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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Taking Inspiration

For my new story, I'm challenging myself. The story is set in Heian era Japan, which is a much more real, explicitly historical setting than I've done in any story previously (those occur on alien worlds, or fantasy worlds, even some of those are fantasy worlds informed by historical elements). Of course, this involves a lot of research - but as I remarked in my post on insiders and outsiders, I don't think research in and of itself is enough. I'm trying to get into the mindset, consider the criteria that people used to judge one another, and stuff like that.

For that purpose, I've officially started reading The Tale of Genji, which my hubby recently finished. I thought I'd just share a couple of things I've picked up so far, and compare them with some of the ideas and principles I'd already come up with before I started reading.

Things I decided about my story before reading The Tale:

1. The protagonist will be very aware of clothing, nature, seasons, and relative social position.
2. The narrator will care less about social rules than the protagonist.
3. The narrator will receive letters (actually, discarded ones) from the protagonist, and these will contain poems.

Things I decided about my story while reading The Tale [with the source explained]:

1. At least one of the characters will not go by his own name, but by title only. [No one in the Tale actually goes by name, but instead by title, residence, or poetic association.]
2. The narrator will dislike court business and the Chinese language used there, and have much higher opinion of the women's language (Yamato language) which he feels is closer to nature. [Genji and his young friends discuss whether it's ladylike for a girl to be overly educated in court language and Chinese characters]
3. At least one letter that the protagonist sends to the narrator will have been discarded because it makes too much metaphorical reference to current events and places, and too little to the traditional metaphors of classical poetry. [the key words of most poems are in fact allusions to poems from earlier collections]

I find that all the decisions I made before I started reading can be made more concrete and more appropriate to the setting now that I've got explicit examples from which to take inspiration. The other thing that's been happening is that I'm starting to pick up the rhythm of the writing and the way these people talk about one another. I can feel it influencing me a little on a subconscious level, but I haven't really analyzed it to try to put it into my own style more thoroughly. This is because I want to make sure my narrator is "free" from that explicit style, so he can do some sneaky things with his narration that I have planned (it's a secret for now).

Going back to real source literature (in translation if needed, particularly in a good translation) is an incredibly valuable tool for creating a realistic historical feel. After all, the source literature can give us a sense of how people used words in the period we're working with - and since we're rendering that period in words anyway, it can be extremely relevant and useful.

I hope you've found that gives you some ideas for taking inspiration in your own stories.

Monday, March 29, 2010


There are lots of different kinds of laughter. That is to say, the activity may be similar across different occasions, but what it means is very different. Think about the number of different verbs we have in English for different forms of laughing: guffaw, titter, snicker, giggle, chuckle, just to name a few.

One of the things I notice about laughter is that there are appropriate and inappropriate times for it.

When someone else tells a joke, that's an appropriate time, usually. But it will depend on the perceived appropriateness of the joke to the social situation, and also on the rank of the joke-teller and the listeners.

When your father tells you he's angry with you, that's not an appropriate time. I have seen this in my household (and experienced it myself, so you can substitute "mother" for "father" too), and believe me, when you're mad and someone laughs, it makes you even madder.

When you're playing a game or otherwise sharing social experience, and experiencing delight, this is an appropriate time.

When someone tells you something you've never heard before, and you think it's interesting, this is not an appropriate time.

But there's a lot of gray area. In particular, laughter is often a response to nervous discomfort. Humor often takes advantage of precisely this in order to get people laughing about taboo topics, or about other areas that make people feel on edge.

And when you think about it, isn't that most likely the response you're getting from a child when you say you're angry? What sounds like insolence may be nervousness (and yes, a degree of recklessness).

And when someone tells you something you've never heard before, and you're delighted, what do you do?

Well, I often run into situations where people will say things to me that I find so charming, so delightful, or simply so perfectly true and illuminating that I will laugh. And then people say to me, "I'm not kidding." Lucky for me, I'm not doing this in a work situation where I might be penalized for my behavior. Still, I'm stuck saying, "Well, I know you're not kidding - I was laughing because what you said was just so perfect/great/etc."

When you think about it, this is a great element to play with in your worldbuilding. What kind of alternate attitudes about laughter might there be? What would be an appropriate time to laugh that humans didn't recognize but someone else might? What would constitute humor in another culture very different from our own?

It's something to think about.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Using the (Social) Tools You Have

I wonder if you've ever had this experience: you're reading a story set in a far-away world, either far future or far past or far distant in species or dimension, and despite this incredible distance and differences in every detail of their environment, protagonists in this environment seem to be motivated by modern world values. As you can probably guess, the most common version of this that I've run into is the female protagonist who protests the fact that she has no control over her life - easily imagining all the amazing things she could do if only every member of her family and her society and every institution around her weren't there to prevent it.

Call it a pet peeve, but this drives me crazy.

Let me be clear. I am not trying to say that people always accept their lot in life. Any time you have an imbalance of freedoms between one group and another, the group with fewer freedoms will most likely notice the difference, and certain members of that group will feel the need to protest or do something about it. Whether that protestation is quiet, or gets quashed, or turns into revolution depends on social and historical context.

What you'll find, though, is that that same social and historical context - the worldbuilding that so many of you work so hard to achieve - will have deep implications for how the downtrodden think about objecting to their status. Often enough, they won't object at all.

The powerless often have power in certain circumscribed areas. Noble women in the year 1000 AD in Japan led very closeted lives and were entirely protected and directed by their men - but. They learned how to protect themselves by finding powerful protectors among those men. This meant they knew which men to approach, which to allow close, and how to handle them. They knew how to use family alliances on both maternal and paternal sides in order to achieve security or advancement. They also knew how to use their skills with writing to gain prestige, or how to use their skills in memorization of classic poems to get attention. Classic poems may not seem like a big tool for social advancement, but you might be surprised how important they were in the Heian era Imperial court.

People learn to use the social skills they have. They see what works and what doesn't, and they pursue those areas where they can win small victories. Or big ones, as the case may be. Jacqueline Carey's Phèdre (Kushiel's Dart) uses all of her personal skills as a courtesan and a spy to get things done that you might not expect.

In fact, if you think about it, accidentally giving a culturally situated character modern expectations and sensibilities will not help but hurt them. Suddenly they'll appear to believe that they have absolutely no useful skills, and no avenues to escape the oppression they endure - which is not in fact the case. At the same time they'll be able to imagine possibilities that are both implausible and impractical for a person in their situation. So the chances that they'll be able to accomplish anything go down, and since their vision is too unrestrained, they'll be more frustrated than ever. In those circumstances the author may feel tempted to use modern means to give them opportunities for action, but that will only draw the story further away from the world and cultural/social situation that the author intended.

So I encourage you to think through how your characters use the social tools they have to get things accomplished. See if you can find a situated way for your character to work toward his or her own ends. If they can use gossip or information control, use that. If they can stealthily organize masses of people, use that. A character can take the social walls that limit them, turn them into shields and use them for protection.

If you let your characters use the social tools they have, they'll fit far better into their own worlds, and you'd be surprised how much they can accomplish.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Wow! Great article on invented languages

My friend Dave Malinowski put me onto this terrific article, where two experts on invented languages answer questions about the topic. The experts are Paul Frommer, inventor of Avatar's Na'vi language, and Arika Okrent, author of "In the Land of Invented Languages." Check it out!

An interesting article

The online magazine First Things has a thought-provoking article right now about the relationship between sf/f and religion. It's here, if you're curious.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The right narrator

I'm designing a new story. I always enjoy designing because most of it I can do freely in my head any time I want, and not have to worry about whether I can find the time to sit down at my computer. Those who know me well also know that I design by talking out loud - so I do a lot of design while bouncing ideas off various friends (you know who you are - thanks so much!!!).

I've talked before about story design, and the various steps I go through to get a linguistics/alien story going (linguistic problem, aliens, technology level, plot, language, to summarize briefly). This time, though, I'm not dealing with aliens; I'm writing a fantasy story about ancient Japan. This gives me real-time research instead of intensive world and language design, but in fact my attitude about getting close to the thinking process of the people involved remains almost the same. I'm at the last step now, which for the aliens was "language," i.e. deciding what kind of language to use to portray the alien point of view.

For this story I'm calling the step "narrator." I could always generalize and call it narrator for the other type of story too. It's really important to think through:

1. who your narrator is, i.e. how they allow you to get the best point of view on the core conflict of the story, and
2. what their voice is like

I'm not going to spend much time on voice here because I've posted about it several times before. I'm going instead to talk about #1.

Protagonist narrators are the most common in all the works I've read. These come in a number of varieties - I'm not so much talking about 1st versus 3rd person narration here but about whether the narration is delivered in the moment or retrospectively. (I'll talk about non-protagonist narrators below.)

In-the-moment narration works well if you're looking for a sense of visceral closeness to the story. The reader shares sensations, judgments and discoveries with the protagonist as the protagonist has them. This type of narration also allows your reader to experience the protagonist's particular form of myopia, including unreliability (due to insanity, bad judgment, or ignorance). It keeps you as a writer from having to withhold information deliberately and potentially irritate your reader.

Retrospective works well for other purposes. A retrospective narrator has more control over the flow of the story, and can orient the reader on the meta-level to the story as a whole. This allows the writer more freedom to play with chronology because it typically involves less requirement for the end of one section to stick to the beginning of the next. The protagonist can comment on his/her past judgments and orient the reader to a larger moral/general message, like saying what a fool he was when he was a kid. And I'm sure you've often seen retrospective narration used for foreshadowing with phrases like "little did we realize at the time..."

Of course, you can also use more than one narrator. I don't think that switching point of view should be done lightly - it should have a distinct purpose. Crime novels will sometimes dip into the antagonist's viewpoint in order to increase the sense of peril. I personally use point of view switches to show misunderstandings, sometimes within the very same conversation. Part of what I try to do with a switch of narrator is show my readers that no issue is as clear-cut as it seems to any one character in the story, and that even the most reliable characters can still be a little bit wrong. This is definitely the case with my story, The Eminence's Match (forthcoming from Panverse Publishing) - not one of the characters is entirely reliable.

I promised I'd talk about a non-protagonist narrator, and here I am: when you're thinking about who the narrator is, you should think through what the consequences of your choice are for what the story is about. The story I'm designing right now is about a young woman in Heian Japan who goes mad and enters an alternate world (trying to avoid too many spoilers as yet). She's most definitely the protagonist, but there are some difficulties with the idea of using her as a narrator. The biggest one is that she goes mad and becomes unable to tell what is real and what isn't. This makes her a pretty tough vehicle for the reader if I want to keep my reader oriented in the story. I could go for distant narration, but I'd lose some of that sense of closeness that I enjoy so much. So I've just decided to have the story narrated by one of the people who is trying to influence her life (save her vs. cast her down). One of the effects of this is that the story isn't about her "figuring out what is happening" any more - an advantage, since it's going to be tough for her to figure out anything at a certain point. The story shifts when the narrator changes, into a story about three different people trying to influence her in different directions, and which one is going to win. I need to make sure that I keep the focus on her, but this is still a much cleaner model, and I'm very excited about it.

I hope you find these thoughts give you some insight into your own story design process.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Fabulous Sugar Doll Blogger Award

Thanks very much to Jaleh D. for handing on this award! As part of the award, I have to tell you ten unusual things about myself, and pass the award on to 5 people. Let's start with the ten things:

1. When I was 12 I was in a movie with Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.
2. I feel paralyzed when I attempt to play chess.
3. My son thinks I'm not a good guesser because I say "I don't know" too much.
4. I'm teaching my husband to take care of himself when he's sick.
5. I got the flu from George H. W. Bush.
6. I've seen all three Great Buddhas in Japan.
7. My daughter likes to dance with me to Celtic music.
8. I have a concave sternum, which made my x-ray technician gasp in surprise.
9. I played piano for ten years.
10. I have eaten candied crickets.

And here are my awardees:

1. Deb Salisbury at Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker
2. J. Kathleen Cheney at In the Void
3. Megan S. Payne at Odds and Ends and Scattered Bits
4. Lia Keyes at The Scribbler
5. Camilla Mann at Culinary Adventures with Camilla

Go forth and blog!

Do you use parallel drafts?

We in the digital age are very lucky that we have the ability to do this, I think - create word files side by side that are almost identical. Parallel drafts are a really good way to test out a major change before you make it. I ran into a situation recently where I was considering getting rid of a character (the brother) in my story. That kind of change has enough possible repercussions over the whole length of the draft that I wasn't just ready to "try it and see." By the time I'd tried it, undoing it would be very difficult, because finding all the instances of places where it had changed the text would be a nightmare.

So I created a parallel draft and added 'No Brother' to the title.

The disadvantage of parallel drafts is that you have to make sure you give yourself a way to keep them distinct. I suppose it would be comparable to losing yourself in a bunch of parallel worlds (world-lines!) and not remembering which one you really belonged in. This is the reason why I only very seldom work with parallel drafts, and when I do, I don't keep them distinct through numbering. For some reason, I can never quite remember which was the most recent number, and it doesn't orient me sufficiently well. I have to put big verbal cues in the file titles, and then once I've executed the change, make a quick decision about which draft is going to become my new "home base." That means not making any subsequent revisions until I've decided which draft is true. If I have to start inserting the same revisions in two different places it drives me nuts.

So if you happen to be in the position of considering a parallel draft strategy, here are my recommendations:

1. Don't do it a lot. Do it only for revisions with very broad consequences over the whole work.
2. Clearly label your parallel draft with a title that reminds you what you did with it.
3. Decide which draft is your home base before moving on to any other revisions.

After putting together my 'No Brother' draft I decided I liked it much better than the other, and the next re-titling that one received was 'Analog Draft.' So all in all, it was a successful endeavor.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Insiders and Outsiders

This is another post that I've been planning for some time, but I decided this week that I should complete it, given the continuing discussion surrounding Norman Spinrad's article entitled "Third World Worlds" (the original text of which can be found here if you're curious what the furor has been about, and a compiled list of responses can be found here). As with my last post on the Myth of the Native Speaker, this is less a direct response to the debate than an aspect of anthropology, linguistics and writing that I feel is relevant.

I'm talking about the difference in perspective between someone on the inside of a cultural group, and someone on the outside. This is an issue I've given a great deal of thought to when working with my fictional societies, but it seems clear to me that it's relevant beyond just fiction, applying also to any time you're working with a real life social group, or speculated future group.

I think there would be little debate over the idea that in order to portray a social situation vividly, a writer needs to do research. If that situation happens to be fictional, the writer would do well to think through all the things they might discover if they did research. If we're talking about Japan, you'll want to know about the genkan where people take their shoes off before entering a house, and you'll want to know about manga and about the large number of convenience stores and vending machines, about enka singing and about Japanese-English pop rock, etc... all kinds of things that might go into creating a sense of the environment.

Research on its own, though, isn't enough. There's also point of view, which differs critically if you're a person who has grown up in this environment as opposed to being someone who visits it. Insiders versus outsiders.

In some cases the distinction may not even be as simple as just insiders and outsiders. In Japan, there is a very interesting cultural phenomenon I've noticed, of foreigners who live in Japan but who interact primarily with Japanese people who love to hang out with foreigners. Between the two groups a new group culture has been created: one that's uniquely Japanese and yet doesn't actually capture what someone would encounter if they lived with a host family. It's a "foreigner-Japanese" culture, or perhaps it's similar to the sort of mixing environment that has given rise to pidgins across the world. It was in this sort of context that I encountered Japanese people who told me that I spoke Japanese "too well." For whatever reason, my ability to understand Japanese was threatening to someone who wanted the different social contract that existed between the Japanese and non-Japanese participants in this social group. So being an "insider" in that specially defined cultural group is entirely different from being an "insider" or an "outsider" to Japanese society in a more general sense.

For writing purposes, I think it's important to ask the question: what makes the difference between an insider and an outsider perspective? We can feel the difference when we read it, but where does it actually arise?

It arises in language - specifically, the words and usages we choose when we write our stories.

If we're trying to achieve the sense of an insider perspective, either for a world culture or for a fictional culture, it's important to extend our research into the sensitive area of listening to language. It's easy to think of language as a tool for delivering messages, but it's easy to underestimate the sheer number of messages that it can deliver at once. The way that I ask someone to lend me a pen does more than just ask someone to lend me a pen. It conveys other messages about my perceived social relationship to the person I'm speaking to; it conveys the perceived importance of pens; it conveys the fact that in my society, pens exist; it conveys how I feel about being caught without one, etc. Sentences carry messages about judgment and emotion, and about how reality is divided into objects, concepts and categories.

I think the history of Anthropology is somewhat relevant to this question. The early anthropologists weren't exactly like Indiana Jones, but they typically considered the societies they visited, described and judged them from the perspective of their own cultural viewpoint (s). This was a context in which casting aspersions of savagery was far easier than it is today. More modern anthropology draws a distinction between "etic perspectives" and "emic perspectives," that is, outsider perspectives and insider perspectives. Modern anthropologists strive to understand how a group of people defines itself, rather than contenting themselves with observing details of its behavior and judging them from the outside.

Listening to language - i.e. listening to the group members talk about themselves and about outsiders - is critical to the process of understanding the group and how it defines itself. The listener (writer or anthropologist) can listen for overarching cultural metaphors and values, categories that are widely applied, how words are used to label people and objects and how that influences people's perception of them. Words that seem familiar can be applied to things in an unfamiliar way.

This is the kind of thing that we as writers can take advantage of as we write stories. We can tap into our understanding (from literature or personal experience) of the cultural metaphors of a group and bring those to bear when writing a character from that group. I remember discovering Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman and being impressed not just with the settings and objects that filled her fantasy Japan, but also the kinds of things that her characters worried about. The concerns they had, their definitions of success and failure, their justifications for action, and what motivated them to keep going forward in their lives, fit extremely well with my experiences of Japan, Japanese people and literature. It felt real, and spoke to me.

When we try to create an insider perspective, sometimes it's harder than other times. I suppose, though, that the object is not so much to pass for an insider as to create a story that speaks to readers in a meaningful way (interesting thoughts on this at OF Blog of the Fallen, here). And if the perspective is not quite what we'd expect from a full insider, that may indeed give us different kinds of insights - as I remarked in my discussion of what non-native speakers can bring to language and to stories.

I'd like to finish by talking more concretely about insider and outsider language. In my own stories, I usually try to create both insider and outsider points of view that I then contrast with one another. I think this is because of how I've been struck, throughout my experience in anthropology and life in general, by misunderstandings and the divergent ways different cultures invest meaning in what they say. The result is that I'm often looking for ways to describe the same objects and experiences while investing them with divergent value (as in my "different value" posts).

Here are a couple of basic principles to keep in mind. (You may notice that A and B are arbitrary, and can be switched without changing the basic principle.)
  • An outsider (say, from culture A) will notice things in an unfamiliar culture (B) when things that are typically meaningful in culture A differ in culture B.
  • An outsider (A) may not notice things that differ in culture B when those things are not meaningful in culture A - but if they are meaningful in culture B, the culture B insider will probably notice the difference.
  • An insider (of culture B) will not remark on the existence of things/practices/people that are normal to him/her, except when 1) those things/practices/people are seen by the insider to have a distinct value within an ongoing activity, or 2) when those things/practices/people diverge in some way from the insider's expectation.
  • Sometimes a shared activity between members of culture A and culture B will involve things/practices/people that are unremarkable to both parties, particularly if the shared activity is something the two cultures developed together (but aren't currently refining).
There are many ways an author can use principles like this. You can have have insiders find something meaningful while an outsider doesn't notice them at all. You can have an outsider notice something and have an emotional reaction to it that differs completely from the reaction that an insider would have when exposed to the same thing. As an example of this second possibility, I'll point you to something I always wondered about in Star Trek: facial ridges. The way they were treated was that people used them to tell the difference between the different interstellar races. But that was typically it. I could see a human saying, "gee, these guys have facial ridges" because a human in this case is an outsider to the facially ridged culture. But if the features of a face (heavy brows, unibrow, thick/thin lips, nose shape) are invested with so much meaning in human cultures, why wouldn't some quality of the facial ridges have additional meaning?

I tend to think about levels of detail and experience. If a character brings attention to the existence of something, then I automatically guess that person is an outsider; if instead a character expresses a judgment that presupposes the existence of something, I consider that evidence that the character is an insider.

Here are a couple of examples from fictional worlds I've been working with.

Example 1: (physical features)
The species called "Cochee-coco" has a noticeable facial feature. When a human sees this species, her first gut reaction is that they look like otters. However, she then notices that they have no eyebrows, but a bare patch of "pebbly" skin that goes from their eyes up to their ears. For the human character, this facial feature acts as a confirmation that these creatures are not familiar Earthlike creatures, but aliens that humankind has never encountered before. When a Cochee-coco sees this feature, she doesn't bring attention to the feature itself, but gives it its own special name (brow-character) and mentions what the qualities of this feature say about the people who have it: the two people she's looking at are quite masculine (indicating that masculinity is one of the meanings this feature can convey) and that they aren't related because the patterns they have in this skin are different (indicating that family relation is another meaning of the feature). You can see this is a deliberate departure from the Star Trek situation.

Example 2: (manners)
In my Varin world, there is a caste called the Imbati who are servants - but high-level servants, so they serve the nobility as body servants and bodyguards, but also serve as political assistants and secret-keepers. They also are lawyers (servants of the Courts) and bureaucrats (servants of the State). In their role as guardians of information, they've developed manners surrounding the asking of questions. As an author, I want to make it clear to my readers that this rule affects Imbati life, but I have to be careful about how I make it clear - because it doesn't make sense for either the nobility or the servants to "tell" the reader about the rule (here we are again with "show don't tell"). So in the point of view of a noble boy I have him asking the servant a question in exasperation, then saying, "no, don't answer that" and apologizing for having "poor Imbati manners." I'll also add that he can do this because he's more self-aware and respectful of servant ways than most of the nobility. Then in the servant point of view I have to treat it a different way. I have the servant character giving another character permission to ask a question, and then I have the servant notice the mischievous look his girlfriend gets "when about to ask a question without permission."

Example 3: (setting/practices)
The undercaste of my Varin world are downtrodden - no surprise there. But I've spent quite a long time looking for ways to push beyond the obvious evidence for their downtrodden-ness. I have decided that though they are offered health care at clinics, they prefer not to get it there because they're abused by the staff. But if it's normal for them not to go to doctors, it's unlikely that they'll mention it. Instead, since being sick is a departure from the norm, they would talk about what they actually do when they're sick (getting help from neighbors, drinking from natural mineral springs in the vicinity, etc.). A person who actually dealt with doctors on a daily basis through work or other means would be pitied.

We have to work hard when dealing with the portrayal of fictional worlds, because we can't rely on our subconscious sense of belonging to make the language behave the way it needs to. But as I mentioned in my post about the myth of the native speaker, subconscious instincts can be both help and problem.

When dealing with world cultures, as opposed to fictional cultures, it's often easy to rely on one's instinctive, unconscious abilities in pragmatics to express the meanings that we invest in objects, people, and practices. But keep in mind that we have to push away from our subconscious when dealing with other cultures, because it can diminish the effectiveness of our portrayal of them. This is where you see the real skill of a sensitive researcher come into play. No matter what culture you belong to, you need to spend some time closely observing, and especially listening to, the cultures you hope to portray from the inside. Authors who can keep themselves attentive to the meanings created by insiders of a world culture will be able to create a similar effect of their own, while at the same time bringing their own insights to the story.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Prolific Blogger Award

Here I am, trying to catch up with those people who have been very kind in sending me awards...

Let me send out a big thanks to Megs, a.k.a. Megan S. Payne, for handing me the Prolific Blogger award. This award comes with the requirement that I link back to Megs' blog, Odds and Ends and Scattered Bits (done!), and also that I post a link back to the origin page for this interesting award (click the picture below).
I get to hand this award on to seven other people. Here they are:
1. Janice Hardy at The Other Side of the Story
2. Aliette de Bodard at Aliette De Bodard
3. Lisa Amowitz at Why A?
4. Birgitte Necessary at Necessary Writers
5. Kaycee Looney at The Musings of a Looneywriter
6. Sheila Finch at Sheila's LiveJournal
7. Traci Morganfield at The Feathered Serpent's Nest

And I'm working on a post for the Sugar Doll Award...

Silver Lining Blogger Award

Thanks so much to Deb Salisbury at Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker for this award!
I'm now to pass it on to five other people, so here are some great blogs for you to visit:

1. Janice Hardy at The Healing Wars
2. Ann Wilkes at Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys
3. David Steffen at Diabolical Plots (which I hope still counts as a blog!)
4. Lydia Sharp at The Sharp Angle
5. Nicola Morgan at Help! I Need a Publisher!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Myth of the Native Speaker

In the last few days, I've seen a lot of discussion of international speculative fiction, where to find it, who writes it, etc. See Charles Tan here, Nick Mamatas here, for example. Although I started composing this post before that discussion got fully launched, I think it is relevant to that discussion, because it addresses the discrimination and injustice that surrounds the concept of native speakers, both in verbal speech contexts, teaching contexts, and in sf/f writing. And who knows? You might even find some situations here to give you worldbuilding or story inspiration while we're at it.

I'm sure you know the term "native speaker." Someone who speaks a language natively is someone who's grown up in a place where a particular language is spoken and thus has learned it when they were first learning language. I'm a native speaker of English, for example. I have friends who are native speakers of many languages: Urdu, Japanese, French, Spanish... the list goes on. Your book might contain native speakers of these world languages, or one (or more) of your own making.

For a person learning a foreign language, the idea of a native speaker takes on additional importance. The native speaker is the goal. "Nativelike" language use is defined as the pinnacle of success. Along with this comes the idea that you need to have a native speaker as a teacher, because otherwise how will you hear the language you're learning as it's really spoken in its country of origin? Indeed, if you learned it from someone who was once a student like you, wouldn't that be learning it halfway? Or would it?

Be careful. The biggest myth about native speakers of any language is that they are infallible.

Native speakers aren't infallible - just look around the writing boards and you'll be able to watch native speakers of English agonize over what a pain in the neck spelling is, or grammar. They'll argue on and on about one usage or another. (They're entitled to - which is something I'll come back to later.)

I remember when I was learning French. It was a second language for me, though I was still a toddler when I started learning it. I put a lot of effort into my learning. I wanted to be good at it, to speak with native speakers - an admirable goal that really is much of what language learning is all about. One day I got a letter from a pen pal in France, and it had spelling errors in it. I couldn't believe my eyes. Wow, people in France might not always spell French correctly? Well, when you think about it, of course it makes sense. People make spelling errors all the time, native language or no.

If you think about the concept of native-speakerhood from the point of view of language variability (and also world languages), you could argue that there is no one single English that everyone learns. The English one learns depends on what varieties of English one is exposed to. Does that include a particular dialect? Does it also include the standardized English of the news, and of the schools? What about engineering or medical terminology? What about literature? And - let's push that one a little further - what about science fiction and fantasy literature? Each of these sources is going to provide different kinds, complexities, and flavors of English.

The plot thickens when we take the myth of native speaker infallibility and turn it around. The faulty assumption of native speaker infallibility implies an equally faulty assumption of non-native speaker fallibility. This second myth is so powerful that it is used to invalidate the language use of learners all over the world.

Here's a relatively harmless example. When I was living in Japan I could never tell jokes. Things like puns sprang out at me but if I ever tried to use them for humor, people wouldn't laugh. They wouldn't even look confused and fail to get it. They would say, "No, no, no, you have it all wrong," and launch into a language lesson. I was making the joke precisely because I had already learned that lesson. But because I was a non-native speaker, the automatic conclusion was that it wasn't a joke at all, but a mistake.

Here's a subtle example that I think you might recognize, if you're a highly proficient second or third (etc.) language speaker. I have trouble getting my French friends to correct my usage because they understand me. If you accept effective communication as sufficient for a non-native speaker, you're not likely to help someone tune their language to become more accurate and articulate.

And here's an example that made me so angry that I didn't like myself. I started studying Japanese as my major in college, and then spent two years living in Japan studying it intensively. So when I came back to the US, I looked for Japanese teaching jobs. I taught first- and second-year Japanese at a California high school for one year and helped lead a trip to Japan with the school baseball team. The following year I moved to another school where I taught Japanese to 6-8th graders. At each of these schools I was the sole teacher of Japanese and in complete charge of my curriculum and activities, testing, etc. Then, after I began my Ph.D. program to study Education (and the teaching of Japanese in particular), I taught Japanese for one semester as part of a team run by native-speaking teachers of Japanese. Everything changed. We team-taught the classes so no single teacher saw any one class more than twice a week. For non-natives, that was once a week. For at least the first four weeks of class, I and the other non-native teachers weren't allowed to correct our students' homework without having our own work checked by the native teachers, regardless of our previous experience. Not once in the course of that semester were we given responsibility to correct testing material without supervision. It was not a situation I felt I could continue in beyond the end of that semester.

In my dissertation I learned some interesting things when I compared native and non-native teachers. The teachers I studied were of Japanese, but I'm sure much of this would also apply to English. When it comes to pragmatics - the subtleties of representing social identity and politeness behavior - we aren't typically conscious of what we do. If someone describes a situation to you and asks you what you'd say, you won't typically say what you would say, but what you believe you should say - and those aren't always the same thing. I think you can see the difficulty for teaching contexts. Non-native teachers, however, are more conscious of what they do, which makes them a great resource for teaching students in this area which is so critical for social and linguistic success. My conclusion was (in quick simplified summary version) that teamwork between native and non-native speakers is ideal for learning.

This all leads me to the following conclusion: both non-native and native speaker perspectives on language have value. This isn't just true for language teaching, but for writing as well.

Non-native speakers of English writing in English will do interesting things with the language, because they don't have the same underlying experience of language sources that a native speaking writer has had. Trouble may of course arise, as when an expression is ambiguous and the writer isn't fully aware of that ambiguity. But the alternate language background makes it easier to avoid falling into cliché, and can bring a freshness to writing style the likes of which you won't see in the writing of a native speaker (who, when avoiding cliché, will achieve freshness of a different variety).

Yet these writers can still fall into the trap of the assumption of fallibility. My friend Aliette de Bodard, has a debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, that has just come out from Angry Robot books. One reviewer claimed that the qualities of her writing that he disliked could be explained by the fact that English was not her native language - and while most other reviewers praise her work enthusiastically, you can imagine that Aliette was highly insulted by this. It piqued my own indignation to such an extent that I began writing this post. Her science fiction and fantasy writing grow directly out of a long history of reading sf/f in English - a natural source for the wonderful English she uses, which is then augmented in flavor and originality both by her own creativity and her unique perspective on the English language. She is also very articulate in discussing her own cross-cultural and cross-linguistic experiences with writing, so go take a look at some of her thoughts, here.

Aliette is not alone. Indeed, she's following in some very famous footsteps. History is full of works - classics in fact - written in English by non-native speakers. One of the most famous is Lolita, written in English by the Russian Vladimir Nabokov. [Reviewed here (1958).] And then there's Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, a native speaker of Polish (here's another article about him).

I can't say that I haven't unconsciously fallen into the trap of not "getting" a non-native speaker's jokes. But after having worn the shoes of a non-native speaker, and experienced some of the consequences, I know I always try to question my own unconscious assumptions about language use and proficiency.

I hope you also find this post has given you some interesting things to think about.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Productivity and the Muse

There are lots of reasons why a writer might feel discouraged. Rejection is a big one. Writer's block (or the phenomena that pass for it) might be another. I personally have a difficult time with productivity, or to be specific, how little of it I feel I have.

I'm not fair to myself. Does this sound familiar?

Writers have different writing styles, and they have different writing processes. My process happens to involve an enormous amount of background work for each story, followed by planning and scene-sketching - for the whole story if it's a short story, and for at least a section of several chapters if it's a novel. My plan can flex, but I like to know where I'm going.

Sometimes it's a good thing that I have lots of background work to do, because this kind of work is stuff I can do while I'm doing other things. And I have lots of other things to do. Typically I get three hours a day to write, five days a week. The hardest part is that I can't always count on having this time - unpredictable things like illness will derail my process for several days at a time.

I write scene by scene. When I have a draft, I get critique. I usually then have to take the draft apart on first revision and change something major (how major depends on the story). I write stories that go somewhere, that have character arcs for multiple characters. It takes me forever. I watch people around me talking about all their story submissions and/or acceptances and I know that's not something I'll be able to achieve for a number of years, or possibly ever. Even if my time goes up, I'm still not going to change into a flash fiction writer overnight.

I imagine though that other people experience different kinds of frustrations with their productivity. Like writing a whole bunch of stories and not having them land anywhere. Or having to trunk things because they don't know what to do with them or where to sell them.

The thing is, the Muse works differently for different people. I find if I try to change my style, I can't function at all. To some extent you have to go with that.

On the other hand, I have learned some things that help. One is that I've learned to keep my Muse awake - i.e. not to lose my drive and inspiration - by making sure to do at least one writing thing every day. That includes pulling out what I've written last and looking over sections of it. This makes it tons easier to resume what I was doing when the free time presents itself.

I also had some really great advice the other day from my friend Deborah Ross (of Darkover fame). I'll paraphrase what she said. She told me when you feel like your productivity is down, you may be counting the wrong kinds of progress. Getting a story finished is wonderful, but if that's the only kind of achievement that counts, you'll spend a lot of time frustrated. Just keeping the Muse awake should count as progress. Each sentence you write should count as progress. The important elements of worldbuilding and planning should not go unrecognized on the progress-meter either. All of these things contribute.

It was really good advice. I can't say I've stopped feeling frustrated by the unpredictability of my writing time, but counting progress differently has helped a lot - so just in case you've been feeling frustrated too, I thought I should pass this on.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The writer's relationship to the reader

When you read a book, can you tell what the author is saying to you?

In academia, people tend to be very careful about making statements about authorial intent, especially when an author has been dead for over a hundred years. So they'll talk about the narrator and what the narrator says, or they'll talk about patterns in the text that might suggest different kinds of meanings.

For current writers, the question of a relationship to the reader is a complex one as well. It's better in some ways to figure that once a book or story is published, people will get what they want out of it, on the basis of their own experiences as readers, and this may not have much to do with what you intended - especially as it comes to reading your own reviews.

But whether or not we as writers have a particular message we want to get across (as discussed here in a related post), we DO want to have control over our stories - in particular, how the information in the story gets distributed so that the story is focused and its effect is maximized in the way we intend.

There are easy and hard ways to communicate with a reader. The easiest one is to appoint yourself the narrator and say things straight to the reader. That way, if you're Beatrix Potter, you can say:

"So that is the story of the two Bad Mice, but they were not so very naughty after all, because Tom Thumb paid for everything he broke."


"And besides - I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells - and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle!"

You might say that this isn't the writer speaking to us. Sure, it's not - just as I said above, it's the narrator. But the narrator appears to be using a voice like that of the author, and we might hazard a guess that the author used these devices to back us off the story, while also reassuring the reader about certain things. One thing seems clear to me in the second passage - that Beatrix Potter doesn't want entirely to leave children with the idea that Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was only a hedgehog, but to leave them with a certain sense of wonder.

Direct narrator speaking to the reader isn't just about suddenly breaking into your narrative with discussion of "the story" and what "I" know about it. It occurs all the time in third person omniscient point of view, whenever the narrator describes something that isn't directly observable, or judgeable, by the point of view character.

And in fact, I think you could argue that there's another tool available to the writer using an omniscient narrator - since omniscient viewpoints zoom in and out, drawing closer or farther away from a particular character's judgment, the writer can choose to make these zooms, or not to, in order to control the amount and kind of information given to the reader.

Controlling the amount and kind of information given to the reader is how we keep the story under control, focused and moving forward. Keeping momentum and giving information about the progress of the main story conflict is critical. But so is providing world information so a reader doesn't get lost. That's where the problem of infodumping comes up. What is it but the problem of the writer "getting information across" to the reader? To make the story work, we have to decide what information is really critical for the reader to know.

As J. Kathleen Cheney noted in her post on description, sometimes stains on priest's hems or field-stripping of weapons appears to come into it. But why would we as authors want to give such tiny details if they're at such risk of appearing irrelevant? To keep people oriented in the world, but not only that - it's to give the impression that we as writers are knowledgeable, and more importantly, reliable and authoritative reporters of the world in which the story takes place. The description of the weapon may seem pointless because it doesn't have sufficient relevance support in story conflict, character, etc. and its only underlying message may be "trust me, the writer, because you see that I know what I'm talking about." To my mind, that message alone is not enough - yet it is a very critical one for an author to deliver, whether in sf/f or mainstream work.

Other information we give needs to keep the reader feeling like they're grounded and on their feet in the story world (whatever world it happens to be) and ready to run in whatever direction the hook pulls them, so they don't feel like they're getting dragged behind a galloping horse. I struggle with this question constantly, given that I'm trying to create the impression of very alien worlds - but at the same time I have to keep readers able to follow the complexity of what I'm doing. Typically a reader won't object to information - and a critiquer might even ask for more information - if they feel that information helps them keep oriented in a fully fleshed world. But it's a tricky borderline to walk, as you don't want people to feel you're treating them like they're stupid. I personally recommend that writers trust the reader as much as possible.

I ran across another way that an author speaks to a reader over this weekend, when I was thinking about Harry Potter (which my husband has been reading with my kids). The way you choose to name your character is very important. In my science fiction, I try to keep my choice of names grounded in a language and world system, but also to give the names a flavor that will suggest their character. Bright and dark vowels are a part of this. If you look at the wizards' names in Harry Potter, you'll realize that often, that's J.K. Rowling intentionally trying to share information with you as a reader. Take Professor Remus Lupin, for example. It would be a staggering coincidence if that were truly his last name, and further, at his birth, his parents decided to give him such a lovely wolfly name. Far more likely is that Ms. Rowling is giving him the name for flavor, and to say to her readers something like, "Nudge nudge, here's a hint and if you can figure it out I'll be proud of you."

At this point it seems logical to ask, "What if you're using strictly internal point of view?" Doesn't that make it virtually impossible to communicate directly with readers?

Well, of course not. I've discussed unreliable narrators before, and how a writer can go about separating the sensory impressions and judgments of an unreliable narrator from the total impression a reader gets. Writers can not only use tricks like inclusion of details from the setting that a character doesn't judge. We can also include details that the character does notice, but which offer something else to the reader that the character doesn't pick up on. Every time you repeat a word, or a phrase, or an association of one object with a particular type of emotion, you begin to create a pattern (often an unconscious pattern) in a reader's mind. Literary writers do this all the time, but so do writers of other genres, even without realizing it.

The other thing you can do as a writer using internal point of view is choose when to switch from one point of view to another. This will allow you to control not only what information the reader gets from which character at which time, but also to create a sense of confidentiality with the reader. The spot where a point of view switch occurs doesn't need to be at a moment of low intensity - a safe switch point. It can be at a moment of critical high intensity, a charged switch point, where it will serve the writer's intention. I love to start a situation, such as a scene when one character puts another under pressure, build up a strong sense of character 1's motives and hopefully a sense in the reader of how they want the scene to come out - and then switch points of view to the other character in the same interaction. It not only surprises the reader, it also makes them question the set of expectations they've built up for character 1 by comparing them with those for character 2. And it gives them the sense that they know more than either character does alone, creating a sense of confidentiality with the author.

Before I go, a few thoughts on pov switches. It's important when dealing with point of view switches of this type to keep your descriptions of the cross-pov phenomenon, or object, totally different. If you describe the same thing the same way from two points of view, the whole significance of the switch will be lost. This is why it's often best for a story to stick with one point of view. The difference between the two descriptions is part of the author's message for the reader. In "At Cross Purposes" (the otter story), for example, I have a facial feature for my aliens that gets described from the human point of view and from the alien point of view. My human describes the aliens like this:

"...they have no eyebrows; above each of their wide-set eyes a strip of pebbly black skin extends up to the ear."

My alien describes this same facial feature on another pair of her kind as follows:

"Both have prominent, masculine brow-character – attractive – but Kir bears a pattern like thorns, while Haa has deep folds like cooled lava."

The descriptions are different, but for me, the important part is that each description shows that the feature means something different to the individuals observing it. Because one of my favorite issues to tackle is the different ways that people understand the things that they experience, I'm excited when I get an opportunity to describe the same thing twice. Readers will notice the repetition, and that repetition will in turn bring attention to the difference between the two descriptions. And then my reader and I will be sharing something that none of my characters are experiencing at all.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Description, Relevance, and Genre

I had some very interesting comments on Monday on my post about description - in particular, people commenting about the descriptive requirements of different genres. J. Kathleen Cheney took that aspect of the topic and ran with it on her blog, here.

I was particularly intrigued by the following from her post:

... I did add this stipulation [to my rule of relevance]: There are instances where description is expected rather than required for the sake of the story, so a lot more gets put than is strictly necessary...

For example: If you're writing a GBHF (Great Big Honking Fantasy) you're probably going to describe everything, twice. At least. Down to what manner of stains mark the hems of the priests' robes in January. This seems to be expected in the GBHF. (Yes, I'm making a generalization, but that's what the internet is for, isn't it?) If you're writing Hard SF, you're going to have to describe all your gizmos and then explain how they work. (Also, if you can find any excuse to include the description of field-stripping a weapon, you must include that. It's a right of passage, I think.) If you're writing Romance, you must decribe the women's clothing. (Men's you can skip sometimes, as they always dress alike anyway.) You must also describe the upholstery and drapery in any room the female POV enters...

All right, I admit I'm sounding a bit sarcastic, but the truth is that there are some expectations tied to the target market of the story, which are probably based more on what the reader wants to know.

In fact, when I wrote my first post, I was thinking about my own writing rather than considering genre distinctions - but Ms. Cheney makes an excellent point! Genres like mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction and fantasy each come with reader expectations, which translate into editorial expectations, for certain types of description.

On the other hand, that need not be the last word on the subject (need there ever be a last word on anything?). I think Ms. Cheney and I would agree that, while it's true that genre readers expect certain kinds of description, it's still a good idea to try to maximize the relevance of any description. Yes, describe if it seems appropriate, but don't cut corners and figure that all readers will be interested in extensive description without a lot of relevance support.

Try to push for more relevance support regardless of what you're describing, in whatever genre. Yes, there are expectations - but you'll hear people talking about how in really great writing, every sentence is doing more than one thing at a time. Not only is it worldbuilding, not only is it character building, it's also pushing the main conflict forward - oh and by the way, it's also serving the theme, etc.

Each of those things is a form of relevance support, and it just goes to show that in the end, it's worth pushing hard to create as much relevance as possible for descriptions.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Some terrific links

Here's an inspirational article which contains Nichelle Nichols' own description of her encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he convinced her to stay in the role of Uhura on Star Trek:

And for those of you who are fans of comics and/or grammar and linguistics, an interesting little site that talks about the grammatical conventions used in comic books:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Avatars and Behavior

Yesterday I ran across this fascinating article from Stanford University, which discusses how people tend to emulate the behavior of their electronic avatars when those avatars resemble them. Amazing! I encourage you to check it out:

Monday, March 1, 2010

How much description?

Recently in my writing I've run into the question of how much description I need. I've seen this question before on the message boards, but I thought I'd discuss it a little since it's currently relevant to a couple of the stories I'm writing.

My general rule for description (of people or places) is that you need to stick with the rule of relevance: if it's relevant, describe. If it isn't, don't. It sounds simple, but evaluating the degree of relevance in any location is where the tricky part starts. There are three big kinds of criteria I generally use to assess this: point of view criteria, plot criteria, and story criteria.

Point of view criteria are my first concern. I consider the mental state of my protagonist and decide whether it allows them any contemplative time to look at themselves, others, or their surroundings. First impressions are huge deal for me in this context. What, I ask myself, does this person notice when they see X for the first time? If they are in a place where they can be held spellbound and simply observe, they'll probably see a lot. If they're in a fight or in a big hurry, they probably won't notice nearly as much, and I'll be looking for some key characteristics of a person or location that will help it be recognizable in the reader's mind if it reappears. I also look out for opportunities for a character to get things wrong on first impression, and pick up the superficial aspects of something in a way that will allow for a change in that person's opinion later when they get a closer look. I also keep in mind my general parameters for the character's mental state to see how to approach the description - as in my last post, when I talked about using negatively judgmental words in initial descriptions for the character Nekantor.

Plot criteria I've already mentioned a little above when I talk about fighting or being in a hurry. Depending on what's going on, you may not have time to do much describing - and if you have your character slow down in the middle of a battle to the death to notice the clothes that his opponent is wearing, it will seem ridiculous.

I find both point of view criteria and plot criteria easy to keep track of in the moment of writing. Harder for me is keeping track of the third type of criteria: story criteria.

Story criteria are things like, "we're early on in the story and if we don't have some description here, people will feel disoriented." Story criteria are tricky because they can actually work directly against one's instincts in the point of view and plot areas. In some cases, story criteria will give you a good reason to change your plot, to put your character intentionally in a position where some observation is possible.

We're all familiar with stories that place their protagonists in a high vantage point or in front of a mirror in order to allow for description of the setting or the character themselves. Be careful with this. If it takes you away from your main conflict, it may not be a good idea. Push yourself to create opportunities for description that have more subtlety, and make sure not to ignore the effect that vantage or mirror scenes have on your character - vantage scenes tend to make that person seem more contemplative in general, while mirror scenes can make them seem vain. The story need for description isn't enough to justify creating those scenes in and of itself; you need to look to bolster their relevance in other ways.

In my otter story, I added an extra paragraph of description when my protagonist first meets the aliens. Why? Because first readers thought I made the aliens too much like Earth otters. It was a good point. My stories are complex, and I'm always trying to keep lots of balls in the air, so I missed that one on first draft. Fortunately, my main character has a penchant for wry observation, so I got to play with first/second impression in two paragraphs that immediately followed one another. I had her think, "Otters!" and then go, "But wait a minute..." and describe a bit. There was room in the plot for it, and it was appropriate to her character. And now I've fixed the problem of the aliens being alien in physiology, which is of course terribly important!

Another example comes from the novel I'm working on, and involves a question of orientation in the world (another story criterion). I got to a certain point and realized that I hadn't established that servants to the nobility can be either male or female - and males can work for females, and vice versa. With the way I approach the story, I don't have the option of just telling the reader this. So I went back over the material I had and looked at the first instances of seeing servants. In the first chapter, my main character sees two different girls, each of whom has a servant/bodyguard. One of the servants becomes a larger character later, and he is male, but the other one was unspecified. Great, I thought - I can make her female. But it was a bit trickier than that, because if I had my protagonist notice that the servant was female, that might make it seem like having a female servant was somehow unusual - it would make that fact stick out in the narrative if I approached it directly like that. So I decided to use description, and show the hair or clothes of the servant in a female style. But I still had to make sure that was as relevant as possible. So I finally decided to bring in two other story criteria to help me: I needed to show that the servant caste is distinguished by tattoos on their foreheads, and also that my protagonist and his friends are afraid of these bodyguards. The final result was this sentence:

The servant's hair was pulled back in a bun so the curving caste tattoo on her forehead showed clear as a warning.

And it's the warning aspect that gets carried forward into the boys' next actions and responses, allowing both the servant's gender and her tattoo to be backgrounded.

The last piece, one I had more trouble with, was a description of setting. The setting of my novel is a very unusual one that doesn't fit with people's usual expectations, so I have to make sure to defeat people's usual expectations as soon as possible. Fortunately, there is an outside scene in Chapter 1 which I can use to establish some basic parameters (such as the fact that the entire city is underground). But in Chapter 1, it's nighttime, and the scene is set in the gardens of the Eminence's Residence, which is a pretty unusual place in that it has dirt and plants. So when I get to Chapter 2 and my second protagonist is running between buildings, I've got a quandary.

I don't want people to think that dirt and plants are normal and that everyone will encounter them if they go outside (because that's true only in the Eminence's gardens). On the other hand, running between buildings isn't a place where anything important happens, and the courtyard of the Service Academy isn't a location that will become critical later. My relevance support structures are few. So for now, I'm going to keep the description relatively short:

...headed out into the courtyard that separated the dormitories from the main Academy building - a single sheet of limestone worn smooth by centuries of running feet.

At this point I'm drafting, so who knows? I may come back to this location later and decide I need to change it because it needs more. But I will be careful, because at the moment I don't have enough relevance support to add much more than this, and if I need to add description later, I'll be trying hard to add relevance support too.

I'm going to keep thinking about it.