Thank You to my Patrons!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Do more research to give the impression of less "research"

Recently I've read a couple of fiction works, whose names I won't mention, in which I could "feel the research." Perhaps you've run across something like this - a piece of prose with a historical or foreign setting in which you could do a tally of details and everything checked out correct, but somehow it felt effortful. Or though the setting was all present, the characters seemed to float on top of it rather than moving through it.

I could call this a problem of anachronism, but that usually implies something glaring that stands out and doesn't belong in its time period. This isn't something glaring. When I'm in my anthropological mood I'll call a piece like that "not culturally situated."

Very often, it's a problem of attitude. The author's research has given them the architecture, the physical details of rooms and everyday objects - but it hasn't had as big an influence on the way the characters think and speak. Small turns of phrase will stand out as wrong. Or it will be difficult for me to imagine how a person with the upbringing that this protagonist must have had (given the era/location) would reach a state of mind like the one the author wants us to accept. Straining against the status quo - a common phenomenon in a piece like this - is not the problem. It's the assumptions that underlie the WAY this person wants to challenge the status quo that make it successful, or unsuccessful.

Here are a few thoughts on how to avoid having a story that feels full of research, rather than seamlessly melting into the period intended.

1. Don't create an extensive checklist of "stuff." Have a key object or building here or there, and make sure to use of details that aren't obvious or easy - but don't overload the reader.

2. Move beyond Wikipedia. While it can be a wonderful and convenient source, Wikipedia will typically only give you one angle on your location or time period. Look for others, such as...

3. Look to literature or primary sources for inspiration. Literature written in the time period will give you a sense of the language used in your setting, and will also reflect the philosophies and attitudes of the time/location. Primary sources like personal accounts etc. can give you even more of this, if you can find them.

4. Watch your dialogue, judgments and internalization. Check expressions against the Oxford English Dictionary, if necessary, to know when they came into use. Check your characters' moods and the moods of your scenes, and how your characters define them. What words to they use internally to describe their own mental states? Do they reflect how people of that time and location would have described them? Or have any expressions crept in that are inconsistent with the culture or time period?

Even if you can only find one primary source or piece of literature to go on, it will make an enormous difference. In the Heian period in Japan people used to describe the shedding of tears as causing their sleeves to become wet, generally in a very gentle and pensive way. In another period, frantic weeping might have been attributed to hysteria. Nowadays we would describe such things entirely differently.

The setting you choose for your story is far more extensive than just a collection of objects, fashions, and architectural trends. It goes deep into the psyche and language of the people who populate it. When you capture that in your writing, the sense of reality you achieve will be far more powerful, and any departures from it will become far more striking.

It's something to think about.

My Cover is Out!

I haven't seen the paper version in my mailbox yet, but HERE IT IS!!! The cover for this month's issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

I have one thing to say.


Interesting link about the noun "madre"

Here's an interesting article from the Economist about a book that has been written about the many meanings of the word "Madre" in Spanish. The article has some examples to pique your interest.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fascinating link about agent/editor negotiations

I found this link thanks to Angela Ackerman's blog, The Bookshelf Muse. It's from the blog of Ingrid Sundberg, and gives you a step by step model of how an agent and an editor might execute a negotiation for a book sale. Check out the blow-by-blow!

Similes, cliché, and added information

Here's a hilarious post from Nicola Morgan about similes. If you aren't sure what a simile is, it's that thing you do where you say something is like something else. "He moved like a cat." "Her eyes were like sapphires." You've seen them before; they're everywhere, and a lot of them are clichéd.

So how do you avoid clichés and keep your similes under control? Nicola Morgan suggests that the simile must add meaning to the writing in order to be worthwhile, and points out that the entire content and connotation of the simile will be added (so be careful).

Question: what does that mean? What kind of meaning does a simile add?
My answer: two kinds.

First, a simile provides a comparison of a story event, character or object, with something else. As it does so, it lends all the qualities of that something else to the object (etc.) it describes. Here's an example, from my story "Smoke and Feathers":

...water reaches out over Ryuuji like a hand of glass.

What's happening here is that a boy, Ryuuji, is having water poured over him from a bucket. However, the effect of the water is far more than him getting wet. (I'll save that for those who read the story.) The simile compares the water to a hand reaching out, which gives the impression that the water could either grip Ryuuji, or maybe even cast a spell on him - things that hands, not water, can do. Thus when strange things start to happen afterward, we've already had a warning of it in the form of this simile.

Depending on the kind of word we choose to compare, the simile can bring along more connotations or evoke a more complete scene to go along with the thing that's being described. This is all included in the first kind of information that a simile imparts, through drawing a comparison.

The second kind of information that a simile can give us is character (and world) information. By this I mean, not comparing a character to something using a simile, but having the comparison itself reflect upon the person making it. If you are using point of view in your narrative, any simile you use will suggest things about the kind of person who would draw such a comparison. Here's an example that Nicola Morgan provided as being a bad example of a simile:
His words paralysed me. I was like a deer that's been transfixed by an arrow, right in its spine, so that it was alive but could not move. [The first sentence says it all. The simile simply adds some wholly unhelpful and, frankly, bizarre, extra images. We learn nothing extra and yet are bombarded with extraneous images of a dying Bambi.]
She says that the first sentence says all it needs to and we don't learn anything extra. I'm not sure about that, though - I personally think the simile suggests something unexpected and unwanted about the character making it. The original writer probably didn't have it in mind to suggest that this POV character was sadistic, or obsessed with death, or anything of that nature. Yet somehow they did. There's added information here, certainly, but information which can only confuse readers about the point of view character.

The information that similes (and metaphors) give us about the point of view character is in fact extremely valuable, and I highly recommend you take advantage in it as you write. Think about what kinds of comparisons your character would make, and why. The comparisons they make will show readers how they judge a situation, and will reflect on their sense of themselves and their own world. Similes give us an enormous opportunity to add dimension and life to our stories.

It's something to think about.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A marvelous analogy...

I ran across this post today on agent Scott Eagan's blog. It's about three reasons why agents will consider rejecting a manuscript after only a few pages. The one that really got me, though, was number three - where he compares seeing the conflict start too early with hearing a bad rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Honestly. Cracked me up, and insightful too.

Learning from the reconstruction of Shakespeare's English

This could actually be an enormous topic, but I'm going to stick to small details here. I got this idea from the article I posted yesterday (here) about University of Kansas and their upcoming production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that will be executed in all original Shakespearean pronunciation.

First of all, I think it's really cool that linguists are able to reconstruct the pronunciation of the time, and even cooler that this can be used for theatrical purposes. When you listen to the snippets provided in the article, you really get the sense that this dialect is related to Cockney and to Australian (which it is, as a sort of distant parent). Another interesting point made in the article is that this language was not what we'd consider refined-sounding, unlike the more recent British renditions of it. I could totally see Shakespeare's ribald jokes coming through hilariously in the accent as it was rendered by the young actors at KU.

The other thing this shows me is how pronunciation and delivery style are lost when the language is written down. I'd been told that Shakespeare's plays were best seen on the stage rather than read silently, and I've always agreed with this - it only becomes more evident when we see how it used to be pronounced. It was real fun, for example, to see that the rhymes Shakespeare used were not nearly as approximate in his time as they appear to be in ours. Word really DID rhyme with sword.

This disconnect between the pronunciation/delivery and the written word is something we all run up against when we write stories. It's a challenge whether we are dealing with dialects of English or alien and fantasy languages. We can spend lots of time designing a language, or we can imagine the English pronunciation and delivery that a person has, and imagine that as conveying part of their character. However, that information is much harder to render in written form. Do we alter spellings in dialogue to suggest pronunciation? Do we provide reactions from surrounding people to give evidence of this person's dialect? Do we alter dialogue tags? All of the above?

In this instance I think that the example of Shakespearean English gives us some good hints for what to do. Not one of us would ever pick up a Shakespeare play and say, "I can't tell that these people are speaking differently from us." It's in the words - the vocabulary, the pronouns. It's in the turns of phrase. It's in the way that the people in the plays talk about the world around them. These are the very same tools that we can use for our own characters.

In linguistics it's typical to think of linguistic objects as having features. For example, for vowels, there are the features of height, front/back, and roundness. I think the idea of features is a good one for the portrayal of dialects and speech styles in writing as well. Sit down and think about the speech of your character, and write down its most salient characteristics. "This person always uses contracted phrases like gonna," might be one example. Since a habit of speech like this is typically going to be used throughout a book (unless it's My Fair Lady), it's a very good thing to include in a book/world bible or a guide to the characters in a series. Wherever you keep your notes on characters' appearance and their habits of dress or nervous tics, include a list of the major features of their language use. That way when you need to write dialogue for them, now or in the future, you'll have a reference to go back to.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Original pronunciation of Shakespeare

Here is a fun little story about a professor at University of Kansas who has reconstructed Shakespeare's original pronunciation and is putting on Midsummer Night's Dream in it. Really fun, with language samples!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ideas that stick with you

In the last couple of weeks I've been reading with my kids a book that I just adored when I was a little girl, but which you may not have heard of - The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle. It has a folk tale/fairy tale type story for each of the twenty-four hours of the day, each one beautifully illustrated and preceded by a short poem about what happens at that hour. For example, at one o'clock in the morning the cat goes creepy-creep through the darkened house and finds everyone asleep.

I must have read this book ten times, but haven't read it in years. Now that I'm picking it up again, I'm discovering there are ideas in it that I use even today, in one form or another. The one that springs out as most active for me today comes from astory called "The Water of Life." In it, there's a faithful servant who is willing to do all kinds of heroic deeds for his master, but then the master wants to take credit for them so badly that he even goes to the extent of cutting off his servant's hand (!) so he can wear the servant's armlet and pretend to be the one who did these heroic deeds. Fortunately, things work out so that the servant is vindicated, and even gets his hand back. But I can recognize the roots of my fascination with the role of the faithful servant - and in particular, what motivates them to be so faithful (something that wasn't dealt with at all in this story) - coming from when I was a child.

Authors very often get asked where they get their ideas. I've posted before about where I get them - a little bit of everywhere. But when we work with children, it's important to realize how formative those early books are, and how much they influence our ideas on a fundamental level. I don't have so many SF books I read as a teen which I remember as having influenced me - though indeed, I do have a few. It's interesting for me, though, to discover a little something about where my first writing ideas were born, years before I started to write my own serious fiction. You never know when something will inspire you and pique your curiosity, and the effects can last a lifetime.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Guest Blogger Janice Hardy: Plot or Consequences

Juliette graciously allowed me to take over her blog today to help me promote the second book of my teen fantasy series, Blue Fire. This is one post of many in a month-long blog tour I’m doing, so if you followed me here from my blog, welcome and thanks! If you’re new to me, a big hello and nice to meet you.

When I first started The Shifter (the first book in my trilogy), I didn’t know it was going to be part of a series. But as the story developed, I saw the bigger picture and where the problem my protagonist, Nya, could lead to. As that story continued, I focused more and more on Nya’s journey, because stories are about the characters in trouble. But by the time I got to book three, I’d forgotten something, and Juliette was the one who pointed it out to me.

I was ignoring the broader implications of my original premise.

Nya is a “Shifter,” someone who can heal by shifting pain from person to person. This includes pain of her own, so anytime someone hurts her, she’s able to shift it right back into them. (Which made for some fun fight scenes). In the first draft of book three, Nya was doing this almost without thinking, and while she struggled over the moral aspects of shifting, getting hurt was no longer an issue for her.

This was all wrong. Nya should have been becoming more reluctant about getting hurt, because she’d endured far more pain than a normal person. The story was about enduring the unendurable to save those you love, fighting on through hardships and oppression. Nya’s reactions to pain needed to follow the same themes I’d first suggested in my premise.

Once I started revising with this in mind, the story became much richer and all the better for it. Nya’s physical fear of pain mirrored her emotional fears of pain. (I’m really mean to my protag) It tied in better with the overall story and allowed me to do some interesting things to bring the series – and the character -- full circle in the end.

So how do you apply the broader aspects of your premise to your stories?

Look at your themes
For me, it was about being trapped (in book one) and escaping (in book two) and taking a stand (in book three). I thought about how Nya and her abilities connected to those themes over the course of the series. Then I let them all come crashing down on her in book three. She was trapped by her own abilities, trying to escape them, but to overcome them, she had to take a stand against those trying to destroy her because of them. All of this also connected to her pain shifting and how she dealt with receiving all that pain. Look for ways in your story that you can explore your theme as it connects to your premise.

Look at your character arcs
This was really where I was missing an opportunity. Nya’s growth over the series had, quite frankly, petered out in that first draft of book three. She’d accepted her abilities and I wasn’t letting them affect her as much as I could have. By thinking about the larger ramifications of her abilities, I was able to kick start her grown and give her a much stronger arc for the book – and the series. Her skill at enduring pain was so much more than just physical pain. It became a metaphor for her whole character. How might you deepen your character arcs through your premise?

Look at your plot
What your characters do and the problems they’re trying to solve all connect back to your premise. But what do all those individual goals and problems mean on a grand scale? Chances are, you chose to do X over Y because it fit your premise better, or showed off something about your world or conflict. Maybe you can push those things even further. With Nya, the plot problems became more interesting when I started thinking about how they also affected her growth and the story premise. She might solve her immediate problem, but that also put her in situations where she had to face dealing with pain again. And that fear could in turn, affect what decisions she made and how far she was willing to go. (another theme of the series)

Your premise probably holds a lot more information than you might expect. There’s a reason it resonated with you, why you wanted to write about it, and why the idea is driving you and your characters. Try taking a closer look and see if it can also take you places you didn’t anticipate.

Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.

Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is every book a translation?

Here's a link to an interesting piece by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours. He talks about translation and literature in a way that I haven't encountered before - saying he considers the process of writing a book a translation from the vision in our minds, and then the process of reading as an additional translation into the reader's mind. Linguistically this makes a certain degree of sense. The other thing I thought was fun about this article was how he compares writing to making a cake. You don't go home and bake a cake and then eat it all yourself: cakes are for presenting to other people... and so are books.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the article.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Body language: are there clichés?

Recently on the Absolute Write forum I encountered a really good question about body language. In the midst of discussion on another topic entirely one writer asked whether there were any "good gestures" or whether all gestures were "clichéd, like smiling and shrugging".

I'd never thought about it this way, even though I've discussed body language before (here and on other forums). Would a gesture be cliché? Or would it only be the way the gesture was handled in written form?

I'll start with the second question, and then go back to the first. Anything we write can turn out badly if we handle it wrong, and if an author chose to use the same gesture too many times in close succession, that could definitely look repetitive. It would be a problem, but a problem of the writing. There are possible "show don't tell" issues surrounding gestures as well. There might be times when a more detailed description of a character's body movements is more appropriate than simple use of the word "shrugged." If you're writing along and you come to a point where a person has to show discomfort in their body language, there are many ways you can choose to have them do it - scratching an ear, shuffling feet, looking away, etc. - so you can make a conscious choice to have that behavior fit the character's personality or the formality of the context. For example, at a formal dinner party, a person might simply look away from the person he/she is talking to without showing any other physical signs of discomfort. Making good choices in such contexts is part of creating a successful story. By all means, don't say "he furrowed his brow" every single time someone has to express disapproval.

What about the question of whether gestures themselves can be cliché? My immediate instinct is to say no, they can't. Mind you, they can be repetitive. Body language isn't verbal or grammatical, but it does have a "code." Some gestures are "fixed expressions," such as the shrug or the handshake. Other gestures have different interpretations depending on the context in which they appear - eye-widening can mean surprise, fear, amazement, or exasperation, and we have to look at how it is described and what is happening or being said around it in order to understand its meaning. It's interesting to consider that sometimes we have different words to differentiate between these contexts - for example, "glaring" for the exasperated eye-widening, and "staring" for at least two of the other contexts. Smiling is another physical cue that can mean joy, evil pleasure, or nervousness depending on where it appears.

Many gestural cues vary across cultures - something to keep an eye out for. In Japan people point to their own noses while saying "Me?" rather than their chests; they point with the whole hand and not with just one finger; they beckon with the palm facing down, not up. These are the kinds of things one can vary when dealing with fantasy societies or aliens, and one can even exploit misunderstandings in gesture for critical plot moments.

Body language is extremely useful to a writer. It can and should be used. Because I usually write in very tight points of view (first person or tight third person), I find body language very useful. I use emotional description or internalization for the point of view character, and descriptions of body language and facial expressions for other characters in the scene (along with the pov character's judgment of their meaning). Here's an example:

[Tagret] risked a glance and caught Fernar gaping in horror, Della's Yoral in what could only be called a valiant effort not to look - something. Amused, hopefully, rather than insulted.

This allows you to create a solid sensation of point of view and keep your characters differentiated (even when they aren't speaking!).

So if you feel at this point that you may have a shorter list of body language tools than you would like to have, I'll give you a short list of possible body language cue types and what they may be useful for. Of course, there's no way to cover everything!
  • The direction someone is facing - good for first impressions of a person's mood, where their attention is focused, and how safe they feel
  • Where a person is looking (making eye contact or looking at a particular object) - good for showing what a character is paying attention to, and how ready they are for conversation or confrontation.
  • Open or closed body posture - this shows mood and receptiveness. The more bunched up a person is, the more uncomfortable they appear (like my poor daughter at the dentist's yesterday!). A person can also close body to one side and open to another by crossing the legs and turning the shoulders, perhaps to show preference to one love interest over another.
  • Placement of the hands - this shows mood, anxiety level, and can also give information about character and personality depending on what the person is holding or what they are doing with their hands.
  • Height of the shoulders - another mood indicator
  • Ease of breathing - great to show fear, relief, relaxation, excitement, etc.
This is just a short list, as I said, to get you started. One great thing to do is go out with your anthropologist's glasses on, set yourself in a public place and watch how people move. Figure out what your instincts tell you about certain body postures. Then you can enrich your own list of body language cues and work on incorporating these into your writing. It's the best way I can think of to avoid the problem of a body language cliché.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Who they are, and how to get them there at the right time...

Do you struggle with story logistics the way I do? When I say "story logistics," I mean places in a story where in order for something critical to happen for the plot, you've got to

1. introduce a bunch of people, or
2. move someone or something or some group of people from one place to another, or
3. have a bunch of time go by.

It drives me crazy. You have to do this stuff, yet it's dreadfully hard to make it happen without having it devolve into a bunch of "telling" (oooh, not telling!). The fact is, you'd rather just jump to the fun exciting part and make it happen without having to worry about it (unless the quest is the thing).

But you do have to worry about it.

I find that there's often a tradeoff, as in the chapter I'm writing now. Character N gets a piece of news, then has to gather his friends and go off somewhere to act on that news. The real action and excitement are in the action on the news, so I tried to avoid moving a bunch of people from one place to another and having a lot of time go by - but when I tried to start writing it there, it didn't work.

The problem was with the characters. This story has quite a lot of characters, and in this chapter I land readers right in the midst of a pocket filled with heretofore unfamiliar ones. Sure, we've seen them before from afar, but now we're in the point of view of an insider to the group - and he'd know each of them personally. If I tried to start at the point where the action was most exciting, I'd have to detract from that very action by working through a very ugly and clunky list of characters, who would then be difficult to keep track of as the story went on.

After some thinking I decided to do it the other way. To give them the time, and to see if I can move over their travel relatively quickly and smoothly on the way to the main action. If I include the time and the travel, then it gives me room to introduce the necessary characters and have them be distinct from one another. It also gives me time to do more things that I love to do: to show more about the point of view character and the difficulties he has in getting things done; to dive into the social dynamic of this group and explore the push and pull of how it hangs together. N has to go and get his best friend first, and then the group's fastest runner, who is also the most loyal group member - and at that point they discuss who else in the group they need before gathering them and going off for the big to-do. It sets up information that some group members don't know, which adds tension going forward, and allows for a gradual increase in tension and overall emotional dynamics.

The decision for me isn't always clear-cut. In this case, the advantages of the logistical delay outweighed the disadvantages. It's something worth thinking about the next time you slap your own forehead and say, "How the heck am I going to get them there?"

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dolphin pidgin?

Here's an interesting link about two species of dolphins whose communicative sounds change when they interact. What does it mean? Hard to know at this point, but it's still very interesting.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A new language - listen to endangered languages!

I recently was directed by Found in Translation to this terrific article about a new language that has just been discovered in India. The language is called Koro, and is in the Tibeto-Burman language family, and it has about 800-1200 speakers. The great thing that came along with this article was a link to the Enduring Voices YouTube channel - this has recordings of all kinds of endangered languages of the world. So if you're looking for inspiration on language design, or if you're just curious about the variability of language, do check it out! I'll also be adding it to my links list.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Greetings as an opportunity for worldbuilding

"Hi, how are you?"
"Fine, how are you?"

How many times do you go through this particular interchange in one day? Out of all the people you exchange with, how many actually care to know how you really are - and how many do you care to find out more about? In fact, a lot of times an exchange like this serves no content-related purpose at all, but that doesn't mean it's not important. It serves a very important social function, allowing people to acknowledge one another and express goodwill. This is one reason why I make sure to exchange greetings even with people I may have some friction with, just to try to show that I'm not trying to turn them a cold shoulder.

We spend a lot of time and effort teaching our children to greet others properly. We help them wave "hi" and "bye," for example, even before they can utter words. Our family had a fabulous experience this summer while sailing down the Seine river on the Batobus - we started waving to everyone on the banks, and seeing who waved back. It turned a lovely experience into a delightful one.

What in the world is so delightful about being waved to? But clearly there's something wonderful about it - here's an article about a man who waves to people in the UK, brightening the day of everyone who goes by. Maybe it's that we've learned from our very earliest years to appreciate simply being given recognition by others we encounter.

Another form of greeting we ran into this summer was "faire la bise," or giving the kisses that friends use to greet one another. In most parts of France, it's just two kisses, one on each cheek (typically left, then right). In a few places, it's actually four. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, it's three. This leads to some interesting awkwardness if you're not sure which side to go to first, or can't quite remember how many the local custom demands.

So what does this all have to do with writing? Well, here's an example (very spoilery!). In the book The Jackal, the tradition of "faire la bise"made for a very very interesting final moment - an assassination foiled because the English assassin didn't expect his intended victim, a Frenchman, to kiss another man on both cheeks.

In the case of fantasy or science fiction worldbuilding, you can get a lot of societal mileage out of creating the appropriate greetings. Some greetings reflect a local religion. Some greetings change to reflect the formality or casualness of a particular situation. Just thinking through greetings will make it very easy for you to put up some signposts that you've been working on culture and language.

Here's an example from my own work. In Varin, there are seven different caste levels. For each group, there's a special phrase which people of that group expect to get when they are greeted by members of lower castes.
  • undercaste greeting merchant: "May riches spring from your footsteps."
  • undercaste or merchant greeting laborer: "Fearless labor is the foundation of prosperity."
  • undercaste, merchant or laborer greeting artisan: "The focused mind is the sustainer of life." This one has a special form for those who wear the pin of graduates of the University, "May you take your place in the Record of Great Masters."
  • undercaste, merchant, laborer or artisan greeting servant: "May your honorable service earn its just reward."
  • undercaste, merchant, laborer, artisan or servant greeting officer: "The heart that is valiant triumphs over all."
The greeting tradition applies to all groups except the highest one. No one addresses the Grobal with any sort of special greeting, and neither are they expected to give any to others. The only exception to this is the Eminence himself, who receives special greetings even from his own castemates. The reason why there is no greeting for the highest caste is that I always felt it would be important for caste itself to be invisible to those at the top. In a sense, giving greetings to members of other levels requires an acknowledgment that those social levels exist, and thus having no special greeting for the highest group would allow them never to encounter those daily reminders of their own isolation.

I hope this post gives you a few ideas about how to create opportunities out of greetings. At the same time, maybe it can get you thinking about other social talk opportunities, like leave-taking, or personal introductions, etc. All of these, because of their social nature, are hidden opportunities for you to help your world take on a life of its own.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thoughts on Writing Series

I've been thinking about series for a number of reasons lately. One is that the Scribechat folks were discussing series this past Thursday; another is that they were discussing Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series, and I've been lucky enough to be on the inside of the struggles surrounding putting that series together (struggles which ended quite victoriously, I might add). A third is that I've been encountering series issues in my own writing.

A series is when you have more than one story set in the same world. Generally this also means that the books in the series also have other things in common. Characters, or plotlines, or themes, or all of the above. They can be stand alone shorts which follow one another, or stand-alone novels which follow one another, or they can even be different parts of one massive story.

So what is absolutely essential to make readers care enough to follow a series?

1. A compelling world.

The world doesn't necessarily have to be physically large to carry a series, though a large world does leave lots of room for exploration. However, there must be something about the place that fascinates - something that keeps readers asking questions. Janice Hardy's pain-related economy definitely does this for me. I read books and books in Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and I think what got me about that one was the idea of the link between humans and dragons that grew in response to the ongoing threat of Threadfall. The draw for me in Tolkien's books is the history of Middle Earth and its different peoples, and the complexity of their interaction. I'll also be more inclined to read more in a particular world if I feel that there are things going on beyond the borders of the page (i.e. the world does more than simply serve the plot) - so that if our heroes turned right instead of left, they might encounter something new and interesting.

2. Characters you care about.

This is absolutely essential. Some series even rest on the shoulders of a single individual. Whoever your characters are, people have to care about them and what they want, why they want it. They need to care that the good guy win and the bad guy lose, or they won't keep reading. I would even go so far as to say that it's important to give the proper attention to your minor characters. If you achieve huge success with your series, who knows how many opportunities there might be to spin off characters?

I don't believe that a series must stick with the same character set (necessarily). However, there should be a link between the characters of one book and those of another if they are to be perceived as part of the same timeline. Bilbo Baggins had a small role in The Lord of the Rings, but still he was there. I'm currently attempting the same thing with a prequel-to-trilogy that I'm putting together. The characters from the book I'm currently writing - Nekantor, Tagret, and Aloran - aren't going to have point of view material in the trilogy that follows. But they are terribly important to the precarious situation in which the society finds itself, and to which the next three point of view characters are going to make the biggest difference.

I really think those are the only things that are absolutely necessary. Other factors are more flexible.

People often talk about a slump in the second book of a series, much in the same way that they talk about a slump occurring in the middle of a novel or shorter story. I think in some sense these are manifestations of the same phenomenon, but at different levels of complexity. Certainly if the series is one integrated story, the problem is similar. The middle section has to have its own interest and momentum, even though it doesn't get to have the "splash" associated with initially discovering the world. It has to have its own compelling reasons to exist, even if it's not going to be able to solve everything. Stakes in a second book have to be higher, but not so high that you have nowhere to go with a third book. There has to be enough that readers haven't yet discovered, both about the world and the characters, to make it worth continuing.

I don't consider myself an expert at this yet, but as I learn from people like Janice, and approach my own sequels and series (at both long and short lengths), I'm finding myself wanting to analyze and write down what I feel I do know about the process. And I thought it might be useful to share those thoughts with you.

Here are some great thoughts on series revision from Janice Hardy over at The Writing Cave.

Friday, October 8, 2010

No, publishing ain't gonna die...

I really enjoyed and appreciated this piece, written by Harold McGraw III and Philip Ruppel. I think it shows that there are a lot of sane people out there who are in the midst of finding out how to go forward in spite of all the foot-stomping on the topic of electronic publishing and the so-called decline of the printed word. It's worth a read.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interesting discovery about bee collapse

I'm sharing this link because the decline of honeybees has been something that greatly troubled me. It appears that scientists and the military have jointly discovered a pair of factors - a virus and a fungus - involved in cases of catastrophic hive collapse.

And just to add to the language/culture content of the day, I'll point out that bees have a systematic form of dance communication that allows them to tell where a food source is and how good a source it is. They dance on the honeycomb in figure-eight or split-circle patterns, waggling their little abdomens. I studied it in my linguistic anthropology course, when we were looking at language-like behaviors in animals.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Am I holding back from what the story demands?

You've seen it in your own reading. The story conflict is progressing, and you think it's going to lead you to a really incredible, horrifying, mind-blowing place... and then it never goes there. The scene cuts when you don't want it to and suddenly you're in a different point of view on the outside looking in; or the climax you were expecting turns into something else, which will necessarily be an anti-climax because of the amazing thing you thought you were going to see.

So how do you recognize it - and avoid it - when it happens in your own writing?

There are two ways to approach this: from the personal direction, and from the story direction. From the personal direction, you need to take a look at yourself and identify your own areas of sensitivity - those areas where you're most likely to hold back. For me the main areas are death, sex, and violence. Probably no big surprise. Because I'm very sensitive about those things, it can make them very effective in a story when I use them properly, because the intensity of my reaction to them will come through in the writing. However, my sensitivity means that I'm not the best judge of when I have gone too far, or when I haven't gone far enough.

So, having identified the areas that I need to look out for, I then take a look at the story and try to determine what the story demands. A lot of my sense of this develops while I am writing, and my instincts to follow the principles of the society I'm working with, or the conflict that I'm developing, will take me up to the edge of a sensitive issue - and drop me there wondering what to do next. A big scene of violence isn't something I can just write and plop into my story. It's unnecessary, and gratuitous. But if I'm digging in deep, following the characters, their psychology and their motivations in the context of the restrictions that society puts on them, I can arrive at a point where such a scene grows naturally into the story, and indeed, is demanded by the story so that the feeling of anticlimax doesn't result.

I'm at a point like this right now in For Love, For Power, which is why I'm writing about it.

My story says, "write a scene where Nekantor's gang roughs up prostitutes in a brothel that caters to the noble caste." My admittedly prudish mind says, "eek!"

This is where I go to the next suggestion: get an outside judge. If you can, find someone who is an ideal reader for the piece you're putting together, who knows the vibe of your story and can understand where it's going on its own terms (and not the ones in your head). Again if you can, try to talk it out with them and gauge what level you want to set the scene to - before you've actually attempted to write it.

In my case, I went to Janice Hardy, because she gets this book (and has from the very first partial draft). She pointed out to me a couple of things that are working in my favor: 1. Nekantor is the antagonist, and 2. he doesn't see the world the way I would see it. I think I can use those things to make sure that the moral compass of the story isn't lost when we come into this section, and do a better job of striking it just right. It's not only what happens in the scene that's important, but how the context surrounding it, and the judgments surrounding it, cause it to resonate with the whole.

Of course, I could just try writing something, and wait for the critique stage, for someone to say, "why didn't so-and-so do this?" or "that scene wasn't what I was hoping for." However, I have a terribly hard time hazarding a guess at a scene. I prefer to approach this issue earlier in the process, because my first drafts tend to lose cohesion if I don't work things like this out in advance.

I don't know about you, but I find that the stories I create grow quickly beyond what I expected when I designed them. It's in the nature of the stories. Working in science fiction and fantasy allows a writer to set up principles on an abstract or idealistic level, and then grow them into a world where they can be operationalized on the ground. So how strong are these principles, and how broadly generalized across the culture? That's a question to ask yourself in worldbuilding, as you move toward making the story happen. Once you've decided how far the principles go, however, I think you shouldn't be afraid to discover where they lead you. If you get there and feel unsure, as I often do, ask for outside judgments. When you find exactly the pitch, tone, and approach to make the scene work - and not just work, but sparkle - it will be worth it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Happy Release Day, Blue Fire!

Today is the release day for Janice Hardy's second novel, Blue Fire, the sequel to her terrific middle-grade debut (my kids and I loved it!), The Shifter. Explore the dark side of healing and see how far Nya will go to stop the Duke! I can't wait to see it in "final draft" form...

Go visit her blog and check it out!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Announcing my new author website!

It's official - my new website is up! It's got all that fabulous art that I commissioned from Jared Fiori, and my magazine covers, and a free story to read ("Let the Word Take Me")... So go and see! Look around. Tell me if there's anything I've missed, or if there's anything you'd like to see added just for the heck of it. The link is , but you can also get there by typing in if that's easier to remember.

Thanks again for all your support!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Internalization, Silence and Avoidance

What don't your characters say aloud?

This is sometimes just as important a question as what they do say, and how they say it. If you find yourself asking questions about your dialogue, ask yourself one more - ask about what these people don't say, and whether they leave blanks in what they say. When we speak, our silences can be as meaningful as our words.

Just talking about silence may not make my meaning clear, however. Let me give some examples to illustrate some of the things that you can do with it. There are really (at least) two kinds of silence: someone not saying anything, and someone internalizing a reaction. Keep in mind that not answering, or keeping silence when someone else expects speech, is an active and not a neutral choice. In conversation, the default is to respond. When we don't answer, it means something.

If we call out to someone, and receive no response, it probably means they haven't heard us, and we should call again. This is the principle behind the ringing of the telephone. It calls, and gives us a chance to respond in the silence before it calls again. This is why I always say to my kids, "Geez, guys, give me a chance to reply before you start saying Mamma over and over!"

If we ask someone a question, and receive no response, it generally will be interpreted not as the inability to hear, but as a refusal to reply. The asker's subsequent reaction will vary according to how badly they take this perceived refusal.

If you're reading along in a conversation, and one of the speakers comes out with a reply that seems to have no bearing on what came before, it may appear to readers to be an error on the author's part, even if that was what you intended. However, if you're providing the internalized thoughts of your character, you can use what your character was thinking to bridge the gap - so that the character's next line will make sense to your reader, but not necessarily to the person the character was speaking to.

Silence and avoidance are good tools to set up mystery as well. I remember in Richard Adams' classic Watership Down, the heroes travel through a strange warren of rabbits who are stringent in their avoidance of any question that begins with "where..." The simple fact that these individuals would go so far out of their way socially to avoid "where"questions speaks volumes about the fact that something is wrong with this warren - which later turns out to be a place where the rabbits are fed by humans so that they can then be snared and eaten.

I used a different kind of avoidance strategy in my forthcoming story, "At Cross Purposes." The alien species in this story, the Cochee-coco, operates in pairs who are constantly together. I toyed with the idea of having them never use singular first person pronouns - "I," "my" etc. But it was too extreme, and indeed, very difficult to read and understand. So I changed my mind slightly, and decided to use a more subtle avoidance strategy - one in which the default value of self was the pair, and all actions and intentions were imputed to the pair, except in cases where one member or the other of the pair needed to be specified for some reason. So it wasn't that the Cochee-coco couldn't say "I," but they avoided it. The use of "I" was marked instead of being the natural default.

Certain societies (like the US) expect lots of talk to be made, and others (like Japan) expect their speakers to be able to guess more about what the other person is thinking and feeling. I come from a tradition of much talking (as my friends will testify), and so a good many of my characters have an easy time with words. However, the Imbati servant caste from my Varin world is a group whose primary role is that of keeping secrets and passing information when needed, so silence and inference have a very important job among them. I find it really wonderful and fun to write a conversation between two Imbati and to see how little they actually say aloud. It makes a chapter containing such a conversation much shorter! Here's an example of a girl, Kiti, greeting her boyfriend Aloran after a job interview, and the two of them deciding to speak at his bunk.

In the welcome light of the dormitory, Kiti jogged toward him between the long rows of steel bunk-beds. Perhaps reading his face, she didn't greet him with a smile. Instead she set her shoulder beside his and walked alongside him.
"Bunk," Aloran said.
She nodded.

He knows what she wants; she's guessed he's troubled, but sticks by him because she really wants to know what happened. All they need is to decide where to speak privately - one word.

I hope this gives you some ideas about how to have fun with silence.