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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Video: Building a world after you've started your story

We had a very enjoyable discussion of how to go about figuring out your world after you've already started - or even finished! - writing a story in that world. As usual, the report will be up next week. Here's the video, if you'd like to check it out:

Metaphors in Worldbuilding: A Google+ hangout report

I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Kyle Aisteach, Deborah Ross, Brian Dolton, and Lesley Smith. There was some good news on the technical front, which was that I figured out how to do the lighting appropriately so people could see me!

We started the discussion by defining metaphors and similes (in the most basic sense). A metaphor generally takes the form "X is Y," where you say that one thing is another. It serves the purpose of drawing an association between the two things, including the images and emotions brought up by each. Examples include "Love is a war," or "My love is a flower." Similes are a lot like metaphors, except they say "X is like Y." A simile has the same kind of emotional associative effect, with a somewhat different phrasing. Examples of these include "she was as beautiful as the sunrise," "He was as tall as a tree," "It was so dark, it was like the inside of a cave."

Metaphors, as I mentioned in my post a little while ago, are often much sneakier than the examples above. They can be difficult to detect because they "hide" inside the verbs we use, and the phrasings we employ. If you ever talk about magic "flowing" you are saying that magic is like water even if you never use those words to make it explicit.

Writers get a lot of advice about using interesting action verbs in English, and those verbs are very often metaphorical. Examples include barrelling down the hall, rocketing away, taking off, etc. When you use those phrasing, it creates a link in your mind between the thing that literally rockets, barrels, etc. and the thing you are describing. Be careful with this, because in a medieval setting you won't want to say that something "rocketed." That verb does not have its meaning of "going dramatically fast" without the image of the rocket to back it up, and thus using it in the wrong context can become a dramatic anachronism (unless for some reason your medieval people have independently invented rockets!).

Brian made the excellent point that the genre of sf/f is one in which metaphors must be used with care, because you have to be certain that readers can't accidentally interpret your metaphors literally. Kyle provided a great example with the idea of people "hovering." If you are in science fiction, they might literally be hovering off the ground - so how can you be sure? Of course, once you're well into a story and have the setting established it's less of a problem, but at the beginning you can really confuse readers. I mentioned an article that I've written for the new magazine Blue Shift (which will be appearing this year!) about how science fiction writers first let readers know that the world they are experiencing is not like our own. Taking metaphors literally is one of the major strategies they employ (for the other four, you'll have to read the article...)! Therefore, if you are not planning to use metaphor in this manner, you really have to let people know.

Metaphors are also very useful as the basis for a magic or technology system. Though not all magic systems follow rules, it's helpful for your story to keep them relatively well-behaved, and metaphors can be a great tool for accomplishing this. The most common metaphor I can think of is that of "magic is water," but the Harry Potter books also use "magic spells are projectiles." These metaphors guide the way that you describe the action and appearance of magic when it occurs. I have two stories that I wrote in which magic behaves like ink, and the "magic wand" is actually a writing implement that produces ink which then forms itself into things. As for technology metaphors, Tron gives a good example of "the virtual world is a space inside a container." Sometimes the virtual is described as being "above" reality - but when we change the metaphor, we can change the feel of the story dramatically. My current story takes the virtual and treats it as something you "overlay" upon your own reality, and thus (I hope!) creates a sense of the virtual as more invasive and less contained.

Deborah commented that "one interesting variation is the difference in metaphorical thinking between humans and non-humans (aliens or animals). For example, a scent-oriented species like dogs would have very different metaphors than we sight-oriented simians."

Harry noted that this difference holds not only between species but between cultures. He is currently working with a post-apocalyptic water world, where people live on boat houses "with no land in sight." Thus his metaphors are influenced by the fact that they are constantly in motion and have an intimate relationship with water (as their friend, their enemy, etc.). To them it is like a living thing with hunger. "The sea is a harsh mistress" is literal. Deborah suggested they would have their own ways of indicating direction and distance, and many words for different types of water, waves, etc. This took us in the direction of the idea of Eskimos having many words for snow, which has been cited for many years as one of the differences between languages. People do indeed use more diverse words when they feel they can draw meaningful distinctions in something that is common, say qualities of snow, or waves.

I brought up an example of when I was working with a scent-oriented species. I was asked several times by different acquaintances what I did when I couldn't say that something "smelled like cinnamon." Comparing scents to other familiar scents is a common tool for conveying details of smells, but it doesn't always work in a fantasy or science fictional environment. The question to ask, whenever you're working with an alien culture, is "What is meaningful? What is worthy of comparing to something else?" You can sometimes compare something to an alien animal, and use that alien word without translating, so long as it has semantic support from the rest of the metaphor (meaning that readers can be led to guess what the general sense of the metaphor is).

In English, we have a lot of metaphors based on meaningful activities - even if they aren't as meaningful now as they were historically. One example is that of nautical metaphors, coming from the era of travel on ships (particularly wooden ships, we suspected). These often slip by without being noticed, because they are used so often. Things that are literally descriptive at one point in a people's history will later be used as metaphors, and sometimes will completely lose connection to the original context. Kyle suggested "going under" and "that sinking feeling" as possibly nautical. I - accidentally! -  came up with "having no moorings" and "being anchored" as metaphors for lack of connection. Clearly, it's possible to talk about anchors without using the literal context of boat anchors... and Glenda told us she could "get on board with that"! Kyle suggested our conversation had "gone adrift."

This is a great trend to take advantage in a fictional cultural context. When David Peterson was working on the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones, he did a lot of work with horse-based metaphors and language based on the horse culture of the Dothraki.

Of course, English has horse-related metaphors, too. Our language has an incredible diversity of metaphors, and in fiction, we often narrow down the diversity of metaphors. However, that kind of focus is helpful to create a particular "feel" in your fictional world.

Metaphor is also very helpful for informing you about how a character thinks about something. The political use of metaphor is very powerful. Modern political parties will have focus groups to determine how they will talk about a particular topic, so as to cause specific emotional reactions among those listening. "Makers" and "takers" has been used very effectively. People who enter negotiations thinking of them as "war" will be less likely to strive for a win-win situation. In a worldbuilding situation, it's useful to think about what kind of metaphors people use for their lives, because it will influence how they interpret others' behaviors. I try to make sure to put this kind of difference in my stories. "Our entire metaphorical life is different from yours and it will have the following effect on every single interaction that we have." Although authors often identify single phrases to use as the basis for misunderstanding, it can also be taken to the next level. Metaphors lead us to understand how people categorize the world. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also called Linguistic Relativity) is suggested reading for this topic, but it essentially states that a person's language deeply influences the patterns of their thought. How do you create the categories? How do you decide what boxes to put people and situations in? My wolf character thought of his whole life as a hunt, so his colleagues were huntmates, and followers could say "I'm following at your hind haunch, and I wish I could be at your shoulder."

Kyle noted that you can see dramatic differences even in our own history. The metaphors used in Anglo-Saxon literature are very different from those we  use today. He suggested they used the ship metaphors, but many transformational and agrarian metaphors. Inanimate objects speak all the time in riddles. "In their world view, a book was an animal. It was made out of the bark of the tree; the sheets were vellum, made out of animal skin, it was written with a quill pen... it was an animal." This made me think of the animism in Shinto religion that influences how they think about objects. A lot of legends have to do with neglect causing objects to take on their own spirits and start misbehaving.

Deborah noted that old technologies still remain in our language.

Metaphors give us insight into the normal, and the familiar. Most often they will be comparing something familiar with something new. Often I will reverse metaphors to change which part of reality is new. My underground folk will talk about nature (new) in terms of technology and human culture (familiar), where in our own lives we most likely compare human things (familiar) to natural things (new). So to give an example, where we would say "her hair was like a waterfall," giving the familiar image of her hair a wild and refreshing feeling; they would be more likely to say something like "the rock face gleamed like a clean plate," trying to fit something very large into a world-concept that only admits much smaller, more human things.

Brian brought up Norse poetry and the kennings they use. Myth is often brought into descriptions of common, everyday objects. For example, gold is "Freya's tears," and the wrist is "the wolf joint" because the wolf Fenris bit off Tyr's hand. Brian noted that these metaphors do two jobs at once, because they show metaphor and also build more depth to a mythology (they can come in layers). Japanese poetry uses similar principles, so that each word does three or four jobs. Referring to the moon also makes it the fall season and brings a sense of wistfulness; cherry blossoms refer to spring, but also transient beauty and regret. The strict structure of the poem means that using highly associative words is most effective.

This brought us (of course) to the Star Trek episode Darmok, where an entire alien language was based on the idea of referring to characters and situations in a shared mythology. In a sense the Tamarians' language concept is a sort of logical endpoint for the use of metaphors in language: language has been so entirely taken over by metaphorical reference to mythology that nothing else is left. Whether or not every detail of the language design in that episode "works" realistically or not, it's fascinating because it speaks to something in our own language use that we don't often consider. To someone who knows the stories that underlie a culture, metaphors are simple to understand. To an outsider, however, they can be entirely opaque.

Brian mentioned how often English uses metaphors from Shakespeare, comparing things to Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. The King James Bible is similar; Deborah mentioned the Talmud and references to its stories in Jewish culture. This can sometimes be called "intertextuality," i.e. bringing a reference from one text into another. This happens a lot more than we realize. In psycholinguistics class, I learned that every time you hear a word, it brings up every single time you've ever heard it (and the context it came with). Words become generic when they have too many usages, and thus emotionally charged instances of their use become lost in a flood of other associations. Kyle pointed out how quickly a word can enter the language, like the phrase Catch-22, which was found so perfectly appropriate that it caught on immediately. Brian spoke of his own use of intertextuality, where he has people in his fictional work who refer to plays and works of literature in the history of his own world. "As rich as Martos" is understandable even without knowing who Martos was. At the same time, the use of a phrase like this deepends one's understanding of the historical and cultural background of the fictional world. Harry brought up how movie quotes move into the general language. Catch phrases convey an attitude, like "Hasta la vista, baby," "I'll be back," "Inconceivable," "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Use of quotes like these can define social communities, almost like passwords. If I give you half a quote, and you provide the other half, then we can have a conversation because we're both Princess Bride fans.

Metaphors work two ways. It's not just that one term informs the other; both feed into one another. One unfortunate instance of this recently was a writer who described their dogs as "canine-Americans." Unintentional as the effect was, it upset a lot of people, precisely because of the two-way street of metaphorical meaning. The phrase "X-American" brings up all the instances in which it was used, a large number of which describe immigrants to the US, and racial groups; then the bleed-back of meaning led to readers feeling that immigrants and racial groups had somehow been associated with dogs.

Metaphors are extremely powerful tools, and I feel that examining their properties consciously is a good way to avoid both the pitfalls of unintended meaning and those of political demagoguery.

Harry brought up a fascinating example of how metaphors can change meaning across cultures. He spoke of a reality show in which Jessica Simpson referred to tuna as "Chicken of the Sea." Apparently the phrase caught on in Bulgaria among his English-speaking friends as a way of making fun of stupid people. We were all surprised, because we knew about the American tuna fish brand, "Chicken of the Sea," but Harry had never heard of it. It was interesting to see how the meaning of the phrase could be re-construed. When you transfer a metaphor from one context to another, it can lose its original reference, and take on a totally different meaning.

Another example of semantic drift is "Coney Island." Coneys were originally rabbits, and I'm pretty sure that the island was named for rabbits, but it is now associated with the amusement park on the island. Thus, Genda remarked, hot dogs can be called "coneys."

At that point I returned to the idea of metaphorical meaning going two ways, because it can be particularly useful in worldbuilding. If you have (for example) a group of people and you want to associate a particular feeling with them, you can other characters in your world use their name as a metaphor. One example from my Varin world would be to say "that's as incongruous as an Imbati sharing a secret." By saying this, you not only learn about the incongruity of the larger situation, you also learn something about Imbati (which you might not have known before). Thus, using metaphors in this way can give added dimension to groups of people, situations, or places in your world. As you begin the story, most of the meaning will transfer from the surrounding context into the term you've invented, but as you go further along in the story, you can start to turn it around and use the invented term to inform readers about other things in the book. Teaching metaphors to readers over the course of a story can be fun!

Harry summed up that he usually uses metaphor to create an emotional atmosphere in his sort stories, such as the one he's working on, where the sole survivor of an enormous wave will see water as loathsome, unwelcome, associated with death, pain, guilt, etc.

Deborah Ross said that she felt the careful use of metaphor often becomes a casualty of quick, superficial, and poorly-edited writing. I think this is particularly the case with deeper metaphors, extended metaphors, metaphors that inform the way that a world works - the ones that are more complex than just "slapping a simile on it." Often, we find new, more complex metaphorical opportunities in the revision stage, rather than the composing stage. One's subconscious often will create patterns of repetition in metaphor that can be enhanced in revision. Kyle suggested that we have to be careful not to baffle the reader with unsupported metaphors, or metaphors that have too much basis in a created world rather than in our own. Harry mentioned that when you work with post-apocalyptic settings, references to the past can be useful but can also function as a crutch.

Thanks to everybody who took part in this fantastic conversation! This week, today at 11am PST, we'll discuss how to build a world to fit a story, i.e. how to construct a world once you've already got the story going. I hope you can join us!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

TTYU Retro: 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.

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!

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Understory Revision

I've been working on a rather tricky revision for the last few weeks. After receiving critique on "Mind Locker," I decided I had a better - much better - idea for what should be going on behind the scenes. I didn't want to change the main character. I didn't want to change the bad guys, or the secondary characters, or most of the plot. I wanted to change what the bad guys were up to, and why.

I have described this to friends as being like the trick where someone pulls out the tablecloth from underneath a completely set table, while trying not to disturb anything. Like this.

Now, in the instructions for pulling a tablecloth out from under a set table, it says you have to make sure that each of the dishes has something in it so that it won't fly away. I actually have that. I'm very happy with my protagonist, Hub Girl, and her voice and attitudes on life. I'm very happy with my antagonists' placement in the plot. Heck, I was even happy with the sequence of scenes I had set up.

In those instructions, it also  says not to have any wrinkles in the tablecloth.

I mean, come on. This is a story draft. Let's just say, it's got a few wrinkles (darn).

So what happened when I tried to change the understory was that things got rearranged a bit, and one of the "dishes" flew off the table, and now I'm having to put it back together with the following kinds of changes:

1. Backstory detail
It's really important to seed your larger problem early on in the story by using small detailed evidence. I had to look at the opening interactions between the characters, and change some of the details of how my protagonist met one of her friends. I made sure that her friend had been touched by the larger problem, so that evidence of it was present, but its significance was not understood yet by either of the two characters.

2. One entire scene change
You know that scene where the protagonist first gets a meaningful sniff of the larger plot, and someone tells her there's something bigger going on that she'd better care about or else? Yeah, that one. Gone. Totally changed, because what was going on is different and there is no way that she'd actually have a conversation with the person I'd had her converse with. One of the first hints that the story could be better (a lot better) was this big, early, plot-driven conversation, where Hub Girl found herself talking to someone she'd never in a million years take the risk of talking to without an extreme motive. And she didn't have an extreme motive.

She was going to need one, too. So when I cut that scene out and built another one, I tried to show more of her life, and the forces that kept her trapped, so that when she felt motivated to act, the reasons for it would be clear. I also used this new scene to show her taking control of those parts of her life that she can control, and acting. In particular, showing what she's capable of, and what her limits are. Both of those things are terribly important. If I don't show her hacking, you have to just take my word for it that she's a hacker and can do this stuff. Less believable. If I don't show her trying to rescue a friend, and failing, you might be tempted to believe that she's the kind of character who believes in "no friend gets left behind" (she does) and would risk her life (she does), guns blazing (uh, no, not in a million years). I find her more interesting because she is both powerful (as a hacker) and helpless (a skinny kid with no chance of reasonably challenging a larger, armed opponent). She still encounters a key bad guy in this scene, but doesn't seek him out or interact with him personally. It would simply be too great a risk for her.

3. Retooling every motivational connection - the problem of drive
I like to think of each scene as following the previous one in a logical progression. Hub Girl encounters this, so she does this, where this happens, so she does this, which causes this to happen, and forces her to do this... etc. It's this kind of logic, internal to the main character, that creates a sense of her being in control and driving through the story. This in turn helps readers feel motivated to keep reading. The change in the initial encounter with the baddies changed everything about her motivation going into scene 3. And the further she went, the more she learned about the underlying situation, which was different, so I've found myself having to rethink exactly what she learns and how her motivation changes to take her into the next scene. This for me has been a bit like realigning all the place settings that do remain on the table. I'm not actually changing who Hub Girl talks to and where, but the why is totally different, and I have to make sure not to drop plausibility. The draft had that one spot where her actions were potentially unconvincing, and it led everything off track. This draft has to be tight, and well-thought-through, so that it doesn't stray off at a different spot.

4. Rewriting dialogue
The dialogue in this story is really important. When you talk with a bad guy, they tend to tell you things about what they're up to. Now, I'm rejecting the idea of the bad guy monologue for this story, but I still have to give Hub Girl some information. Here's an example, from her first encounter with the Locker:

Draft 1:
Hub Girl: "Get outta my head! If you hurt Fisher --"
Locker: "I can't be interrupted. I'm doing something important, you understand?"
Hub Girl: "I heard. War on the Arkive. Else why'd you lock everybody?"
Locker: "Stupid urchin. Can't tell the difference between war and Spy versus Spy. Stay out of it, or I'll lock you all."

Draft 2:
Hub Girl: "Get outta my head! Give us Fingers back!"
Locker: "Sorry, girl, I've got big enemies, and I need her more than you do. Stay out of it, or I'll lock you all."

Notice that the second one is a lot shorter. The whole "war on the Arkive" thing is gone, because that's no longer what's going on behind the scenes. Besides which, it was a piece of information someone else had provided to Hub Girl, and having her just believe him was a stretch. Neither was it a particularly good motivator for Hub Girl, since she doesn't care that much about the Arkive (read: City internet) itself. She cares about herself and her friends. The key motivating phrase in the second version is "big enemies." This one really fits with Hub Girl and the life I imagine for her - and it fits with how she's menaced both by the police and the Locker. She knows what happens when there are big enemies about:

"When big enemies fight, it's us little ones that get crushed."

5. Consistency Cleanup
At this point I'm almost through redoing all the big motivators, and the things people say to one another. I know there's going to be another round of edits after those changes are made, just to make sure that everything surrounding them lines up properly. The silverware on the table will have to be realigned, basically. That I figure will be easier than some of this bigger stuff I've been dealing with.

I'm excited about the results so far. And I hope that these thoughts may help you on some of your own revisions.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Video: Metaphors in Worldbuilding

We had a great discussion of Metaphors and Similes in Worldbuilding today. As usual, I'll be putting up a full written report next week, but here's the video if you would like to get the blow-by-blow!

Making the Most of Holidays in Your World: A Google+ Hangout Report

I was joined by Erin Peterson, Lesley Smith, Janet Harriett, and Brian Dolton for this discussion. At first I had imagined that the topic of Holidays might be easily exhausted, but we discovered quite a number of interesting ideas in the course of the hour.

At the start I contrasted the idea of using existing holidays in a fantasy or science fiction world with creating new holidays for that world. I had encountered quite a few stories as a child where existing world holidays were imported into a fantasy, and hadn't really noticed it then - but these days it always seems odd to me when I find Christmas or other familiar holidays transplanted. Erin remarked that this doesn't just go for major holidays, but also for things like birthday parties and celebrations. I have seen birthday parties handled well, but usually they have been deliberately altered by the author to fit better into the setting, such as a futuristic birthday with special-ordered weather that I saw in a story by my friend Keyan Bowes. You have to ask yourself, "Why would people celebrate?" Also, "How easy would it be to celebrate?" Erin noted that in a medieval world, travel would be difficult, making it far less likely that people would get together. Logistical questions like this can be a big deal, and if they are ignored, the scenario is likely to look false. In my Varin world, where the nobles are inbred and the noble Race is dying out, birthdays look different because they are much more congratulatory and less "happy" - the greater concern is with a child's success in taking one step closer to adulthood and being able to provide the Race with children.

We had a brief discussion of the way that holidays are handled in World of Warcraft, where they are imported with a lot of their details intact (like Thanksgiving with turkeys) but given an entirely different underlying support within the game. If an author chooses to import a particular holiday, this kind of option must be considered. It's hard to import Christmas without Christianity - but if you rename it Winterfair, you can simply overlay a different meaning on the existing holiday.

As we then discussed, people in the real world have been doing exactly this for millennia. Brian called it "go ahead and celebrate, but now you're doing it to worship our god." Since it was Valentine's Day, Janet mentioned Lupercalia, one of at least two holidays I've heard mentioned as having been subsumed by Valentine's Day (the other one being Gamelion). Another interesting variation on this happens when a holiday is imported cross-culturally. Japan has imported Christmas, but it is less a celebration of Christianity than it is an opportunity to eat white cakes topped with strawberries, and on Christmas Eve it has become traditional to eat KFC fried chicken. Walking in the streets of Tokyo, I have come across life-sized statues of Colonel Sanders wearing Santa suits at Christmastime.

From there we moved on to creating holidays. I mentioned having created a sort of "Founder's Day" celebration for one of the religions of my Varin world. Lesley rightly pointed out that holidays don't have to be religious. They can have to do with natural things beginning and ending, as with New Year's Day and many other holidays. Brian mentioned that in the world he's working with, a former Empire had a group of scholars come together to invent a logical calendar independently of any religious motivation, but the calendar was then taken advantage of by the members of different religions, who used the "extra days" of the calendar as days of rest where naturally one would be expected to go to church (because you had time).

Deciding which days are rest days is also something worth doing in the world as you've created it. So is considering which people have made important contributions to the society and might be worth honoring with a holiday like Queen's Birthday (in the British Commonwealth) or President's Day (in the US). Whether these days are taken seriously and reverently or not is another separate question.
Then there are the days where we celebrate even when we don't have an official government holiday. Erin mentioned the Superbowl - which has quite a number of rituals associated with it even though it's not a day off. She describe driving swiftly across Los Angeles with no traffic on Superbowl Sunday, which is unheard of. Someone said there should be a zombie holiday, so I mentioned my friend Janice Hardy's lawn zombie, which she dresses up for the holidays. In Melbourne, Australia, they actually have an official day off on the first Tuesday of November for a horse race.

Another factor to consider in dealing with holidays is how they affect working people versus other people. Do people get paid more for working on a holiday? What kind of logistical support does the holiday have? (Do people simply drink at the office?) Are holidays split by social status, as with Boxing Day, which was traditionally the servants' day off after they'd worked all of Christmas Day? (Now people tend to go shopping and/or watch cricket, at least in Australia.)

Janet noted that how you celebrate a holiday depends on your location and worldview, and that there are differences in the way people celebrate between the Bible Belt and other regions of the US, such as whether people get a day off for Good Friday. My husband also noted this when he moved here, because Easter is more significant in Australia and everyone gets Good Friday and Easter Monday off. Janet then mentioned the idea of competing religious structures, which is entirely relevant to Easter, because everyone gets a break in the spring, but is it Spring Break? Or is it Easter Break? If there are multiple religions, whose holidays get the most honor? Yom Kippur is not a national holiday, for example. Do some holidays, which are less important in one religion, gain more importance because of their proximity to major holidays of another religion (like Hanukkah with Christmas)? Erin noted that though religions may compete, often the underlying culture is similar.

I thought the idea of competing religions was interesting because it's not something I often see in fictional worlds. Brian described how he's working with a world that has several religions with sub-factions. It can be challenging to portray that kind of complexity. We asked the question, "If you have a complex religious situation, does it require a novel to portray?"

Janet contends that it's possible to portray complexity well, even in a short story. She told us about a short story of hers where a child in a generational ship (which became generational accidentally) feels a lack of connection to Earth, and so when the others on the ship celebrate their departure day she goes into a holiday depression.

Holiday depression is a real phenomenon in our world, and worth considering. Often I think it comes from having an outsider feeling when holidays are often so much about family groups, intimacy and inclusion. There are also complex expectations of behavior associated with holidays, including expectations for what kind of emotional states you should be experiencing.

Erin remarked that often in fiction, only feast get-together are included, but that holidays are not just about food. What does the spirit of celebration involve in your world? It probably shouldn't be all happy and joyful times. There are plenty of solemn holidays as well, such as Lent, or Ramadan, Ash Wednesday, Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. Memorial day was once a sad occasion. Often what you find in these holidays is a balance of joy and somberness. I've often heard Christmas or Winter Solstice spoken about as being a reason to have a party when it's dark and one would otherwise despair. I think it was Janet who mentioned Groundhog Day as being for "whimsy on a cold day." I mentioned how in Japan, Valentine's Day has been divided into "Valentine's Day" on February 14, and "White Day" on March 14. The first of the two is for girls to give chocolate to all the boys they like, and the second for only the boys who like those girls specially to give them marshmallows (can you tell I always thought this was a bum deal for the girls?). There are also family holidays like birthdays and anniversaries. Janet mentioned Guy Fawkes day and Bastille Day, which are named for important historical events. The beginnings and endings of wars are also celebrated. There is Independence Day. For adopted children, there may be both birthdays and Adoption Days.

There are all sorts of possibilities.

Thanks to everyone who attended and made this such an interesting discussion. Today at 11am PST we will be discussing the use of metaphor in worldbuilding (and writing of course!). I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When is it overwritten?

I've heard the word "overwritten" quite a few times but had always had a hard time putting a solid meaning on it. I figured it meant that the author was trying too hard. However, some time ago I came across this article, in which Alexander McCall Smith specifically says that overwriting involves too many words on the page (adjectives especially). A quote:

"Something is overwritten when there is just too much of it. This may be because the writer has laboured the point and made a mountain out of a molehill, or because too many words are used. As a result, descriptions are cluttered and the prose quickly becomes unreadable."

Here is the article, if you'd like to see more.

He goes on to say that English is so rich with possible synonyms that people want to use more than one, like overindulging in candy. I know I've done this before - it tends to come out in that place where we get to the end of a description, add a comma, and then add another description. Example off the top of my head.

His eyes were like the night sky, like the horrible depths of his soul.

Now, I have often gone back through descriptions and said to myself, "no double descriptions - cut one of those two out and leave the better one." However, when you take it back to the level of story function, I can think of contexts where two descriptions might work. Those might be spots where you're trying to show a character's ambivalence. The above example might be someone considering a man and thinking about how beautiful he is yet how evil. Sure it can be done differently. Better. More concisely. But I don't think a descriptive echo is always the wrong answer.

I have a tendency to be quite specific in description - but not all description. Only particular types. I look out for places where a reader's assumptions about the real world are about to lead them to wrong conclusions, and that's where I put the words. To close a hole in the story where someone might "fall out." Working in worlds that are not like ours means not being able to rely on as much previous reader knowledge. That means that sometimes more description is necessary.

I also want to look at his phrase "mountain out of a molehill." While I don't know precisely what he intended, the phrase evokes something quite specific for me in the writing context - something I'll call "straining to create intensity." There are points in a story when we want something big to happen. "The big reveal" is what they sometimes call it. "The big set piece." I think you know what I'm saying. What can sometimes happen is that we get to that point, find that it's not hitting with the appropriate BANG!, and try to amplify its effect by getting more flamboyant and intense in the way we write it. Sometimes that can be helpful, but sometimes it just makes us seem like we're yelling and waving our arms on an empty stage. For events to have impact, they need to be supported by the rest of the story.

This is a particular risk when you're trying to follow the adage, "start with conflict." In a movie, where the visuals are so important, you can afford to start with someone in the middle of a fight, or a car chase, or something, because it's just so cool to watch that you can handle waiting to figure out what it means and who's involved. But a lot of the significance of a written scene lies in its significance to the characters, and unless you know the characters, it's hard to feel that kind of sympathy. At the beginning of a story, we want conflict of the kind that effectively evokes personal qualities of the characters, so that we can get to know them. Too much pyrotechnics for someone we don't know can easily result in someone saying, "I don't care" and putting the book down.

A moment of true impact can be a single sentence, even a single word, if it's properly supported. It needs to be supported by our knowledge of the characters and their situation (story-internal information) as well as our knowledge of what kinds of experiences can be traumatic for individuals in our own world.

I wouldn't suggest that you be afraid to use adjectives, or adverbs, or any other part of speech. It's not that simple. It's enough (to my mind) to realize that these things can be easily overused, and to make sure you're conveying your meaning most effectively. Remember, you don't need to put five different descriptions on something - you should put one (maybe a complex one) which best fits with the characters, the world, and your intended emotional effect. Remember also that other parts of your story, like the character personalities, progress of events, or even repetitions of particular types of imagery, can provide a strong foundation and magnify the impact of what you describe.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My first live hangout is up on YouTube!

After an informal poll of my friends and the folks who attend my live hangouts, I decided to try recording the hangout today and posting it on YouTube. The good news is that the technology worked without a hitch, and the hangout is now available for viewing!

I'm going to have to get myself a desk lamp so that in the future I look less mysteriously side-lit. However, the discussion went very well and if you want to see exactly what we talked about, you can check it out. I will still be writing up a report and posting it here on the blog for those who don't have 50 minutes to spend watching, or would just prefer to read through what we discussed.

I'm excited that it came out so well. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Link: The Pleasures of Deviant Language in Fantastika

Here's an awesome article by John H. Stevens on the invention of words, naming, etc. in fantastika. He identifies several "pleasures" that we encounter when dealing with these words - my favorite was "the pleasure of struggle." Go check it out!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Crafting Cultural Interactions/Linking large-scale and small-scale phenomena - a worldbuilding hangout report

First, an announcement. Due to expressions of interest by friends and online acquaintances, I'm going to start making recordings of my worldbuilding hangouts and posting them on YouTube. For the moment this is experimental, and the hangouts are intended to be rather informal (and I want to keep them that way). Our first attempt at this will be for tomorrow's hangout, Thursday, February 14th! In honor of Valentine's Day, the topic tomorrow will be Holidays - specifically, how to develop/incorporate holidays in your world. I hope that I will see you there!

For the Cultural Interactions hangout, I was joined by Glenda Pfeiffer, Kyle Aisteach, Lesley Smith and Fanny Darling. Since Kyle had proposed the topic, I offered him to give us a sense of what he was working on and get us started.

Kyle has been working in a world where he takes a character from one culture and transplants him into another. Once the character arrives there, the situation blows up because of cultural misunderstandings.

As you probably already know, I love stories involving cultural misunderstandings - particularly substantial ones rather than simple questions of table manners etc. Not enough people do this. One of the things that it requires is creating both cultures you'll be working with, and then setting up comparisons and contrasts so that you understand where the differences lie. At that point, you will have more to work with when you try to watch how those differences play out.

Kyle told us that his scenario involves a gay man from Culture A who winds up in Culture B. While neither of the two cultures is comfortable with homosexuality, each one has different attitudes toward it. The man then meets a child who is suffering an abusive situation, and the child asks him for help getting out of it.

I love the way that Kyle has set this up because there is real conflict potential here. As he himself mentioned, however, the challenge of working on this problem in a world outside our own is keeping real-world references from creeping into the situation - as he put it, Cultures A and B "turning into the Midwest versus the Coastal States."

Kyle is therefore working with a fundamental cultural difference of core values. I remarked that I had come into the hangout expecting to talk about a different aspect of cultural interactions, namely manners and speech. However, one of the things I have learned in my studies is that core cultural values are constantly reflected in speech and manners. Our assumptions about the nature of the world, and the values we hold, percolate down into our tiniest interactions.

One example of this is taboos on social speech. Who are you allowed to speak to in this culture? I think it's easy to imagine a situation in which X person is not allowed to approach Y person except in Z special context. To apply this to the situation Kyle has designed, in what kind of situation is it considered appropriate for a gay man to talk to a child? What is a safe space, and how do you set it up?

Kyle also mentioned that his situation involved different kinds of outcast groups (outcast from the main society) that wouldn't interact with each other. This is certainly a common enough scenario in our world: minorities of one variety don't necessarily interact with or support minorities of other varieties.

Kyle asked me to elaborate on my earlier point about how large-scale values were reflected in small-scale interactions. I chose to look at the question of "group orientation" in Japan. We often talk about how the Japanese are group oriented, but this large-scale trend shows on all kinds of levels. Crime tends to be group oriented - lone muggers are practically nonexistent because the mafia has such an enormous influence and forbids them. School discipline is group oriented as well, because all members of the class will be punished for the actions of a single person. Bullying is extremely common, because group punishment gives children a strong motive to discourage any deviation from the required group behavior (the expression in Japanese is, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down"). Group sensitivity also shows up in the grammar of Japanese. The easiest example of this is the words for "this" and "that." English makes a two-way distinction, but Japanese makes a three-way distinction.

this = kore     
that = sore    
that = are

"Kore" means "this," specifically a thing/issue in proximity to me - but not just to me. It can also be in proximity to a group that I am associated with, like my family, or my company, or even my country, relative to others.

"Sore" means "that," specifically a thing/issue in proximity to the person I am talking to - or to any group that person is associated with, like family, company, or country. "That thing associated with you or your groups."

"Are" means "that," specifically a thing/issue in proximity neither to me nor to the person I am talking to, and to their groups. Thus, it would be something that neither I nor my groups nor you nor your groups are associated with, but something belonging outside those established circles.

You can also find evidence of status consciousness on many levels of culture in Japan. Universities are considered to be ranked (also grouped, actually) relative to one another. Employees at a company are ranked relative to one another, as are students, who are conscious of their year level as a sort of rank (meaning that students who entered earlier are higher ranked). These status rankings are important in no small part because they are reflected in linguistic honorifics. The way you speak or refer to someone is directly influenced by their status relative to yours.

My own experience studying Japan and Japanese (and living in Japan) lets me elaborate on these cultural and linguistic characteristics, but the same kind of phenomena can also be found in English. Our sense of who is more highly ranked than us, while not as concretely reflected in grammatical form, nevertheless changes the way that we speak to people. "Gimme that pen" is not something we're likely to say when borrowing a pen from a professor, for example.

My study of Japanese was one of the things that made me very conscious of speech interactions and manners, and in the fictional realm, it inspired me to create - very early on - special greetings between the different caste levels of the Varin society I was creating. That part was in fact the easiest for me, but exploring the higher levels of complexity, looking at less quantifiable objectification, for example, or institutional bias, was much more difficult - and took much more time to understand.

When you are designing cultural interactions, take your time. I can hardly give any more useful piece of advice than that. Try out a conflict situation where two people are held back by prejudice. On the first go-round you're likely to get ugly insults and serious conflict, and that kind of stuff is useful to know (it's good to know how people feel deep down). However, ugly insults aren't typically pervasive. In situations of oppression or deep inequality, most of what goes on is subtle and unconscius. You're far more likely to encounter avoidance behaviors than interaction and conflict. At first I thought about what people would say to insult my undercaste character - but then I realized that if she's going to be getting into a vehicle for a long trip, people are far more likely to pretend she doesn't exist. They don't want to raise their blood pressure over the fact that she is there, especially since there will be no way of getting rid of her until they reach their destination. If they interact once, they will have acknowledged that she's there. So they don't interact at all. It was only much later, after I had figured this out, that I realized people don't see undercaste members on the densely built main streets of Pelismara because they are expected to use alleyways between the backs of the buildings, specially designed for garbage collection and utility pipes etc. Even later than that, I finally understood how nobles would refer to undercaste when they had to speak of them, in hushed voices, trying to avoid being too indelicate. The cultural knowledge about how undercaste members use back alleyways turned out to be useful to one of my characters in my novel, because it allowed him to recognize an assassin disguised as a member of the undercaste (who couldn't be undercaste because he was walking on the main street!).

At this point I asked Fanny to take a turn telling us about her work-in-progress, because it has a great example of fantastical culture shock in it. She explained that it's a changeling story, involving a human raised in the "shadow realm" while a "hairn" child is being raised on earth. In her story, the hairn child has trouble because her glamour begins to break, and she starts to see her appearance - but because of the cultural environment, her parents think she has serious body image issues and possibly hallucinations, so they get her diagnosed with body dismorphic disorder and she ends up visiting a therapist.

Another interesting cultural issue in Fanny's story is the presence of wraiths, creatures who feed on the energy of dark emotions, and turn off their feelings of empathy when they have them, because they don't value them. She talked about how difficult it was to place herself in a perspective which does not value empathy and compassion.

[At this point we had a brief cat-related digression, which was pretty funny, but did bring up the issue of communication with animals or animal-like creatures whose language we don't understand.]

Fanny then continued by mentioning how there's a big difference between describing beliefs and dramatizing them. Her wraiths do experience feelings of empathy and compassion, but their view is that "you can't let them rule you." Given how we ordinarily talk about not letting fear or hatred rule us, I thought that was a really insightful phrasing. She also said that in the shadow realm, the hairn family cannot understand why their changeling daughter blushes, and she goes to quite a lot of trouble to explain it to them.

One point that becomes clear from this discussion, I believe, is the importance of "show, don't tell" when you are designing a culturally complex situation. As with any kind of information, social information can be conveyed through a number of means (explained by the narrator, explained by a character, or demonstrated through action and dialogue) but you will achieve greater credibility if you can demonstrate rather than explain.

I brought up the question of third culture persons. These are people who experience culture shock in two directions, because they don't properly belong to either group. The children of international marriages can sometimes experience this, as can children of immigrants, who may not be accepted in the country where they were born, yet have no experience of their parents' home country and its culture. There are a lot of complex problems and emotional experiences that can arise from situations of this nature.

Kyle mentioned that he thought that Petunia Dursley, in the Harry Potter books, was in a complex emotional situtaion - taking in a child she can't stand in order to keep him safe. The interactions between muggles and wizards can also be considered cross-cultural interaction (I think in particular of Arthur Weasley's interesting ideas about muggle technology and manners).

Glenda mentioned that there may be complex cultural interactions within one's own home culture, as is the case with clan or age stratifications. She mentioned that in her world, adults are nominally of equal status, but still engage in subtle status competition (put-downs, etc.).

The idea of cultural differences within a single overarching cultural group is an interesting one, and it doesn't just refer to the situation we have in the US where we have waves of immigrants coming in and engaging in cultural - and literal - conflict with those who lived here before. Each individual member of a culture can be considered to have a relationship with his/her own values. I also call this "not running true to type." Too often in fiction we see people justify their behavior by making reference to their cultural group, as in "I'm an elf, so I do this, because all elves do this." Think through how each person understands the cultural values they are expected to hold. Does your character actively cultivate and enact his/her own cultural values? Or does he/she feel discomfort with those values in any way?

When you are creating complex cultural interactions, a character's reactions will not grow directly out of the values of their culture, but from their own personal relationship and struggle with those values. A person who has internalized feelings of inferiority may demonstrate those or fight against them in any given interaction. A person who is deeply concerned with (I believe Kyle proposed this example) a perceived battle between communism and capitalism will tend to overapply that viewpoint to other interactions, even if they are not related. I have a nobleman character named Adon who is generally very compassionate toward members of the servant caste, and even tries to create a third cultural space within which he can fall in love his own personal servant without subjecting either of them to guilt or status pressure. However, when he discovers that (unbeknownst to anyone) his father was a member of the servant caste, instead of embracing a servant identity, he repudiates everything realted to servant and blames his servant-caste heritage for his own weakness in falling for the servant.

At this point we brought the discussion to a close. Thank you to everyone who participated! I always feel at the end of an hour that there is so much more we could talk about, but I really enjoyed speaking with all of you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TTYU Retro: 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!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Metaphoric Spaces: Magic, Technology and "Big Issues" in Our Stories

We use metaphors all the time. I suspect it's hard to imagine quite how often we use them, since most metaphors don't take the obvious form of, "She is the angel of my heart." (Though of course they can.)

Actually, a lot of the fantastic, active, interesting verbs we're encouraged to use rely on metaphor for their meanings. "He barreled down the hall" uses a metaphor. So does "The cats like to rocket around the house." So does, "The dog shot out of the barn and over the wall."

Then of course there are the larger metaphors. A hilarious example of this is George Carlin's famous routine about the differences between baseball and football. Baseball is a game, and football is a war - at least metaphorically.  There can be no better testimony to the power of metaphors to inspire strong feeling than to watch Carlin make faces as he makes the comparison. The way we speak about things influences the way we react to them.

Now, George Carlin is a very funny man, but part of the power of that routine is that metaphors do strongly influence how we think about life. When negotiations are described using war metaphors, the participants are more likely to believe that only one side can win - when in many cases, there is an optimal solution that will help both sides. Politicians choose their words carefully (and even use focus groups!) in order to make use of the feelings that metaphors can inspire in us.

This is one reason why I encourage people who are working with alien or fantasy worlds to think about the metaphors that their characters use to understand their lives. My favorite example (as blog readers will no doubt know) is my character Rulii who thought of life in terms of hunting, and therefore called colleagues "huntmates" and his goals "quarry."

Today I'd like to go one step further in considering metaphor, and look at three places in science fiction and fantasy writing where metaphors can play a critical role.

First is magic. When you're designing a magic system, watch out for the metaphors that crop up. If you're trying to create a highly organized, rule-based system, you'll probably want to identify a single metaphor that can help you to handle your descriptions of magic use. Some books treat magic as if it were water; some treat it like wind. Others treat it like bullets shot out of a wand that stands in for a gun. My own novel, Through This Gate, had ink magic. The choice of this underlying metaphor will give you a sense of how the magic can be controlled and how it behaves; also, how it might be countered or broken. Consistency of metaphor is often crucial. If you've got your magic acting like gravity in one place and like bullets in another, people will notice - and they may object. It can be worth taking a special pass through a manuscript to check the kinds of adjectives and verbs used to describe magic, and making sure that they are all consistent with a single underlying metaphorical concept.

Second is technology. How many of us are actively conscious of our association of technology with "progress"? What if technology were not assigned that metaphorical value, but an entirely different one (like art, perhaps)? I'm sure you are all familiar with the portrayal of virtual space as one "above" reality, or "inside" a computer. This, too, is a metaphorical choice, which puts the virtual space in a position like that of heaven, or in the second case in the position of the inside of a dollhouse or gameboard. I'm sure you can think of other possibilities. The story I'm currently editing, "Mind Locker," uses an entirely different metaphor, one associated with the new concept of augmented reality, where the virtual "overlays" reality, in a sense reversing the idea of a heavenly/platonically ideal space into one that invades the earthly plane.

Last for today is "issues." Whenever you are dealing with important and conflict-filled issues like gender, racial, ethnic, or language identity, pay close attention to the metaphors that you are using. The feelings that they provoke will infuse emotion and judgment into your portrayal of these critical issues, and if you aren't paying attention, you may end up provoking something you hadn't intended. For one thing, you want to make sure that if you're working in a secondary world, the metaphors you associate with personal identity characteristics are appropriate to the world you are working in, and not to ours. Allowing metaphorical associations to creep in from our world can change the feeling of a created world drastically, and can sometimes become confusing. For example, do the people of your world think of race in terms of coloration, or some other criterion? Is the most useful metaphor one of "blood" and the dilution of blood, or something else? Switching to gender now, are females "flowers" in your world? Might men be "cats"? Why? When I was designing my Varin world, I had to be very careful with how I used metaphorical descriptions. Skin color there varies, but is not a critical identity criterion in the way that caste is, because though the initial population had different skin tones, there has been no immigration for a thousand years and interbreeding has been constant. Once you factor in that everyone has lived underground that whole time, you end up with a group that varies between "golden" and "pale," with the exception of the few people who actually do spend time on the surface (and they vary from freckled to brown-skinned). I therefore tried to dissociate the metaphors usually used with skin tone, and reassign them for use with caste identities, so that "blood" refers to the quality of one's caste.

There is so much more I could say here, but I will leave you with this: metaphors are everywhere, and they have powerful links directly into your emotions. It's worth taking the time to analyze them consciously and make sure that, as a writer, you are using them to their full potential.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Worldbuilding Process: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

I was joined for this discussion by Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Kyle Aisteach.

For the discussion of worldbuilding process, I wanted to explore how people got started on creating their worlds rather than go through a checklist of areas where worldbuilding information might be found, because not all worlds need to be elaborated in every area, but people come at their worlds from a lot of different angles. To this end, I started by asking about the worlds that my guests had created.

Dale told us that he'd just managed to come up with a backstory for a world he has created, so we explored his process first. He began with a premise: the idea that a man gains the power to compel people to say what they're thinking - or to stop them from saying what they're thinking.

Here is the background that he created.

The people in his world live in an isolated community, isolated because they escaped from religious persecution in a place where their way of life received no respect or privilege, and plenty of abuse.
The community has a legend of its own origins, which goes like this: An unnamed benefactor lent them money to build ships for their escape, on condition that all the people of the community live by their principles for 100 years. In fact, the legend hides the fact that three men stole the money. Dale knows that there is a letter which is supposed to be opened on the 100th anniversary of the community's founding, but Dale doesn't know yet whether it will contain a confession or more lies. Either way, some fundamental lie about the community's identity is about to be revealed.

From a process point of view, Dale explained that he realized that his protagonist's magic was about truth, and that this would create conflicts if people had deep secrets... so therefore he went looking for what kind of deep secrets people might have. He also understood that the stakes would be higher if the secrets threatened the entire community... so he went looking for something that would cut straight to the heart of what the community's founding stood for. These ideas about truth and its value have also given him ideas to think about in developing the protagonist's personality, so that the original premise has expanded to influence both the setting and the characters.

So what we see here is recurring elements - we hesitated to call them "theme" - of honesty, revelation, et. spread across different aspects of the story including plot, conflict, and character. There was also the issue of the use of power to compel or suppress truthfulness, which allowed the story conflict to spread outward into the world.

In a sense, what we come up with here is the idea that when you are worldbuilding, you're really stepping into a vast web of interconnected parts. In fact, if the parts of the world weren't logically interconnected, you'd find your world would have a serious credibility problem. This isn't to say that you can't have diversity in a world - lack of diversity also decreases credibility. But you do have to think through a lot of complex interrelations and interactions, and try to expand elements of meaning as far as you can into the story. The nice thing about a web that is interconnected is that you can find your way in at any point, and because of those interconnections, you will still be able to find your way to the other regions of the web.

Next I talked about my initial development of my Varin world, which has been expanding for going on thirty years (yikes!). That one, too, started with a story premise, but it wasn't that story premise that caused the expansion to occur. Initially the premise was that ancient kings with magical powers got cast down and became the lowest of the low, whereupon one person discovers this hidden truth and gets imprisoned. Kings cast down, though, wasn't what made the world really take off for me - it was instead the idea of a political prisoner, someone who is imprisoned for "knowing too much" (and indeed in my 13 year old draft, that was what was written on his prison door!). At that point my subconscious decided to stick with the concept it found most fascinating, and the idea of being trapped or imprisoned started expanding through the world. I created high-tech underground cities, and I created a very restrictive caste system. The concepts may not seem related at first glance, but both of these have:
1. levels
2. relative comfort on each level
3. no escape

In fact, a lot of factual research also went into my creation of this world, despite the fact that it is not a future Earth or related to Earth in any way. I imagine the process of research looks a bit like one's knowledge of a town with an extensive subway system. The subway system is the interconnected web of the story and its world. Each time your train comes to a halt because you don't know enough, you get out and go up into the real world to learn what you need in order to make things run more smoothly (like checking out the neighborhood of the station). I use a ton of my own knowledge for linguistics and anthropology, but also sociology and psychology, and the history of Japan, etc. etc. I based my caste system on that of Edo era Japan and then modified or refined it based on the characters I had imagined. The characters were also deepened by these caste concepts because I was able to establish the values of each group and have each character relate to them differently. As you worldbuild, you will often discover that characters and world feed into and inform one another.

Dale pointed out that often, the setting becomes so important to a science fiction or fantasy story that it is almost like a character in itself. It's always cool when you can say, "This story couldn't have happened anywhere else." The setting can be used to amplify conflicts and present threats to what characters accomplish. Similarly, you want to have a character who fits into both the world and the conflict, so that the story "could only happen to this person." The conflict is stronger if it feeds directly into the character's problems. Kyle called this, feedback between the setting and the story. He himself has been working on a world that was inspired by a physics paper he read, but hasn't yet landed on the appropriate conflict for it yet.

At this point we talked about story seeds, and anthology themes - essentially, these are when someone hands you a piece of information and says "this must be in your web." I used to find them really tough to deal with, but when I think about it as an element of the web, then I find it helps me a lot.

Recently I was handed the idea of battles in military fantasy and asked what I could do with it. Since battles haven't been my "thing" to this point, I panicked a little, but immediately started thinking about what kind of culturally interesting aspect of battles and fantasy I could find to make this element fit into a workable web. I found my way to the concept of a translator, and from there to the idea of someone caught between the two cultures. That made me think of someone who lives in a place where the land is continually fought over (there are tons of real-world examples including Kashmir, Alsace, and Jerusalem among others). When I started to ask how a single person might influence the clash of armies, that made me think that magic could be useful, which gets in the fantasy element I was looking for.

When you're looking for a type of magic, it can often help to use metaphors as inspiration. I was thinking of the actions of the two armies like waves sweeping over this region of land (albeit slowly) and that made me think the town my protagonist lives in should be called (in translation) Tides of Death. That brought me to moon magic, and suggested that the moon goddess should be the goddess of war. My daughter suggested there should be two moon goddesses, fighting one another and causing the phases of the moon (yes she is very cool). That brought me back to what implications this idea might have for the world, and gave me ideas for battle standards, light vs. dark etc. It's an idea in progress, but since this hangout was about practice, I thought I'd show the connections.

Brian picked up the idea of third culture persons and took it in a different direction, talking about how many stories have featured halfbreeds, or mixed marriages, and issues surrounding them. He mentioned that once an area has been fought over long enough, there is no way to disentangle the ethnicities involved. Yugoslavia, for example, held rifts going back to the 15th century, but the whole area is ethnically a mix.

Kyle mentioned his mother had done some genealogical research and discovered that while she believed she was entirely Irish, she is in fact half English. Her parents were English and Irish, but at that time, if you married an Irish person you became Irish - this belief persisted even in the United States, where they were living, despite the distance from Ireland itself. In early Australia, in the penal colonies, there was a similar perception of the English and Irish as different "races" that must be kept separate.

Dale mentioned that using a checklist of topics can be very useful in worldbuilding process - things like History, Religion, Family, Community, etc. I suggested we talk about it another time, but for my readers, I encourage you to go and look at the list of hangout reports to get some ideas of things to think about. This hangout was primarily about organic process, but analytic process is also very important and the categories must interlock. Often, we can use analytical techniques to inspire and trigger progress in our organic worldbuilding.

Brian brought up the question of the difference between worldbuilding for short stories and worldbuilding for novels. While it is true, as Brian said, that short stories often need less worldbuilding effort, they don't necessarily need as little as you might imagine. I referred my guests to the article I wrote for Janice Hardy's blog some time ago, here, in which I describe the difference between the two lengths as that between looking out the window and walking out the door. In a short story, you will have to be able to provide meaningful glimpses of the world you have created. When we look out a window we see a small but complete enough view that we can extrapolate about what surrounds us. However, unless we walk out the door, as we have room to do with a novel, we can't get into the close details of that view, or know for sure what lies outside the boundaries of the frame.

Dale gave the example of old movies where what we see when looking out of the car windows is obviously fake, and Brian mentioned the movie Airplane where stock footage plays behind the car. He also mentioned that if you don't move your hands on the steering wheel it looks fake, even though when we drive we don't move our hands on the wheel at all. Sometimes we can do the equivalent of borrowing stock footage for our stories by making reference to a technology set or something else (like FTL drive) that people are very familiar with. Essentially, using an element like this is the equivalent of saying to the reader, "It's okay to maintain your usual expectations in this spot."

Our last topic was one about expectations as well - but this time, the expectations that surround us in out own culture. Every work of literature reflects in some manner the social expectations of the era in which it was published, and the works we write are no exception. They reflect our values, often in very subtle ways, and those values are a product of our era and our cultural environment. It's also valuable when writing and worldbuilding to consider the kinds of social debates that are ongoing in society at large. I believe it was Kyle who said that "whatever is currently under discussion must be validated." For example, because gender and racial diversity are major topics, it can feel like a big omission if we don't at least make a nod to those issues in our work ("hang a light on it"). That basically means that these issues don't need to be central to the main conflict or our stories, but if they are not, then it's good to indicate subtly why (or that they are deliberately not included). Kyle suggested that it would be very interesting to contrast the worldbuilding of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with an eye to examining the influence of the World War II historical context.

Thanks to everyone who attended! It was a great chat. Our discussion today was a lot of fun, and we talked about crafting cultural interactions. That post will be up next week!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

1000 Posts at TalkToYoUniverse!

This morning, four years and seven months after its inception, TalkToYoUniverse has reached a total of 1000 published posts! I'm amazed to have gotten to this point, and I'm so grateful to all of you who continue to come and read the blog. I've made lots of great friends here, and even met a few as I've traveled to conventions - I hope that continues!

For those of you who are new to the blog, I encourage you to take a look around my archives. The left menu bar suggests some great places to start:
           These are transcripts of the live discussions I've had on Google+ with interested folk, and cover a wide range of topics such as the Culture of Oppression, Gender Roles, Illness and Medicine, and Language Design (featuring Game of Thrones' David Peterson and Dr. Lawrence Schoen of the Klingon language institute).
          These are articles about areas all over the world, intended to give hard-to-research insights into world regions for people interested in setting stories there, or interested in having inspiration for alien/fantasy worldbuilding. Each article has been written by a person who lived in that location long enough to have a very intensive cultural experience, or by a person native to that area. The collection now has 34 articles from Australia and Brazil through Latvia and the Netherlands, all the way to Wales. It even includes several articles on different states of the USA. Please contact me if you are interested in adding your own location to the collection!
          For these posts, I took the first 500 words of a story sent to me by a blog commenter, and went through it word by word for worldbuilding clues, looking at what each choice of word or image implied about the world being created. They're a bit like detective explorations of the stories in question, and they cover a lot of interesting topics like the Narrator as Ambassador, Juxtaposing Normal and Abnormal, Metaphors and Magic, and Managing Information and Surprises.
         These posts feature common things that are often taken for granted, and look at how they can be valued differently across cultures or in literature. Some examples are Alcohol, Information, and Water.
          These posts were featured on the SFWA website, and explain the different areas of linguistics, and how they can be valuable to writers in their work. They cover things like articulatory phonetics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
          These posts each take an excerpt from a well-known piece of science fiction or fantasy and analyze word-by-word to see what can be learned about worldbuilding and writing craft. They include authors Kij Johnson, Jacqueline Carey, Ursula K. LeGuin, and others.

You may also be interested in these post topics:

Again, thanks for being a part of TalkToYouniverse over its first thousand posts! I'll be posting another Hangout Report later today (I hope) and will be holding another hangout tomorrow at 11am PST on Google+. We'll be talking about how to build cultural interaction.