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Friday, August 31, 2012

On the retirement of Science Fiction giant Stanley Schmidt

A couple of days ago I was surprised and dismayed to learn that Stanley Schmidt had retired as the editor of Analog magazine (here is the Locus Magazine announcement). This is the end of an era in science fiction. Dr. Schmidt had edited Analog for 34 years and introduced us to all kinds of amazing authors. He was known for (among many other things) speed reading every single submission the magazine received, and having a near-infallible memory both for stories he had bought and stories he had rejected.

His retirement is more personal for me, though, because I was one of the many unpublished authors he has discovered in the slush. It's thanks to him that I am a published author today, and thanks to him that I have now had two cover stories, one magnificently illustrated by Bob Eggleton and the other by the legendary Michael Whelan. The depth of my gratitude to Stan for noticing me, appreciating my work, encouraging me, and supporting me in the field cannot be measured.

I remember what it felt like to get my first acceptance letter. Ever. From anyone. And it was from Analog!! I got the SASE in the mail just as I was running out to take my preschool kids to their gym class, and the sight of it put me in such a panic I could scarcely drive. I opened it in the lobby of the gym class, and when I saw that Stan had said, "I like Let the Word Take Me" I started hyperventilating. He requested some alterations to the story to make sure my physics were well in line for his more expert readers (the gecko people used to stick to walls, but now they don't), and the story appeared in July/August 2008.

At the time, that story was unique. I had written only one linguistics SF story, so when I realized I had sold it, I thought to myself, "I should try to write another one." So I wrote "Cold Words," and sent it to Stan, and in his acceptance letter he asked if I was going to the Nebulas that year, or Westercon, because he would like to meet me. I think I was torn between squeeing and fainting. By the time I got to the Nebulas, Stan's plans had changed and he hadn't been able to make it, but I discovered he had mentioned me to people. It's this kind of quiet support that I can't thank him enough for.

I did meet Stan at Westercon that year, however, by flying out to Arizona and back on the same day. He and I were on a panel together with Sheila Finch, who had originally suggested I submit to his magazine. We talked about alien languages for an hour, and it was awesome. Stan has studied so many languages it's just amazing, and he's full of stories about them (on that day, it was Swahili especially). The funniest thing about meeting him was that he wore the same kind of canvas sun hat that my dad always wore for playing tennis. He is softspoken, with a quiet sense of humor, a rapier intelligence, and an incredible internal drive.

Analog will no doubt miss him. Fortunately, he's being succeeded by Trevor Quachri, who has worked with him for years. I've always enjoyed working with Trevor myself, and I'm sure he'll do great new things for the magazine. I'm hoping that Stan will have the chance to do more of his own writing, as he says he intends to. Having heard a little bit about the ideas he works with in his own writing, from our occasional lunchtime conversations, I think we have some great things to look forward to from Dr. Stanley Schmidt.

If you would like to read an interview with Stan, Paul Levinson has one here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TTYU Retro: Heightening emotional impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

TTYU Retro: Character Personalities as Story Forces

This a blast from the past when I was in the midst of writing "The Liars," which is out this month!

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

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

They needed personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for "The Liars," now in the October issue of Analog!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Link: Unusual Words Rendered in Bold Graphics

I thought you all would really enjoy this link - a list of uncommon words in English, with fabulous art representing their meanings. Highly recommended for word lovers!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

TTYU Retro: Can you begin with dialogue?

Some time ago on the Absolute Write forum, I ran across a discussion asking whether it's okay to open a story with dialogue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

TTYU Retro: Considering Chapter Titles?

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

So why use chapter titles?

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

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

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

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

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

It's something to think about.

Monday, August 6, 2012

TTYU Retro: The Trouble with Translating ASL by Rebecca Inch-Partridge

The Trouble with Translating ASL

By Rebecca Inch-Partridge

As an aspiring Science Fiction writer, I often wonder if a visual or gestural language would be the best choice for a first-contact situation. After all, there’s no guarantee humans and aliens could even make the same sounds or be able to hear each other. As an avid reader, I’ve noticed that the whole issue of communication is often glossed over in order to keep the plot moving unless the author is a linguist like Juliette. But the truth is translating an idea from one language to another is always going to be fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Though I am not an interpreter, I have been around the field of American Sign Language for over twenty years, and when translating from spoken English to a visual lingual like ASL, there are some unique challenges to consider.

Finger spelling. Spelling is often people’s least favorite subject. Now imagine having to spell out a large percentage of the words when having a conversation. You have to remember how to spell all those words. You have to slow down the conversation in order to spell out each letter of words that have no equivalent sign as well as the names of whomever or wherever you’re talking about. This is time consuming and after a while can become quite painful on the joints of your hands.

In order to make sign language more practical people are often given unique name signs and long words and phrases are abbreviated. However, the interpreter and the deaf person very likely won’t be familiar with all the same shortcuts. This can lead to misinterpretations or a lot of extra time spent clarifying what’s meant. On a larger scale, the names of major land marks in an area are often abbreviated because it would be too cumbersome to constantly fingerspell them. Thus, in the San Francisco bay are, the letters S and F in a downward motion means San Francisco. However, those same initials could stand for a completely different city in other parts of the state.  So if the interpreter is from a different area than the deaf person, there are even more terms that will have to be clarified.

Line of Sight. Sign Language is made up of four components: hand shape, hand location, hand movement and facial expression. People who are deaf rely on facial expression nearly as much as the other three components combined. One of the problems with utilizing an interpreter with a visual language is logistics. It is not always possible to have the hearing person and interpreter in the same line of sight, so the deaf person can watch both at the same time.  This means they are constantly shifting their gaze between speaker and interpreter. They miss some of what is being done by those speaking, such as expression, body language and gestures. They also miss some of what is being signed by the interpreter.

This becomes an even bigger issue when a single interpreter is translating for more than one speaker or several people having a conversation. The deaf person can easily become confused as to who said what. Interpreters try to solve this by shifting position back and forth to represent the two people in a dialog. But since they are often signing the previous sentence, they will often be out of sink with the speakers. So in essence the deaf person is watching one person while the interpreter might still be translating the other person’s comment or question. This can make following a conversation difficult. It’s even harder if the deaf person is has to swing their head back and forth like someone watching a tennis match.  

Need to Tag Team. As mentioned about, signing can become painful. Long durations of signing can put quite a strain on the tendons, muscles and joints of your hands and wrists. Interpreters translating spoken word into ASL face the additional issue of trying to keep up with the speaker when talking is a bit faster than signing.  To protect interpreters for repetitive stress injuring, whenever an event or meeting is expected to last more than two hours there must be two interpreters. This means that it’s not enough to find one competent interpreter that you and the deaf person are comfortable with, you have to find and schedule two. Not only does this make it twice as expensive, it creates a few other issues with consistency. The two interpreters might not use the same signs for some terms or they may do some of the signs slightly different.  

So those are a few of the challenges when communicating with human in the same country who just happen to be deaf. I can imagine just like with any language, there would be additional complication when using Sign Language for first contact with an alien race. They might have hands shaped anything like ours. After all, we are talking about aliens. Also, sign language is a visual language so naturally many of the signs look like the concepts they represent. This makes basic ASL vocabulary easy to learn. The words tree looks like a tree. Cat is done by drawing whiskers in the air. Bird is making a beak with your pointing finger and thumb. But what if aliens don’t have trees, cats, or birds? What if the gesture for tree resembles a monster on their world? What if they have whiskers? What if the motion for bird seems to indicate shutting a mouth or telling someone to shut up? Then you have the heavy reliance on facial expressions, which might not be universal at all. In ASL the sign “Fine” can mean “good or great”, “okay whatever you say” or it can mean “whatever, you jerk. I’m done.” It all depends on the facial expression and body language, just as verbally it depends on the tone of voice. How confusing would it be to the aliens that while usually more emphatic means more of whatever the sign means but in some cases being too emphatic actually means the opposite of the root sign.     

A reader might infer from this list of challenges that a visual or gestural language just wouldn’t be worth attempting. But I’d argue that the second you gesture to a chair as an offer to sit down or point to yourself and say your name, you are using gestures for communications. Until spoken translations are worked out, a gestural language might be the only option. As a first contact language, Sign Language would have several advantages, such as not relying on any equipment and being very graphic. However, that’s an article for a different time.

By day Rebecca Partridge is a mild mannered social worker. By night, she is the ruler of the Paraxous Star Cluster. Her first Paraxous Cluster novel, Captured, is available through her chapter of the week club at

Friday, August 3, 2012

Posts from France...

I just thought I should let you know that I'll be in France for the next two weeks. I have posts scheduled, and I'll post from France when I can! Thanks for reading my blog!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Link: Culture in Dolphins!

This was a fascinating article. Certain practices, like the use of sponges as nose-protecting tools, are passed down between small cliques among dolphins. Fascinating!