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Monday, May 30, 2011

So how awesome was BayCon?

I had a terrific time this weekend at BayCon. I have a full report where I talk about cool panels I was on, and try to remember everyone's name (and mostly succeed) over at my author site, so go check it out: BayCon Report 2011!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Culture Share: Canada - Time as a measurement of distance

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Heidi Vlach discusses time as a measurement of distance in Canada.

Time as a measurement of distance in Canada by Heidi Vlach

For a lot of Canadians, an hour is a measurement of distance. Technically impossible, but it's true.

I hadn't thought it was strange until I had to explain it a few times to visiting Europeans. Canada is the second largest country in the world, with a population of only 35 million people peppered across all this space. Major cities are hundreds of kilometres away from each other. Practically speaking, exact distance to a destination doesn't matter -- it only matters how long the travel will take. So while the road signs say that Sudbury is 386 kilometres away from Toronto, most people here will tell you that Toronto is "four hours" away. That's approximately how long it'll take to drive 386 kilometres, after all. Why nitpick?

But it runs deeper than that. Metric measurement is the official Canadian standard (hence all the road signs giving kilometre measurements). That standard was only introduced in 1971 and it wasn't unanimously supported. Many older adults are more comfortable with imperial units -- the units they grew up learning. Ask an anglophone Canadian their height and they'll probably give you a feet-and-inches measure. Changing the national standard of measure doesn't happen overnight. Even now, many product labels still list two forms of measurements (e.g. millilitres and ounces), in the same way labels are written in both national languages, English and French. Just because metric is the technical standard doesn't mean everyone needs to be forced to use it in daily life.

Because of this, I grew up with my teachers using metric (mostly) and my family using imperial (mostly). A lot of American media spills over the border, so American TV shows added to my tendency to use imperial. I prefer nice logical centimetres if I'm measuring out a sewing project, but if I look at a person to guess their height, I understand it much better in the "five foot however-many-inches" terminology I hear on a daily basis. I wasn't taught a standard system so much as I was taught a particular state of cultural shift.

Many people of my generation show their cultural shift in the same centimeters-and-feet pattern as me, and I've never known an older adult to find it strange. Like a lot of things in the Canadian mosaic culture, measurement units are mostly a matter of personal preference. And if a Canadian doesn't remember exactly how far 100 kilometres is, they probably at least know the kilometers-to-miles ratio they need to estimate the answer. Everyone manages to get along and not sweat the details too much.

So I'm fairly sure hours are used to measure distance because that allows all Canadians an easy compromise. Everyone knows how long an hour is. And unless you drive at an unusual speed, everyone takes approximately four hours to travel from Sudbury to Toronto. With that out of the way, we can all get back to discussing the weather.

Heidi C. Vlach lives in northern Ontario, Canada.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Worldbuilding: What's on the page?

Are you one of those worldbuilders who has files and files of material that you've developed about your world? Have you spent years on it? Have you tried to fill in every box in the checklists about ecology, economy, culture, language, etc.?

That's wonderful. Congratulations on all your hard work. Those files will be a fantastic resource, just so long as they don't turn against you.

Here's what I mean. Sometimes, as the writer, you can know your world too well - so well that you don't notice when your world isn't making it onto the page. The words that you write can evoke so much for you personally that you mistakenly believe they do the same thing for all of your readers. Having reams of information sitting in your head can blind you to this.

This is one of those cases when it's vitally important to listen to beta readers and critique partners. What you really need is someone who doesn't have all the files, and who hasn't sat with you for hours and hours to hash out world details. The best possible option is to have someone who has never seen your world before. EVER. Hand that someone the story, so that what you hear back about is only what is actually on the page.

Of course, then what you have to do (and it can be hard) is trust their judgment. Allow them to tell you what they don't understand, and try to believe them.

So how do you make sure that the world you know so well is actually coming out on the page, back when you're in the midst of drafting, and not to the point where you're receiving criticism yet?

The best suggestion I can come up with is to do what I'd call "fully engaged worldbuilding." That means leaving off talking about your world in isolation, and going to the story and the characters. Forget "what is true" about your world. Start thinking about what is relevant to one single scene, one single object, one single character. Think about a person's misconceptions, prejudgments, bad judgments, and how those might grow out of the background you've imagined. Think about tiny situations. Look at the world in its daily operation. Dig in as far as you can, and then when you're finished, go back and dig even farther.

Don't worry if it takes a while. This stuff comes in layers. Until you've reached one layer, often you can't see that there's another one below it.

Right now I'm dealing with Varin, which means I'm looking at a very complex caste system - seven levels, each of which has its own cultural values. Frankly, I'd be toast if I hadn't written files and files about what I know. I've rewritten aspects of it so many times I can hardly count them, but I'm still discovering things. My discoveries always come from things that are small, and they always depend on context (usually caste context).
  • Pharmacy: my servant character had to go to a pharmacy, which had me thinking about how a pharmacy would work in their world as opposed to ours. I posted about this earlier. It was different because it was a school pharmacy for students with medical training rather than a public pharmacy.
  • Money: two of my noble characters had to argue over a bet that one of them made with a member of the soldier/guard caste. During this interaction, the guard pulled out a coin, and I had to go figure out how money would work. I also realized that the noble characters would never have seen cash before (they use cards), but because the guard likes to bet, he carries it all the time and finds their naivete very amusing.
  • Architecture/map layout: for a fight scene, I had to figure out how a neighborhood was laid out. When I got right down to it, I realized that space is at such a premium that there are no alleys between buildings, only behind them. To get behind an attacker, one of my main characters had to go through a shop, exit the rear door, travel through the back alleyway all the way to the end of the block, and come back around.
  • Oppression: out of my realization about the layout of neighborhoods above came an understanding of institutionalized racism (actually caste-ism) in my story. The alleyways that bisect city blocks are only traveled by tradespeople and garbage collectors, and they are considered to belong to the undercaste. This is why undercaste folk are in a position to worry about running into Highers (tradespeople and shopkeepers) but the vast majority of Highers are able to ignore the undercaste completely because they are not even walking on the same streets, and the undercaste always enter a shop from the back.
  • Language: there's so much to this one that I can hardly even touch it. However, I will point out that I was paying very close attention to the use of titles in the last chapter I wrote, deliberately shifting the way one character referred to another from a fully caste-appropriate appellation to a somewhat more intimate one.
So if you're dealing with a vast world, a complex society, a conlang, etc. I recommend that you increase your own self-awareness, and thus the strength of your work, in two ways:

1. Focus on the story, and particularly on small things, when you work on your own.
2. Get someone to read your work who is entirely ignorant of what you want to achieve.

After all, you've done all that work! The least you can do is make sure that your readers get to see what your world is really like.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TTYU Retro: Architecture - how it reflects history and culture

How do people build in your world?

In my post about building materials, I started by bringing up the links between architecture and environment/setting. In this post I'm going to talk about the links between architecture and history. The buildings you choose to put in your world will tell readers (and the people of your world) about the history of these people and their civilization.

When we were in Europe we went to the city of Aosta in Italy. This city, we learned, was once called Augusta Praetoria, and was the place where Roman troops stopped for the winter before invading Gaul. It's been the center of its region since then. You wouldn't necessarily know this just by glancing at it from the highway, but if you walk into the town, it's hard to miss. Augustus' Arch, the Praetorian Gate, the Roman Theater... all are easy to access. The theater was great because it had a modern theater built right beside the ancient, crumbling one. Very cool - but that wasn't the most impressive part.

Aosta has a cathedral, built in the 11th century and remodeled a bit in the 15th and 16th centuries. It rises majestically above the roofs of the town - and that's all you see if you just walk by. If you go in, however, you can find the entrance of the church that was built before it, in the 3rd century. The cathedral was built right over the top of the old church, but the arches are still there, the columns and the carved capitals that were made in the years 200. If you then walk out of the cathedral and around the corner, you'll find the entrance to the Roman forum. Yes, the Roman forum is underneath the 3rd century church - and it's huge. It's this gigantic corridor of stone arches, now lit by electric light, and seeming way too huge to exist underneath two other buildings this far underground. I wish I could show you a photograph - but really you should go and see it with your own eyes. This gives the town the sense of permanence that I described in my post about building materials. It is set in stones more than two thousand years old.

How many fantasy or science fiction worlds do you know which have this kind of history reflected in their architecture? My answer would be, not as many as I'd like.

Just in case you're concerned that I'm suggesting everyone create modern Italy in their fictional worlds, that's not it at all. Paris is full of the architecture of other times, even down to the crypts underneath the city. Kyoto, Japan is similar, ranging from the ultra-modern to the ancient.

Kyoto is an interesting example because of the fact that their primary building material is wood, not stone. You can walk through the streets and see modern vending machines just ten feet away from the entrance to a small city shrine or temple. You can park your car (not that I ever had one) in the lot and walk in to see the temple of Sanjusangendo, originally built in the 12th century and containing more than a thousand statues carved in the 12th and 13th centuries. You can go visit the Kiyomizu temple, and then read about it in The Tale of Genji and realize that it wasn't new even in the year 1000, but was built back in the 8th century.

Ok, so at this point I'd like to ask another question. What kind of place doesn't have old buildings? There are several possibilities.

1. A place where people build structures that could potentially be permanent, but where some historical event has destroyed all structures over a certain age.

Tokyo is rather like this. It suffered the Great Kanto Earthquake, and then the carpet-bombings of World War II... and as a result, all of the oldest buildings date from a particular (more modern) era. In a case like this, it's important to consider what kind of impact a very destructive event will have on culture, and what less tangible evidence will be available in the mental states of the population.

2. A place where building materials are quickly broken down by the elements.

Jungle dwellings might well be like this. In this case, other evidence of human history might be available, like tools or artifacts of various types.

3. A place where the population is nomadic.

If the population is nomadic, then habitations have to be light enough to be carried. They may or may not be made from durable enough materials to be recognized as human tools/structures long after they have been abandoned.

4. A place where the cultural paradigm calls for constant renewal.

This is certainly a possibility. However, I can't see that it would make much sense for extremely durable architecture (stone, for example) to coexist with such a cultural paradigm. It would be much more likely to be present in a place where building materials broke down relatively quickly.

5. A place that has only recently become inhabited by humans.

Architecture in a place like this would probably be either made with local materials or with imported materials, but all more or less in the same architectural style, since everything would be built at the same time. Still, this lack of history is in itself a sort of history - indicating that the people are recent arrivals.

I'm sure there are other reasons why older architecture might not endure, but at this point I think it's worth pointing something out: the presence of architecture means something - and the absence of architecture also means something. So if you're creating a society and they don't have any old architecture, no problem - but make sure there's a good societal reason why it's not there. Think about where history is preserved in your society - in behaviors, in stories or written records, in artifacts or in buildings. What kinds of historical events might have influenced this world? In what kind of contexts might evidence of that history be available for discovery?

It's worth thinking about - and on that note, I think I'll include this link to some photos by Sergey Larenkov, which overlay images from World War II on images of the very same buildings from 2010.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How do you "write what you know" in SF/F?

When I wrote last week about "write what you know," I got one very interesting comment that made me want to write about the topic again. Conor said, "I sometimes find it difficult to call upon personal experiences when writing science fiction, especially scenarios that are somewhat out of my element."

Yes, indeed. I think that this question might apply in some ways to both fantasy and science fictional scenarios. After all, you're dealing with a completely foreign environment in which all kinds of things are different and unexpected. How the heck do you write "what you know" then?

Well, one answer is that you can always learn things through research in the scientific or folkloric arenas required by the fantastical setting of the story. That is a pretty straightforward answer, and always worth pursuing. Indeed, I recently read an article that suggests we keep things as "real" as possible in science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding. It's an excellent point.

A more fundamental answer, though, would be that many "things you know" are hidden just underneath all the foreignness. When I read a story, the thing that strikes me most strongly is usually not the trappings of the environment, but the nature of the human experience that I'm sharing. That "human experience" is something I know. Even my aliens have human-like experience and psychology, and emotional states and reactions that resonate as familiar. Otherwise I'm not convinced anyone would want to read stories about them!

Here are a few examples of "things I know" that I have put into stories just by adding an alien twist:
  • I know what it is like to speak a language and not have a native speaker recognize me as a legitimate speaker. I put David Linden in precisely this situation in "Let the Word Take Me."
  • I know what it is like to be treated unfairly, like a second-class citizen, and not have any reasonable recourse. I put Rulii in this situation in "Cold Words."
  • I know what it is like to have a superior not understand the worth of my contribution to a project. I put Lynn Gable in this situation in "At Cross Purposes."
  • I have personally witnessed the in-between culture that can form between foreign visitors to a country and natives of that country - a context in which actual cultural engagement is not welcome. I am putting Adrian Preston in that situation in my story-in-progress called "The Liars."
When you're working in science fiction or fantasy, you can take elements of human experience and turn them into themes that you can then push much further than you might be able to in real life. That is one of the incredible strengths of the genre - it both extrapolates from real life and causes readers to reflect back on it. I believe that "what we know" lies at the core of what makes such stories successful.

It's something to think about.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Behavior linked to gut bacteria...

Manon Eileen put me onto this link on Twitter today. It appears that the type of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract can influence your behavior and level of anxiety. That is just begging for a science fiction story, if you ask me. Hmmm....

Gender in job ads, and subconscious bias in language

You don't know what you are saying.

Sure, you think you know. You've chosen the content of what you want to say. You're thinking about what linguists call the "propositional content," or the "message" of what is being said. The fact is, though, that you're saying so much more. The complexity of language carries all kinds of information about social alignment, and the individual's stance in relation to social groups and in relation to larger discourses in society (other times the same topic has been referenced).

Yesterday I ran across this link through @geardrops on Twitter. I was fascinated, but not at all surprised, given my background in linguistic anthropology. The article talks about a study in which it was demonstrated that job postings contain language that is "gendered," or biased toward either a female or male expectation - and that potential applicants can feel this when they read the postings, and gravitate toward the ones that match their gender. Wow, right? Interesting. Within three minutes of having picked up this link, I ended up in an argument about whether we had left behind bias in the workplace, and whether a person could be considered sexist for writing an ad in this way, and whether or not "gendered" language was just something made up by academics that had no basis in reality. Geardrops' conclusion, which I loved, was this:

"Hey guess what language bias exists and is subtle."

That's right. The social messages in language are not just subtle, they are subconsicous. So let's look at what that means for a second, starting with the question of politeness.

If you ask someone, "You need to ask your professor for a pen. What do you say?" that person will give you an answer, but chances are it won't be exactly what that person would say if you recorded them in the situation. It will be - and this is important - what they think they ought to say. This is a trend backed up by all kinds of politeness research: live recordings will get you different results from what people say they do. In fact, I found precisely this in my own research. When I studied polite and casual forms in Japanese, I asked three teachers how much of each type they thought they were using in the classroom, and each one said they used formal forms most of the time. When I went in, took a videotape, transcribed and counted these forms, it turned out that they were using formal forms 35% of the time.

I'm sure you can see the difference.

The propositional content of what you say is consciously chosen. But for the most part, the manner in which you say it, and the social messages conveyed, are outside of your conscious control.

Can we say that there is "fault" involved, or accuse a person of being sexist, because of what they express in a subconscious manner?

Well, yes and no.

I often imagine language use within a culture as an enormous piece of fabric. Each person's contribution is a tiny thread within that fabric. The color of the fabric varies depending on which part you look at, but each thread will tend to be roughly the same color as the ones around it. We don't speak in a vacuum. The patterns of speech and expression that we use are learned from those around us, and the more closely our color matches the surrounding pattern, the more likely everything is to appear normal. Sexism, racism, and any other -ism that you might care to identify are mostly built into the fabric. If you're a member of an insider group, chances are pretty good that the language use patterns that show bias will be difficult to see. It's the whole "by saying mankind I mean all people" thing. The distinct color of the thread containing the word "man" will be more easily recognized by someone who doesn't match it - i.e. a woman.

I think it's more effective to talk about "gendered language" than "sexist language" because the latter implies intent. Intent is a tricky thing. In our society these days "bias" itself is seen as being wrong - which is I think a good thing - but what it means is that people can get attacked for subconsciously engaging in the fabric of the discourse around them. Should they be blamed? Probably not. Engaged with, probably yes. Every time we question biased language we're acting on the front lines of societal change. Increasing our consciousness of these mostly-invisible markers is the way to get people to notice biases they don't mean to convey, and act to change them.

Here's an important point, though. Social language is not a plus-or-minus proposition. You can go one direction or another on the road, but you're still on the road. We will always, always mark our social position, our posture, relative to others. We will always express our membership in social groups. We will strive to distinguish ourselves from groups that we don't want to be a part of by emphasizing our membership in other groups. I don't see "gendered language" ever going away; I do, however, see it changing.

Language is something that reinforces itself, and at the same time changes itself, every time that it is used.

So to be a positive force for cultural change in the world, think about increasing consciousness - your own as well as that of others. Go easy on yourself - be aware that you yourself are constantly enacting culture and social alignment without thinking, and you won't be able just to "stop." Don't blame yourself terribly if you find yourself doing something you don't want to do - just think through it and try to exert your conscious will to change it. Be willing to engage with others. Be willing to question yourself.

And next time you're looking for a job, be aware of gendered language. Be aware, too, that the person who wrote the ad probably didn't try to exclude anyone. Choose not to let that shut you down.

Change takes time, but it's worth the effort.

Robots that make up their own language!

It's been a red-letter week for links! Today I found this one on NPR thanks to kardaen on Twitter. In Queensland, Australia, there are robots called lingodroids who make up their own language to describe things in their environment. How interesting!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Evil Aliens?

Michael Shermer writes in Scientific American about why he thinks aliens wouldn't be evil. What do you think? The article is here.

Culture Share: Scandinavia - Travelers in Scandinavia, and no, I don't mean backpackers

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Therese Lindberg discusses Travelers in Scandinavia

Travelers in Scandinavia, and no, I don't mean backpackers
by Therese Lindberg

Being a Traveler in Scandinavia involves a lot of things.
I could tell you about all the families who get bullied for who they are, about kids beaten in school and people chased from their land. Yes it happens even today.
But those are the rare occasions; usually we just blend in.
My family, my parents and my three siblings, have always had a house to live in. In fact from I was born till present day (twenty six) my family as a whole only moved three times, and only between two locations.

During the winter months of any given year, we live as any other family. We have a house, we have jobs, we go to church and we go to school. But when the snow starts melting and the birds return, that's when we “wake up.” The movie Chocolat with Johnny Depp portraits this well - when Vianne Rocher stands on the pier and feels the north wind calling her name.
The spring does the same for my kind. It's as if the essence of who we are goes into a state of hibernation during the winter months, and awakens to the song of the returned birds. The essence makes itself known, we become restless and the need for traveling will in the end win.

My Family has always owned a caravan, and my parents still do. This is not something limited to my family. Every spring the cellphones would start ringing and we would always laugh as we'd hear Father say “Feeling restless yet?” To the other person. We'd get more agitated as we stayed at home, and this was the same for almost every family.

They would take us out of school in the beginning of May and so we would travel. Usually accompanied by other families, and that's when you would, if a bystander, see four to five and even six caravans accompanied by a few cars traveling down the endless welcoming road.

We would travel to places where there were work to be found. I would say ninety percent of all male Travelers have carpenter or a painter as their occupation. I don't know why that is - they are simply good at it. And they would go knocking on doors and tell people they could fix their roof, paint their house, build a barn maybe. All in all a very old-fashioned hands on way of doing it.

The women however, would stay at the camp-site. The children would be free to play and if one became hungry there was always food to be found in one of the caravans. The women would see all the children as theirs, and make sure nothing happened to any of them.

If there were no jobs to be found in a town, or a city, we would move on. Usually we only stayed for a job, maybe two which took mostly one to three weeks. We would then pack up the caravan and head on to the next place, and we'd always feel excited, because who knew what waited in the next town?

Quite often would we cross the border into Sweden, and we had no problems driving through the night and perhaps let Father get a few hours sleep as we stopped at the side of the road. We all enjoyed it, as finally we were free.

Our language is called Rotipa and it is unfortunately a dying language. There aren't many people left who speak it, although most families use some of the words in their daily life. A dictionary was designed not long ago, and so we try to re-instate the language. It's a slow process but we're getting there.

We're an old race, with an outdated culture, and surviving in a modern society is difficult. And so we have adapted in order to survive, but during the summer months we are pretty much the same as we've always been. We've traded out the horse and carriage for a car and caravan, and the paintbrush has been replaced by modern equipment. But the women still stay on the campsite guarding the children and the men still go knocking on doors offering their services. At night we still light up a campfire and we all listen as the men tell stories about their day, and their ancestors.

Therese Lindberg
lives in Fredrikstad, Norway, except when she is on the road.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Past Tense or Present Tense...or Both?

Yesterday I read this short piece about whether it's okay to mix past tense and present tense in your writing, and my inner linguistics geek stood up and started stomping her feet, so here I am.

Let me remark something about grammar:

The effective use of grammar is not about what features of it appear on any particular page. It is about what the choice of a particular form allows you to do.

I hear the phrase "mix past and present tense" and I blink. What does that mean, "mix"? Does it mean, just write along and don't pay attention and whichever one comes out is okay? Well, then I'm entirely against it. On the other hand, I have written an entire novel which uses a diarist's point of view, and in her diary she discusses things that have happened to her - in past tense - and things that are going on at the time when she's writing, including things happening around her and her assessment of people's current qualities - present tense. In early drafts I had a couple of readers, confused by the unpolished prose, call me on "tense-mixing" - but it wasn't tense-mixing, it was just that I hadn't shown enough of the setting for the current ongoing events part, and so the proper context for the use of present tense wasn't clear. Once I properly established that, the problem went away. My use of verb tenses didn't change at all.

Example from Through This Gate (Dana writing in her diary about trying to figure out her new roommate Shannon):
Maybe mom was hinting that Shannon has some kind of granola-head thing going and I shouldn't let myself be influenced, but I'm not sure that fits with the makeup, or the computer either. Anyway, when the last box was in, Mom looked around my empty half of the room as if she didn't notice the bare blue mattress or the battered furniture. "This is great," she said, gesturing - I swear, the woman could conduct orchestras.

There are a lot of "traditional" past tense narratives out there in the fiction world. We grow up with them, and because they are the environment we're steeped in, we've long since stopped finding the use of past tense remarkable. On the other hand, if you're really paying attention, I think you'll find that all these past tense narratives also contain uses of the present tense - you'll certainly find them in dialogue and direct expressions of a character's thought. I hope you haven't been thinking that those examples of present tense in a past tense narrative "don't count." Sure, they count - they are in present tense precisely because they are doing something different from what the rest of the narrative is doing. If we were listening to a narrative read aloud, the tense (along with prosody and dialogue tags) would be a major indicator of when we were listening to dialogue.

Example from The Once and Future King by T.H. White:
Kay looked at his father. He also looked at the Wart and at the sword.
Then he handed the sword to the Wart quite quietly.
He said, "I am a liar. Wart pulled it out."

We also shouldn't forget that we change our verb tenses all the time when we narrate stories verbally. We'll be in the midst of recounting something that happened and when we get to the crux of it, we'll switch into present tense to place the listener more inside the moment when that exciting thing happened.

Example: "I went to talk to my boss about it yesterday, right? So I'm walking in there and I say..."

Honestly, I'm not sure this one works effectively in written narrative - but I do think that it is realistic to have such use of verb tenses in dialogue when one of the characters is engaged in that kind of storytelling.

I've also seen tense used what I might call "aggressively." The term is an exaggeration, but what I mean is, the tense gets deliberately changed for a particular effect. In her book The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood begins in present tense, creating a dreamy effect where there's no sense of the passage of time; then, as the main character's viewpoint changes, she switches to past tense and suddenly the story begins to achieve a sense of momentum. It's unusual, but it's deliberate, and really cool. As for me, when I'm working in alien point of view, I deliberately choose present tense, and I do it so as to force the reader to align more thoroughly with my alien's impressions, emotions, and judgments. I've been told my alien point of view stories are "challenging, but worth it." The fact is, present tense gives me a kind of intensity that I can't achieve with past tense.

Example from "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009):
I scent human outside the door: our linguist, Parker. He never comes to the Ice Home while I attend Cold Council - he must bring important news! I bow to haunches, then excuse myself from Majesty's presence, quickly as I can without inviting snarls from the others.

So I guess I'd conclude by saying I don't think it's okay to "mix" present and past tense - because that implies a lack of care and precision. It's perfectly all right, however, to challenge yourself and your narrative, and your reader, and use whatever verb tense you need in order to serve your own purposes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Do words end in "gry"?

Here's a cute little link about how few common words end in "gry." It has an interesting list of archaisms too... I hope you enjoy it.

Merging Experience and Fiction (Write what you know)

I just finished writing a chapter that I would not have been able to write ten years ago.

This is not entirely true; I could have written the chapter, but it wouldn't have come out the way it did. I mean, I know my characters really well. I've thought through their personal histories and their cultural backgrounds and all of that, which puts me in a good position to delve into the layers of their reactions to events. I know, for example, that my antagonist is not going to respond to a pass in the way normal people would because he's more interested in experiences that can stop him from entering obsessive thought cycles than he is in falling in love, or even experiencing simple physical pleasure. Since I'm not subject to these obsessive cycles myself, this kind of writing does not access my own personal experience...except inasmuch as I'm very good at internalizing certain kinds of language patterns, so I've "learned his language."

But for the chapter I just wrote, I used my own experience - of childbirth, and motherhood.

I've spoken to a couple of people about this chapter, and on both occasions I was asked whether this was my own experience. My husband even asked me if I was ever afraid that my son was going to die. In fact, I wasn't at all - never once.

So what did I actually give to this chapter from my own experience?

In this chapter a critical female character is speaking to her servant about the birth of her son, while the two of them watch over him in a sickbed (he's in danger of dying). My gloss for what she would speak to him about was this: "She talks about what her son means to her." Super-vague. When I got to the point of writing it I realized that she could explain what her son means to her by telling the story of how he was born, and illuminate aspects of her own life experience at the same time. I didn't hesitate to go to my own experience at this point - as a resource which I could then fit to the needs of the story.

Here's sort of how the process went.
  1. "I need to have her describe a difficult first birth experience."
  2. "Hey, my first birth experience was difficult!"
  3. "Yeah, but she can't have had a C-section. No problem, I'll just say she didn't have one."
  4. "Even if she didn't have a C-section, her baby can still have been weak at birth and taken away for treatment, like mine. That totally fits with the whole weak-blood-of-the-nobility thing."
  5. "But because she's scared in this chapter that he'll die, she has to have been scared back then too that her baby would die. So I'll say they kept him away longer than mine."
  6. "Hey, I bet I could also use that frustrated feeling I got with my second child when they didn't show her to me for an hour. An hour would be a good time frame."
  7. "Shoot, and she's got this cad of a husband (unlike me!!!) who cares more about sustaining the population of the nobility than he does about her, and so she must have been really worried about how he'd react if the baby died."
  8. "Boy, I remember how I felt when I realized my son would be okay. So that means she won't have been able to be happy precisely, but that she'll have cried and promised him the two of them would be okay."
  9. "And that means that she'll want more than ever in the current scene to promise him that he'll be okay."
  10. "And imagine how helpless she'd feel! Wow, that's exactly what I've felt like when I have been up late at night over a baby with a fever and the telephone next to me in case the advice nurse calls back."
It was therefore on the basis of this thought process that I wrote the chapter in question. I think it's interesting to note that I didn't use only one of my own experiences. I used three. The framework was my own first birth experience, but on two occasions I accessed other emotional states that I had experienced with my children - the delay in seeing my newborn daughter, and the fear of sitting up with a sick child.

What is in the chapter now isn't my experience at all. It's entirely hers - her trials and her fears in her social context. But because I experienced something like it, I know that the feelings that I'm trying to evoke are real, and that the chapter is stronger as a result.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A great article on puns

I thought you might enjoy this article from NPR about puns. Some call them the lowest form of humor, but they have some interesting nuances you might enjoy reading about.

The Scope of the Conflict

When you're writing a story, there needs to be conflict. Person versus person, person versus extreme environment, whatever it is... conflict is a necessary ingredient for making a story work. You may also have noticed that it's good to have both internal conflict and external conflict - conflict within the main character gives that person more dimension and also gives them a trickier time resolving the save-the-world conflict part. It's important also, I think, to consider the scope of the conflict that you are working with.

When considering scope, you can always start with two basic questions:
  • how many people are involved?
  • how many people are affected?
The scope of the conflict will influence how much work you'll have to do to make your story hook readers.

If the scope of the conflict is too small - only one person is involved, and nobody is affected - you may find readers going "so what?" You can make a story work with a conflict that involves and affects only one person, but in that case it will be very important to answer the question of why it matters that this person get through the conflict. Maybe in the case of personal moral dilemmas the significance comes from questions about the nature of human morality - the individual symbolizing us all, and thereby giving the small scope a larger meaning.

On the other side of things, you have the save-the-world/universe conflict, in which you have a large number of people involved, and absolutely everybody is affected. The number of people involved will be somewhat limited by what the narrative can bear without confusing readers. In The Lord of the Rings, we're dealing with all of Middle Earth falling into darkness, and so many people are involved that the narrative splits in order to deal with them all. Furthermore, almost anyone can be enlisted from the population of passersby to act on one side or another of the conflict, because it affects all of them.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, everybody knows about the conflict and it's easy to get everyone involved. In the Harry Potter books, I found it interesting that the scope of the conflict kept increasing. At first it seemed like just Harry was involved, and maybe a few more people. Then the further we went the more it became clear that all of the wizarding world was involved, and by the end we were starting to see that even the Muggle world was involved. Good stuff.

But if we're to talk about potential problems with the scope of story conflict, I have to mention the Harry Potter books here too, because I had a quibble with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the level of scope. I entered that book with the impression that the conflict would center on Harry and his friends as both the primary people involved, and those affected - but it turned out that there were many more people involved, and that Harry and his friends were occupying a small corner of the affected area, in such a way that I wasn't convinced there was any way they could actually have resolved the conflict on their own. This isn't something that will bother everyone, but it bothered me at the time.

If the scope of your conflict is too large, readers may be confused. Make sure that you're showing all the people involved, and taking the necessary steps to imply the number of people affected. If the scope is too small, relevant only to the main characters and not to anyone else, make sure that you're showing readers why such personal stakes matter.

The reader's understanding of the full scope of your conflict isn't something that should necessarily remain the same, either. Expanding the scope of the conflict - at least in terms of the number of people affected - is part of what raises the stakes as the story progresses. You can plan ahead for moments that reveal expansions in scope: that moment when suddenly you realize that more people were involved than you ever suspected. Or the moment when you realize that a single decision that rests on one character's conscience will affect everyone you have read about so far.

Of course, the issue is more complex than I can really explain through generalities, so here are a few of my thoughts about scope from my writing of my new novel, For Love, For Power.

I'm finding that I have to keep reminding myself about issues of scope. The main characters are all members of a single nuclear family which has lots of internal struggles, and at the same time, they are involved in a larger-scale conflict over the leadership of the nation of Varin that will affect everyone. Where the question of scope becomes more complex is in the fact that their nuclear family is part of the larger group called the First Family, and that there are twelve Great Families in the nobility, all of whom have a stake in the leadership struggle. Because of this, I have to decide how many of them are involved in events (say, attacks and attempted assassinations, meetings and negotiations) that directly affect the First Family and my characters. Logically, since everyone is involved in the process, the events that affect my characters are not the only ones that are going on at any given time. I'm finding that I have to build in ways for my characters to get information about aspects of the ongoing conflict that don't directly affect them. Otherwise it would appear that the First Family is the only important group here, and then why would the struggle for leadership have any meaning? Thus, if the First Family is attacked, then very likely several other families will suffer attacks on the same day (and some may be initiated by the First Family!). If people who attended a particular event are getting sick, then maybe my small group of First Family members should get a message letting them know how many people are ill and how far it affects the nobility as a whole. At the same time, I also have to realize, and try to hint to readers, that the First Family is not the only group experiencing internal struggles. Otherwise their efforts to affect the First Family would be too effective. In fact, I am planning deliberately to have some of the other Families' efforts to affect the power struggle fail because of internal problems in their group. I guess I would call it a question of making sure that I imply the scope of the type of conflicts and setbacks that the First Family suffers, and not just the scope of the overall power struggle.

It's something to think about.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Humans to speak with dolphins via translator machine?

Here's a fun little article - apparently people will be trying to have real-time conversation in dolphin language using a computer translator. While we've never figured out what the critical linguistic elements are (sort of like phonemes), scientists hope to use intermediate, artificial "words" using the sounds dolphins can produce, to work through a pidgin-like intermediate vocabulary into grasping actual dolphin language elements. I hope it works - I can't help but LOVE this!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Worldbuilding for Short Stories (originally at The Other Side of the Story)

This post originally appeared at Janice Hardy's The Other Side of the Story.

Is worldbuilding for short stories different from worldbuilding for novels?

Yes and no.

You might guess that a short story would require less worldbuilding than a novel - but the size of the world itself is not the primary difference between the two. Short story readers will perceive world gaps, and be confused of frustrated by them, just as easily as novel readers. The biggest difference is that in a short story, you have very little room to explain or explore. Everything you do has to be done in as few words as possible.

Imagine that you're building a house. The first room of that house is the place where your reader enters the world. In a novel, that first room is full of doors. In a short story, it's all windows.

Doors can be opened. The novel format gives you the opportunity to send your reader through those doors, allowing you - and also requiring you - to explore a lot more of what lies in the rooms beyond. The most you get from an open window is the scent of fresh air. The short story format keeps readers confined, but if there's nothing to see outside, then they'll know something is wrong.

One of the wonderful characteristics of societies that I learned about while studying anthropology and linguistics is that large-scale trends in a society will tend to be visible even in small-scale interactions. I take advantage of this in my short story worldbuilding all the time. If you know a lot of large-scale things about your world, see if you can tighten your focus down and make them play out - i.e. be demonstrated, shown not told - on the smaller level. An entire system of phonology can be implied using a single unusual name. A system of social hierarchy can be implied by including small details of politeness in a single interaction between individuals. An economic model can be demonstrated by exploring the conclusions a character draws about the provenance of a single object.

Thus, in a short story, you should try to make every object and every interaction count. These things are not just working for your story but also for your world: they are the windows in your room. Realize that when you describe food, you're not only giving your character something to eat but potentially opening a view onto climate, agriculture, economy, socioeconomic conditions, and food culture. Realize that when you mention clothing, you're not just creating fashion but saying something about the value clothing has in your world. Realize that each person your character meets has a social role that illuminates the entire society - and that the opinion your character has of each person will give insight into that character's place within the system.

Of course, all this is true of novels as well. The demand for multi-tasking may be lower because you have more room with a higher word count, but it's always good to have your text do more than one thing at a time. Novels are expansive, so there are many opportunities to have the reader's sense of the world grow and expand.

The funny thing about short stories is that thought the amount of worldbuilding effort often seems disproportionately large, that effort will pay off. Readers can tell when the house has no windows - it's dark, and there's no air. If you choose the proper telling details to include, then you've placed your windows to maximize the view.

Give your readers something to see. They will thank you for it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ever wondered about establishing populations?

I was directed by LJ's aldersprig to this wikipedia entry today: Population Bottleneck. Given that my Varin world has both population bottlenecks and Founder Effects in it, I found it supremely useful. If you are working with a world that has moments of extremely low population, then you might find the article as useful as I did.

Re-envisioning a scene without rewriting it (originally appeared at The Other Side of the Story)

I'm going to talk about situations where you want to re-envision a scene without actually rewriting it completely.

To explain what I mean, I'll start by telling you about an interesting - and to me somewhat baffling - experience I had a few years ago. I met a young and talented writer in an online writing community and happily agreed to look at some of her work. I liked a lot about the story, the characters, etc. It did have issues, though, so on a couple of sections I gave her an in-depth critique, with my opinions, including how she might go about changing it to sharpen the focus. For each section she thanked me and sent me a revised version.

The revised versions were completely different.

It wasn't rephrasing, or even reworking. The scenes had been moved to entirely different locations, and just about everything about them was different. Again, they were quite well-written, but with issues. At that point I didn't know what comment to make any more, because I was terrified that I'd make her feel she had start all over for a second time.

What I tried to tell her then (with my apologies!) is what I'm trying to explain now. You don't need to start over. You can completely change the significance of a scene - what the scene means to the rest of the story - while hardly changing anything that happens in it. All you have to do is change what the events mean to your protagonist.

I have an example for you - I spent quite a while finding this one in my old files, but I had to. Why? Because Janice Hardy mentioned this very sequence when she asked me to do this post, which originally appeared as a guest post on her blog. In this scene, Dana is trying to make friends with her new roommate, Shannon. This tiny interaction went through four different iterations as I tried to figure out how Dana felt about Shannon's interest in the fact that she writes notes in her novels. Here's how it starts:

"Well," I [Dana] said, "a lot of famous authors write in their books. It's a sign of active engagement in the message."
And she didn't miss a beat. She put her hands on her hips and said, "God, Dana! 'Active engagement in the message' - that's awesome, you should totally major in English."

What changed was the few sentences that followed, specifically Dana's reaction to Shannon's comment. Here are the four versions, and my summary of the effect produced:

Version 1:
"Yeah, maybe," I said, all daring. "I love to write." For a second I thought that was it, I'd done it, my year with her was made.
And then Brian walked in the door.
Summary: Dana tries to be brave enough to accept Shannon and Brian wrecks the moment

Version 2:
I was speechless. Without even thinking, she just tore my secret hopes out of the safety of my heart and turned them into some stranger's ultimatum! How could she?
Before I could think of anything to say, Brian walked in the open door.
Summary: Dana resents Shannon's nosiness and is rescued by Brian.

Version 3:
What an amazing thing to say! She hit my dream straight on, as if she'd seen right into my heart; for a moment I was utterly convinced I'd had it right about her and me becoming friends. But before I could put words to my delight, Brian Bateson walked in our half-open door.
Summary: Dana feels a moment of true connection with Shannon but Brian interrupts.

Version 4 (final):
For a moment I was utterly convinced I would make it through, and that I'd been right about her and me connecting. But then she said, oh-so-slowly, "So, do you think you could tell if somebody was reading a magic book?" It felt like an insult. She was watching me intently, waiting for something, God knows what. Slowly I realized that this had to be some kind of test, maybe Shannon seeing if I had enough sense to laugh at my own escapist taste in literature. Before I could think of how to respond, Brian walked in our half-open door.
Summary: Dana hopes for connection with Shannon, but is subjected to a personal test, and Brian keeps her from knowing if she passed.

The difference between each these versions completely changed how my readers felt when Shannon and Brian got into an argument later in the same scene, and that influenced how their relationship came across for the entire book. That was why I spent so much effort fine-tuning it.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Do I really need to do this?" Well, consider that you're sparing yourself the trouble of redoing the entire scene. Here are some spots to look at:
  • The context in which a new character enters the story, which sets expectations about their future behavior.
  • Any places where readers need the point-of-view character to give them a proper read on the motives of a minor character.
  • Places where tension drops, character arcs seem to lose their drive, or character motives don't seem to match their behavior. (I'll return to this one in a minute.)
Any of these are good places to reconsider your protagonist's state of mind, and refine his or her reaction to the existing events. The third bullet point is my way of saying that this doesn't just apply to small interactions within a scene, but can also apply to larger sections of the text.

Here's an example of a chapter motive alteration from my current novel project.

Summary of the scene:
A young servant, Aloran, has a job interview with a family he's hoping to work for. It's the first time he's met the mistress, the person he would be working with most closely. Unfortunately, she's heard he's coming, and is terribly angry with her husband for inviting him (because he's firing her current servant without permission). She goes into a rage right in front of her husband and Aloran, making Aloran feel that he has failed in the interview. Later, however, he learns that she is actually going to hire him.

In version 1, Aloran went in feeling really keen to get the job. His apparent failure in the interview was a terrible disappointment, but he was so shocked by the mistress' behavior that he figured it was probably a good thing he failed. Then when he learned he was going to be hired, he was shocked and alarmed.

It made some sense, but something about it felt weak, and the chapter didn't seem to sustain tension and story drive. So I broke it down to look at the lead-in, the scene itself, and the exit from that scene, as follows.

The lead-in:
Here I found the first problem. Aloran's knowledge of the family had a lot of gaps. This helped explain how much he wanted the job, because he might not have wanted it if he'd known how twisted they were. But it was also implausible. Because of his resources (school advisor, etc), he would be able to access more information about the family than that.

The scene:
Another problem. The mistress flipping out seemed superficial as a reason for him to change his mind so thoroughly and dramatically.

The exit:
Because he changed his mind completely in the scene, that justified his reaction of shock and alarm later when he found he was hired - but it wasn't well-supported because of the problems mentioned above.

Obviously I needed to revise, but it wouldn't have made sense to get rid of the scene entirely. Aloran he has to get the job somehow, and the interview is an important step in this. Aloran also has to learn something important about the mistress during the scene, so he can't fail to see her. Showing it in a different point of view wouldn't make sense either, because it's what Aloran learns that he has to carry forward. Changing the mistress' reaction in the scene would call for a major change in her character that would gut the rest of the story. In fact, every word that is said in the scene remains the same, because the mistress and her husband have precisely the same relationship and interaction, and though Aloran might feel different, he can't show his feelings in front of a potential employer!

So the interview scene stays, along with the blocking and the dialogue. The difference lies in the internal states of the point of view character.

The new lead-in:
Aloran has plenty of information to make him feel ambivalent about this family. He comes into the scene hoping for some opportunity to screw up on purpose so that the family will reject him as a candidate. His only regret about this chosen course of action is the fact that he's heard about the mistress and how wonderful she is in comparison with the other family members.

The new scene:
Aloran is totally broadsided by the mistress' reaction of extreme anger. Because of his shock, he forgets his strategy and doesn't do anything deliberate to sabotage his chances. He decides that her behavior means he has been rejected.

The exit:
To his surprise, Aloran feels hurt by the mistress' reaction, and by the fact that she hasn't even given him a chance to show his quality. This is not a reaction he expected after planning to fail, but a gut reaction to the betrayal he feels after having heard how wonderful she is. Thus when he learns he has received the position, he is confused and frightened to be entering the family, but still harbors a hope that he hadn't expected, of seeing behind the mistress' anger - which motivates his actions once he starts working for the family.

What I'm asking you to do here is to consider how you might use your character's internalizations and mental states as a tool - a powerful tool that can completely change what a scene means, even while it leaves the essentials of the scene unchanged. It can help you keep your story drive, make sure your main character feels motivated, and keep the story flowing along smoothly. This is especially useful when you have a scene where you know a lot is right, but something feels wrong.

If you find yourself looking at a scene like this, break it down and consider:
  1. the lead-in to the scene. Is anything missing? What does your character know, or feel, or anticipate?
  2. the scene itself. Do the minor characters behave in a logical way? Can their actions be changed? How do they contribute to the overall flow of the arc or the larger story?
  3. the exit from the scene. Does it fit well with where this character's arc needs to go next? Is it positive, or negative, or ambivalent? How does that contribute to the drive?
Good luck with your revisions!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bringing characters together

Personal alliances can be critical to the success of a story. To me these include acquaintances, friendships, close friendships and romances. I find that it's really important, if I'm going to have two characters who have a friendship, to understand why it is that they are friends. One of the potential pitfalls of writing stories is that we can set up our cast of characters and place them on stage, announcing, "these people are friends" without deeply considering what they have in common and what brought them together. When we have two people fall in love, this can (I suppose) happen instantly and simply through pure physical attraction, but I like to consider a little more than just the "hhhot" factor when trying to get two people together. Indeed, I find it even more fun when the people are coming together in a more complicated way, as through adversity, overcoming dislike, becoming attracted without realizing it, etc.

I'm going to consider some basic alignment ingredients first, and then talk about engaging in the process of bringing two people together for an unlikely romance.

My current protagonist, Tagret, has three friends he always hangs around with. They have ended up together partly because they're all well-bred boys with a lot of money, a good deal of kindness, and an interest in school. However, each of them has an additional reason to hang around Tagret, and that affects how they deal with him. Gowan is very politically oriented, and not only does he like Tagret, but he recognizes the strength of Tagret's political position (through his father) and thinks it's advantageous to hang out with him because of that. This means the other boys are inclined to ask him for advice on political matters. Fernar is secretly attracted to Tagret, making him more inclined to physical games. He's also the strongest and everyone wants him on his side in a fight. Tagret's best friend is Reyn. Why? Because both of them share the experience of living alone with a sibling and a house full of servants while their parents have been sent to other cities for jobs. Because of this, they stick together and help each other through trouble more than the others. Details like these not only make it plausible that these boys would be friends, but allow each person to interact differently with the others.

We can think of these as things that the characters have in common. We can also bring characters closer in a story through letting them face adversity together. Events that bring characters closer are generally increasing the ways in which the two people align with one another.

Okay, so let's look at romance for a minute. The #1-A thing that everyone is going to think of to bring two people together is physical attraction. Yep, no surprise there. But particularly if a romance is going to be building over the course of an entire story, and ending in a lasting relationship rather than just a one-night stand, there has to be more to it than just hotness. I will tend to think of it in terms of two lists: 1. the list of things that separate the two people and 2. the list of things that they have in common. If I cause events to negate the effects of anything in list 2, the people will fall apart. If they are going instead to form a lasting relationship, any extremely serious objections or separation elements from list one have to be directly and deliberately countered by adding elements to list two.

In my Varin world, caste level distinctions are huge - cultural as well as legal - and not easily countered. One of the cross-caste relationships in my books results because a servant sees someone else disguised as another servant, and becomes both physically attracted to her and intellectually engaged with her before he realizes his mistake. Importantly, thought, he is also at the same time learning things about the historical origins of the caste distinctions that cause him to doubt what he'd always believed about them. Another relationship begins more subtly, because one of the characters feels so intimidated by the physicality of the other that his physicality impresses her more than his caste. Here the intimidation itself is an influence that keeps them apart - however, because it causes her to disregard his caste, I can then work on removing the sense of intimidation, and thereafter the caste factors will have less power to separate them.

I keep the alignment/separation lists in my mind when I'm writing conversations, and when I'm writing descriptions. If one character expresses unadulterated admiration for another, then that is going to suggest bringing them together - but it may not be realistic or appropriate for that person to express such admiration. I therefore play with ambivalence by putting expressions of admiration and separation in the same sentence or internalized description. "Alien but beautiful" might express one kind of ambivalence. "Possessing refined warmth" also suggests a contrast that might be meaningful to a different person.

Whenever we work with close relationships, we end up playing right along the edge of discomfort. Getting closer with someone else involves considerable risk. This should be reflected in the writing. Often events that tighten alignment also cause discomfort or a sense of invasion. Then the question becomes what to make of that discomfort - whether to soothe it, or to intensify it, etc. Discomfort is an opportunity for a writer who is trying to align two people, because situations that are uncomfortable are often perfect for initiating change in a person's mind.

When you're working with relationships in your stories, do take the time to ask yourself some questions like those below:
1. Why are these people friends? What specific things do they find most compelling about one another, and why?
2. Does this relationship require a backstory of specific aligning events, such as hardship? Or does it simply require basic common conditions?
3. How big a role does physical attraction play in the relationship between these characters?
4. What keeps or pulls these two people apart?
5. What ingredients might be able to counter the factors listed in question 4, and bring them together?
6. Can I use common experiences to erase the effects of prejudgment?
7. Can I align these two people in a similar way relative to a third party, event or task?
8. Are these people aware that they are coming together? If they are, how do they react to the knowledge? If they aren't, why aren't they? Is there something about the nature of the separation factors that keeps them from considering the possibility of their attraction?

Please be aware (though it should be no surprise to most of you) that I'm coming at these questions from a human-relations and anthropology viewpoint rather than a romance-writing viewpoint, so I can't speak to the particular requirements of the romance genre. However, I hope that these considerations can help you in thinking about relationships in your own work.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Blog Update

First off, I'm going to start by thanking all my readers. I totally love you guys and I'm so glad so many people care about the things I talk about! I have really enjoyed all the writing you folks have shown me, too - so many great ideas out there, and they're really fun to articulate with.

I've been very pleased with the way my blog has been working with the structured system I've instituted, which very basically speaking works like this: a writing post on a Monday, a "Retro" post on a Tuesday, Worldbuilding Workshop on Wednesday, Culture Share on Thursday, and free choice on Fridays. What I'm finding right now, though, with the demands on my time at the end of the school year combined with being in the thick of novel-writing (not to mention my short stories!) is that I'm getting overloaded. Those of you who follow the Worldbuilding Workshop will have noticed that I didn't manage to get posts up the past two weeks, and I apologize. The fact is, those posts are the most intensive of all the posts I do, and generally take two hours or more to write. You may be able to see where I'm going...

I'm going to be keeping the general structure of the week on the blog, but I'm going to be shifting Worldbuilding Wednesday slightly away from the intensive analysis posts, and onto more worldbuilding topic-based posts. You are still welcome to submit to the Workshop, but when I get Workshop posts up will depend on when I can find the time to invest in them. I'm hoping this will mean less stress for me, and also mean that I can give content on both Wednesdays and Fridays without burning myself out early in the week.

I am of course always looking for new posts for The Writer's International Culture Share. I have had a great response from readers, and I have a few posts coming up here that I'm really excited about. If you have had an experience living outside your own culture, or if you feel the specific details of your local culture would be of interest to people around the world, please contact me!

I'm going to make a special request to all my American readers here. One of the things I noticed while living in Japan was how much American culture was seen as a monolith by my hosts. It's easy for people to draw conclusions from movies and the media that "America is like this" when of course we know it's full of complex and fascinating local cultures. So far I've seen a lot of entries from countries all over the world, but I'm hoping some of you will feel inspired to talk about your local culture, and illuminate the fine details of religion, folklore, and cultural practices of US regions as well as those of other countries. Look around you and see if you can find an inspiration, because I'd love to hear from you!

Thanks again for being awesome, all of you. TalkToYoUniverse continues to be one of the most worthwhile projects I've ever engaged in, and a lot of that is thanks to you.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Interesting link about the origins of Japanese

My mother kindly sent me this link today, from the New York Times. This linguist theorizes that Japonic, which gave rise to Japanese and Ryukyuan, originated with the Yayoi people of the Korean peninsula. Interestingly, the article also mentions the political consequences of such theories of language origin.

Culture Share: Netherlands - Bicycles in the Netherlands by Corinne Duyvis

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Corinne Duyvis discusses bicycles in the Netherlands.

Bicycles in the Netherlands by Corinne Duyvis

If you've ever been to the Netherlands, you'll probably have noticed that we like our bicycles.

We like them a lot.

The Dutch landscape, being approximately as flat as the computer screen you're looking at right now, lends itself perfectly to cycling. Given that most of our cities were built long before the invention of cars, we also tend to have narrow streets, with very little space to ride a car, let alone park it. For that reason, our cities encourage bikes or public transport as a means of getting around.

Add that to the fact that biking is pretty well engrained into our national consciousness...

Well. It means a lot of bikes.

It also means the following things (note that this is written from the perspective of someone who's lived in Amsterdam all her life, and it might be different in other/smaller cities):

* Practically everybody learns to bike from a very young age; kids get their first bike the moment they're able to walk.

* We bike everywhere. To school, to work, to the supermarket, to concerts, to the train station. Everywhere.

* We don't wear any special clothing on our bicycles. Bicycle shorts and helmets are reserved for hardcore sports cyclists and small children.

* We bike whenever. Midnight. In the snow. In the wind. In the rain. (That's what ponchos are for, after all. I've even seen a few special-made bike umbrellas.)

* Amsterdam has more bikes than inhabitants.

* Getting your tyre caught in a tram rail is always a risk.

* Sometimes people walk their dogs by bike.

* The police will patrol using bikes.

* We text while cycling. (I'm sure some even play Angry Birds.)

* We have separate bike paths, plus bike traffic lights to go with them.

* Depending on the time and place, it's perfectly normal to have a good ten or more cyclists waiting at a single traffic light.

* There are bicycle racks to park your bikes all over the city. Practically every non-residential street has several. (Even some residential streets have them.)

* Many buildings will also have basements to park your bike in -- both my old high school and former place of employment had these. Separate bike garages also exist.

* None of this will stop a true Amsterdammer from chaining their bike to whatever stationary item crosses their path. Bridge railings, street lights, trees, and "do not park your bike here" signs are especially popular.

* Bike theft is a huge problem. If you're smart, you'll carry at least one extra lock with you and you'll loop it through both the frame, the wheel, and Stationary Item X, because loads of thieves will just leave the wheel behind and take the rest of the bike -- or will take only the wheel to supplement other wheel-less stolen bikes. It's bizarre how many people fail to do this and end up surprised when their bikes are missing an hour later.

* Abandoned bikes are a problem, too. The city will tag bikes that have been standing around for too long; if they're still there a couple of weeks later, they cut the locks and take them with them.

* In a similar way, thieves will steal bikes en masse: They rent a truck and just toss any bike not chained to something on there.

* We have special bike compartments in trains -- and you'll need to purchase a special bike ticket to be able to travel with them.

* We'll have grandmothers in evening wear biking to a classical piano concert; fathers biking home from the grocery store, dog in a basket up front, a kid in the seat on the back, and a heavy grocery bag dangling from the handlebars; businesspeople in full suits biking to and from work, suitcase strapped on the back; and teens balancing a crate of beer on their laps or the handlebars.

Corinne Duyvis lives in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TTYU Retro: Companions

Companions. Doctor Who is famous for them - Leela, Peri, Sarah Jane Smith, Adric, etc, etc - but almost everyone has them. In some cases they're sidekicks of a sort for a single main character. In other cases a larger group sticks together. Frodo has Sam. Aang has Katara, Sokka, Toff (and Appa!). Zuko has Iroh. The list could go on and on.

Why are companions so important?

One reason is social realism. There aren't that many complete loners out there. People have friends that they live their lives with.

Another reason is that the main character needs help. When you look at the Avatar group (Sokka wanted to call them "team Avatar" I believe), it's balanced between different types of people. There's an air-bender, a water-bender, an earth-bender and a warrior. That gives them a wide range of skills and strengths that they can use to get through their stories successfully.

Another big reason is information management. The Doctor has mountains of specialized skills and knowledge - because he's a Time Lord! - but without the companions he'd have no reason to explain any of it. If you have a major character who's an incredible specialist on some topic, you can always show him or her doing what he/she is good at... but if you build in an information imbalance between that person and someone else, it gives him/her an opportunity to explain where that skill came from, or how it works, or any number of other things that would otherwise feel like blatant infodumping.

Conflict is another reason to have companions. Conflict can serve the purposes of information management, as when two people start arguing and that lets them divulge information to the reader that the characters already know (without using as-you-know-Bobs), but I've separated it out because it actually does a lot more than that. Conflict is an enormous source of drive in the plot. Ongoing disputes (of the right variety) between a character and her companion can influence where the story goes and keep us wanting to see what happens. Conflict can also drive character development.

Dealing with an introverted character is a lot easier if that person has a companion. You can make good use of internalized thoughts when you're working with the written rather than the visual medium, but still, internalization can only take you so far. A companion gives the introverted character a reason to try to speak - or perhaps a reason to try not to speak! A companion will bring certain topics into the introverted person's thoughts. Appa gives Aang a reason to talk out loud even when he's alone, which is very useful to the storyteller who can't make any use of internalization. This is also a big motivator behind the presence of animal sidekicks in the Disney movies (that, and humor).

Companions also create wonderful opportunities to explore language. Some companions maintain an ongoing banter which can really add to the ambiance of the whole story. Their talk can be helpful for a story not only for content reasons, but for dialect reasons, and for the way it reveals aspects of the social contract in the community from which they (or each one) comes.

I'm not going to end this by saying you need to go off and give your protagonist a companion. Sometimes that's the right thing for a story, and sometimes it isn't - but it's worth considering. Even if the companionship is short-lived within the story, it can still be a valuable addition to what you're creating.

Chances are that if you've gotten much of a story written (especially a novel) you already have companions built into it. If you do, then it's worth looking at them and thinking explicitly about how they are functioning and what kind of work they are doing for you, the writer, as well as what they're doing for the other characters. That way you can deepen them, tune them, and strengthen them so that they're making a bigger difference for your story.

It's something to think about.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A different take on following the writing dream

Last week I read a very interesting, inspiring post from Sarah Ockler about following one's writing dreams, here. "Don't Plan B your dreams," she says. Don't listen to the people who say you can't make any money doing it, or who say it's a hobby not a career, etc.

I entirely agree. I discovered there was a fire for storytelling in my soul, and once I gave it fuel, there was no stopping it.


1. I didn't make this discovery until I was 29 years old
2. The reason my writing dream has been realized is because of what I experienced before I started writing - my travels overseas, and my Ph.D. study which helped me in both content and writing technique.

The conclusion I draw from this is that you can benefit greatly from having something else. Call it what you will - an alternate interest, a backup plan, a money-making career, or just writing research - but find something that you are good at, that you have a passion for besides writing, and dive deep into it. If it can serve as a backup plan and money-maker, so much the better. But it will certainly help you in a writing career.


I traveled a very long way down the road toward an academic career, studying Japanese, Anthropology, Linguistics, Discourse Analysis, etc. My writing reflects this. Part of what they talk to you about when they ("they") discuss getting published is standing out from the rest of the writing that is going on out there - and the fact is, what makes you unique is your own experience. The things you've learned, the books you've read, the people you've met; everything contributes. My world of Varin started with a very simple fantasy premise, but grew into something totally different because of the way I started using my academic experience to feed it. I have a different take on Japan-related stories because I have lived in Japan and read Japanese literature and gone to Noh plays and visited tons and tons of shrines and temples (I love shrines and temples!). I am a published author today not simply because I felt dissatisfied with a Star Trek premise (Darmok) and wanted to have my own take on it, but because I was able to reduce that premise to its components, build an entirely different society around it, and take it in a new direction. That is all thanks to the things I did before I knew I was a writer.

What if you already know you are a writer?

Well of course, you write. Of course, you refuse to listen to those people who tell you it's not an activity worth pursuing - and you pursue it, and do all those great things that you need to do to improve yourself and get closer to the realization of your dream of writing marvels.

But don't forget personal and professional development. Read widely. Go places. Meet people. If you're headed to a job, keep your writer's eye open, because you can learn a lot about character and dialogue from personal interactions you see. You can also learn a lot about institutions and how they work. Take your personal experiences and try to look at them on the meta-level so they can work for you.

Make sure to keep aware of what feeds your energy and what saps it. If you're in a job that makes you scream and exhausts your brain so you have nothing left for the page at the end of the day, try to cultivate something else.

Your writing dream is worth pursuing. So much worth pursuing, in fact, that it's worth making the other parts of your life contribute to it - and worth pursuing things besides writing in order to make your writing richer, and get you closer to realizing your dream.