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Monday, March 30, 2009

New Art!

Welcome to the new look of TalkToYoUniverse.

I'm very excited about these changes, because they make the blog feel like it's mine - yes, really, really mine. The logo you see repeated here is my own design, the "lily crest," executed in digital form by my good friend Alison Huff and inserted into the blog code by my beloved husband. Thank you both so, so much!

The lily crest comes from my Varin world, and is the Mark of honor that distinguishes members of the servant caste. For those of you who haven't read the sidebar page, the servant caste follows only the nobility and the officer caste in importance, and its members are highly educated, usually working as public servants, servants of the Courts, or personal assistants to the nobility.

Anyway, I hope you find it enjoyable to look at while you read. Eyeball-friendliness is very important to me! If you find my choice of new colors or fonts gives you readability problems, please do let me know.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I'm thinking about keyboards.

Many of you have probably heard about the design of the QWERTY keyboard. It was designed by trial and error by a man trying to minimize jamming of metal type arms on the machine he was using - essentially, to make typing slow, and to keep commonly used keys as far from one another as possible. One of many historical examples of necessity trumping our desire for a design of optimal efficiency.

The Dvorak keyboard, by contrast, was designed for ease of use - but it never really caught on, because the QWERTY was already so well-established. Somewhere out there is a land of alternative technologies we all missed out on by chance: the clocks that turn counter-clockwise, the betamax video recorders, the Dvorak keyboards... Mind you, there are those who use the Dvorak keyboard even now, but it's pretty clear who the winner was. I'm so accustomed to the QWERTY by now that I have a devil of a time with the alphabetically ordered key-sets that are often used on children's video games to type in the child's name.

I learned to type by taking a class when I was twelve. I remember at the time that my brother, who was just over a year younger, fudged his age to twelve also so he could enter the class (it was for ages 12 and up). Needless to say, he handled it just fine, and both of us can now touch-type. This is something for which I am constantly grateful (thanks, Mom!).

Now, my children are learning to use the computer. My daughter, who is not yet four, can point, click and drag the mouse, and she hunts and pecks the letters she knows (and touch-types the letters she doesn't know, in joyous profusion!). My son knows all the letters and is able to type his name, his logins and his passwords when necessary. My immediate thought?

I'd better not wait till they're twelve to teach them to type! By then it will already be far too late.

When I was living in Japan, I once had an opportunity to visit the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. One of the most fascinating things I saw there was the old keyboards they used to type the newspaper.

Oh. My. God.

First let me note that there was a big battle about restricting the number of characters that could be used in the newspaper. The final conclusion of this battle, after many years, was to fix the number of characters at just under two thousand.

Imagine this keyboard. It had to be eighteen inches square at least, with an array of big keys - each containing as many as nine characters - and a small numeric keypad in the bottom right-hand corner. For each character to be typed, the operator would have to pick the character by typing first the number of the desired character, and then hitting the key upon which that character appeared. This thing required an operator who had not only complete knowledge of the character set, but also loads of training and experience.

Nowadays, the Japanese use word processors. First, you type in the sounds you want, either by romanization or by fixed location of the syllabic character on the keyboard. Then you press the space bar, and the computer automatically brings up a list of all the possible characters that can be substituted for the sounds you've typed. All you have to do is pick the one you want, either by typing the number beside it or by scrolling down to it and hitting return. This is a real help, but at the same time it has made it so easy to pick the correct character, that often Japanese young people are able to recognize characters without actually being able to write them from memory.

I think it's really interesting how technological changes can affect behavior.

Now, imagine the technology of your fantasy or science fiction world. If you have a created language, the appearance of script is going to depend a lot on what kind of technology is used for writing. A keyboard has certain kinds of restrictions. It doesn't lend itself well to cursive - but on the other hand, if it is connected to a computer rather than to a piece of metal type, it can have more flexibility. I think it would be safe to guess that Arabic word processors are able to provide the correct form of the character - word-initial, word-medial, or word-final - simply by computer logic. The way that a keyboard works will influence the way that people conceptualize their alphabet and their literacy. Type generally implies the common availability of text, for example.

It's getting late, so I'll leave you all at this point to theorize about how to use this further. Let me just say this: type might be under the radar, or seem unimportant - but it might just provide a pungent detail to make your alien world and language seem more real.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't listen too hard...

One of the things I've learned from having kids is not to listen too hard to what they say.

It doesn't mean what you think.

Think about it this way: children's minds are designed to be able to take the mess of sound constantly coming at them, filter out the non-speech sounds from the speech sounds, and pull patterns out of that so that they can develop a system of phonemes, words, and sentences. Before they've had too much of a chance to develop this system, they're trying to duplicate it based directly on what they hear - without the underlying understanding to generate it.

The result is that children's first attempts at language are often difficult to recognize. Difficult to understand, yes, of course, but sometimes a child (a baby, usually) will be saying something and you won't even realize that the sound is a language sound. Maybe as a parent you can't wait for your child's first word. Maybe you're listening hard, waiting for the first signs of language to come out of their mouths.

But if you're listening hard, chances are pretty good you'll miss it. Because the first language out of the baby's mouth won't be a hard-and-fast word, made up of hard-and-fast syllables, or even phonemes. It will be an oral gesture towards the word, a gloss of what the child thinks he or she heard.

The best approach for catching this is the same as for grasping the content of impressionist art. Stand back and let it flow in.

Now I have to go off and see if I can create a story out of this idea...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What the heck are queries good for, anyway?

...never mind synopses!

This is a question I see all the time on the writers' forums I visit.* I'll even admit, I used to ask such questions myself. "Isn't it possible to be a great story writer and a bad query writer?" "How is that fair?"

It's true - queries require a totally different kind of skill from novels. When you dive into a novel, you're putting yourself in the story, seeing where it goes, pushing deeper and deeper. When you write a query, you're trying to find the four things that are the most important for catching an agent or editor's attention. These are four things I got from a query workshop with Donald Maass at the Surrey International Writers' Conference, and they are:

1. protagonist
2. conflict
3. setting
4. something unique

Once you have them, you've got basically two or three paragraphs to capture an entire 300 or so pages of wonder and detail.

Here's what I've learned, though, over the years I've spent writing, querying, and trying to get published. The query says some very important things about the story.

Funny enough, if you read a query, you can see really clearly how an author understands the overarching structure and content of their story. In my experience, I've found that the skill involved in creating a query is extremely similar to the skill involved in creating story macro-structure. Here's the way I'd summarize it:

If you know how to write an effective query, then you know what your story is about.

This may sound odd, since of course we all know what our stories are about. But if we are able to step back and capture the essential compelling conflict of the story in one paragraph, very likely this means that that component, the story's backbone, is strong and pulls people through the novel as well.

Similarly, synopses are hard, but if we can get people to enjoy them by putting elements of voice and motive and consequence in them, then we can show an agent or an editor that we recognize those elements of our own work and we know how to put proper emphasis on them.

Learning how to write queries and synopses hasn't been exactly fun, and it's been hard. But I feel like I've learned a lot about writing a better novel at the same time. In fact, some time ago I wrote a query for a book I haven't even written yet - just to test whether I'd correctly identified the right person to be main protagonist, the correct primary conflict, the proper setting, and something that would make this book unique. It's already helped me to envision how the story outline will look - which is a great help, since this book is going to be really complex - and at the same time it's helped me to feel more confident that the novel will one day be ready for submission.

So I encourage all of you to think through your queries, and your novels, at the same time. Consider the query a necessary part of the process of testing your story's readiness.

Then, go for it.

*Analog SF, Asimov's SF, Absolute Write, Backspace Writers

Monday, March 23, 2009

Endangered Languages

UNESCO has an amazing site with a list of some 3000 endangered languages of the world, here:


Not only do I think this is a very interesting possible source for language design ideas, it's also inherently fascinating to me.

What are the cultural conditions under which people stop speaking the native language of their parents? Obviously there are lots of options. Here are two examples:
* There are tons of Japanese-Americans out there who were born during WWII or shortly thereafter, who were never taught Japanese by their parents because their parents didn't want those children to be associated with the enemy.
* There are also children whose parents have been told it would hurt them academically if the parents spoke to them in anything other than English (this is wrong). Consider what that does to a child - it doesn't help them to comprehend English, since usually the English of the parents is rudimentary anyway. In effect, it renders them unable to communicate effectively with their parents, and disrupts all the normal kinds of guidance communication that children need growing up.

Some kids who have a start in one language and then are forced to switch entirely to another never feel like they have "native" proficiency in any language - they're lost in between. The UNESCO database classifies languages based on the way that they are used, whether they're used in the home but not outside, whether they're not used in the home except between older individuals, or whether they're known by an individual but not really used at all.

It's sad for me to think of languages dying - of the richness of cultural heritage and the unique forms of meaning that are no longer expressed when a language disappears. Whether you look at the database out of curiosity, or while looking for language design ideas, it's interesting to contemplate not just how many languages of the Earth are endangered, but how awfully many there are to begin with.

Fascinating stuff.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Upcoming Worldbuilding Workshop

Thanks to everyone who replied to my poll. It seems like there's plenty of interest out there for a worldbuilding workshop, so I'll do one.

I'll post this again, but here's what I'll be looking for in submissions:

1. A short piece, up to 500 words, which begins the main conflict of a story and demonstrates the world as it introduces readers to that world.

2. A 1-paragraph description of the main conflict of your story. If you have a query paragraph, that might work for this; if you don't, you might want to try writing one. Include: protagonist, setting, conflict, and something unique about the story

Submissions will be due on April 10th.

I'll check back about this when the date gets closer!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

When you have no Translator (or babel fish)

What do you do if you're confronted with an unfamiliar language, and you have no translator? No language talk-box, no babel fish, whatever your device happens to be.

Well, if you're dealing with seriously different parameters, like underwater communication, or nonhuman speech sounds, you've got a tough task on your hands. Sheila Finch (author of The Guild of Xenolinguists) has argued that it would be next to impossible for us to decipher alien communication in rel life - and I'm inclined to agree on a general level. But let's say we've accepted the science fictional conceit that communication can take place, and should - in that case I think it might be useful to think about what the process of language learning would be like.

There's always the solution of the orphaned alien who speaks his own language yet grows up with humans and learns theirs. That kind of solution is simple, and conveniently hides the yucky details in a place we trust at the same time we don't understand it: the language-learning "black box" of the human (or alien) brain.

But if you've got first exposure, the process is different - and full of opportunities for writers.

Generally a person learning an unknown language will start by trying to associate strings of sounds with their appropriate contexts. The classic example used in a lot of science fictional settings is the one where people point to objects and utter names for them.

Some of you may have seen that Star Trek scene with Counselor Troi where she's talking about the difficulty of determining what an alien says while pointing to a cup of coffee (or something that looks like it). The rough idea, since I don't have the scene itself at my fingertips, is that the word uttered may not be "coffee" or "cup." It might instead be "brown," or "hot," or "enjoy." Or possibly (my ideas) it could be "mine," or "gift for a visitor."

A word, phrase or other utterance comes with a social context, and can never be entirely free of social significance. It can be fun to brainstorm the different kinds of meanings an object might have, since for every possible meaning there's another possibility for misunderstanding. Other posts of mine that relate to this are But what does it mean?(point of view) and Considering the Culture in Objects.

A linguist attempting to parse a new language using technological tools - but not a translator - might begin by making recordings in as many sensory modalities as possible. This would allow them to take time not available to a person who is simply listening. The recordings would allow the linguist to consider observable aspects of the physical situation, and possibly some elements of the social as well (depending on the number of individuals speaking, their dress and behavior, etc.) Breaking speech into words is essentially a process of looking for repeated patterns of sounds and trying to find commonalities across the contexts in which they are used. This goes also for smaller elements of meaning (morphemes).

I thought I'd also add a few notes on language processing.

When we listen to foreign language sounds, the ones that are easiest to capture are the ones at the beginning and end of the utterance.

There is a tendency among many human languages for the subject of the sentence to come first; this isn't always true, but English speakers and speakers of many other languages that follow this pattern will tend to make guesses based on this assumption.

Also, though we don't do it consciously, our brains have an excellent ability to track the frequency of different language items - that is, to say which sounds or words are more common than others.

This barely scratches the surface in terms of the challenges of learning languages the hard way, and the tools people use to deal with them - but I hope you may at least find some interesting ideas here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Almost There (the agony!)

I'm almost there.

It took me six months to draft the novel I'm currently working on; it's taken me more than a year to revise it, and I now have officially 38 pages to go (though as I remarked in my discussion of writer's block, that can flex considerably due to story problems).

This is where it starts getting hard to wait - on a lot of different dimensions. I feel like the horse running for the stable, in part because I can feel myself in the midst of the end of my plot. The trick is, the climax and resolution of my book actually is about 80 pages long. Here's the hard part: I must not rush.

If I relax and start to rush, I'm more likely to accept the text I've already written. It's easy to say, "Yeah, this is working." Everybody is playing the role they need to play, and the story is progressing - after all, this was always the part of the story that worked best. When I relax and fall into this kind of authorial view, though, I miss opportunities.

There are two stances I use when I write: the authorial stance, and the character stance. This appears to be pretty common among writers. The authorial or editor stance tells me what I want to have happen, and how I want the book to work. The character stance takes me deeper into the story, giving me insight into visceral emotion. One brings order; the other brings chaos.

These two stances should always be in a state of tension.

If I hadn't been thinking from an authorial point of view, I wouldn't have realized that after implying that two guys might fight over my main character right in front of her, I have to follow through on that threat or risk disappointing readers.

If I hadn't been thinking from the character point of view, I wouldn't have understood how incredibly upsetting my main character finds the possibility of witnessing that fight.

If I rush, I'm less likely to be thorough in my double approach to each section of the story. I'm also less likely to understand all the possible consequences, both logistical and emotional, of the events that occur.

Last, but probably worst: if I rush, I'm likely to jump into submissions before I'm ready. I've done this before, and ended up with rejections from a number of agents I admire.

On the other hand, it's hard to say, whether I'd be where I am with this story if I hadn't received the helpful comments I received in those rejections.

If you ever receive a rejection with comments, take a few moments to cry, but then rejoice. The comments agents or editors give you are pure gold. Yes, they're short. Yes, they're generally vague - these people don't have the time to go through your text to back up their opinion with examples. But a comment of any kind shows that the person cared enough to tell you what they thought. It's worth sitting down and trying to figure out why they might have said what they did.

As I approach the end of my story now, I feel good. On edge, of course, because I never know how things are going to turn out in the query process. But good, because I know I've done my best to address the comments I've received, and as a result I can feel how much better the story has become. Forty more pages and it will be ready for critique. Maybe soon after that, ready for queries to go out.

But I must not rush. The end of the story is a time to drive harder, reach deeper, never falter in intensity even on the last page. Maybe then someone will answer my submission and tell me it was all worth it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A friend's blog

I'd like to point out that my friend, Dave Steffen, has just started doing reviews on his blog, here. He's put a great deal of thought into these essays, and has for example a really interesting point of view on the Wizard of Oz story. So check it out!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Striving for Perfection

I think as writers we all want to write the most amazing things possible - stories that just grab our readers and won't let go.

That takes rewriting.

Sure, I'd like to have my work be perfect the first time. I also know it's not going to be that way. I have particular difficulty with beginnings. For every novel I've written so far, the scene I started the novel with on the first draft isn't the one I was supposed to start the novel with.

Yes, I find this demoralizing. Now when I'm starting out I have to sit down and ask myself very seriously, "Where does the main conflict of the story start?" And I remind myself that a main conflict is not necessarily proprietary to one character, nor does it focus crucially on a character's history or on that character's world. But I still second-guess myself all the time, because I want to get it right. I keep hoping that my first drafts are going to be good.

If I were to let these worries shut me down, though, I'd be nowhere. There's no way to finish a story that you don't start! So I try to think back to writing my big school papers, where people used to say to me, "Write the introduction last. How will you know what you're going to say until you've already said it?" I get all my character, world, and language ducks in a row and dive in, figuring I'll end up returning to the start anyway - because there's no such thing as making it perfect on the first try.

Then, of course, the problem becomes how to know when it's finished. At a certain point you get to a place where you're just changing a word here or there, and you can't see anyplace to make it better. The problem is, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best it can be - it only means that your current view won't show you any way forward. This is the point at which I go looking for critique. Someone else will have a different angle on my story, that will show me where I can go next. As I've discussed here before in Critique and the Writer's Compass, it's important to keep one's own goals in mind at the same time.

One of the most interesting things I've heard about the sculptor Michelangelo was that he said this about sculpting:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

So the idea is that the sculpture is already there; he just has to sculpt away until he gets to it.

This isn't far off from the way I feel about revision. There is a difference - in my case, I can't see the end product from the start, and only have an idealized vision of what I'm trying to achieve. But this metaphor works for me - and in fact, this is the reason critiques don't bother me (they actually inspire me). I rejoice every time someone gives me a glimpse deeper into my own story, because often enough once I've sensed that deeper level, I can carve the entire story more deeply to match. For me, the perfect story is in there somewhere, and I have to find it. Every revision that pushes the story deeper is one step closer to my goal, and each opportunity for a critique that offers me a fresh view, from a unique angle, is a potential opportunity to see through the veil of stone and find the treasure inside.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Poll on Worldbuilding Workshop

I hope you all can take a look and vote in my poll. I initially posted it (for a few minutes) as a June workshop, but in fact I meant to make it April. So please take a look and let me know if you're interested in a possible worldbuilding workshop beginning around April 10th.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More on hypergraphia and writer's block

After my post called "Insanity and Creativity" was featured on the SF network site "Red Rocket Station," I had a few interesting comments there, most of which said something like the following:

Hypergraphia? Can I please have some?

Really, I don't think these people want hypergraphia. I mean, the Marquis de Sade apparently had hypergraphia, which is why when people took his quills away he found all kinds of awful ways to keep writing. Hypergraphia is an obsession with writing, where you'll write on anything, with anything, just for the feeling of the writing and the words coming out.

What I think these people really want is to avoid writer's block.

Janice has a great post on writer's block on her blog, here. Maybe she and I are just fortunate, but we never feel like we have writer's block - at least, not per se.

For me the question of not being able to write boils down to three major factors.

One: having no time to write
This is not writer's block. I get frustrated because often I'll have thoughts flying through my head but I won't have a moment to sit down alone at the computer and actually get them down. Sure, sometimes I use a little notebook. Mostly - and my friends will attest to this, Janice particularly - I corner someone and talk my ideas out. Talking ideas out helps me to solidify them, to test their relevance to what I'm writing and see how they fit into the story structure as a whole.

Two: being too exhausted to write
This happens, far more often than I'd like. I get so underwater with all the other demands of my life that the words just go to sleep. Often I'll think of sitting down to write, and then decide other priorities have to come first. And then something unexpected will happen. And then it will be the weekend. And then the kids will have the day off school on Monday or something. And pretty soon I'll find that I haven't written for days. It takes a while before I can wake up the system after that. So I edit. I read what I've written. I read what other people have written. I take a Ridiculously Close Look at something. All of these things help to wake up my drowsy Muse.

Three: being stuck on a story problem
Okay, so let's say I'm writing along, and suddenly I run out of things to say. The scene, which seemed to be going so well, just peters out. Or the novel starts losing momentum. That's when I know that something is wrong. It's not writer's block, because it's not something that's wrong with me. Something is wrong with the story. I call this a story problem. Generally speaking, a story problem turns out to be a question I haven't answered properly. Maybe I don't really understand the main character's state of mind in this scene (this is why I'm fanatical about writing in chronological order). Maybe I don't understand the motives of the peripheral actors in the scene. Or maybe I haven't really thought through how the logistics need to work. It's always something practical: some detail I've missed, or some angle I haven't considered. Usually the problem isn't even in the place where the writing started to get slow. Two days ago I got stuck writing a conversation between two people on page 224. After lots of thinking and several conversations on the topic with different people, I realized that in order to solve the problem, I had to go back to page 208 and think through every detail of my main character's state of mind, specifically, what models she was using to understand her situation and how and where these changed and developed. Once I could track that, I could go back and understand how she would interpret something in the tricky conversation. And voilà, today I'm starting on page 232.

Mind you, I believe in writer's block. I wouldn't say it doesn't exist. But I would encourage you to think through the reasons why the words aren't coming out right now. If it's no time to write, take notes and go back later. If it's exhaustion, take your time and do other things to wake your Muse up rather than banging your head on your notebook or computer. If it's a story problem, use whatever means you can - research, conversation, brainstorming exercises, structural revision, etc. - to address the issue, making sure not to blame the problem entirely on the area where it occurs, but to look earlier in the manuscript for possible sources of the problem.

Then maybe you won't need those hypergraphia pills that someone was asking me for.

For all of you curious about writing and publishing

My friend Janice Hardy, whom I have mentioned here before, just started a blog called "The Other Side of the Story" - so I thought I'd recommend it and give you the link:

She's got all kinds of insights on writing, querying, agents, and other various aspects of the process from writing your book to getting it published. She's also got some great links there to blogs about publishing.

So go check it out, and enjoy.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators can be fascinating and frustrating - both to read and to write.

Over the past few days, I started thinking through possible types of unreliable narrators, and I've come up with this list:

1. An insane 1st person narrator
2. A sane 1st person narrator
3. An insane 3rd person limited narrator
4. A sane 3rd person limited narrator

Insanity is not a requirement for an unreliable narrator - it's merely the most extreme case. Because it's extreme, it can be pretty easy to recognize when you're listening to the voice and internal thoughts of an insane person. For the writer, establishing the patterns of an insane voice will take some effort, but at the same time, the voice itself provides critical evidence of the narrator's unreliability. Thus, it isn't quite so critical to give the reader external evidence for the narrator's bad judgment.

A sane narrator can also be unreliable, for any number of reasons. All they have to do is be wrong about something. There are plenty of ways for this to happen - as many ways as there are for the character to cast judgment. Maybe the character misjudges a situation, or misjudges people in a systematic way.

One of my own characters, Imbati Xinta, is unreliable because he constantly denigrates and undervalues himself. The tricky part is that his unreliability is difficult to recognize, because he's reliable in his judgments of just about everything else. How, then, can you tell that he's an unreliable narrator in the first place? That's where you need evidence.

For the misjudgment of a situation, you can contradict a narrator's stated/internalized judgments about a place, or people, using details of the situation. Say a character enters a room and thinks it's not dangerous - the writer can place an object in the room that belongs to the antagonist, for example. The writer can have the unreliable narrator see this object, yet not recognize its significance. Then, provided that the reader can identify this object as indicating the possible presence of danger (or the antagonist him/herself), the contradiction works and the narrator is shown to be unreliable.

Anytime the reader can read a situation differently from the judgments expressed by the narrator, it will become clear that the narrator is unreliable.

In the case of a character who misjudges himself, like Xinta, it's tricky. I can plant counterevidence to his view of himself in a number of ways. I can have people be respectful and deferent to him, or compliment him on something he's done. I can show him getting things done properly even though he isn't satisfied with his own performance. Or I can always switch to another point of view so readers get a view of him that isn't colored by his own judgment. Mind you, this doesn't always mean the second POV character is correct in all judgments, either!

I love a situation where every point of view character interprets things a little differently, and nobody is precisely right.

One thing I would say is that as a writer, I don't ever want to lose the reader's trust. So giving the reader an impression that is later contradicted has to be done carefully. If it's a discovery made by the point of view character, the reader who is identifying with that character is likely to accept it. If it can be interpreted as authorial deception, however, the reader may abandon the story right there. This is why I would never try to have a third person omniscient narrator be unreliable - because that person is trusted to be omniscient!

Colin F said that "having a sane narrator talk about an insane character strikes me as being a rather sad story." This could be true, depending on who the narrator is, and whether he or she thinks it's sad. There are many permutations of this, however. There's the criminologist who's trying to get into the head of the insane criminal. There's the loved one who can't understand their beloved's condition. There's also the person who's been cured, looking back on his or her mentally ill years from a new position of sanity.

I think it should be clear at this point that unreliable narrators can take many different forms, and be unreliable in many different ways. It's fun to explore ways in which your narrator might be unreliable - because in my experience, I find that narrator unreliability adds a new level to the reader's experience. I love to feel like I'm sharing a secret with my readers, and giving them the opportunity to say "I know something he doesn't know!" That sense of confidentiality is something I love as a reader, too.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Insanity and Creativity

The word "insane" is one we tend to toss around easily without much thought most of the time (never mind the word "crazy"), but the details of mental illness and imbalance are at once horrible and fascinating.

I never really considered it as a resource for writing until I was initially trying to get to know the characters in my first Varin novel, and decided that in order for it to be as realistic as I wanted, the "evil king" character had to be inbred and mentally imbalanced. That sent me off into a whole bunch of encyclopedia research on mental illness until I found pathologies that matched his behavior (in this case, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia). For a time, my husband worked at a company that offered continuing education courses to medical professionals, and several of the seminar topics related to mental illness, so I gathered quite a bit there as well.

Then I read The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain, by Alice Flaherty.

Oh wow.

That book is a revelation, and I encourage all of you out there to pick it up. It's not a difficult read at all, and it's amazing. The author talks about her own experiences with hypergraphia - the uncontrollable urge to write - and about all kinds of famous writers and creative minds which also happened to be not quite balanced.

One of the most fascinating things that Flaherty discusses is the possibility of an evolutionary link between creativity and insanity. Insanity is not exactly what you'd call an adaptively successful trait - but if it's the unfortunate product of overconcentration of the genes that give us creativity, then you can easily see how the success of highly creative individuals in natural selection would mean that the possibility of insanity would never quite go away.

I compare it to the case of sickle-cell anemia. A person with two matching genes for sickle-cell anemia gets the disease and is very ill. But a person with only one of these genes has a higher resistance to malaria than a person who doesn't have the gene at all. So the adaptive success of the single-gene trait leads to the continued presence of the disease itself.

Since reading that book, I have in fact written a character who suffers from hypergraphia. Let's just say it was a serious inspiration.

At this point I'm going to have to close this post - but I think I'll come back to the topic because there are a couple of things I'd love to talk about that relate to it tangentially, specifically:
1. unreliable narrators
2. narrative voice

Hopefully I'll get to writing those in the next couple of days. If in the meantime you have anything you'd like to contribute to my preparation for such a discussion (questions, comments, etc.) please feeel free to comment.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

An awesome book to look out for...

It's official! My friend Janice Hardy's book, The Shifter, is coming out on October 6th. I'm totally excited about it, especially since I got to read her early drafts.

Here's a description of the book:

Nya is an orphan, struggling for survival in a city ravaged by war. She's also a Taker - someone who can heal injuries by drawing that pain into her own body. But unlike her sister Tali and other Takers, Nya can't push the pain into pynvium, an enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it from person to person - a dangerous skill she must conceal or risk being used as a human weapon.
One fateful morning, Nya's secret is exposed to a pain merchant eager to use her ability for his sinister purposes. At first she refuses, but when Tali mysteriously disappears, Nya must decide how far she's willing to go to save her sister.

I'm not just going to give you a list of adjectives for this book, but to tell you from my own perspective why I love it.

The main character, Nya, is not only spunky and clever but has a nuanced sense of morality that is totally world-grounded. She has a distinctive voice and her backstory vibrates through her actions.

The world of Geveg and its surrounding territories has its own special flavor - and the unique economy of healing and pain looms behind every aspect of the people's life, showing through the judgments, actions and decisions of even minor characters.

It's a fascinating world. You want to go there, and meet Nya. So look out for The Shifter by Janice Hardy this October.

By the way, I'm also planning to put up a Ridiculously Close Look at the book later this year when it comes out...