedingly helpful.

I bought this cookbook for two reasons. First, because I like Japanese food, and second because I wanted to save money.

Food is very expensive in Japan. When I was living there you could buy a box of strawberries - all precisely the same size and shape - for about $7. You could buy a monster apple about five inches in diameter for about $5. The shocker for me was that rice cost so much more there than in the US. I would buy five kilos of rice for about $25. If I'd wanted to try to cook American, the prices would have been much higher than for cooking Japanese food.

So I explored. The store had a whole case dedicated to fish and seafood, which might not seem amazing except that it took up so much shelf space relative to the total size of the store. If you wanted to buy a whole chicken (not one previously carved into cuts), you'd have to special order it, but you could easily buy a whole squid, and take it home while it stared at you out of its styrofoam dish.

By the way, the carts at this store were made to fit the size of the aisles: they were metal carts with spots to put baskets. Since the baskets were about the size of the American over-the-arm shopping baskets, the cart effectively doubled your hauling capacity. Given that you then would have to carry everything you'd bought up a very steep hill on foot (or bicycle), it made sense. You just had to go to the store more often.

You would go through the checkout lines, which were in general very quiet. Nobody in line ever started a conversation with me, and neither did the checkout staff. I, being American in my heart, I guess, started conversations with them, and they didn't seem to mind. Then you'd take your baskets to a counter and bag them yourself, all plastic bags, for the purposes of getting them home.

I love my experiences overseas because they acquaint me with different values on parameters of life that I have never considered. So for all you worldbuilders out there, give some thought to how your people get their food, what markets look like and how much of their total budget they expect to spend on food and lodging. It'll deepen the world, and be fun at the same time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Culture - inside us or out?

Very often we imagine culture as something passed on from one generation to the next. It is easy enough to construe this as if culture resides in an individual and is passed on to that individual's children. However, while culture is expressed in and enacted by the individual, it also has a source outside the individual, namely the cultural group itself.

Some groups, like churches and schools - or even gangs - may have privileged individuals who are expected to take the lead in teaching the group's values to new members, while other members are expected simply to enact their roles appropriately. Some groups do not.

Sports culture is one that I've been considering lately. I can't tell you how much I've learned about sports since meeting my husband, who as an Aussie seems to have a limitless interest in sports and the statistics thereof. What I've found is that by picking up some of the culture's relevant terms, such as a sense of which scoring structure belongs to which sport, I can have more interesting random conversations with guys. Fortunately my husband encourages this. I think in a way it keeps that area of his life from being boring and unreachable to me. I guess you could say that the sportscasters function as the privileged individuals in this group, teaching terminology etc. Even the idiosyncratic expressions (boo-yah, anyone?) of particular individuals can get picked up by the group and become part of the local lexicon. This is also a group that encourages the use of puns that might make others scream. While it forms a part of male culture, it is not exclusively male; I'd say it forms an intersection with the male group.

The other one I'm thinking about is child culture. This is the one that blows my mind currently. I'm talking not about things that teachers teach to kids, but the things that children teach to each other. Little rhymes and songs can take on a life of their own, passed from child to child on the playground and thereby staying alive for years, hardly noticed by the adults all around. I find myself hearing my son say things I remember from my own childhood, but never taught him - and it occurs to me that so long as the playground talk stays alive, and the repetition continues there, why shouldn't a particular rhyme stick around for thirty years?

Subcultures like these have their own language patterns, so don't forget to consider what subcultures might exist in your worlds. While you're at it, consider that a culture can even deliberately change their language - witness the revival of Hebrew to a living language by the people of Israel. Language is a badge of membership in a culture, and also in subcultures.

So to answer the question I started with, culture is inside us, and it's outside us. We enact it, we mark ourselves by enacting it, and in enacting it, we take part in its processes of change. Those guys in business aren't wrong when they talk about the "culture of an organization." Neither are we wrong when we talk about "my culture."

Come to think of it, we all have multiple cultures within us - and if those cultures come into conflict, as when we must deal simultaneously with representatives from two different subcultures in our lives, that's when things get interesting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Absolute and Relative Direction

Did any of you out there have difficulty learning the difference between right and left? Have you ever gotten confused over "my left" and "your left"? What about north, south, east and west?

Both of these are senses of direction. Right and left are relative, and orient relative to the position of the speaker unless otherwise specified. North, south, etc. are absolute directions, and orient independently of the movement of the speaker. No surprise to anyone, because in English we have both of these types of orientation words.

Interestingly, though, at least one Australian aboriginal language doesn't use the relative positioning words - only the absolute ones. So that they would never say "my right foot"; they would say something like "my northward foot" or "my southward foot" etc. I think you can see that it's awfully critical to maintain an absolute sense of direction if you're going to be speaking of about parts of your own body differently depending on which direction you're facing.

I would love to see a group of aliens with only absolute direction words - or, to take the concept further, only a set of absolute words to refer to something we generally use relative expressions for, like pronouns. Imagine how confused an alien from this society would be to hear every human referring to him or herself with "I." They would probably construe it incorrectly as a proper name.

While I'm on this topic, I'd like to mention the Japanese words "kochira" "sochira" and "achira," which can be roughly translated as "this direction" "that direction" and "that direction over there." Like English "this" and "that," "left" and "right," "I" and "you" they are relative terms, which take their meaning from the identity and position of the speaker. You can probably guess from the translations, though, that they aren't defined quite the same way.

The ko- prefix indicates a direction or an object associated with the speaker (or more precisely, in the speaker's in-group). The so- prefix indicates something associated with the person that the speaker is talking to - the other guy in the conversation. The a- prefix indicates something that is associated neither with the speaker nor the other guy in the conversation, but is outside both of their circles.

I mention the Australian and Japanese examples because I think it's fascinating to consider other methods of organizing reality. Also, though, I want to bring attention to our own way of organizing reality: organizing it around ourselves. If you look around, the English language is full of expressions that are relative (I, he, this, that, here, there, today, yesterday, just to name a few).

Never forget that relative expressions are your allies in the construction of point of view. If you are trying to create a close point of view, try looking around for opportunities to use relative expressions instead of absolute ones. You may find more than you expect.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Come, Follow

I just learned about this new "followers" function on blogspot, thanks to my friend Ann Wilkes. So for those of you who visit here a lot, you can sign up to follow if you like, and your name will appear here on the page. Now I'll have to go looking around and find my own favorite blogspot blogs to follow!

Makes me think of that song about the greenwood tree...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Considering Deafness

I've been thinking about deafness a good deal recently because I have a deaf character in a story I'm working on. Deafness fascinates me because it is, in one sense, a medical problem - caused by nerve defect, for example, or accident, or abuse of the ears over a long period of time - but in another sense it is a badge of membership in a language community.

The difference between auditory languages and visual languages is sometimes called a "channel" difference. Channel effectively means which sensory pathway is chosen for the language conduit, and in past entries I've discussed this a little; I know I've mentioned chemical scent languages a couple of times.

In a sense, by being born without hearing or becoming deaf, a person loses one channel. They then have two choices: attempt to "cure" the deafness medically, or use another language channel. In school I saw a fascinating video about cochlear implants, which can cause some deaf people to begin to hear. In that video was one woman who lost hearing as an adult, and she definitely felt rescued by the implant which restored her hearing. Then there were the children, and therein lay the conflict.

A pair of hearing parents with a deaf child had no hesitation about "restoring" the child's hearing.
A pair of deaf parents with a deaf child did not want to take away the deafness which was part of what defined her, didn't want in a sense to evict her from the cultural community to which they belonged.

Part of what entered into their decision was having someone assess the speech of other children who had had cochlear implants, and tell them whether they "sounded deaf" or not. They made their decision to forego the implant because they felt that giving her hearing would oust her from true membership in the deaf community, and they weren't convinced that it would give her true membership in the hearing community.

This last one is an issue of brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to learn new language information. A rule of thumb on child language states effectively that the brain loses the ability to acquire nativelike phonological ability (i.e. pronunciation) at about age 6; grammar not until about age 13. Thus the later a child receives a cochlear implant, the more difficulty that child will have in processing the sound and turning that into natural-sounding auditory language.

Personally I thought it a shame that the child in question should miss out on hearing all the wonderful sounds of the world - but on the other hand, I understood the parents' cultural point of view.

I want to talk also about sign language a little, but I'm going to have to save that for another post.