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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Classic science fiction and the Nebula Awards

I bought three books of classic science fiction today. This was inspired in part by the Nebulas.

When I was in Los Angeles last weekend, I was deeply impressed by the sense of community in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There was a beautiful song by Janis Ian that mentioned in its lyrics at least ten different titles of famous science fiction stories. There was the gratitude for science fiction as an early life-changing experience expressed (humorously) by Chuck Lorre, who gave the keynote speech. Most interesting in this regard was a speech given by Grandmaster title awardee Harry Harrison. He spent several minutes reminiscing about a trip to South America he took with a large number of science fiction writers - who was there, what they did, even how one of them nearly drowned in the surf. He mentioned many, many famous names. Some people there may have felt that the speech was too long, or that he was name-dropping, but I could have listened to him a lot longer. To me, what he was doing was creating a world for us - a world he wanted to show us so it wouldn't be lost, and one where we now were coming to belong. In a way, everyone there was contributing to the same vision: a vision of science fiction and fantasy not so much as a field, but as a community that maintained its continuity over generations. I found this very touching, especially since I felt I was being welcomed into the group as someone who could help carry this wonderful tradition forward.

I'm looking forward to the arrival of my books. I want to get a taste of what these early writers accomplished, and I think it will help me understand both the SFWA community and writing itself.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Workshop: The Inciting Event and Your World

Hey, everyone. I'm happy to be back home and also completely exhausted from such an exciting weekend. I'm sorry I haven't been able to keep my end of the workshop up so well since the end of last week; anyway, here we go.

I had been thinking a bit about inciting events. An inciting event is generally the event that propels you into the main conflict of your story. My friend Janice Hardy mentions it in a great blog post, here (she's got tons of great information on the process of writing and on getting published, so check it out). In her words, "The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion." She treats it separately from the opening scene, but I'm not sure the two are necessarily separate. It helps to hook your reader with the inciting event as early as possible. I have spent a lot of time in my writing career working on the question of where to start a story, and believe me, it's tricky - but it's worth thinking seriously about.

So what does this have to do with worldbuilding? Well, when you're thinking about how to open your story, you have to take into account both your need to hook the reader, and your need to introduce your world.

We all know the dreaded word, infodumping. We all know we want to avoid it. But how do we go about creating a scene where this information doesn't need to be explained? How do we make it so the information is simply evident in the action?

First, use your POV character. Make sure you know the character's background, culture and motivations to the fullest extent possible, so that you can use the character to help you convey information. This is what I call making your world personal. It's what I've talked about in comments with Jeanne, and what I hope to take further with each of you as this workshop moves forward.

Okay, so far so good. But as you would certainly be quick to point out to me, characters have blind spots and weaknesses; they have things they just don't care about. Use those things, too, as much as you can. After all, you can use a dismissive or contemptuous tone in your character's narration as well as you can other things.

Here's the harder one: what about things that the character considers normal? Things that are totally normal, entirely obvious to the character, are not things you want him or her to talk about. Talking about obvious things leads to completely cringe-worthy "As you know, Bob" dialog, and we don't want that.

So how can we possibly describe the basic parameters of our worlds, knowing that to our character, so much is entirely unremarkable?

The answer is, use conflict and contrast. I have an example of this done simply and elegantly in the real world, here.

And here's the beautiful convergence I've been leading up to: the inciting event, the beginning of the core conflict of the novel, very often is all about the precise type of conflict that can let you give out world information.

Just so I don't sound totally ungrounded, let me give you an example from my drafting of my forthcoming story, Cold Words. Consider the list of events below and ask yourself which one is the best to use for an opening scene:

1. A Human ambassador inadvertently insults the Majesty of the Aurrel, placing a spaceport negotiation in danger.
2. The native liaison asks the Humans to send away the failed ambassador and get a new one.
3. The Human ambassador comes to the native liaison to tell him that he's worried about the motives of the replacement ambassador.
4. The native liaison goes to the Majesty to report the impending arrival of the replacement ambassador and try to rescue the spaceport negotiation.

I wouldn't choose 1 or 2. Any event that occurs before a significant lull, like waiting for a replacement ambassador to arrive, is less optimal because it will require a time break and reduce forward momentum. Furthermore, even though the incident of insult is interesting, it would be hard for readers to understand without significant previous context - which, if this is the first scene, they can't possibly have.

When I wrote my first draft, I chose 4. The story is told in the native liaison's point of view, and thus the main motivating force in the story is his desire to complete the spaceport negotiation successfully (for his own secret reasons). Why not start where you see him pressing his suit with the Majesty, a place where he can show his intense desire for success and share it with the reader?

The answer to that question is this: if he's alone with Majesty, he's in a completely native context where everything is normal. And that means that every piece of normal world information will be really difficult to put in.

So in the end, I chose 3. There's conflict there, because the human ambassador brings a warning that may put the negotiation at even deeper risk. More importantly for this discussion, though, scene #3 puts our native liaison in direct contact with a human. There's conflict, and there's contrast. There are opportunities for the human ambassador to demonstrate his own cultural biases, and for the native liaison to remark on them, thus putting his own world forward for readers to explore. Better yet, the sense of contrast continues forward as he goes to see Majesty, because with the human interaction foremost in his mind, the native liaison is more likely to remark on the quirky cultural things inherent in their interaction.

So, please take a look at what you've written for me in this context. Take a look at the kinds of conflict or contrast opportunities that appear in the scene as you've written it, and then ask yourself how you could tune the circumstances of that scene to make your job that much easier. I hope you can each give me some comments on this topic.

Finally, in the spirit of making your world personal, I'd like to get you started on the eleven questions I used in my last worldbuilding workshop. I'll cut straight to the chase, here: I don't want to see you answer the impersonal questions at all, so I'm putting here below only the questions that relate directly to your protagonist's view of the world. I'd like to see your responses by this coming Friday, May 1.

Here are the questions. Please answer them in the voice of your POV character.

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?

As always, I welcome any questions or comments.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Nebula Awards Banquet

This will be a short post, because it's late.

The Nebulas have been amazing. I've met people who write for Analog magazine, and writers I've admired for years. I discovered that Sheila Williams from Asimov's knows my name (imagine my thrill of shock!). I got to chat with a movie writer/producer. I spoke to an agent about my book. I sat five feet away from Robert Silverberg at the banquet, and got to shake hands with Wil Wheaton.

It's been an exciting and emotional weekend.

I miss my beloved husband, and my two lovely children, very much.

I'll be going home tomorrow.

More soon...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A reminder to my readers...

...that I am leaving for the Nebula weekend tomorrow. I hope to be able to post from there, but if I seem a little distracted, that's why :-) .

I'm very excited, as this will be my first big SF/F function outside my immediate area.

Workshop: Making a first impression

In my first workshop, I began by summarizing what people had sent to me, in part because I hadn't established the posting standards I would use for the workshop. Then I went into knowledge sets, otherwise known as technology sets. (This will sound familiar for David and Catreona). Today I'm going to approach this from the angle of making a first impression.

For those who have never heard me use the expression before, a knowledge, or technology, set is a group of concepts that seem to go naturally together. Spaceships and talking computers, for example. Or cell phones and computer viruses and iPods and television. Or stone châteaux, torches, and swords. There are tons and tons of these, sets of concepts linked together by the associations of the words that evoke them. If you want to check out my knowledge sets post from the first workshop, it's here. You might also find interesting my discussion of semantics and word meaning associations, here.

The trick with these sets is that they are very strong, and sometimes it only takes a word or two to evoke them. So when introducing your world for the first time, you want to focus on words that evoke the technology set you want, and you want to avoid any that send readers' expectations astray. If you need a particular concept, but don't want its associations, then you have to defeat those expectations as soon as possible.

Here's an example from my Varin world. Whenever I start talking about the caste of the nobility, I have to watch out. Why? Because nobility evokes medieval knowledge sets in fantasy readers. Caste is less directly indicative, but the simple word nobility has incredible power. I have to make sure that I insert an obvious reference to high technology (electric lights, etc.) as soon as possible to defeat the unwanted medieval set.

How fast do knowledge sets take hold? Here's another example, the first sentence of my forthcoming Analog story, "Cold Words":

I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker.

1. By the time you get to the word "human," you already have aliens in mind, and that brings you spaceships, and that brings you everything that goes along with them.
2. "Scent" is a word associated with hunting, so I've also accessed a knowledge set that suggests the human might get eaten - and I don't want that. So I add "outside the door" in order to defeat that knowledge set, and place the protagonist in a building.
3. The phrase "our linguist, Parker" has the word "our," which suggests that there is a relationship between the protagonist's group and the human in question. "Linguist" specifies the nature of that relationship. "Parker" is a modern-day typical last name, which finalizes the placement of the world in a place directly related to present-day Earth.

This is just to give you a sense of what can happen in the space of nine words, and to give a bit of background for how I'll approach your work today. I encourage you to go back and take a look at my post on knowledge sets, particularly. What I'll do now is try to find the most world-evocative words or phrases in each of your pieces, let you know what they're telling me, and what you might want to work with.

From Khajidu's excerpt:

"Gods" suggests a place where multiple gods are worshipped, or at least revered in some way. This is not a phrase I've ever heard used in an Earth context, so my first thought is "fantasy world." The name "Xodull" confirms the fantasy world setting. The word "shitting" throws me off a little. Not that I haven't seen the word "shit" used in fantasy before, but it always comes across to me as very local to Earth, and the way you have used it here seems almost British. After that comes "concert." There are lots of different kinds of concerts, but the type is unspecified, so I can't choose medieval or renaissance orchestra, or rock concert. I'm still looking for hints. "Canal bank" gives me a setting that isn't obviously high-technology, but can't rule it out. After that I notice "evolution" treated as an unknown concept - but based on what comes before, I'm actually surprised to hear them mention something scientific like that at all. The word "evolution" is very much Earth-associated for me. "Sailor's necklace" is an unfamiliar term, and a great opportunity to give readers more about the technology of this world. I wish I didn't have to wait until "relationships with their ships" to get a hint. "Sky-Hierarch-Elect's husband" is incredibly specific, and very interesting. I want to see it earlier if it's relevant, and to understand better who such a person might be and how he might relate to our two protagonists. "Orlêzh" seems to be a type of location, but since it's not English, we get no associations, so please give us some hints in the surrounding text to let us know where you're going.

From Colin F.'s excerpt:

"Barkeep" and "beer" for me evoked a technology image from Earth's past, and thus the name "Lanuz" brought me to the conclusion that this is a fantasy world. "Mechanic" surprised and interested me, bringing me to the conclusion that this might be an industrial-revolution setting. If any of this is wrong, I would suggest adding more specific details to place each element. "To Order," was fascinating, but not followed up. Maybe you could give an internalized reason why Lanuz would be giving such honor to the concept? "Strange equipment" is the first hint I get that Lanuz is not at home in this setting - I'd like to see this more up front. "Nerve endings" surprised me, because I don't ordinarily expect a "mechanic" to have sophisticated medical knowledge. The "torch" fits with industrial age, but the view outside the window gives us "armored helm" which sounds medieval-ish, "metal horse," which sounds rather Steampunk. Then there's "sword," which again sounds medieval-ish. I come out at the end rather confused. Given what you've described, which is that there are two time periods involved, and that both are declines from past human colonization of a planet, I'm looking for more specifics. I'll go into this in more depth as the workshop progresses, but you should try to use Lanuz as your vehicle for the reader's understanding. What he knows should be what the reader knows, and even if he doesn't know about the Earth connection, he should have an awareness from the very beginning that he's in a foreign place, hurting and needs help, but everything around him is unfamiliar, and he doesn't know what kind of help he'll get.

3. Jeanne Tomlin
The name "Wrai" tells us this isn't a real world. I immediately notice "window-cracking" as a metaphor for breaking and entering - and I like it. It definitely takes us away from the more generic associations of, say, "thief." "Sharista" fits with Wrai. "Dice" are emotionally evocative but very flexible in their time/place association. "Executioner" immediately gives me the black-hooded guy with the axe, and makes me think of medieval technology. It also makes me think of death, so I'm not sure it's quite the right word for someone who cuts of your hands only. "Flogging" gives me a similar old-English feel. "Leather and homespun" works with this as well, and so does "inn," and the "muddy street." As we discussed, you might look for another name for Shelton so that we don't tip over into thinking this is a fantasy England. You say that these people fled from another place in order to settle here. For what reason? Ethnic, religious? Their origin might give you a direction for how they'd name their towns. The word "workers" stood out as too generic. This is a great opportunity to show critical elements of your world. What kind of workers are they? Can you add one or two words to tell me? "Manse" was interesting in that it is non-standard, but I wasn't sure of the shape of these places. Are they the same as the brick houses? "Carriage" moves the time period up considerably, maybe to the 1700's. "Summer wine" feels very English/faery to me. "Hickory-wood" seems very English also; I'd avoid "hickory" because it is not a generic-sounding wood, and will evoke Earth or a fantasy equivalent. I'll stop listing words because they're all rather well-aligned with one another. You're definitely getting a fantasy-Earth-England-1700's tech thing going here. If that's not what you want, then you might look for places to defeat it. Add in something early on that is unique to your world, so that people's expectations are deflected slightly. You might want to check out this post for ideas for your naming/language issue.

4. David Marshall
The first word I notice here is "ancient beyond imagining." That evokes Egypt, or ancient magic, etc. - the word "ancient" has a very specific meaning in our world. "Telepath" is something I associate with modern stories. "Tequila" puts us somewhere in relation to Earth, and "Veil" tells us we're not on Earth - but note that we have nothing so far that unequivocally places the current time period. "Beer"/"liquor"/"tequila" are all Earth things, but still could be stuff she gets from across the Veil, and we know nothing about the circumstances under which she crosses it, except for "smuggles." So far she could be a goddess who lives outside of the Earth universe an happens to like alcohol. "SoundPod" is a very science-fiction-y coined word, and "Lingerie Valkyries" is very Earth, too (so is "Valhalla"). Evidence is mounting that she is on Earth right now, probably in some Earth future. But can she be on Earth and not on Earth at the same time? Evidently so, but we get no information as to the relation between the two places. The Veil could be a dimensional border, or it could be a time-travel barrier - we don't know. "Voidwatch" is interesting, but not terribly informative; I have to assume because of "watch" that it is related to some kind of police function. "Cybergirl" gives me another hint that we're on future Earth, making the idea of the Veil as a time-travel barrier more persuasive. This may be why I have little idea what our protagonist means when she talks about the "Thin Red Line between Reality and Chaos." She could mean that the Voidwatch wear red uniforms (ref. The Thin Blue Line) - she could mean that the appearance of the Veil is red. We don't know. I want her character, and her knowledge of the world, to be more present in this excerpt. I'll discuss that a bit more later as we move forward.

5. Catreona
The first word I see here is "well shaft," but wells can exist in all sorts of places, so I don't know where I am yet. I notice "thanked the Lord" and it suggests Earth religion - a hint about our protagonist, but it doesn't say much about the location. Not until the word "humans" do I have an idea that there might be aliens involved. This is confirmed by "Strlinkmr" later in the same sentence. "Colonists" tells me this is an Earth colony on an alien planet, which gives me spaceships, and all the technology thereunto appertaining. But we don't see any of it in the environment, which seems very distant. Then she withdraws from it, giving us even less. "Black hole's event horizon" fits with the alien planet idea. She remembers (vaguely) the "Black hole of Calcutta," so she has studied Earth history. Her description of it seems to repeat the description of her current situation, and doesn't add a lot. "Keith" and "Tuesday" tell me that the universe still has standard Earth names; totally fine. "Prosperous little farm" makes me think of an American or English homestead, and I need details to show me how farming on Strlinkmrlad differs from that on Earth, because surely it does. "Concourse" is a curious word, but I don't know what it means. "Spaceport" fits with the alien colony image. My biggest concern here is that I have no sense of the environment at all. It seems completely generic to the "alien colony" idea, and I know nothing about the Strlinkmr except that they're impassive and similar to one another. I need visuals; I need details. Cindy's experience needs to be unique and personal to her, and grounded in her understanding of her world.

I welcome your comments. Please ask for clarification if you need to; if you think that I've missed something, explain it to me and we'll try to see how it can be fitted in. For those who want a peek into the future, I'm going to be laying my eleven world questions on you very soon. They are here: look specifically at second set, the close character-based versions of the questions, and feel free to start getting thoughts.

More soon...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Workshop: Names

Thanks for your patience, everyone. I'm enjoying looking through your work and getting ideas to talk about. I thought I'd start tonight by discussing names, since it's important, but somewhat independent from a lot of other worldbuilding issues. I'm going to try to be in gear on the workshop at this point and say something every day. We'll see how I go - I am traveling to L.A. this weekend for the Nebulas, and I'll try to post about that as well. Let's just say I'll be busy.

So onto names. Some of you have lots of names for people and things, and some have only a few. What I'm looking for is consistency in the sound and feel of the names - if there are to be exceptions, they must have a reason behind them. Here are my thoughts on each piece.

Jeanne: Wrai, Sharista (people), Shelton (place)
Wrai and Sharista feel a bit different from one another, but both are non-English enough that they work just fine. Shelton feels like quite a contrast to this, though - almost too English. The created names establish me as being in a non-Earth setting, but I find myself working hard to counteract a feeling of English-village that I get from the name Shelton. I'll go more into the setting and technology in a forthcoming post.

David: Jasmine Knight, Little Black Riding Hood, Captain Obvious the Masked Wrestler, Cannon Cop, Alaric, Cybergirl (individuals), SoundPod(object), Lingerie Valkyries (band), VoidWatch (group), the Veil
The names Jasmine Knight, Little Black Riding Hood, and Lingerie Valkyries set us in a world that must bear relation to current Earth. Cybergirl makes me think we're probably in some kind of future setting. I get little idea of what the Veil might be (do you the concept of Veils, David? :) ), but I'll ask more about that later. They all fit fine together provided that my assumptions are correct.

Catreona: Cindy, Keith (people), Strlinkmr (aliens), Strlinkmrlad (place)
You've got two types of names, one for humans, and one for aliens (though we don't see any alien individuals). That makes it totally fine for the two to be distinct in their sound systems. Cindy and Keith sound a little too modern-day-Earth to me. Isn't this a far future scenario on a distant planet? I remember you mentioning the Strlinkmr during one of the past workshops, and saying something about how their language was hard to pronounce. Based on these two examples, I'd say they have strange spelling but the language doesn't seem unpronounceable. There are earth languages which use spellings like this where liquids (r, l) take on a syllable value.

Colin: Lanuz, Allen (people)
I found the name Allen normal enough to surprise me when I read your piece. Now, it's possible that Lanuz's home world has different types of names from the world in which he finds himself after the warlock's intervention. I don't think Allen is too totally Earth-normal for a fantasy setting, necessarily, but I don't have much to go on since I have only two examples.

Khajidu: Xodull, Maltur, Tsumw, Tipsy, Zhebvu (individuals), tsu (animal), Orlêzh (place)
There are a lot of names in your piece - maybe more than you need. The ones that work best together sound-wise in my view are Xodull, Maltur, and Orlêzh. Zhebvu could fit into this system, though the "bv" is a surprise. Zhebvu and tsu might work together because of the consonant combinations. Tsumw was hardest for me to pronounce and reconcile with the others. There's also one last issue here: the name Tipsy is what I'd call a translated name - i.e. a name that is a word describing someone/something in English rather than a name that fits into any local language system. You might just want to leave the animal nameless, unless it becomes a critical character later in the story.

I welcome any thoughts you might have. I'll try to take on general setting and technology issues tomorrow.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss - A Ridiculously Close Look - with Comments from Kij Johnson!

Today I thought I'd look at a wonderful story - the Nebula-nominated "26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. This is a story that got me interested from the first, then just got better and better until by the end I was going "wow."

For those curious about point of view, I'll focus on the fact that Kij Johnson uses third person omniscient in this story (I've analyzed this POV once before in my Ridiculously Close Look at The Sparrow). Omniscient point of view is less easy than it looks, because you have to choose which heads to dip into - and when - and why - and then you have to consider who you are when you're not dipping into various character perspectives. It might be easy to think that an omniscient point of view automatically means a storyteller narrator, but trust me, it doesn't. Tolkien makes his omniscient third person a grandfatherly guy at whose knee you want to sit, but Mary Doria Russell does not - and neither does Kij Johnson.

By the time we get to the end of this, I hope to show you why the third person omniscient voice she chose is perfectly and brilliantly suited to the purpose of her story.

Let's get to the text, starting with the title:
26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss

This title surprised me. Monkeys are always evocative - and setting them opposite "The Abyss" made me immediately curious. In fact, this title sets my expectations perfectly for the story to follow: the story considers precisely this relationship between the absurd and the dire.

Aimee's big trick is that she makes twenty-six monkeys vanish onstage.

I immediately notice the numbering, and since this scenelet is only a single line long, I notice that the entire story is set up as a numbered list. There are several lists in the story, in fact - a fact I'll return to below. This line gives us an instant snapshot of the main content of the story, and firmly establishes the monkeys as benign in their intent. It also makes me curious in two ways: first, I'm not sure I expect a woman with a name like Aimee to be running a carnival show; and second, now that I know what Aimee's "big trick" is, I'm anxious to find out how she does it. Notice that the phrasing is not internal to any character. Any stranger might tell me this in exactly these words. Aimee is the only person who couldn't say this naturally.

In the second scenelet, Kij Johnson gives us more, zooming us in further toward our subject. We watch the act progress:

She pushes out a claw-foot bathtub and asks audience members to come up and inspect it. The people climb in and look underneath, touch the white enamel, run their hands along the little lions' feet. When they're done, four chains are lowered from the stage's fly space. Aimee secures them to holes drilled along the tub's lip and gives a signal, and the bathtub is hoisted ten feet into the air.
She sets a stepladder next to it. She claps her hands and the twenty-six monkeys onstage run up the ladder one after the other and jump into the bathtub. The bathtub shakes as each monkey thuds in among the others. The audience can see heads, legs, tails; but eventually every monkey settles and the bathtub is still again. Zeb is always the last monkey up the ladder. As he climbs into the bathtub, he makes a humming boom deep in his chest. It fills the stage.
And then there's a flash of light, two of the chains fall off, and the bathtub swings down to expose its interior.

This passage fascinates me because it is still quite distant - and it is omniscient, since we are told what the audience can see - yet it is not entirely impersonal. First, Aimee is the only human identified as a named individual in this passage, which naturally puts our focus on her even though we don't experience her thoughts directly. The audience members remain a faceless mass, and the author deliberately uses passive voice to keep the stagehands out of it ("the bathtub is hoisted"). Look also at these details from the passage:

a claw-foot bathtub
people climb in and look underneath
touch the white enamel
run their hands along the little lions' feet

The quirkiness of the claw-foot bathtub definitely draws my attention, as do the people climbing into it, but I'm struck by the quiet sensitivity of "touch the white enamel" and "run their hands along the little lions' feet." I also notice the monkey, Zeb, who is the first entity besides Aimee to get a name - which makes him personal, and prepares him for a key role later in the story.

These details begin to reveal the narrator as a sensitive observer, a person who can notice small intimacies in the midst of a crowded carnival setting. I don't have many options within the story for who these characteristics might belong to, and I can't help but think they come from Aimee. I find this opinion backed up by the opening of the next scene:

They turn up later, back at the tour bus[...]

The choice of "the" tour bus (not "a" tour bus, or "her" tour bus) indicates the tour bus is known information. Who could it be known to besides Aimee? So the narrator is giving us glimpses of Aimee in spite of a generally distant tone. This continues through the scene, with her perceptions of the monkeys coming home, leading us to our first glimpses of her state of mind:

Aimee doesn't really sleep until she hears them all come in. Aimee has no idea what happens to them in the bathtub, or where they go, or what they do before the soft click of the dog door opening. This bothers her a lot.

The interesting thing, at least in my view, is that this is about as close as we get to Aimee. We see her in action at various points in the story, but we never hear her internalized thoughts. Much of the story has this kind of detachment - reinforced by the lists and by the use of colons, and simultaneously mitigated by the use of sensitive details. Here are two more passages to demonstrate:

Aimee has: a nineteen-year-old tour bus packed with cages that range in size from parrot-sized (for the vervets) to something about the size of a pickup bed (for all the macaques); a stack of books on monkeys ranging from All About Monkeys to Evolution and Ecology of Baboon Societies; some sequined show costumes, a sewing machine, and a bunch of Carhartts and tees[...]

Aimee's monkeys:
- 2 siamangs, a mated couple
- 2 squirrel monkeys, though they're so active they might as well be twice as many
- 2 vervets
- a guenon, who is probably pregnant, though it's still too early to tell for sure. Aimee has no idea how this happened

- 3 rhesus monkeys. They juggle a little [...]

The one that really made me think, though, was the list that begins as follows:

These are some ways that Aimee's life might have come apart:
a. She might have broken her ankle a few years ago, and gotten a bone infection that left her on crutches for ten months, and in pain for longer.

Look at the details of the ankle incident and you can't doubt that this is a list of actual events of Aimee's life - yet they're all couched in modal sentences using "might."

When I was first reading the story, I hadn't had a firm handle on the narrator until this point, but this one sealed it for me. The narrator handles the events of Aimee's life, not dispassionately, and not broken-heartedly, but stand-offishly. This voice is not Aimee, precisely. It is not a vehicle for her feelings. Yet it reflects her emotional sensibilities, approaching the most painful areas of her past with a diffidence that suggests she is afraid to approach them too closely. This feels real to me.

I don't really want to provide spoilers here - I want you to go and read the story yourself - so I'll resist my inclination to push my textual analysis any further. However, I do want to share some thoughts on how this narrative voice fits into the story as a whole.

Kij Johnson has chosen to juxtapose Aimee's carnival act - absurd, quirky and inexplicable as it is - with Aimee's terrible grief as a result of terrible events in her life. As the story progresses, Johnson manages to bring the two sides together in a marvelous way, so that they are less contrasting and more congruent.

If she had gone another route, and taken us closer to Aimee's point of view, it would have been easy for us to get mired in the grief itself - and this would have made it far more difficult to grasp the thematic content of the story. By keeping narrative distance, Johnson avoids the trap of protesting too much. She allows us to share Aimee's sensitive observations of the details of her life, and by showing us Aimee's fear of touching her own grief, Johnson allows readers to add their own depth to her story by accessing personal experiences of grief, and of the grieving.

This is more than just a wonderful story. It kept me guessing, and it made me think. And now it has also given me an opportunity to think about third person omniscient in a whole new way.


After I posted this last night, I was lucky enough to exchange messages with Kij Johnson herself, and she gave me her own personal comments on my analysis and the story as a whole, which follow below.


"26 Monkeys" is a very technical story, and as you figured out, almost everything in the story is done with conscious intent. Your thoughts about the distanced narrative voice are solid: we seem never to get far into Aimee's head, except in a clinical way. Except that we do, actually: the narrative voice is entirely into her thoughts and feeling, and the outbursts -- "Because there's always a reason for everything, isn't there?" "Nothing is certain" -- are Aimee's core existential crisis, speaking to the reader without the intervention of Aimee.

People in pain tend to distance themselves from immediate engagement with the pain. Here's an example of displacing: I might be describing a deeply embarrassing moment from my childhood, telling you, "I was telling Eric how terrible the trumpet playing in that song was and he said that was him playing and you just don't know what to say after that. You feel like an idiot." I am uncomfortable enough with what I am saying/feeling that I am trying to push it off onto You.

The narrator is DEEPLY engaged, enmeshed, in Aimee’s feelings; and every time Aimee comes to a really painful realization or memory, the voice pulls back, either into the outbursts, which are clearly You statements -- or, most interestingly (I think) the list of the ways her life might have changed.

The truth of what did happen to take her to this state is the most powerful thing in Aimee's life, so painful and powerful that she (and/or the narrator) not only distances herself by list-making and by switching into the "might have" statements, but even conceals the true reason among a handful of possibilities.

Aimee is most present, and the narrative is at its most conventional, when she's with Geof and Zeb -- who are not part of the core pain.


You say the narrator is "standoffish," and that's very insightful. The narrator is intentionally pushing you away from the painful parts, which sets me as writer a really interesting set of challenges. How am I going to keep you, the reader, interested, when Aimee is apparently distanced from the narrative, and my narrator is saying, "Nothing to see here! Move along!" Three things in play here: The intensity of Aimee's experience compensates for the clinical voice. Also, the narrator isn't doing a very good job of directing you away from the pain: her crafted perspective slips frequently into the angry, anguished outbursts. The third tool is the very concrete, specific detail the story is built upon, as you pointed out. The story doesn’t work without the lion’s feet and the rest of it.

There’s another reason for the highly specific, concrete details that are given, especially the lists and the careful descriptions. Aimee – and the narrator, and I – are fixated on these little immediate details, for all the reasons people in deeply-felt pain get caught up in immediate sensation or observation. The numbers heading each section distance us as readers -- the story rejects immersion by coming to you in small segregated chunks – even as it offers itself as a series of “highly specific, concrete details.”


There’s all sorts of stuff happening with the language and the sentence structures, as well. But I’ll tell you a way that craft sometimes goes right by the board. The story was called “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” because I had to pick an arbitrary number of monkeys, and there were 26 letters in the alphabet. Zeb’s name ends with a Z because it was the last letter of the alphabet. The theory at first was that there would be 26 sections, as well. I cut some of the sections as I wrote, but I never renumbered the monkeys. And that’s cool. The story includes the notion that not everything in life is going to wrap up perfectly. Even if you read the story carefully, you don’t know exactly how many monkeys there are in it.


Thanks for letting me talk about this! :(|)


Thank you, Kij Johnson!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Workshop Participants (Worldbuilding 2)

The final participants for the worldbuilding workshop are:

1. Jeanne Tomlin
2. Colin F
3. David Marshall
4. Catreona
5. Khajidu

I'll be back to you shortly with some opening thoughts. And I should have a new Ridiculously Close Look up soon, too...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Visit to the Academic World

Yesterday I made a visit to the academic world. I was invited to make an appearance - as an author! - at a class taught by my former Ph.D. advisor, Claire Kramsch.

She made me feel wonderful by inviting me, and I had a great time.

I got to read the opening scene of my forthcoming story, Cold Words, and then ask her students to analyze it - just in the same way that I do my own editing analysis, and the way I do Ridiculously Close Looks here on the blog. I asked the students to look through the words I'd written and find places where I'd given cues to the Aurrel's invented language and how it worked, and cues for alien point of view.

It was nothing like going to a convention, or even talking with friends who enjoy science fiction. It was all serious. But it was marvelous, geeky fun for me. It really made me feel like I've been doing the right thing all this time by applying my knowledge to science fiction and fantasy. And it made me feel like an author.

Both of those feelings were a thrill.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gender: real and grammatical

Dave (a.k.a. Meindzai) directed me to this terrific NPR article, and asked me if I had any experience with the idea of grammatical gender interacting with real gender.

Oh, yes, indeed.

In case you haven't gone over to the article, I'll give you an idea of what it says: people who have grammatical gender in their languages will tend to describe nouns in ways that give them characteristics associated with actual physical genders.

I once read a study (and I wish I could now remember which one) that said that young children who spoke languages with grammatical gender were able to identify their own gender earlier than those who didn't. And, no surprise, children who were asked to assign voices to cartoon characters of objects would give male voices to the grammatically male objects, and female voices to the grammatically female objects. This was not the case with English-speaking kids who haven't had to develop such awareness.

Your native language fundamentally influences how you characterize objects and their relations to one another. For example, a picture is "on" the wall in English, but "up (op)" the wall in Dutch. If you ask friends who speak other languages, you'll be surprised how many tiny subtle differences you'll find.

It might be fascinating to consider putting this distinction, or some other seemingly arbitrary grammatical distinction, into a story. I'm guessing you could get cool misunderstandings, or even disasters similar to that resulting from English vs. metric measurement. I remember hearing that a famous linguist got his inspiration from the idea that words had power over thought, such as when people labeled gasoline cans as "empty" and people were negligent around them, believing they were safe when in fact the gasoline vapor made them far more dangerous around sparks than when they were full.

Feel free to comment, Dave (or anyone else!), if you'd like to further the discussion.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Educational Backstory: avoiding arbitrary superpowers

Have you ever noticed how characters in science fiction and fantasy seem to have superpowers? I'm not even talking about the superhero type. I mean special skills - things that nobody else can do, that usually make these people indispensable to the plot. To pull from David Eddings, maybe one guy can steal anything and speak a secret sign language, maybe another can turn into a bear, maybe another never gets scared, etc. The nice thing about Eddings' characters is that he usually has a personal history for the character which explains their terrific strengths (and peculiar weaknesses).

This is really important.

A character who can do unusual things is really great, even if it's something as subtle as being graceful in movement. But without grounding, those special skills can seem arbitrary. When you look at actual superheroes, one of the coolest things about them is that they have special origin stories. Even the X-men's relatively arbitrary powers are grounded in a general tendency for human mutation.

So think through how your character got to be this way. Does she fight well because she was trained in kung fu? Does he have strong arms because he was apprenticed to the blacksmith? Does he know about lightspeed physics because he's a professor, or the ship's engineer? Does he know about linguistics in spite of his young age because he's the son of a famous linguist?

One of the things I always enjoyed about the character Pazu from Miyazaki's film, Castle in the Sky, was that he was a miner. As the movie starts, you see him hefting heavy weights and crawling all over (and repairing) these massive steam engines that bring the miners up from the tunnels below. You also see him being comfortable in dark tunnels - and all this seems perfectly natural. Then later when he's volunteering to repair the engine of a pirate's airship, climbing like crazy over the outside of the actual castle in the sky, and running through the dark tunnels inside it, you have no problem with any of it. You've seen him do it before, and it all works.

This is one of those instances where you can make your world personal. Think about your character's educational background. Is it based in experience? What kind? Is it based in institutionalized education? What kind of people does your character admire as mentors or teachers, and why?

You can even take it a little further - ask yourself what ideologies might come along with your character's experience or education. Was the master abusive, inadvertently teaching hatred of his social group? Did the teacher rescue the student from poverty or some other social situation, leading the student to adopt similar social views? Did the institution teach larger social values, or the values of the particular social group it serves?

Explore the possibilities.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spaces Open for Worldbuilding

Hey, everyone!

There are still spaces open for the workshop, so if you have something you were thinking of submitting, now's your chance. The discussions will be much more fun if we have a diversity of worlds to look into.

So that you can feel like this is a reasonable possibility, I'm going to extend the deadline by a few days, to April 17th. I don't want to conflict with tax day! I've also been having a hectic week (thus the lack of blog posts), so it will help me too.

I'll try to get some blog posts up in the next few days, and check back for the workshop on the 17th. Thank you again to all the people who have already posted!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

(Re-) Announcing the April Worldbuilding Workshop

April has well and truly begun, and I can now make this announcement with no fear of being taken for fooling.

Some of you may already know this, but for those who don't:

I will be hosting a free worldbuilding workshop on TalkToYoUniverse. Those who wish to participate should submit the following to me in my Comments area by April 10th:

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. Assume your reader has no prior information.

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.

As with the last workshop, I will be reviewing all comments before they are posted publicly, so your work will not automatically appear to public eyes. However, those who are selected to participate should expect their excerpts, questions, and comments to become public after a cursory inspection :-).

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.

If you are at all curious as to what "digging in" means, I encourage you to take a look at the discussions on the last worldbuilding workshop, which began December 7th of last year. The first post can be found here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Declines in Technology

Worlds full of high technology are nearly ubiquitous in science fiction - but in a few cases, authors choose to focus on worlds and people where technology is in decline. I find the question of decline in technology fascinating, and in fact my Varin world is in a state of technological decline. So I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts on the subject.

How do declines and losses occur? There are, I suppose, lots of possible ways for this to happen.

The one that leaps immediately to mind is some kind of large-scale natural disaster - but for this to affect an entire technologically rich society, it has to be on an extremely large scale. The book Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is an example: a meteor hits the moon and changes its orbit, and civilization basically comes to an end.

Another immediate thought is that of the Luddite rebellion - somehow a group of people comes to power and tries systematically to eliminate advanced technology. It strikes me that they have to have sophisticated enough technology to enforce their aims, but it doesn't take many guns to make a lot of people change their behavior. They might end up scuttling their society more than they'd hoped by cutting off the means of production for modern luxuries.

Both of those are sudden and extreme. What about just plain decadence? Could that alone lead to a decline in technology?

Well, sure. Particularly in a society where resources are controlled by a relatively small group of people, any change that moved those resources away from the maintenance of technology could seriously slow things down. Over a prolonged period, that lack of resources could mean fewer people properly educated to maintain advanced technologies, and the techniques for developing materials or designing technological marvels would slowly die off along with the population that had the required specialized knowledge. Lack of money, or excessive control over, critical substances for research, design and manufacturing could also have a depressive effect.

There are other losses of technology that we don't usually think of as "losses." Take for example the decline of the vinyl record, or the fact that modern firearms have replaced the blunderbuss. While "progress" continues, the older technologies fade and sometimes die. Most people I know have moved away from the expensive but extremely reliable land-line phone services. Many people don't have home telephones at all, but use their cell phones exclusively. The rotary phone has been supplanted, but it won't be the last to go.

In a place where the technology has been continuously developed, generally speaking signs of the old infrastructure will remain. But some countries might come late to technological developments, and so leap straight to the use of cell phones, for example. Why should they then go to the trouble of laying all the land lines in the first place? They shouldn't, of course, because it would be economically impractical.

This leads me to speculate about a different kind of technological decline, which I call technology losing its roots. What if a highly advanced technology - for example in communications, transportation, or medicine - had already supplanted an earlier technology used for the same purpose, to the extent that the old infrastructure had largely broken down, or the old supplies thrown out or recycled. What would then happen if something (information virus, fuel exhaustion, contamination) made the new technology fail? Suddenly the society would find itself having to fall back on a failing system, and wind up doubling its decline, or finding itself helpless, because neither the advanced system nor its immediate predecessor would work properly.

I've talked before about technology sets, i.e. technologies that seem to go together. Both advances and declines can affect a society unevenly depending on its technological needs, thus defeating the typical Earth sets. In my Varin world I use a combination of decadence and loss of roots as the basis of a society in which building intercoms function, but messages between buildings are typically sent by human messenger, and messages between cities are transmitted by radiography.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A classic keyboard I'd never seen before

The mother of one of my son's kindergarten classmates is a court recorder. With her in mind, I'd intended to include a mention of the shorthand keyboard in my earlier keyboard post, but it slipped my mind.

That turned out to be a good thing. When I mentioned this to her before school the other day, she took note and the very next day brought me an old stenotype shorthand machine that she'd had sitting around her garage. I got to take a look at it - and also at a textbook discussing the theory of how to use it.

Wow, this thing is cool.

Things I have learned:

1. The keys have no symbols on them. At all. My guess would be that this is because they don't want any reason for the recorder to look at the keyboard.

2. The keyboard has fewer keys. It has two rows of four to be covered by the fingers of the left hand, two rows of four to be covered by the fingers of the right hand, and a single pair of keys in between those two which are not letter symbols but asterisks. Below that are two keys to be accessed by the left thumb, and two keys to be accessed by the right thumb.

3. It is designed so the operator can type entire syllables at once - by pressing multiple keys at the same time. The left fingers do the consonants before the vowel; the right fingers do the consonants after the vowel (yes, there are repeats). The thumbs do the vowels in between.

4. It speaks its own language. This is a terrific example of humans adapting to the requirements of a machine, rather than the machine adapting to them. I guessed, and my friend confirmed, that it would take a semester to learn the theory behind how to enter all kinds of words on this thing. There is a key combination that must be used for the period, for example. Vowels tend to be entered phonetically rather than in accordance with English wacky spelling. This does not count the years of practice to raise your speed.

But of course the result is that these expert people can write down what they hear at an astonishing rate. On the machine my friend lent me, the letters are typed in ink on a paper tape about two inches wide, which used to be "read" and decoded by a computer. She tells me that nowadays these machines have direct USB connections to the interpreting computer, so the shorthand gets reinterpreted into English without the need for the intermediate step.

Cool technology. And it saves some trees.

Having made transcriptions of taped speech myself, I have nothing but the deepest respect for anyone who has the skills to be a court recorder. If you ever get the chance to check one of these machines out, or to type on it, I highly recommend you take it.