Thank You to my Patrons!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Culture Share: Latvia - Living at the Crossroads

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Jelena M. discusses the mixed peoples of Riga, Latvia.


I was born in Riga, Latvia in a Russian-speaking family; however we are of a mixed European origin. This made me something of a cultural chimera. I’ve been introduced to several traditions, yet I do not hold any religious beliefs nor fully belong with any particular cultural tradition of my blood relatives (or anything else, in fact). Sometimes this makes me an outcast - I live in constant conflict with my “inner cultural self”, who is “blank” and the “outside world”, trying to force things I cannot relate to on me.

Nevertheless, I hold a professional interest in cultures. I’m a writer and (hopefully) have the ability to dissect and process them in order to make my own for the sake of world building. I might say I’m like the ruins of long time past, which have seen many peoples and epochs. And when all is long gone, they are the only witnesses remained, standing in silence, observing.

I wonder if it is a coincidence that I’m living here. Geographically this small piece of land had been a crossroads for a very long time going as far as prior to the recorded history.

Looking at the concrete block apartment houses in my neighborhood it is hard to imagine this place that was still covered with ice some fifteen to ten thousand years ago, with a Post-Glacial period only starting roughly around 6800 BC. That’s why the land in the whole country is relatively flat, with some hills and sandstone cliffs.

#1 Zvartes rock, the view from the Witches’ rock

Since the very end of the late Paleolithic many different peoples walked this territory until the proto-Balts settled here around 2000 BC. It is possible that the three groups - proto-Scandinavians, proto-Balts and Finno-Ugric tribes had contact with one another. And probably since the Stone Age the route which involved the Dnieper and the Daugava played an important role in establishing a communications network between East and West through the Baltic. Unfortunately it is hard to say how these tribes lived, whom they traded with and whom they warred with. There is little info about the customs and cultures of the area prior to the end of the Viking age. Perhaps the best sources of knowledge, besides the archaeological finds and a few historical records done by other nations, are the languages and geographical names. They can tell stories spanning back several hundreds, if not thousands of years.
#2 Turaida (“Thor’s garden” in Livonian language) in the Gauja National Park

Of course, Vikings were also interested in controlling the river mouths and usable ports, but local tribes made life difficult for them and conquests were not easy or sustained. They did however leave their influence which is very much part of today’s Latvian culture, as Viking presence in the region forced change and sometimes unification of tribes.

Now, the Vikings journeyed around the world mostly as their geography allowed them. Sweden was the primary source of the Viking activity from present day St. Petersburg to the Arab world and Byzantium (present day Istanbul). And again, this was done by the extensive river systems of the Baltic region and Russia, so the Swedish Vikings would travel back and forth.

The local tribes of Latvians, Lithuanians, Livonians and Estonians managed to maintain their independence until the eventual conquest by the German Teutonic Knights, the continuous Swedish presence and Christianization in the 13th century. The Livonian Confederation soon emerged, creating more distinct boundaries and cultural divisions.

Several diverse tribes of people lived in this region. The Estonians were in the north, and in the middle and southern sections were the Livs, Lettgallians, Selonians, Semigallians and the Couronians. These tribes existed as separate entities and all lacked a real hierarchical structure, which made them more susceptible to conquest. Of these peoples, the Estonians and the Livs spoke Finno-Ugric languages while the tribes in the south spoke Indo-European languages. The diversity of language increased the difficulty for these peoples to form alliances. These southern languages would combine over the centuries (with the exception of Livonian) to make up what is now the Latvian language.

The Livonian Confederation was a loosely organized alliance between the Roman Catholic Church, crusading German knights, German merchants, vassals, cities and existing indigenous peoples in this area. The strategic location of the Baltic region has made it a prime target for other nations’ expansionist ambitions. With shores on the Baltic sea and important rivers such as the Daugava in Latvia, commerce was one of the prime attributes this region had to offer.
#3 Koknese castle (Kokenhuzen), ca. 1209

The Hanseatic League (Hansa), formed around the middle of the 12th century by German and Scandinavian seafaring merchants, followed the Livonian conquest into the eastern Baltic. For this reason, the first and most important of the eastern Baltic trading cities, Riga, was established in 1201 at the mouth of the Daugava.

The territories that comprised the Livonian Confederation had always held an attraction to foreign powers. The sea ports and the commerce they brought, and the stable agrarian economy with a strong work force were factors that appealed to Livonia’s neighbors. By the sixteenth century the surrounding countries were solidifying their power structure and looking for ways to expand their territories. And since instabilities weakened the Confederation from within, it became a prime target. And after the collapse of the Livonian Confederation the region was divided up among the neighbors.

Latvia is fairly small and throughout the centuries has been repeatedly attacked and invaded by many nations: Swedes, Danes, Lithuanians, Poles, Germans and Russians. Throughout all the centuries, however, no such thing as a Latvian state existed so the borders and definitions of who exactly fell within that group are largely subjective. The state borders as they are now formed only in the beginning of the 20th century. Yet more wars devastated the land and its people.

But people who live at the crossroads don’t assimilate into cultures; they incorporate cultures layer by layer. This is very well seen in the Latvian mythology and folklore. The top has some Christian influences; the core is that of a very ancient pagan descent. For example, the public holiday Jāņi. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates 24th of July as the birthday of St. John the Baptist. But there is little to no connection between Jāņi and this Christian figure. Jāņi is an ancient festival originally celebrated in honour a Latvian pagan deity Jānis, referred to as a "Son of God" in some ancient Latvian folksongs. It is held in the night from 23 June to 24 June to celebrate the summer solstice and takes its roots in the ancient earth fertility cult, the sun cult and the phallic cult.

This layering also creates tension. In the modern society it is showing itself through the struggles of ethnic majority and minorities. Cultures do not clash as openly as in some other cases (e.g. like during the crusades), yet where they live, people start to long for cultural uniformity in one form or another. Some ethnic Latvians openly dislike Russians; some ethnic Russians openly dislike Latvians; both were born here, in Latvia; both are citizens of this country (we also have non-citizens, the so called “aliens”: they were born here and lived all their lives, yet no compromise has been found). Some people don't understand one simple thing -- we are not like the previous generation, and the generations before that -- we don't belong where they belonged. And we are not responsible for the historical events that happened before we were born; we are something new. The product of this country.

Another thing that's happening here, kids use 'foreign' cursing or junk words without understanding what they truly mean. It is funny and sad at the same time to witness how languages deform. And that is what the Latvians were so afraid of. The language will change. The culture will change. Again.

However, it has been said by many, including historians and cultural anthropologists, that by observing the past, we can ‘find’ ourselves in the present; and therefore foretell the future. By this process we hope to learn from mistakes and lead richer lives.

People usually ask me why I’m not living some place else, some place where my ancestors were. I think the answer is pretty obvious.

Jelena M. lives in Riga, Latvia.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Building back history (declining societies)

I had a very enjoyable hangout today with Barbara Webb and a quick visit from Derek Wade. One of the key things that all of us agreed on was the importance of passion - bringing a passion to what you're creating in order to motivate your pursuit of it and in order to get your audience more involved.

The biggest topic of the day was building back history for a story. Barbara is working on a story set in quite a complex world with declining technology, and was wondering about how to convey that information effectively. We talked a little bit of the nature of the technology decline (I loved imagining force field hovercraft pulled by horses because the propulsion units had died, for example). We established that the attitude of the people toward technology would be generally positive in her world, but tinged with fear that the things that broke could not be replaced. In some respects, this reminded me of Varin, because Varin also is a high technology world in decline, though it hasn't lost as much as her world has. There is certainly the problem of difficulty in finding people to repair things, and in replacing parts that break.

When you have a situation like this, it's really important to think about how the society arrived at this point. Barbara and I discussed a number of different possible causes for the decline, including a loss of qualified scientists, loss of records, war with other groups, or a bad guy bent on causing trouble. It's much easier for a society to get into a position like this if knowledge and the drive for progress is confined to an elite group. Then if this elite group goes into decline for some reason, the knowledge is unlikely to be distributed widely enough for people to maintain it. There can also be denigration of this elite group by others, associated with a general low assigned value for book learning. Barbara emphasized the role of apathy and taking technology for granted, which in a utopian society like hers led relatively quickly to it becoming a post-utopia!

Likely enough, there won't be one single source for the loss, because the fewer losses incurred, the larger and more comprehensive those losses must have been. So we traced back over the history of her society - and I don't mean the last few years, but the last few centuries - looking for possible contributing causes. Arrival on a colony planet brings on certain kinds of dangers that might jeopardize knowledge (in the form of records or people), as does the difficulty of integrating one's own knowledge with the demands of the new environment. Being invaded obviously would contribute more strife and more potential opportunities to have people with great minds literally stolen for the use of one's enemies, or simply taken down in the general conflict.

At this point the question clearly arises: if all of these things happened long ago, how can I as the author possibly convey them to my readers? Well, both Barbara and I wished to avoid infodumping as a technique, so we talked about using close point of view to restrict the complex information of the world, and also to convey key things to readers. Different points of view can have different kinds of knowledge, and the question of technological decline can have different importance for each of them. Knowledge imbalances between characters always provide great opportunities for you as an author to convey information about the world.

I mentioned the Civil War, and its role in American History. Although it occurred more than a hundred years ago, its footprints can still be seen all over our culture. Children are taught about it; it creates a perception of distinct cultural regions in the US that has persisted until the present day; it also gets linked to later events like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. So one could expect the same kinds of things to happen in a society where large society-changing events had taken place. There will be a name for the large event, and a significance associated with it, an expectation that it will be known, and then a series of other events that have grown out of it by one means or another. The loss of technology may not be the primary event, but may be a side effect of this event (such as the conquest in Barbara's world, which occurred long ago and was repulsed, but did have a significant effect on events that followed it).

You can start with your world, or you can start with your story and build the world behind it. Either way works. It is worth spending some time tracing historical events that contribute to the current state of a society, and trying to tie them together into overall trends. Then, once that has been done, take a look at how central the problem is to the story's main conflict. If it's central, you can spend as much time on it as you need. If it's peripheral, it's best not to put too much emphasis on it - but you can still use the way that people conceptualize social groups, and the way they imagine their historical and national identity, to illuminate past history for the reader.

Thanks again to Barbara and Derek for coming! I'll be having house guests next week, but I'll let you know via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter if I'm able to schedule a hangout. I've heard from a number of people who expressed interest in attending, so I may try to change the date or time to accommodate some of these people's schedules.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TTYU Retro: Sneak Peek at Khachee

This post originally appeared last November at Ann Wilkes' Science Fiction and other ODDysseys. Thanks again to Ann for hosting me.

Sneak Peek at Khachee

Khachee is the language featured in my latest Analog Science Fiction and Fact story, "At Cross Purposes". Let me start by saying that I never design an alien language to require a lesson before reading - so if you don't read this, you should be just fine enjoying the story! However, you can expect a bit of insider knowledge to come from this introduction.

Because the aliens in "At Cross Purposes" have a playful side and are easily excited, I designed them on the basis of river otters. This meant I could use all kinds of river-otter-like similes and metaphors in the story, having them compare things to water, to fish, to boats, etc. I also looked for inspiration about river otters' social structure and the sounds they made. These provided major influences for the aliens' language and behavior.

First were the sounds of their language. 

I found recordings of river otter sounds - this one among others - and tried to see if I could imagine extracting consonant-vowel patterns out of it. What I got from all the whistling and clucking was that vowels would be long, that consonants would have a striking quality, and that there would be a tendency to duplicate things. Based on this, the first word I created was the name of the species: Cochee-coco. It has a meaning, which I'll discuss further below.

To make the consonants of Khachee stand out, I decided the language would have a more extensive system of voiceless affricates than English does. Affricates are sounds like "ch." These sounds begin as stops (p/t/k), and then release into fricatives (f/s) at the same location:

  • t->sh = ch

  • t->s= ts

Thus, in addition to "ch," I decided that Khachee would use "ts," "pf," and "kh." To make the contrast with English clear, I decided Khachee wouldn't use plain fricatives at all. A Khachee mispronunciation of the name "Doris" would therefore be "Dorits."

The other thing I picked out from otter life is that they have a small number of young in a litter - usually one to three.

I had independently come up with the idea of a society where people were always born as twins, and therefore this fit well with what I had in mind to do. Cochee-coco are always born in pairs, and while each has a name, they go by the name of the pair. The main characters of "At Cross Purposes" are a brother Chkaa, and a sister Tsee, who go by "ChkaaTsee."

This brings me to the two organizing principles of Cochee-coco social life: Purpose, and Apfaa. Purpose is something that every individual has, and it's one of their reasons for being. It's even incorporated into their names (ChkaaTsee's second name is "Great Tree Purpose"). For this reason, when I named the species, I decided not to have them call themselves "the people" (a common strategy I have used before). The direct translation of Cochee-coco is "Pursue Purpose, pursue-pursue." The name of their language, Khachee, translates as "speak Purpose." Morphologically, it breaks down as follows:

  • chee=purpose
  • co=pursue
  • kha=speak

Obviously, Purpose is something they get very excited about! However, because Purpose involves the individual's pursuit of that which is beautiful, perfect and inspiring, it is a chaotic force in their society which tends to drive individuals apart. A society based on Purpose wouldn't work without something else to temper it. I therefore set up the opposing force, "apfaa," to rein Purpose in. I actually spent a long time trying to find just the right English word for this, but finally gave up and decided to create one. It's the expression of the twin relationship, established at birth and continued throughout life, and it includes both attraction and repulsion between pair members: "the duality that holds agreement in one hand and conflict in the other."

The presence of these two forces is really important to the language, because Tsee, the alien point-of-view character, constantly judges situations and events around her in terms of either Purpose or apfaa. Apfaa is in fact the basis of the most distinctive feature of Khachee: turn-taking rules. 

English is spoken by individuals. When we speak in conversation, we say what we want to say; then, as we listen to what the other person is saying, we keep our ears alert for natural breaking points. These breaking points are opportunities for us to seize our own turn again. If you've ever felt someone has interrupted you, usually it's because a person began speaking in a place that you didn't recognize as a natural turn-taking break. There's wide variation in what counts as a proper breaking point for turn-taking, even within the usage of English.

Khachee is not spoken by individuals; it's spoken by pairs. Any member of a pair can initiate a statement, question, etc., but the turn is not complete until it has been "chimed" by the other member of the pair. The person "chiming" is responsible for commenting on the quality of the information provided by the initiator. The chimer will indicate whether what has been said is true, or an opinion, or something they overheard, something they want, something they think is horrible, etc. Starting to speak before the second member of the pair has had a chance to chime counts as an interruption. When a Khachee speaker listens to a human speaking, she will tend to assume that the speaker is not finished. This can - and does - lead to awkwardness!

The effect of the Khachee turn-taking strategy for the story's purposes - when it's rendered in English - is a distinctive intonational pattern. This pattern resembles call-and-response, something like what you might have heard in church contexts. I deliberately had to stop myself from including the phrase, "Testify, sister!" because it would have evoked the church context too directly. The turn-taking strategy also influences the way that Khachee speakers organize their own thoughts. They'll tend to express judgments of their own thoughts, acting internally as a pair-member for themselves.

Here are some examples.

A pair turn

Tsee: We won't leave you to speak alone, but will return you to your people.

Chkaa: Truth!

An individual's thought

Pointed at us are weapons, deduced - these aliens are as wary as the Rodhrrrdkhi, suspected.

The last thing I'll mention here is the question of pronouns. When I first imagined the Cochee-coco and their focus on pairs, I toyed with the idea of not using the pronoun "I" at all, but having members of the pair think of themselves as "this half" and "that half." When I tried it, I discovered it was disastrous from a story perspective: it became difficult to track who the alien protagonist was. Pronouns are extremely resistant to change, so watch out for them! In the end, I decided to use a different, more subtle strategy - a strategy of avoidance. Tsee will typically talk about "we," the pair, and won't refer to herself as "I" unless she has to draw a deliberate comparison between her own actions and those of her brother.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Revisions: raising your story on multiple levels

So you've written a first draft. You've sent it off to your critique partners, and you're getting comments back. You thought it worked pretty well first time around but people are saying maybe it would be better if you did this, if you did that...

I am in this position right now.

The good news is, the things I thought were good... were pretty good. On the other hand, the fact that there are things I can still do to improve the story is, to my mind, the better news. Revisions give me an opportunity to see things I hadn't seen before, and make the story that much better.

Writing a first draft is an exploration, as much as it is the telling of a story. You may do it deliberately, with an outline (I certainly do), but still you explore the world and the characters as you write, and new things develop as you watch how the whole thing plays out. You're also exploring the story itself - which parts of it resonate, what themes it has, what its focus is, and which aspects of it are most important.

Critique suggestions come in different types. Some are easy to implement, while others are more difficult. Any story works on multiple levels, and revision can be needed on any one or several (all) of these levels. I find text-level revisions (improvement to prose, flow, etc.) easiest to implement. "This sounded awkward, so please rephrase..." Next easiest are plot-level revisions. "I saw that one coming, so if you want him to accomplish X, you'll have to have him do it another way." The hardest ones are the ones that relate to questions of focus. "You put so much attention on A that you seemed to be taking it away from B, and B was what I really cared about."

I have a tendency to plan fixes at the same time that I'm reading my critiques, and to want to jump into my revisions as quickly as I can, but I have to make sure that I'm addressing the focus and thematic questions first. Those are the ones which, though they are most difficult to address, create the largest change in what happens overall. A change in focus can also lead to changes in plot, in text, even in character.

It's like trying to fit large stones, pebbles and sand into a bucket. If I put the large stones in first, I may have to discard some of my pebbles and sand, but if I don't put them in first, they'll never fit at all.

I'll be thinking about this as I head into my revisions of "The Liars."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lovely and thoughtful article at the TOF Spot

Mike Flynn posted this interesting post called "Talk to the Animals" and I thought I'd pass it on. It discusses the difference between signs and symbols, and the distinction between animal understanding of language and human understanding of language. The parts that I found especially wonderful were quotes from the experience of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, concerning her first understanding of language. It's nearly enough to bring me to tears, and I hope you'll go take a look.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Culture Share: USA (California) - Eastern Friends on Western Shores

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Lillian Csernica discusses discovering international friendships in Santa Cruz, California.

Eastern Friends on Western Shores
by Lillian Csernica

I live in the Santa Cruz mountains. There are times, especially in summer, when it feels like the whole world comes to Santa Cruz. Perhaps it does. Out on the wharf I've heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and even Turkish. I have a particular interest in the cultures of Asia, which has led me to make some wonderful friends right in my own area. Out of respect for their privacy, I won't be referring to them by name.

The Lady from Bangkok

A new Thai restaurant just opened up in my area. I think Coconut Milk Noodle Soup is absolutely divine, so I couldn't wait to indulge my passion for lemongrass and galangal root. The lady who waited on me was very kind, explaining the words on the menu I couldn't figure out and making recommendations about which dishes went well together. I ordered Angel Wings as an appetizer and the duck curry with white rice. As I so often do, I got into conversation with the lady and asked her what part of Thailand she was from. She said Bangkok, as if that was the most obvious answer in the world. I happen to know the name the Thai themselves use for Bangkok, but when I tried to say “Krung Thep,” the lady laughed good-naturedly and pronounced it properly for me. When I mentioned I had friends who'd lived in Chiang Mai, that seemed to prove my credentials as more than a tourist. The lady and I chatted about the various wonderful sights I hope to see if I'm ever fortunate enough to get to Thailand.

Now thanks to the excellent novels of John Burdett (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and the rest of the series), I have learned a lot about Thai culture, most specifically the art of the wai. A wai is performed with the hands together palm to palm and held in front of the face while bowing. Exactly how high or low you hold your hands in this position reflects both your social status and the status of the person you're addressing. In this aspect it's much like bowing in Japanese. You really need to know the fine nuances of who's who to get it just right. Even so, I was so grateful for the Thai lady's conversation that I made her a very respectful wai. Up until then she had what might be called her “business face” on, the cheerful way a waitress speaks to a customer. When she saw me wai, her eyes opened wide, her jaw dropped, and her face generally lit up. “How do you know to do that?” she asked in a breathless tone. I explained that I read a lot about Thailand. Well, from that moment on it was clear she considered me just too cool. She returned the wai and said something in Thai that I'm afraid I didn't understand, and didn't grab the opportunity to have her translate for me. That's all right. There will be another time when I enjoy the excellent Thai food there and the company of that very nice Thai lady.

The Korean Couple

In the same shopping center as my favorite Chinese restaurant, there is a florist shop called the Flower Outlet that's run by a very nice Korean couple. In addition to the usual cut flowers, they have a marvelous variety of orchids and those impressive bamboo plants that have been braided into lovely shapes. It's amazing how wide a variety of flower-related merchandise they can fit into their relatively small shop. Those fountains with the little water wheels or the bamboo dippers that fill up then spill, a selection of lavender-related products including sachets stuffed with fresh lavender, and of course all kinds of vases and pots for displaying flowers and plants. The closer you look, the more details you see. The vases have a distinctly Asian flavor. The pots often have frogs or pandas as a motif. I really enjoy going into the Flower Outlet because even though it's rather crowded in there, I get a sense of peace and order. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the Korean lady in charge of the shop who always has a friendly smile and helpful suggestions. When I had to choose an arrangement for the funeral of a close friend, the Korean lady was very kind in showing me all the options in the ordering catalog and helping me get a sense for what my departed friend would have really enjoyed.

I don't see the gentleman in charge quite as often, but he's every bit as kind as his wife. One day I went into the shop looking for some bamboo rods I planned to use in making a birthday gift for a Chinese friend of mine. I mentioned that purpose and explained my plans to make a scroll using the bamboo rods on each end. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the shop that fit my design ideas. As I was getting into my car out in the parking lot, the Korean gentleman came hurrying after me. Somewhere in the back of the shop he'd found two lengths of bamboo that were a bit thinner than what I had in mind, but their color was perfect. When I pulled out my wallet, he waved that away. I was a good customer, and he was happy to help. I was really touched by that kindness, that extra effort. The scroll came out very well and my Chinese friend was happy, so I owe the Korean gentleman another round of thanks.

In a curious coincidence, the only Korean phrase I know relates directly to the Flower Outlet. In Korea, there are some men who are very attentive to their appearance, getting manicures and facials and generally making the most of their often quite handsome features. Another Korean lady I know explained this phenomenon to me. Such men are referred to by a particular term which I will render phonetically as “koht mee nahm..” It translates as “flower men.” The nearest equivalent I could find in English would be “metrosexual.” The term “flower men” does not reflect on the sexual orientation of the Korean men to whom it's applied. In the same way an artful florist knows how to show off flowers to their best advantage, these “flower men” make the most of their own beauty.

The Japanese Lady

Everywhere you look up here in my little corner of the world you find people with unsuspected talents. This proved true the day I had lunch at the new sushi place in town. I am a staunch Japanophile, so I was looking forward to the opportunity to exercise my limited Japanese. Our waitress was a tall, gracious lady. As I salted the conversation with the occasional Japanese phrase, she asked if I'd ever been to Japan. When I told her I'd once spent a week in Yokohama, she was delighted. Yokohama is her home town. While I ate my delicious lunch and she kept up with her other customers, we kept up our hit-and-run conversation about my interest in Japan. I mentioned my latest novel which is set in Satsuma during the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. A samurai and an English woman meet under dire circumstances which lead to them falling in love. The Japanese lady liked the sound of that. Now that she knew I work with English for a living, we talked about trading language help. She'd help me expand my Japanese and I could help her with her English pronunciation. This sounded like a great idea to me. Then came the really delightful discovery. When the Japanese lady was still in Yokohama, she worked as a jazz singer! Clubs, weddings, social events, they were all excellent venues for her lovely soprano voice. She'd already had some engagements in Santa Cruz. We exchanged e-mail information, and I promptly went to her web site so I could order her CD. I can't wait for her next performance so I can go and hear her sing live.

The Gentleman From Hong Kong

My favorite Chinese restaurant happens to feature cuisine that combines the flavors of both Hong Kong Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. My favorite waiter there is a tall slender gentleman with jet black hair and a rather stern look that in the presence of children will give way to a shy, sweet smile. Out of respect for his privacy I will not mention his name, but I will say that he and I have been friends for almost ten years now. He has taught me a great deal about feng shui. He's been to my house a few times, and while he's there he'll look the place over and make one or two comments about what I might do with mirrors or plants or perhaps a small water fountain. Keeps the chi moving and that makes the luck flow through the house! In my office I keep the gifts that he has given me over the years. They include a pair of lavender money frogs, a fine dragon lantern like the kind that's carried in Chinese New Year parades, and a Lion Dog made of fine ceramic, one of the best examples of this particular creature I've ever seen. When my friend gave it to me, he made me promise to take good care of it for him. I've kept that promise. The Lion Dog sits on a square of silk on the top of a bookshelf that faces my office door. Why does it occupy that precise location? Anyone who walks into my office will be line of sight to the Lion Dog, who traditionally devours wicked people.

What do I do in return for all this generosity in both information and material objects? Of course I stop in at the restaurant often and bring my friends and family with me. What's more, I remember his birthday every year. I bring him something special at Chinese New Year. I also mend his bracelets. We share a fondness for semiprecious stones. My friend likes to wear bracelets of stone beads which are rather large in diameter (in millimeters). The beads are strung on elastic, which in time can become frayed. Once my friend learned I make jewelry for a hobby, he asked me if I could mend the bracelet he wore at that time. I did so, using a new type of elastic he hadn't seen. Now he trusts me to make all his repairs. Just recently I was doing some mending for him and he showed his thanks by taking off the bracelet he was wearing at that time and giving it to me. He assured me it will bring me luck. This bracelet is made of hawk's-eye, a special variation of tiger's-eye. It was my friend's favorite bracelet. I was so touched I couldn't speak. He has since had another bracelet made to match it, so now we share not just our love of this particular stone but the stone itself. I treasure the bracelet so much I wear it all the time.

Wherever we go in the world, people are people. What really builds bridges is having some idea about what's important to those other people from those other parts of the world. It can be as much as having been in the same city, such as my time in Yokohama, or as little as the simple gesture of respect embodied in the wai. When we take an active interest in what's really important to the everyday people of other cultures, that's when we find the common ground in which we can plant the seeds of lasting friendship.

Lillian Csernica lives in Santa Cruz, CA.

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Links between physical and social in worldbuilding

I promised I would make a report on how my very first Google+ worldbuilding hangout had gone, for those who might have missed it, and here I am!

The hangout went very well. My "guests" were Kyle Aisteach, Dale Emery, and Luna Lindsey, all of whom contributed to the discussion. I was interested to see that not everyone had to have the same level of technological access in order to participate - Luna participated in spite of having no working microphone or webcam, by listening to the discussion and then contributing via the typed chat window as she felt appropriate. This worked remarkably well, so if any of you have been reluctant to participate in Google+ hangouts because of technical restrictions, I would encourage you to take the same approach.

The topic we picked was the links between the physical and social aspects of a world. It was clear that all the participants had ideas that these links existed and were ready to cite examples. The environment has resources which get distributed, generally unevenly, creating haves and have-nots. Early on, we talked about Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, in which there are two major physical factors influencing the social: first, the icy climate, and second, the ambigendered physiology of the inhabitants. LeGuin manages of course to create two very distinct societies given these same conditions (Karhide and Orgoreyn), so physical factors can be considered to restrict your social options, but they don't make them ultra-specific. When you're writing, you can often pick a single aspect of the environment as your entry into a sociocultural model. If you take that single aspect and push as far and as deeply as you can with it, you can often create the basis for a really different way of thinking, and find many opportunities for making your world unique.

We also talked about seasons. Japan has four seasons, and they have huge social influence. People begin letters by mentioning the season; poetry always mentions the season, particular words like "moon" or "blossom" or "mist" are evocative of different seasons, etc. The climate of origin of a people can also be carried along in its culture and remain despite drastic changes, as when they play "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" at Christmas in Australia, or as Kyle mentioned, when they talk about the four seasons of the year in Fresno, CA, which he says has "hot season and wet season."

This brought us to the topic of cultural metaphors. For writers, metaphors can be really important as a way of expressing the connection between physical and social. Aspects of environment can be directly linked to social behavior, revealing cultural ways of thinking. Cultural metaphors tend to stick around for hundreds of years, while the original physical activity out of which the metaphor grew may not. This leads to expressions which are opaque to their users, but evocative of the past of the society.

This grew into a discussion of mythos surrounding important individuals, starting first with George Washington and the cherry tree (a story that provides us with quite a number of useful metaphors). Some of these stories about famous people are deliberately created, like those about Washington, while others, like those of Paul Bunyan, grow up naturally.

Dale Emery in his recap of our session mentioned that I'd said, "Humans like to differentiate themselves as much as they like to affiliate themselves." He saw this as an opportunity to create tension in a story, about questions of fitting in and belonging vs. maintaining one's own individuality (and indeed, my most recent story is all about this question, so you hit the nail on the head, Dale!).

Kyle mentioned how in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World the government deliberately implanted attitudes about social structure in its population by physical (chemical) means. Each group believes that it is superior to all the others, thus causing group members to help maintain the group separations. We talked generally about who bears an interest in maintaining restrictive social structures (of which caste systems like that of Brave New World, or my own Varin system, are only a subtype).

We then turned to the question of how to get from the physical to the social. Nature has its requirements, like day length, year length, climate, etc... The social overlies that. It grows out of that, and construes meaning out of it. Kyle mentioned the way that the flooding of the Nile in Egypt provided physical reasons why planting had to happen very quickly at a very particular time of year; the Pharaoh had a vested interest then in making sure this happened, and was able to use this as a justification for the social order he maintained. That social order wasn't necessary given the physical conditions, but it was compatible. The physical could then be used as a justification for maintaining the social order.

Dale asked how one might go about creating social ideas from physical requirements, and the process of thought that went into that, so I described a couple of my own thought processes, most specifically a recent one where I'd been thinking about cheetah aliens - because my daughter has asked me to do cheetah aliens (she loves cheetahs). I mulled it over for quite a long time before I found something that excited me, when I watched a show that informed me that cheetahs have to hurry and eat their kill or lions will push them off it. Dale particularly picked up on the fact that this was a detail that intrigued and inspired me (all very true). It got me asking whether one could translate that kind of relationship into a social one in a more advanced society. What would such a society look like? And how would the two groups perceive each other/talk about each other? It could be a master/slave race relationship, but wouldn't necessarily have to be. It could be executed in a number of different possible ways depending on what kind of human social models one might like to evoke. The language used by the people in the relationship would probably grow out of that (e.g. there would be a term for 'one of those guys who steals your food' etc.)

We talked about the fact that a species can dramatically influence its environment (like our own). Some societies in human cultures have taken an approach of adapting to the environment more, and others have major cultural models/stories which encourage them to change the environment drastically. This tied back to the question of how metaphors and mythos endure even when the environment changes. What would be retained, and what would be overlaid on top of those old things?

Luna asked us a really interesting question about whether a species which was not particularly geared to alter its environment would ever be motivated to achieve travel into space. That turned into our last discussion! Our society tends to see technology as a means to alter the environment, but that wouldn't necessarily be true. A society might develop technologies for other equally compelling reasons, but perhaps not use them for the same things we do. There are a lot of different possible reasons behind the same kind of behavior (creating technology).

At the end of the session I asked the participants to tell me the kind of stories they were working on. This was very interesting - intriguing stuff being worked on all around, and the question of physical and social was relevant to all of it. Dale had a situation where magic was being initially discovered, and was looking for ways to differentiate the social circumstances surrounding this from similar models in Earth history. Kyle was working with a lot of things, but mentioned his stories about terraforming on Venus, which he says are very "man versus nature." Luna said she was working on something which involved (among other things) future archaeology.

Thanks to Dale, Kyle, and Luna for coming to chat with me! I enjoyed it so much that I'm going to be doing another worldbuilding chat next week at the same time: Wednesday, July 27 at 10am PDT. I'd love to take suggestions for a topic, so suggest away in comments below. I apologize to all the people who are at the day job at that hour, but my current summer schedule is very restrictive (I can't do Google+ hangouts unless my kids are at their morning camp.) I'm looking forward to it!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Creating a "realistic" costume... and implications for the means to create in your world

The other day I checked out a post by my new friend Anders Hudson, here, where he discusses how to make your own realistic Battlestar Galactica flight suit. In fact, it's a fascinating post. I confess I am not ever going to be interested in making my own Battlestar Galactica flight suit, but it certainly got me thinking!

Here was my thought sequence.
  • I got to thinking about the resources available for making costumes, and how the people who work for TV shows access them, and afford them...
  • Then I considered how TV watchers with enough time and inspiration might accesss them, and afford them (which is somewhat different from the first group).
  • I realized Anders' post really shows that you can do something very convincing, with materials that are pretty widely available, even if they aren't all very easy to work with.
  • And you can do this on a budget.
  • And this is very, very relevant to questions of worldbuilding.
People in your world are going to have belongings - clothes, tools, luxuries, necessities. And they will have to acquire them...and that means either they or someone else will have to make them. So it would be good to ask some or all of the following questions:
  1. What is the process of creation like in your world?
  2. Are there a lot of raw materials like paper, fabric, foam, or metal, etc. easily available?
  3. Where would a character find the materials necessary to create something? At a sewing shop? An industrial shop? A general store? A specialty boutique? At the mine/factory?
  4. How expensive are these materials, and where do people earn the money to buy them?
  5. How much time and training does it take to create the objects that a reader would see on the page? Is this time and training a net financial loss for the creator? Or a means to better his/her financial situation? How much respect does the creator gain by being able to complete all this?
  6. Of all the steps necessary to make a complex and valuable (useful) object, which are easy and which are hard? Which steps would form bottlenecks or create delays in the process?
  7. How easy or difficult would it be for people of different financial means and social status to obtain similar objects? Is there more than one way to acquire the same thing? Are there any legal restrictions on materials or on finished products?

Thanks to Anders for the inspiration. I hope you find these questions useful in your worldbuilding process.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reminder of tomorrow's Worldbuilding Hangout

Tomorrow (7/20) on Google+ I'm going to be holding a Worldbuilding discussion in the context of "hangout" video chat. It will start at 10am PDT.

If you are interested in attending but haven't received an invitation, do comment and I may be able to send you one. Because this is the inaugural discussion, it's going to be somewhat flexible in topic, but I'm collecting ideas, and any suggestions are welcome. One of my current thoughts is to discuss the links between social and physical aspects of a world.

For any of you who can't make it, I'll be posting a report of that discussion here on this blog, most likely on Friday.

What is not arbitrary about language?

Yesterday I ran across this fascinating link about synesthesia, onomatopoeia, and new hints about the origins of language. For those who don't know, synesthesia is when the senses intermix, and in this case, scientists have been looking at places where words and other sensations cross. It turns out that if you show experimental subjects the words "kiki" and "bouba" and ask them to assign one of two meanings to them - pointy or round - the distribution is not at all random. Most people will assign kiki to pointy, and bouba to round. The article draws some fascinating conclusions about language, and whether or not it can be considered entirely arbitrary.

I think these conclusions are very interesting for writers who make up words. Think about it - your gut feeling about whether the sounds of the words "feel" right for the meaning is not only legitimate, but likely to be shared across much of the world. There's something satisfying to me about the idea that on some basic level, the way I might assign random words to meanings by feel will be accepted and found natural by readers of other cultures. I suspect there are also some story idea opportunities available there - either about the historical origins of language or about synesthesia in unexpected contexts!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Some thoughts on story endings

I was thinking about story endings - basically, for two reasons. First, I have been taking a break from writing my novel for a few weeks because I felt like the ending wasn't lining up strongly enough, and second, because I just finished a short story. And then after I'd submitted it for critique, grabbed it back for some last minute edits to the ending.

I have a tendency to rush endings in first draft. I'm sure people get my story drafts and say, "I'd better take a close look at the ending." I think this is because it takes me so long to write a story that by the time I reach the end I'm going, "get me to the end of this thing!!!" This means, of course, that I do twice as much work on it in the revisions stage.

I'm an outliner, so I generally have a basic idea of what needs to happen for my ending. My Allied Systems stories are puzzle stories, so at a certain point somebody has to go "aha!" Aha moments can happen at any point in a story, but in these stories the aha moment is usually at the climax. I don't mind if readers figure out the solution before my characters, but it's ideal if they arrive there at roughly the same time, so I have to take the puzzle pieces and distribute them through the story, with the last couple arriving right at the end. I then have to make sure that the aha character doesn't sit down and explain at length the solution to the puzzle, because that would be - well, annoying. I'm not writing Sherlock Holmes here. The most important way for me to get around that is to make sure I'm considering the emotional impact of the puzzle solution. In my current story, the solution to the puzzle does not make Adrian Preston very happy at all - so when I went back to tweak it, I changed the aha moment from an explanation to a questioning sequence. Less like "and here's how it works, folks" and more like "oh, darn, can it really work like this? Let's test..."

I also like to make sure that every major character has something to contribute to the ending. Otherwise my readers would be sitting there going "what happened to Lydia?" The core protagonist (Adrian) has to be the one making the major moves - in this case, solving the linguistic and cultural mystery - but because his relationship with his wife Qing has been at issue, the ending has to bring her together with him - and because Lydia the activist friend was the one who started the worst of the trouble, she really has to bring something of value to the end solution so we don't feel angry with her. In the case of this story, "The Liars," she causes something of a revolution, and I think it's deserved.

The question of the core protagonist making the major moves to bring about the ending of the story is a really critical one. I'll say it again: the core protagonist must be the one to solve the problem and cause the ending. This was one of the things I felt was missing in the outline for the novel ending I had planned. I knew that Tagret brought about the final twist at the end, but I had a feeling that he wasn't really behaving as an actor/agent driving the story toward its conclusion in sections leading up to that twist. This had bells of alarm going off in my head until I took a step back and was able to re-outline.

Here's the thing. I've seen this happen even in otherwise fantastic published books, where the author's desire to make the ending MEGA HUGE ends up causing the protagonist to get pushed to one side in his/her significance to the events of the ending. And while the ending remains mega huge, I find its emotional significance to a reader is diminished by this. In the case of trilogies I've read, the constant need to up the stakes in each book makes the problem of sidelining the protagonist even trickier as the end of the first, the second, the third book comes along. I was working with Janice Hardy on Darkfall some months ago, and I remember having this very conversation with her, because her initial draft had drifted off of Nya as its primary driver when it reached the end. Needless to say, she and I and other critiquers put our heads to this problem rather assiduously, and ended up with a better solution that kept Nya right at the center of things (while still satisfying the need for mega huge).

In the case of Tagret in "For Love, For Power," I knew where and how he would take action to achieve the love he was seeking, but I hadn't yet grasped precisely what the piece of power was that he would wield in order to bring about the events of the ending. (I suppose you can see the pattern here: every major character in this novel has both a love arc and a power arc.) Once I realized that he had a piece of knowledge about his brother's weaknesses that no one else possessed, I saw how he could use that against his brother in an escalating sequence that would get us to the climax of the story.

I always like to feel that at the end of a story, each major character gets something he/she "deserves." It's the way we like to see the hero(ine) triumph and the bad guy get his/her comeuppance. When you've got more than one major character, you should consider how to fit into the climax something that each one specially deserves. A character who has been defined by a relationship with family through the book should have some family-related personal twist at the end. A character who has struggled with a dependence on someone or something else should be able to achieve a change of some sort in that dependence (as when Rulii was partially liberated from his addiction at the end of "Cold Words"). A character who has been filled with hate and had to act against his own worse judgment through the whole story should be able to achieve a resolution that changes the nature of that hate (for better or worse!) at the end. Paying attention to this sort of detail for each character will make the ending more resonant and satisfying for readers.

It's something to think about.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Great article: "How Food Explains the World"

This is a fascinating article. Wendy Wagner directed me to it - thanks so much, Wendy! There's a ton of inspiration here for worldbuilding folk.

For example:
  • Did you know that China has more than 446 million pigs, and keeps a pork reserve to steady the economy in case the supply falls?
  • Did you know that demand for chocolate is countercyclical, and goes up when the economy goes down?
  • Did you know that Lebanon and Israel regularly compete against one another for the world record of the largest batch of hummus?
There's tons of great stuff like this in the article. Go check it out!

Friday, July 15, 2011

TTYU Retro: Titles aren't just the name of your story

I decided to bring this post back in part because of Mike Flynn's recent piece on titles, here. Also because I was just thinking that people sometimes forget to pay attention to titles, either when choosing them initially or when critiquing for others. But titles are critical - they're how your story says, "hello!" If you're running your eyes down a Table of Contents, a good title will hop out at you. That doesn't happen to me often enough.


I've been thinking about titles.

This is in part because I've been thinking about titles for my own work, and in part because I've been helping my friend Janice Hardy with them. Titles are important, and are often harder than you might think.

A few titles have come to me easily, almost automatically. "Cold Words" was one of those - it could not have had another title. Most others are trickier.

I generally divide titles into three categories.

1. Story element titles: these are titles that are derived from a character, an important object, a location, a setting, or a plot element. Essentially, these are names that come out of the content of the story. "Dune" falls into this group. "Anansi Boys" does also, as do "Interview with the Vampire" and "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell."

2. Story quote titles: these are titles that are pulled from the words of the story. These would include titles that quote poetry or songs that appear in the story, or some critical line that a character says in the story. "Kushiel's Dart" is one of these (this could also be considered a #1 type). So is "The Madness Season." So was my short story "Let the Word Take Me."

3. Thematic titles: these are titles that tell us something about what the story is about - but on a more abstract level. "The Sparrow" falls into this category (though it also could be considered a #2). So does "Split Infinity," and "Black Hearts in Battersea."

When looking for a title, you want to find one that is intriguing, contains talismanic words, and says something about what people can anticipate when reading the story. By talismanic words I mean ones that have especially resonant and evocative meanings. There are lots of words like this, but here are some examples: Infinity, Word, Madness, Vampire, Boys, Fire, Gate, Death... Each of these brings up a rich set of associations, hints at the kind of emotional experience we can anticipate and and gets us guessing what kind of instantiation of the concept we will find when we begin to read.

A really great title can be the first hook for a reader. A really great title will help the reader know what kind of patterns or messages to be looking for in a story. A really great title may even have more than one meaning within the context of the story. A "fine" title will tell us what the story is about, but may not add that extra level of insight.

I just changed the title of the book I'm writing. And I'm excited about it. I went from a story element title (The Book of Lives) to a thematic title (Through This Gate) - and when I did, I realized a couple of tiny changes to the manuscript can really help the title to point out the theme of the book. It's as if, after more than a year of writing it, I finally know what my book is about. I know it's right because when I think about how it relates to what I've written, it gives me goosebumps - and if it's not going to give me goosebumps, it sure won't give them to anyone else.

So when you're writing, or critiquing someone else's work, don't skip past the title or take it for granted. Take a look; see if it works fine, or if a slight change could make it really work for the story as a whole.

You could find an alternative that's really exciting.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why "Hangouts" on Google+ can be great for writers

In the last few days since I joined Google+ I've participated in three or four "hangouts." These are the video chatrooms that the service supports, and as it turns out, they provide an amazing opportunity for writers. Mary Robinette Kowal and Jason Sanford have already posted about their experiences creating "writing hangouts." Mary suggests:

You can pick any structure, but this one seems to work well.

1. Put up a post saying that you are going to have a writing date at [x] time OR just spontaneously open a hangout.

2. As soon as the hangout is open, place a comment on it that states that it is a writing date and what the parameters are.

3. Suggested parameters: “We’ll chat for fifteen minutes. Then at quarter past we’ll start writing for forty-five minutes. On the hour, there’s another 15 minute break for chat… Rinse and repeat. If you want to join in mid-way, that’s fine, but we’ll just wave at you until the next break.”

4. Continue until you need to log off. If the other participants are still going, they will be able to keep writing after you leave.

While I find it difficult to stay with a writing hangout for an extended time because of my home schedule, I do find it's exceedingly motivating just to pop in, and each time I have, I've gotten a little writing done during a time that I would ordinarily have accomplished nothing.

I'm also exploring these hangouts as a place to conduct post-critique discussions with my online-only writer's group, Written in Blood. Our technique for critique is to do one story at a time with a short window for reading and critiquing, and then to conduct a discussion after the recipient has received all the written critiques. The next time someone submits a story, we're going to be scheduling a Google+ hangout so that we can have the post-critique discussion in real time. I'm really looking forward to it, because I find that questions and discussion flow a lot more easily in face to face contexts, and we'll be able to do more helpful brainstorming for our members, at the same time that we'll be bonding socially and creating a better rapport between members who live in wildly disparate locations.

I'm also thinking about hosting an experimental hangout session to discuss worldbuilding and language questions. If you'd be interested to participate, comment, and I'll post a time to give it a try!

Update: I'll be holding the session next Wednesday (Worldbuilding Wednesday!), July 20th, at 10am PDT. We'll see how the discussion goes, but it might be great to segue into a Mary-style writing hangout at a certain point, too.

Have you had any new ideas for Google+ hangouts? Have you had a good experience with one that you'd like to share? Tell me about it!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

You're creating a world. How much language will you teach?

I read a novel once which had been handed to me with the highest recommendation as a book which created a "truly alien world." And guess what? It was really well done, really alien, very deeply thought through.

I had one problem: there wasn't enough language.

Now, I don't mean to say that there was no alien language used. There was. But for example I noticed that there was a lack of biodiversity: extensive areas of the world growing with the same two or three plant species, and we kept seeing the same animal species. The same pattern was found in a few other places, too (like artifacts), where I sensed the available vocabulary was just too small.

Surely we don't want this. On the other hand, we don't want our readers floundering in piles and piles of alien vocabulary that they don't understand - they will stop reading. I've remarked before on this blog that if you want to create a sense of intimacy and internal perspective, you should avoid using alien vocabulary as much as possible, and make sure to back every instance of it up with a lot of contextual support - conversely, if you want a sense of alienness, more alien vocabulary is all right. It still has to be comprehensible.

One way to avoid overwhelming readers is to use a translation approach. Whatever concept it is that you want readers to understand, find a way of rendering it in English. In fact, I use this approach all the time, because I want my readers to feel like they are insiders (insiders=minimize alien vocabulary).

In "At Cross Purposes" (Analog Jan/Feb 2011) I had two alien concepts that I needed readers to understand. The first one was "Purpose." Our English word "purpose" was a subset, or a partial meaning, for what the aliens meant when they used it. Because of this, I could start having them use it in context in a place where the two meanings overlapped, and then slowly have them extend their use of the world with a lot of contextual support. Notice here: I was teaching my readers deliberately. I start readers in a place they can easily grasp, the area where English "purpose" overlaps with Khachee-translated "purpose." Then I make sure to extend that usage so that the reader will question the places where the meanings don't overlap, and start creating a new definition for it. I did the same thing with the word "cold" in "Cold Words" (Analog Oct. 2009). The second concept I needed readers to understand was much harder. I tried and tried to encapsulate it in a single word, but everything I found was either too corny, too awkward-sounding or too context-specific to our world. Only when I'd exhausted all the possibilities for English translation did I decide to use an alien word, "apfaa." That single term was able to cover all the multiple meanings of the social relationship of twinhood in their society - matching, symmetry, mutual social support, but also conflict, criticism and mutually beneficial argument. I had to make sure the aliens had a good reason to consider the concept consciously (they were wondering whether humans had it). Then I gave a basic definition for it: "the duality that holds agreement in one hand and conflict in the other." After that I tried to make sure all of its uses were supported by context suggesting the different ways it might be used.

I guess what I'm saying is that when you have alien language and concepts (whether those are sf "alien" aliens or just fantasy concepts that are unfamiliar), you need to decide how much language teaching you actually want to do. I'm less interested, in my stories, in teaching vocabulary than I am in teaching different ways to think - but I am very interested in teaching that.

The other thing I'm trying to say is that if you have invented a language with lots of words and all those words have history, and connotations, etc. etc. it doesn't mean that any of that information and insight is making it onto the page. If you want to show that words are related to one another, and make it meaningful to readers, you have to put in a lot of contextual support to make sure those implications are clear. If you have a really cool compound word that you love and you want to teach to readers, make sure that it's highly relevant to the events of the story, and put it in in such a way as to maximize easy understanding of it. If it's pivotal to the story's success, you might even want to break it into parts and show the meaning of the parts before you put it together. Just don't assume that because you have the grand language concept that everyone else shares it too. Remember that there is teaching going on, whether you are teaching actual new words, or just concepts and local metaphors.

In fact, there is teaching in all kinds of stories, even ones without aliens. Real world stories with local dialects? Yes, there's teaching. How about real world stories with hugely extended metaphors like "Snow Falling on Cedars," where the author spends lots of time comparing the snow and its effect on the countryside with the mental states of his main character? There's teaching going on there too. Every place you need to teach, you'll be looking for reader engagement to reward the effort of learning. So don't make people work for things that are trivial.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking for Megs

I still haven't heard from Megs about getting her the book she's won. Megs, are you out there? Can you get in touch?

Otherwise I may need to re-draw...

TTYU Retro: How much description?

Frequently in my writing I've run into the question of how much description I need. I've seen this question before on the message boards, but I thought I'd discuss it a little since it's currently relevant to a couple of the stories I'm writing. [True even of the story I'm currently working on! For "The Liars," I'm actually finding myself going back and adding a few things.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

In "At Cross Purposes," (Analog Jan/Feb 2011) I added an extra paragraph of description when my protagonist first meets the aliens. Why? Because first readers thought I made the aliens too much like Earth otters. It was a good point. My stories are complex, and I'm always trying to keep lots of balls in the air, so I missed that one on first draft. Fortunately, my main character has a penchant for wry observation, so I got to play with first/second impression in two paragraphs that immediately followed one another. I had her think, "Otters!" and then go, "But wait a minute..." and describe a bit. There was room in the plot for it, and it was appropriate to her character. And now I've fixed the problem of the aliens being alien in physiology, which is of course terribly important!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm going to keep thinking about it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When artificial intelligences start using contractions...

I'm sure you're all familiar with this scenario. There's a computer - or a robot, or an automaton of some type, or an android. And it speaks. But it doesn't speak in contractions. Many scenarios even take this further, showing development in the artificial individual by having him/her/it start to use contractions. It's a hint of sentience.

But what does it actually mean?

Just yesterday I got to thinking through what this sudden acquisition of contractions would mean in a linguistic sense, and I arrived at a conclusion which made me blink.

I should of course begin by explaining that I'm a descriptive linguist and very much a believer in the chaos-theoretical model of language and language learning. Chomsky-style "universal grammar" isn't necessary in such a model, and given the fact that languages vary so widely across the world, that seems quite a relief to me. [Language "universals" tend not to be universal, but instead very large-scale trends.]

So what kind of system is assumed to underlie speech which does not use any contractions? Basically, it implies a language built up from a list of vocabulary words and a set of syntactic rules. An artificial intelligence using these resources would not use contractions because those wouldn't be part of its programming, and the sudden development of contractions would thus imply transcendence of fundamental programming.

If, however, we look at the acquisition problem from a neural network perspective, it looks very different. A neural network acquires language based on examples that it receives in the environment. It would parse out the words based on patterns of repetition and difference, and it would parallel the developmental curves that we see in human language development, where there is a steady increase in proficiency at the beginning due to memorization, then the learner grasps a larger pattern and overapplies it (leading to apparently less successful performance on tests) and then starts re-introducing all the exceptions to the rule. I would expect a successful neural network-based artificial intelligence to speak in contractions very early on, regardless of its proficiency in other matters (not to mention its sentience).

So in the end, the contractions question is something of a conceit. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. By "conceit" I mean it's a gesture toward the idea of developing intelligence. It's subtle enough that not everyone will notice it, yet definitely a change in an artificial being's behavior. If you try to reason through the way that this super-amazing artificial brain can't seem to operate on anything more complex than a vocabulary list and a set of syntactic rules, you might get tripped up... But the most important thing here is that use of contractions is a marker that normal people will notice. And as a marker, it has been very useful - and continues to be useful - for science fictional storytellers.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Fascinating article about the Stanford Prison Experiment

I heard about this experiment that got out of hand and ended early when I was studying in college - this article sums things up really well and gets back in touch with some of the participants years afterward. Chilling and fascinating.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Creating unexpected social interaction/Japanese empathy and business cards

Because I write stories with aliens, language and culture, I'm always looking for ways to give the same kinds of situations different value across cultures. This is something that has a rich history in science fiction! I remember the little sequence in Star Trek TNG where Counselor Troi was coaching Captain Picard about how to pronounce a greeting sequence - because if he got it wrong, it would have been a major diplomatic incident, not just an embarrassing moment.

Exaggeration, you say? Well, maybe, and maybe not.

The fact is that when you look at world cultures, there are all sorts of things that have one value here and one value there. In my left side bar I have a series called "A Different Value" which explores exactly this sort of thing - places where a particular object, idea or activity has dramatically different value across contexts.

Just a few weeks ago I was reminded how valuable this type of thinking is: we had Japanese guests staying with us for a couple of weeks, and there was a little activity my daughter was doing for her kindergarten homework that turned into a "major diplomatic incident." Well, in fact, no one got really upset, but it left both me and my husband shaking our heads and talking it over later in the day.

My daughter was asked to cut out five photos of animals from magazines, glue them on a page, and bring them into school. This turned into a major cultural lesson about teaching empathy and object-person symbolism in Japan.

She sat down at the table and we picked out the photos. When she started to cut them out, both of our Japanese guests were suddenly right on top of her (one from each side), verbally coaching in an extremely active way. If my daughter was cutting just the right shape the coaching was "good, good, okay" (sometimes in English, but mostly in Japanese as neither one of them spoke much). If she appeared to be turning her scissors in such a way that the borders of the animal in question would be cut, the comment was NOT "hey, turn your scissors" or "you're not doing this right" but this:

"Ow, ow, oh, ow!"

This did not happen one time, but over and over throughout the activity, with such intensity that my husband and I watched in amazement. Our two guests were both preschool/kindergarten teachers (the system is organized a bit differently there) so it wasn't as if we could write it off as the naiveté of our guests with children! We decided that several things were being deliberately taught.

1. How to cut out a photo correctly
2. How to imagine the feelings of others (empathy)
3. How objects are direct symbols of living entities

This fits in with our experience with Japanese business cards. A business card in Japan must be treated with respect, taken with two hands, placed in the shirt pocket and never the back pocket. It must not be left on a table in a spot where it might accidentally be wet by condensation from a nearby glass of water. My husband saw an instance when this happened and the entire roomful of Japanese businessmen went frantic.

Very often we hear people talk about how in Japan, people are sensitive to the feelings of others. We also hear that you have to be careful with business cards - but we rarely see the two in action together. The thing that makes this stand out to me is that this - and the photo-cutting activity - all grew naturally out of the same mindset in which objects can directly stand for people and animals and also be imbued with the emotional reactions of those people and animals.

When you're writing a world that's unfamiliar and new, think about the way your people think. In particular, if you're looking to have some kind of very important cultural trait play directly into your plot, spend some time thinking about how far that cultural trait extends across the behaviors of the people involved, and how it might be taught to the young. I've gotten multiple comments about the moment in "Let the Word Take Me" when I put in a child alien and showed his mother instructing him (here). It was the tiniest moment (in a short story, so it had to be), but it really resonated with some people. That kind of moment can really suggest the larger historical continuity of your society and give it a lot of depth. If you can place something like that picture-cutting activity incidentally early in your story (this will be easier with novels since you have room), then you can use it to set up a more plot-critical cultural surprise later in the story. The interaction will stand out in your story as feeling "real" and giving real insight, and the plot-relevant incident won't have to stand alone, so it will have less a feeling of being a cultural "twist" or sleight-of-hand and more a demonstration of the integrated qualities of the aliens or the fantasy race you've created.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fascinating article about titles by Mike Flynn

If you've ever wondered about titling your work, or considered what it is that makes an effective title, you should really go over to Mike Flynn's area of cyberspace and read this article. Mike, who is an absolutely awesome science fiction author, has taken a poll of the writers he knows (including me!) and is sharing their thoughts on titles in a series of articles beginning with the one currently posted. Check it out!

Culture Share: Japan - The Tokyo Subways

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses subways in Tokyo.
The Tokyo Subways
by Juliette Wade

You've heard about the Tokyo subways - I know you have. The system looks like this (click to go to a web page where it appears larger):
That is, if you happen to have the nice map labeled in English. If you don't have one of those, it's a bit harder to read and I won't subject you to it.

I've worked with this system a couple of times: once when I was living as a student in Setagaya-ku (when I lived off the map on the Keio line to the west), and once when I was living with my husband in Nishi-magome (at the end of the Asakusa line in the southwest). It's essentially the way to get around Tokyo, because you can't get a driver's license unless you have a place to park your car, and believe me, that's tough. The stations are all quite close together. Once my husband and I walked from Roppongi to Gotanda, and it took us just under 2 hours on foot to walk that distance; it's usually 20 minutes or fewer between stations on foot.

Sometimes the station entrances are really obvious.
Other times they are hard to identify in the midst of all the buildings on a street. Getting down into the station involves stairs. Lots of them - it's a real workout, especially if your commute involves an hour and a half crossing town, changing lines, etc. as my commute to school did. You're lucky if you find an escalator. There are no elevators, and at least in 2001, very few accommodations of any kind to the disabled (I can't imagine trying to get around the Tokyo subways with a child in a stroller, much less with an adult in a wheelchair).

The big stations are absolutely enormous, like Shinjuku station: upwards of 3 million people pass through Shinjuku station every single day. You can't just say to your friend, "I'll meet you at Shinjuku" because you'd be looking for him or her in an entire city's worth of people. You have to specify which train line (since multiple lines run through there) and which exit or ticket gate to wait by. If you happen to be non-Japanese, and you're waiting for a Japanese person, the easiest way to do it is to say, "Please find me." Picking out a friend in the midst of the crowd is easier if that friend sticks out (and foreigners do).

The crowds are not like American crowds. First of all, I found I was taller relative to the crowd than I was used to being in the US. This was useful for finding my way, because it meant I could look above most heads if I stood on tiptoe. Second of all, these crowds are very homogeneous. Yes, sometimes you may see someone dressed in formal kimono or school uniform, etc. but the height and appearance of the people is much more uniform than I've ever seen in the US. Third, the crowds are strikingly quiet. People generally do not talk when in a crowd, and will use low voices even with the friends they travel with. When they speak on cell phones, they speak so quietly I can hardly imagine how the people on the other side can hear them. The result is these hordes of people moving in near-silence (which can be disconcerting for an American at first). Fourth, the rules of personal space are just different from those of the US. A Japanese person interacting with you in a private context with lots of room will tend to stand at bowing distance, i.e. further away than an American, who will typically stand at handshake distance. In the subways, however, the borderline of personal space moves to the skin. People move along their own trajectories as if no one else were there, and will often enough walk right through your shoulder with no acknowledgment that they have done so.

This brings me to the question of fitting all these people into train cars. A Metro car in Washington DC or a BART car in the San Francisco Bay Area will have pairs of seats facing toward the front or back of the car. This is inefficient when it comes to jamming people in. A typical Japanese train car will have long banks of seats along the walls, and a wide open space at the center. Plastic rings will hang by straps from metal bars above the passengers' heads, and they can hang on to these. (Paper advertisements hang from the ceiling at intervals, but these are no good for hanging onto.)
This means, of course, that there's a lot more room for standing people. I have been on the subway at crowded times when there are so many people in this area that you don't have to hold onto anything at all, because it's impossible to fall with so many bodies holding you up. Once I nearly passed out because the crowd was mindlessly crushing me against one of the vertical metal bars, like the one you see at the left of the picture above, and I couldn't breathe properly. Heating and cooling are done from underneath the seats, which can have the odd effect of roasting or chilling your calves, depending on the weather. On the most crowded line, the Yamanote which goes in a circle around the center of Tokyo, they have side benches which fold up into the walls of the car during rush hour. During the busiest times, no one sits at all.

Yes, there are pushers. Only in the busiest stations, however, and during rush hour. In Shinjuku station on the Marunouchi line, the trains run every 45 seconds during rush hour because that's as fast as they can run safely - and people line up in three separate locations on the platform for each train door, so that train #1 will stop with its doors in front of the first line, and train #2 will stop in front of the second, and train #3 in front of the third. Trains don't sit there with their doors open for long, either, so when your station is approaching you have to move toward the door, and then shove out as fast as you can. If the door opens and there's a wall of people, don't let that stop you! Dive in, because the people behind you certainly will. I've seen people step onto a packed train backwards, hook their toes behind the door track and their hands above the top of the door, and shove themselves in that way. When there are white-gloved station attendants pushing you in, it's that much easier. Everyone expects to be pushed and jammed in, so there's no resistance in the crowd that might push you back out. People just make room as best they can, because there's no alternative. Women often fear encountering "chikan" in these crowds - men who use the cramped conditions as an excuse to feel a woman up. I never encountered one myself, but it may have been because of my relatively formidable appearance. I did, however, carry a pin with me at all times, for female friends of mine had recommended this as a good way to deal with a chikan should I ever encounter one. I heard a story once about a woman who grabbed a chikan by the hand and dragged him off the train where she accused him and handed him directly to a station agent. Since chikan depend on their anonymity, I didn't find it particularly surprising that she'd be able to do this - and I certainly admired her nerve!

Subway tickets are usually small and rectangular, labeled with the amount of money you paid for them. That amount differs depending on how far you'll be going, and when you go to the bank of ticket machines, there will be a map above it showing the price for each destination station in the surrounding area. People who commute on the train can get a "teikiken," which is a special ticket (more square than rectangular, with rounded corners) that will take them on unlimited trips between two specified stations for a limited period of time (usually a month). These are very convenient, but very expensive. The ticket machines swallow and spit out tickets with a rapidity that always impressed me.

For someone like me, who grew up in smaller towns, the Tokyo subways can be quite exhausting. However, they are the best way to get around if you live in Tokyo. The result for me was that I imagined Tokyo a bit like a mushroom farm - not with a map of the whole city in my head, but with the subway map in my mind, and the stations coming up from it, with a small circle of the immediate surroundings attached to each station. Each line has a slightly different character, as for example when I always found the people who used the Keio line to be friendlier than the ones who used the Odakyu line to travel west.

The Tokyo subway system is a phenomenon, and certainly deserves the fame it has acquired around the world.