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Monday, November 30, 2009

A different value: choice

Would you rather have a choice? Or would you rather not?

I'm going to guess that when the question is asked that way, a lot of people will answer, "yes." In America, we tend to like to have choices. We have tons of them - just walk into the supermarket and try to buy breakfast cereal, or laundry detergent, and you'll discover how many options go into just a single choice around here.

Or how about a restaurant, when you order? Would you like soup or salad with that? Salad? Great. What kind of dressing? You have six options to choose from.

This is the kind of thing that many Americans relish. It's also the kind of thing that shuts a lot of people's brains down. My Australian and British friends tend to wonder at the diversity of options over here, and at the same time say, "Isn't it ridiculous?"

The availability of choice has also changed over time. When I was a kid, I never remember choosing what I had for breakfast, except when I chose my breakfast cereal at the store. I chose the cereal then, and then ate it day after day. But I find myself asking my kids what they'd like on almost a daily basis. This becomes a problem, because it opens me up to complaints about having given them the wrong thing. I never gave the choice problem a single thought when I began this routine, but I probably should have. Now I have to try to train my kids out of being finicky. Sad to say, I was the one who inadvertently trained them into it, at least where breakfast was concerned.

And then there are life choices. We talk about these with our kids regularly. If someone at school is constantly bugging you, what do you do? Often enough, you feel like you have no options - so talking it out and making sure you consider different possibilities can have great value. Tell the teacher is one option. Call the kid's bluff is another option. Bluff or tease back is another, and yet another is to get violent. Some of these options are socially acceptable, and others are not - and don't even get me started about questions like drugs and alcohol. I've already mentioned those issues to my kids, even though they're just 4 and 6. I figure the orientation had better start early.

My friend Janice Hardy has a great little quote in her book, The Shifter: "She who has a choice has trouble."

Now, when it comes to writing and worldbuilding advice, I'll start with the obvious: make sure that your setting has a level of choice consistent with that present in any historical analog you're using for background. Don't have your medieval character walk into the equivalent of a Y2K grocery store, or even a 1950's grocery store! If you're working from the ground up in a science fictional or fantasy economy, think through how goods are supplied and transported, and that will help you arrive at how they might be presented. Different social groups can have different ways of accessing goods depending on their level of affluence, as well.

Second, keep your eye out for places where people are likely to be asked to make choices, either between objects or between life options. You can really give your world a lot of depth if you can think through what kind of reasoning might go into your character's choices in each situation.

Third - and I think this is the sneaky one - keep your eye out for a character's tacit expectation of choice. A character without the means to access the choices available to others will not react easily to being presented with the kind choice a rich or powerful person is accustomed to dealing with. The options that spring up in the character's mind will be limited by their culture and upbringing. They'll probably struggle. They'll probably also wonder why they have to choose at all, and whether there's any potential for punishment involved in the choice. Furthermore, they'll be far more likely simply to accept what they're given without question or objection. So watch out for situations where your poor or undercaste character acts as if he/she feels entitled to the privileges of the rich. Even as this character objects to his/her status, even as he/she plots revolution, there's going to be a subconscious level on which they fear the ability to make a choice.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I'm a guest blogger!

It's almost Thanksgiving - today I'll be baking pies and making cranberry sauce, and generally filling my day with food instead of blogging. But! Lydia Sharp, over at The Sharp Angle, has been kind enough to invite me for a guest blog post on pronoun use and narrative distance, a.k.a. the intersection between point of view and "show don't tell."

So thanks so much to Lydia, and here's the link. As always, I hope you find my musings useful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not hiding information that readers need

This post is intended to be an extension - a reversal, in fact - of my last post. In the same way that you can use backgrounding to slip in world information, you can also do yourself a disservice by "hiding" critical information that should be taking head billing. I've made comments to my critique buddies about how they shouldn't "hide X under Y" and it usually takes me a while to explain to them what I mean. So I figure it's useful to discuss here.

If you have a critical piece of your plot, especially a voluntary action by your protagonist, then you should not hold back from describing that action. Don't imply that it happened. Don't make it passive. State it as directly and actively as possible.

I think this is the kind of thing that people are talking about when they tell you not to use "was" or "passives" in your writing. Though the instruction never to use "was" or "passives" is extremely overgeneralized, it does make an important point. If you've got a character and that character is acting, changing things, etc. then chances are you should stick him or her right in the subject spot in the sentence and use the most interesting and exciting verb you can come up with to say what he or she is doing.

The other way that writers might inadvertently hide critical information has to do with (gasp!) sentence structure.

I suppose there must be folks among you who have spent time diagramming sentences in school. I did. Well, don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to get out your pencils! But if you've got even the vaguest image somewhere in your head of what those diagrams looked like, you might find it useful. The basic distinction I'm thinking of here is the one between the main clause of the sentence - the one that used to be on the main line when we diagrammed - and the subordinate clauses that attach to it. Here's an example:

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that Mom made.

Now I'm going to put main clauses in bold text and subordinate ones in italics.

When Tom arrived, we took out the turkey and put it in the oven with the pie that mom made.

Now, when I say information is "hidden" in a sentence like this, of course, that's a relative statement. It's still available - in exactly the way that makes subordinate clauses so convenient for slipping in worldbuilding information. But - and this is the important part - its impact is blunted.

Take this sentence, for example:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

The structure of this sentence looks like this:

When I hit him over the head with the frypan, he cried out.

Essentially what I've done here is "hide" the action of hitting, and bring primary attention to "he cried out." In most action narratives, this makes no sense at all. I'd almost expect that this was a sentence coming from after the event itself - someone describing what happened, for example. Or perhaps I'd expect that the actual hitting event had been described before this sentence. As a method for actually conveying the occurrence of the action, it comes across to me as weak. This isn't to say that I never do stuff like this in my own writing - but if I catch something like this on a first draft, I might change it to the following:

I hit him over the head with the frypan, and he cried out.

Conjunctions like "and," "but," and "so" do not create subordinate clauses. They keep both coordinated clauses on the same level of structure, and in an action sequence, work far better to keep the hitting and the crying out at the same level of importance.

I'll conclude by giving a few examples of words to watch out for - words that create subordinate clauses. But before I do, let me be clear: I don't mean that these words should never be used. There may well be a context when you want one element of a sentence to be backgrounded to another, and be given lesser importance. It's like the whole "was" thing. If you try to forbid yourself a tool of grammar in writing, you're just shackling your own feet. Just make sure that you're not using these words inadvertently.

As: As he ran through the door, the horse neighed loudly.

Because: Because I'd paid for the pot, the barkeeper gave it to me.

When: When she found the harlot in bed with George, she took out a knife and killed him.

I'll also mention "that" and "which." These guys make subordinate clauses in a different way from those above, because they allow a writer to describe more about a particular noun, as "the pie that Mom made" in the earlier example. I think they're not nearly as much of a trap for the unwary. However, they do background information, and if you want to direct attention deliberately to the attributes of an object or person, you should probably try to avoid using a subordinate clause, and give the description its own space and sentence.

That's all for now. I hope all your writing goes really well today.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hiding Information in Plain Sight

What do you do with information that you need to "get across," but can't "explain"?

If you write science fiction or fantasy, you're certainly aware of the magnitude of this problem - the one we fondly refer to as "infodumping." A big infodump can take readers off the main drive of the story, bore them and eventually dump them out of the story completely. Not good.

So what do you do to keep them? Well, the common suggestion is to avoid infodumping, but the question is, how do you do that? This post will attempt to give you some ways - I hope, not the most common or obvious ways - to approach the problem.

First suggestion: resist the instinct to explain. Explaining means you're stopping out of the main thrust of your story to speak to the reader as an author and let them know "this is how it works." If you generally use a third person omniscient narrator, it may be easier to do this without actually having it feel strange. But if you're in a close narrator like a third person limited, or first person present tense, stopping out of the action for a paragraph, even a sentence, can be very distracting. Pure explanation will tend to stick out like a sore thumb, so only do it if you absolutely have to.

One common solution to the infodumping problem is to set things up so that one of your characters will explain the necessary information to another. It can be done successfully, but here are some things to watch for if you're planning to do it. First, stay away from "As you know Bob," dialogue. This is where one person explains something to someone else who can't help but know the information already. Like saying, "As you know, Bob, this space station orbits around planet Zobob." You've doomed yourself immediately because readers see right through this. This isn't to say that you can't put very obvious information about location into dialogue - but there has to be a good reason. One good reason might be conflict between characters. There's a great example of this in Mary Pope Osborne's book, Dinosaurs Before Dark.

"Help! A monster!" said Annie.
"Yeah, sure," said Jack. "A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania."

These are the first two lines of the book! And already she's told you that Jack and Annie live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. But she didn't explain it. Neither did she have Jack say, "As you know, Annie, we live in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania." She did something much more clever, which I will call hiding information in plain sight, or backgrounding.

The information sneaks in, in this example, because of Jack's sarcasm. The point of what he's saying isn't where they live - it's his message of "you've got to be kidding," which he has phrased in terms of a sarcastic attack on her claim. He could have said, "Yeah, sure, a real monster. Right." But the author chose here to dispense a critical piece of information by turning Jack's words in another direction.

Very often, you can contribute to the ongoing drive and conflict in a story using the main point of a sentence, and then use the back door of that same sentence to sneak in information. Not a lot, mind you - just a piece here, a piece there. When I studied pragmatics, we talked about backgrounding in terms of things like implicature and presupposition. In this post, though, I think I'm going to use a few concrete examples so I don't send everyone scrambling to buy a Pragmatics textbook that won't directly address what you're trying to do in a story.

From Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief:

"Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood."

This line tells us that the main character (Percy) is a half-blood. Yes, it's obvious, but no, it's not actually the main message of the sentence. The statement that he didn't want to be one implies that he is one - takes that message, which probably could have been stated directly without losing the reader, and backgrounds it to a statement about Percy's desires, with extra implications about his attitude. Suddenly the sentence is doing more than telling us Percy's a half-blood. It's telling us that he has strong desires and resentments, and showing us his character. Bravo.

"Like at my fifth-grade school, when we went to the Saratoga battlefield, I had this accident with a Revolutionary War cannon."

I love this one. At this point Percy's told you he's a troubled kid going to boarding school, but not much about his history. Now he starts telling you some of the reasons he's been in trouble. Take a look at the phrase Riordan slips in there: "my fifth-grade school." This single phrase presupposes that such a school exists, i.e. Percy could not use the phrase if he had not had a school that lasted only for fifth grade. Therefore, though it's hidden inside a sentence that centers on "I had this accident...", suddenly we know by implication that Percy's trouble isn't recent, and that he has a history of changing schools. Not surprisingly, later in the same paragraph we find "my fourth-grade school." Riordan can later build on this concept of Percy's itinerant schooling without ever having explained it outright.

From Nnedi Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker:

"Ejii fought against her surety that this time the world really was ending, that the Sahara Desert was finally finishing what it had started, swallowing up the rest of what was there."

This is a great sentence. The main point of it is that Ejii is fighting the certainty of an idea - similarly to the first Riordan example above, making a statement about the mental state or judgments of the main character. The idea itself has at least two critical worldbuilding phrases in it. The first one, "this time the world really was ending," implies that there was a last time when everyone thought the world was going to end - critical history for this book, but information which (if Okorafor explained it) would detract from the action of Ejii reacting to an earthquake. The second phrase is "the Sahara Desert," which unequivocally locates Ejii and her story in Africa.

These phrases are critical to reader orientation, but because they work indirectly, by implication, we often don't notice they are there or what they are doing. And by not explaining, they make us more curious, not less.

I don't want to leave this post without addressing the issue of explanation. Sometimes you have to do it. Sometimes you have a really complex concept that is absolutely necessary to understand your story, and it would take you lots and lots of strenuous work-arounds to get across, and maybe even then you couldn't be sure if readers would be able to put it together. In that case, you need your explanation. So here are a few suggestions. First, streamline to make it as concise as possible. Second, make it as relevant as possible. Put it in a place where your character has every reason to think of it, and not only that, but every reason to think about it in those terms.

If your character needs to know how to use a complex piece of technology, ask yourself precisely how much they need to know about it in order to use it. My daughter started being able to use the internet to click around her favorite PBS website before she was four. If she needs to be able to do this for the story to work, it doesn't mean that I need to explain the technological basis for the internet. Still, if something about what she finds is fundamental to the plot, I may have to give some detail about how she thinks about what she does. It's a matter of judgment.

This "explanation" example is from my own story, "Cold Words," because I know what I intended when I included it in the story, and why I placed it where I did - something that would be harder for me to guess at in another person's story. This story centers on trouble with status dialects in an alien language. When the story opens, Rulii and Parker are speaking the less-marked dialect, called Warm Words. Then Rulii goes out to speak to his Majesty, and this is where I need to make the distinction between the dialects clear. I could just throw readers in, but figuring out what the difference is between the two styles of talk is not the point of the story, exactly - it's about the consequences of the two styles of talk. So I take advantage of Rulii's antagonism toward Majesty and the other councilors to place his explanation of the dialects right before he has to start speaking the second one.

"Blunted now is the fierceness that incited their tundra ancestors to annex our lands. They depend on the urrgai that our Lowland Clans first bred tame, and their ancient hunt-calls have changed in sense, to Cold Words proclaiming dominator status. Only in Majesty's exalted presence must the Cold Words be used by all as they were long ago: the language of the ice-hunters."

This paragraph is still trying to do multiple things (because I can't help myself!). The first sentence is something of an insult about how these guys he's looking at aren't fierce any more, with the history of tundra ancestors and annexing lands backgrounded in the "that" clause. The second sentence is similar, calling them dependent - and the explicit statement about the hunt-calls changing into Cold Words fits into this feeling of the decline of fierceness, even as it directly tells what the Cold Words are supposed to do. The final sentence sets up the rule that Rulii will be following as he enters his next interaction, so that nobody has to guess what's going on and why he's talking a little differently. But at the same time it fits into the attitude that has come before, making the Majesty's presence special but also somewhat pretentious-sounding.

If you're writing right now, chances are you're already hiding information in plain sight. We do it all the time. The trick is just to look for these opportunities consciously, to make it easier to place hints about world and culture while we're giving our primary attention to the ongoing action of the story.

As always, I welcome any comments.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Scientific American Takes On Aliens

Here's an article about the likelihood - or lack of it - that any aliens we encounter in the universe will look like us. Many thanks to Doug Sharp for pointing this one out to me! I hope you enjoy it.

Will E.T. Look Like Us - Scientific American

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Inciting Event and Your World - Revisited

I've had a couple of requests to revisit this topic outside the workshop in which it originally occurred, and it relates directly to the idea of beginning stories (as in my last post) so today I'm pulling it out of the archive and re-editing it for your enjoyment.

I've 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 (her blog has tons of great information on the process of writing and on getting published). 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. When trying to hook your reader, it's good to plunge into the inciting event as early as possible. I've spent a lot of time in my writing career working on the question of where to start my stories, and believe me, it can be tricky - but it's worth thinking seriously about.

Where I want to take this topic in a particularly TalkToYoUniverse direction is by linking the inciting event to the issue of worldbuilding. When you're thinking about how to open your story in a science fiction or fantasy context, 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. Think about what your characters care about, and what they don't care about - where they are especially attentive or where they have blind spots and weaknesses. All of these things can become your tools, as you can imbue your narration with a dismissive or contemptuous tone, or a bubbly enthusiasm, or what have you.

Next comes the tougher, more subtle step: working in the 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 here's the question: How can we possibly describe the basic parameters of our worlds, when we know 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 for a real-world scenario, here.

In fact, there's a beautiful convergence here: the inciting event, the trigger for the core conflict of the novel, very often is all about the precise type of conflict that can let you give out world information.

Here's an example from the drafting stage of my recent story, "Cold Words" (Analog, October 2009). 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 point of view of Rulii, the native liaison, and thus the main motivating force in the story is Rulii's 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 the 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 in that scene, 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 Rulii 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, Rulii is more likely to remark on the quirky cultural things inherent in their interaction.

So, when you're looking at your own stories, consider the kinds of conflict or contrast opportunities that appear in the opening scene as you've written it, and then ask yourself how you could tune the circumstances of that scene to make your job easier.

Finally, in the spirit of making a world personal, I'm posting a list of eleven questions I've used in two of my workshops. You've probably seen questions like these before, but worldbuilding questions are often phrased in a very impersonal way, and that's not what I'm trying to do here. All of these questions are deliberately phrased to relate directly to a protagonist's view of the world, and participants in my workshops have found it a helpful exercise to answer them using the voice of their POV characters.

Here are the questions:

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?

I hope you may find this exercise helpful in your writing process.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

First Things First

How important is the first sentence of your story?

I've seen whole discussions about this on the writing forums I frequent. Some folks will tell you that the first sentence of your story is the most important one of the entire piece, and if you don't get it right you might as well just give up. This doesn't seem a practical approach to my mind, because I don't like any advice that tells me to give up!

I'd like to call the first sentence "a great opportunity."

It's an opportunity to hook your reader, to impress them, to intrigue them and make them curious. But it's not everything. Imagine the disappointment of reading a terrific first sentence and then discovering that the rest of the paragraph is ho-hum. So don't put all your energy just into sentence one; save some for the continuation. I don't think a "just fine" first sentence will be enough to make someone reject your story. On the other hand, if you don't have some great stuff in the first paragraph, you may well lose a very impatient editor. They're zooming, because they have a lot of manuscripts to get through.

So how do I approach a first sentence?

Because I'm a very chronological writer, I need to have a first sentence for a scene before I can start writing it. Sometimes I'll wander around for several days trying out different first sentences in my head until I can find the way in. Ideally, I want any first sentence I write to do three things:

1. Make people curious
2. Demonstrate the psychology of the main character
3. Introduce the main conflict in some form (even obliquely)

I put "make people curious" first, because that's what gets a reader to read your second sentence with gusto, rather than with diminishing momentum. That's your hook. If it makes people curious about the main conflict or main character or the core of the story, so much the better.

I put "demonstrate the psychology of the main character" second because it's something that is very important to me - but I usually write either in first person or in tight third person point of view, and the psychology of the main character is therefore highly relevant. Not to mention the fact that if the main character is an alien, showing something of his/her psychology may help to make the reader curious (see #1 above).

I put "Introduce the main conflict" third because it's something that's really good to do, but can't always be done directly in the first sentence. Even if I don't manage to get it in there, though, I usually try to tap into some part of the main conflict (or the spirit thereof) before the end of the first paragraph. This kind of information does a lot to make the reader curious, but also provides an orientation to give them a sense of where the story might be going - not the plot, but the point, the reason I'm writing this story and they should keep reading it.

Just because I spend days trying to think of a first sentence doesn't mean that the first one I think of - my "entry" to the scene - will end up being my first sentence when I'm through. I often make changes to beginnings, sometimes even trying over and over until I find just the right thing.

Just so I'm not talking about air, I'll give some concrete examples below.

"Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken."
- Janice Hardy, The Shifter

I love this sentence. The first thing I think of when I read it is, "Why?" There's our curiosity, right there. It also reveals the psychology of the narrator, because it suggests this person is willing to try to get only the eggs rather than taking the whole chicken - or why would she be mentioning how hard it is? And while this sentence doesn't introduce the main conflict, it does demonstrate a moral sense that is finely tuned between what's right and what's necessary - which is what lies at the core of this character's involvement in the main conflict of the story.

"Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of a blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me."
- Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart

I have an extended analysis of this sentence in an earlier post, here. But speaking in terms of the three items above, I can say this: it makes me curious, by letting me know the main character is in trouble ("for all the good it did me"), and by giving an amazing amount of information about the psychology of the main character (class attitude, social position, etc.). The entire book maintains the same intense focus on the character of Phèdre - she is the magnetic core of the story, so the sentence is certainly consistent with what follows.

"I hereby declare the end of Dana Turner."
- Juliette Wade, Through This Gate

Here's one I wrote myself, so I'll say off the bat that I've tried to have this sentence do all three things I mentioned. I thought I'd share some of the process behind this one, though - I came up with it pretty early in the writing process, maybe even as early as the first draft. However, for a long time I didn't know how to follow it. I worked and reworked the scene that followed this sentence, and even considered changing it, but in the end decided it was the right first sentence for my book, so the rest of the scene had better fit with it, and that was that. I worked until I managed to get it to fit.

Finally I thought I'd share a revision example. Here was the sentence that was my "entry" to the story I'm currently writing:

"Piloting the shuttle between maintenance sites is my reward, the guys tell me - to make up for the five years it took Terrafirm, Inc. to grant my security clearance."

I wrote it, and it got me in, but I wasn't happy with it. Yes, you might be curious about why she didn't get her security clearance for so long, and yes, the sentence does show her attitude, but it doesn't really give you any hints as to where the story is going. Maybe something to do with security clearances? Certainly security clearances are relevant, but they aren't the point of the story. So I've gone back in and rewritten it - not edited it, but gotten rid of it and started in a completely different way. The physical details of location etc. for the opening scene have all remained the same, but the opening sentence is now:

"Kelly's on the comm and she's playing with my mind, trying to tell me she sees a cloud."

Psychology/attitude, check. Curiosity, well, it has to do with why someone who sees a cloud would be suspected of playing with anyone's mind. Let's just say that yes, it's highly unusual for someone to see a cloud in this circumstance, and yes, the main conflict begins with the sighting of the cloud. So I'm much happier, at least for now. Who knows, I might find something better, in which case I can choose that.

So at the end of this whole discussion I hope I've given you something to think about, and something to aim for - but I also hope that I've been clear about the difference between an entry sentence (first sentence for the first draft), and a first sentence (first sentence for the final draft). It's always cool and exciting when you can find a first sentence that really hooks a reader. Just don't be afraid to take as many drafts as you need in order to get there.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Many paths to a writing career

"It's hard to get published."

Everybody knows this, even people who never plan to become writers. I knew it when I started writing, when I'd just discovered this storytelling drive I had inside me and had no idea (yet) where it fit into my life. I'd always had an artistic drive, and always had interest in science fiction and fantasy, but had never put them together before. So I wrote first and figured it out later.

When I first got to the point where I wanted to try to get published, I had no idea how to start. This may sound familiar to some. I was living in Japan at the time, and the internet resources for writers hadn't really come into their own yet, so I mail-ordered a couple of books about agents and publishers and how to go about writing query letters and all that lovely stuff. Some of you will recognize at this point that I was writing novels rather than short stories. That was where my experiences with rejection began! On the other hand, I learned early that rejections with comments were pure gold, because they were feedback from someone on the other side of that mysterious wall that lies between the publishing world and the lowly newbie writer.

Now there are lots of internet resources out there for writers: AgentQuery, Preditors and Editors, SFWA's Writer Beware, Duotrope's Digest, etc... But it's still hard to get published, and there's no easy answer just waiting out there for a writer to find. This is because there are many different paths that can lead you to a successful writing career, and if you ask two (or three, or four) writers how they got to where they are, chances are they'll each give you a different answer.

Some start with short stories and others start with novels. I started by writing novels, and then after a time friends said to me, "You should try writing short fiction." I got the impression from some of them that it would be easier to get short fiction published than novels. Since I'd had no success with the novels I'd written so far, I figured, "Why not?" So I started writing short stories, and learning how to do those, because they're very different from novels and require different kinds of skills to get right. I got lots of rejections, from lots of different markets. The fact of the matter is, I'm not sure which one is harder. But you'll never know which one is easier for you if you don't try both. My friend Aliette de Bodard has a novel coming out from Angry Robot, entitled Servant of the Underworld, but by the time she sold it she already had a great career going and lots of fans from her short fiction.

Some people sell their short fiction first to semipro venues, and others to pro. I always figured, start at the top with each story you want to sell, and work your way down as it gets rejected, from pro to semipro, to token venues. But the fact of the matter was, I lost patience with the endless cycle of waiting, and after I ran my work past a few semipro markets, I pretty much left it in the trunk. I have several friends who have sold many pieces to semipro markets before breaking into the pro markets - and at least two who now make regular money from their sales of short fiction, hooray!

Some people pitch a novel to a publisher first, get a deal, and then find an agent. Others go straight to getting an agent through the query approach. My friend Janice Hardy, for example, landed an agent without any previous fiction sales, simply on the strength of her new novel, The Shifter, which she sent queries for and then pitched to the woman who would become her agent at the Surrey International Writers Conference. If you think this is impossible, well, you can feel reassured that it's not. It just may not end up being the path that is successful for you.

Some people go to lots of conventions and network like crazy. Others don't. This is a funny one, because I never figured I'd find this to be my own route. Are you kidding? I started out writing in Japan, and then after I got back to the US I had my kids, and it was all I could do just to get out to a local convention for a few hours during the day. But, interestingly enough, this turned out to be my path - because I kept working on my writing, and because I got to meet a few wonderful people.

In thanks to those people, I'll tell a brief version of the connections here. I first went to BayCon, my local convention, in 2003 when my son was 3 months old. There I went to a session run by Kent Brewster, who recommended that I submit to the BayCon writers' workshop the following year. So I came up with my very first short story and went in 2004. One of the pros on the panel at the writers' workshop was Dario Ciriello, who got word after the workshop was over that I was looking for a face-to-face writers' group, and invited me to his. Dario was also the one who put me in touch with the BayCon programming folk, with the result that I was on a panel about the Seven Wonders of the World in (I think) 2006. On the panel with me was a lovely author with whom I struck up a conversation, Deborah J. Ross. She encouraged me to come to the SiliCon convention a month later, and there introduced me to Sheila Finch, because Sheila and I share an interest in linguistics. Sheila was the one who told me that Dr. Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine, liked stories about linguistics. So I took some time, got my linguistics story together and sent it off, and it sold in December 2007, appearing in Analog in July/August 2008. It was also at SiliCon that I met my friend Lillian Csernica. We hit it off immediately, and she helped me with the interminable revisions of my novel, Through This Gate. At a certain point, she said she'd like to recommend me to her agent. Well, she never did - but only because I ran into her agent at the 2009 Nebula Awards weekend, and remembering what Lillian had said, walked right up to her and said hello. This turned into a pitch, and a full manuscript request, and finally this October, into an agency signing. I could never have signed with the Grayson Agency (blog) on the basis of queries alone, but they happen to be just the right agents for me. Who would have imagined it?

I am immensely grateful to these people who have helped me get to where I am. I have found that the science fiction and fantasy writing community has a great sense of helping in return for being helped, and I am already trying to pass on what I know in this great spirit.

All of this is to say that if you want to have a writing career, you have to keep at it. Be dogged. Meet people, query, submit, and above all, write, write, write. Try to make your writing better at every opportunity, because you never know which path will suddenly open up for you, and when it does, you'll want to be able to give the right person a piece of writing that really knocks their socks off.

I wish you all the best in your own endeavors.

Photos from Halloween

Since some people have requested these, I thought I'd post a couple of photos of my kids and hubby at Halloween. I didn't end up with any photos of myself.

This first one is of my son Niall as Emperor Palpatine (watch out for Sith lightning):

Then we have my daughter Rhiannon as a Barbie Musketeer (the hat represents 6 hours of work!):

And finally, here's a picture of Rhiannon with my husband Tim. He dressed as an Australian convict this year, and not just any convict - one of his own ancestors who was arrested in Tipperary, Ireland for stealing a cloak (first offense) and shipped off for seven years labor in Australia. You may notice that the Australian convict outfit isn't quite the same as the American. That was something interesting I learned as he was getting ready. The pattern on the suit is called "magpie's feet."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Measures of Intelligence

The other day I went to the Ardenwood Historic Farm, which isn't far from our house. It was peak season there, with a corn maze and pumpkin patch and lots of great animals at the farm. One of the key attractions was a pair of pigs - huge creatures, which we were told had only been born this spring. The friendly farm volunteer asked us if the pigs looked intelligent. Some folks, mostly kids, said no. Some sagely nodded their heads, having been told previously that pigs were quite intelligent. Then the volunteer explained to us that one of the big signs of porcine intelligence was this: they might spend a lot of time lolling around and digging their heads and bodies in muck, but they keep the location where they defecate constant, separated from the location where they sleep, and the location where they eat. Other animals at the farm don't do this.

It got me to thinking. What are the cues we use to measure intelligence?

This is a question that is quite relevant to science fiction, because in the science fictional arena, you quite often find situations where one alien or another is casting aspersions on another species' intelligence (or possibly admiring it). But it's not just for alien scenarios. When we think to portray a character to our readers - just generally - we need to make sure their impressions of that character's intelligence agree with our own, and it's useful to think about what kind of cues to use.

We might be able to run a dog, or an alien, through a maze, but that's a bit less plausible for humans.

A lot of the way we assess intelligence comes down to behavior. A creature or person who is keenly attentive to his surroundings, and purposeful in his movements, can easily come across as more intelligent than one who is not. Restraint and good manners are often taken as a sign of intelligence. Someone can show intelligence in the way she organizes her belongings or the space she occupies. In a conversation between speaking entities (not necessarily human!) a shorter lag time before beginning a response can indicate intelligence. People who speak faster can often be seen as more intelligent - and I've even seen this measure used (naively) to cast aspersions on speakers of dialects that have a slower rate of speech. Another sign of intelligence in speech is lack of redundancy - either the lack of reiteration in one's own speech, or the ability to build on another person's contribution to a conversation rather than simply recasting it.

These measures can be useful - and the expectations associated with them can be used to the writer's advantage in description and dialog. However, they are heavily influenced by culture and context, and should be considered highly fallible.

A person isn't unintelligent if she speaks with a slow dialect. Leaving a pause before you respond to what someone says could be interpreted as a lack of alacrity - or as thoughtful pondering of a response. Good manners are just that - good manners. And we know that all sorts of people get crazy once in a while!

Misunderstandings in this arena can provide great opportunities for stories. In the story I'm currently working on, the group of aliens has an unusual criterion for "higher intelligence" that humans don't happen to share. The pigs at Ardenwood farm are a great example of how a behavior that might seem senseless to us - digging around in mud with one's nose - can make perfect sense to another species and have nothing at all to do with that species' level of intelligence.

It's something to think about.

After reading through the links that Mike Flynn volunteered in my comments section below, I heartily recommend his taxonomy of aliens, which can be found here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Layers of Language

The other day I found myself talking to a friend of mine about computer languages. One of the interesting things about computer languages is how they have increased in complexity and layered over one another. The interfaces that we see on our computer screens look simple and easy because there are lots of intervening layers of meaning between what is simple and easy for us, and what is understandable by a computer chip. In the conversation with my friend, I ended up describing binary machine code - how zeroes and ones correspond to the presence or absence of an electrical signal. To get from that to a pretty window with icons to click on requires an elaborate process of translation which progresses through multiple layers of linguistic re-interpretation.

Zeros and ones are obviously not the only option as a fundamental basis for language - they are just associated with the structure of computer chips. I recently read an interesting article about something called "memristors," which don't have the same either-or structure and have the potential to change this fundamental basis. Here's a description of them at Wired magazine.

This layering reminds me in some sense of human language, except that the layering of human language occurs over time (here's a post I wrote on language change, for the curious). Language speakers will take ideas and put them together, combining words to express that complexity. Then, when such a combination gets used a lot of times, the sounds will simplify and the word will become unique and singular. For a while the underlying meanings will outlive the alteration of their sounds, but eventually the word will become opaque, and those who learn to utter it will have to be taught, explicitly, what the word's origins once were. Here are two examples:

God's wounds => 'zwounds =>zounds
All Hallows Even => Hallow e'en => Halloween

I bet you can guess what put me on to this idea... Mike Flynn has a fascinating post on the history of Halloween as a holiday (and about saints), which everyone should read. It's here.

etymology and the history of language. words/expressions that start out meaningful and then become opaque, like Halloween.

Monday, November 2, 2009

World Fantasy Convention

Let me start by offering my congratulations to all the winners of the World Fantasy Awards, which were given out at the convention this weekend.

This was the first non-fan convention that I've ever been to, and as such was interesting and different for me. The biggest draw of the whole thing was the lounge, where people milled about, sat in comfy chairs and talked for hours at a time. The San Jose Fairmont has a great space for that, and it worked very well. I met friends, and friends-of-friends, and approached a few strangers when I overheard interesting topics.

I got to listen to Patricia McKillip read aloud. That was cool. I've always loved her work for the calm poetry of it, and this time was no exception. Definitely a fan experience for me.

I also heard Kij Johnson read. She's very skillful when she reads aloud. The story was "Spar," currently up at Clarkesworld, and a very disturbing story - but she read it in a way that gave it a whole new dimension for me. I was lucky enough to talk to her afterward; she's a lovely person. Then on Sunday she won the award for best short story with "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss." If you haven't read it yet, go find it! And if you have already read it, you can check out my analysis of it, and her response, here on the blog.

I went to parties - which I haven't done for ages. It was fun, mostly involved more standing around and chatting. My friend Janice was with me for most of all of this adventuring, which was totally great since she lives in Georgia and I almost never get to see her. I also got to spend a bunch of time with my friend Dario, and we even had a lunch with Keyan, so there were four members of Written in Blood writers' group there all at once! I got several opportunities to hang out with the Graysons, which was neat, since I don't imagine everyone gets a chance to spend time with their agent and chat.

The banquet was pretty much as expected, but I always enjoy seeing the amazing people who get up on the stage to talk and accept awards - like Ellen Datlow and Garth Nix and David Hartwell, and a whole bunch of others.

It was a great convention for me, not least because I didn't have to worry about pitching, just enjoying myself.