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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

TTYU Retro: Critique is about the readers

I'm a person who loves critique. Whenever I have a story done (or sometimes even when I don't have it done, as I remarked yesterday) I find a writing friend willing to look at it and send it over for their comments. I have learned so much through critique that I wouldn't do it any other way.

For me, the only bad critique is one that doesn't speak specifically about the text or story elements - one that attacks me personally or one so vague I can't make anything out of it. A critique that criticizes, or even one that makes me think "gee, he didn't get it!" is still valuable.

When somebody doesn't get it, it's important to ask why. That lack of understanding happened because the reader missed the boat somewhere - and that's why I think it's important to go back and take a look, to try to figure out what precisely it was that left them behind. Some missing clue, that if it had been there, would have saved this person from their misconception.

It's really important to remember that when we read, much of what we understand of the text comes from our own minds. Each word activates in our brains the set of meanings that the word has built up for itself over all the instances of its use in our experience. Story elements evoke emotions based on our experience. Every time we read, we bring ourselves to the story.

Obviously, this affects critique. I once had a friend read my beginner novel and tell me he thought I should have matched up the characters differently - X should have hooked up with A, and Y with B, not the other way around. I still don't agree with him! But what I can do is when I go back to get that novel right, I can make sure I put lots of evidence in for why my solution is the better idea.

If you ever find yourself writing off a critique for a reason like, "That person isn't a genre reader," you might want to reconsider. Who do you want to read your work? Is it only for the specialist reader of sf/f, or cosy mystery? Great works will transcend and be readable by a larger audience. In a sense each time you offer your work for critique, you're testing out a potential group of readers. If all your readers fall into the same group, you may not learn as much as if you give the work to different kinds of readers. Literary readers. Romance readers. Science fiction readers. Fantasy readers. Their opinions will give you a glimpse into what others of their tastes might think, and chances are there will be a way for you both to maintain your artistic vision and to make them feel more welcome in your world.

I think that's something worth striving for.

Tomorrow's Hangout: Making your City Work

I hope you will join me on Google Plus tomorrow at 11am PST for a discussion of all the worldbuilding elements that help make a fictional city work. We'll be talking about resources and where they come from, jobs people do in your city, etc. I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Using projection/anticipation to improve your manuscript

In the last few months I've started using a new technique to improve my novel in progress, thanks to my lovely and insightful beta-reader, Jamie Todd Rubin. The fact that he's my beta-reader was initially something of an accident - I'd been talking with him about my novel and he offered to read it, to which I replied "are you sure?" and out of that insecurity only sent him one chapter, but then he asked for another. And another, and onward. (Thanks so much, Jamie!)

One of the things he told me (and it probably won't surprise you) was that he didn't want me to tell him anything about what I was currently working on, or any details about where the story was going. Okay, so I did that. But at a certain point I asked him a question that opened a whole new kind of door for me in my writing process. The question was this:

What do you think is going to happen next in the story?

The results of my asking this question were so fabulously useful that I've since done it multiple times, and now I'm recommending that you try this as well.

Ask a reader - one who does not know where the story is "supposed" to go - to tell you where he or she thinks it is going.

I often think about the arcs of my story: what I've constructed up to a particular point should give some indication of where the arc will go in the future. Asking Jamie where he thinks the story is going allows me to get an outsider's view on the arcs as they appear on the page, rather than as I imagine them. Because I know where the story is going, where it is supposed to go, I can miss places where I've misdirected readers, or places where I've left open a possibility that isn't actually a possibility. Jamie helps me figure out where I've left the wrong doors open, and based on his comments, I can then go back, see more clearly what I've done, take those wrong doors and close them.

Honestly, I lucked into this. Jamie is a perceptive reader, and very creative about thinking through the possibilities - someone like him may be hard to find. During our last conversation of this nature he didn't feel like he could address the general question "where you do you think the story is going?" so instead I asked him the same question on a smaller level, i.e. what he thought would happen next for each of the three main characters. As a result he came up with the most amazing hypothesis for my protagonist I could possibly have imagined. It wasn't what I had planned, but it was incredibly informative. What it told me was that my character trajectories were right on target: that he had precisely the right idea about where my protagonist wanted to end up (i.e. not as a straightforward "winner" of the competition), and he had developed respect for one of the secondary characters that was exactly what I was hoping for (challenging, because this character is very oppressed and doesn't have lots of opportunities to look powerful).

So to think about this in practical terms, it's worth not telling every one of your writing friends everything about where your story is going. Not that this is a risk for you, necessarily, but it is for me! It's worth having some people you can hash through plans and world details with, and having others whom you only speak with about what they've experienced so far. The person who starts knowing nothing and builds up as they go along is the person most like your future reader. That person's ability to anticipate and to project the story can be absolutely invaluable.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Guest Post: Myke Cole on "Military Culture"

 When people talk about "military culture," it evokes a lot of tired stereotypes. It's rigid, it's conservative, it's macho. I'll never forget when I first became enamored with the military as a kid. My parents laughed off the idea of my ever joining. I was too creative, too free-thinking, too aesthetic. I had a problem with authority. I was too smart. I asked too many questions. I'd never last.

What could I do? I was a kid. They were grownups. I believed them.

And that's a shame. Because they didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

The US military is perhaps one of the most misunderstood institutions in the world. This is owed partially to a relentless portrayal of it in Hollywood and the gaming industry (who have a storyteller's interest in polarity and stereotype) and partially to the growing divide between the civilian and military populations in this country, now arguably worse than it has ever been in our history. I did a guest post on this topic at the Qwillery. You can see it here -

Here's the truth. The military is (and arguably always has been) a *gigantic* organization. It draws liberally from all sections of society. Rich and poor of all races and creeds join up for reasons ranging from ideology to hope-for-advancement to sheer love of the work. The military isn't, and never has been a monoculture. It has proclivities and does draw more heavily from certain segments of society, but that doesn't change my overwhelming experience, which is this: I have met every different type of person in the military. There are artists and free-thinkers. There are anti-authoritarians and anarchists. There are mavericks and dreamers. Many countries have military castes that are kept socially distinct from the rest of society. In America, we have citizen-soldiers, who take off their uniforms at the end of the working day and integrate back into their civilian communities. We have reserve forces (like the one I serve in) that only soldier part-time. When they're off work, they're right alongside everyone else in the malls and parks and churches, recognizable only by accidental use of jargon or a distinct haircut.

It is our military's greatest strength. It is the thing that keeps the military from ever dictating policy (instead, it is an instrument of it). We are CITIZENS as much as warriors, and we are deeply connected to the fabric of the country around us.

When people ask me "what is the military's culture?" I respond "what's your culture?" We are you, and you are us.

And that's why I never look for, or seek to write "military" characters in science-fiction and fantasy. I honestly don't believe they exist. There are only characters, each reacting to and being shaped by their military experiences in their own unique way. PEOPLE remain the heart of great stories, and the military is a broad section of all the people in the society it serves.

Which is one of the biggest reasons I love it so very much.

Myke Cole
SHADOW OPS #1: CONTROL POINT coming from Ace (Penguin) in February, 2012!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Checklist for creating alternate social and cultural norms in a fictional world

You've created a world. The "people" there, human or not, don't live like we do. How do you go about writing their lives - their manners, their rules, etc. - without sounding either pedantic or overblown? It's not as easy as it looks, but I hope this checklist will help you to get a good start.

[Note to my hangout folk: this post is a second follow-up to the worldbuilding hangout I reported on last week, during which we discussed how to set up alternate social norms in a fictional world.]

1. Identify social and cultural parameters
   Some of you may already have done this, i.e. listed out the social rules by which the people of your world live. If you have not, it's worth doing. This single step in itself can be a long process, as there are a lot of areas in which cultural parameters operate. I'll list some of the areas, just to give you some inspiration. Greetings and manners, architecture, food culture (preparation and consumption), economic roles (work), taboo behaviors (verbal, physical), education, elites (economic, educational, etc), religion, folklore, etc., etc.

There's a lot out there, and if your world is comprehensive enough, it will be enough for your story to get lost in. To make sure that doesn't happen, make sure to...

2. Organize and prioritize your parameters
   Of all the possible cultural parameters you might have come up with, not every one is going to be equally important to your story when you write it. Is there a particular cultural artifact, or set of assumptions, behaviors, or practices that are going to be central to your main conflict? Are any assumptions going to take a back seat, but still be important to themes of the work? It's a good idea to have a list, or at least a clear sense in your head as you start, what these parameters are going to be. Culture is so huge and complex that focus is really important.

3. Identify "problematic" parameters
   The extreme version of a problematic social or cultural parameter is one that will be difficult for readers to accept. Perhaps they'd say something like, "I just can't believe that people would not want privacy here." Problematic parameters are the ones that don't fall easily into a set of existing real-world expectations. Either something is normal that shouldn't be, or something that we consider normal is abnormal.

4. Develop a multi-pronged strategy for how you as author will disseminate cultural knowledge
    There are several ways to "get social and cultural information across." Use them all. If you use just one, I guarantee it will come off as weird, so try to balance the ways you get things across. Ask yourself:

a. which information will be evident in the setting?
For example, architecture says a lot about the history of a people. The presence of both classical stone buildings and apartment blocks of ultralight concrete implies a long history of technological development as well as respect for the legacy of the past.

b. which information will be integral to character behavior and judgment?
Manners and politeness will show up in dialogue and character judgments. It will show up in where the person goes, and how (where do they access transportation, for example?). It will show up in whether they notice "that person isn't where they should be," or "that person's clothes really mean he's showing off," etc.

c. which information will be taught?
Teaching should not be done by the author to the reader (unless you have an explicitly storytelling/teaching narrator). If something needs to be taught, it should show up in a natural teaching context within the society: teacher to student, adult to child, or insider to outsider, etc. There may be fixed methods (curriculum) by which such teaching is accomplished. I have a caste whose members, when in doubt, recite lessons to themselves. I don't do this with everyone, but it fits with the educational style of this particular caste group.

 In each of these cases, the question of normal and abnormal is absolutely critical - normal and abnormal as defined by the point-of-view character(s). Any cultural detail that you explicitly describe will come across as "marked," or not entirely normal. If it's stuff that your people actually consider to be unusual, then fine. If it's stuff they consider normal, then you have a problem.

5. Make sure that the normal is defined by lack of attention, rather than attention.
To define something by lack of attention, you have to deliberately redirect attention onto something else. That something else can be a conflict between characters that causes them to say things to one another that they already know. It can be a "secondary detail," or some related characteristic within the normal parameter that has particular meaning - such as a hairstyle on a dark-haired head, if everyone has dark hair. It can be avoidance behaviors - say, when people of a lower class deliberately avoid particular types of interaction with members of a higher class in order to avoid unpleasantness.

Note: I constantly - and I mean constantly - see abuse and discrimination of oppressed groups indicated by direct insults or by direct conflict between the groups. Try to avoid this unless the presence of this conflict is the inciting event of your story for some reason. Oppressed people go very, very far out of their way to avoid conflict of this nature. You will be doing yourself a huge favor if you show the possibility of this conflict in avoidance behaviors and the characters' internal fears, and only show direct conflict in emergency situations. Because this stuff only happens when the people concerned are unable to avoid it.

6. Remember to defeat real-world expectations deliberately.
 We have all kinds of "sets" that naturally go together in our expectations. "If there's a TV, there must be a phone" is one example. "If people are having intimate relations outside of an existing monogamous relationship, that must be bad," is another. The one I run into is, "If there are nobles living in a caste system, it has to be medieval." As author, you have to defuse these contexts deliberately. Show the different path technology took in your world. Or have characters casually discussing what would be taboo behavior for us. Or make sure to put electric lights on the first page just to say to the reader, "This is not medieval! SEE?" Just leaving it in the background is not enough, because our expectations are very, very strong. Maybe you've seen that internet meme with the message where only the first and last letters of each word are in the correct places, and everything in the middle is mixed up? And you can still read it? That is because the strength of your previous knowledge and expectations will be enough to build the word just on the basis of first and last letter (and maybe a hint of middle content). Believe me, only one or two details will cause an entire set of technologies, or morals, etc. to come into play. If  you don't want them in play, you have to slap them down on purpose, as early as possible.

I could go into greater detail, but I hope this gives you a basic framework to work from. Good luck with creating your fictional societies!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hooray! A new novelette sells to Analog!

I just learned this morning that the novelette I finished recently, entitled "The Liars," has sold to Analog magazine. This is my fourth sale to them, and I am absolutely thrilled. I'll let you all know more about it when I do!

Tomorrow's Worldbuilding Hangout: Cities

Please join me tomorrow, Wednesday, January 25th at 11am PST on Google+ to discuss Cities in worldbuilding. I look forward to our chat!

TTYU Retro: Superpowers of the Grammatical Subject

You know what I mean by the grammatical subject. "The subject of the sentence." Oh, yeah, no problem. It's the agent, the do-er, the entity or person or thing that engages in whatever the verb says. It's always a noun phrase. Examples:

I slept.
He hit me.
Reyes tried to escape.
The white-furred cat jumped over the fence.

If you only consider it from the perspective of its grammatical definition, though, you might miss its most important function. It focuses reader attention and gives special importance to whatever magical noun phrase gets that all-important, first-in-the-sentence spot*. When we choose to make something the subject of a sentence, we're exercising a great power. *(I'll consider exceptions below)

I'm deliberately going to quote Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility."

The easiest way to see the power of the subject demonstrated is by looking at what happens when we use it in unfortunate ways.

Teleporting readers into the air
Readers will be looking to ground themselves at the beginning of any story. What you chose to use as the subject of your first sentence thus becomes very important. If you begin, "The apartments at 200 Smith Street," then your readers will find themselves floating over said apartments. If, on the other hand, you begin, "I couldn't believe my eyes," then your readers will find themselves looking through the eyes of a person, "I," about whom they'll be looking to learn more. If you give them a name, like "George found the body at midnight," then they'll instantly be transported to George's location (beside him, or in his head, yet to be determined). An enormous amount about your narrator will be evident very quickly. Because I do very close internal point of view, I'm always tempted to start with internalization in my first sentence (implying the presence of a character rather than showing it). However, I always try to get the name of my protagonist in as the subject of a sentence within the first paragraph - and usually in the first sentence. Since I don't intend my readers to float on air, I don't want to transport them there accidentally.

Losing readers in a trance
The subject of the sentence can be a noun phrase, and it can vary in length, but because we're snagging a reader's close attention with it, if we let it get too long we've got trouble. Check out the difference between these two sentences.

The white-furred cat jumped over the fence.
The white-furred cat which my brother found over Christmas break and nursed back to health with the help of three friends jumped over the fence.

I often try to add extra information into the background of a sentence by using long noun phrases, but there's a limit to how much you can do without having your reader hit the word "jumped" above and go, "What?" They're engaged in trying to figure out precisely whom they'll be watching for the next few sentences (as subjects usually establish referents that get carried forward) and will follow the details... and when the verb finally breaks them out of the trance, they may no longer have any idea where they are or what you were saying! It's good to watch out for that.

Telekinetically striking readers over the head
A grammatical subject is a strong statement. By placing someone in grammatical subject position at the start of a paragraph, you're essentially saying, "Reader, you'll be hearing about this person for the next few sentences." This means you don't need to do it more than once. I talked some time ago about the hierarchy of reference. The hierarchy of reference basically says that you use a name for someone the first time you mention them, and then typically a pronoun thereafter unless you have to disambiguate between several possible pronouns, in which case you can use a brief description (more extensive details are here). A possible sequence of subjects might therefore be: Tagret, he, he, the noble boy. Now, imagine what would happen if you said, "Tagret, Tagret, Tagret, Tagret." By the end of it your reader would be begging for mercy. The same effect can also be achieved (far more easily) with the pronoun I: "I, I, I, I, I, I." Ay-ay-ay! Have mercy on your reader and don't always use the identical subject, but vary your sentences.

Transforming readers into fish
Think about the close attention that the subject demands, and then ask yourself where you're putting it. If your reader is working through the first paragraph of a story, and the first two or three sentences are internalization which implies the character rather than showing him/her, then by the time the reader reaches the end of that paragraph he or she will be looking hard to find the character subject from whom these internalizations are coming. Like this:

Where were the diamonds? This place wouldn't be safe for long, for sure and certain. Garmin's feet crept quietly across the floor.

Your reader might not realize it, but he/she has been looking for Garmin. But you haven't provided him for the reader; you've only provided his feet. Through the power of the grammatical subject, your reader's eyeballs have been transformed so all they can do is give the fish-eye view of what's going on. Not only will it give a strange feeling of an exceedingly close view of disembodied feet, but the reader may experience uncertainty about whether Garmin is really the character he/she is looking for. If Garmin's your protagonist, this is not a good thing.

Casting a glamour on readers
This one is a broader extension of the last power. When a fairy casts a glamour, the victim can't see what's real. When you choose not to put your protagonist as the subject of the sentence, you're deliberately making that person less visible. If you put your subject after a long "when," "before," "as," etc. clause, you're hiding your subject behind a screen. If you provide a body part, or a piece of clothing, or other evidence of the character's movements as subject, it will make the reader feel far from the character as if they're observing them externally (often from the fish-eye view!). If you choose to put your protagonist in the grammatical object position, you're making him/her into a victim and someone or something else into the position of agent/actor/do-er. If beta readers tell you your protagonist isn't ever acting or taking initiative, check to make sure he/she isn't spending too much time outside the subject position. Simply putting the protagonist in subject position isn't going to make him/her into a strong, pro-active character necessarily, but it's a step in the right direction. Furthermore, when people talk about not using passive verb forms, they may actually just mean that objects or thoughts or ideas or body parts are spending too much time in subject position in your story, rather than THE ACTOR, the protagonist, the one who should have primary place there. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you want to make someone invisible - such as when your protagonist discovers some terrible crime has been committed by an unknown (invisible!) agent - in those cases you should use the passive for whoever committed it. If your protagonist did it, but is in denial about having done it, one way of expressing this would be to have that person think about the act without placing him/herself in subject position, using passive instead. This is done deliberately in politics all the time, because by speaking in passives, politicians cast a glamour over their listeners and make invisible the actors behind critical events. It's a great tool for writers, too - but when you're dealing with your own protagonist, perhaps you can see why making the main character invisible (or distorting our vision of him/her) isn't such a good idea.

I'm sure there would be more I could say on this topic, but I think this is as much as I can fit into the extended metaphor this morning! I hope you find it interesting and helpful while you consider drafting and revisions.

Monday, January 23, 2012

When do we need to know what a character looks like?

I used to think that it was really, really important to know what characters looked like. So important that I wanted to make sure that I described each one as soon as he or she appeared. I would draw pictures of each of my characters so I could understand what I wanted to describe.

Now that I've been writing for a while, I realize the answer to this question is less clear-cut. It has nuances.

Before I hit nuances, though, I will say this: it is not necessary to describe your main character on the first page. Sometimes you can get through an entire short story with only a very minimal sense of what the character looks like. So back away from the mirror scenes, folks, before you make your readers scream, "cliché!"

Right, then. When is it important to know what a character looks like? Here are some factors to consider:

1. In which genre are you writing?
If you are writing romance, the appearance of the main characters particularly is very, very important. Typically, so is the type of clothing they wear. You will also find the trend toward describing clothing and appearance in gothic and steampunk contexts, and sometimes in alternate history. In other genres, whether or not you describe appearance will depend on other factors. Which leads me to...

2. How much of the character's appearance can be supported using existing reader expectations?
If you are writing in mainstream genres or in genres (like historical) that access existing sets of technology, fashion, etc. then you can take advantage of that existing knowledge in your reader and evoke more than you describe. If you are working in science fiction, fantasy or steampunk where the presence of one thing doesn't necessarily imply the presence of another, you may need to put effort into describing more detail in order to defeat incorrect assumptions.

The next set of questions has to do with the nature of the characters in question.

3. Is this an omnisciently observed character, a point of view character or a secondary character?
This is probably the single most important question to answer. If you're using an omniscient narrator, the narrator is the one deciding what visual details of the main character and secondary characters readers need to see. If you're using limited point of view, then what details of secondary characters get described will depend on the mental states, perceptiveness and judgment of the point of view character. And what details of the point of view character get described will depend on how aware that character is of his/her own appearance.

4. If this person is a secondary character, will he/she appear in the story more than once and need to be recognizable?
A character who will need to be recognized later needs to have some characteristic that stands out and is noticed by the point of view character. This feature does not have to be visual, but it often is, and it must be included in the initial description. For example, you might have a character who will be "a guard with a crooked nose" the first time and "the guard with the crooked nose" thereafter.

5. If this person is a point of view character, what aspects of his/her personality lend themselves to a concern with appearance?

The only time you really want a person looking in a mirror is when that person has a habit of looking in mirrors to check his/her appearance. The reasons for checking the appearance will affect how the appearance is described, and they need not occur on the first page where a character appears, but should appear at the point where the concern with appearance is most relevant. A lady might be concerned about whether she looks right for a party and check her makeup in a mirror before walking in, or she might just touch her cheek with one finger unconsciously. I have a character who has to check his appearance constantly so that his boss won't freak out. His self-descriptions are quite detailed but have nothing to do with vanity or the public's opinion.

6. If this person is a point of view character, are there any aspects of his/her appearance which will affect his/her perceptions, judgments, or actions?
When you are using a limited - particularly a deep internal - point of view, and particularly if you're working with a character who doesn't really care about his/her appearance, then this is the question you should be asking. I have a character with very short legs who is taller than the people he's speaking to when he is sitting down, but shorter when he stands up - so I need to be clear about whether he's looking up or down at people at different points. My character Rulii from "Cold Words" is a member of the downy-furred race of the Aurrel, which is enormously important in the story, but not because it's a matter of how he looks. It affects his behavior, his fear of cold, his fear of shame, and his desire for justice (because his race is downtrodden). Those aspects of appearance which affect the way a character perceives things, judges things, or behaves, must be included - but the best way to include them is by demonstrating the effect they have on the character rather than stepping outside the character to observe them.

7. Are there any questions of appearance that readers are likely to get wrong?
This is a funny one. A character in one of my unpublished novels is very pale and has blond hair, but when my writing group first read it, many of them picked him as having dark hair because a) he is a mysterious character and b) I didn't make explicit mention of his hair color early enough. This is one that you might be able to take care of just by including the basics of eye and hair color that Western readers will be looking for, or it may be something that comes up in critique.

Finally, this seems like the perfect place to address Garrett Anderson's recent question:

"What sorts of strategies would you recommend in describing a character to an audience when the adjectives would not exist in your fictitious world? For example, if I have a character whom I want to look Asian, but there is no such place in my fictitious universe, what are some strategies to convey the appearance? Maybe that's not the best example, but basically, if you want a certain look, and you don't want to use real-world references."

I recommend a few steps. First, ask yourself if this particular appearance is absolutely necessary to your portrayal of the character. If it isn't, don't worry about it - just give a few basic characteristics like maybe dark hair and leave the rest up to your reader. If it is, keep reading.

First, create a sense in your mind of what the character looks like physically. Ask yourself what aspects of that appearance would be noticeable to a resident of your world. Those are the ones you will want to include in your description.

Second, and very importantly, think about why it is that residents of your world would notice these physical characteristics of your character. What is it about that person that stands out relative to all the people around? Does he or she resemble a person of a particular nationality local to the world in question? Does the character's appearance give observers a "vibe" like the one that an Asian appearance would give you? Where does that vibe come from? What associations are people going to make with that appearance when they see it? Those associations have to be grounded in the world you have created.

I actually have a character whom I imagine as vaguely Asian-looking. I don't describe him at all until the third page of his opening chapter. You'll notice (and laugh at me no doubt) because this is a mirror moment (not a whole scene, thank goodness). This description comes at the point when he's just finished showering and dressing before a job interview, and gotten into his black silk suit:

"He plucked up his favorite tailed comb and trained his dark hair into its ponytail, which thanks to Kiit's precise trimming, fell just outside his collar. At the mirror he shared with his bunkmate, he painted the small black circle between his eyebrows, cleaned his makeup brush and shut it into the box of implements atop his dresser."

Most of his "vibe" comes from his attitudes and his actions rather than his appearance. If readers don't see him the way I do, that's fine with me.

I hope this helps you all deal with the question of appearances!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Setting up alternate social parameters: a worldbuilding hangout report

I met last week with Barbara Webb, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Janet Harriet to talk about setting up alternate social parameters. Thanks to all of you for a great discussion!

I decided to jump in by mentioning the perils of "as you know, Bob" dialogue. The biggest peril in setting up alternate social norms is being too instructive as an author. If you must have instruction, then try to fit it into natural instructional contexts in the plot. There are a lot of interesting ways to create a realistic instructional context. One of the classic methods is creating a "stranger in a strange land" scenario. You put a character who doesn't know the social rules into a situation where he or she must be instructed in how to behave, and voilà! Another possibility is to use a very direct storytelling narrator, such as the narrator of Jacqueline Carey's novel Kushiel's Dart, who can explain to you, her alien listener, anything she likes without sounding out of place. Still another possibility is to use young people for your instructional purposes, but beware on this one: young people already know a lot about the rules of the society they live in. They're just more open to being instructed on the fine points. Nobody's going to sit a kid from a caste society down and say, "Now, I'm going to tell you what the castes are, and how they are ranked." They've known that since they were old enough to think.

When you can't instruct, the other approach is to demonstrate, i.e. to put characters inside a situation. There are still things to beware of here. If there's a large list of stuff (such as my seven caste levels in Varin) that people really need to know, don't give it to them. Lists will kill you every time. What you want for a demonstration context is some situation where the presence of some smaller number of the phenomena in question changes how people behave in some way. You can show your main point of view character acting in accordance with the rules (which by the way they will probably not make active note of), judging the situation and thinking through the implications of other characters' actions. You can let the implications of that scene stand for the whole, and then take advantage of another scene later for a view of a different part of the whole picture.

Barbara asked, "What do you do when you're dealing with something that isn't important?" What do you do, for example, if you are working in a society where casual sexual relationships are not unusual, but are the norm?

This was a challenging question. The first thing to keep in mind is that if something is normal, then there is no reason for people to notice it or draw attention to its presence in their lives. Thus, you should avoid drawing attention to it. But if it draws reader attention because it's a taboo activity anyway, are you simply up a creek without a paddle? Not necessarily.

A phenomenon like this is best approached from two directions. First is positive direction, where you set up a constellation of related assumptions (Janet's great suggestion was to look at related assumptions like whether marriage relationships are considered exclusive), and make sure that the "normal" activity occurs a lot, in character actions and mentions.  Second is the negative direction, where you deliberately break the assumption that already exists. Set up a scene in which it can be deliberately defused. If you have your princess in bed with her boyfriend on the eve of her wedding to another man, and this is okay, then consider having their pillow talk involve the implication that everyone knows - most importantly that the boyfriend and the fiancé both know - and don't really mind.

Of course, I say implication. Don't have them together and have the boyfriend say, "you know, I don't mind that you're getting married tomorrow. I hope he doesn't mind that we're together." That still puts attention on the phenomenon itself that makes it appear marked, i.e. unusual.

What you want instead is to look for secondary implications. If a behavior or condition is normal, then it's deviation from that, or particular unusual details of it, that become important. If everyone around you has dark hair and brown eyes, then there's no point in observing that "this person has dark hair and brown eyes." A person for whom that condition is normal would notice other details, such as "this person's brown eyes were rounder than most," or "that person's dark hair was styled in the XX fashion." You can include the specification "brown" or "dark" for the reader's sake, but keep the attention on the other details the person would notice. Brian pointed out that in China attention is given to facial hair, face shape, cheekbones and mouth shapes. If the princess and her boyfriend from the situation above are talking in a relaxed manner about what their various partners' favorite styles of intimacy are, that's a very different conversation.

Thanks again to Barbara, Brian, Glenda, and Janet for speaking with me! I missed speaking with you all today (and the rest of the internet, oh boy!). I will keep you posted on the topic of next week's discussion (January 25th) as we get closer to it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA Blackout Day

After much deliberation I have decided to go without the internet all day today, Wednesday, January 18th. Apologies to my worldbuilding hangout friends. I will be back on Thursday with a hangout report from our discussion of setting up social parameters that took place last week.

I do not approve of censorship and I encourage you to learn more about the SOPA and PIPA bills currently going through the US Congress. In our attempts to stop piracy, we must not stifle ourselves.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

TTYU Retro: Seeking Uniqueness? Make a Twist

I've been thinking lately about what makes a story unique. I'm working with young people right now, and I hear a lot of ideas from them, many of which bring in familiar elements from stories that I've read, or archetypal plot elements from the classic fairytales, etc.

Just because we've heard an idea before doesn't mean it can't be done in a novel way. But what can we do to make sure that the story we have is unique, and not like others of its type?


A lot of the stories we're familiar with come with a set of underlying assumptions about their execution. Settings in which they're expected to take place. Characteristics that their characters are supposed to have. Ways their cultures are supposed to work. Technologies that are supposed to go together.

But why?

There's no real reason why these things have to be maintained as they are. Pick one and change it - not a little, but in a way that will make your story utterly different, so you'll really have to sit back and THINK: wow, how far do the consequences of that change really go? Here are some ways to try.
  • Set the fantasy story in a technological setting. Steampunk did this, and look what happened!
  • Take an expected technology away. I rarely see this done, but I'm doing it myself: Varin has no visual tech, for cultural reasons (no movies, computer monitors, etc. and a sense that even photography is inappropriate). And what if you did something really radical? Took away fire? Or the wheel? What would happen then?
  • Change gender roles. Reverse them, okay sure, but what if you altered them? Ursula K. LeGuin did that by taking away gender in her own way, and bang! You could even have gender roles look one way in one part of your society, and totally different in another part, so long as there are solid cultural reasons behind it.
  • Change diet. And don't stop with what's on the table, but contemplate the consequences for agriculture, for lifestyle organization, for food culture and values.
  • Change character. I usually do this by changing culture, because that then changes the fundamental way that a character thinks - changing the metaphors they use to describe the world, and changing the rationale behind the decisions they make. You want readers not to be able to predict what your character will do? Alter their cultural morality and see what happens!
What I'm advocating here is not easy to do. A change as fundamental as the ones I'm describing has lots of far-reaching consequences for your world, for your characters and for your story.

But that's the whole point.

If you can make a twist, and explore its consequences on a larger scale while maintaining the internal consistency of your world and its cultures, believe me, you'll have something different.

It's well worth thinking about.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Don't underestimate the power of nonfiction

I'm guessing that most of you writers out there - at least the ones reading this blog - are writing fiction. Putting a lot of energy into writing our fiction, and developing our craft, is absolutely vital if we are to get anywhere with this fiction-writing thing. On the other hand, the first publication I ever had in the field of science fiction and fantasy was nonfiction.

This was 2006, and it was the first time my name ever got "out there" to the sf/f community, as opposed to being seen only by the editors who at that time were considering, and uniformly rejecting, my work. The article was called "Point of View: Reading beyond the I's" and appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction.

When I wrote this piece, I was lucky to be able to write it based on my knowledge of discourse analysis, a topic I studied in graduate school, as well as my lifetime's experience with reading and the time I had spent writing and honing my craft to that point. If you do have a special area of expertise, this is a great way to take advantage of it as you move into fiction writing. I use my linguistics, anthropology, and language acquisition knowledge both in writing nonfiction and in writing fiction. If you have experience with riding horses, with psychoanalysis, or physical therapy, or medicine, or physics - any and all of these can become rich resources for fiction writers. And if you can also write nonfiction to share your expertise with research-thirsty writers out there, so much the better, both for you and for all of us who want to learn.

The Internet Review of Science Fiction, unfortunately, is no more. However, there are other places that invite nonfiction, including Strange Horizons and SFSignal. And then there is always blogging. The only trick with blogging, of course, is that you should ideally have a lot to say about the topic you choose to focus on (or it will be hard to come up with enough entries on the blog to keep an audience coming back).

Yes, it takes time to write nonfiction. This is time that you could potentially be writing fiction. On the other hand, writing nonfiction can also help you hone your ease with words, and your professional persona on the web. It can even help you organize your thoughts and enhance your fiction along the way.

It's something to think about.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Link: Gendered Cover Poses

I was fascinated by the following two posts, dealing with what it would be like to attempt the poses that are given to male and female characters on book covers. Summary: men's poses are natural, and women's poses are bizarre and will make your body hurt. But it's so much more interesting when you see these two people actually attempting the poses and talking about their experience. So go check these out: Jim C. Hines and genrereviews...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A sf/f writer experiments in literary thinking

I never thought of myself as a literary writer. Sure, I've done a bit of reading (ok, quite a bit) of literature that's considered classic, but that was never my thing. I always knew I was a writer of science fiction and fantasy. However, the further I go into this the more I can see value in some of the features of literary writing that I learned about in school (in fact, I learned more in university level discourse analysis than I did in high school English).

My goal has never been to get high-falutin'. I've seen, and laughed at, plenty of those jokes and stories about how the literary reader sees someone next to a blue curtain and draws all kinds of extra conclusions about mood etc. when all the writer meant to do was make the curtain blue. But I'm lucky enough to work with someone who views literary interpretation in quite a new way (new enough that she's doing research on her teaching techniques). And I'm realizing that while we may not intend to give things extra meaning, a lot of times those meanings sneak in anyway.

Let me get specific. I'd been working for years on the idea of aligning metaphors with features of the story. After all, to me a metaphor that doesn't link up with anything else is merely showing that the writer wants to be cool and use a metaphor (which is limited in its usefulness). In my worlds, metaphors have to be consistent with the worldview of a character. The girl who compares fields of grass to bedsheets because she's never seen the former, and seen plenty of the latter. The alien who compares working toward major life goals with chasing down quarry. Our metaphors come out of what is familiar to us, and having a metaphor from our world happen in a world that is unlike our own can be at best slightly clunky, at worst, something that throws a reader out of the story completely.

Then I wrote a story (out on submission now) where a metaphor got a little out of hand - in a cool way. I had a Japanese character who was suffering enormous grief and rage, interacting with a nature spirit who had been recently hit by a bolt of lightning. It seemed natural to set the story during typhoon season. But as I wrote it, the typhoon metaphor grew. There were typhoons happening during the story - a character waiting for rain - a character trying to contain a typhoon inside herself - someone trying to create a raincoat... So, naturally, I went to my literary friend and said, "Yikes, can you look at this?" And she grinned at me as though I'd just discovered something she knew about all along. I suppose you could think about it like a piece of art that has the same color in multiple places across the composition. It's almost like hiding a beautiful pattern in the story for the reader to find if they'd like - not letting it be the whole point, or letting it take away from the main conflict, but picking something that will play into the main conflict and allow the different parts of the story to link together. Even if a reader isn't consciously aware of it, their subconscious probably will be on some level, allowing it to contribute to the "feel" of the story.

In fact, I'd been struggling with a literary-symbol task for a while before the typhoon story started lining up. Why? Well, because in my Varin world, there is an unusual phenomenon that the local people don't really understand, characterized by two things:

1. Small, bead-sized (1/4 in diameter?) will-o'-the-wisp type energy creatures, called wysps, that float around the underground cities and the surface, drifting through walls and generally being a sort of background phenomenon;
2. Incredibly tall "trees" called shinca whose trunks grow up from the rock underneath the city and continue on without branching all the way to the surface, where they branch and grow "fruit." The shinca give off heat and a bright silvery glow. They are also invulnerable, so buildings must be built around them.

Now, there is plenty of room for me in later stories to make the shinca and wysps be a topic of mystery and questioning, and to allow characters to try to figure out their nature. But not in this one, which means that I have to write an entire novel in which both shinca and wysps are simply a part of the background and normal day to day life in Varin. But I knew that if I just left it at that, I'd end up with some people going, "what's the point of having these things?" So I'd been looking around for ways to help them fit in with what's happening in the story in some way. I decided as an experiment to have wysps show up when people were taking risks, and to have shinca appear when people were getting insights.

As plans go, it sounded clunky, but I was game to give it a try, because the last thing I wanted was for people to say "If you take these out, the story won't suffer." I can't take them out. So they can't seem extraneous.

As I've been writing, however, I've sometimes put them in in places where I didn't expect to, and sometimes omitted them in places where they might have appeared. And then yesterday I realized my subconscious had been up to something. I was putting wysps in places where people were taking, not just any sort of risks, but risks related to social boundaries that were associated with highly charged emotional states. At the same time, the shinca were appearing not with all insights, but in scenes where protagonist characters got specific kinds of insights - and appearing to interfere with the antagonist's insights. Something tells me the human brain loves patterns so much it schemes them constantly without conscious help. I can feel a pattern coming together that fits with a lot of the fantastical qualities I had given to shinca and wysps already, and so far it's not feeling clunky. I'm sure that revision will help me make it work more effectively, but I'm excited to realize that not only will I have a good reason to keep shinca in wysps in the current book, but that their thematic meanings will actually be able to carry forward into the later stories where they become more of a central issue.

I'm not sure what kind of suggestions I can make for other people's writing. What I can say is that no metaphor or simile should be considered to stand alone. If you find you're writing a descriptive phrase just because you've always wanted to use that phrase somewhere, make sure to check it - see if it fits into the mentality of this character, into the values of the society and the world. If you're describing a particular phenomenon a great deal, you might want to ask yourself if it has any ulterior significance to the culture, the characters, the story problem, the themes you're trying to evoke.

One more thing. I tend to focus a lot on doors. It's not something I ever consciously planned, but there are lots of occasions when people can go through a door in one way or another, or hang in a door, or not want to stand in the door, etc. Now, believe me when I say that for the most part in my work, a door is a door (aside perhaps from the fact that I've made sure the architecture fits the culture of the groups I'm working with). I'm not planning to drop everything about pushing my story forward and run off to look at every instance of doors in my story. However, in Varin at least, a lot of the story issues have to do with what kinds of behaviors are closed off, what kinds of people are supposed to have barriers between them, etc. - and so maybe a focus on doors makes sense. Maybe if and when I get Varin published, someone will pick up the book and go, "you know, she was up to something with those doors." It's possible I am, without even thinking.

It's something to think about.

Link: Twelve things you were not taught about Creative Thinking

I really enjoyed this article. For anyone who is interested in questions of psychology as they relate to writing and creative thinking, it's terrific. I can actually recognize some of what it is talking about in my own life... and maybe you will, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Boy meets girl - how?

You know all about "boy meets girl" - it's one of the most common things we see in stories, even ones that don't have romance as their primary reason for being. But if you're working in a world with alternate social rules, one thing you should probably consider is how boys and girls meet each other. After all, if they aren't meeting each other at all, then that makes it hard for them to fall in love. And if they are meeting each other in very restricted circumstances, that may have a deep influence on what the society considers relevant to choosing a match.

Imagine the situation where boys and girls aren't allowed to meet. The sexes are totally separated as much as possible, so love between a potential husband and wife is probably not considered that important. This is the kind of place where you'd expect to see arranged matches based on criteria that can be assessed within the isolated context.

Imagine the situation where boys and girls play together all the time, but boys and girls tend to be separated for things like team activities, and gender roles are seen to be relatively distinct. Relationships form, and some boys understand girls better because they have sisters or cousins who force the gender-divided expectations to be broken down, and vice versa for girls understanding boys. But there are also going to be large groups of boys who haven't had much contact with girls and know their ways mostly by hearsay and culturally based report. This is sort of the situation my children are currently working in.

Every parameter you change is going to have a huge influence on how relationships form.

In this vein, I was thinking about Disney princesses. We watched Mulan a couple of days ago. I remarked to my daughter how this was my favorite of the Disney princess movies, and she said, "but she's not a princess." It was a good observation. Mulan is obviously a member of a noble family, but really, she's not a princess. And I think the reason why I always enjoyed her relationship with the Captain was that in spite of the deception involved in her pretending to be male, she actually got to know him. They went through rough things together. Compare that with the typical love-at-first-sight scenario that we see basically everywhere else in the Disney princess canon.

If you think about it, the idea of love at first sight in itself isn't a horrible thing - instant attractions happen. But when you look structurally at the positions the princesses are put in, they aren't ever in positions where meeting a boy will happen naturally and allow them to get to know each other. Historical princesses had some of this difficulty as well (though I imagine they were more realistic in their personalities), because the ways in which they were allowed to interact with potential matches were very circumscribed. If you're only ever going to be meeting any member of the opposite sex for an hour at a time, on a dance floor, then NOT believing in love at first sight is going to be a problem, because it will simply mean you have to resign yourself to not loving the person you're going to marry. Which of course does happen, but we like to think of these matches in an idealized way (because thinking of them any other way might be depressing! Just witness the Disney princess annotated portrait that has been floating around the internet lately).

Now, an example from my Varin world. The social parameters in Varin are twisted by the fact that the noble caste is in decline and in desperate need of healthy children (which it finds difficult to procure). As a result of this, women in the noble caste (but not the ones below) are very oppressed, and rushed into babymaking as soon as possible (age 17, which in the global scheme of things is not horrible, but still very early from my own point of view). Because their health and safety is considered a priority, the Grobal women are given bodyguard-nurses at birth, and these companions safeguard them until they are grown. This means that it is extremely difficult for boys to interact with girls. Boys are expected to approach the girl's servant before they approach the girl herself, to the extent that they must speak with the servant first until they get permission to speak to the girl. This means that boys without sisters have very little idea how to interact with girls at all. It also means that arranged marriages are the norm. Arranged marriages are also the norm because of the need for alliances between the Great Families, and they are typically arranged by men in power, so you end up with lots of couples where the man is 20 years older than the woman - because the man is powerful enough to make the arrangement successfully, and the woman is being rushed into childbearing. This has consequences all through the society because love is not generally the currency on which these things are based, and because young people are not able to satisfy their sexual appetites without braving bodyguards and serious trouble (which means they look for various other ways to satisfy them that I won't go into here).

What parameters for interaction have you set up in your world? How do boys and girls meet? What are the expectations for love and marriage? How does that change expectations and behavior?

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thank You! And, our next worldbuilding hangout announcement

I turned on my computer this morning to discover that I now have reached 250 followers on this blog. Let me just say to all of you: Thank You! I can't tell you how much I appreciate you coming and reading, sharing my thoughts, commenting, and passing on links that you like. I just wrote yesterday about how to keep the internet under control, but if you were paying attention, I also mentioned just what it is about blogging that I find wonderful - it gives me a community with whom I can spend time every day, talking about things that I find fascinating, without having to travel to all of the disparate locations in which all of you find yourselves (Brazil to Norway, Canada, and just about every state in the US). I'm very lucky to have you and I'm very grateful.

This week I am resuming my weekly Worldbuilding hangouts. Tomorrow's hangout will take place on Google+ at 11am PST, and we'll be discussing Establishing Social Norms in worldbuilding. I'd love to see you there!

Note: in order to minimize the unwanted distraction of people popping in to show us slogan signs (yes, this has happened), I am obliged to limit the hangout invitation to members of my (quite large) writing community circle. If you would like to attend and are not sure whether you are a member of my writing community circle, please comment below with your Google+ username and I will make sure to add you to the circle. My goal here is not to exclude anyone who is genuinely interested in discussing worldbuilding with us! I hope to see you tomorrow.

TTYU Retro: Your dialogue can do more

I decided to revisit this post because it's related to the question of nuance in dialogue that I picked up in my post, "What your character doesn't know can hurt him/her (in dialogue and internalization)."  It's nice to see that I've progressed as far as I have on this novel in the last year! And certainly, the importance of conversations in my work is just as great now as it was then. I hope you find it interesting.

I've just spent a week working on one conversation.

This is not because I had no time (not that I had a lot, but I did write consistently). It's because for me, conversations are very important. Particularly if the conversation features a character who hasn't had much "screen time" previously, and particularly if that character is one who influences the course of the main story as it goes forward, it's worth giving people a good look - and listen - to her. So each time I came back to work, I started by reading through the conversation so far. Each time, I found places where the dialogue I'd written could accomplish more.

I know many of you write in layers. By this I mean writing one type of thing to get started and then going back to flesh out other elements later. Often, that first thing is dialogue - but just because it's the thing you feel comfortable enough with to write your dialogue first, you shouldn't necessarily leave it. It may be able to do more.

When people speak, we don't ever really say one thing at a time. Think about the conversations you participate in. Everything you say gives extra hints about social context, your intentions, etc., but because in reality you're engulfed in that context, and you hold those intentions, what you notice about what you say is the language that imparts new information. That is to say, the social and other contextual information is evident when we speak in person, so we typically don't notice it unless we are actively trying to determine where another person is "coming from."

In writing, this process can be reversed. Certainly in most cases, dialogue isn't enough to carry a narrative all on its own (plays are different, of course) - I usually add internalizations, actions, body language, and other kinds of cues to any kind of dialogue situation, even if it's just a conversation. However, if you think about it, when you write the subconscious cues that would ordinarily reflect the social context can actually imply the social context. They can imply the character's motives. This is particularly useful if you have a non-point-of-view character on your hands.

Since this may sound vague, and since a lot of it is subconscious anyway, I'll give some before-and-after examples of how I went about adding an extra layer to dialogue.

Tamelera, Version 1
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but since she joined the Cabinet, I'm not sure I can trust her."

This isn't bad. Captures Tamelera's emotional reaction to Selemei, the reason for it, and the proper chronology. Also shows a glimpse of the political structure (Cabinet).

Tamelera, Version2
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but when she took a Cabinet seat she joined the men's side. I'm not sure I can trust her now."

Better. Why? It keeps the earlier details, but also makes clear that Tamelera is aware the Cabinet is dominated by men (which has been pointed out earlier; Selemei is the only woman on the Cabinet). Furthermore, it shows that she thinks of the world as divided into men's and women's sides, which are opposed to one another. This is a major characteristic of hers that I can build on later.

Here's another example.

Recited message, Version 1
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] I expect to see you there."

Recited message, Version 2
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] See you there!"

Here the difference is very small, but important. You may notice that neither one says "please let me know if you're able to come." The message sender wants the recipient to show up at this tea, and in fact has information that could potentially be used to blackmail the recipient into coming. I tried to reflect the attitude of "I could blackmail you" when I first wrote the invitation, but it seemed too dark. It also seemed a bit heavy-handed for the message sender, who is a bit more subtle and refined than that. Thus I decided to change it to "see you there!" which conveys a certain charming excitement, but also relies on the underlying assumption that the recipient will be attending the event.

The next example I think shows how a slight change can give a clearer idea of a character's assumptions and social expectations. It comes from a section where Tamelera's son has told her he's met a girl, but he hasn't told her under what kind of circumstances they met. Here is her comment:

Comment, Version 1
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to meet you."

This is certainly true, as her son is quite handsome and a pretty nice kid, too.

Comment, Version 2
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to be approached by someone like you."

I decided to use "be approached" to show that Tamelera assumes her son decided to approach the girl - when in fact she was the one who approached him. I decided to use "someone like you" because Tamelera doesn't want to engage emotionally with the idea of her son meeting a girl. Thus she speaks of him as a member of a group of people (people like him). Given that people in this society are primarily defined on the basis of their social standing, it means that girls like to meet boys who are in a good social position, and implies that Tamelera is trying not to imagine the actual people involved.

Here's another example:

Household Keeper, Version 1
"Yes, sir. She will join you as soon as I have your breakfast ready."

Household Keeper, Version 2
"Oh, yes, sir. Join you she will indeed, as soon as I've your breakfast ready."

In this case, the Household Keeper's voice was turning out to be too similar to that of another servant, also in the room at the time. Since he's a recurring character who will be seen more closely in other chapters, I decided to give him a different speech rhythm. This differentiates his speech from that of the other servant, and it also helps me give a sense of the scope of my world, because he sounds like he has a dialect (and later when it's relevant I'll mention that he's from a provincial city).

And one final example:

Surface, Version 1
"Let me tell you about the surface."

Surface, Version 2
"Do you remember what I told you about the surface?"

This sentence is one character bringing up a topic that she's about to discuss with someone else. As you can see, the dialogue will turn out differently depending on whether the characters have met before, and whether they have spoken previously about a particular topic. I realized that the way I phrased this topic opener needed to reflect these characters' shared history - and that it could thereby help me handle backstory. Anyone who sees version two will immediately know that these two people have discussed the surface before, which gives me the opportunity to say a few words about what the content of that communication was. The advantage for me in my revision was that if I hadn't placed their previous conversation as backstory, then their current conversation would have had a lot of ground to cover before I could get to what they really needed to discuss. So not only did the dialogue sound more natural, but this segment of the conversation become significantly shorter and less clunky.

To summarize, dialogue can help you reveal:
  • character attitudes (Tamelera example)
  • character intent (Recited message example)
  • character assumptions and social expectations (Comment example)
  • character differentiation, background and world characteristics (Keeper example)
  • character backstory and personal history (Surface example)
These aren't the only things that dialogue can help you do, but they're the examples that I was working with this week. Your choice of words in dialogue can leave other kinds of clues, like indicating what kind of information is known and which is new, or whether your character feels comfortable or uncomfortable with the situation. It can also help you strengthen the theme of your story. When handled well, it can often help you take some of the information burden off the main portions of the narrative.

It's something to think about.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why the internet is a trap - and how this writer deals with it

If you're a writer, I imagine you are familiar with the problem of the internet trap. You turn on the computer to start writing, and an hour later you're still on the internet. You think of the pages you have still to write and you want to scream, Why is this happening? How can I stop it?

So I thought I'd begin this week by talking about why the internet is such a trap, at least for me. And also, thinking about how to manage the whole thing. I hope that my thoughts may help those of you out there who experience something of the same thing.

Internet Trap #1. Small flashes of wonderful in a torrent of irrelevant

I've heard partaking of the internet compared to drinking from a fire hose. I don't quite agree with this, because it suggests that if you could manage to take a sip, it would be good water that you were getting. To me it's more like a baseball game: you'd better have good friends with you and be doing something in the stands, because most of what's going on is stuff you don't care about anyway (in this I reveal my bias against baseball - sorry baseball fans!). Each critical play is buried in a ton of waiting around. On the internet, sometimes I'll have a day where I find tons of links I want to pass on to my blog readers. Then I'll go for weeks without encountering anything to care about at all.

Internet Trap #2. News

Yes, this is where I get the vast majority of my news about the world. And though I spend a lot of time in worlds of my own, I do care about what's going on. So I find myself clicking through to read about current events when I should probably be writing, or at least not reading my sixth article in a row about a particular issue. Even one I really care deeply about.

Internet Trap #3. Small tasks

This is a big one for me. Going through emails, making sure to check up on social networks, etc. It feels quick - each email takes very little time to process, either to file or look at or throw away. Each part of the stream goes by quickly. But the tasks pile up, and you can easily lose a half-hour or more in increments of two seconds.

Internet Trap #4. Reminders and notifications

By this I don't mean going to one site or another and checking news streams etc. This is about when your computer beeps to tell you someone is inviting you to chat, when you hear the tone or see the flicker that indicates a new email has come in, etc., etc. It's like when the phone rings. Your first instinct is to stop whatever you're doing and check it. When I'm really concentrating, I don't notice this stuff half the time. But when I'm not super-absorbed, I can get pulled right back out of whatever it is.

Internet Trap #5. The desire for distraction/the risk of missing something/the desire to have "something happen."

Who among us does not procrastinate? Even when I'm not being beeped at I feel the temptation to go on the internet. I might see a cat photo, or a picture of a cool cake, or the face of a friend. Related to this is the sense that something important might be happening (either in the world or with a friend) and I might be missing it. The worst thing I find myself doing is rifling through the internet hoping that I'll run across something that will change my life for the better (like discover that I've sold a story or find out that someone has said something nice about me).

Internet Trap #6. Sense of community, the importance of internet presence

These are actually good things about putting in time on the internet! But they contribute to the draw of it. The internet helps us feel like we're not just alone in a room writing, and for many of us (like me) this is a very good thing. Besides which, we would like to increase our visibility by maintaining an internet presence, and have been told this will help us to succeed. Surely being active in blogging and social networks will make this happen. But how much will it really contribute to the bottom line? And how much will it take away from the critical time we need to spend actually writing? Those are hard questions to answer.

Internet Trap #7. New networking opportunities

How many times have you been invited to a new networking site? There are so many out there, and being a part of one has both good aspects and bad. I have found that if I start participating in a new networking site, it reaps benefits because I get better chances of quality interaction with the frontline participants. On the other hand, it takes on far more importance than it deserves, and thereafter one of two things will happen. Either it will not retain my interest and I'll have to drop out because I just don't have that much time in the day, or it will be worth participating in and I'll have to spend a bunch of time balancing it against my other networking commitments.

Whew! So at this point I'll talk about how I deal with managing these problems. Believe me when I say that my solutions are not perfect. If you have good ideas in this arena, feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

Solution A: Give yourself meta-time, and manage actively.

This is a pretty simple thing, but I can't recommend it enough (that's why it's solution A!). You know you're on the internet. You know it's sucking your time. Take a step back and look at what you're doing, and when. That will allow you to evaluate it and make decisions about changing it. This is what I do to deal with the problem of new social networks - I step back after experimenting with them and ask how I want them to fit into my whole internet picture.

Solution B: Schedule yourself.

This is my way of dealing with many of the issues above, including the fire hose/baseball game problem, the news problem, the small tasks problem, the sense of community/internet presence problem, and the networking opportunities problem. I try to fix, and to limit, the times when I'll be using the internet. Blogging time is limited to during the weekend, or before I get my kids up for school. Networking I often do while the kids are home, since it requires less concentration. Small tasks time I limit by fixing the amount of time I'll spend on it - and this includes networking and news stories time. To keep myself from losing track I'm going to try setting myself a timer with an alarm. This is also going to help me remember to give my eyes a rest every so often.

Solution C: Disable the evidence of notifications

Now, I don't mean that you should dig into preferences to disable all notifications. However, your computer has a mute button for a reason. If you must have your email and internet browser open while you're writing, make sure to take the word processing file you're using and expand it to fill the screen so you don't see those little telltale flashes and such. You just don't need those little sensory distractions.

Solution D: Cultivate a detached attitude

This is, I suppose, the trickiest. It took me quite a while to realize that I didn't need to read every notification of everything on every social network, but just to dip in and sample each time I was there. News stories will wait for you. Every service or game that you are involved with is designed to convince you that you must never leave it alone or you'll miss something absolutely critical, but this is not generally the case. If you do happen to be involved in a game (Farmville leaps to mind) that requires attention at particular intervals, consider stopping for a while when you have a project to complete. Be aware that you need to be the one running your use of the internet, rather than letting it run you. Muses are fickle enough, and we're already trying to fit them into the compartments that other parts of our lives offer us - we shouldn't ask them to bow to internet "needs" that are being cultivated in us by online marketers.

Solution E: Realize that you get out of the Internet what you put into it

This is what I say to myself whenever I find myself searching for something meaningful, or searching to make "something happen". When I put effort into my online presence (mostly by blogging), then I can feel the rewards. When I write a story and get it out there, that also has an effect on the internet - and I like that effect better. So there's no point just surfing around looking for something good, I tell myself. Go create something, and that will make something good happen. If it's time to get my blogging done, then I'll do that. But if it's time to write, I'll either hide the internet or turn it off completely and try to create something fantastic. Because that gives me something even better to talk about.

Am I perfect in my execution of this? Well, of course not. I began this post saying that I do have trouble with the internet taking more time than it deserves. However, this post is going to help me put into words what I'd like to be doing going forward, and I hope it will help me take the strategies I already use, and make them more effective.

So what do you do to keep the internet from taking time it doesn't deserve? Feel free to comment because I'm sure everyone would be interested to hear.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Culture Share: Tanzania - A Scandinavian visits the Masai

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures:  Therese Lindberg discusses a short visit with the Masai of Tanzania (at the border of Kenya), which she made while studying language and culture in Africa.

A Scandinavian visits the Masai
Therese Lindberg

Some years ago, while studying religion, I was offered the chance to go to Africa for a couple of months to observe religion and culture first hand. I jumped on the opportunity, and started saving, and reading about cultural and religious practices in Africa.

By way of Amsterdam, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya, and from there I traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

When I stepped out from the airplane the air hit me like a wall. I've never felt warmth and humidity in that way before. Even though I was dressed for the climate, I couldn't wait until I got my luggage, so I cut off the sleeves on my t shirt and rolled up the legs on my shorts even further.

I bought two bottles of water, slipped on my sunglasses and stood there waiting. Even though the workers and people on the airport of Dar es Salaam were used to white people, they still stared quite a bit. I suppose I stood out, a Scandinavian wearing brand clothes and sparkly sunglasses.

I stayed the first night at a missionary outpost, and they were very friendly. The staff, all locals, insisted on washing my clothes even though I'd just arrived. And when I tried to politely decline, they just as politely, explained it would be taken as an offense if I did. So I handed over my luggage and the next day everything had been washed, pressed and folded neatly.

Through my travels and time there, a lot of things happened. Too much in fact, for one single article. Which is why I will focus on some key events.

I'd decided to learn as much of the language as possible. I have knack for picking them up, and with an extended dictionary I did my best. After roughly three weeks I no longer needed my interpreter and could manage by way of Swahili and substituting certain words in French and English.

In fact I was headed towards the border between Tanzania and Kenya to spend some time with the Masai, and got the chance to sleep outside under the stars in a nature preserve. I was told it was fenced in, but the area was so big you would have to drive for weeks if you wanted to get from one end to another. We made camp in what seemed the middle of no where, and we were met by large Masai men who were sent to guard us. I asked from what, imagining the answer would be lions. Surprisingly the answer was elephants and baboons, mostly the latter.

When the sun set, it was something taken out from a movie. I've never seen such strong brilliant colors before, radiating across the sky in purple, blue, yellow, pink, red and even green. Once the sun was gone, darkness came quickly. I lay still when it was completely dark, listening to the wild life around me. There were lions, although they wouldn't approach. There were baboons and other animals one would expect to hear. I opened my eyes when a baboon screamed, and what I saw I'll never forget. It was the stars. Being Norwegian, I'm used to seeing them. The winters get cold and dark and so we always see them sparkling, but this was different. It was as if someone had copy-pasted a particularly star crowded part of the sky, multiplying it a thousand times. They lit up everything, and it was no longer pitch black. There were constellations I'd never seen before. I remember seeing the outlines of giraffes in the background, and the odd looking trees far away.

The next morning I woke up after barely having slept, but I was still very excited. I'd met a few Masai throughout the weeks, but mostly they were selling jewelry. We left the preserve and drove through a jungle for some hours, but most of the ride was through red desert. The bus-ride took nearly twelve hours and when I got to their village I was covered in red dust. The Masai women greeted me by smiling and nodding their heads. The Masai men jumped. And they jumped really high up in the air. They didn't bend their knees, they simply bounced up and down. I didn't have a measuring-tape but saying they neared almost a meter jumping up and down is not exaggerating. When the women deemed me “okay” the children started swarming. They all wanted to be picked up and they touched my hair and skin and I had tiny hands all over me. They were a group who lived far out in the desert, and being half-nomadic they didn't see outsiders that often, and for most of the children I was the first white person they had ever seen. While they were dissecting my every move and trying to figure me out, I did the same with them. Most of the girls there had their front teeth on their lower jaw pulled out. They also had black dots tattooed into their cheeks and a lot of jewelry. It was a special kind, it looked like tiny orange, white, blue, and black beads threaded onto thin wire. It was made up of different patterns, and wires crossed and formed into various shapes. One of the women caught me staring and gracefully unhooked her necklace and placed it around my neck. I was at a loss for what to do, and then a man came over to me and spat me in the face.

My jaw unhinged and I stood staring at him. My interpreter came over to me and explained that they had been told to show me and the others their native ways. And in their native ways, spitting in someone's face meant a sign of great friendship and respect. He told me I should spit back, but being brought up the way I am, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I explained awkwardly in Swahili that I accepted his token of respect, and shook his hand, explaining that this is how I showed great respect. He accepted this and smiled broadly. His earlobes had been stretched and were fitted with round jewelry too, in such a manner one could look through his earlobes.

We were all shown to our cottages where we were staying for the week and night came quickly. We slept on straw beds, but they'd laid thick blankets on top for us. The next few days they explained how the men who were warriors went out hunting, and were not allowed to drink alcohol, smoke, marry or be involved with women. Their sole task was to protect the tribe, and they took turns during the night protecting everyone from elephants, lions and baboons. They spent their lives like this from the age of eighteen when they were circumcised. The immediate three to six months after this they spent alone in the bush, proving themselves. According to Masai tradition they would become a true warrior when they killed a lion at the end of this period. After which they would remain a warrior for the next twelve to fifteen years.

The women had their own society. They taught the girls how to make food, how to respect the men and how to act. They were also in charge of herding the goats and milking them. While the boys playfully fought amongst each other and learned to be men.

On our last night they had a big party. With a huge bonfire in the middle and we all sat together. Oddly enough, for a moment it reminded me of Ace Ventura – Nature calls, when they sit in front of the bonfire and everyone dances. It had similar aspects to this, but the men didn't interact as much. They mostly kept to themselves, and stood jumping up and down while talking. The women braided my hair, and talked too fast for me to grasp everything but my interpreter explained it to me as quickly as he could. They offered to tattoo my cheeks as a sign of welcoming me to their tribe, which I respectfully declined together with having my own teeth drawn. I also declined adopting a little girl who had lost her mother. Apparently, my hips indicated I would be an excellent mother. They meant it as a big compliment, but I was raised in a place where having broad hips is frowned upon and only means finding jeans to fit is difficult! But I smiled and thanked them for the compliment, and figured I liked their way of seeing it much better.

At the end of the night they slaughtered a goat. They cut its neck and the way the goat shrieked is forever burned into my mind. They placed a cup underneath its neck and filled it with blood. Prior to slaughtering it they had milked it. They mixed the milk with the blood and handed it to me. They told me that by drinking this I would be cleansing my body spiritually and it would give me strength. It smelled quite rancid and the color was slightly pink and chunky. I nodded my head respectfully, forced myself not to gag, and finished the cup of blood and goat milk. I handed the cup made of tree back to the Masai man and bowed my head deeply again. Once I did this the men broke out in a sound I've tried to replicate thousands of times. Their tongues moved from side to side really quickly and the sound coming out was very loud. While doing this the men jumped up and down and the women once again hurdled around me. They placed jewelry around my neck, arms, ankles, waist and in my ears. I was completely covered when they were done.

I felt warm from appreciation and acceptance and came to realize that the Masai are some of the friendliest and interesting people I have ever met.

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What your character doesn't know can hurt him/her (in dialogue and internalization)

To get this topic started, I'm going to start with an example. The following exchange is one I revised yesterday morning:

Initial Draft:
"Young master," said the First Houseman's quiet voice. "The Arbiter of the First Family Council..."
"Oh, thank you, Serjer," said Tagret. "Has he sent a reply?"
"He has come to see you, sir."

Revised Draft:
"Young master," said the First Houseman's quiet voice. "The Arbiter of the First Family Council..."
"Oh, thank you, Serjer," said Tagret. "What does he say?"
"He has come to see you, sir."

The difference isn't huge, but it is important. I changed Tagret's question from "Has he sent a reply?" to "What does he say?" The reason I changed it is because in writing the first question, I had lost sight of what Tagret knows and expects - specifically, that Tagret would automatically interpret his servant's mention of the Arbiter to mean that a message had been received. He would not ask whether there was a message. He would ask what the message was. That still leaves plenty of room for him to be surprised that the Arbiter has come to see him, and it keeps him from seeming dazed or appearing to point out the obvious. Here's my point:

What your character says and thinks will change completely based on previous knowledge and expectations. 

Possibly the mystery/police procedural writers know this best. Entire plots can hinge on a slip of the perpetrator's tongue, something to indicate the person knows more than he/she claims. "No, I haven't seen Grizelda's goldfish." "Aha, but I never told you what Grizelda had lost!"

This is also an excellent way to reveal a character's bias. Here's another example from yesterday: Tagret wants to reveal to the Arbiter that his brother has a congenital mental problem, but first he asks the Arbiter to promise not to blame his mother - a promise that the Arbiter readily agrees to because he's a nice person. The way he talks about it afterward, though, reveals his position on the underlying matter.

"You've already said you wish to protect your mother for her involvement..."

The Arbiter, helpful as he is, does believe that the mother is responsible for the problem with her son. If he did not feel that way, he would say something like,

"You've already said you wish to protect your mother from any accusation..."

When I'm critiquing, there are two types of problems I typically see which arise from the writer not keeping the character's knowledge and expectations in mind. The first one is when a character seems not to know basic parameters of interaction in his/her society. This is pretty common in early drafts where all the details of a world haven't yet been worked out, so it's not necessarily a huge problem, but it's still one that needs to be addressed before the final draft. If the character is speaking or internalizing on the basis of a relatively blank slate, in the worst case he or she may appear shallow or stupid. Watch out particularly for the less extreme case, when a character may appear younger than the age the writer specifies. This is very often due to insufficient evidence of social knowledge in the character's actions, speech and thought.

The second type of issue I run into is what I'll call over-instruction. The character doesn't naturally demonstrate bias or social knowledge through phrasing in dialogue and thought, so the writer realizes that the reader may forget that this person is biased and society works in the way it does... and has the character make overt statements of bias or explanations of social structure. This isn't always quite as obvious as "as-you-know-Bob" dialogue, but it's worth watching out for.

Avoiding over-instruction is not the same as avoiding instruction altogether. There are plenty of contexts when people (particularly young people, but also adults) get instructed about how the world is supposed to work. However, it's important if you're going to include instruction to make sure that you're not solely acting as an author instructing your reader, but that the context of instruction is also one that would occur naturally in your society. In my book, the Arbiter's job is something like that of a high school guidance counselor, so he's full of advice, even in the same conversation:

"Tagret, you need a manservant, and you need one now. Do you want to remain helpless until the end of Selection?"

"You'll need to write your own inquiry letter, but you may use this one as an example."

"You realize any manservant would have [saved your life]... You can't afford to let fondness influence your treatment of servants. Given your brother's current position, we need you to be as strong as possible, politically."

Notice that Erex is ready to tell Tagret that he's showing too much fondness for a particular servant - but he doesn't bother saying anything about where servants rank, or whether they have value, because he considers that evident (his own servant is standing right behind him at the time). He makes the instructional point in order to get to what he considers more important and central to the conversation, namely Tagret's reputation as a potentially strong political force.

This makes me think that I need to come up with another checklist post, for setting up social parameters. In any case, it's something to think about.

For those of you who have been anticipating my return to worldbuilding hangouts, I'll officially be resuming those next Wednesday, January 11th. I'm looking forward to chatting with you all again!

Monday, January 2, 2012

TTYU Retro: The Experience of Pregnancy

How many of you out there have ever been pregnant? The number of you answering "yes" is going to be limited by certain factors, such as being female, being of a certain age, etc.

Okay, then, how many of you have ever considered writing about a pregnant person in a story? Probably far more - the limiting factors aren't so limiting in fiction!

So many times when I see pregnancy in a fictional context, it tends to fall into the tired old throwing up - food cravings - fat tummy combination. But there's so much more to pregnancy than that! So for those who might want to know for their research, I thought I'd start this entry. I encourage any of you who have experienced pregnancy and would like to contribute any of your own experiences to comment at the end of this post. I'm trying not to be gross here, so please keep the comments informative and not too detailed. Please do also see the comments on the first version of this post, here.

Let me start with some refuting/refinement of the traditional basics, and then I'll add some different kinds of pregnancy stuff.

1. Throwing up.
Not everyone does this - I felt nauseated at times, but never actually threw up in either of my pregnancies. Morning sickness can hit people in the morning, but sometimes people feel it more strongly in the afternoon (I did). For some, it can last all day. My own experience was that I would feel nausea if my stomach was ever totally empty. Therefore, I had to make sure not ever to let my stomach be empty. I took food with me everywhere (more on this below). Morning sickness for most people lasts through the first trimester (12 weeks); for me it lasted 15 weeks. I have known people for whom it lasted through the entire pregnancy, but this is more rare. So if you have a character experiencing morning sickness in their 8th month of pregnancy, this is a really unusual thing (and in addition, they've probably had it all along until then).

2. Food cravings.
Yes, these happen. But pickles and ice cream would be something I'd expect to hear about from one woman in a hundred (or maybe more). My experience was more that I wanted to eat in a particular pattern. This pattern was different for different pregnancies. With my son, I wanted to eat meat. Lots of meat, in lots of forms (though I remember feeling revulsion for tangerine beef; go figure). With my daughter, it was vegetables and fruit. Meat didn't gross me out, but neither was I excited about it. I definitely did want to keep supplies of my favorite foods available. Note for the curious: this is not a boy/girl thing. It's all about the individual pregnancy and the individual child. I have heard lots of stories about indicators that you're carrying a boy or a girl, but none that actually have consistent patterns across groups of people. The thing I experienced the most was hunger, and hunger like I'd never known it. A moment would come, and I would need to eat. NOW. Even once the nausea effect was gone, the hunger effect would remain, and I'd get so ravenous that I'd feel dizzy and angry. This again was why I carried food with me all the time. I wasn't able to wait five minutes for a table.

3. Fat tummy.
The weight that a woman gains in pregnancy is significantly more than the weight of the baby, but she may or may not put on fat. This weight comes from amniotic fluid, placenta, and other things - not the least of which would be the extra blood the woman needs during a pregnancy (up to 50% more than usual). Early in the pregnancy you'll see the tummy bulge but it will feel soft because the uterus will still be too small and too far down in the pelvis to feel. The hard round tummy of later pregnancy is the feel of the uterus which has pushed other things (intestines, etc.) out of the way. In a second or subsequent pregnancy, the abdomen will expand more quickly than in the first pregnancy, because the body has already "learned" how to stretch out to accommodate a growing baby. In addition, the tummy does not expand gradually and consistently, but will remain at one size for a period of time, and then expand rapidly over a day or two before staying at that size for another longer period.

Some other elements of pregnancy that aren't usually accurate in fiction include:
  • a pregnant woman may experience slower digestion (even constipation), but she'll have to go to the bathroom more often because she'll be eliminating the baby's wastes as well as her own, and the uterus often presses down on the bladder.
  • a pregnant woman will have changes in balance, and may stumble or fall, or have difficulty navigating stairs or narrow aisleways (such as passing people in a theater or stadium). The irregular expansions of the belly have a lot to do with this, as they change your center of gravity constantly.
  • a pregnant woman will very often experience an increase in the sense of smell. I could smell cigarette smoke practically half a mile away; a friend of mine was able to smell pizza before it even came out of the kitchen. My brother referred to this as "Spidey-senses." Perhaps included in this is an increased awareness of surroundings, and increased anxiety about dangers.
  • starting around the third trimester the woman will probably start to feel Braxton-Hicks contractions, which are uterine contractions not associated with actual labor. (It feels for a few moments like you're holding a basketball inside your stomach!) For most women I know, it has been difficult to distinguish between strong Braxton-Hicks contractions and the early onset of actual labor. Cries of "The baby's coming!" and "It's time!" occur often in fiction, but seldom in real life.
  • one very common symptom of pregnancy is extreme fatigue. My own experience with this was having sudden waves of fatigue hit and knowing I had about ten seconds to lie down (bed, couch, wherever) before I'd fall asleep, whether I wanted to or not. During my first pregnancy, I'd sleep for two hours each time. During my second, the baby would wake me up after a much shorter time. On one of those occasions, I discovered he had learned to use the CD player while I was sleeping! I'm very lucky he wasn't a destructive baby.
  • the "water" doesn't always break. Some women experience their water breaking at home, and some in public places. It's not always dramatic, though our pregnancy counselor joked that if it happened at the grocery store you should just break a pickle jar on the floor and shout "clean-up on aisle 3!" However, once the water breaks the baby needs to come out within 48 hours or be at risk of infection.
A few last thoughts - I include these because they stand out to me, though childbirth and its aftermath aren't really official topics of this post:
  • women don't always scream in childbirth.
  • women experience continued contractions after the birth (even when everything is out), because these serve to bring the uterus back down to its normal size and to stop the bleeding.
  • breastfeeding is both instinctive and learned, and it isn't easy at first; it's also very individual. There's no one way to do it.
I hope this post expands your thinking about pregnancy if you haven't experienced it. It's worth doing research about it if you want to include it in a story. The web has lots of sites where you can find medical information about pregnancy and its physiological changes, including this one. You can also interview friends or try to find personal accounts of pregnancy experiences. It's worth doing, so that your story doesn't fall into a pregnancy cliché by accident.