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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.