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Friday, September 30, 2011

Multiple POV or not? Why does it matter?

I've written here before about using multiple points of view, and all the things it can be good for. I love using more than one point of view because I love the way it can drive the plot by exacerbating the sense of misunderstanding at the same time that it lets me have special confidentiality with my reader.

But it is not always the right thing to do.

In the story I'm working on right now, there used to be more than one point of view. Why? Several reasons:
  • I like doing it.
  • I like alien point of view! It's fun!
  • I like knowing how all my characters think, especially my aliens. It helps me characterize them more effectively.
  • It helps my readers identify with my major characters
Ok, great. So I was rather dismayed when my critique partners said the alien point of view wasn't working. It was difficult to read, that I already knew, but the worst part was that it was giving away too much to those who understood it, and leaving behind those who didn't.

Not a good sign.

It wasn't until I took it out that I realized there was yet another reason why I should never have had it in the story in the first place. This story is called "The Liars." The main alien character, Op, is a "Liar." So obviously one of the main questions of the story is whether Op is really a liar or not, and what that means.

Putting the point of view in her head seriously weakened the story, because it answered that very important question right up front, thus taking away one of the major story drivers.

The minute I took the point of view out, I knew it sounded better, but the further I went into the revision, the more sure I became that the story was stronger. Now my human protagonists can agonize about whether Op is trustworthy or not. Now they can pursue her, trying to determine whether she is being truthful. They can distrust her. She can switch between being perceived as protagonizing or antagonizing. That uncertainty is doing wonderful things for the entire story.

If you're considering writing with multiple points of view, think about it from more than one angle. Not just "what readers need to know" but also "what readers shouldn't know." Ask yourself, "Does including this point of view serve the themes of my story?" "Does adding this point of view drive the story and make it stronger, or divert and dilute the story and make it weaker?"

These aren't easy questions to answer, but they are certainly worth asking.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Culture Share: USA - The Reno you didn't see

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures. Colin Fisk discusses Reno, Nevada in the wake of the 2011 WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention.

After reading a lot of Twitter and blogs posts from WorldCon about Reno, I thought people might want to see a different side of the town than the absurdly tacky, smoke-filled casinos that were, for many people, their only images of Reno. Even those who left the convention for the morning “Walk with the Stars” didn’t see an area of town that would leave a favorable impression. I should clarify this was not the fault of the organizers, but given the walk was designed to get people out of the hotel/convention hall for a quick stroll and have them back in time for the first panels of the day, the options were limited and the route chosen was the only one which had any small amount of nature in it.

The sad truth is that the area between the Peppermill and the Atlantis/Convention Center is on the edge of the low income/gang territories. So for those convention goers, Reno definitely gave an impression that was less than favorable. And, should people have decided to venture downtown, they most likely did so down South Virginia which is a quirky combination of art stores, neat resale/antique shops, low rent hotels and a lot of smut: from sleazy lingerie shops to exotic dancer “gentleman’s” clubs complete with large LED signs which rival the Peppermill and Atlantis. And then there’s downtown. In the space of six blocks you can go through the beautiful Riverwalk with its art galleries and downtown water adventure park which is home to many events including an annual kayak race, stroll past one of the oldest churches in the west as well as another which still has a working pipe organ and come face to face with a lot of half-gutted casinos which were being refurbished into luxury condominiums when the economy went south as well as pawn shops and the flashing lights of gambling halls in “attract mode.”

Looking at Reno from these viewpoints it doesn’t seem to have a lot to offer.

I won’t go into the amazing laundry list of places to go and geological wonders the area has (for example, most people don’t know that the Truckee river, which flows through downtown, runs south to north, one of a few rivers in the world to do so), which were discussed at the aptly named Welcome to Reno panel which opened WorldCon on Wednesday. I’m not even going to discuss the artistic culture which ranges from the aforementioned Riverwalk, a plethora of pre-Burning Man events (the majority of the large temples are constructed in Reno), to the month-long celebration of art in July with the not so creative name of Artown ( as well as many Burning Man groups such as the Controlled Burn fire dancers who make their permanent residence here.

From my perspective, one of the attractions of Reno that many people who visit will most likely never experience is the melding of suburbia with nature.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the better part of twenty-five years. During that time, the majority of my time was spent in suburban areas. On any given day, the fauna you were exposed to was limited to small birds with perhaps the occasional raccoon or opossum at night.

The area we live in in Reno was swampy farmland some fifteen years ago. Today, the majority of the swamp has been drained and large suburban tracts exist. However, in order to maintain adequate drainage, throughout these suburban areas there are ponds and the natural channels which fed the wetlands less than two decades before.

As a result, there exists small ecosystems within the cookie cutter housing tracts, all lined with walking paths which allow nature to maintain an odd balance within the intrusion of human housing growth.

In the open space behind our house (less than 100 yards to a major road so not as wide as to encourage a complete reclaiming by nature), there are a pair of mated Northern Harriers that have lived there for the five years we have. It’s a daily occurrence for the female of the pair to cruise through our backyard at dusk and often the male hunts through our yard several times during the daylight. The same area this year has been home to a pair of mated Red-tailed hawks. Though we live several miles from the hills, it’s not uncommon during the summer to hear coyotes trying to bait the local dogs out into the field behind our house.

My wife and I walk most days or evenings along this path; a loop totaling two and a half miles which takes us past a pond some two hundred yards from our front door and down alongside the drainage canals. As an amateur photographer, I’ve now cataloged seventeen or more different types of ducks in the pond, not to mention the Great Blue Herons and Egrets (both Snowy and Great,) and, much to our delight, a mated pair of Night Herons which had three offspring a year ago, two of which have stayed in the area as well.

Several times a year, the pond also hosts white pelicans. As I understand it, many years ago Pyramid Lake (home to some amazing Paiute petroglyphs on the nearby reservation) was an inland sea. As such, there are still pelicans which are native to the area, and while there has been a group of three that have been weekending on our pond for several months, usually our view of the pelicans come in the form of a vanguard of consisting of a few one afternoon, a flotilla upwards of sixty the following day and the next morning they take flight again toward their ultimate destination.

The additional birds which inhabit the pond and drainage range from the American Avocet, to Sandpipers, Virginia Rail, Sora as well as Flickers, Tern and vibrantly colored Swallows. During the winter, the pond has plays host to the occasional Snow Goose as well as many Kestrels.

So, for every glowing slot machine that beckons you to leave your money behind, nature counters with the occasional black bear wandering down from the Lake Tahoe area. For each classic car that comes to town for Hot August Nights, many species of hawks fly above the town. During the ski season, four wheel drive SUV’s with California plates slip and slide through intersections as magpies look down contemptuously from lamp posts. And while the bald eagle balloon which makes its appearance every year at the Great Balloon Race is neat, it doesn’t compare to the actual Bald and Golden Eagles which float higher than their propane-heated counterparts.

Colin Fisk lives in Reno, Nevada.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Worldbuilding Hangout on Google+ Tomorrow

This is just to remind you all that tomorrow, September 28th at 11am PDT, I'll be holding a worldbuilding hangout on Google Plus. If you don't have a webcam and/or microphone enabled you can still participate via Chat. We'll be discussing lots of topics, but I'm leaning toward crime and criminals in worldbuilding, a topic suggested by the wonderful Kay Holt (@sandykidd on Twitter). I hope to see you there, literally!

Why Nouns Matter, part 2: objects and labels

Here I am, back to tackle common nouns. I'm going to take two angles on this (though they are hard to extricate from each other): first, to talk about choosing objects that will appear in a story, and second, to talk about labels for objects.

When people talk about putting "details" in your story, a lot of it has to do with nouns. (Adjectives are also implicated, but we'll hit the nouns first.) What do you put in the room with your protagonists when they are speaking together? Each noun you pick makes a large statement - first, a declaration that the object you've chosen is worth paying attention to (and is therefore important) and then possibly several more statements depending on what you pick. The choice of a high-technology object will imply that other objects of similar technological level are in use in the society you're working with, and that the society has economic mechanisms in place to produce such an item. The choice of a toothbrush or other personal hygiene item can imply things about the society or about the character (perhaps cleanliness and personal hygiene are important to them). The choice of a natural object, such as a tree or an animal, can imply the role of nature to your society and the personality of your point of view character. The choice of an object associated with witchcraft (black cat, for example?) will evoke a very different, specific type of atmosphere. The more time you spend on any given object, the greater its perceived importance, so think through why you have it there and what it's doing for you (see my previous post, Focus your worldbuilding efforts). Also, the more you support any given object with others that evoke the same thing, the stronger will be the power of the impression you make on the reader.

Objects don't exist in our minds in isolation. They are like mental webs of all the contexts and emotional responses in which we've ever seen them. Thus, they can potentially bring any or all of those contexts with them into a reader's mind. As writers, we can choose to include an object as a way of guiding the way our readers think - which brings me to the topic of labeling.

It's not only the objects you include in your story that are important, it's what you choose to call them. Think about the mental web that I mentioned in the last paragraph. What you call an object will allow your reader to enter that mental web at one location or another, to very different effect.

For example, say your character carries with him/her an object that allows him to talk with other characters at a distance. Is it a walkie-talkie? Is it a cell phone? Is it a mobile? Is it a communicator? Is it an ansible? All of these are names for (very) roughly the same kind of object, but each one says extremely different things about the surrounding context of the world, and even the genre of the story (I'll remark in case I have non-sff readers that communicator and ansible are both science fictional terms). Even the two that are most alike, cell phone and mobile, imply that the story takes place in very different areas of the world, or at least in the point of view of a person from these different areas.

Labels are also very important socially. If I chose to discuss labels for people here, I could go on all day (which I'd better not). The example I immediately think of for that is the American high school model where the kids are divided into groups labeled things like "jocks" "geeks" "stoners" or any other selection of labels you recall from your own experience. Objects can also have this kind of diverse personality, because any object can be called totally different things by members of smaller sub-groups of the same society.

I have an example of this from my Varin novel. The servant caste uses a particular type of defensive weapon for bodyguarding purposes - small metal balls that they can throw like (slow) bullets to slow down an attacker, even one who is better armed. Defining these objects and their characteristics wasn't enough, though. They needed to be named. I knew that the Imbati servant caste would have their own name for them, an insider's name, and it would be short and familiar, relying on a lot of insider knowledge. The outsider's name for it would associate it with them, and would possibly be derogatory or slang-like. A scientific name for it would be more descriptive, as would the impression of them of someone who was not familiar with them. Thus I have the Imbati call them "rounder spheres." Other castes typically call them "Imbati shot." But when the noble character sees the servant use them, he doesn't know what they are, so he describes their effect: "Something too small to see hit the shop's front window with a sharp crack."

That's as much as I can do today, but let me just end by saying that if you have an object in your story that will be seen differently by different groups, it's worth putting some time into figuring out what those different groups will call it. That will imply as much about the social groups as it does about the object itself.

It's something to think about.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Does your character have to be as smart as your reader?

Of course not, you'd say. And you'd be right...but. That's the point of this article.

Let's start with the question of what it means for a character to be "smart." I usually think of different kinds of character attributes as contributing to the impression of smartness. The ability to use logic and reason based on experience is one of those. The ability to reflect on and evaluate one's own actions. The ability to communicate effectively can also be interpreted as an indicator of intellect, though it isn't a particularly reliable one.

What the character needs to do intellectually depends on what the story involves. If the character is Sherlock Holmes, he needs to be pretty darned intellectual (along with a host of other things, as watchers of "Sherlock" will testify). If she's out there trying to solve a mystery, she should have the ability to do that, because it will look awfully strange if the protagonist isn't the one to resolve the main conflict. If, as in my stories, she's trying to solve a linguistic mystery, she needs not only mental facility but an expertise in linguistics. There is an endless list of the possible specialties that characters need in order to solve some of those sf puzzles (I've seen chemists, engineers, etc.).

If, by contrast, you're writing something about someone with a divergent mode of thinking - such as the autistic protagonist of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time - you'll have to gauge carefully how you portray the special characteristics of the person's thinking and then the intellect. They may or may not be related. I struggle sometimes in writing my antagonist Nekantor because he has OCD and is very repetitive - but is also extremely smart, so I have to find a balance in his narrative that makes him plausibly obsessive and plausibly intelligent at the same time.

All right, so let's go a bit further with this. You would put a lot of effort into making sure that you don't make physical or temporal inconsistencies in your story - it's important also to maintain consistency in the intellect of your characters. If a character can use logic to solve a complex problem in one situation, she's very likely to be able to do it in another situation as well. Make sure you don't have your character suddenly lose his mind and behave ridiculously. Sure, there are external influences that can change a character's ability to reason through things (like being in a panic or hurry situation, emotionally distracted, etc.). Just make sure that change is appropriate to the nature of the distractions.

So what do I mean by "does your character have to be as smart as your reader"?

This is a funny one, but to some extent a character needs to share some of the reader's instincts for how stories work.

Particularly if the character is someone who generally comes across as having a strong intellect, or who is having to use reasoning to get through the plot, you don't want (or at least, I don't want) him/her suddenly to catch a case of horror movie stupidity: "Here we are in grave danger from an unknown killing force that seems to come from nowhere but which I've been carefully using evidence to track down - let's split up."

Recently I put down a book because of a different kind of inconsistency. The character I was reading had been spending a lot of time thinking through the motivations of one of his companions, trying to figure out how the guy was thinking, because they were very different types of people - and then suddenly he completely stopped reasoning and decided to take his companion's words at face value (and think worse of him) in a scene where the companion was almost certain to be lying. This is where the reader comes in. Not only was it inconsistent, but I knew the guy had to be lying, and it didn't make sense for the protagonist to think he wasn't. Instead, it gave me the impression (one the author surely didn't intend) that the story was trying to manipulate me emotionally.

In fact, I have run into a very similar situation recently in my own work - where my protagonist has to share some of my own, and my reader's, instinct for where stories usually go. I had my protagonist pursuing someone out toward a waterfall, having some action and argument ensue, and then having the fugitive jump into the waterfall. My critique partner Doug Sharp (yes, he's very sharp) called me on this. He knew the guy was going to jump in the waterfall as soon as he knew that was where they were going, and he was shocked that my protagonist didn't also figure this out.

Oops on me.

So now I'm going to make sure that my protagonist expects that the fugitive will jump into the waterfall, just the way my reader did - and then, I won't have him do it (just to shake things up). After that happened, I caught myself just today realizing I was about to do it again. The previous linguist died mysteriously. Was it an accident? Or was it the evil corporate guys? Well, if you're a reader, it's unlikely to be the former. And if it can't be the latter, then my characters have to entertain the possibility that the natives did it. Because that's the next option for a reader to consider, and not having my protagonist consider it would make him appear stupid.

So while your character doesn't have to be "smart" necessarily, nor should he or she be obliged somehow to match your reader (which would be tough, since you don't know who's going to read it anyway) - it's still good to think through this kind of "knowledge of story/cliché" instinct and make sure your characters aren't dropping the ball at critical moments... or your reader might just drop the book.

And we can't have that!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Culture Share: Australia - Through the Looking Glass

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses her discovery of Melbourne, Australia.

Before I ever went to Australia, my images of it were mostly about animals. After all, we see them on nature programs - the koala, the kangaroo, the dingo, the emu, the platypus and occasionally the echidna. When I met my husband, who hails from Melbourne, I'm embarrassed to say that was the first time I'd ever taken the time to think about the human population of Australia to any extensive degree. Obviously I've learned a lot more since then! (Phew!)

When I started visiting Australia with a view to making it my second home, I got a very different view of it. I came out of the experience of Europe, where there are lots of countries side by side, often with distinct and mutually unintelligible languages - that, and Japan, where almost everything is unintelligible at first. From that perspective, Australia seemed much like home. It's not even just that the people speak English. The place is clearly a former English colony, and all kinds of little things resemble America, even as a whole lot of other things resemble England. The result is something uniquely Australian, but to this day whenever I'm there I have the sense that I've traveled through the looking-glass.

I remember how Lewis Carroll described the world within the looking-glass: every part of it that you could see by looking in the mirror was the same as this world, but every part of it that was outside the reach of the mirror's view was entirely different.

It fits rather well, of course, with the fact that in Australia, people drive on the left-hand side of the road. On my first visit, I had come direct from Japan where they also drive on the left, so it didn't trouble me much to look right first when crossing the street. However, since I never actually drove a car in Japan, the trouble I had was in walking to the incorrect side of the car. To this day, even after all the time I've spent in Australia, I still occasionally walk to the right side of the car expecting to find the passenger's seat! When you're driving, in fact, it's less difficult to figure out which side of the road to be on, and much harder to choose the correct side of the steering wheel (windshield wipers or turn signal, which in Australia is called the "indicator"). Also, because of one's different position in the car, it's easy to drive too close to the left-hand shoulder.

There are other things too that seem literally backwards. The toilet and other drains swirl the opposite direction (I had a commenter point out that the association between this and the Coriolis effect was considered urban legend - but I have noticed the backwards swirl, and I wonder what else might cause it!). Then of course there is the fact that autumn (they don't call it fall) comes in April and spring in September.

I very clearly remember walking down the sidewalk (the "pavement") with my husband on a beautiful 80-degree-Fahrenheit day (roughly 27 degrees C to an Australian) which happened to be Christmas Eve. You could buy Christmas cards with Santa on a surfboard at the news agent's, which is like a stationery shop plus newspaper and magazine source, and all the while the public speakers were playing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." It was extremely surreal for someone from the northern hemisphere.

One of the other interesting things I've discovered in Australia, which may or may not be common to other places in the southern hemisphere, is that the quality of sunlight is different. My gut instinct is to say that the sunlight seems brighter, though I'm pretty sure it's not literally brighter, only coming from a different angle. Certainly to anyone accustomed to gauging direction based on the sun's position, it can be a confusing place (my father and my brother noted this particularly).

As a person from California I am quite accustomed to the presence of eucalyptus trees. The San Francisco Bay Area is full of eucalyptus groves. What stood out to me about the gum trees of Australia were the sheer number and variety of them. Australia is home to vast forests which appear, at least at first glance, to be composed of about 75% eucalyptus. The other thing, of course, is that when you're in a grove of gum trees in Australia it's worth looking up to see if you can find a koala. It took me a good three years or so to break my husband of this "looking-up" habit whenever we encountered eucalyptus groves. I can see why he misses the possibility of koalas, though. While I haven't seen many, in spite of much looking, I still love the possibility of finding one myself. And of course I love the sound of kookaburras.

There are so many details that I could go on forever, but I do want to mention two things I particularly notice about Melbourne. In California we have a lot of strip malls - on a piece of land to one side of the road you'll have a large parking lot and on the inward side of it will be a long building, sometimes with end pieces like a bracket. This building will be divided into a number of smaller shops and restaurants. Melbourne doesn't have these strip malls. There is no "parking lot at the side of the road" phenomenon. Going to run errands is called "going up the shops" and the shops are right along both sides of the main road. Often enough the shop buildings share a wall, even if their heights and appearances are different. The closest thing to a strip mall is a long building along one side of the road (with the pavement directly in front of it), which gets divided into smaller establishments. You might find a news agent's, a chemist's (pharmacy), an op shop (like Goodwill), a bakery, a milk bar (like a snack bar, with ice cream bars and meat pies and candy bars, etc.), all side by side. Their doors will be kept open, but will have thick strips of clear plastic hanging down across them to prevent the entry of flies (you push them aside as you enter). The stores won't have small cloth awnings. Often what you'll find is something that appears half awning, half roof - an awning that sticks far out from the front of the building, supported by poles, which entirely shades the sidewalk. The names of the shops are labeled above this, or at the front edge.

Melbourne also has some beautiful historic homes with special ironwork which deserves mention. I see it as one of the defining characteristics of Melburnian architecture, much like the ironwork that you see in New Orleans, but in an entirely different style.

Australia is an awesome place, and I find Melbourne to be one of my favorite places in the world, even beyond the natural affection that comes with its being the home of my favorite person. I hope you'll have a chance to go through the looking glass too, one day. When you get there, remember that "G'day" is pronounced with some stress on both halves, like you're saying "good day" without the first "d."

G'day everybody!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Worldbuilding Hangouts to resume

Now that my kids are back in school, I've decided to do a few more Google+ live video chat worldbuilding "hangouts." Say what you will about Google+, it's the only place I've found that is able to do this in a way that's convenient for me. The next hangout will be next Wednesday, September 28th, at 11am. I've moved the time one hour later to accommodate early risers and my own dance class. Rumor has it that I may have a visit from David Peterson, inventor of Dothraki...

For those of you who may not be aware of my previous two worldbuilding hangouts, I've decided today to reprint the report of my first hangout, just to give you a feel of what it's like (fun!).

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 again to Kyle, Dale, and Luna for visiting with me back in July. I hope to see some of you hang out again, and I hope also to see some new visitors, next week!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

TTYU Retro: External and Internal Conflict

I've been thinking about external and internal conflict. Sometimes you can be writing along and the story isn't quite working - and then you realize that the reason it's giving you trouble is that it doesn't have both external and internal conflicts, only external.

Why is it so important to have both external and internal conflicts in a story?

One reason is complexity. A story with only external conflicts feels somewhat shallow to me, no matter how thorny the external conflict becomes. I always like to have the sense that the protagonist is somehow at odds with the external realities of his or her situation.

Another is unpredictability. I always like a story that is hard to predict, and as Janice Hardy notes, when you have external conflict driving the story in one direction, and internal conflict driving it in yet another, "crashing them together," the story's direction becomes more difficult to guess.

Both of these are reasons I've thought through before, but here's another thing to consider.

It feels more real.

Now, why would that be? Maybe because it's plausible to think that most people have internal issues they're working through. On the other hand, why would it be so appropriate to have the protagonist dealing with internal conflicts that directly contrast with the external ones? Wouldn't that feel more coincidental? To me it doesn't. After much thought, what I've decided is this:

An internal conflict that contrasts with an external one lets the protagonist fight directly against the author.

As a reader, I know that the external conflict is controlled by the author - an outside force that throws things at our beloved protagonist. I don't feel the same way about conflict inside the character, for some reason, even though I know the author is just as much in control of the conflict inside the character as they are of the conflict outside. I think it's because a well-crafted character will feel like her motivations grow naturally from personality, experience and other factors. Thus, so long as the protagonist feels like a real person, then her struggle with internal conflict, while dealing with the events of the plot, will take on additional dimension. Not only will the protagonist's choices be unexpected, but she will take on that quality that I love to feel when writing a character - the feeling that she is acting on her own against me and against what I might (as the writer) want to make her do.

I urge you to think through internal conflict as well as external. It will really make a difference to your story.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Nouns Matter, part 1: Proper Names

I've been thinking for some time now that I should do a series on parts of speech. This is the linguistics-geeky part of me coming together with my writerly side, and the side that always loved grammar in school. So starting today, and running over the next few weeks, I'll be considering parts of speech as fine-tuned weapons for writers.

Today my focus is nouns. (Didn't anyone ever tell you that the noun is mightier than the sword?) In fact, nouns are a huge topic, so I'm dividing them up into two parts - Proper Names and Common Nouns. Proper names are those nouns that denote unique entities, such as a person, a company, a city, or a country. They are generally capitalized, and don't have to take an article like "a" or "the" (though sometimes they do; I'll write a piece about articles later). In English, the names of weekdays and months also fall into this category.

So why do they matter? Why are they worth a writer's special attention? (I'm sure your mind is teeming with ideas already!)

I'll start in a slightly unexpected place. There is no single tool more uniquely effective for indicating the genre of your story than the proper name. Why? Because the instant readers encounter a name they don't know from our world, they will know they are in another one. It doesn't have to be the name of the protagonist. Mention the town of Gorindon and your reader will probably guess fantasy. Mention Kasemsarn's World and chances are your reader will guess science fiction. Mention Miami, by contrast, and your reader will guess real-world (and if you're pushing the real world in a speculative direction, you'll have to do work elsewhere to convince them).

Wikipedia helpfully notes that proper names "...are used to denote a particular person, place, or object without regard to any descriptive meaning the word or phrase may have (for example, a town called "Newtown" may be, but does not necessarily have to be, a new [recently built] town)." But in fact the content of names is extremely evocative, and writers should be sure to use it to their advantage. I've seen a lot of science fictional names take advantage of folding in the word "New," much in the same way that it was used when Europeans began their colonies in the Americas. If you can have New England and New Hampshire, then why not have New London or New Sacramento? In this way the content of a name can give you historical information about the location and its significance to the people who live there.

Then, of course, there's the feel of names. Names come in different flavors, leading people to conclude that a person is a good guy or a bad guy, or sleazy, or proper, etc. The feel of a name generally arises from a resemblance to another word with good or bad connotations. There is also a degree of onomatopoeia involved, where certain sounds will make you think "small" or "light" or "pointy" or "bright" and others will make you think "big," "heavy," "round," "dark." The classic example of this is the character Snape from the Harry Potter books. Snake, anyone? In fact, all of the names in those books are extremely evocative - but so are real world names. People spend tons of time looking through baby name books and lists for just this reason. What does the name mean? What is its history? Does it sound like it comes from a particular country? Does it sound like it belongs to someone of a particular racial background?

When it comes to company names, we can draw on associations with existing companies by creating a name that sounds similar, or we can give the name a "marketing" feel by emulating the way companies actually name themselves. (I loved naming "Terrafirm" and "the Paradise Company.") Because all of these strong associations already exist in the real world, we can certainly take advantage of them when using proper names in fiction.

Lastly here I'm going to mention weekdays and months. If you're working in science fiction or fantasy, you should most definitely pay attention to these. There is an enormously different feel to a fantasy world that uses "Tuesday" and "November" from one that has its own names for weekdays and months. Using the existing names implies a connection with our own world, and suggests alternate history or steampunk... certainly one could imagine other varieties of connection, but if those words are going to appear, there has to be a good reason. Some might argue that they could just be "translation," taking the way the people of this world talk about time and rendering it in a way that readers would find easy to understand, but I wouldn't suggest this. Not with names of such distinct identity. The way a group of people organizes time, and names it, can have a lot of significance. I did use a partial translation method when I designed the calendar for Varin, inasmuch as I took our model of naming weekdays after deities, and used it for their purposes. If we can have Wednesday (Odin's day) and Thursday (Thor's day), then I can repurpose that and let the Varini have Maiday, Plisday, Besday, Trigisday, etc. At the same time I did make sure that I had created the deities in question and figured out their significance to the society. For the months I decided I would use terms (for example, Soremor) that came from another country, and whose meaning was opaque to these people (but perhaps not to those of its country of origin!).

I'm sure that I haven't covered everything here, so I'd love it if you could add your own thoughts and ideas about proper names and how to use them to your advantage in writing. And of course, any suggestions for things to add to upcoming articles in the series (which I know will include articles, verbs, adverbs, and lots of other great stuff) are also welcome.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Headlines, Cultural Context, and Meaning

Today I saw this tweet from my old friend Dima Khatib, who is now the South American correspondent for Al Jazeera, and it immediately caught me:

Dima Khatib أنا ديمة
Many ask why protests in Syria always come out of mosques. The answer is that assembly is forbidden and impossible anywhere else in

It made me think of my childhood, when I heard about things happening in mosques or temples in countries I was unfamiliar with, and wondered what place mosques and temples really had in those people's lives. News stories are by necessity limited in length. That means that they cannot include all the necessary underpinnings, and are quite easily skewed by our own underlying assumptions about how life works. "Protest at a mosque" - what does it mean? Does it mean that religious people get angry, for instance? Does it mean that people are protesting somehow against the mosque? Or does it mean - and as Dima points out, it does - that this is the only place people can gather in large enough numbers to protest anything?

I think it would be easy to throw up my hands and despair if I always took headlines at face value. I've seen many posts recently about how Fox News headlines quite differently from CNN, for example. What I take away from it all is that no matter what you hear, if it's important to you, then it should be worth looking into more of the details than you can get in six words, or even 200.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Culture Share: Middle East - A Glimpse into an Uncommon Childhood

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Margaret McGaffey Fisk describes an experience she had while living in the Middle East as a child of the Foreign Service.

A Glimpse into an Uncommon Childhood by Margaret McGaffey Fisk

I am a Foreign Service brat. What this means is that my parents at the time of my growing up - most of the time my father, then both parents, and finally my mother after my father retired - were Foreign Service Officers, members of the United States diplomatic corps. I grew up in many countries (well okay not that many) but I grew up in the Middle East. And my parents, to be perfectly honest, fit the model of hippies very well. This worked as an advantage for the State Department because they got people who were fascinated by other cultures and enjoyed learning languages. These are all aspects that make a diplomat good, make a diplomat part of the place where they are, at least in my opinion of course.

One of the things that we used to do to connect to the country where we lived is go on what my parents called Magical Mystery Tours. Now, I didn't learn about the Beatles version of Magical Mystery Tours until much later. I thought it was my parents' creation and that they were so creative.

Anyway, how a magical mystery tour worked was everybody got in the car--there were five of us, my parents, my two sisters, and me - and we took turns at every intersection choosing a direction. The only part that was not random was we got to choose the starting point. In our case, this was almost without exception, "the mountains" (usually any exceptions were when Mom overruled, and the inner city tours were really just as fabulous in reality). This meant taking our Range Rover, or whatever off-road vehicle we had at the time, into the desert to climb mountains, visit abandoned structures, meet nomadic tribes or small villages, and whatever else
we could find enjoyment in on our random paths.

On one of those trips - at this point I don't remember age or which country, but we were small (I believe it was Afghanistan) - we found a minaret standing in the middle of the desert completely by itself, nothing anywhere near. Now if that happened in the States, you might think twice about it. In Afghanistan or Iran, we found a lot of these. We explored all sorts of archeological sites that were left unattended.

In this case we went up to the top of the minaret using the staircase that spiraled up its length. We looked at the minaret, we looked from it, and knowing us, we might have even tried some calls from the top. I don't remember for sure, but we enjoyed exploring this archeological site.

And then we went down to the bottom, set out our picnic, and sat down to eat.

Now the key point of the picnic in my memory is that we were drinking Coke in the old green glass bottles, something that becomes relevant later.

Anyway, so here we were drinking our Cokes, eating sandwiches, and having a wonderful time in the middle of a desert in the middle of nowhere when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, coming up over a hill...was an army.

What did we do?

Well, I don't remember specifically what I did. Probably gawked, more fascinating in what was happening than interested in self-preservation.

My parents were not so taken in by the sight. They grabbed all of us bodily, along with the picnic things and threw everything into the car. I remember all three of us were huddling in the back back, the space behind the back seat. Yes, this was before seatbelt laws and it was a lot faster to toss us in with all the picnic stuff.

Then they got into the car and drove off as fast as they could.

This is where my memories become distinct, tactile even.

I remember sitting on the hard floor of the back back with my thumb over the top of my open Coke, peeking my head up to see these soldiers charging after us. They were firing their rifles right at us, and I remember the sounds of the guns going off, and laughing with my sisters as we hit bumps that sent us bouncing toward the ceiling.

Great excitement.

And every once in a while I would pop my thumb off the Coke and swallow a sip with my mouth over the whole thing, then slam my thumb back so I didn't make a mess.

It was wonderful and exciting and marvelous.

Meanwhile my mother was twisted back in her seat screaming, "Keep your heads down," every time we sneaked a look.

It took at least ten years before I turned my own perceptions around when writing a fictionalized account for a class and saw the situation through my mother's eyes. She was not caught up in the adventure. She was sitting there seeing real guns fired at her children and trying to keep us safe.

However, that has not, clearly, changed the excitement and delight of the whole situation, a wonderful day trip into the desert that became an adventure. I guess there's no question as to why, years later when I saw it, I really enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Arc?

I have no idea what kind of person I would have turned out to be if I'd been raised in the States, but the life I did lead was full of wonderful fodder for tales like this, while giving me a grounding in the consequences of when cultures clash. Not only that, but I spent my days with ex-pat or diplomatic folks, the reason behind my current amateur philosopher status.

Thanks, Juliette, for the opportunity to relive this moment, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading something I usually recount in person with gesticulating arms and tonal emphasis.

Margaret McGaffey Fisk writes science fiction and fantasy; she lived with her family in more than one Middle Eastern country as a child, but currently resides in Reno, Nevada.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Elements of Religion, with cautions, for worldbuilders

Religion is often included in the worlds we build. This is not because everyone wants to bring religious "issues" into the story (although some do), but because religion permeates our own lives in so many different ways that it makes a lot of sense for another world - particularly a world of humans - to include it.

In fact, issues of religion very often touch a chord with readers. I was astonished by reader responses to my very first story, which included religion as a central aspect of the story. For this very reason, including religion in a story comes with inherent risks. One is that you might be construed as trying to influence another person's beliefs. People sometimes do this intentionally (in which case they may be prepared if someone is offended) but it can be more of a shock if they do it accidentally. Another possible risk is that your portrayal of religion - even a religion which on the face of it is clearly unrelated to those of our own world - will be construed as an insult to a real world religion. [I think this one is related to the idea that readers sometimes construe an author's beliefs or psychology from the content of his/her writing, which is problematic in and of itself...but that's an issue for another time.]

One thing I would recommend is that you take some time to consider how religion is included in your world, and why, and how. I have seen stories where all religious people are zealots, and they don't appeal to me, because they don't speak to me as real. Sure there are zealots in the world, but within any belief system, there is a lot of room for variation.

The reason I titled this post "elements" of religion is because I think worldbuilding religions can be approached from a number of different angles. All of these elements are intertwined, but each can vary. As I write this, I am certain that I am not capturing everything here (I'm no scholar of theology), but coming at it from my usual position of trying to help my own portrayal of social phenomena through basic level analysis. (So please forgive any awkwardness as I try to think this through out loud.)

One element of religion I'll call belief. It's a difficult term, because it means different things to different people, but for my purposes here a belief has to do with how we think the universe works. God exists, or gods exist, or no gods exist... God takes the form of fire, or can change forms at will, or flows through everything; or gods live in every object, or exist above us, etc. This part is about what your characters know is true about the spiritual nature of the world. There will certainly be evidence for belief in language and use of metaphor, and in certain aspects of behavior (but not necessarily churchgoing!).

Another element of religion I'll call tenets (with thanks to my friend Josephine!). Tenets are the "shoulds." They're statements about how people should enact their religion. To be a good Christian you should ___/ to be a good Muslim you should ___/ to be a good member of X you should Y. People, even very religious people, don't always follow all the tenets of their own religion. They will interact psychologically with these tenets, and may follow them, but may resist them, etc. Tenets are usually guarded by, and/or disseminated by, an institution or a specific group of people.

Another element I'll call "practices." These are not the things people should do, but the things they actually do. This would include things like going to the temple for New Year's day and lighting a fire there and bringing it home, or putting out a bowl of water somewhere, or lighting a candle on a certain day. I'm separating them out from the "shoulds" because sometimes people do these things without really connecting them (mentally) to why the religion says they should do them... and because sometimes people hold the tenets but don't actually make it all the way to practices (which can cause them guilt).

Another element I'll call "faith." This is the very personal level of religion, where we find the concept of a relationship to the divine. It is the psychological and emotional aspect of religion. It's possible to believe that gods exist without cultivating faith as such; similarly, it is possible to engage in practices without it.

The last element I'm going to mention here is language. Language use reflects all of the above aspects of religion, and it's worth thinking about how people speak when they are members of a particular religion. Which words are taboo? How do we speak about the divine? Must we refrain from speaking about it? What euphemisms do we use? Another thing that is interesting about the language use associated with a particular religion is that it can be learned, and used, without any knowledge of the elements listed above. Thus, even when a religion is essentially non-functional, the people who used to practice it may still speak as though they do. It is possible to imagine a secular society which still refers to aspects of the divine in quite specific ways.

I think as we go about worldbuilding, particularly if religion will play an important role in the story or in the life of a character, it's worth thinking through these different angles of religion and how they interrelate - and also, how they come together in the mind of the character. For some, all of them are so closely intertwined that they can't be extricated. For others, one element or another may be stronger.

I encourage anyone interested in being inspired by aspects of different real world religions to visit the Religion section of The Writer's International Culture Share. It currently includes seven articles - but if you might be interested to share something of your own, please do let me know.

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Article: why some languges sound faster than others

You guys are going to love this article, which was passed on to me by Samala Ray. Scientists at the Université de Lyon did a study of information density per syllable and speed of syllables to see whether some languages really are spoken faster than others. Answer? They are, and they aren't. I'll let you read and see, but the answer is really fun.

Link: Mysterious Paper Sculptures in Edinburgh

I just had to share this article, which talks about some amazingly beautiful sculptures - carved out of books - which have been showing up in Edinburgh libraries and at public book events. I'm sure you'll love them, so go take a look!

TTYU Retro: Multiple Points of View? (originally appeared at The Sharp Angle)

Multiple Points of View?

This article originally appeared at Lydia Sharp's wonderful blog, The Sharp Angle on November 12, 2010. I highly recommend Lydia's blog for writing folk - she's insightful, cool and fun.

I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about point of view - specifically, about times when we might be tempted to use more than one viewpoint character.

I use multiple points of view all the time, and I love doing it, but not all of my stories require it. For example, my Analog 2008 story "Let the Word Take Me" uses two viewpoint characters, as does "At Cross Purposes" (Analog Jan/Feb 2011). "The Eminence's Match" used five viewpoint characters (Panverse, 2010) - but "Cold Words" only used one (Analog Oct. 2009). This is not just chance; it's choice. Thus, in this post, the issues I want to deal with are why a writer would choose to use more than one point of view, and how they might go about it.

Let's start with the most basic question. Why would you choose to use more than one point of view character?

The most obvious reason is that a single point of view is limiting. I've seen lots of stories (and story drafts) where authors departed from a single point of view in order to divulge information that the reader couldn't learn from the primary point of view character. To my mind, though, information isn't really the best reason to change points of view. Point of view does place limitations on how information is presented - that's true. But those limitations can actually help you by keeping the story focused, and allowing you to maintain a sense of mystery without appearing to withhold information deliberately from the reader. If information was all you were after, you could always drop clues in the environment of your viewpoint character - clues that the reader would understand, but that the character wouldn't necessarily draw conclusions from.

So, when might it be a good idea to use more than one point of view character?

It might be a good idea if:
1. want to show how your protagonist appears to others.
2. ...your main viewpoint character is unreliable.
3. ...the contrast between your protagonist's viewpoint and another person's viewpoint is central to the story conflict.
4. want to show precisely how dangerous your antagonist is.

I've seen each of these different reasons used to justify introducing an additional point of view. C.S. Friedman used what I'd call a throwaway point of view - one that appeared for a single scene only - in her novel, In Conquest Born. It turned out to be a very effective way to show just how powerful and attractive yet cold-blooded her male protagonist was. I suppose this could be categorized as a combination of 1 and 4 (he was a sort of anti-protagonist).

You don't have to restrict yourself to one reason to introduce a new point of view character. It's often good if you can use more than one, or all four! In The Eminence's Match, both of the two main points of view are unreliable (#2). Imbati Xinta is unreliable because he's got bad self-esteem, which makes it important to do a little bit of #1, showing what he looks like through other people's eyes. The Eminence, our antagonist, is unreliable because he's mentally ill, which makes him a good candidate for both #1 and #4. Furthermore, the contrast between the two of them is also very important to the resolution of the central conflict, which falls under #3.

There are some things to watch out for. Throwaway viewpoint characters can disorient readers, because they can confuse them as to who is most important, and where the main conflict of the story is. I don't tend to use them at all, and certainly they need to be clearly distinguished from major viewpoint characters.

For a major viewpoint character to work, the character has to be strong enough to handle the attention. Most importantly to my mind, the character has to have goals and stakes independent of those belonging to another viewpoint character.

When I first imagined writing "Cold Words," I imagined there would be both human and non-human points of view - but not for any particularly good reason. I figured the contrast between them might be helpful for driving the story. However, my lovely friend Janice Hardy pointed out that humans had very little to gain in the story. Nothing that readers would really care about. The one who had everything to gain, and everything to lose, was the alien character. I therefore changed my mind and stuck with the single point of view. Then when I started designing "At Cross Purposes" I spent a lot of time trying to understand what each of the characters had to gain and lose in the story scenario - because I knew that both had to have independent goals and stakes for the story to work well. I managed to find these independent motivations, and therefore I kept both points of view in the story.

So what does a point of view switch allow you to do?

The list is longer than I can go into here, but I'll tell you what it does that I particularly like. It allows me to show the same situation from two different viewpoints, and show readers precisely how one character fails to understand the way the other one conceptualizes the situation. In fact, similar situations of misunderstanding underlie each of my Analog stories. Here's an example (not from an Analog story!):

Person A walks into a guarded room where Person B is reading, and Person A gets grabbed by the guard. Person B sees a potential friend being abused, takes a risk to get the guard to release Person A, and then starts up a friendly conversation with her. Person A happens to be in disguise, looking for something particular in this guarded room, and Person B is not a potential friend at all, but very dangerous. In fact, as readers know from visiting Person B's head, he isn't just dangerous, but could have her killed with a word.

Perhaps you can see the kind of tension set up by the contrast between the way the two people misunderstand this situation, as readers wonder if and when each person is going to find out the truth.

The last thing I need to mention here is "head-hopping." The term is actually a criticism of out-of-control switches in point of view. I often see people recommend that writers stick with a single point of view for the duration of a scene, or of a chapter, rather than jumping from one viewpoint to another without warning. While this is good advice, it's not for everyone. Some authors are able to control their viewpoint switches well enough to give sufficient warning - that way no one gets confused, and the switch occurs without any trouble. For example, Frank Herbert's Dune switches around point of view quite a bit, but I never found it disorienting (as I explain here in a Ridiculously Close Look).

What I'd like to add to the discussion is that, as a writer, you can send a message not only by setting up contrasting points of view, but picking when you switch between them. You can break off one viewpoint and switch to another at a moment when the second person is secretly doing something that will really hurt - or help - the first one. You can break off when one character is wondering about the other, and show a contrast between character A's expectations and what character B is actually doing. Or you can even switch when both characters are in the middle of an interaction with each other, such as switching from one to the other just when character A becomes suspicious of, or falls for, or attacks, character B. This creates a situation where you can treat the reader to witnessing both the motive for the action of A on B, and the reaction of B to that. If you happen to be switching chapters at the same time, that can make for a fabulous cliffhanger!

Those are my thoughts for today - I'd love to hear yours.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A character's behavior reveals underlying power assumptions

This is a post about character. It's also a post about the importance of establishing manners and culture in your stories. But it starts with the story of my children crossing the street to school.

The school has two or three different crossing guards. After a few days, while we were walking home, my kids asked me, "Why does the man make us wait for cars?"

It's true. When we arrive with a group of people at the crosswalk, the male crossing guard looks at the street, watches cars go by for a while, then raises his stop sign and walks out into the street. The female crossing guard turns to the street and raises her sign, then walks out into the street.

Both methods work. The man's method makes the pedestrians wait. And as I explained to my children, each one is based on a different set of assumptions. The female crossing guard feels that her pedestrians are more important than the traffic. The male crossing guard feels that the traffic is more important than his pedestrians. When the female crossing guard sees pedestrians arrive, she raises her sign to command the traffic to stop. When the male crossing guard sees pedestrians arrive, he raises his sign to ask permission from the traffic for the pedestrians to cross.

One of them commands, and the other asks permission - and this is played out in their behavior.

Another situation arose over the weekend where I was communicating about a French class I'm helping to arrange. I'm a co-coordinator with another fantastic woman. She has been with this program for the last year. I have not. I found that each time I wanted to communicate with officers of the French program further up the line, I felt the strong desire to talk to my co-coordinator first. Eventually, since I couldn't reach her, I had to communicate directly. What made me hesitate in this situation was that I have certain expectations: 1. about the authority of experience, 2. about chain of command in organizations, and 3. about what to do in situations of urgency. You can easily imagine that if one were to change any one of those three, the results might be very different.

My husband was put in a very interesting situation of this nature when he worked in Japan. He was in the midst of a set of organizational assumptions about authority, experience, chain of command, and dealing with urgency, that differed from what he was used to. This sometimes had distinctly different (occasionally unfortunate) results, and it's not hard to see that Americans and Japanese dealing with matters of this nature would experience friction due to different sets of underlying assumptions.

This is why, when I write other worlds or different kinds of people, I like to track underlying assumptions. I also like to be very careful about how people interact in small social situations - and I encourage you to do the same. My situation from the last post, about how my character would walk out a vehicle into a field of grass, is related to this directly. I hadn't been thinking about it when I first wrote it, but the behavior reveals her underlying assumptions, and those assumptions have to align with the social group she's a part of, and the situation as a whole.

It happens here in our world too, so keep your eye out. That could become quite a resource for subtlety and nuance in your writing.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Link: Orange Carrots, at the intersection of genetics, politics and culture

I thought this was a pretty interesting article! Carrots weren't always orange... in fact, the swing toward orange carrots came about in the Netherlands. Fascinating, and reminds me of how Coca-Cola made Santa Claus dress in red.

Point of view and characterization mean divorcing from yourself

I got over a hump in my story yesterday. There was a piece that wasn't working, because I couldn't figure out what my protagonist Adrian's reaction would be to one of the story events. Whenever this happens, it's a sign that something isn't holding together earlier in the story. I went back over it several times and talked through it with friends, and after quite a long while I realized I had missed a step in Adrian's thought process - the point at which he went from thinking the word "liar" was an insult to realizing that "Liar" was a name for a social group. Because my story's climax depends on Adrian fully understanding who the Liars are and what they do, developing this thought process for him is critical to my success. Furthermore, each change in his understanding has to happen on screen, so that my readers can follow it.

So what does this have to do with divorcing from yourself? Well, the reason why I got lost in the first place was that as the author, I have all the pieces of the puzzle already. I know the answer, and all the levels of it. I had put together all kinds of steps from Adrian encountering the social group of the Liars to him understanding what it was for... I had just omitted the step where he realizes for the first time that it is a social label. It sneaked by me because I was concentrating so hard on all those other steps. In order to get this to work for readers, I have to step outside myself into Adrian's point of view so completely that I can understand what he learns and when he learns it (and how) without being blinded by my own knowledge.

Standing outside yourself is hard, especially when it comes to fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality.

I remember the first novel protagonist I ever attempted. I had a scene where she was walking out of a vehicle into a beautiful field of golden grass at sunset. She was loving how beautiful it was, ignoring all the people around her, feeling the free air, etc. All the things I myself would have done in her situation. The problem was, she wasn't me. She was a character from the undercaste of Varin - someone who lived underground, had never seen the sun or felt air move except when it was moved by a vehicle. Moreover, she was someone constantly at risk of abuse or persecution by people around her. What the heck was she doing ignoring people and walking out full of wonder and joy into a field at sunset? The result was that she didn't feel like she belonged in the world, and she didn't feel like she could be the age she was.

The age question is a subtle point, and something that many people run into. It's one thing to tell readers that your protagonist is a certain age. "She's nineteen," you say (however you choose to fit it in). But having her act like she's nineteen is something else. The way I wrote my protagonist in the field scene might have worked with her age if she'd been an Earthly nineteen-year-old. But given the social situation of Varin, that kind of attitude made my protagonist feel like she was much younger and more naïve. At the time my critique partners told me she didn't seem like she was nineteen, and I couldn't figure out why they hadn't "noticed" when I specified her age. But then one of the more analytical of them told me that someone of her age in Varin would have learned quite a bit more caution, fear, and manners... and that those would be on her mind in this scene in addition to a natural fear of the surface and the outdoors. This kind of questioning of very basic assumptions is one reason why it's taken me so long to make Varin work to my satisfaction - so many of the assumptions are different that I can't be consciously mindful of all of them at once. I have to identify assumptions, change them, get used to them and learn to use them subconsciously...and then identify the next level, and go through the process all over again.

Really I don't think characterization, point of view, and worldbuilding can be separated from one another. They are all deeply inter-related. Your character has to "come across" to readers in a particular way within the context of your world. Yes, you won't be able to avoid certain aspects of the real world coming in, as readers bring a lot of real world assumptions to their reading. But that's just another reason why worldbuilding is so important to your character's success (as a character). As you introduce your character, you also have the opportunity to introduce those aspects of his/her social context that provide background for the interpretation of their character that you want readers to take away with them. And in order to do this, you need to get as far as possible outside yourself, your basic knowledge sets, and even your knowledge of where the story is going.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I'm - gasp - writing!

You may have noticed that I haven't had much time to blog this week, and I'm sorry about that. We're still adapting to the school schedule, yes, but I've been spending a lot of time slapping my muse around and trying to wake her up! At this point I can say that I am officially writing again - a huge source of happiness for me since it had been a full month since I'd been able to write. I hope to have a post up tomorrow, and resume my regular schedule next week.

Yay, writing!

The added benefit is that I'll be having many more topics to blog about at the same time...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A metaphor is worth 1000 (or at least 10) words...

I don't think a lot of people realize how wonderfully helpful - and powerful - metaphors are. Yes, I'm sure we're all aware that they are artful, but they are more pervasive than we generally imagine, and I find them incredibly useful for two things: conciseness, and worldbuilding.

Conciseness may not be the first thing that leaps to mind when you consider metaphors, but believe me, it works. The example that leaps to mind from my own work comes from "At Cross Purposes." I'd gone to a lot of trouble to design the bridge of my otter-aliens' ship, and I found myself describing the quality of the light, the fact that there was soft music, the room full of fish (snack bar), the pairs of otters moving and jumping, the whirling bits of light, the this, the that... It got longer and longer and I was despairing a little, because the story was already pretty long. Then I walked away from it for a while, and after a few minutes it suddenly hit me that every detail but one fit into a single metaphor:

"It's an otter nightclub!"

Once I put this thought into Lynn's mind, the whole place resolved itself into an image instantaneously. I had to do a lot less describing of pieces, and I could provide just a few details to ground my use of the metaphor, plus add the one detail (the volume of the music) which constituted the exception. I didn't have to use nearly as many words (I think I cut out at least fifty!).

One intriguing side benefit of using a single metaphor, with supporting details, instead of just a lot of piece by piece description, is the way that you can often achieve a huge leap in clarity. The metaphor becomes the unifying element for details that follow, much in the way that a topic sentence provides the thesis for a paragraph (another reason why it's important not just to throw metaphors at a story, but to have the metaphor and its supporting details match one another). With only details you can end up with a sort of intense close-up effect where the reader never gets the sense of seeing the whole object/person/place, but of seeing only the parts and struggling to put them together. In the case of describing characters, this can mean an unfortunate Frankenstinian effect!

The other thing I wanted to mention is the power of metaphors in worldbuilding. I have mentioned this before on the blog, but I was actually able to mention it at WorldCon in a panel about worldbuilding featuring Greg Bear, among others. The panel was discussing how description of the point of view character's sensory perceptions could be an important tool for worldbuilding, and I commented how important I felt judgment was as a worldbuilding tool.

The judgment of a point of view character is actually quite complex. The most basic part of this is his/her sense that something has value or not. But when we judge things, we seldom talk just about whether is something is good or bad. We talk about what it is good for. We compare it to other things in our experience. And we talk about it in terms of familiar imagery.

This is precisely where the worldbuilding comes in. Whenever we talk about what something is good for, we speak of it in terms of the activities it may be useful for - activities which are a part of our daily social lives, and which can differ greatly depending on the society in which they occur. Whenever we compare it to things in our experience, we are also revealing the nature of our past experiences in our physical and social world. And whenever we use familiar imagery, we reveal which images are the most familiar and resonant in our world.

Is my love like a red red rose, as Robert Burns once sang? Well, we can certainly guess that his world had roses in it. Does your character dream of the day when his ship will come in? That'll be a world with oceans and a nautical history. Does he feel that another character will help him land the quarry he's never taken down in a lifetime of hunting alone? Then it's highly likely his species defines itself and its life goals in terms of hunting on land (that was Rulii, so he does).

Notice that in the paragraph above, there are no alien words. Only the word "rose" is specific to a flower species in our own world. Metaphors are an excellent tool for providing worldbuilding that does not depend on the use of alien language - and since alien language is unfamiliar to (and alienates) readers, I tend to rely heavily on this type of metaphor when I'm creating alien worlds that I want readers to feel at home in.

This technique may not be a magic bullet (metaphor!) but it's certainly worth thinking about.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Link: Tokyo's top 10 Mythical Beasts

Here's a lovely - and illustrated! - list of some great mythical creatures from Japan. Some you know will be missing from the list, but they're all very interesting. And the pictures are terrific.

I have been having internet connection problems, but will try to be up with a post in the next day or so.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Link: A Matrilineal Muslim Culture in Indonesia

I thought you guys might really enjoy this article discussing the Minangkabau of Indonesia. This society has merged Muslim beliefs with their underlying matrilineal culture in a really interesting way. Food for thought.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Convention readings: what to read, and how to get an audience

You are on the program at a convention, and you get a reading slot. Hooray!

So, first question first. What do you read?

This is a trick question. I don't know your work, so how could I make any specific recommendation? What I will do, however, is suggest a few things to think about in choosing a work to read (or read from).

  1. Consider whether you have a work that needs more visibility. Maybe you have something that has come out recently but from a smaller press or magazine which is more difficult to access; reading a work like this can increase the number of people who know about it.
  2. Consider whether you have a work that will be coming out soon. If you've sold a story and know it will be hitting shelves, or online sites, in relatively short order, it's good to relay this message to a potential audience and give them a bit of a teaser.
  3. Consider whether it is your best work. You might have a work in progress that is really exciting you at the moment, but be careful to consider that it may change a great deal in revision. Would you want people to hear the story as is if this piece of it may change dramatically later? Perhaps not, but you probably wouldn't want to read something that later you'd regret having shown in that form.
  4. Consider which part of your image as an author you are trying to project. I have two sides as an author: my science fiction side, and my fantasy side. I'm currently trying to grow my fantasy side so that I can be more three-dimensional as an author, so I chose at my local convention to read a fantasy story (currently under consideration by an editor) that I am very proud of.

  5. Consider what the overarching theme of the convention is. At WorldCon most of my programming was directly related to my status as an Analog writer and an expert on alien languages and language design, so it only made sense to choose a science fiction story to read. (I chose "Cold Words" because it will be coming out in anthology form soon.) It wouldn't make any sense to read science fiction at World Fantasy Convention, for example. And some reading slots specify the genre required, so it's best to go with that.
The second issue is, how do you get an audience to come to your reading? If you're a big name author already, obviously you don't have to really worry about this unless you're scheduled back-to-back with something else really compelling. But for most people this is an issue. My very first reading never happened because I was scheduled at the last minute, on the last day of the convention, and everyone had already left. The ever-wonderful Dr. Stanley Schmidt appeared, but as I told him, "I think you know this story already."

This might lead you to conclude that you should wish never to be scheduled on the last day of a convention. However, being scheduled on the first day isn't so great either - because you have virtually no time to drop your own name or invite people to attend.

I suggest a multi-pronged approach. Make sure you personally invite people you know who you know will be attending the convention. You can also issue public invitations through blogs or social networking sites, but it's hard to measure how effective these are. I don't suggest accosting random people in the halls and inviting them, unless you feel really comfortable talking to strangers. What I can suggest, though, is putting in a small plug for your reading at the end of panels you are on, just as the panel closes. Especially if the panel topic is related to the reading you will be giving, the chances of you finding interested parties in the panel audience is a lot higher. Thus I tend to mention my science fiction readings in alien language, linguistics or anthropology related panels. Worldbuilding panels are open to the suggestion of either fantasy or science fiction. Another approach that has been successful for me is to make up a flyer announcing your reading (with its location, the title of your story, and a blurb about its content) and post it up in public flyer areas of the convention, including near the door of the room where you will be reading. I made mine orange so it would stand out!

In the end, it doesn't matter if you're reading to two people or to thirty - give it your all. If you're a tepid reader because you've been put off by a small audience, those few members of the small audience will be unlikely to invite others to come back for a reading by you. Believe in the story, and give yourself to it. Make your story come alive, and then the reading itself can become a wonderful incentive for people to want to come back and hear you read again.

Note: special thanks to Lillian Csernica for teaching me so much about this topic!