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Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's all about appearances...

Tonight we went out to a restaurant for dinner. Carmine's, in Chicago - highly recommended for Italian food, and boy, do my kids like seafood!

While I was there, I happened to watch a party of ten young women arrive at their table. The first thing they did after they sat was arrange their clothing, and the second thing they did was arrange their hair.

It was the hair I noticed most. Every girl at that table did a little touch-check before considering herself settled. The ones with long hair generally made sure all of it was behind their shoulders, and then some of them left it there, while others selected portions of it on either side to bring forward in front of their shoulders. With ten of them all doing this at once, it was quite striking.

I know I have a habit of pushing my hair back from my forehead, but if I ever did the shoulder front-or-back check I wasn't aware of it. Maybe these girls weren't either; or perhaps they were. But appearances are very, very important in human social groups.

At the Field Museum they have a little display, which consists of two statues of African women and a TV screen. One of the statues has her hair up in a big tall arrangement at the crest of her head, while the other has elaborate metal neck-rings that elongate her neck. The TV screen shows people - I'd say at least eight or ten from different Earth cultures - preparing their appearance as though getting ready to go out. Plucking eyebrows, shaving chins - or shaving heads, putting on makeup or skin decorations, brushing and arranging hair, adjusting clothing, etc., etc. It shows just a few seconds at a time from each person, scrolls through the group and then returns to them a little later in their toilette until they're all ready to go.

Much like the girls at the table, it's when you put it all together and juxtapose one against the other that it becomes striking.

Boy do we go to a lot of trouble.

I've seen a lot of appearance-related stuff in science fiction and fantasy. Often it's just a description of someone's appearance, or of how they prepare themselves in some way. Sometimes it's a description of how odd humans look.

I've done this myself.

But what I've noticed is that for me it's not entirely satisfying just to say "humans look funny with all those clothes." When you're working on appearance details for an unfamiliar group, first, remember to include key details - to say "she pulled her hair back with bone combs" rather than "she pulled her hair back." Second, try to remember why we put so much effort into our appearance. Yes, it's about attractiveness in general, but each part of what we do has a special meaning, and attractive to one group isn't the same as attractive for the other.

Try to get past the general value assignment, and closer to the principles behind those values. The goth goes for his or her look for a reason. Tattoos mean more to people than you might think. When my daughter wears her hair up I don't just think she looks pretty, but I also find somehow she looks a little older when I can see her whole face clearly - less like a toddler and more like a young girl.

Get into your character's head as he or she prepares for a day - or as he or she evaluates another character's appearance. There are rich opportunities there. Take advantage of them.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's official! Cold Words is coming soon...

Here's a little heads-up I just got thanks to Google alerts and Analog magazine: my story, Cold Words, is officially going to be appearing in the October issue. The complete table of contents is available on SFScope, here. I'm excited to be appearing alongside Mike Flynn, Bill Gleason, and Richard A. Lovett. More exciting still, Dr. Stanley Schmidt in the September issue called it "an unusually successful alien viewpoint story."

Look out for Analog's October issue, which will hit the stands and bookstores on July 28. I'm smiling like crazy because this is my second professional publication and I can't wait to see it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Special Directions

Asking for directions is the subject of one of the oldest jokes in the book - that one about men and asking for directions. This joke was, to my considerable surprise, employed successfully by Dory in Finding Nemo.

The other night, the topic of asking for directions came up at the dinner table here in Chicago, and my dad told me a couple of funny stories about directions. I thought I'd share them and muse a bit on the topic, because it could be useful for anyone working with fantasy or science-fictional environments (especially cities).

1. My dad was in Australia, trying to orient himself in Melbourne while holding a map, but having a very difficult time. After a few minutes he realized he was having trouble because the sun was in the wrong place.

This one is interesting to me because I have never learned to use the position of the sun to orient myself. I was never explicitly taught this, but I think sometimes people just just pick it up as part of assessing their surroundings. I think it would be a very good thing for people to use when in an unfamiliar environment (especially if they have no compass). But sun or compass could cause some confusion if the parameters of either the star and planet, or the magnetic pole, aren't the same as where the person came from. In my dad's case, he had to readjust for the fact that he was operating in the southern hemisphere, and needed to expect the sun in precisely the opposite position from the one he expected.

2. My dad and my mom were being given a tour of Montreal, and the guide kept telling them they were going north, but my dad was checking the sun again and couldn't believe that was possible. When he finally asked about his confusion, he was told about "le nord Montréalais," or the "Montreal north." It turns out that there's a river flowing through Montreal, and any time you're moving away from it on the northern side, that's called "going north," even if a bend in the river makes it so that you're really going east or west in absolute direction.

I did a post earlier on relative and absolute directions, and I think this story is a lovely example of a very idiosyncratic form of relative direction (which just happens to use the terminology of absolute direction!).

Not everybody thinks of direction in the same terms. When you give directions to a place based on street names and left and right turns, that's a system based on relative direction. Some people don't feel comfortable enough with that, though, and want to see landmarks added to the description (e.g. turn left after the W hotel). That's still relative. Contrast it with societies (I know of at least one in aboriginal Australia) that talk about one's north or south foot, east or west side of the body, depending on the body's absolute position.

Then take the Montreal example, where a landmark (the river) is so salient to the population that it becomes the basis for defining relative direction!

A couple more thoughts on direction...

Navigating in Kyoto, Japan is great because the center of the city is on a north-south, east-west grid. Once you get the hang of where North etc. are, it's virtually impossible to get lost, so exploring is lots of fun. This type of city design comes from ancient China, where the imperial city was designed to have the palace in the north with a road leading directly to it, and then the cross-roads all running east to west. At a certain point I felt like I understood this pretty well, so I was a bit confused when I learned that in China and Japan they talk about "the five directions," not the four.

Five directions?

Well, the first four are North, South, East, and West. The fifth one is Center. Once it was pointed out to me, it seemed so obvious - but this view also depends on defining your center. You may have heard Japan called "the land of the rising sun" - this is because it lies to the east of China, where the expression originated in a letter from the Chinese emperor to the Japanese emperor.

All very eloquent. But when in the reply, the Japanese emperor called China "the land of the setting sun," let's just say the Chinese didn't take it as a compliment.

I hope this gives you some more thoughts about different ways to treat directions in your world, and to give it a unique flavor on another level.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Animal Metaphors

I'm always amazed how important animals are to us. From Aesop's fables, to gods in the form of cats or snakes, to Brer Rabbit tales - the list goes on and on.

One of the first things children learn is how to make the onomatopoetic sounds that animals make. They learn to sing Old MacDonald and list out animals on the farm. They learn about lions and tigers and bears and elephants. Children in Japan do this also, as do children in France - and I'm sure in many other places also.

As an adult when I was learning foreign languages, I often wondered why it was so terribly important to learn the names of animals. After all, when you're an adult, and you're not likely to meet a lion in the street, why do you need to know what it's called or what sound it makes?

But animals are the basis of metaphors in every language I know.

We know not only what a snake is, and the names of different types of snakes, but also what kind of behavior is associated with snakes and their ilk. We toss off comparisons of people to animals - pigs, dogs, birds, etc. - constantly. Animals also are associated with emotional states like fear, or with personality attributes like slyness.

This is a resource that is often underused in science fiction and fantasy worlds. I have a hard time imagining a population that did not take inspiration in its animals, simply because those animals are resources, by virtue of their interconnectedness in the food chain of any land. I can think of two ways to approach this (off the top of my head).

One, create an animal that is specially relevant to your population for some reason, give it a name, and then start exploring how it could be used expressively in the people's language. In my forthcoming story Cold Words (Analog), for example, the protagonist Rulii compares a human's eyes to those of "the cornered gharralli."

Two, take an existing animal that you are using in your fantasy or science fictional setting, and look for a new twist on its significance. In my Varin world, cats are symbols of selfishness, and I've also designed a species of dog called the tunnel-hound, which is associated with dirtiness.

Take an opportunity to look around for places you can make these connections, and it will help your world take on new dimension.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Question Box

I thought I'd start a question box, since there hasn't been a good way, besides comments on existing posts, to ask questions on TTYU. So if you have any questions that you'd like me to address in a post, now you don't have to use my contact email; just put them in the comments for this entry. I'll also give it an additional link at the side (it's under "all about me").

You can ask questions about all the topics covered here, or suggest topics, or suggest works for a Ridiculously Close Look. You can also ask questions related to a specific world question you happen to be working on in a story, and I'll see if I can expand that into a useful post.

This will also help me post more often! I'm looking forward to it already.

Summer Craziness

So now my summer of craziness begins. We're booked to the hilt with travel, camp, guests, etc. and on top of it all I have this novel to finish revising and get out the door. It should be... invigorating. Tomorrow the kids and I are leaving for Chicago. I expect to continue blogging while I'm there, but I'm in a serious press on the novel, which is why I've been a bit remiss.

This is simply to explain why my entries might not be as regular - but rest assured, I'm still here and will share my thoughts as I have them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Importance of Character Motivation

When I read a book the thing that keeps me going is the sense of drive, and that sense of drive comes directly from the main character. That person's goals, why he or she wants them, what happens if he or she doesn't get them.

This is almost entirely separate from the plot, i.e. the sequence of events.

My novel has been written. And it has been rewritten. And it is currently being edited again. In all this, the sequence of minor events might have one or two things added to it, but the sequence of major events changes not at all.

What changes is what these events mean to the protagonist, and how that propels her on to the next piece. It's that propulsion that matters: that's the drive. That's why I care about reading further.

In my current sequence of edits, I'm trying to address a very big but very nebulous problem: critiquer dissatisfaction with the ending. Nebulous because it's not something you can point a finger at a piece of text and fix. So I've been going back and tracking the character motivation through the story, and I've made two key reversals.

1. In the character of the romantic lead, Étienne. He doesn't speak much, in order to protect himself, but he needs to speak to the main character, Chloe. In the last draft he wanted to stay quiet, and did most of the time, but when he spoke was very purposeful and passionate. As a result, his acts came across as too calculating - problem. So I reversed his motivation. Now he really wants to speak, but he's been protecting himself with silence for so long that he has trouble when he tries.

The effect of this change is huge. It changes what he says and how he says it, but he's still capable of saying the things he needs to (things he said in the last draft that are critical to the plot). It doesn't change anything about his actions - but suddenly he doesn't come across as calculating any more. From the standpoint of his relationship to Chloe, this is a big improvement.

2. In an event propelled by the main character. At a certain point she goes to dinner with her mother and starts telling her stories. The effect of this is a change in their interaction that allows her to resolve a key conflict between them (at least for now). In the last draft she had the idea to tell stories, and after things had changed she said it felt like magic, with a sense of deep satisfaction. Oddly enough, this was a huge problem. So I reversed her motivation completely. Now she has the idea to try to imitate magic to change her mother, and therefore tells her stories. When things change she's surprised and pleased to get what she wants, but she also understands that it doesn't feel like magic.

The difference this makes is critical. Now the satisfaction is replaced with a vague sense of insufficiency - and this is what allows her to progress on successfully to the next sequence of events.

It's worth taking at least one entire read-through of your manuscript just to address the question of character motivation and drive. If it isn't there, readers will lose momentum and stop - and we don't want that. You may be surprised to find that a complete reversal of motivation in one place or another makes little difference at all to the events you need for the plot to hold together. But it may just be the key to making the story feel alive.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Getting story ideas

It seems every time I turn around I'm seeing discussions of the question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Just the other day after my post on hidden stories everywhere, my friend Eric Del Carlo had an excellent thought on the subject, which was basically, "everywhere - just pay attention." This is certainly true of his work; he gets ideas from all over and turns them into cool stories.

But everyone pays attention in different ways. The things that stand out to one person may not stand out to another; the ideas that might come together to layer into a story for one might leave another totally cold.

I got an idea this morning while I was walking my son to school and heard a family speaking Chinese to one another as they got out of the car. When I heard them, I was immediately reminded of the most useful thing I know how to say in Chinese, namely "I don't speak Chinese." It then occurred to me that the phrase I've learned is in Mandarin, but that this family might be speaking another dialect - if I were to say it to them, they'd probably understand, but it wouldn't be what they consider their family's language. And then a connection was made, for no reason I can really explain. I thought of how I'd just recently blogged about the idea of a lingua franca - thinking at the time that I should look for a story to place in such an environment - and began to wonder what it would be like if that language really wasn't the native/comfort language of any of its speakers.

At that moment, I imagined a character. A person who has learned the lingua franca in order to move into a community, and then discovers when he/she gets there that it isn't the "real" language of anyone he/she meets.

It's not a story. Not yet. But it's an appropriate language concept for a story in my Allied Systems universe, so now I'm going to be looking around after this for other ideas to attach to it. Ideas that might tell me who precisely this character is, and what he/she wants, but can't get, because of this language issue. Defining the stakes is critical to having a story to tell, rather than just a situation to describe.

Once I have a sense of stakes I can elaborate more and begin playing with details of alien physiology, environment, langauge and culture. Basically, the million more layers this will need before I can start writing. And I'm pretty sure that once I'm finished, not only will it be a story, but that it will be entirely my own story.

Originality of ideas is always a tough question. Some say there are only ten story ideas in the world (or so). As I read, and watch movies, and go through life, I encounter lots of story ideas that because of the fact that I'm experiencing them, have obviously been done before. I feel lucky to have my bizarre and esoteric (I say this fondly) academic background, because it helps me to have a new perspective on whatever ideas I encounter. Some ideas are clichéd, and hard to revive. But you can't necessarily predict when something familiar will feel old, or when it will feel classic, and a lot of that is in the execution.

Think about what your experience gives you that no one else has - the insights, the perspective, the attitude, whatever it might be - and try to bring that to bear on your search for ideas. An idea someone else thinks is novel may not catch fire for you simply because it doesn't mesh well with the unique heart of your creativity. Or on the other hand an idea that is often considered a bit passé might wake something in you that sends you to your desk to write fiendishly, because it opens up that opportunity for you to show the world what you have that no one else does.

Through it all, keep your senses open, and ideas will come to you.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Breadth and Depth in Stories

I've been short of bandwidth since I got back from Yosemite, for a couple of reasons - one of which is pure exhaustion due to travel and ripping out my lawn. The other reason is that I've been turned back into an edit of my novel manuscript. This edit is a bit more extensive than I'd hoped (I can't imagine anyone getting to the end of the story and going "you know, I really hope this isn't done and there's a lot more work to do"). But it has some interesting aspects, one of which I thought I'd share.

There's a sequence in the midst of the story when my main character gets caught and dragged for quite a long distance across town by an irresistible force, to a place where someone is waiting for her. For some reason, this has been one of the trickiest parts of the book to get right.

If the book were a simple fairy tale, then it might be appropriate for me to use the structure I tried in my first draft of this sequence. Once caught, my main character was dragged along through different kinds of scenery, and encountered successively more complex "gifts" left by the person who was waiting for her. The three-part encounter that we see in Jack and the Beanstalk or The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a perfectly workable model for a story of that kind of simplicity. For a book of the complexity of mine? Ummm, no.

In my second draft of the sequence, I tried to give it a bit more complexity. At this point in the story, two people are fighting over my main character: one whom she's just left, and the other who is waiting for her. So I got rid of the "gifts" and had her getting attacked by the person she's left, who is trying to prevent her from reaching the shelter prepared by the person waiting on the other side. Better. But in the end, though the conflict is more appropriate to the story context, it's still too shallow. It still too closely resembles the fairy tale sequence: character gets dragged through scenery, gets attacked a couple of times, and finally reaches safety. In other words, a bunch of stuff happens, one thing after another, and you don't really learn much more about any of the characters involved, or the world, or the story itself.

Okay, so now I'm rewriting it again. I've maintained one aspect of the draft two model, which is that my main character is being targeted by the person she's left, and being dragged toward someone waiting. But I've ditched the fairytale structure of one thing after another, in favor of having her get more involved in the world itself. Instead of passing by meaningless scenery, she meets some people who try to help her - and as they help her, she learns things. These people help to reveal the scenery with their actions and appearance (they required a bit of research, too). They also give her someone to care about besides herself. They give her an additional perspective on the position she's in, caught between two very powerful people (whom they know about). And by choosing their identities carefully, I've also allowed them to hint at a piece of the novel's backstory that gets revealed later. Now, that's starting to have the kind of complexity that is typical in other areas of this novel - and that means it fits.

What a relief. It's been something of a brain drain - but an interesting process.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hidden Stories Everywhere

I'm back from Yosemite! And I learned some really cool things while I was there. We went on a great tour one day and I learned some of the stories behind the native American names of places in the valley. I love this kind of stuff - in part because I love stories, and in part because I think any place with a long history will have hidden stories in it.

Hidden story #1: Yosemite
It turns out that Yosemite is not the name of the tribe that lived in the Yosemite area; it was the name of the chief's family. And it means "grizzly bear fighter." The tribal group that lived there was the Ahwahneechee, which means "gaping mouth people." The Ahwahnee hotel is named after this group.

Hidden story #2: Tule takanula = El Capitan
El Capitan, as some of you may already know, is the biggest single granite rock face in the world. Its name means "little inchworm." A little counterintuitive, I know, but it comes from a great story. The story is that two baby black bears sat down on a granite rock to have a nap, and while they were asleep it grew and grew into this gigantic rock face - trapping them at the top. The mother bear tried to climb it in order to rescue them, and left the tracks of her claws on the face, but was unable to get them down. The deer and many other animals tried, but all of them failed until - you guessed it - the inchworm gave it a shot. He climbed up the face inch by inch, and took down the baby bears one at a time. A science fiction writer might be concerned with how the inchworm was able to handle carrying a baby bear, but fortunately we're working with folklore here! Thus, the name of this giant face is that of a tiny inchworm.

Hidden story #3: Pohono Falls = Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil falls is very lovely, and I have heard that when the wind blows right in certain seasons, it can blow the entire waterfall up into spray like raising a veil. Its native American name is much more sinister: it means "evil spirit wind." The story behind it is that once long ago a woman of the Ahwahnee was standing up at the top of the falls when a gust of wind rose up from the lake above and pushed her over the edge. Ever after that, it was believed that an evil spirit resided in that lake, and that it would send out winds to push the unwary over the edge. Maybe the white settlers thought that was a bit too macabre when they renamed it - but I thought it was cool.

Finding stories like this always inspires me. As you work with a fantasy or science fictional world, think about its history. Names for places can come from the people who settled a place, or they might come from stories associated with that place. People have stories about the places where they live - even the newest. I'm guessing that the people who built a space station might give an interesting name to a place on the station where a terrible accident occurred, for example. At the very least, thinking about a place's history and trying to reflect that history in names will give a sense of depth to the world. And you may even feel inspired to give additional significance to the history of a place so that it affects the course of the story you are writing. All worlds are built in layers of individual experience over time; it's worth taking the time to explore the possibilities in your own writing.