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Thursday, June 30, 2011

We have a winner!

Because I wasn't at home I lost track of the days and it's been a bit more than a week since I offered up a copy of "The Eminence's Match" to celebrate my 200th follower - and now I have 205. So welcome, all!

I guarantee that this drawing was done fairly by putting names on slips of paper in a very official plastic bucket and having my children draw the winner (an honor they competed for).

Congratulations to Megs! You are the winner... I could hardly ask for a more dedicated follower and Worldbuilding Workshop submitter.

Of course, now I need to send you the book. So if you could give me the place to send it to by emailing me at my info at juliettewade dot com address, I'll wing it on over to you. And maybe if you're feeling extra nice you can tell me what you think of "The Eminence's Match". :)

Culture Share: USA - Growing Up Baha'i in the American Midwest

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Jaleh Dragich discusses growing up Baha'i in the American Midwest.

Growing Up Baha'i in the American Midwest
by Jaleh Dragich

It’s hard to think of my religion as a cultural identity. Baha’is come from various cultures all over the world. However, because of growing up as a Baha’i, I have been exposed to these cultures more than I would have otherwise. The parts of Indiana and Ohio where we’ve lived and up in Michigan where our extended family live have been almost uniformly Caucasian. Our family is much the same in heritage: English, Manx, Welsh, Irish, German, and from one grandfather: Polish and Lithuanian. We blend right in.

You’d expect that with that background, I’d have a name reflecting it, a typical sort of name that wouldn’t stand out any more than our appearance. But then I’ve never been typical. My parents met another Baha’i who knew a Persian Baha’i in El Salvador named Jaleh, which means “dewdrop.” They loved the name, so when I was born, I got it. However, it often confuses people, and most Americans can’t say it correctly on the first try. (Žâle)

I’ve heard nearly every variation, some funnier than others. (I rather liked Jolly; there’s something cheerful about it. *wink*) Occasionally they’ll say it correctly before I pronounce it for them, but that’s been rare. And if they see my name before meeting me in person, they are often surprised to see my fair skin, especially if they actually know the name. I had one visitor to the park I worked at last summer do a double-take when she read my name-badge. Being Persian herself, she recognized the name and was surprised that a non-Persian would have it. As it turned out, she was also a Baha’i, something that would never have come up without my name to trigger the conversation.

Since my parents had been told it means “dewdrop,” my mom used to tell me when I was little that I should “glisten in the dawn of a new day.” This is a particularly apt metaphor considering that Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah’s coming was a new day for mankind. I think this is one reason I’ve taken a shine, if you’ll pardon the pun, to my name despite the difficulties it’s posed. It’s a meaning worth striving for. Be radiantly beautiful and reflect the light to others. I’m frequently not as brilliant as I’d like to be, but I try.

My family was nearly always the only Baha’i family in town. We had to hold our own devotionals and celebrations. Since the Baha’i Faith has no clergy, this is perfectly acceptable, but sometimes it can be lonely. In an effort to create a community, each time we moved to a new town because of my dad’s job, we looked around and connected with other Baha’is for joint gatherings. That generally meant driving about an hour or more for Feast each month. Though refreshments are often included, Feast isn’t focused on the food, but rather on devotions, community discussions, and socializing. Feast is supposed to be held on the first day of the Baha’i month (19 months of 19 days, the leftover days being Ayyam’i-Ha), but in our case, because of school and the drive, we held it on the closest Friday or Saturday evening.

Beginning from an early age, my younger siblings and I learned key concepts of our Faith such as unity in diversity and the oneness of mankind. Since racial conflicts were a non-issue in our hometowns, I simply accepted it without question or much understanding. It was an abstract. But as we got older, our parents started taking us to Baha’i conventions, conferences, and camps where we actually saw people of different colors and cultures. That’s when understanding began. However, because the foundation was laid so early, it was perfectly natural for kids to play together with no concern over our outsides, only whether we had interests and hobbies in common. Some of my best friends growing up were darker skinned, and we didn’t care. I’m not sure I even thought that much about it when I was younger. Color was simply a way of describing what someone looked like, not who they were. We were more concerned with how annoying our siblings could be.

After we moved back to Athens, Ohio when I was 10, our parents reconnected with a Persian Baha’i family they’d known and discovered a few other isolated believers across Southeast Ohio and the near side of West Virginia. We met for Feast each month and to celebrate Holy Days and holidays together. I was introduced to Persian culture and foods such as saffron rice, tadig, and stuffed meatballs. (Mmm, tadig. Can’t make it, but I’ll take some when it’s offered.) For children’s and youth classes, we drove to Columbus to join the community there which included several other Persian Baha’i families. They loved it that I had a name from their culture. I loved hearing them say it.

In addition to those regular gatherings, we had the annual District Convention where everyone in the region got together for discussing issues and socializing with people from other communities. There were also gatherings specifically for Baha’i youth and junior youth. A couple in Cincinnati used to host weekend youth retreats in their home a few times a year where we’d study the Writings together and talk about how to incorporate them into our lives. We shared what issues mattered to us in particular and how we could deal with them to be good examples for others.

One year instead of the usual retreat, our youth group went down to Atlanta, Georgia for the Martin Luther King Jr celebration. One or two local families hosted us for the weekend. I’d never seen so many dark-skinned folks in one place before other than in pictures or movies. I was actually in the minority for a change. And I mean extreme minority. But despite the racial strife I’d heard was so common in the South, especially in the big cities, we never saw any of it. Every event we attended was filled with an atmosphere of welcome. I had a blast.

But the experience that still boggles my mind that I’d been fortunate enough to attend with my dad happened November 1992 during Thanksgiving week: The Second Baha’i World Congress. My mom couldn’t go because she was in the midst of college classes, and my brother and sister were too young. That left my dad and me. Though he could have gone alone considering the expense, my folks decided I should go, too. This was decided over a year ahead of time with the logistics needed to plan for so many people. Some 27,000 Baha’is from over 180 countries gathered in New York City for a week of fellowship to commemorate the centenary of Baha’u’llah’s death. For a small town girl who’d never been a city bigger than Chicago, NYC was impressive enough. But to see so many people come together in one place with such joy, despite color, nationality, language, or economic background, was mind-blowingly epic. No other experience has filled me with such awe of the power of what globally unified community could look like than that single glorious week. Everything was so vivid that the three days of school I was missing to be there seemed unreal.

All in all, if it wasn’t for my Faith, I would have seen very little diversity until college. I wouldn’t even have seen the tiny communities with a lingering Native American heritage within a half hour of us. For a service project, some Baha’is from Columbus joined us to till gardens one spring and got to know them well enough to be welcome at their community events despite our difference in economic status. We must have tilled gardens for about four years in a row before we had too few volunteers to keep it up.

In trying to write this, I keep remembering more experiences where my Faith has brought me closer to other cultures and ways of living. The books I devoured while growing up helped with part of my perspective, but the Baha’i Faith gave me a practical understanding of the value in welcoming diversity and equality for all. It’s a culture of acceptance. It’s given me a greater appreciation for myself and the people around me, no matter how different or similar we are.

Jaleh Dragich is an avid reader and aspiring author of fantasy and science fiction. She shares her passion for the subject on her blog, Ex Libris Draconis. Though she still considers herself an Ohioan, she currently resides in Western New York.

For those interested in learning about Baha'i, Jaleh has provided the following as a reliable link:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Successful Technologies Endure: Deepening your world

Today my family and I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. It was really awesome. Among other things, we saw the original star-spangled banner which flew over Fort McHenry during the defense of Baltimore in war of 1812 and inspired the song by Francis Scott Key. It was very moving. The other thing that really struck me was a house.

This house was amazing. Not because of any single feature of the house, but because of its history. It had been built back in the 1700s before the Revolutionary War, and eventually been disassembled and moved to the museum from its original location in Massachusetts. The museum had set up the house with different key rooms restored to their original condition - and as you walked around the house, each room had been decorated to show a different period from the house's history, along with associated artifacts and portraits of the people who had lived there. It was a whole narrative of American history created through the use of this one house.

I can certainly see how this ties back to my post about focusing worldbuilding efforts on a single artifact (in this case a house). The other thing it makes me think of is how this house was still around in this neighborhood in Massachusetts up until the 1960's before it was moved. The same house. The same place. 200 years. Four separate families.

Successful objects and technologies endure.

I mean, after all, did you use a fork today? What about chopsticks?

I saw this house, which must have stayed around while some things changed around it and others did not. I also visited the Capital, which has been around looking pretty much the same for an awfully long time with things changing around it.

The old and the new coexist everywhere. I noticed this very keenly when I lived in Kyoto, Japan for a year, but it's true of your home too. Your fancy new photo printer uses paper. Paper is pretty old. The way carpenters work wood to build houses has been innovated, but probably not that much. Nails have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Mirrors have been around for thousands, though their current form is different.

The same should be true of your world.

Take a look around it. What is old? What is new? Who lived in this house before its current residents? Is there any evidence available for that? Is there anything that has had one meaning for one group of residents that has a different meaning for a later group?

I must cackle when I say that I do this for Varin. I have secrets up my sleeve (quite a number of them). The old buildings, like the Eminence's Residence and the Imbati Service Academy, didn't used to be called what they are now called, and were used similarly, but by entirely different groups in Varin's past. There's a reason why the capitals on the columns of the Academy are shaped like flames. There's a block of red stone on the threshold of the Academy's front gate which reads, "Cross this threshold with a pure heart, and the Mysteries shall be revealed." The Imbati mark, the lily crest tattoo, didn't always used to be a caste mark, and wasn't always worn on the forehead.

It's not only interesting, it's fun. Mwa-ha-ha!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TTYU Retro: Some Thoughts on Meter

I was writing a song for my most recent short story over this weekend, and I ended up drafting it, having it turn out awful, then realizing I had a bit of a metrical structure developing. When I followed that, the song totally changed and turned out quite well. As I say sometimes to my friends, I'm not so good at rhyme, but meter I can do.

I thought I'd share this post with you again so that you might be able to do some meter, too.

I'm talking about poetic meter. You know, what we learned when we learned Shakespeare, mostly iambic pentameter, but also spondaic tetrameter or trochaic hexameter or any of those other bizarrely named things.

Here's a brief review of a few terms, with examples.

foot: a set of grouped syllables that form the most basic unit of a metrical pattern.
iamb: a foot with one weak syllable followed by one strong syllable. x X "She comes."= 1 iamb
trochee: a foot with one strong syllable followed by one weak syllable. X x "Hit her." = 1 trochee
spondee: a foot with two stressed syllables. X X "Bob Smith" = 1 spondee
anapest: a foot with two weak syllables followed by one strong one. x x X "He has gone to the edge of the road."= 3 anapests
dactyl: a foot with one strong syllable followed by two weak ones. X x x "Gone are the days of the foresters."= 3 dactyls

Meter is not just for poetry and Shakespearean plays.

Whether in poetry or prose, meter is all about flow - the feel of the language as it streams by. I once read a discussion on the Absolute Write forum which concerned the difference between "on" and "upon" and which should be used in a particular context. My own sense came far more from an instinctive desire to align the meter of the sentence in question than from a general preference for "upon" versus "on."

It is often said that the natural meter of English is iambic. This is because we generally like our sentences to have an alternating pattern of strong and weak syllables. I have a character in a novel of mine who speaks entirely in iambic pentameter, and while he does sound archaic at times, my goal is not to have any of his lines come across as ta-TUM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM-tee-UM. Fortunately, there is some flexibility in the metrical rules which allows for the occasional foot with reversed stress, and the occasional extra syllable.

Here's a random couplet of iambic pentameter (totally unrelated to my novel!) which doesn't sound much like poetry to me:

"In utero, the baby undergoes a lengthy process of uneven growth."

By altering this natural rhythm, you can achieve effects that act a lot like onomatopoeia. In action and situations of stress you can use strong syllables to break flow intentionally: a few trochees and spondees can go a long way. This is one of the things that can help you create the effect of a regional accent, for example, without requiring extensive alterations of spelling.

When I'm looking for a voice for an alien, I make sure to consider the meter of his or her speech, even if I don't use that meter strictly in the alien viewpoint. The gecko-girl Allayo (Let the Word Take Me, Analog, July/Aug 2008) spoke in an unmeasured meter that I based on the intonation of sacred readings, because that fit well with the fact that she considered her language to be sacred. When I thought about designing a wolf alien (Rulii, Cold Words, Analog Oct 2009), I tried to use anapests to influence the dialogue so that the speech would come across in a loping rhythm.

All right, that's enough for now. I'll let you go have fun with it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

My schedule for Westercon 64 in San Jose!

Here we go! I just received my schedule for Westercon 64. This should be really fun, so come and see me!

On Saturday, July 2 from 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM I'll be discussing Alien Language with Tom Digby, Daryl Frazetti, Pat MacEwen, and Dave Trowbridge. Room: Gold
This is a favorite topic of mine, as you know! Here's the description:
When we do hear from ETs, how will we interpret what they are saying? What assumptions can we safely make about common elements of language and communications? Do we want to let them know we received their message? How different could an alien language be, given that it still must communicate warnings and enable communication as human languages do?

Then from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM I'll be alongisde Kyle Aisteach and Cliff Winnig, Reading from my own science fiction! Expect aliens... if you have any requests for works that I might read from, give them to me here on my TTYU blog. I'm listening... Room: Imperial Ballroom Reading Area

On Sunday, July 3 from 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM I'll be talking about Problems with First Contact with Tom Digby, Margaret Fisk, G. David Nordley, and Mike Sheffield. Here's the description:
Sometimes advanced aliens contact humanity, and sometimes spacefaring humans are doing the contacting. But once contact has happened, what is the moral dimension? Is it immoral to leave individuals in primitive poverty in the hope that they might one day develop their own culture? Can advanced peoples colonize a planet inhabited by primitives and live in peace with them? Room: Regency Ballroom 2

Then from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM will be Delusions of Gender with Dany Atkins, Patricia MacEwen, and Jean Marie Stine. Sounds interesting:
From alien races with one sex or many to human androgynes, hermaphrodites, and beyond, SF has used gender and sexuality as lenses to examine human minds and cultures. Consider the single sex of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness versus the five sexes of Melissa Scott's Shadow Man. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award anthologies also explore these possibilities. Room: Gold

On the final day, Monday, Jul 04 from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM I'll be appearing with Paul Carlson, Gabrielle Harbowy, Robert Hole, and Mike Shepherd to discuss Getting the Details Right:
How hard is it to learn basic science and tech if you're a writer who skated through that part of his or her education? How can that be overcome? Does it matter? How does credible science in a story bolster the believability of the parts that are obviously fabricated? Room: Crystal

Then from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM in room it will be Art Forms for Other Senses. With me for the discussion will be Jaym Gates, Chelsea Kalenda, and Kate Morganstern:
What sort of art would be made by species whose senses differ from our own? Imagine scent-paintings, sonic tapestries, symphonies of electromagnetic radiation, and sculptures of pressure and convection currents in a fluid medium... Room: California

Be aware that things (particularly room assignments) could change, so even I will be triple-checking on the day.

Leave requests for science fiction readings in my comments below. I'd love to see you there!

Science Fiction Languages vs. Fantasy Languages

Are science fiction languages different from fantasy languages? I think they are, at least to some degree.

People think differently when they invent languages for fantasy and science fictional societies. When someone sits down and thinks about a fantasy society, very often they're thinking about it from the insider's point of view. They're going to be putting characters in this world and you'll be on their side, wanting to feel close to them. Therefore the language tends to have more familiar, friendly features. For a science fictional society, very often people are thinking, "aliens!" Aliens are outsiders. That means that typically, languages designed for science fictional societies are more prickly. Harder to pronounce, and more off-putting. The most extreme examples are those from early science fiction where the words are all consonants just for the sake of making them hard to pronounce. Vxklrp! (I made that up.)

Of course, there is a continuum.

(I'm currently writing this from my parents' house, so I don't have a pile of books with me where I could go fishing for examples. If there's interest, I could return to this question again at greater length with books in hand.)

My gut says that fantasy languages are more likely to resemble English and to have English-friendly meter and onomatopoeia - or to resemble languages which English speakers regard as friendly or parental, like Spanish or Latin. Science fiction languages are more likely to go farther afield into the alien territory.

Here's the critical element: authors make these choices. They choose the "feel" they want their constructed language to have, and how extensively they want to create its structure and vocabulary.

An author who knows a particular non-English language would surely be inclined to use that language as a partial basis for a constructed language. Tolkien used Finnish as a basis for Quenya, the High Elvish tongue, and Welsh as a basis for Sindarin (Grey-elven). I think this is a great idea. Na'vi was designed to mesh features of different Earthly languages including native American sounds so that it would be very alien, but sound accessible.

Both the Elvish and Na'vi languages distinguish themselves by having extensive structure and enormous vocabularies. That's not something that necessarily differs by genre - that one differs based on how the author intends to use it. If you've got a movie you're working with, that automatically requires an extensive vocabulary, because people have to speak it. By contrast, most languages for written stories don't need such a huge vocabulary. Tolkien got away with putting whole foreign-language stories and songs into his books, but not everyone can (or should) try to do that.

Do I have any message that might grow out of this for writers and works in progress? I suppose it's that you don't have to make your constructed language follow these trends. Think it through. A constructed language doesn't have to have a really extremely alien feel to be workable for a science fiction context. It doesn't have to feel super-friendly to be usable for Fantasy either.

Ask yourself: what flavor do I want this world to have? How accessible do I want it to feel to readers? If you want it to be accessible, try having the words of the language be pronounceable by humans - this is not just a problem in science fiction contexts, but fantasy contexts too! Oh, how many times have I heard people say, "Why do authors insist on giving their characters names I can't pronounce?" Try out the words on your own tongue.

Here are some of my own examples. All of my stories tend to include the language of insiders, so the names and words tend to be pronounceable.

With Varin I try not to use much translated vocabulary, and I'm very careful to keep most names (especially first names) short. Tagret. Aloran. Tamelera (that's one of the longest). Garr. Reyn. Gowan. Fernar. Karyas. Selemei.

Khachee is a bit more complex because of the otter sounds I based it on, but I try all the words out myself. ChkaaTsee, TsorrPfirr, Cochee-coco.

Aurrel is growly and I always imagine it to have more interesting guttural sounds than appear on the page - but readers don't have to imagine all the sounds I do. Ru-rulii, gharralli, molri.

Despite my science fictional/linguistic bent, I don't tend to like making languages that are so foreign my readers can't stretch their mouths around them. It's because I like to be friendly! And also because the insider perspective is the one that appeals to me as an anthropologist.

What do your languages look like? What are they for? Shall we talk about it?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A link about how baths can help you feel less lonely

Here's an interesting little article suggesting that physical warmth may actually help to ease feelings of emotional loneliness. Who knows where those two got tangled up, but they're certainly equated in language much of the time!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Watching out for the "Wrong" Emotion (also a Worldbuilding Post)

Yesterday my commenter Linda got me thinking when she talked about "standard emotional content" and said that "too much of the wrong emotions" can be bad for a story. She concluded, "The emotion has to be appropriate for what's happening in the scene and how the character is to be portrayed."

As a character-based writer, I have a hard time relating to the phrase "standard emotional content." However, it's easy enough for me to guess that it means people in a story feel what they are supposed to feel when they are supposed to feel it. They're being chased, I guess, so they feel panic, or they're doing X Y or Z so they need to feel this that or the other.

I certainly do suppose that if one sidetracks off the action into a navel-gazing emotional reverie that it would appear inappropriate. Needless to say, this is not what I do in my action sequences.

But what I'd rather think about today is what "the wrong emotion" might mean.

I suppose I could begin with the idea of not being in touch with one's characters. I think it's always valuable to be in touch with a character's mental states, and in fact this is the major reason why I write chronologically - because emotions and mental states tend to grow out of one another, and to concatenate.

When you're working in another world, particularly one with a different kind of social contract, I think it's worth spending extra time. Because in the worldbuilding context it's actually quite easy to end up with the "wrong" emotion, accidentally. I'm going to divide this into two different types of emotional errors: 1. errors of emotional type and 2. errors of degree.

Errors of emotional type occur when you're writing along and you have a social situation, and your character ends up feeling how an Earth resident would feel in that situation rather than how a native of your world would feel in that situation.

Think about how you feel in different social situations. The content of those social situations has a lot to say about what is an appropriate way to feel. What do you find comfortable and normal? What do you find embarrassing? Chances are people in your world won't quite agree, particularly depending on their social status relative to yours. A poor person won't probably feel comfortable speaking to a noble person at all, though they might feel perfectly comfortable addressing a group of peers.

In Varin, members of different castes have different emotional reactions to different situations. My noble boy Tagret would feel slighted if his mother didn't look at him when she talks to him; my servant-caste boy Aloran feels very uncomfortable if he is looked at by nobles at all, and prefers to be out of his Lady's line of sight when she speaks to him. If I were to associate Californian standards of emotional reaction to eye contact to him, this would most definitely be a "wrong emotion"!

People in Varin have such different emotional reactions from our own that I have to make sure at the start of my story to establish a sort of emotional compass for readers by putting them into unusual, Varin-based emotional situations early on and letting them experience how the characters react.

One example is the scene where Tagret goes to a concert with his friends and is looking around at girls - but making sure that when the girls get close he stops looking at their faces so that their bodyguards won't see him as a threat. He's not allowed to talk directly to a girl, but must speak to her bodyguard - and feels divided about speaking to the bodyguard, because he's experiencing the excited emotions he would have when speaking to the girl at the same time that he's feeling nervous about speaking with a bodyguard who could potentially beat him up.

Another example is the scene where Aloran is asked to help one of his Service Academy classmates prepare for an exam - but it's a washing exam, where the students are required to prove they can wash the body of the person they find most attractive without showing any signs of discomfort or emotional involvement. Aloran coaches his classmate through it and is perfectly calm through the whole thing, and very sympathetic to his classmate's discomfort, because he went through the same experience.

Errors of degree occur when we give a character an emotional reaction that is either too weak or too strong for the context within the world. These are subtle and often quite difficult to avoid. I tend to think of them in terms of overreactions and underreactions, and they pattern pretty predictably with what is normal for our own experience. An overreaction will occur when we have a character who is quite accustomed to a particular type of experience react as strongly as we would in the same circumstances (which for us are not normal). An underreaction will occur when we have someone fail to find anything odd about a circumstance which for us is entirely normal, but which for them is highly unusual and might even be shocking. The best way to combat them is always to keep our emotional compass for the fictional world on hand, and think through reactions carefully as we go.

To use the examples I mentioned above, if I were to have Aloran feel very awkward about having someone else wash him, then that would be an overreaction. If I were to have Tagret feel nervous, rather than shocked, about having a girl speak to him directly, that would be an underreaction.

The most common errors of degree that I notice in the stories I read are the kind that are related to questions of social power and privilege - poor people who hate those above them too much, and don't fear them enough, or noble people who spend a lot of effort and anger reviling the people below them when most of the time they wouldn't give them much thought at all.

When I'm writing along, these kinds of world-related emotional errors are the kind of thing that can make the story stop in its tracks. If you are getting an "odd feeling" from a scene or sequence, or if critique partners are raising their hands, take a look through for emotional errors. Errors of emotional type are much easier to find than errors of emotional degree. But being aware of the possibilities will help you to keep the emotional content of your story on track, and feeling real.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heightening Emotional Impact

How can you get your reader to feel emotionally moved by your story?

Well, first off, you can't just tell them, "you should be emotionally moved." This is obvious, I think. I had been thinking about the topic of emotional involvement and creating intensity at particular points of the story, and then I ran across this article by Lydia Sharp, where she gives the following quote from Donald Maass:

You can’t expect your reader to feel what your protagonist feels just because they [the characters] feel it. Only when that emotion is provoked through the circumstances of the story will your reader feel what you want them to.

Lydia then asks:
"So what does this mean? For starters, it goes back to the age-old advice of "show, don't tell." Where emotions are involved, it's best not to simply outright tell your reader what the characters are feeling. Let the reader experience it.

"And how do you do that? By not being obvious."

All of this, I agree with. If I were to take the Donald Maass quote and give my own take on it, I would have to say that our impressions of the emotional experiences of characters grow more out of our own emotions in a particular part of the story than the other way around. In other words, it is our own emotional understanding of the story that deepens the character's experience, rather than the character's emotional state deepening our own.

In a way, this makes sense. Because the character inhabits the story, he/she is limited in his/her ability to grasp the entirety of the story. The reader usually does not have these same limitations. I'm going to come back to the idea of the entirety of the story in a moment, but first let me address Lydia's advice.

Lydia suggests we should let the reader experience what the characters are feeling, rather than telling them, by not being obvious. An excellent point. There are a number of ways that emotional states can be shown. One way is to describe the internal physical sensations of a person - adrenaline surges, feeling hot or cold, and many different kinds of metaphorical descriptions of pain, fear, embarrassment, joy, etc. can be of use for internal points of view. Another way is to show the external behaviors of a person feeling an emotion. If the point of view is external, you can show facial expressions; this is awkward to do with internal points of view, but you can still show actions of rage (as one example) like throwing things across the room, or pacing, stomping, etc. Still another way is to have the emotional state of the character in a scene be reflected somehow in the way that person perceives things around him/her, by including a sense of rage or other emotion in the surrounding descriptions of setting, descriptions of the actions of others, etc. There is a descriptive passage in Snow Falling on Cedars where the destruction wreaked by a storm is treated in intensive detail...and that reflects the inner state of the protagonist, Ishmael.

All of these tools are at our disposal. All of them fit with the idea that comes from qualitative anthropology about field notes - as I've discussed here before - that a researcher should not try to lay out any deductive conclusions in field notes, but simply observe the details of what is there, write them down, and let the reader taking in those details formulate the same conclusions that the researcher did. (I consider this a very extreme form of show-don't-tell.)

But if we're talking about overall emotional impact, this isn't everything. Here is the point where I return to the idea of the entirety of the story.

Anyone who writes with the thought of story arcs in mind knows that there are large-scale patterns in a work. Small points link together across the story to form this larger structure. We talk about character arcs, and plot arcs. I suggest we also think about emotional arcs for the reader. By seeding small details one after the other, we can create an impression that builds up in a reader's mind.

I'll give an example of a situation that I created in my novel that I'm currently writing. This one was very difficult because the situation was so awful it made me sick. I knew what that situation was, but I also knew that my viewpoint character wasn't going to be in the room with it - only listening in from outside. I realized pretty quickly that there would be no way for a simple emotional description of the pov character's reaction to have impact unless readers knew what that situation was. However, I needed the impact to hit all at once. No time for lengthy description (which would defeat the point anyway because it would come across as strenuous). So I had to set it up by seeding it earlier in the chapter.

This is tricky because the list of elements is long, and it's not like reading the text itself (obviously) but I'm going to do them as bullet points, and insert my own commentary in certain places. Critical elements to piecing together the unseen situation are marked in red.

The characters: Lady, Lady's servant, Husband, Husband's servant

The scene begins with Lady and Lady's servant in a room with her sleeping teenage son, who is recovering from a deadly illness. Previous chapters have established that both of them are exhausted and rather upset about this whole situation. This establishes a state of vulnerability which contributes to their reactions to the ongoing events.
  • Husband enters, and Lady instantly goes on the defensive; Husband embraces Lady and she goes stiff.
  • Husband and Husband's servant together try to force Lady to give up control of Lady's servant to them for political purposes.
This establishes that the Husband will not hesitate to threaten them even when they are in a state of vulnerability.
  • Lady's servant worries whether Lady will cave to Husband's wishes, but decides not to try to influence Lady because he would be punished for presumption
  • Lady takes charge and with Lady's Servant's help, denies Husband control of her servant.
Because of the early vulnerability and husband's threat, this is a point of triumph for the Lady. It also brings her closer to her servant and makes her servant feel that she cares about him. He cares for her more deeply as a result (this question of whether the two of them have a relationship of trust has been established over a large portion of the story to this point). This is a reader emotion arc going from sympathy to triumph on behalf of the Lady and her servant. Now we go into the next piece.
  • Husband leaves, angry.
  • Lady's servant realizes that the denial was presumption and punishment will be coming.
  • With Husband gone, Lady begins to relax and speak trustfully to her servant
  • Lady's servant confesses to Lady that Husband's servant frightens him.
  • Lady confesses to her servant that Husband's servant frightens her too. Says she hates his eyes.
  • Lady's servant says his watching is normal because of his servant's training.
  • Lady insists that this form of watching is not normal.
  • In conversation about an earlier life experience, Lady says she wishes she had taken action at that time, in defiance of Husband, even though she knew the consequences.
  • Husband returns with his servant.
At this point it should be pretty clear that he is back to deliver punishment, most likely with his servant watching, and that both the Lady and her servant know it. It should be clear also that the Lady has experienced this before. Because of what has been previously established, the Husband doesn't need to show anger overtly here; in fact, it's creepier (in my opinion) that he doesn't. On to the next piece, where I'll give some attention to the servant's emotional state (since he's the viewpoint character). I'm marking the causes of his emotional reactions in orange, and the reactions themselves in blue.
  • Lady's servant expects her to become defensive, but instead Lady is submissive and tells her servant to leave on an errand while she speaks to Husband alone. His expectations of her courage, and their mutual trust, are defeated.
  • Lady's servant is very worried leaving her alone with angry Husband, but must obey. He runs the errand.
  • When he returns, Lady is not there.
  • He searches for Lady, demonstrating signs of panic; a more experienced servant looks uncomfortable, tells him to be careful.
  • Lady's servant chastises himself for leaving her, can't understand why she would send him away when she knew she needed help.
  • Lady's servant turns on a speaker to hear what is happening in Husband and Lady's room, expecting to hear argument.
  • He hears "bestial, rhythmic grunting."
  • Lady's servant feels nausea and shakes with rage.
I'm not going to spell out anything more about the situation in the story. However, I think it's useful to point out a few things.
  1. When you're working to create an emotional high or low point, think about what kind of initial emotional conditions would contribute most effectively to the magnitude of the impact (in this case, the establishment of vulnerability for Lady and servant/threat and lack of remorse for Husband and servant)
  2. Make sure to include any necessary information that will contribute to the reader's understanding of what is going on. In this case, that includes all the red-marked phrases, including the Lady's dislike of the Husband's physical contact, the idea of punishment for defiance, etc.
  3. Make sure that the causes of your protagonist's emotional state precede the protagonist's emotional reactions. What should be happening is that the circumstances that cause the protagonist's emotional state will be causing a strong emotional state in the reader, a split second before the reader actually reads what you've written about the protagonist's reaction. If at that point the protagonist's reaction matches the reader's reaction, the impact will be magnified (which is what I was trying to do). If it doesn't match, then you'll get an entirely different effect, turning the strength of the reader's reaction into a judgment about the character who has the unexpected reaction.
A story contains innumerable links across it (arcs, patterns of repetition, etc.). The further you go in, the more the significance of each word or event depends on everything that has come before it. I often call this phenomenon resonance. When I get something right, I feel like I can hear the entire story ring like a bell. When you're trying to create emotional impact, this is an enormous advantage.

It's something to think about.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Character Personalities as Story Forces

I had this story draft, and it was missing something. (If you have written for any length of time, this may sound like a familiar scenario.)

I figured it out eventually: it was being too well-behaved. Following to the outline, characters doing what they were supposed to do - for perfectly good reasons, mind you, but they were awfully obedient. Too obedient.

They needed personality.

Of course, this will surprise no one. Certainly characters need personality! But what I needed from my characters - what was missing - was not so much backstory and general motives but a sense of each one as a force in the story.

This is what I mean. A character who is a force in the story will be a force for good, or evil, or for chaos, or a force for goofiness, or something like that. When that character walks into a room, you immediately say, "Okay, now things are going to get _____" (Fill in the blank with good, evil, chaotic, goofy.)

I picked the following quote up from Jamie Todd Rubin's website where he recently reviewed a book by George R. R. Martin:

"Another remarkable aspect of A Clash of Kings–for me at least–is that the characters are by now so well developed that as a reader, I felt like I knew them and could guess their reactions to various events."

This is something like what I mean. Because you know what kind of person they are, and what they'll do in a certain situation, they have more dimension. This can be big stuff, like mental illness (for my character Nekantor who is a force for order, and not in a good way) or heavy backstory. It can also be little stuff, like some detail of their self-image that affects their interactions.

I'll give you the example of the characters I've been working with: Adrian Preston and his wife, Qing Preston. Both are linguists. Both are accustomed to working with aliens and taking them seriously. So far so good. But they weren't different enough, and they weren't forces. So I decided to go further with Qing's Chinese background and give her a Chinese nickname for her husband. I looked around on the internet and came up with Big Bear (this is of course the translation). Then I suddenly realized that Adrian should be a genuinely big guy - and self-conscious about it. But then I decided he couldn't be so self-conscious that he was timid. More playful. And from there I got to the fact that each one of them loves being a linguist, but for different reasons. For him, language and culture are all fun, never work, and he just can't get enough. For her, language and culture are such serious business that she devotes herself entirely. Suddenly I saw both how they would be able to work toward the same goal and how they would encounter conflict along the way. They would be able to do what I needed, but they would have personality, and each one would have a different form of influence on the story.

All of a sudden I really want to go write this thing.

It's something to think about if you ever feel your characters aren't quite coming to life.

Two hundred follower celebration and giveaway!

There's a new number in my left sidebar - 200! I'm thrilled. Thank you so much to all of the lovely people who have joined TalkToYoUniverse through Google and Networked Blogs. I always love writing for you and discussing things with you.

Now, in honor of this occasion I'm going to give away a copy of one of my stories, "The Eminence's Match"! The story is set in Varin, which I've been talking about quite a bit lately... Put a comment in my comments section here and let me know if you'd like me to send it to you! In one week, on June 27, I'll draw a name and send a copy of Eight Against Reality to the winner. As a bonus, you'll get seven other stories from great writers like Janice Hardy, Aliette de Bodard, and T.L. Morganfield.

Thanks again for reading my blog!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Can you begin with dialogue?

The other day on the Absolute Write forum, I ran across a discussion asking whether it's okay to open a story with dialogue.

Let me say this first: most things in writing can be done. Some will say the real question is whether they can be done well, but I'm going to disagree with that. The question for me is what exactly one accomplishes by starting with a line of dialogue. Not whether you can do it, but what you are accomplishing by doing it.

When I'm opening a story or a chapter or a scene, I'll often think of a line of dialogue first. By the time I'm finished, though, it seldom ends up at the front. Most of the time I'm trying to make sure that my opening is doing a few things: establishing the voice and psychology of the point of view character, anchoring readers in the conflict that's going on, and making them curious. I like to provide grounding information which allows readers to put their feet down (so to speak) so they can then follow me through the rest of the piece. It's possible to put some grounding information in a line of dialogue, but too much will make the dialogue itself seem stilted and odd.

When your story opens with a line of dialogue, what you're really doing is letting your reader listen to someone speaking. You may or may not, at the same time, be indicating who that person is. It's enticing as an opener because it does usually make people curious (depending, of course, on what is being said). If the dialogue continues without other elements of narrative, however, a sense of disorientation will persist.

This is not necessarily a problem. However, you will have to ask yourself: do I want readers to be disoriented?

You might. If you're having a character waking up from a state of unconsciousness, or someone in a state of confusion without a clear sense of physical orientation, it might work. Alternately, if you're letting the reader eavesdrop on nefarious yet unidentifiable bad guys, it might be a good idea. Clearly, there are workable scenarios.

The book Ender's Game opens with a lengthy conversation between two people, and it works very well. It's effective in part because the dialogue is not delivered by the protagonist, but is speaking about the protagonist. If the author had chosen to ground the two speakers in a physical location, the immediate assumption would be that they were the protagonists; clearly they are not. The way the opening dialogue is handled opens both curiosity and the main conflict (the secret controllers of Ender's life) while keeping the focus of the story where it needs to be - on Ender. It's like those movies where they give you a sense that someone is being watched by picking particular camera angles.

It's also possible to begin with a single line of dialogue (maybe two?) and then follow it with orientation information. If the curiosity established by the opening sentence is sufficient, grounding can be provided in the second or third sentence.

As always, you have to assess these things as you go, on the basis of what you're trying to accomplish. I hope these thoughts help clarify some of the variables involved in making the decision whether to open a story, scene, or chapter with dialogue.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Culture Share: USA (Florida) - Orlando: What's it Like Living in a Mickey Mouse Town?

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Ann Meier discusses life in Orlando, Florida.

Orlando: What’s it Like Living in a Mickey Mouse Town?
by Ann Meier

Good question. Orlando is the City Beautiful and that’s not a bad slogan. Orlando’s clean, shiny and new, with lots of trees and lakes – read former sinkholes. Periodically, the Convention and Visitors Bureau gives us a new slogan. A recent one appealed to me – Orlando Makes Me Smile. I smiled every time I saw the banner hanging from the convention center. We also Believe in Magic, both the basketball team and the Magic Kingdom.

There are many misconceptions about Orlando that confuse international travelers. The Miami airport is not a hop, skip, or jump away. Orlando does not have a beach. The east coast beaches are 45-minutes away. And when we say west coast, we mean the Tampa area—not California. Those beaches are two hours from Orlando. And the town closest to Walt Disney World, Kissimmee, is not pronounced Kiss a me. It’s Kuh sim me. One misconception we told ourselves for years, was that we were too far inland to worry about hurricanes. Wrong. Charley, Frances, and Jeanne visited in 2004. Those were visitors we hope we don’t see again.

Most people who visit Orlando never come anywhere near Orlando. They fly into OIA and head directly by cab, rental car, or shuttle to the parks which are many congested miles southwest of town. A few may notice that the airport code is MCO and try to figure out the designation. It’s not some combination of Mickey and Orlando. The designation is for McCoy the name of the military airfield that was there before the airport.

We love our tourists, but driving amongst them is dicey. They are lost often. Think nothing of cutting across three lanes of hurtling traffic to make a last minute turn, and then there are the Brits. They fly in by the hundreds—bless their Virgin Atlantic hearts—to the second area airport called Orlando-Sanford International. This airport is not in Orlando. This airport is more than forty miles from the tourist attractions. This means the Brits rent cars. Some scary things happen as they get used to driving on our side of the road in traffic going 70 mph down the interstate.

Tourists complain about paying tolls twice on the section of the Beachline (SR 528) that only runs a few miles from the airport to Interstate 4. We locals hate the tolls also and no one really believes the Expressway Authority needs all that money. But rest assured, the tolls are not just bunched in the tourist corridor. Most of us have E-Passes to blast through all these toll plazas. Orlando is obstinate. The rest of the state uses Sun Pass. E-Pass automatically charges $40 dollars to our credit cards each time our account balance gets low. Around here that can be a couple times a month especially if we use the Greeneway around the eastern edge of town to avoid the congestion and tourists on Interstate 4.

Greeneway is not misspelled. Despite all the greenery it runs through, it was named for a person. There was a contest for naming the road. One suggestion was the fruit loop, but the road didn’t make a circle and the orange groves are pretty much gone. The development post-Disney and some hard freezes ruined them. Used to be, the fragrance of orange blossoms filled the warm spring air at night. Now, the smell from muck fires is more common. Swamps burn and often. Central Florida is sometimes referred to as the Lightning Capitol of the country (maybe the world). The weather people run a lightning counter with their updates. These numbers can be upward of 6,000 strikes in an hour. Hunker down is a common admonition on these broadcasts. Seasoned firefighters from other states are surprised that bright green foliage can burst into flames easily in a forest fire. Back to orange blossoms. There’s a major roadway called Orange Blossom Trail. It’s not lovely. Don’t be misled.

Getting around in Orlando is expensive and frustrating for locals and tourists. For starters, Interstate 4 is an east-west highway, but in Orlando it actually runs north-south. Asking directions can be tricky because a local may tell a visitor to go south on the interstate, but when the visitor gets to the interstate the signs say east or west. Everyone in Orlando drives—except recent arrivals from the islands (Puerto Rico and Haiti) and the aforementioned Brits. Unfortunately the busy streets are not safe for walkers. Taxis are concentrated at the airport and they ONLY want to take people to the parks or International Drive. They can be surly if you want to head into town since they’ll have a hard time finding a fare for a return trip. Locals probably have never hailed a cab. In town, there is a free bus called the Lymo that runs between parking garages and through the heart of the business district. Lynx is the name for the regular bus system. The buses are painted bright colors like neon pink, lime green, or electric blue.

People do not shop in town. They shop at the malls. The tourists love the outlet centers at the north end of International Drive and the large Florida Mall off the Beachline. There is nightlife in downtown Orlando with new restaurants and bars. Tourists are more likely to find night entertainment at Universal’s City Walk or Disney’s Pleasure Island. (By the way, the name comes from Pinocchio. Look it up.) At this point, there are no movie theaters downtown. The city streets are not on a grid pattern since there are lakes everywhere. Streets meander, change both directions and names frequently. It is a very confusing.

Houses are built from concrete block and mostly painted pastel shades. They sit on slabs. There are no basements and no coat closets. It is very common for bathrooms to have doors that lead directly outside to a patio area whether the house has a pool or not. Very few houses have hardwood floors. Carpet, ceramic tile, or laminates are the floor coverings of choice. A lot of houses do have fireplaces. Surprise. They might be filled with flowers or candles, but we do have them. And we love our paddle fans. No one lives in a house on a hill. Orlando is five feet above sea level and flat as Flat Stanley. To maintain a house and lawn, you need a good bug service. I personally have three. One for inside that comes every other month, one for the lawn that comes on the same schedule, and a termite service that comes quarterly to monitor for activity.

Running barefoot through the grass is a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, St. Augustine grass is predominant in our lawns – up north, you’d call it crab grass and yank it out. It’s a wiry, hardy grass that grows on runners. There’s nothing soft about it. The other reason is fire ants. Those little guys sting like fury. It takes weeks for the welts to go away. And never, ever wade into any body of water. Even casual water hazards on the golf courses are home to gators. The most common trees are live oaks and they lose their leaves in the spring. They don’t go bare, it’s more a shedding process. They also fill the air with yellow pollen that coats everything. It makes my eyes water thinking about it.

Our theme parks employ more people than live in a good sized town. Many of Walt Disney World employees are unionized. In other words, Mickey Mouse is a Teamster. When Disney came to Florida they invited the unions in as a matter of course, used to the studio environment in California. Universal Studios bought into Florida as a right to work state and fought unionization of its workforce. All theme park employees work extremely hard. They work odd schedules. They socialize in after hours bars and restaurants. Most give discounts to hospitality workers. Because of the 24/7 nature of the business, it’s not uncommon for someone to host a holiday dinner that runs all day with people dropping in before or after their shifts. Our workforce is diverse. Language differences can create barriers. I once worked in a resort where conflicts were common. I recall a knife fight at what we called the housekeeping barn. Don’t ask. The knife fight was over a bible. It’s that kind of place.

Employees at Walt Disney World are called cast members and they wear costumes—not uniforms. The costumes that characters wear are hot. They make 20 minute appearances in the park and they always have handlers nearby. They never roam about unescorted When cast members are at their work location, they are on stage. One cool detail is the two-fingered point used to direct guests (not customers) Watch for it next time you visit.

Yes, There is a tunnel system running underneath the Magic Kingdom (none of the other parks). It contains break rooms, stock rooms, the employee cafeteria, wardrobe and cash control. No. Walt isn’t frozen and stashed in Cinderella’s Castle. There are offices in the second story of the shops that line Main Street. Cast members are trained to respond to each question from guests as if it is not the one trillionth time it’s been asked. The most frequent question is “Where are the bathrooms?” The most inane is “What time is the 3:00 o’clock parade?” The answer to the bathroom question is frequently accompanied by the two-fingered point. You can imagine on your own how cast members react to the parade question.

EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototypical City of Tomorrow, but cast members like to say it stands for Experimental Polyester Costume of Tomorrow. EPCOT is probably the favorite Disney park for locals without children. Its restaurants, major festivals, and entertainment are a huge draw. The six week Food and Wine Festival is in itself worth buying an annual pass for. Throw in the Flower Festival and the pass can pay for itself.

Many, many, many of us have worked in the parks at one time. You can spot us anywhere. We can’t pass a piece of trash and leave it unmolested. When you visit, please take small children by the hand, be sure to gather all your personal belongings, and watch your step. If you follow all these instructions, I’ll shoot you my best theme park smile. I’ve got a closet full of them.

Ann Meier lives in Orlando and is working on a comic mystery series with a theme park setting. She was a member of Universal Orlando Resort’s opening management team and a trainer at Walt Disney World.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

TTYU Retro: Focus your Worldbuilding Efforts

As I am traveling today, I'm putting up a Retro post on worldbuilding today - I hope you enjoy it!


You're creating a world. You want to write a story in it, and you want it to feel real. How best do you go about that?

Well, you have to have all the underlying basic principles down. Climate, ecology, economy, etc, etc, etc. It all has to fit together and make sense. But a lot of that stuff isn't precisely relevant to your plot. The temptation might be to explain things - and that leads you into trouble. You want people to believe in you, yes. But don't tell them things and ask them to believe. If you show those things effectively, then they'll believe in spite of themselves.

I'm sure you've all heard this "show don't tell" advice before. I have a whole post on its different meanings, but I'm not trying to access all those meanings today. I just want to say that if you can bring your worldbuilding efforts into sharp focus, you can achieve that "show don't tell" feeling, and a little bit of worldbuilding can go a long way.

A good place to start explaining this is with a short story. Say your story is short, so you don't have room to try to explain the world - and yet, you want to make sure that the world feels large. One really good way of doing this is picking a single object to start with. This object has to be one that has high relevance to the character - but not necessarily to the plot. I recommend everyday objects. Not something like a fork which has become nearly generic, but something that is slightly off what in the real world we would consider normal. Maybe it's a ceremonial object, or an object of significance to the main character. Maybe it's this Roman "Swiss army knife" that Astrid Bear pointed out to me on Facebook.

The reason why I enjoyed the Roman knife-tool was that it was so detailed. So much to be learned from its discovery about the habits of the person who carried it. The fork and spoon. The blade. The spike which may have been used to remove the meat from snails. The toothpick; the spatula.

If you can pick one highly relevant, salient object, its nature can imply many things about the world around it. In my story, "Let the Word Take Me," (Analog July/Aug 2008) I gave my alien girl two objects like that - a ceremonial knife, and "sun armor." Here's a quote:

On top [in the artifact case] was a ceremonial knife in a scabbard of intricately worked grazer-leather, with a leaf-shaped blade and a hilt wound with stone beads. Underneath was a mass of white feathers. Lifting the top layer, he found himself unfolding a hooded coat of perforated leather densely clad with yorro plumage. ... David suspected it was an heirloom; the unblemished feathers were layered without gaps, but the leather inside showed that patches had been resewn, and two of the worn tie-thongs had been replaced.

I spent this many words describing the two objects because of what they said about the technology level and culture of the people who had made them. Find the right object, and its significance will radiate outward, accomplishing far more than general descriptions on a larger scale.

The fact of the matter is, while this technique is very convenient in short stories where you have fewer words to work with, it is equally effective for longer works. The objects don't have to be ceremonial or have special importance. They can be small things that the characters consider quite mundane. A lot of large-scale principles become evident in the tiny details of the everyday. Focus your worldbuilding efforts and you can get a lot of power out of a very few words.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Considering chapter titles?

I know plenty of people who never read chapter titles. They don't want to bother with them, or maybe don't even notice them, and so they skip right by and they'll tell you those chapter titles might as well not be there at all.

So why use chapter titles?

I admit I don't always use them - my last novel didn't seem to lend itself to them at all. But my Varin novels have always had them, even when I first started writing them.

Chapter titles can do two really interesting and useful things: they identify the core of your chapter, and they allow a writer to have an independent conversation with readers. I'll take a look at each of these.

First, a chapter title can help you to identify the core of your chapter. You might remember in yesterday's post when I talked about struggling with a chapter where every event seemed to have the same importance, and it was just "stuff happening" instead of building to a climax... One of the first symptoms of a chapter that has this problem is that I can't find a title for it. Not all of my chapter titles do the same thing, but often enough they'll address some theme that the events of the chapter contribute to. Other times they'll be directly linked to the climactic event or significance of the chapter - and therefore, if I know lots of stuff that has to happen in the chapter but I don't know what to call it, I've already got a hint that something might be missing. This is a little bit like writing your query before you write a novel, to make sure you're on track with the core idea (what the book is about). The only difference is that it's on the chapter level, not the book level.

Second, the chapter titles can be a really useful communication tool between writer and reader. Why? Because no matter how close the point of view you use in your narrative, the chapter titles fall outside that. Chapter titles can be in any point of view you want - any of your characters, or even your own. You should be careful not to put spoilers in them, but you can put in teasers (like my chapter named "Ambush"). You can also keep a bit of distance from the overall plot, or help focus reader attention on tiny thematic clues by labeling what to look for up front.

Now of course, you may note what I said earlier, that some people don't read chapter titles (their loss, really). Yeah, sure. You don't need them. But they can be useful for your writing process (because of #1 above), and they can also be fun and informative, and give you a chance to feel that nudge-nudge-wink confidentiality with your reader.

It's something to think about.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Handling "that difficult chapter"?

I've just written a couple of very difficult chapters, which got me thinking - what makes a chapter difficult? Obviously there are a lot of possible reasons why a chapter might be hard, but here are some:

1. You don't know what is supposed to go in it.
Maybe you're riding the momentum of the previous chapter, but then that chapter ends and you don't know what to do next. That might be a good time to go back and look at the arcs you have established in the previous chapter, or in the previous two chapters. Those are generally things that you'll want to pick up and continue as you go forward. Knowing what your basic arcs are can give you a backbone for a new chapter that you can then flesh out as you go.

2. You know a bunch of stuff that goes in it, but it all seems to happen without any trajectory.
It sounds like you haven't found the core of the chapter - the thing that happens in the chapter that really matters to the main conflict. If you're writing and it feels like every event that happens has the same importance as every other, then maybe you're not understanding the importance of one of the events (how that event contributes to change in your protagonist, for example) or you may even be missing a critical event. This happened to me in my last chapter, because I didn't realize that Tagret had to confront each of his parents about his brother's mental illness. Once I put that critical piece in, the other things in the chapter provided the perfect background and lead-in to it.

3. What happens in the chapter upsets you.
I had this problem in my last two chapters, for two totally different reasons. One was a situation where my servant character was watching his mistress get hurt by the bad guy and couldn't do anything about it. The other was a situation where my protagonist woke up from nearly dying and got really, really bad news. Let me begin by saying that this was what had to happen. If your chapter content is upsetting you, don't retreat from it. Think about how to handle it, sure, but don't run away, or the story will be weaker. My recommendation for this is to do it in small doses. I actually had to use the "battering ram technique" - writing along until I couldn't stand it, then backing off, reading up to that point again, and seeing if I could make a few sentences' headway until I couldn't stand it again. Then backing off for a break before returning and reading back up to that point again for another sentence or two of headway until I broke through.

There are other problems that can happen with difficult chapters, but I hope these suggestions can give you some ideas about handling some of them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cute link on gender-specific suffixes and their usage

Here's a link I found about gender-specific suffixes in English, and how commonly they are used. It's interesting to see which ones are under the radar, which are noticeable and archaic, and which are more common.

I hope you get a kick out of it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Culture Share: Brazil - Write About Your City (A Challenge)

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Fábio Fernandes discusses the city of São Paulo, Brazil

Write About Your City (A Challenge)
Fábio Fernandes

One of my most recent stories (still unpublished as I write this piece – June 3rd, 2011) is called The Remaker. It’s based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote. Basically (easy, I won’t give any spoilers) it deals with a future writer who revels in rewriting works by famous authors of the past, and how this can be done (and why someone even would do this) in the mid-21st Century.

But, even though this is the major plot point in my story, it is by no means the most important thing of it - or, at least, it’s not that how I envisioned it to be. For this story takes place in São Paulo, Brazil.

Most of you who read these words have never been to São Paulo, or to any Brazilian city. I don’t know if you are aware of my country and how big it is, and of its diversity. To this day, I still find out people that sincerely believe all of us Brazilians live right in the middle of the jungle, and we are not familiar with electricity, for instance.

How, I thought when I was writing The Remaker, can I show people that São Paulo is a city almost as big as Tokyo and almost as full of cultural and ethnic diversity as New York City? Not an easy task without resorting to clichés. So I focused on the story. And so it resulted that the first version portrayed almost every scene happening in closed quarters: a university library, a mall, the apartment of the protagonist, a café in downtown, a quaint, old-fashioned printing press, a bookstore, and a few other places. Interesting markers, and, I thought then, good markers in that they would show the non-Brazilian audience that São Paulo is a city like any other civilized city in the Western world. Yay for us!

But I didn’t think it was enough. For, in doing so, how São Paulo would be any different from Now York, London, or Paris? (among other things, lots of cafés in those cities, if you ask me.)

Besides, São Paulo offers a particular challenge for the writer. If you already watched the beautiful animation RIO (if not, go see it, I strongly recommend it) , you will see the beaches, the Carnival, and the huge, beautiful statue of Christ the Redeemer. It is indeed a beautiful statue, and every time I go to Rio to visit my parents, I like to walk in the beach with my mom in the sunset to shoot the breeze, talk about family, personal projects, and life, drink coconut water and look at the statue from a distance – at night it is wonderfully illuminated. (You should visit it someday.)

But São Paulo is another thing entirely. It is a megalopolis, an industrial city. Not a tourist place – though it has some of the most interesting Modern Art museums of the Americas, as the MASP (Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo), and its only visible monuments (aside from some very beautiful statues) are its huge buildings. The city is home to the main international event in Latin American athletics, the Saint Silvester Road Race, to the Brazilian Grand Prix of Formula 1, and several cultural events like the São Paulo International Film Festival (now in its 35th edition), the Virada Cultural (a once-a-year grand extravaganza featuring theater, classic and pop music, movies, book readings and signings – all for free during 24 hours straight), and the Gay Pride Parade, considered in 2006 the biggest pride parade of the world by the Guinness Book of World Records with an estimated 2.5 million participants. And did I mention that Brazil has the biggest Japanese community in the world outside Japan, most of which is based in São Paulo? And this is – really – just the tip of the iceberg.

The Remaker is in a slush pile of a magazine. I’m not sure if I managed to improve the perception of the foreign reader regarding the uniqueness of my adopted city. One thing is for sure: I still didn’t do everything I wanted to do with São Paulo. (Neither I was expecting to do it in one story.) But eventually I think I’ll be able to write a mosaic of stories in São Paulo, a set of near future stories where I can take the reader by the hand and show her the labyrinths of the largest city in the western and southern hemisphere, and the world's seventh largest city by population. It’s no small feat.

Fábio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. A university professor and translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translations of several prominent SF novels including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, England, and USA, and in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. There's another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. II, ed. by Lavie Tidhar, later this year. He writes a column for SF Signal on e-books and e-readers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Foot Assignments" - how idioms and metaphors bring your world to life

I've written about idioms before. I've explained them to my kids plenty of times. "That's an expression," I'll say. "It means this..."

English is full of little expressions that aren't literal, and a lot of these make reference to metaphors. I have a list of English examples in the post linked above and I'm not going to do a lot here, but take for example "I'm off to the rat race." That expression is all about metaphor. A person is a rat. Life, or at least work, is a race for rats. The metaphor then comes along with a whole set of implications about how the person feels about heading off to "the rat race," that it's pointless, exhausting, demeaning, etc. Depending on the character of the person who uses them, and how that person feels about work, for example, the implications of the expression may be interpreted somewhat differently.

This is an enormous opportunity for worldbuilders.

Some idioms might be cute, and some might be serious, but any way you approach them, they are incredibly illuminating of a culture and characters who belong to it. I personally feel that idioms are so closely linked to the culture of which they are a part that, if they are used outside their original cultural context, they stick out of a story when I'm reading it. If you're creating a world, you should be giving serious attention to idiomatic expressions.

One type of idiomatic expression is the aphorism - a phrase intended to give people behavioral guidance. "The early bird gets the worm" is used constantly in English, but this set of words, in this order, is so recognizable as belonging to our culture that I would hope I'd never run across it in a story world not directly linked to our own. If there are no birds, or there are no worms, you're in serious trouble. And even if there are, and your people place value on rising early or acting early, don't use it just as is. Change it. What are the primary motivators for your people to be getting up early, or acting fast? Create something that makes reference to that. Off the top of my head I'll give you this: "First arrow names the kill." This would be a society in which people hunt with arrows and whoever has their arrow hit first gets to receive some kind of honor. I'd work out the details with naming as I went. Story cultures can also have their own special values that will be honored with aphorisms. In Varin, the servant caste is guided by the expression, "Imbati, love where you serve." This is a big deal for members of the caste who have to struggle with their own identity and with cruel masters, etc.

Another type of special phrase arises around extremely common activities. In this context I think instantly of the phrases "log on" and "log off"... I mean, seriously. "Log"? I'm thinking this use of "log" goes back to the idea of a captain's log, but what you've got now is something where the expression is used so often that we don't really think about what the individual words mean, only what the phrase as a whole refers to. Because of the underlying connection to idiosyncratic activities of our own world history, this kind of phrase can't always be imported wholesale into a story world (hey, there's another expression!). Whenever you have a really common activity in your world (and it may not be common or have an associated idiom in ours), see if there's a special way people would refer to it, and how that might be connected to cultural details or cultural metaphors. I have used two different phrases involving the word "foot" in this context. In "Cold Words" (Analog Oct 2009) I had Rulii use the phrase "take foot" instead of "arrive." In my Varin world the servants don't "run errands" but "take foot assignments." This kind of tiny alteration can really help your world feel like it doesn't have to owe anything to ours, and can also create a wonderfully unique atmosphere.

I found myself listening in the other day on a forum conversation about a world that was using Chinese culture as its basis, and the writer was very concerned about whether to use Chinese idioms. Here's another very fascinating question. My own bias would be to say this: if your culture isn't actually a version of a culture, don't use actual idioms from that culture. Those idioms are going to broadcast the fact that this culture is at very least a fantasy or science fictional analog of Chinese culture (to use this example). Then if other aspects of the culture are non-Chinese, or if the language they use is not Chinese-derivative, the idioms will stick out by a mile. You can always alter or "translate" idioms. If you want to retain a Chinese flavor, one thing you can always do is have idioms play the same cultural role in your story world as they do in China. This is a link on the meta-level that won't actually require you to link your story world directly to China, but will give it some flavor that people will link with China. After all, one of the parameters of idioms is how often they are used and what they are used for.

I'll let you all think about this while I go off and take some foot assignments.

Note for Wednesday Worldbuilding fans: I have a couple of new entries that have come in, and I am planning to take them on, I hope within the next couple of weeks. Thanks for submitting!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Using details for setting: insider details and audience details

The other day I ran across the following question from Strange Horizons editor Jed Hartman on Facebook:

"Are Russian authors as enamored of matryoshkas as English-language authors who write fiction set in Russia seem to be?"

My ears immediately perked up. I'm sure you have probably already grasped the issue: an author unfamiliar with a culture is trying to set a story in that culture, and is looking for details that will help back up the setting. What can he/she place in the room? Where can he/she have a character go, which will richly suggest setting and context?

The matryoshka example demonstrates one of the traps inherent in this process. It is easy for outsiders to a culture to draw conclusions about what objects would be in a room based on their own limited experience of the culture, often from movies or stories, or just common knowledge in their own culture about what the foreign culture is like.

I have personally been on the other end of this. When I was studying in Japan, I got asked all kinds of questions about what I was like... which turned out to be questions about what all Americans were like. All Americans? Seriously - are all Americans "like" anything? I would say in a country this large and diverse, there are a very few things we can really point to and say "all Americans are like this." But I was asked more than once, "How many guns do you own?" And on numerous other occasions I was asked questions that began, "Since you're a Christian..." Please notice the very very large assumptions inherent in any questions of this nature. I would, quite awkwardly, find myself in the position of having to speak for every American when I am absolutely certain that is a position for which I am unqualified.

Obviously this is an issue that doesn't apply solely to setting - it applies to many other categories as well. However, since I'm thinking about setting here, let's take this a little further.

What kind of details do you need? Well, for real world settings and cultures, you need to have done your research. I'm an anthropologist and very much into the idea of field work and representation of the insider, so I would recommend going and finding a member or three of the culture you'd like to work with, and finding out what really goes into a room. This is one of the reasons that I set up the Writer's International Culture Share - because it's a lot of work going out and finding people, and I love having so much specific, detailed information from unusual cultures available in one place.

Be aware that if you feel certain you know what must be there, but have never actually walked into that setting, you are probably wrong. There is an enormous difference between cultural insiders and cultural outsiders: they will notice different things. Different languages let us categorize things differently, and different cultures lead us to think different things are normal. That's why I often will go back to literature, such as Japanese literature in translation from the time period I'm working with, in order to determine what insiders would be paying attention to.

Okay, so you're writing a scene and you are trying to set it in ancient Heian Japan, and you want to depict the setting. You'll probably want to indicate the season (spring, fall, summer, winter, rainy season), whether or not your character is indoors (he/she might be noticing temperature, after all), because seasons are very important to the Japanese (then, and even now). If you're looking for particular objects or vistas associated with the season, then go back to Japanese poetry in translation, and you'll discover things like the association of the moon with the autumn, for example. If there is a woman involved there will likely be privacy screens in the room. If it's winter, there will be a brazier to help keep people warm. Depending on who the people are and what they're up to, you may find writing materials in the room, short tables, brushes and ink blocks, inkstones, etc.

I always like to start with a set of core insider objects. But that isn't always enough. You can start with the things your character will notice, but it's also a good idea to keep in mind someone else: your audience. Chances are you're not also writing your story for Heian Japanese insiders, and therefore there may be details - important ones - that an insider wouldn't notice but that your reader will fill in incorrectly without guidance. This might include something like the fact that the floors are either polished wood or tatami mats, and that people don't wear shoes indoors. In a case like this, pick out a few details that you feel are important to note, and then hide them. Take them and set them in the background by making them part of a description of a character's action, or incidental to something else that is important to the character. That way they won't take on too much importance in the character's mind, but they'll be sitting there available to the reader so that later when you mention the character falling on the rush mats, they won't go, "Huh?"

This distinction between insider details and audience details also applies to fictional worlds of the fantasy and science fictional variety. The people of Varin will always notice a person's caste, and will notice distinctions within their own caste but typically not that of others. On the other hand, they live underground but don't tend to take much notice of that; I have to sneak it in here and there. They also have very little wood, and large pieces of wood are extremely expensive - that one I can either show someone noticing, as when a servant notices that the family he's interviewing with has a gaming table and chairs made of real wood, or sneak in, as when I put in a word here or there to remind readers that tables and chairs are typically made of brass or steel, and doors of steel or bronze (thus combating specific real-world expectations).

It's something to think about.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Syntax and Flow (Should we learn linguistics in school?)

Yesterday I came across a really interesting, long, detailed article in Writer's Digest which tried to analyze the concept of "flow" in writing. It was so interesting that I have to pass it on - the article is here.

Essentially the analysis put forward by the writer here is that readers feel the text "flow" well when the author keeps a high level of variety in the syntactic structure of sentences. That means sentences aren't just simple subject-verb constructions, or even subject-verb-conjunction-subject-verb ones (compound sentences) but also use subordinate clauses in various ways and keep everything mixed up. I highly recommend you read the entire article because it gives extensive examples of how famous authors do this.

It's fascinating. I've definitely noticed in my reading that there's a contrast between syntactically complex and simple prose. I agree with the author of the article that there is often an unfair distinction drawn in which "simple" is supposed to be better. However, simple words/concepts and simple syntactic structure are not at all the same, and don't come across the same way. What makes certain types of academic writing hard to digest is partly complex syntax, partly complex vocabulary, and partly the assumption that people already possess a large amount of previous knowledge.

It's worth learning your sentence structures, folks. It's worth having them under control, so they work for you and not the other way around.

I remember writing papers and having my parents' help back when I was in school. I remember the way they used to coach me, and how every so often I would think, "Is this wrong? Are they helping me too much?" But thinking back on it now I realize that they weren't really working with me on the concepts or vocabulary so much as they were coaching me to use more complex syntax. Suggesting, for example, that I start a sentence with "If.." or "When..." or "Because..." upon occasion rather than always starting with the subject. I can tell you that their contributions were very valuable to my internalizing complex syntax, which was really not something we dealt with much in class!

Sometimes I wonder how one might take English classes and move them a step or two closer to being linguistics classes. I know I've often wished that I could have learned in junior high or high school what I finally learned in graduate school about patterns of structure in language (including repetition and the sense of cohesion), and how they influence our perception of a story. The thing I would change first is that constant sense of "teaching the right way to do it." Prescriptive grammar irks me no end.

In our life and our reading, we're exposed to all kinds of language use. All kinds of dialects, dialogues, and discourses. Just about every social group has its own special language use that it uses to mark membership and get its jobs done. We should - we should - be trained to engage in discourses beyond the casual. But for me it's like the question of learning languages. Teach me a language, and another language, and I know two languages. Teach me how to recognize and understand the differences between the languages I know, and I can not only recognize new ones, but learn as many as I want, and choose how to put them into my own mouth and into my writing. I can write an academic paper, or write a casual email, or sit down and write a story that involves aliens and mark their language as unique by how they use English syntax.

That's when it gets fun, people.

I also wrote about syntax in my article How Syntax Can Help You!

Friday, June 3, 2011

How do you find the time to write?

I get asked this question a lot. I think it's a really important one for all sorts of writers, because unless you're a self-supporting full-time writer, you've always got something else going on. Maybe it's your day job. Maybe it's running a household and/or raising children, doing volunteer work, etc. (as it is for me). Maybe you're in school and at the whim of the school year, meeting everyone else's demands while trying to maintain your own goals.

Believe me, it can be hard.

In the end, the way you write is up to you (because who else understands your needs better?) - but I thought I'd share some things I have learned in the process of trying to balance full-time motherhood with writing.
  1. Write when you can. Don't figure that it's a waste of time to start if you only have fifteen minutes, because if the Muse is on your side, those fifteen minutes could be gold. Over time, you can train yourself to improve your readiness for short stints like this.
  2. Stick up for your writing time. One of the most important things in getting writing done is making sure that you - and as many people as possible around you - consider your writing a priority. If you don't insist that it be included in planning, it generally won't, and then the "gas law of activities" will most likely force you to covert writing stints or extremely late nights and exhaustion.
  3. Write when you can't. Thinking counts too! If it's impossible for you to access a computer or even a notepad for several hours, play around with the story in your head. You can work on plot, character, planning, and even words this way. Store it up and get ready to let the fingers fly the next time you get time alone. This is also a great way to make sure you're getting exercise, because using your body gives your brain a great opportunity to play.
  4. Watch out for distractions. Everyone is different, but I can't write (at least, I can't write new material) when the television is on, or when I'm listening to certain kinds of music. The fact is that the TV is a devourer of time, and you can lose two hours before you even realize it. Most often when people ask me how I can get so much done, I simply say, "I don't watch TV." This isn't strictly true - but I never ever turn on the TV for myself. I watch it with my kids, or when my husband is already watching. Yes, so I miss out on stuff, but I can always pick it up on DVD later and plan a time to watch. Activities that allow you to think are good; ones that fill your mind with fluff are bad. And you might be able to edit during a busy time even if you can't create.
  5. Seek out inspiration. This is somewhat the reverse of #4 above. Take your writer's eye with you everywhere. Read books in your field, or watch television and movies that stimulate your writer's vision - none of that is wasted time.
  6. Consider having goals. If you're in a really tough period - like that sleepless one I had for about a year after each of my kids was born - goals can be more demoralizing than helpful, so be careful with this one (see #7 below). However, I've found that having a loosely held goal rate keeps me from forgetting about the task at hand. A chapter a week. Or just a scene. A sentence. Or just "I'll think about it sometime today," if you're in a storm and need to keep the hatches battened down. I find I feel happier and get more done when my writing is a constant presence in my life.
  7. Be patient with yourself. Keep in mind that every bit of your effort counts for something. Even just a few words that all seem wrong are helping you better understand what you'd prefer to do next time. Even a few stray thoughts that you can't properly remember are likely to contribute to your subconscious vision for a story. Frustration is normal, but don't chastise yourself for getting nothing done, or for getting less done than you'd hoped - that will most likely lead to you stopping altogether and waiting for a "time when I'm not busy." There is never a time when I'm not busy. So if I have to set my ideal schedule back by a week or two, I try to do so while saying to myself, "Well, there's always next week." Furthermore, there's no point in whipping yourself if you sit down at the computer and no words come out. Try to send your thoughts in another direction, or better yet, walk away from the scene and go for a walk where you can breathe fresh air and look at trees while you think.
  8. Believe in yourself and in what you're trying to achieve. Remember that it is worthwhile. Writing is a noble calling, and a beautiful one. It is engrossing and enthralling. Yes, it's also hard, but this is a classic case of a skill best developed through practice, and through seeking out opportunities to learn and grow.
It's something to think about.