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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Body Language: Head Posture

I just noticed something the other day. My daughter recently received a Disney Princesses art set for her birthday (she loves art) and one of its elements is a ruler with pictures of six princesses, side by side.

Not one of the princesses is holding her head up straight. The closest to it is probably Cinderella, but even she has her head inclined slightly forward. Forward, or back, or to the side, they're all giving me some sort of come-hither look.

As a mother and a believer in gender equity, I must say: Argh!

Mind you, it's a funny thing. I'm having some art created for an author website right now, by wonderful artist Jared Fiori, and of all the characters who appear in it, only one has his head up perfectly straight - Xinta, servant to the Eminence Nekantor. Even Nekantor himself doesn't hold his head up straight. And I wouldn't ask Jared to change any of it.

What is conveyed by head posture?

Confidence, I'd say - that goes with the straight head. Claims for dominance can be partly expressed in straight head posture, and stances expressing submission go with the forward-tilted head. The side-tilted head posture is one I associate with coquettishness.

There's another factor in portrait drawing (or photos), which is that a person's stance seems more dynamic if their head isn't straight up and down. However, looking slightly to the side or slightly up doesn't have the same effect as that head tilt. A professional photographer friend of mine - Chris Jackson, who took the portrait for my blog - told me that for photos of company officers, the photos don't look right unless the person is leaning forward toward the camera. That has to me another message - perhaps one of determination and seriousness that people like to see associated with the leaders of their favorite companies.

The topic of body language is larger than this, of course, and perhaps I should come back to it. Until then, be aware of head postures as an indicator of mood in the description of your characters in their interactions - and ask yourself how head posture habits might differ if you're working with aliens...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Watch out, Reality- Eight Against Reality is available now!

It's here! I've talked about Eight Against Reality before, but now that it's officially available from Panverse Publishing and from Amazon, I want to take this opportunity to introduce you personally. Each story in this volume was written by a member of my writer's group, Written in Blood (you can tell we take our writing and critiquing seriously!) - and you may recognize some of these names, because two of us now have published books, and many others have had stories appear in venues like Asimov's, Analog, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and others.

I feel really lucky to be working with such terrific writers - I believe in these guys and in their stories, and it's this atmosphere of mutual respect and support that has kept our group together so long, and made us so successful.

You can find a blurb on each story on the Panverse website, but here's my own take on the stories in Eight Against Reality, including a short excerpt from each:

The Eminence's Match by Juliette Wade
You all know me... This story takes place in Varin, the first world I created and one I've worked on for about twenty years (!). The question I wanted to ask in it was this: what makes an evil ruler, and why would a servant consent to work for him? I wanted to cross the border from the easy assumptions of common fantasy into more psychologically and sociologically real territory.

Shadowless in the light of two hundred and twelve electric bulbs on his vaulted stone ceiling, the Eminence Nekantor frowned down across his naked ribs. Look: two gold buttons at the waist of his silk trousers. Fastened, both of them, completely fastened. Deceptively fastened. They had been fastened wrong: lower-then-upper, not upper-then-lower. The difference stuck to the buttons like fingerprints. The difference felt like fingers pressing on his mind.

His servant’s fingers.

Kurek had done it. That was new: Kurek doing the buttons wrong
today, when they had been right yesterday, the day before—for months now already. That was different, unexplained. Unacceptable.

“Kurek,” he said. “These buttons are wrong.”

“Wrong, your Eminence?”

Kurek’s voice was tight, tight like closed fists. Recalcitrant servant! Always guarded, never conceding to the truth inherent in the Imbaticaste tattoo that covered his forehead: he was a tool, a tool to be used and controlled by the greater man. Oh, what it would feel like to break past those closed fingers, to lay him bare and open, to wield him in all his subtle complex talents. Perfect control: a prize worth all the unrelenting demands of the game required to win it. The game must never be neglected.

Kip, Running by Genevieve Williams
Genevieve is a librarian (a profession I greatly admire) and a terrific writer. "Kip, Running" is one of those stories where the setting of future Seattle seems to take on a life of its own, full of details and life - I recommend the story to anyone wanting a great example of portraying a character's struggle within a truly vibrant environment.

The runners are lithe and young. None are older than sixteen. Nothing about their hair or clothing dangles in excess, though they ornament themselves in other ways: hair cut in patterns like ornamental lawns, tint cascading through the patterns like advertising. Tattoos adorn them like jewelry or ripple across their bodies like silk scarves, wet and shining in the omnipresent April rain.

Kip, small and subtle, gathers with the rest of them on top of the platform shelter at Pike Station, 120 feet above the Street. There are fourteen runners besides herself, eyeing her and each other as though plotting how best to throw their competition off a building. Like her, they’re masked and mirrored: a combination of camouflaged clothing, surveillance-reflective skins, and sensor-scrambling biosign suppressors will make watchful eyes slide right off them. Trainjumping is illegal, as are most of the other things runners do to win a race. Freerunning, bubble-riding, running along slidewalk rails—all of it.

The Lonely Heart by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette lives in Paris (yes, I'm jealous) and writes awesome science fiction and fantasy in alternate-history pasts and futures. I love how she can bring the cultures of her characters and settings to life in so few words. This story is horror - which I don't usually read - but I still thought it was awesome when I got to read it as this anthology was being prepared.

It was towards mid-afternoon that Chen became aware of the girl. She stood before Chen’s stall, watching the fake-jade effi gies of the Buddha and the coloured incense sticks, her eyes wide in the sunlight—she was no more than thirteen or fourteen, with the gangly unease of that age. To her left, children shrieked as they passed the Bridge of Impossibility, holding each other’s hands, and went into the temple complex.

The girl’s hand reached towards a small statue of a demon, touched it—setting off a coloured lightstrobe which illuminated the statue from within.

Normally, Chen should have snatched the statue away, and pointed out to her, in a firm voice, that you didn’t touch the wares unless you paid. But the girl was so young: skeletally thin, her skin taut over high cheekbones, her eyes wide with fear. And she was so familiar, in a way that made Chen ill at ease—as young and as malnourished as Chen herself had been ten years ago, starving in the streets of Fengdu. “Can I help you?” Chen asked.

The Flying Squids of Zondor by Doug Sharp
Doug has a razor-sharp sense of humor, and an incredible determination that keeps him writing against all odds. He can make me laugh at things I never expected. I see this story as falling somewhere between "Spaceballs" and Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."

Commandrix, this planetary system is unique in all the galaxy!
A week spent exploring it will unveil fundamental truths about
the most secret laws of science and…

Midshipman! Take this…

It concerns the yadayadium, Commandrix.

Go on. The yadayadium?

All the yadayadium is concentrated on a single planet.

You mean…?

Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. It’s oh so true.

The color drains from DRON’s face and décolletage. Her pupils twitch
and veins pulse erratically in each of her temples.
You mean…?

The miracle of sentient life!

Aliens, is it? I loathe aliens. Their voluptuous slime and warm,
stroking pseudopods. Their unspeakable probes, groping
tentacles, and cruel spanking claws. They make me…
DRON vomits copiously and wipes her mouth on sleeve. Her face
exudes naked revulsion.

Spoiling Veena by Keyan Bowes
Keyan travels the world for her work but always stays faithful to her writing and critiquing. She has great attention for detail and ambiance, and she has a lovely way of portraying extreme scenarios as though they were entirely normal, so she can then take them further as she does in this story.

The snow thuds down like brickbats.

Instead of a soft and beautiful blanket, it lies on the grass in shards of ice. The party is ruined. It had sounded like such a good idea, snow in Delhi. Shalini should have known better than to trust Party Weather Inc. They haven’t been able to deliver. Shivering, she herds the children into the veranda, out of the way of the pounding white chips.

“Let’s bring in the cake, shall we?” she says, as the clatter of the hail on the cars parked outside distracts the children.

“Oh, can’t we go out in that, Aunty?” It’s a young boy called—Ajay, that’s it, Ajay Zaveri.

“It’s too hard, Ajay,” replies Shalini. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Or your lawyer mother to sue me, she thinks. India is becoming just too much like America since cable and satellite TV. She has releases of liability signed by every custodial parent, and still she worries.

Man's Best Enemy by Janice Hardy
Janice can write at a speed that leaves me in awe, and I always look to her for advice on plotting and action. She loves turning up the pressure and writing her characters into a corner - and if she can't immediately find a way to get them out of it, so much the better for the excitement of the final draft.

“We thought it was just pups,” Deeke said, pressing the bandage hard against Louie’s belly. The blood he wasn’t stopping flowed dark, almost black, a vein tear for sure. I’d seen bites that deep before. Was an ugly way to go. Be kinder for Deeke to ease up on the pressure and let Louie pass out and die in peace, but Deeke would never do that. He was too soft-hearted. Even Mama said so.

Doc looked up and glared, her dark eyes hard enough to make Deeke flinch. “You heard pups and ignored them? How stupid can—Shawna, hand me that clamp—how stupid can you be?”

I handed Doc her clamp from the tray by the examination table, careful not to bump her. Wasn’t a whole lot of room in the clinic, but it was the only room in the hotel with enough cabinets for all her supplies.

“Need more gauze?” I asked. The bloody pile was getting large.

“No, I’m good. Well, Deeke?”

Deeke licked his lips and glanced down, so I knew he was about to fib. Not an outright lie though or he’d be scratching his ear. “They were just yippers, and Louie said—”

“Oh, Louie said, did he?” Doc scoffed. “What’s the first thing you learn about pups?”

Deeke winced. “Where there’s pups, there’s dogs.”

Love, Blood and Octli by T.L. Morganfield
Traci has kids at home just like I do, and somehow keeps writing and building her reputation as an expert in Aztec stories. The thing I love about this story is the way she can portray a broad range of experience from the innocent to the frightening, all in a resonant tone reminiscent of ancient storytellers.

On my seventh birthday, the Feathered Serpent gave me my name. Many snakes lived among the reeds near the pond, most of them full of poison and spite, but this one was different. He was no bigger than the other snakes but was covered in feathers; white ones on his slender body, and long, exquisite emerald ones—like those of the precious quetzal bird—around his neck. I met him as I swam around the pond.

“What a strange creature you are!” I called when I saw him flying above me.

The feathered serpent looked at me with keen yellow-slit eyes. “Ah, Ayomichi,” he declared.

I laughed. “I’m not a turtle.”

“You swim like one.”

“I’m a girl.”

“I can see that. But you’re also Ayomichi. It’s your name.”

“My name? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Certainly your mother calls you something?”

Dancing by Numbers by Dario Ciriello
Dario is one big reason why I am where I am today with my writing. His prose flows like honey and he has huge amazing ideas - not just like the idea behind Dancing by Numbers, but also the idea behind Panverse Publishing's novella anthologies and Eight Against Reality itself. He is an inspiration.

Ten days to go until the opening of Tchaikovsky’s The Emperor’s Hunting Lodge. We’ve been working six hours and I can feel Max’s strength fading with every lift. Anthony, our company director, is getting that tight, drawn look he gets when he’s trying not to scream. That’s just the way Anthony is, and everybody knows that. Still.

In the wings, before stepping out to join Max for the final pas de deux, I find that infinitesimal, still, center of balance I’ve been exploring. I focus everything, my whole being, into the very center of my body for that one lift. Max sweeps me high, I experience a moment of empty darkness, and then—

The studio is gone. I’m in an amphitheater, turning, held high by hands of banded iron. The humid air is heavy with pungent herbs. Clusters of hissing torches light the stage from either side while a chorus of red-robed women raises a pulsing chant. A moon of blood hangs low over a semicircle of banked seating filled to capacity.

Most startling of all, I know exactly who I am, and where: I am another dancer named Lyra, in a world entirely unlike my own. The superimposition of selves, of experience, of knowledge, overwhelms me.

Later, I remember I maintained my brilliant smile all the way through. That’s what a professional does.

I feel lucky to be a part of the Eight Against Reality project and I encourage you not only to buy the anthology, but to learn more about these fantastic writers. I hope the links I've provided will help you to do just that.

Monday, June 28, 2010

All languages of the world pronounced!

Here's a great link I picked up at the Found in Translation blog - it's a site that gives examples of words in world languages, pronounce by native speakers of those languages! What a great resource for those of us with language curiosity!

Check it out...

Friday, June 25, 2010

If you haven't yet seen "How Linguistics Can Help You"...

The series, which deals with how authors can use the principles of linguistics to help them with SF/F will now be appearing at Science In My Fiction. Today's post is on Articulatory Phonetics, or how the vocal tract makes sounds. Future posts will deal with Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics, and Sociolinguistics.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Second person - that means *you*!

Have you ever heard someone say, "I hate stories written in second person"?

I've heard it a lot - second person tends to give people an immediate, visceral reaction - but not everyone knows what second person is, or how it can work. Essentially, if first person narration is told by "I," and third person by "he" or "she," then second person is "you." The reason I believe so many people have difficulty with second person narration is that it requires the reader to stand in the position of the protagonist.

You do this, says the author, and the reader's reaction may be, "No I don't!" or "I don't believe that at all!" Second person can sound accusatory, because the reader must act simultaneously as the source of the narrative and its intended recipient (for more on this topic, see my article on point of view).

Second person can be used effectively, however. I want to bring your attention to two recent stories, both quite successful, that use second person narration:

And Their Lips Rang with the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar
The Button Bin by Mike Allen

The most important thing to point out about these stories is that even though they use second person narration, neither of one is trying to make the reader act as a protagonist. Both stories have identifiable protagonists who are not (definitely not!) the reader. The thing that second person does for these stories is that it allows the identity of the narrator to remain a mystery without having the narrative become ungrounded. In fact, in both stories, the question of the narrator's identity plays a critical role in the story's development.

In each case, there's a specific moment when the author defines the narrator for the first time. In El-Mohtar's piece, it looks like this:

Come, stranger, come, admire the wealth of our nation, the pride of our city, the joy of our people's eyes.

I find this actually a very user-friendly way to approach the second person, because "you" are a "stranger." That means the reader isn't actually being asked to commit to a particular identity. In this story, the narrator isn't actually "you" but someone speaking to "you" and telling "you" a story (which itself is narrated in third person). It gives readers an interesting sense of security, I find, due to the fact that their comprehension of the story doesn't depend on any commitment to the identity of "you." Readers can thus enjoy the story without stressing about accusatory tone, and then be marvelously surprised at the end when they learn the identity of the person listening to the story (the person in whose chair they've been sitting all along).

In Allen's piece, he defines his narrator like this:

You know he’s the one who made your beloved niece disappear.

This is the more adversarial second person stance, only inasmuch as Allen is relying on his readers to accept a specific identity and the actions associated with it:

You stand from behind the trash cans with your arm held out as if you’re warding off a demon, pointing the black pistol you took from your father’s gun safe.

The thing that makes this choice of narrative style effective to my mind is the fact that Allen's story is horror - and the development of the second person narrator's identity is part of what makes this story so creepy. Yes, Allen demands that the reader consent to play the part of "you" - but if the reader chooses to accept it, that then allows Allen to make the creepy effects of his story more invasive and personal than they would be if they took place in the third person, or even first person.

After reading and analyzing these stories, I come to the conclusion that the choice of a second person narrator allows an author to do things that he or she would not be able to accomplish with other narrative styles. The central piece of this is the way that second person narration makes a mystery out of the identity of "you" - thus allowing an author to withhold information without losing the sense of grounding in the story.

Watch out, though: the mystery of the "you" narrator's identity will become a foregrounded question, and if it isn't resolved, the story may not work as well. Furthermore, there's really no way to anticipate the reader's actual identity, so attempting to create a second person narrator who actually resembles the reader is not likely to be successful. Even in Italo Calvino's novel, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, where the narrator starts out being "you" reading Italo Calvino's book, the narrator does turn out to have a singular identity, and the farther you go in the book, the further it diverges into its own characteristics, distinct from those of the reader.

I hope this gives you (my blog readers with your various mysterious identities!) something to think about when you consider using second person narration in a story.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Inherent Contradictions in Character

Everybody has inherent contradictions in their personality. The minor ones may barely be enough to make us hesitate in a decision. Major ones may lead to internal conflicts that haunt us constantly. Because this is something that is so terribly common in real people, it makes for very strong reactions when I read fiction.

I admit it: whenever I run across a character who appears to have no inherent contradictions, I tend to demote them on a subconscious level. If it's a minor character, I start thinking they're just window dressing. Even if it's a major character, I suddenly find them much less interesting. I hate to say it, but Baron Harkonnen of Dune was like this for me. Bad for bad's sake, ho hum. A being of pure evil is more of a fable-like creature, or devil archetype. I was glad that Sauron never took on human form in The Lord of the Rings, because as a being of pure evil he belonged where he was, offstage, trying to create conflicts in and among all the others.

I remember as a kid playing this game we called "Monsters" but what was really a free-form precursor to live action role-play. Each of us got to make a character, and each of us got one power and one weakness. People who refused to pick a weakness didn't get to play.

Now, I'm not saying every character in a story has to have a "weakness," per se - but contradictions are more complex than that.

Take Nya in Janice Hardy's The Shifter - Nya has a strong sense of family and solid morals, but her greatest power just happens to conflict directly with those morals. Janice turns that contradiction into a fabulous conflict when Nya has to use her power to save her sister.

Rulii in "Cold Words" depends for his social progress on his ability to fight and negotiate. However, neither of these skills will help him if he's ever seen to shiver with cold. He uses molri to stop his shivering - but his addiction to it has adverse effects on his personality, making it harder for him to fight and negotiate. In addition to which, if anyone finds out about his molri addiction, he'll be put to death. The base condition for his success puts him at risk of failure, which leads to more interesting conflicts.

Nekantor in "The Eminence's Match" is an evil ruler, and not just because he was brought up that way. He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which serves as his own sort of internal contradiction. The disorder makes him endlessly demanding (a typical evil ruler characteristic). It gives him advantageous skills for managing political conflicts, but simultaneously wears him down and makes him vulnerable.

I picked these three characters because each one has a single characteristic which lies at the heart of their internal contradiction - Nya's shifting power, Rulii's drug dependency, and Nekantor's obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are of course other ways you can approach this - giving a character a backstory which gives them internal conflict, for example. I think immediately of the character of Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender, who embodies the conflict between good and evil in part as a result of the conflict he's witnessed between his powerful father and the mother whom he loved best.

Whether good guy or bad guy, main character or subordinate character, your character will gain dimension from inherent contradictions. Keep an eye out for opportunities to develop them, because it will do wonders for your story.

Oliver Sachs' Footnotes

Here's an interesting blog, with observations about human neurology and perception and how it affects behavior, from neurologist Oliver Sacks (well known for his books including The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Interesting link on reading

I think everyone should learn to read books. And that everyone should be entitled to some uninterrupted time. Here are some interesting thoughts on the topic.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Interesting article on the state of publishing

The most important thing I take from this is that we need to remind people that what we do has real value. It uplifts souls and changes lives; if only all means of doing that were as inexpensive as buying a book.

Here's Nicola Morgan talking about "When will there be good news?"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Handling Caste Systems

When you read through fantasy and science fiction epics, it's not uncommon to find societies divided into strictly delineated groups. Perhaps this is because divisions exist within our own society and we want to explore existing issues of race and class. But what is actually involved in implementing a caste system in a work of science fiction or fantasy?

First, it's good to know what caste systems are. I suppose a general description would be something like this: caste systems are systems of societal organization that divide people into different structural categories (often ranked), each of which establishes behavioral expectations associated with membership.

Just in case that sounds vague (because it is, rather), I think it would be good to take a brief look at two examples from Earth: the Indian caste system, and the caste system of feudal Japan.

The Indian caste system has several categories. According to Wikipedia the four major "varna" are:

1. Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests)
2. Kshatriyas (kings and warriors)
3. Vaishyas (agriculturists and traders)
4. Shudras (artisans, service providers)

By comparison, the divisions in feudal Japan (from both Wikipedia and my own schooling) were as follows:

1. samurai (warriors)
2. peasants (farmers)
3. craftsmen
4. merchants

At first glance, we can make several observations. First, the description of each group provides a sense of what kind of jobs you'd find these people in. Second, these systems don't cover the entire population. The Indian varnas don't include the Untouchables. The Japanese major divisions don't include the Court nobles (kuge), the Shogun and the daimyo at the top; or the Eta/Burakumin (filthy people: undertakers, slaughterers, tanners), and the Hinin (non-people: town guards, street cleaners, prostitutes, traveling minstrels and convicted criminals) at the bottom.

The idea of an undercaste is well-known in sf/f, but it's interesting to note that these groups usually don't "count" as part of a system; rather, they are perceived to be outside it. In a sense these groups are those who are considered to be exceptions to the system and not measurable within it; in the "exceptional" sense, it makes sense for the highest of the high to be excluded from a system like this as well.

According to the Wikipedia article, the Indian caste system has not always had the same degree of rigidity. Traditionally, although the political power lay with the Kshatriyas, historians portrayed that the Brahmins as custodians and interpreters of religious knowledge enjoyed much prestige and many advantages, and kings could come from any one of these groups. It was always possible for groups born into a lower caste to "rise to a higher position by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism" i.e. adopt the customs of the higher castes. While theoretically "forbidden", the process was not uncommon in practice. This gave caste relations additional complexity. However, see my Indian friend Keyan's note below, where she connects the caste groups specifically with Hinduism (not Buddhism) and notes that marriage between castes was strictly forbidden. Indeed, one of the major elements defining castes is endogamy, or the fact that people aren't supposed to marry outside the group.

The system did become somewhat more rigid with the arrival of the English. Faced with an unfamiliar social contract, the English tried to equate the categories of the Indian caste system with their own class system and their own sense of how occupation related to social standing and intellectual ability. Unintentionally, they ended up further codifying the Indian castes with their census practices.

I think it's interesting to note that the strictness of a caste system can change over time because of historical influences - even when people are not really intending to cause change.

Another kind of change occurred in the Japanese system toward the end of its existence. The merchants began to have more power than they "should" have within the system because they handled the money, and the Samurai debts had been growing. Twice the government forgave all Samurai debts in order to restore the proper order - but you can imagine this didn't solve the underlying problem, which eventually led to the downfall of the system as a whole.

Here's a question that may occur to some of you: what advantages might there be to having a caste system (as opposed to having some other system)? I think Wikipedia makes a useful remark when it compares the Indian system to the medieval European guilds. Essentially, a system of this sort ensures division of labor and provides for apprentice training, thereby supporting economic activity (in addition to providing social groups that people can comfortably align with).

So, given these complex worldly examples, how do we go about implementing a caste system in a fictional world? I think it would be good to divide the process into three steps:

1. define structural divisions

Figure out what your structural divisions are called and how they are ranked. As you do this, make sure to give each division a concrete basis in societal function (like profession). Think about whether there are specific laws that apply to different groups concerning things like carrying weapons, attending schools, etc. Figure out where the financial support for each group comes from, and how large the population of each group is. These economic and demographic factors will have a significant influence later down the road.

2. determine the degree of mobility/fluidity in the system

A lot of fictional systems have zero legal mobility between groups. How is that enforced? What happens if a marriage occurs across caste borders? Will adopting certain forms of behavior allow someone to move up in caste so long as that person's background is kept quiet? You might also want to ask whether people in your system are in fact motivated to move up. In some systems such aspirations might be totally normal; in others it might be almost unheard of (my Varin system is one of the latter, in which many castes consider themselves better than those above them, and presumption is censured even among castemates).

3. elaborate on behaviors expected of, and accorded to, members of each group

This is where your system will stop being a set of bland categories and start taking on real dimension. What do members of each group believe (possibly religion, but also values, ideals, and a sense of what makes a "good"member of their caste)? What kind of behaviors or manners define them? Do they differentiate themselves by elements of dress? Do they differentiate themselves by dialect? How aware are they of the other castes and their ways? What do they think of them?

There is room for an incredible amount of complexity here, especially in the area of personal details, background and beliefs. Dig in as deeply as you can, taking advantage of what you know about existing social divisions around you. Race is an obvious thing to compare to, but don't forget things as common as cliques at school. For example, literature and movies give us abundant examples of cases where not all "popular" people are happy being popular, nor are their lives easy just because everyone looks up to them.

Let's look for a second at some details from the Japanese feudal caste system:
"The shogunate carried out a number of significant policies. They placed the samurai class above the commoners: the agriculturists, artisans, and merchants. They enacted sumptuary laws limiting hair style, dress, and accessories. They organized commoners into groups of five, and held all responsible for the acts of each individual. To prevent daimyo from rebelling, the shoguns required them to maintain lavish residences in Edo (the capital) and live at these residences on a rotating schedule; carry out expensive processions to and from their domains; contribute to the upkeep of shrines, temples, and roads; and seek permission before repairing their castles." Furthermore, "only the samurai could have proper surnames."

It's at this point that I'm sorely tempted to jump into an extensive description of my own Varin caste system... but I'll refrain. Since I like to keep my sense of social groups as personal as possible, I'll just give you a quick sketch of the characteristics I've developed for the Imbati servant caste (featured in my forthcoming story, "The Eminence's Match"), using the format I explained above.

The Imbati of Varin:

1. The Imbati are ranked third out of seven among the Variner castes. They are called servants, but are highly valued: by profession they are lawyers, prison wardens and low-level magistrates (servants of the Courts), bureaucrats (servants of the State/civil servants), and valets/political assistants (servants of the nobles). They aren't legally allowed to carry weapons, but can receive training in weaponless martial arts. They receive extensive schooling and are paid well by the nobility for their service. They have a large population in all the Cities.

2. Varin has no legal mobility between groups. The Imbati are legally marked by tattoos on their foreheads (different Marks depending on their areas of service); they also typically wear black, but that is only a tradition and not a law. They could theoretically drop in status to marry, but are unlikely to because of the difficulty of removing the tattoos (which they are usually proud of anyway). They consider themselves to be the luckiest and most powerful group in Varin because they have great advisory power to the nobility, because they function as the major information conduit across the country, and because they have excellent health and education.

3. The Imbati follow the most common religion of Varin (a similarity with other castes) but unlike other castes, they value selfless service above all. Ideally they should strive to put love for their master (or for the needs of the Courts or State) above themselves. Not everyone does this, however; the strong-willed have to deal with holding these ideals in their own way, which can lead to internal conflict. Imbati also value personal autonomy. Because they are in charge of keeping secrets, they consider it impolite to ask questions, and this respect for the boundaries of the individual extends to an aversion to casual social touch. Their clothing, their manners and their speech thus clearly differentiate them from others. They learn systematically about all other castes because their bureaucratic and other functions bring them into contact with all levels - but their comprehension of other castes, though better than that of most groups, isn't very detailed.

Of course, once you've gotten to this point, the last step of all is taking all of your design knowledge and turning it into character behavior on the page. For me, that's the part that really gets to be fun. If you're curious to see the Imbati in action, look for "The Eminence's Match" in Eight Against Reality, which is now available for preorder at the Panverse Publishing website.

I hope you find this post gives you some good background on caste systems, and some material to work with on your own - either for creating a caste system of your own or for comprehending the ones you see in the pages of your books.

What does "friend" mean?

Here are some interesting thoughts on the subject of the meaning of "friend," particularly as it may differ between its use in real life and its use on Facebook, thanks to the UC Berkeley Found in Translation blog.

Given my own exploration of the friend concept in "Cold Words," I find this discussion interesting.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Different Value: Nature (also printed at SIMF)

This one is for those among my readers who didn't make it over to SIMF last Friday...

As human beings, we place value on the things around us; our surroundings and our experiences mean something. If you look around the world, though, you’ll find that the way we place value on things doesn’t match the way someone else’s culture does. Exploring these differences can give us insight and ideas for stories set in alternate worlds. Place a different value on something whose value we take for granted, and you may just surprise and fascinate your reader.

Today I’m thinking about nature. There are a lot of things that have brought the topic up for me: my recent trip to Yosemite, the Gulf oil spill, a recent article about the value of “green exercise” for mental health ( Most recently I discovered a story where planting trees is saving girls' lives in India (

The value placed on nature varies both across cultures and over time. The Biblical view places mankind in charge of nature and licenses our species to use its bounty. In that kind of model, gaining control over nature is a good thing – this would probably involve winning safety against natural threats as well as organizing what grows in one’s garden – growing food would be a part of this, to my mind. It would be interesting to ask whether portrayals of nature as relentless and unforgiving, like those by Jack London, can be included in this view. It’s possible, since gaining control of nature would take people out of danger (even though in the case of The Call of the Wild it can’t be done). On the other hand, the triumph of nature in a story can be interpreted in different ways.

Another often-seen view of nature is that of nature as good, as something we shouldn’t try to control, and particularly not to subjugate. The Garden of Eden would probably be one sort of example of this. Pocahontas has this going on in spades, and in fact there’s a common association between the idea of nature preservation as good and the image of the noble savage. The view that we are a part of nature has grown stronger and stronger over time, influenced in part by the growth of environmentalism. Science fiction has brought us an extreme extension of this idea: that of the ecosystem possessing a collective mind. Midworld by Alan Dean Foster contains one example of this idea, and James Cameron’s Avatar another.

There’s more complexity to be had, though, than just seeing nature as good or bad. The Japanese philosophy of gardening falls at an interesting point between these two extremes, because the idea there is to build a relationship between wild nature and man-controlled nature. ( If you look at a bonsai, you can see part of this philosophy at work: the bonsai is planted in a tiny pot, and in that context the shoot of a full-sized tree is trained into such a shape that it looks like a miniature version of the real thing. I think it’s fascinating that the goal of human control in this case is to emulate actual nature on a different scale.

“The garden can imitate the wider landscape in miniature by the construction of artificial hills for tiny mountains and valleys, meandering pathways and streams. Viewing points are essential in the Japanese garden. The arrangement of features within the garden must consider the different views, and what will be seen from each viewing position.” ( Japanese gardens, as they design their viewing points, are also known for trying to create a scene that incorporates both the planned areas of the garden and the nature around it, making them match and flow into one another.

Nature can be good. It can be terrifying. It can be majestic, even religious. It can be our servant. It can be our mother. Or it can be so normal that it’s hardly noticed. Whichever value you pick, keep in mind that that value will probably be nuanced in different societal contexts – different aspects of nature may take precedence or be held at different levels of importance. Much of its value will be based on what part it plays in the life of a people.

Woodland dwellers might see it as normal and unnoticed, or possibly they might see it reverently, or as a mother figure.
City dwellers might see it as something vague to yearn for, or they might perceive it as a symbol that people argue over, or they might be frightened of its realities.
Cave dwellers might perceive nature as riotous and out of control, or as a paradise.
The possibilities are endless.

Keep in mind as you write that the way a society perceives nature will influence not only their behavior towards it, but also the language they use in thoughts or conversations about it. Explore how nuances of thought are reflected in language, and what we imply through speech (and thought) about the values we hold. Here are some examples to consider:

“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.” (Nnedi Okorafor, The Shadow Speaker)
“Our great mother Eywa does not take sides, Jake; only protects the balance of life.” (Neytiri, from James Cameron’s Avatar)
“God damn, but he was sick of green.” (a human in Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld)
“‘Your honor, you mean you want me to go into the Sticks? I mean,’ he said, groping for words, ‘you want me to play for the Muckfeet?” (Alvah Gustad in Damon Knight’s “Natural State”)

In countless stories, we see that Nature has meaning to people. I encourage you to think about what nature means – and what it could mean – to the people in yours.

To see this article and many others dealing with the question of using real science in the context of fiction, check out

Monday, June 14, 2010

Names have meaning

How many of you have ever been in the position of picking up a Baby Names book, or looking at one of the many Baby Names services online? I know I have. When I go to a place like that, the primary thing I'm looking for when I go there is the meaning of names.

I did a post on naming very early on in the history of this blog; it's here. The gist of the essay is that names have meaning, so it's a good idea to think through the language background of the names you use, whether they are created names or not. The sounds in a name will be associated with very specific emotional reactions for readers, so it's important not to choose them without thinking that through. It's also a good idea to think through whether there are language groups in your world, and whether the names you've created fit with those (as part of a consistent phonological system).

But there's even more to it than that. Names don't just have the meaning we find for them in a book; I suspect that search for the meaning of names in books is actually something very American (British or Australian readers might be able to comment about whether it's also something English). Names speak to our membership in a particular cultural group.

Names tell us far more than just what a person is like. They tell us who that person is affiliated with.

I remember considering what kind of names to pick for my kids. I wanted names that were unique, but not names that were made up. I considered French names quite seriously, because I've always loved their sound. I also considered Japanese names, because my husband and I have close sentimental ties with Japan - but there I ran into a problem. I realized if I gave my child a Japanese name, that could lead to very specific assumptions about their background, i.e. people would guess that they were either Japanese or Japanese American. More so than with European names, which are in some sense part of the American heritage, Japanese names stick out to the common listener as something that must have a literal connection to ethnicity or nationality. In the end, we went the cultural heritage route and chose names with Celtic origins.

This phenomenon goes far beyond just nationality questions. Names like John, Simon, Luke, Peter, etc. aren't just "classic," they're names of Christian disciples. Names like Elizabeth, Catherine, William, George, and Henry are English royalty. Names like Lakeesha and Latasha might make you think instantly of African-American culture - but interestingly enough, they can also be found among Mormons.

Another twist to this is the question of whether names have literal meanings. Some social groups use names that have literal meanings in the language spoken. Native American names spring to mind as an example of this - as in "Dances with Wolves." I think also of "Onyesonwu" from Nnedi Okorafor's new book, "Who Fears Death" (that's literally what the character's name means - cool stuff!). So having a character with a name that has literal meaning may be another way to express that character's affiliation with a particular language group or cultural group.

Strangely enough, I hardly ever see names take on this type of social significance in fictional worlds. I consider this a lost opportunity.

Try asking yourself: Is my fictional society divided into social groups? What kind of names might each group use, and would those names be uniquely recognizable as belonging to one group or the other? Say you have a person who is a member of one group, but has to pass for a member of another - do they also have to change their name? What happens if they don't think to do that? Do the people they meet say, "That's strange; she has a XXX name"?

I've found a place where I want to try this in my Varin world. An undercaste member has to try to disguise herself as a member of another caste, but forgets that she should probably change her name. When she gives her name to a man she meets, he's going to pick up on the fact that her name isn't typical for his social group. However - and this is my own twist on it - he's not going to pick it for an undercaste name. Because of historical circumstances, some of the undercaste names are also common to the ruling caste - so he's going to pick the name as one with associations to the nobility. Which then gives me an opportunity to have her stammer about how her parents weren't meaning to be so pretentious, etc.

In any case, this is something you might like to think about - a great opportunity to deepen your world in an uncommon way. I encourage you to consider it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What makes a backbone character

Who is my backbone character?

A backbone character is the character in your story who plays the most cohesive role and binds one end of the story to the other. Without the backbone character, the story can't succeed; in fact, when I can't identify my backbone character, I can't even manage to finish a first draft.

Here's the tricky part. A backbone character is usually your main character - but isn't always.

Sometimes a character will appear spontaneously in your head and start telling his or her story, and you'll write it down, then look back and say to yourself, "Gee, that wasn't difficult." Other times, it will be less clear who's holding this story together. Several factors may make identifying the backbone character difficult.

1. You have a story situation in your head, not a person.

If you know more about the world and the danger situation than about a character in the situation, try to zoom in. Figure out who it is who stands to gain most in that situation, by taking risks and possibly losing everything if they don't drive through all the way to the end. Make the situation personal, and you'll have found your backbone character.

2. Your main character isn't doing much "protagging."

Sometimes you can be sure that you know who your main character is, but that person doesn't seem to get anything done. He or she spends a lot of time observing, and when the chance comes to act, typically he or she retreats from doing so. Sometimes it's that you just need to get your protagonist to be more active; other times, you should consider changing who the main character is. Still other times, it's the observer who serves as backbone because even though he or she has fewer opportunities to act, there are still other reasons why that person binds the story together in a way that others can't.

3. You have two or more characters vying for the position of main protagonist.

Choosing who your main character is can be tricky if you've got multiple protagonist points of view. Of the Hero and his Sidekick, which is the backbone character? Well, it depends on what you're trying to do with the story, and how you want its events to be interpreted by readers (as guided by the characters).

4. Your main character is too unreliable to be the primary narrator.

I'm grappling with this one right now. My main character isn't too unreliable yet, but will shortly be descending into madness, and can't serve as a cohesive influence from one end of the story to the other. Therefore, I have to have another person serving as backbone and holding the story together.

5. Your most cohesive character isn't present at the start of the story.

This one is looming in my future. It's really a revision question: I have this story and I always knew who the backbone character was, because without her to pull other elements of the story together, the whole thing would fall apart. The problem with the original draft was that I had the backbone character begin the book - but she isn't the one who starts the conflict. The other characters do that job. It has taken me years to figure out that I need to get the conflict started with the other two active characters, with their goals and stakes, and then bring in my backbone character when her influence can make a measurable change to the trajectory of the main conflict - i.e. when her role as backbone character is most strongly noticeable to readers.

The real challenge in finding a backbone character is to think through what your story is about, and what its core is really made of. The character who has goals and actions and terrible things at stake (the protagonist) may be the same one who endures through the whole thing and keeps the story connected with its core. But it's important to be aware that this isn't always the case. Especially if lots of people have goals and actions and terrible things at stake in your story (which is a good thing!), it's a good idea to think through which character serves as the central organizing influence.

Ask yourself: Who is the character who binds this story together, rather than letting goals and stakes take them off the main conflict in tangential directions? That person is the backbone character, and deserves as much attention as your main character if you want the story to work.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Debut at Science In My Fiction

Coming up on Friday I will have an article appearing at Science in my Fiction, the blog of Crossed Genres magazine. This is a great blog which talks about how to incorporate real science and scientific principles in writing fiction. Entries are written by a list of authors who have expertise in different scientific areas. The post is called "A Different Value: Nature" and I'll repost it here, but I'll let it appear first at the SIMF blog to tempt you over there. This blog is a great resource, so check it out!

Wonderful Parallel Languages

I was researching the Romansh language, spoken in Switzerland, and discovered the Wikipedia article has a great chart comparing the forms of core words across eight languages (eight plus, since it includes six dialects of Romansh). If you like historical language links, you'll get a kick out of this.

The link is here.

How Language Reflects Good and Bad in the World

Here's a really interesting link that I ran across on the UC Berkeley Found in Translation blog. A study has shown that there's more good than bad in language, in much the same way that there's more good than bad in the world (trust me on this one; read the article if you're curious).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Don't Try to Be Someone Else

Are you a writer? I bet you got into this whole thing because you read. Even if you started writing when you were a kid, there was someone, some author whose work you read where you thought,


Maybe you wished you could do something like that. Or, like me, maybe you didn't think about the writing at the time, but wished you could be inside the story, to have it happen to you. But either way, I think when we start writing, most of us have people we'd like to emulate. And the further we go, the more we discover other writers and their great works, and we say to ourselves,

"I wish I could write like that."

It's good to have role models, even idols. It's wonderful to admire, to read and analyze, to try to achieve something you've seen in an author you love.

There's an in-between space, though, that you should watch out for. When you start being a member of a writing field, you see people in all different places along a career trajectory (and those career trajectories take very different forms). Sometimes you see people who are "ahead" of you. Be careful.

Don't envy them, and don't ever try to become them.

There are huge risks in this. The most obvious one I can think of is that if you let envy make you get ugly, the people around you won't want to help you any more. The other gigantic one is that if you try to be someone else, you will probably fail.

Writing is very individual. Your voice as a writer is the combined echo of every piece of language you've ever heard, filtered through your judgments and values. Your writing is unique. If you try to imitate, very likely you'll end up disconnecting yourself from the Muse you need to follow.

Don't fall into the assumption that you are in competition with other writers. You're not. That thing you can do is unlike anything anyone else does, for one thing. If you can do it and stand out unlike the anyone else, you can achieve success. If on the other hand your writing evokes the work of another great writer, well, you can share their market. I can't think of any reader who owns only one book! I can't think of any reader who would hear that someone's writing resembled one of their favorites and decide without a single glance that it had to be horrible and derivative. And after all, wasn't emulating the greats one of the things that got you into writing in the first place?

I can't say this enough times: don't belittle the unique background and experiences that contribute to your voice. Be true to yourself and your vision. If you can do that, and keep working hard to improve your craft, you are far more likely to make it. And if you keep working, and reaching out to the people around you, one day you may find yourself having a friendly chat with the very author you've always admired - while somewhere out there new writers look at your work and say,

"I wish I could write like that."

Creative minds have less filtering...

Here's an interesting BBC article which dovetails with the discussions we've had here about creative thought and its relation to divergent mental processes (as well as mental illness). Here are the TTYU posts:

Insanity and Creativity
More on Hypergraphia and Writer's Block
Famous Writers with Epilepsy
Different Minds, Different Voices

Possibility of life on Titan?

Here's a link to the NASA webpage where you can find a discussion of new discoveries on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. It's not little green men, but a pattern in the distribution of the chemicals hydrogen and acetylene that suggests something might actually be consuming them. Life isn't the only possible explanation, but the data apparently fit quite well with a theory of how "methane-based life" might function.

Interesting stuff; check it out.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Human - vehicular relations?

Here's a hilarious link to a story from BBC news about research (conducted at Stanford University) into how to get your car to talk to you, help you drive better and become your friend. The fun part is how systematic the research is, and how much they've learned about the linguistic details that influence your emotions.

Check it out here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reassessing Your Trajectory

I have this cycle I go through. Usually it starts with having a great idea, either for a new story or for an ongoing draft, jumping on the Muse's bandwagon and careening along joyously for a while. At a certain point, though, I find the momentum of any single idea starts to peter out, and I then go about looking for another solution to a story problem, another form of inspiration, to carry me further forward. It's often a good idea if I'm losing momentum on one story to jump to another for a little while - that too can preserve my overall sense of forward motion and drive as a writer.

Then eventually I hit a point where I'm low on momentum for all my stories. This could be because I'm exhausted, or having energy drawn off my writing by other commitments, or simply because I've got one story problem here, one there, etc. across the board. So at that point I ask myself, "What should I do?"

I reassess my trajectory.

This is amusing inasmuch as it closely resembles the process of evaluating story trajectories - in fact, the story in question is my writing career. I go back to the file where I keep a list of all my finished and ongoing projects. I check to see how many pieces are out on submission, and where. I also check how many pieces are in progress, and how far along they are. Then I look at where I should be putting the most effort in the context of the current state of affairs in my writing - to put it another way, where I should be looking for inspiration.

The state of affairs changes, and my priorities change accordingly.

Back when I had no publications at all (which doesn't seem that long ago), I had ongoing novels and short stories and had to make sure to keep some attention on each side because I didn't know which one was going to break first - but in 2006 I took some of my efforts off fiction for a while and put together a nonfiction piece about point of view. This turned out to be a good move, because I had the piece published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and got a really good response from readers. One of the other effects of that piece was to make me feel more confident that I was capable of doing something other people would want to see (fiction or not!).

My first short story publication changed things a lot. I knew I had to keep writing novels because that was something I wanted to do in the long run, and short stories wouldn't necessarily help me move toward that goal. However, when "Let the Word Take Me" sold I realized I was going to be doing both shorts and novels for quite a while, and I made it my goal to try to do another linguistic/cultural alien tale for Analog. The result was several months of intense concentration that culminated in "Cold Words." That story's reception in turn reminded me that I have to keep this linguistic/cultural short story thing going. And I'm doing my best - "At Cross Purposes" has landed and will be coming out toward the end of this year.

Based on this you can easily imagine I was pouring most of my efforts into short stories for a good while - not because I prefer them (I like both lengths for different reasons) but because I felt that was where I could make the biggest visible difference in getting my name out as an author. Once I had a story submitted to Analog I used the lull of waiting for response to turn around and put a bunch of effort into getting my novel, "Through This Gate," submission-ready. This resulted in another period of intense effort that eventually led to my signing with the Grayson Agency in October of last year.

At this point, I have abundant reasons to continue pushing both on the novel front and on the short story front - but things look a little different, too, because I can identify another goal, that of getting published in the fantasy short story arena. Needless to say, no matter how much success you have, there's always another opportunity out there to strive for.

The point I'd like to make to other writers is this: it is a very good idea to take the time to look at your writing career from the bird's eye view, even if you only do it occasionally. Each time you reassess, try to determine whether there is a single area, even a single story, where you can concentrate your efforts for a while to achieve the maximum effect. What the maximum effect will be depends on your own current goals as a writer.

In the same way that a story is not simply made up of cool sentences, but has overall structure and drive, so does a writing career. The Muse has her uses, and she's certainly worth following, but she doesn't necessarily have a good sense of overall direction. That resides with you.

In defense of adverbs...

Nicola Morgan over at "Help! I Need a Publisher!" has a great post up about using adverbs lazily, and why we shouldn't do it - but why adverbs are so often unfairly maligned. You can find it here.

This fits in well with my general philosophy of grammar: know precisely what grammar does for you, so that you can use it to your advantage when you want, and not let it ambush you from behind.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Whether by telephone or text message, communication is learned

I came across this link today thanks to my friend Andrew Sullivan. In it, a college student expresses how she feels awkward speaking on the phone and thus prefers texting. The comments and quotes around it express how this phenomenon is a sign of our times, etc. - and it is, but I have to think that the true sign of our times isn't the phenomenon itself, only the form of its expression.

Communication is learned. Ever since humans started this whole language thing, it has been a learned behavior. It doesn't matter whether you believe in Universal Grammar or not (which I really don't; see my recent post) - the specific form a language takes, and the way it associates sounds (or gestures!) with meaning and action and social forms is learned. Not only that, but not every person learns it to the same degree, even among native speakers. There have always been those people who have more difficulty with language, and with specific forms of its use.

When I was doing my Masters in Linguistics, I did a small study about how children learned to talk on the telephone. This involved doing some recordings of friends' children (at the time I had none of my own) and taking a look at the patterns of their speech. It quickly became clear to me that telephone talk is managed differently from face-to-face talk, and while the ability to speak well face to face will correlate with better telephone talk, the two are not the same. Children will develop their telephone talk at a similar rate to their regular talk, but appear to be delayed in it because of the increased demands of the telephone as a means of communication. Over the telephone, you have to adjust for the fact that even though you can see everything in front of you, the person you're talking to cannot. This is actually quite a tricky basic concept, and because children learn to speak on the phone very early, you can actually watch them trying to learn it.

Letter writing involves a lack of context, and people have studied to learn how to do that for a very long time (at a later age than they would learn speaking on the telephone, because they need to know how to write). If you compare letter writing to texting, the desire to compress the length of a text message operates against any need for eloquence that might be cultivated in the longer, letter form. Yes, in texting there is the assumption of lack of visual context, but this assumption is precisely the same one that exists for letter writing and for other writing contexts such as writing for a homework assignment. Texting may appear to be easier to learn simply because by the time we're doing it, some of its base assumptions have already been learned and are well established.

Both face to face communication and telephone communication involve a very fast real-time response, while texting and letter writing do not. When people don't feel comfortable with these speed demands, and the risks that accompany an instant response to something that might be misunderstood, they'll typically choose the written format of communication. In this context, Twitter would more closely resemble texting, while instant messaging would fall somewhere in between the telephone and the text message.

Overall, I think that we need to realize that we learn all these methods of communication through practice, and we need to cultivate those skills that will be needed for our success, both socially and in our work lives. As the medium of communication changes, we adjust our behavior and learn what's next - but the underlying principles don't change as much as we might think.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

If you're curious about nominalization...

Nick Daws has a great blog post on nominalization and why you might like to avoid it to keep your prose more vibrant and active. It's an easy pattern to fall into unconsciously, and thus a post worth reading. The post is here.

Is it "said David" or "David said"?

For a long time, I never realized this was an issue that anyone worried about. Then I started hearing about it on forums, and then I started noticing funny patterns in other places, like books.

People worry about whether their dialog tags should read like this:

"Xxxxxx," said David.

Or like this:

"Xxxxxx," David said.

First, a simple declaration: both are correct.
For those of you who may have doubts, I'll refer you to earlier English where "quoth he" was very common. English is a very flexible language, and the two variants are just that - totally acceptable variants.

That said, I have a very strong instinct about when to use one of these and when to use the other. For me, either makes sense, but there are times when one or the other is definitely more appropriate. I just figured out this afternoon - for the first time on a conscious level - why I choose one or the other.

The answer is: meter.

Many authors manage meter subconsciously and it never becomes part of their conscious concern. This is totally okay, but for those who wish to control it a bit more consciously, I have a couple of posts about it:

Some thoughts on meter
Banjo Patterson and meter
Many Voices (often at least partly distinguished by meter)

Today what brought me my epiphany was one example from my current novel. I was writing along and I came to this:

"Petr," Tagret said.

No problem, right? But we were in a situation where Tagret was trying to get Petr's attention so that he wouldn't jump into a fight. So I then changed it to,

"Petr," Tagret said quickly.

I read it over, and suddenly "Tagret said" jumped out at me as wrong. Here I was trying to have him say something quickly, but it didn't feel quick. I could feel a giant pause right where the quote ended, and it was slowing me down.

Tagret said quickly.

So I switched it to:

"Petr," said Tagret quickly.

The pause disappeared. When I set out to analyze the source of my impression that there had been a pause, I realized that both "Petr" and "Tagret" have the same metrical shape: the trochaic foot, "Xx", where the large X is a stressed syllable and the small x is an unstressed syllable. The version that had "Tagret said" therefore had a break between metric feet that corresponded with the end of the quote, and that gives the impression of a pause. The version with "said Tagret" creates a dactyllic foot with three syllables "Xxx" which falls across the division between the quote and the dialogue tag, thereby pulling readers more quickly toward the end of the sentence.

I suppose that means if you have someone speak in a halting or hesitant way, you might serve yourself better by choosing a metrical pattern that reinforces breaks of this nature.

Anyway, that's my attempt at giving indecisive folks out there (said Joe? Joe said?) a reasoned way to decide which tag to choose in context.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Let the Word Take Me" is at Starship Sofa!

I just discovered that my 2008 story, "Let the Word Take Me," is now available in audio form at Starship Sofa! This is very exciting, and so I'm passing it on for all of you who may have missed it when it appeared in Analog, but would like to hear it read aloud. They even used a male voice for David Linden and a female one for Allayo! The story starts one hour and fifteen minutes into the podcast.

Thanks so much to Tony Smith for contacting me and making this possible. I'm thrilled.

So maybe there is no universal grammar...?

Here's an interesting article I got from Marian at the Analog forum, talking about linguistic diversity and possible explanations for patterns of human language, including the weakness of so-called language universals. As a person who always maintained a degree of skepticism for Chomsky's theories, I find these ideas compelling:

Twists on conversational endings

Have you ever noticed the endings of conversations - particularly telephone conversations? Typically you get to the point where one person decides the conversation should come to an end, and so they say something to advertise that they're getting ready to go. It could be something like, "You know, I have to run," if the people know each other well. If they know each other less well it might be something like "I'm sure you're very busy and I shouldn't keep you." Or maybe one of the people talking will pick up on a piece of topic that the other person had mentioned about something happening in their future: "Well, have fun at the picnic!" or "Good luck with that project, then."

Step two in the process is that the other person has to reply with a piece of talk that will acknowledge that the conversation is about to end. "Oh, sorry, I'll let you go," would be one option. For specific future events the person could say, "Thanks, I think I will/I'll do my best/I'll see you soon/I'll talk to you soon." If this turn does not acknowledge the conversation-ending move, however, the person's attempt to close the conversation will fall flat. The person who has to leave may feel ignored and sucked into a conversation when they'd rather be somewhere else. The less direct the ending move (especially with language learners), however, the more likely the conversation partner won't notice it. By contrast, if at this point the conversation partner simply says "Okay, bye!" their farewell will come across as needlessly abrupt.

Typically after the ending move has been acknowledged, you will find another turn by the person who initiated the conversation-ending moves. This will be something like "Take care!" or "Yeah, see you!" This move is basically without content and serves only to confirm the fact that this person has no further topics to propose and the conversation can end safely. The other person then responds to this with "You too" or something similar, indicating that indeed, he/she has no further content to propose either. This is the spot where if someone has forgotten to say something, it may be introduced.

Following these moves (social/phatic moves) that are simply redundant indicators that it's okay to end the conversation, that's when we get the actual goodbyes. A goodbye is a speech act that functions to end the conversation. The moves of the last turn ("take care") can sometimes be interpreted or used as goodbyes, but for myself, I never quite feel like I've really put a button on the conversation without an official "bye!" This is another possible complication. Proposing a new topic at this point is a bit more unexpected and sometimes people will actually apologize for it (where they are less likely to earlier).

Those of you familiar with Instant Message conversations may notice that you often have to do this goodbye sequence twice. The delay in IM chats introduces the (relatively likely) possibility that you will initiate this sequence of ending turns while someone else is still typing topic related stuff. In this circumstance, you end up with a point of conversational ambiguity. The person trying to initiate an ending sequence has the option of responding directly to the ongoing topic and then adding on a re-initiation of the ending sequence. Another option is for him/her not to respond to the existing topic material at all (but this might be considered abrupt). Sometimes the person who was typing topic information will simply drop the topic and reply with an acknowledgment of the initiating turn. Sometimes another odd option occurs and you end up conducting two entirely separate ending turn sequences, one which follows on to the first initiation of the ending sequence, and another which follows onto the remaining topic material that the second person had been typing!

By this time, this has happened to me so much that I'm starting to think there must be some kind of a story here. Or maybe not a story core element, but something I could add onto another context. I wonder if one could write a story with a split ending and have it be plausible. Hmmm...

Another point where this might be relevant to dialogue is that phatic talk, the empty stuff with which we maintain social relationships, may or may not be important to your story. If the smoothness of the relationship between the two people speaking is less important than the information conveyed, leaving the last few turns of talk out of the dialogue is certainly fine. However, if the relationship is important and you're going to play with some of the twists mentioned above to create tension, it might be to your advantage to pursue the conversation all the way through to the end.

Just sharing my thoughts, as usual!