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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Weapons Fighting, and Battles in Science Fiction (VIDEO)

Here is the video from today's Google+ hangout about Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in science fiction. Our expert guest was Ken Burnside, game designer. I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Armies in Worldbuilding with author Myke Cole - a Google+ hangout report

I would like to start by thanking Myke Cole for coming to the hangout and being such a fountain of good information! Thanks also to our other guests, Brian Dolton, Erin Peterson, Jaleh Dragich, Alex Von der Linden, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Janet Harriett. You can go here to see the video, or just read the report!

To open the hangout, I asked Myke to tell us briefly about his military experience. He explained that he had gotten into warfighting support after 9/11 as a PMC, or private military contractor. These people develop skills and experience at special boot camps and are paid by companies rather than the government, but Myke told us he felt bad doing the same work for ten times the pay, so he decided to go into the armed forces. He had his eye on the Navy and ended up getting into the Coast Guard, which is the smallest division of the armed services and most difficult to get into. After the Iraq war, he found the diversity of the Coast Guard's mission appealing.

When asked how his fantasy and military experience were linked, he explained that as a child he was "small," "skinny," and "maladjusted" and was concerned about his own inability to protect himself from bullying. Fantasy, and specifically Dungeons and Dragons, gave him the ability to imagine himself as a fighter and start working to become one. He feels the connection between the two is strong, and he remains dedicated to science fiction and fantasy.

I asked Myke what he thought about how different authors portray the military in science fiction and fantasy books. He feels that there's a "Baen school" of military fantasy dominated by John Ringo's kind of vision, but that there are other authors out there including John Hemry who treat things differently. Myke said that there's a tendency for people who aren't in uniform to "fetishize" soldiers as being powerful and mission-driven, as though they never had off days, or days when they were scared, or had trouble making decisions. Thus, in writing Control Point, he deliberately used a protagonist who faced impossible choices and often made bad decisions. Apparently he has received some backlash from this, but he wants to show the military as he sees it.

The institutional level of army organization is often nodded at but seldom explored. Everyone knows that the army involves bureaucracy, policy, acronyms, and paperwork, but they don't often mention how bureaucracy can hurt or kill people. Myke recognizes that when you're dealing with millions of people, all involved with the power of deadly force, the organization of those people is critical, and strong policy is a necessity. However, rigid policies can leave people in the cracks. His forthcoming third book gets more political, examining the repercussions of strict magic-based policies through a character who deals directly with magic policy in his fictional world.

Because we had discussed the importance of Logistics in our last discussion of fighting and battles, I asked Myke about it. He said that it's not only critically important for portraying an army scenario, but it's actually a key piece of his second book, Fortress Frontier. He has a character who is a "J1" at the dividion level, who works with paperwork, manpower and personnel.

I then asked Myke to comment on the idea of "military culture." He stopped in here for a blog post on the subject (here) when Control Point was first coming out, and had some interesting things to say about how the army brings together people from all different cultures. In our hangout discussion, he commented on how less than 1% of people in the armed forces are serving in uniform these days, whereas years ago, members of the armed forces used to wear their uniforms all the time, on any occasion when they might ordinarily wear a suit. Myke feels that this leads to a loss of connection between the armed forces and the general population, and that this is an unhealthy schism that can lead to serious problems. When you don't know something, ignorance breeds myths and misunderstanding. Myke believes strongly in the integration of the public and the armed forces, and a group of warfighters drawn from the general citizenry of the country.

At that point we turned to the question of language in the military. The armed forces of the United States have a very particular type of language that they use in order to operate, and being able to use it properly marks you as an insider. Myke compared it to the use of the word "sending" among rock climbers to describe reaching the top of a climb (apparently this was derived from the word "ascending"). We recognize military phrases like "Roger that," or "inbound," and the use of the different words like "Mike" "Yankee" or "Silo" to indicate single letters in spelling. Many of these phrases began to be used because it was so important to retain language clarity over the radio. Clarity is pretty important when mistakes can lead to such serious disasters! Of course, over time, many of these phrases have filtered into the vernacular, and movies have played a key role in making that happen. Some might be upset by the way that Hollywood writers portray the military, but movies do give the public access to military language, which helps military and non-military folk to understand each other in certain contexts.

During our earlier discussion of policy questions, the question of whether men could wear makeup came up by chance, and Myke said that he didn't know of any policy forbidding it.... so I promised that we'd return to the issue because of one of the interesting features of military culture it raised. Apparently there is an expression, "Anything not expressly forbidden is authorized." In an arena where there are so many rules for everything, people can become highly aware of loopholes. Myke told us that when he was trying to get back from his last tour of duty, the air boss had a way that he wanted Myke to fly out, but there was another flight going out that left earlier. Myke checked the rules and nothing said he couldn't be on the earlier flight, so he took it. People were surprised to see him arriving earlier by the different flight, but he explained his reasoning and it worked out. Obviously, the exploitation of loopholes often leads to the creation of more rules. People often ask "Where's the reg (regulation)?"

Myke urges authors to take on military topics. "Don't think that only people in the military can talk about the military." He thinks that empathetic people can understand another's experience and render it in writing. As an example of how this can be done well, he cited George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, in which every chapter has a different point of view - and these are people totally unlike the author himself - yet he manages to be totally convincing. He also mentioned John Kegan, one of the most respected military historians int he UK, who was never able to serve but wrote brilliantly about goings-on in the military.

Doing an army or military scenario well requires lots of research - even for Myke himself! In one of his books, much of the action takes place in a special ship called a buoy tender. A ship like that has its own culture, so he had to research buoy tenders because he's never worked on one.

Myke says, "A lot of writing is having the guts to give it a shot."

He told us an interesting story about his second tour as a private military contractor, when he was able to grow his hair and beard but was supplied with great gear (including weaponry etc.). He met some other soldiers who became convinced he was a member of the Delta group (something like the Navy seals), and though he protested, he was unable to convince them that he was not a Delta - because denying it was the kind of behavior they expected from a Delta.

Similarly, he finds it impossible to defeat the expectation that he's a kind of "superninja." He speaks quite eloquently and passionately about the use of force (please do see his longer article on the subject here). Essentially, he says that the government has paid a lot of money to train and arm him, and if he turns that against someone, it amounts to treason. If he's in danger of being killed, he would of course defend himself, but if it's just a matter of getting a black eye, he'll just endure it without fighting back.

Myke greatly admires the professionalism of the modern military. He cites Aristotle saying that law is "reason without passion" and sees the armed forces as trying to achieve something similar.

It's useful, when writing about a military, to ask the question, "What is a military?" Very often we think of the modern, ordered, Western-style military, but a military force can vary widely not just over time but across the world and across different cultures. War bands in Mogadishu, he says, are still a kind of military. When I noted that in fantasy we see a lot of medieval armies, but many fewer more modern armies, he said he doesn't know anyone else doing what he's doing, but that he can't imagine that nobody would do it but him. We don't see a lot of Renaissance military technology either, or early gunpowder scenarios. He cited Naomi Novik's Temeraire as a notable exception. She takes the Napoleonic period and gives it a special force of aviators mounted on sentient dragons.

Myke himself was inspired by the same question as Novik, "How does the reemergence of magic change the military?" In Novik's work, the dragons actually change world culture because in the era of Queen Victoria, longwing dragons only accept female riders, which changes the social order dramatically. He also mentioned Chris Evans' Iron Elves series, and Brian McClelland's Powder Mage series.

At that point we discussed the class distinction in military forces between officers and enlisted soldiers. This distinction has been around for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Myke described it as being a division based on socioeconomic status, because people who could afford to pay for college would end up on the officer's side of the divide. Officers can be portrayed in movies as cruel and demanding, but the US army as a concept of "servant leadership" where the officer's job is to take care of the soldiers under their command. Apparently if you throw your weight around you will tend to get "fed to the hog." Not such a good thing. The class distinction is starting to fade as more people receive college degrees, and as more disparate people encounter financial difficulty.

Apparently, some military forces don't maintain this divide, and people can get promoted from enlisted positions to officer positions. By contrast, there are also military groups where the divide is enormous. Myke encountered Iraqi officers who would stand their teams up as windbreaks for them, and he said Saudi officers are royalty. One Saudi officer was shocked when an enlisted American wouldn't carry his rucksack for him.

Our guest Alex described how his commanding officer's job was to make the job of all the enlisted guys easier. In one case, Alex and another soldier were interested in being sent to the airborne units (which is hard when you start out on a submarine) and the officer helped arrange for the other soldier to work hard enough and be transferred.

Myke said that the personal concerns of the enlisted soldiers are included in the job of the commanding officer. This can mean getting people help in various ways. Sometimes the commanding officer is expected to intervene like a parent. This includes chasing down guys to get them to medical appointments! Myke says that being an officer is nice, but also lonely because you are always supporting and not usually being supported yourself. There are, of course, rules about privacy. Balancing protection and intervention can be tough, and as an officer you have to make sure you're following the policy manual, especially in cases of alcohol situations. If you go against policy, you can put your superiors at risk. Myke says the public puts trust in him, so when the policy says to do something, he does it unless he's convinced that irreparable harm will result. If he decides not to go with the policy he is careful not to do it secretly, but to share his reasoning with people around him.

Our last major topic was Secrecy. Myke explained that secrecy is bad when it comes to decision-making processes or disciplinary issues. It's good, however, when it means protecting people's privacy, such as giving light duty to a member of your unit who becomes pregnant, but not revealing that to others. Of course, there are also cases when it's vitally important to maintain secrecy, such as when you're dealing with operation security, troop movements, etc. In those cases, not maintaining secrecy can cost lives. There are also stranger borderline cases. Myke mentioned that if he sends an email on a classified system to arrange lunch with a friend, then strictly speaking, anyone who reveals that information could be punished with 10 years in prison. So clearly the "state secret" category can be overused. It's important to have an ongoing conversation about issues like what kinds of secrets are appropriate, and the Wikileaks revelations were interesting in that regard.

Wow, what a great talk it was! Extra thanks to everyone who attended, and especially to Myke Cole for sharing so much of his expertise.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

TTYU Retro: Deep Worldbuilding and POV Preparation - an in-depth example

What happens when you discover that you have to write a scene in an environment you've never considered before? Here's a peek back in time to when I was starting to write Chapter 27 of For Love, For Power:

Yesterday I started to write a scene that occurs in a new environment. What I mean by this is that I have to write a scene in a hospital, and I've never thought about what a hospital would look like in Varin. So I figured, why not work my thoughts out here on the blog? That way I can really show the amount of preparation and thinking that I put into working out this sort of thing. I swear, this is why my writing process is so slow (ha)! In any case, I thought a vision of my process might give you ideas for some things to think through as you enter a new environment in your own world.

The first challenge as I enter this process is to bring up what I know about hospitals from this world, with all my gut reactions and all of the details that I fill in instinctively, and then take a step back and look at these things as foreign. When I start a scene like this I absolutely must keep my mind from slipping into "House" or "Law and Order" or "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" (or anything else for that matter). Varin has a level of technology very similar to ours, but that technology expresses itself very differently, because Varin's history is completely separate from that our world.

So I started my research by speaking with a fabulous writer friend of mine, Deborah J. Ross, who has (lucky for me) personal knowledge of what goes on in a cardiac ward. She told me about what kind of machines a patient would be hooked up to (heart monitor, IV, possibly nasal oxygen) and whether the patient would be likely to be able to speak (important for what I would like to have happen in the scene). Then I went through those details and asked whether Varin would have each one. I concluded that the answer was predominantly "yes." I actually wasn't too happy about this - if I'd been able to omit one, the scene would have appeared more different. Instead, I have to think about how to include everything familiar, but find one or two very salient details to alter in order to jar readers out of their normal perception.

It's actually not that hard to jar people off of their expected models - if you do it deliberately, first thing. I've done this already with one of my characters. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder, but in Varin, they don't call it OCD. Instead, he "suffers compulsive obsessions." You'd be amazed how just changing around the expected phrasing causes it stop bringing up all of the expected real-world associations.

At that point I realized I needed to get closer to the scene (i.e. start writing it) so I could work on the detail level rather than the general level of expectations and equipment. The other thing that writing the scene allowed me to do was bring in another huge tool for creating difference: deep point of view.

After all, I don't just need to know what this environment is like. I need to know how my servant-caste character, Aloran, experiences this environment. Immediately, more questions open up. How much medical experience does Aloran have? Answer: he has a lot of training, but essentially none of it with hospital doctors, who come from the knowledge-worker caste immediately below his. Instead he has learned his medical training from other servants who have undergone the same training. What about his own experience going to hospitals as a patient or friend of a patient? Answer: he has no doubt been to a hospital before, but it would have been one geared toward people of officer-caste and lower, not a hospital designed specifically for the nobility. Thus, the things he notices about the hospital will be 1. those things that make it unique to the knowledge-worker-caste doctors who are in charge there and 2. those things that make it a hospital for nobles, rather than a hospital for everyone else.

So I started writing. Tagret and his mother Tamelera get the news that Tagret's father, Tamelera's husband and the Master of the house, has had a heart attack and gone to the Health Center. So Aloran escorts Tagret and Tamelera over there.

Difference #1 (behavior and layout)In this hospital, the patients are far, far more important than the doctors and nurses who serve them. Thus, they are received instantly by a doctor's assistant, the moment they walk in the door. Since none of them is a patient, this person escorts them to the patient's bedside. If they were patients, this person would ask questions and fill out paperwork for them. This entire first room is dedicated to instantly serving the people who come in: after the assistant's desk beside the door is a row of "triage chairs" on either side, where a nobleman or noblewoman can come in and have a seat anyplace that's open. The first-line nurses sit back against the walls behind these (well-spaced) chairs, each with a rolling cart of equipment he or she can bring forward to the chairs to do an initial evaluation.

Difference #2 (technology): You probably already noticed this one: the triage chairs. These are made of steel, and adjustable, so that a patient can be reclined and even wheeled (wheelchair-style or gurney-style) into the back treatment rooms as necessary. The triage chairs are a piece of technology that arose spontaneously when I tried to collapse the steps that we take entering a hospital: admission, initial evaluation, and being moved into a treatment area.

Difference #3 (technology saturation/judgment): One of the things that each receiving nurse has on his or her equipment cart is a device with a small computer screen. This is a testing device, but I make no mention of its use as they walk past. It's attached to a number of different measurement devices (blood pressure cuff, pulse counter, etc) that I don't need to go into. If someone from our world were to walk past this thing, if anything they might notice that the screen was awfully small. In Varin, the culture has a deeply ingrained religious bias against "capturing faces," and this has hampered the acceptability of photography and the development of live cinema, and also the development of screen technology. Aloran therefore notices the presence of the screens, because despite extensive medical training, he's only seen one or two of these comprehensive measurement devices in his life. The use of this device, with the screen attached to it, is seen as the province of the knowledge-worker-caste doctors almost exclusively. I think of this quote from Alexander Graham Bell, about his invention of the telephone: "The telephone is so important that, one day, every town will have one." Obviously the saturation of telephones went far beyond that, but the point is we can't always anticipate the level of saturation a particular technology will achieve. There are plenty of technologies whose use is restricted to particular limited contexts in our world; and this is one of those for Varin.

Difference #4 (manners): The assistant who escorts them to the Master's room calls Tagret sir, calls Tamelera Lady, and takes leave of Aloran with a set phrase: "May your honorable service earn its just reward, sir." These are social rules of the Variner caste system that show up in basic interactions between castes, so they show up here.

So here we are, the family hasn't even arrived in the hospital room, and already there are four major differences set before a reader to say unequivocally, "We aren't in Kansas any more." By this time, the fact that this place isn't like "House" should be so obvious that the similarities we do encounter will be significantly blunted. Add to this the fact that the Master is being treated in his own private room with stone walls and a steel door, and I suspect that the heart monitor, the IV, and the oxygen tube will have been largely stripped of their usual associations. I will leave them mostly as is, and probably change just a few tiny things about where they are placed/how they are supported, to make them more Varin-like.

Difference #5 (sound): The one thing that strikes me as so iconic to the real world that I have to change it at all costs is the peeping of the heart monitor. So my idea is to mix up my experiences just a bit, and have the heart monitor in fact relaying the rhythmic rushing sounds of the heart beating - a variation of what I experienced when I was allowed to listen to my unborn children's hearts beating.

And after thinking all of those things through, I feel much more confident about continuing into the scene. In fact, I'm pleased that there will be fewer differences from our own expectations when we hit the treatment room itself, because that will let me put more focus on the interactions of the characters, which after all are the really important part for driving the plot forward.

Now we zoom back to 2013... I hope this talk-through/think-through has given you some ideas about what you can do to create interesting worldbuilding effects in your own worlds.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Created Words in SF - guest post today chez Jamie Todd Rubin!

Just so you know, I have a guest post up today on the blog of fellow Analog author Jamie Todd Rubin, who asked me to help fill in while he's on an internet vacation. The post is called:

Created Words in Science Fiction - how do they work?

I'll be looking to add a post later today, but for now, hop over to Jamie's and check it out!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Video: Armies in Worldbuilding with author Myke Cole

We just finished having a terrific hangout discussion of how armies and military forces work with Myke Cole, author of the awesome military fantasy novels Control Point and Fortress Frontier. Here's the video, in case you weren't able to attend:

Also, here are two blog posts referenced in the video:

Myke Cole's guest post at TalkToYoUniverse, on "Military Culture"
Myke Cole "On use-of-force"

Next week, March 28th at 11am PDT on Google+ we'll be discussing Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in Science Fiction and Ken Burnside will again be joining us. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in Worldbuilding (1): A Google+ Hangout Report

I was joined for this discussion by Erin Peterson, Brian Dolton, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Ken Burnside.

This is an interesting topic for me, because I feel our cultural environment is so pervaded by the concepts of weapons, fighting, and battles that I'm always trying to de-emphasize them! But in part because of their pervasiveness, and in part because they are so common in fantasy and science fiction, it's very important to think through and discuss these topics, and how to treat them in a created world.

We started out talking about weapons. There are laser weapons, energy bolt weapons, etc. - and in the familiar stories we know, they don't always seem to have the effects we'd expect. Wouldn't a bolt of energy tend to burn you instead of cut you, as seems to be the case in Star Wars? And even if it could cut you, as the light saber does, would it really cauterize the wound so completely that there would be no blood? What about the phaser from Star Trek - what does "stun" mean? How can a beam go from knocking you out to vaporizing you? Sure, you can get away with doing it, but it might be good to think through what exactly is going on here.

Brian mentioned that we see a lot of swords, but in fact there were many more weapons used in medieval times, such as spears, axes, and crossbows. Erin noted that crossbows are underrepresented, and guessed that maybe this is because they are illegal in some states, and we have more familiarity with longbows.

Familiarity is one of the primary reasons that certain weapons are picked over others. We constantly see gun-facsimiles and sword-facsimiles, and even bow-facsimiles. Each choice you make sets an expectation for the type of action that will follow, since tactics depend on weapons. This is one of the reasons why familiarity can be such a help. If you've got your fighter carrying a war flail (that thing the king of the Nazgul had, which is often mistakenly called a mace), what exactly can she do with it? How dangerous is she, and where does she need to be in order to use it most effectively?

We discussed spears for quite some time. Erin suggested they would be useful for societies that didn't have as much metal. Brian noted that you never borrow a spear, since it tends to be thrown and never return to the warrior... or be broken in its use. Spears are far easier to make than swords, which require a lot of metal, and a lot of time and craftsmanship. You will find characters naming their swords, but not naming their spears, because chances are they won't see the spears again (intact).

Maintenance is one of the questions it's good to consider. How does a warrior maintain a weapons collection? How much work does it take? How much money or trade did it take for him/her to get the collection in the first place?

Often enough, you'll see a character equipped with only a single weapon. Or, conversely, you'll see them equipped with ALL THE WEAPONS (heavy!). Neither one of these is particularly realistic. Brian noted that swords were for personal defense, but weren't the go-to weapons for battle. Those were more likely to be crossbows or spears. Pikemen would break up the formations of the opposing force, and then go in with swords. Pikemen were also great against horses, but not against defensive squares. Overall, you'd find a balance of different types of weaponry because some weapons were good for one thing, and not for another - you probably wouldn't find any pikemen trying to run fleeing people down.

At this point in the discussion was when Ken Burnside joined us to comment on an earlier mention of the Roman pilum, which was a spear consisting of a staff with a 12-18 inch metal point pinned to the end. They were heavy and meant to be thrown like javelins. The lead pin used to hold the head on the staff was designed to make it easy to change a broken staff section, but would sometimes break when the pilum hit, causing the head to stay embedded in a shield (which would make the shield awfully heavy). We were very lucky to have Ken stay in the discussion too!

From there Ken talked about the gladius, which was designed not to penetrate a shield but to stab the person to your right. When you're thinking about how weapons translate into fighting style, remember that a weapon held in the hand will be to one side, not straight ahead - so handedness should affect your strategy and descriptions. Apparently spear formations were trained specially so they didn't follow their own tendency to turn to the left (which had to do with how shields were held).

We also talked about how weapons were developed over time. Ken argued that weapons are designed in reaction to armor, and clearly armor also responds to weapons to some extent. The Iron Age didn't arrive all at once, but began in Thrace and took a thousand years to spread. Keep in mind when you're working with a new technology that not everyone will have the required resources and infrastructure to emulate the technology right away. Even in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were still lances that used stone tips rather than iron ones. Ken put it this way: imagine you want to renovate your house, but every nail costs $50 and the maker has a 6-month waiting list! When that is the case, stone lance tips don't seem so bad, and as Erin remarked, they do keep their edge pretty well. Crucible steel was apparently invented three separate times during the Middle ages (in Cordova, Persia, and the Norse lands), and then the technology was lost again until the 18th century.

Returning to the idea of armor as a driver for weapons design, Brian remarked that this is the case with buildings and castles as well as people. Better wall technology leads to the development of siege engines. Look at the difference between Japanese castle design and European castle design: in Europe you get moats, walls, slits for archers, portcullises etc. etc. while in Japan you get a sort of snail-shell design like this (from Wikipedia):
It may not be super-clear from the picture, but there is only one entrance from any one public area to the next, and in each case, there are access points from the inner layer of the spiral through which the defending archers can attack the incoming invaders, even while they retreat further toward the center. This castle is not designed for invaders who are planning to climb walls or knock them down.

You might imagine that steel plate armor is the pinnacle of what armor can achieve, but the result is that when the weapons become good enough to penetrate it, the armor starts going away. Its strength is suddenly less useful, and its weight is a serious drawback because your best approach is not to stand under the assault, but to run away. Ken mentioned that the conquistadors would wear breastplates but not leg armor because they needed to be able to move quickly.

Brian noted that leather armor is string enough to stop a chopping sword. (I have also heard of paper armor being used - it just depends on what you're defending against.) Longer and thinner weapons become more useful when you're going up against armor, since chopping becomes less effective than piercing.

At that point we moved on to discuss what one discussant called "the dead hand of logistics." The effectiveness of your attack and the strength of your force depends enormously on the costs of travel, the terrain, the supply chains, and the lines of communication. Roman legionnaires put a lot of work into roads, and into food supply, giving two horses with food for each soldier. This allowed their armies to move faster because they did not need to forage. There was also the possible solution of taking all of your opponent's food and supplies as you went, which was used in many conflicts, but notably by General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War.

Brian is working with a story in which he'll be introducing the advent of gunpowder. In this scenario, the gunpowder is expensive but the ammunition is cheap, and requires less training than some other weapons.

Ken described the crossbow as the first ever "gun," inasmuch as it could be held ready to fire (unlike a longbow, which would wear you out if you tried to keep it at half-draw). History suggests it began to be the chosen weapon across Europe with the exception of England, and the battle of Agincourt may have influenced this result. Apparently there were Papal bans against crossbows. (Here's a Wikipedia article in case you'd like to read more about crossbows).

We then returned to the question of supplies. Ken told us that the "Laws of Warfare" were due to a gentleman's agreement not to raise troop levees during harvest season, because all those men were needed to make sure there were enough supplies that armies could keep operating. Ken says he has a lot of respect for George R. R. Martin's handling of this issue in A Song of Ice and Fire. Apparently the ratio needed was 12 on farms for every 1 person in the city, except near the coast where it was 8 to 1 because of fishing resources. This held true until the 1830's when cast steel parts and horse-drawn reapers decreased the number of people required to bring in the harvests to 1/4 what it had been. Erin asked whether this was in part a function of European climate, and whether this might have been different in Mesoamerica, for example. Ken said he thought there was less potential for crop failure, but that farming was still so labor intensive that some people felt war was less work for better pay. I thought that was fascinating because it certainly reflects on some of the mindset of the people, in terms of their willingness to go to war.

In pre-modern times it was very difficult to move people. Think about this if you're writing in a pre-modern setting. If you have ox carts, you need to feed the oxen. If you have horses, they need to be fed, and typically grass foraging is not sufficient (so have somebody bring some grain!). Weather is a huge factor, and delays in supplies can cause you to lose a war. In more modern times, logistics and supplies are also critical. In World War II, the D-Day invasion relied on a port that was not on the shore, but built to float. This was an incredible feat of engineering, and allowed ships to be unloaded at high speed. There was also the PLUTO underwater pipeline to provide petrol.

If you're designing what is going to happen, remember how often it has been the case that the fighting lags behind the technology. People who have just discovered gunpowder are not going to use it in guns until they first figure out that it can be used as a kind of bomb to blow up a wall during a siege. Then come grenades, and then use for firearms. During World War I, tanks were a new technology and had all sorts of problems. For example, it was very hard to see where you were going while driving one, and soldiers learned the deadly way that they shouldn't try to run in front of one, but must always run on the side. People and generals feel their way into military tactics. There is always accident and difficulty.

At the end of the discussion we decided to revisit the question of weapons and battles for science fiction. That topic is the one we'll be taking up on March 28th. Tomorrow, March 21, we'll be taking on the topic of Armies because we have a very special guest. Author Myke Cole, whose military fantasy books Control Point and Fortress Frontier feature the modern military with magical powers, will be joining us to talk about his writing and his army experience. I hope you can join us!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TTYU Retro: Dealing with Chronological Breaks in Your Story

Do time-breaks in your story ever drive you mad?

They do me. My recently completed novel was on a very strict schedule - this event has to happen on one day, then this other event has to happen at a three-day delay, and then the next one at the same three-day interval, etc. etc. I got to a certain point and I realized, "I'm on the wrong day. More time has to pass than this. How can I get more time to pass?"

If I were using a more external narrator, this might be easier. I might just say, "The next day..." or "Three hours later..." and there we go. Well, okay, it wouldn't be that simple. The real problem with chronological breaks is that you have to maintain the story drive in spite of them, which means you have to create a sort of bridging effect across them.

So what kind of continuity links can make this work? There's quite a range. You can make an explicit reference to the amount of time passing, but this works more easily with a distant narrator; with a deep point of view, there would have to be a specific reason why the character was aware that this much time was passing. Besides which, I don't prefer to make direct reference to the amount of time if I can help it. I much prefer to use a topic link, or a psychological link.

A topic link means that you leave a cue in the last piece before your time break that you can then pick up again on the other side. I had a case where I was struggling with a break that looked something like this: Nekantor and Tagret were talking about their plans to contact the Sixth Family, and Nekantor said effectively, "No problem, we'll contact them; it'll be great to do this while father's busy talking to his friend Doret." Whereupon Tagret said, "Why is he talking to Doret?" I tried to move on from there to the meeting with the Sixth Family and it felt really awkward because I was feeling as if I had to show them getting a message off, getting a message back, sleeping on it (ugh!) etc. I thought to myself, "What did I do? Why am I feeling obliged to fill all this space with events?" And then I realized that I hadn't bridged properly. None of the message-sending stuff, or what happens in between, is actually relevant to their goals. It shouldn't be in the story. Where I turned off-course was in having Nekantor specifically refer to what they would do to contact the Sixth Family and when they would do it. That automatically sets up an expectation that we will see it as it happens, find out about Doret, etc. Not even explaining the amount of time passed would feel quite right.

So I went back and cut everything out that I had written, so that I stopped with Nekantor saying, "No problem; we'll contact the Sixth Family." The only expectation I set up there is that their next order of business is contacting the Sixth Family - and that allows me to hop straight across the time gap.  I can open the next section with "The Sixth Family took nearly a full day to reply, specifying an evening meeting..." and give Nekantor and Tagret's reactions to their slowness, thus orienting readers to the fact that time has passed and making it personally relevant to the characters and their state of mind. Because of the bridge, it doesn't feel like anything is missing.

The other kind of link that I like to use is a psychological link. Basically this means that instead of focusing on the flow of external events, which might make me feel obligated to include them all, I turn inward to the state of mind that my character is in when the time break is happening. I have a break of several hours that I made a bridge for, between a morning event where Nekantor encounters a setback, and an evening event where he is put under significant pressure. I set up that he's got to wait until evening for the event; I didn't want to have him wandering around all day doing irrelevant stuff. My focus was therefore on how he felt about the setback he'd just been dealt, and what he felt he had to do about it. The presence of the later event meant that whatever confusion he was experiencing, he had to get through it before he was "put on trial"; I could therefore focus on him trying to find a way forward mentally, and refer to his various attempts to break his state of mental confusion without having to ground them in actual external time. He could then make the decision to take action just at the time when the chronological flow of outer events had to resume, which allowed me to move back into the outer events at that point.

I'm sure there are more ways to do this, so feel free to share if you have any special tips. I just thought I'd mention these methods because they are particularly useful when I'm dealing with a time break in deep point of view.

It's something to think about.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Thinking of trying experimental prose/alien voice?

I just finished the second draft of a story that involved an - interesting - prose style. While much of my work is in third person deep point of view (See my Checklist for Deep POV in 1st or 3rd person), and that has its own feel, sometimes I really feel like I need to do something more unusual.

Why write in experimental prose or alien voice?

I do it because of my characters. In a sense, it's a natural outgrowth of my interest in extremely deep point of view. If a deep point of view tries to create the impression that you're listening to someone's inner thoughts and reactions to the story action, then the prose used to create that point of view should reflect the way that character thinks and reacts.

Who is your character?

This is the driving question behind alien voice, and can be one motivation behind the use of experimental prose style (there's also the possibility of using poetics in your narrative, but I won't be going into that here). My current story's protagonist is the inhabitant of a futuristic Earth where people have internet inside their heads. She comes from the slums of a big city and uses her ingenuity and hacking skills to make sure she and her gang continue to eat (this involves making raids on people refilling vending machines). I've also worked with two different aliens in previous stories: one wolf alien, and one otter alien.

What about your character might influence your prose?

When I work with aliens, the first thing I look at is what their native languages look like. The more I know about the semantics, syntax, and phonology of the alien's language, the better I can understand how that language might influence the alien's use of English. In "Cold Words," I altered the way that Rulii used verbs, by making sure he used "-ing" endings as little as possible, and also by changing which verbs he used in certain phrases - having him say "Parker shows embarrassed" instead of "Parker looks embarrassed." In "At Cross Purposes," I altered the way that Chkaa and Tsee took turns speaking, so that one of them would make a statement, and the other one would immediately be expected to chime in and testify to the accuracy of what had just been said. "These aliens resemble the Diditsaatsi." "Truth!" This same pattern would then show up in internalization, when Tsee would express an opinion about something, and then add a mental note to evaluate her own opinion.

My futuristic slum-hacker, Hub Girl, is human, but she's got a couple of big things influencing her use of language. One is the social environment in which she operates, where there isn't a lot of call to use formal language, and everybody uses slang all the time. The other is something that we're all dealing with right now - the internet. Most of us have been texting quite a lot lately, or using Twitter, or experiencing other forces that will urge us to shorten and economize our language. A great many of us have also been using services like Facebook, which though they don't require extreme economy, still put very obvious labels of our identity on all of our contributions. The result of this, and of Facebook's earlier tendency to append our names at the beginning of every message, has been a decline in the use of sentence subjects. Instead of writing "I'm thinking of you..." we'll now write "Thinking of you..."; instead of saying "We went sailing this weekend," we'll now say, "Went sailing this weekend." Therefore, Hub Girl will typically put herself as sentence subject at the beginning of a series of thoughts, and thereafter will drop all subjects unless there's some reason that the subject needs to change. Here's an example, from when Hub Girl discovers one of the gang members has been left behind and she tells her friend Fisher she's going back:

I glance up/right to put away my map. Take off my steel bracelet, knot it tight into my hair. "Fisher, I'm gonna get him."
"Right behind you."
"Hell no you don't. [...] Get home and we'll meet at the Hub."
He frowns, but moves away.
I ease toward the corner. Tie back any loose locks, and spit on my wrists. Can't afford easy grab-handles right now.

Here's what the same excerpt would look like with all the missing sentence subjects reinstated:

I glance up/right to put away my map. I take off my steel bracelet, knot it tight into my hair. "Fisher, I'm gonna get him."
"Right behind you."
"Hell no you don't. [...] Get home and we'll meet at the Hub."
He frowns, but moves away.
I ease toward the corner. I tie back any loose locks, and spit on my wrists. I can't afford easy grab-handles right now. 

So many "I"s! If I were using the sentence subjects, I'm pretty sure I'd be rephrasing a lot of this so I didn't overload the text with "I" pronouns. By choosing to drop them, I'm taking a chance and betting on my readers to be accustomed to the pronoun-dropped internet language. Luckily, with science fiction readers, it's not such a bad bet.

Make sure you have a systematic plan.

In order to work well, an idiosyncratic character voice needs principles, and reasoning behind it. It's important, once you've got your draft finished, to go through and compare beginning to end, making sure that the prose style hasn't changed. Make sure you're actually following your own rules. The voice becomes a big part of a character, and if it's not consistent, your character will seem less consistent. That's why I encourage planning. If you need to, write your draft first and then develop a systematic voice plan during the editing phase. (I personally prefer to design and get the feel of a voice before I start writing, since the feel of the voice will influence how the story gets told.) An experimental voice will ring more true if there's some reasoning behind it, so make sure that your principles link up with aspects of the character and world as you begin.

Good luck!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Brand-new blog from Lillian Csernica

My wonderful writer friend, Lillian Csernica, just put up the first three posts on her new blog, called Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons. Lillian is a great writer, author of a marvelous pirate-historical romance novel, Ship of Dreams, and a Hercules of the modern world on behalf of both herself and her sons, who are both "special needs." Her first post introduces them and herself, and I hope we see a lot more posts from her in the future. She inspires me both with her writing and her courage.

Go check it out!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Video: Principles of Martial Arts and How They Are Portrayed in Film

I was so happy we were able to have Peter Hoogduin join us for this discussion! He has a lot of fascinating experience and tons of things to say about it.

My report on last week's hangout (Weapons, Fighting and Battles) will be forthcoming in the next couple of days. Reentry to normal life after the convention has been pretty hectic. Next week we'll be joined by author Myke Cole for a discussion of Armies, so please join us!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Announcing Super Upcoming Hangouts!

The upcoming three weeks of Google+ worldbuilding hangouts will feature Special Guests!

Last week we had a great time talking about Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in worldbuilding. However, since it ended up being focused almost entirely on fantasy, we still have science fiction to discuss. That topic is now scheduled for March 28th, so we can be joined again by our guest Ken Burnside, who shared a lot of his own research and expertise during our last hangout.

So what will the topic be this week, March 14? I'm currently working on confirming a special guest who is a black belt in Wushu Kung Fu, so that we can talk about Principles of martial arts, and how they are portrayed in film. I'm crossing my fingers that he'll be able to make it, so watch this space for confirmation.

Next week, March 21, we will be having with us special author guest Myke Cole, author of the awesome military fantasy novels Control Point and Fortress Frontier. He'll be joining us to talk about Armies. I'm hoping that will include logistics, organization, and culture.

Don't forget, hangouts happen at 11am PDT on Google+. Contact me in comments if you are not yet in my circles and need to be added. Also, if you are at work or simply can't make it for some reason, you can always catch up via YouTube or my written Hangout Reports.

I hope to see you at one of these!

ConDor Convention Report

This weekend I flew down to San Diego for the ConDor convention. If you've never been, this is a small but very friendly convention with a lot of fantastic guests. I was very impressed with the whole thing, and encourage others to attend. One high note was the ConSuite, where they had such good food (both tasty and satisfying) that I never had a hunger crisis the whole weekend. Very impressive.

Now to the exciting parts.

I arrived just in time for my first panel on Friday afternoon, "Retelling Old Stories: The New Fairy Tales." This was a great way to get started because the panelists were all friendly and intelligent - something I found to be true through the whole convention. One of the main topics here was what exactly we lose when we're updating old fairy tales - whether there is a core value in the stories that can be lost, or whether the relevance of the stories changes with the culture around it. There were good arguments on both sides, and much discussion of "cracked" fairy tales, feminist or gender-reversed versions, etc. We also talked a bit about folk tales across cultures. I was really happy to meet Cecil Castellucci on this panel - she's a YA writer and editor with a lot of incisive things to say.

Immediately thereafter I went to "The Inadvertent Time Traveller: What to do when dumped in another era." Lillian Csernica, one of my roommates, did a terrific job of moderating, even though we were both awed by the presence of Connie Willis on the panel. It was a great discussion. There seemed to be a binary consensus that while actual time travel was likely to be quite deadly because of microbes, if not a myriad social problems, that theoretical and fictional time travel was irresistibly interesting and seemed like it would be a lot of fun. I suspect I was most remembered for suggesting that taking off one's clothes upon arrival might help one avoid social entanglements due to anachronistic clothing (until they could steal some local clothes), and might conceivably get a person sympathy if they were discovered without in the meantime. Connie Willis thought it was a plausible idea, so I felt vindicated! I came away thinking that Ms. Willis was quite an impressive thinker and speaker, and wanting to check out her books Blackout/All Clear.

That evening I went out to dinner with David J. Peterson, the inventor of Dothraki for Game of Thrones (and more, which I'll explain in a minute), his wife Erin, and authors Leigh Bardugo and Sylvia Sotomayor, as well as my two roommates, Lillian Csernica and Pat McEwen. We had some great Mexican food and hilarious conversation, and nearly got caught in a chilly rainstorm (which was surprising, for San Diego).

Saturday morning was my first chance to visit the Con without actually being on panels for a little while. I bought a couple of books - Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone, and Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky - and subsequently got them autographed by the authors. Thank goodness I'm allowed a little time to be a fan as well as an author! I met internet friend Calvin Johnson for the first time, which was a real pleasure, and also ran into my author friends Stephen Blackmoore, Sheila Finch, and Erin Hoffman.

I also attended David Peterson's talk on the languages he's been designing. That was terrific, because I've heard about Dothraki before, but he's also got some new languages he's working on for alien characters in the forthcoming TV show, "Defiance." I'm really looking forward to seeing that. David is modest, but incredibly knowledgeable about his linguistics, and clearly has a ton of fun with it. Nothing like watching an expert at his work.

My own Saturday panel was "Worldbuilding 2: Biology and Sentient Races," where I was joined by friends Sheila Finch and Pat McEwen, both of whom are super experts on topics of this nature. This was a wide-ranging panel which ranged from discussing the physical conditions on planets and how those would influence sentient species, to asking whether it was possible for more than one sentient species to coexist on a planet (I thought it probably would be, provided that the evolutionary niches were not too competitive), to the plausibility of actually encountering a sentient species of aliens. We had aspirations to build an example species, but those served more as drivers for the fundamental questions we were discussing. There were just too many ideas flying around to end up with a single model at the end.

I spent the afternoon hanging out with friends, and went out to dinner at one of the many hotel restaurants with Lillian and Pat before returning to my room for a nap (for good reason!). That night we went out to a great party which had taken as its theme the photo I used in this post about strong female characters. Yes, that's right - it was a "tiaras with weapons" party. Make your own tiara, and include (if you like), guns, ninjas, toy soldiers, etc. Small figurines of Disney princesses with heavy weaponry had been arranged around the room. I thought the atmosphere was great, and because it was a crafting party, it wasn't so loud that you couldn't hear each other speak. I really enjoyed talking to the folks there.

Sunday was a bit disorienting for everyone as a result of the time change, and I arrived at my 11am "Worldbuilding 3: How might you go about creating an alien culture?" panel with a smile, looking forward to talking about my favorite topic, but also figuring the audience would be small. Was I surprised! Just before the panel was due to start, the room filled to the brim with an entire class of young people (I'm guessing early high school) who were with their teacher, researching an assignment in which they were to add to the stories of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. Soon it was standing-room-only, as more convention-goers straggled in, and we all got super jazzed up by the idea that we could potentially contribute to the ideas of these young people (or I know that Lillian and I did). Also on the panel were David Peterson and Eldon Thompson. Eldon did a great job moderating and keeping us talking with interesting questions, as well as talking a little about his own epic fantasy novels. I think I was most excited when I got a chance to talk about metaphors and similes, and how they can both portray a world and contribute to a character's inner voice.

My last lunch was with David Peterson and Sylvia Sotomayor. Sylvia has this great bag she uses for her belongings that has the created language from her novel written on it in two different ways (one that looks like an alphabet, the other like a sort of maze) - super cool. Partway through our meal we were joined by Nancy and Trevin (I apologize if I've gotten that one wrong; David, comment and correct me?). I was already checked out by the time I hit my first panel, in the name of reducing stress, so when the time came to go to the airport I was all ready to go (thank goodness). Super thanks to Erin Peterson for agreeing to be my ferry to and from the airport; it made my life so much easier!

I got home tired but feeling like it had been a wonderful weekend. There's nothing like going and hanging out for a few days with people as geeky as I am! So many wonderful intelligent conversations. It really makes me feel motivated to write!

Monday, March 11, 2013

There's more to beds than you might imagine...

We watched this video recently - "Grandma's Feather Bed" from John Denver's visit to the muppet show:

This got me thinking about the lyrics, and once I'd read them (here), I started wondering what in the world was meant by "a whole bolt of cloth for the tick." This took me to Wikipedia, here.

Just reading the article was fascinating. Here's an excerpt:

"Featherbeds were only for the rich in the 14th century, but by the 19th century they were a comfort that ordinary people could aspire to - especially if they kept a few geese. The beds, also called feather ticks or feather mattresses, were valuable possessions. People made wills promising them to the next generation, and emigrants, travelling to the New World from Europe, packed up bulky featherbeds and took them on the voyage. If you didn't inherit one, you needed to buy up to 50 pounds of feathers, or save feathers from years of plucking until there were enough for a new bed.
The feathers could be saved from geese or ducks being prepared for cooking. In England servant-girls were often allowed to keep feathers from poultry they'd plucked, and could save them to make a featherbed or pillows for their future married life."
You may have noticed the word "tick" in there. These days the striped fabric used for mattresses and pillows is called "ticking fabric." What I found most interesting is how something that we currently take for granted, a soft mattress, could be something that people worked toward achieving for years, and cared for enough to take it on a lengthy ship voyage.

Beds as we treat them now are an object of value, but that has changed a lot over time. That means if you're using beds the way we use them now, they have to have a similar basis within the culture. Not only that, but people are probably pretty much the same size that they are now. I remember seeing the bed that Abraham Lincoln died in, and it was so short that he had to be laid on it diagonally. Similarly, in Europe, we see a lot of very short beds.

In Japan, they have futons, and those are not at all like the wooden frames plus mattress objects that we find here in the US. They have two parts: the shikibuton, which plays the part of the mattress, but has no box spring and is essentially a thicker-than-usual comforter sort of object, and the kakebuton, which is the top comforter part. That top part gets tied into the inside of a cloth envelope like a duvet cover, which typically has an oval window in the top of it, covered by netting. Both parts get folded up in the morning and tucked in the closet until they are brought out again and laid on the tatami mats for bedtime.

How do you think beds might be different in your world? It's something to think about.

I'll put up a report on my weekend at ConDor tomorrow!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Video: Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in Worldbuilding

We had a great session today, with a new guest who was a real expert on our topic - many thanks to Ken Burnside for joining us! Here's the video for those who missed the hangout:

We decided there was a lot more to talk about, so next week we'll be revisiting this topic with a focus on science fiction rather than fantasy. I hope you can make it!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Building a world after you've already started your story

This week, we spoke about the problem of coming to a world after a story is already partially or fully written. I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Erin Peterson, and Misha Gericke. Misha was attending for the first time, all the way from South Africa! (That was really cool).

I suppose the best place to start is determining what the topic means. What is "before" and what is "after" in this context? I think of "before" as cases when people have been designing a world in depth and then go about finding stories in it. Erin told us she does the worldbuilding and then never gets to the stories, and there are plenty of people who do this! "Before" also applies to cases where people have an initial story concept, and try to figure out which kind of world that story concept would most effectively be framed in. Glenda says that she does a lot of this, trying to match a story problem to a cultural model where that problem would be best exemplified. "After" for me means that you've started in on your prose, so characters and events and locations are happening without any previous world planning.

Erin mentioned that if you are conlanging (creating languages) and think you're not creating culture, then you're really just using your own culture as a basis because it is invisible to you. This was an excellent point, and reveals one property of worldbuilding also: if you think you're not worldbuilding, but are writing a story, then you really are worldbuilding, but using familiar world elements and not checking the consistency of the new elements you introduce.

The problem with writing that doesn't include at least one phase of concentrated worldbuilding is that very often the story will not come together as a result. Things will be implausible. Further, you won't be able to tell if the way the world works should have influenced your prose style more.

It's good to have a checklist to go through when you are preparing to head into revisions. You could always use my list of hangout topics, or my interview questions here, which are based on worldbuilding ideas. One important place to start, though, is with the characters. Who are they? What social groups might they belong? How do the story's problems relate to the characters' identities?

Erin noted that novels give a writer a lot more space for worldbuilding than short stories do. I've talked about this issue before, in this post. On the other hand, you ideally need more worldbuilding for a short story than you might imagine.

The most important technique here is to examine the details of the story as it has been written, and use those details as clues to larger patterns.

For example, do you have a scene where people are eating? What are they eating? Whatever they are eating must have come somewhere, so you've got an immediate insight into climate, agriculture, and trade. Take it further. What are they eating with? How were those items made?

Take any detail that you like and magnify. Explore its underpinnings within the world. Any piece of information you can find in the piece can expand and cross-inform others. Misha agreed, saying everything is connected - dress, weather, etc. Worldbuilding is about making connections, and making sense. Misha wrote her first draft without a fully built world. Each country was referred to simply in North/South/East/West terms. From there she went to climate and from there to buildings. Since there were a variety of countries, she had to point up differences. She took her cold climate nation and made the people very rich but accustomed to fighting for what they get. They have a different way of thinking as a result. This influences their work ethic and the way they think about goals. This in turn influences language.

Internal consistency is a really good goal to work toward. Readers will notice inconsistencies and find them bothersome - and eventually may abandon the story. If there is an apparent inconsistency due to diversity within the culture, make sure to put the background for that diversity into the world.

Economy is another critical ingredient, and one that we can learn a great deal from just by looking at what kind of evidence might already exist in a story draft. How is food produced? Where does it come from? What about clothes? Who has the money? If there is a nobility, where do they get all their money? By what kinds of steps might they be connected to the produce of the land they own? Or do the richest people of the world come from a merchant background? What kind of trade makes them so successful?

Worldbuilding is so valuable in part because it can help you shore up sparse areas in your story with extra richness of detail. Because of the internal consistency and interconnectedness of the world, you won't find yourself having to make up seemingly random details out of thin air.

Look also for the kinds of metaphors you have used. How did your characters describe and judge their surroundings? What kind of motivations might that imply? What kind of personal history might lead to those motivations?

Adding meaningful detail to a story isn't just about putting in things you like, but creating meaning. Look, for example, at Watership Down by Richard Adams. It's about rabbits. There are all kinds of details available about rabbits in the real world... and a great many of them are included in the story. But there is also more. There is how the rabbits understand themselves and each other, and humans. There is a whole world of cultural meaning that makes this far more than just a story about rabbits.

Erin remarked on a pet peeve of hers, which she called "Inadvertent Connecticut Yankees." This is what happens when you end up with a world that is clearly not American, but a character in it who acts just like a typical spunky American teen. Characters who have grown up in their worlds do not question its restrictions in the same way that outsiders would. A freed slave character in a novel about the Civil War period is most likely to feel distressed but resigned rather than to have the modern variety of righteous indignation.

Misha said that culture must lie behind the motivations of characters. What if the culture doesn't allow for sword-wielding women? We agreed that this was most likely to lead to Joan of Arc scenarios.

Worldbuilding applies also to historical and international fiction contexts - and even contemporaries. The world that exists on the page is written, and thus by definition is not the same as what surrounds us. Every author has to build a world, and those worlds are never 100% accurate. As Misha said, we are still dealing with fantasy in a cloak of reality.

At this point I asked, "What if your character doesn't match your world?" One type of compromise is to have your protagonist be a person from another land; another is to give him or her a backstory that would justify a cultural mismatch. Misha had a character who needed to be even more ruthless than the culture of her cold country would suggest, so she gave him a backstory that made him desire to retaliate against his fellows, and had him disregard rank in his behavior, thus setting him apart from the others. Erin said that most protagonists are outsiders to the dominant culture in some way. The fact is that most people have a relationship with the values of their cultural group, and the values of any group are not enacted uniformly. Diversity is the norm, and any group, no matter how uniform it seems, will have subgroups internal to it. In Japan, the concept of "in group" can refer to yourself, if you're contrasting with anyone else, or to your family, if you're contrasting with an outsider to that group, or even your country or your world. Look at all the subgroups in fandom! This is to say that you do not need to make all of your characters match in order for the world to be plausible. You just need to know why they don't match.

We also discussed how disaster can lead to atypical behavior. The more serious the threat, the greater the possibility that it will change cultural behavior. Misha suggested that entire cultures can change if the threat is big enough, such as when women began to wear pants after World War I drove so many men out of the workplace. Erin mentioned how World War II changed the culture of upper class debutantes in Britain. This is all to say that you should consider the context of the conflict as you've established it in your story, and use that to assess how much deviation there can be from a background level of cultural behavior. It may make your worldbuilding job easier.

In a way, filling in your worldbuilding after you've written the story is a good idea. That way, you know you have a story before you can get lost in the details of the world! I hope you can get some ideas from our discussion to help you in your own writing.

Thanks again to Glenda, Erin, and Misha! I hope to see you again soon.

This week's discussion will be tomorrow, Thursday, March 6 at 11am PST on Google+. We will be discussing Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in Worldbuilding. Join us!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

TTYU Retro: Using projection/anticipation to improve your manuscript

Toward the end of the first draft of my most recent novel, I started using a new technique to improve the draft, thanks to my lovely and insightful beta-reader, Jamie Todd Rubin. The fact that he was my beta-reader was initially something of an accident - I'd been talking with him about my novel and he offered to read it, to which I replied "are you sure?" and out of that insecurity only sent him one chapter, but then he asked for another. And another, and onward. (Thanks again, Jamie!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 4, 2013

Subverting dominant paradigms with SF/F (focus on gender)

Events over the last few days have been getting me to think a lot about science fiction and fantasy stories which subvert dominant paradigms. They draw our attention to things we may not have thought about. They expose our insecurities, our fears, and also our invisible privileges. They can make us feel very uncomfortable.

It appears that this kind of work has always been present, and has often received acclaim, despite this discomfort. That, to me, is important. I would hate to live in a world where there were no Shakespearean fools who could expose uncomfortable truths, or no one to show the oft-ignored diversity of human experience. The institutions of the dominant culture can act to suppress these voices, it's true. But we continue to chip away, and works of brilliance can begin to shine through.

As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I like to try to turn expectations on their heads. I like to think of how to make things work differently. Do I think that writers of speculative fiction should feel obligated to do this? I don't think I'm inclined to tell people what they can and cannot write. However, I do think an opportunity is lost when we decide to leave the old stones unturned. For inspiration, I'll bring your attention to the wonderful book, Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Read it - you'll get tons of ideas.

There are many, many ways to question the status quo, and to bring attention to voices which deserve to be heard. The way that these cultural debates play out on social media are of great value, but are restricted by their medium and often oversimplify. In storytelling, there are a lot more, and different approaches that authors can take to a single problem. Last night I was thinking about questions of gender and sexism (as I often do), so I thought I'd look at some examples of how it has been done.

Reverse the Culture and Physiology

Star Trek TNG had an early episode called Angel One where the Enterprise encountered a planet ruled by an oligarchy of women. The men on the planet, so far as I could tell, appeared to be physically smaller and less imposing than the women. Reversal is a technique fraught with peril, in my opinion, as it is easily interpreted as revenge fantasy or vilification of the promoted group (and it has been used this way before). Another problem is that the reversal of the physical qualities of gender also serves to reinforce the idea that this physical evidence justifies the cultural bias. This does not mean it couldn't conceivably be handled well.

Reverse the Culture but not the Physiology

I loved the approach that N.K. Jemisin took to gender and sexism in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her character Yeine came from a culture where women were dominant, but this was not the case in all cultures in this world. It was, in fact, one of the reasons why she was treated as an outsider by the people of Sky, who retained the pro-male bias. This allowed Jemisin to take a close look at the contrasts between the two views. Most important from my point of view was the fact that she didn't treat Yeine's Darre people as somehow physiologically different from everyone else. She didn't even try to change gendered behaviors. It was simply that masculine protectiveness and concern with physical prowess was considered sweet and more than a little silly by the women in power. To me, this seemed very real. It seemed natural to a system where one group is considered inherently inferior regardless of their achievements, and thus quite an insightful reversal of sexism in our own world.

Change the Gender Variables - Adding a different gender

The example of this that I love comes from the work of Octavia Butler in her Xenogenesis series, which starts with the novel Dawn (great article about it here, at She creates a third gender, "ooloi," which is entirely different from either male or female, yet has a very specific physiological function among the Oankali. Essentially the Ooloi is a DNA guardian and gene-mixer, who experiments with the kinds of offspring that can be created through different combinations of genetic material. In Butler's conception, the Ooloi doesn't stand outside the traditional male-female relationships, either - it lies between male and female, literally. Butler makes the ooloi, and the implications of its presence, impossible to ignore. She does an amazing job of questioning our sense of species at the same time as our sense of gender.

Change the Gender Variables - Creating a different gender spectrum

In this category I loved "Love might be too strong a word" by Charlie Jane Anders. She's created a far future humanity divided into six genders, with a diversity of physiological "ins" and "outs" (not her terms; for convenience, I'm borrowing them from Kij Johnson's "Spar") that are supposed to come together in different combinations. Along with that diversity comes a ranking, where people of more outs are more highly ranked than people with more ins. It takes the male-over-female bias to a logically extreme point, gender castes, and looks at how those biases would play out for a character who isn't willing to play by their rules. In a lovely linguistic move, Anders uses "man" and "woman" as verbs to describe different approaches to sexual interaction (and status interaction). Really thought-provoking.

Change the Gender Variables - eliminating permanent gender

For this one I come back to Ursula K. LeGuin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness. For the people of Gethen, gender is a transitory experience rather than a state of being. These people are genderless in their day to day lives, and only experience femaleness or maleness during a short period of sexual readiness called "kemmer." However, they can't control which gender role they will take in a sexual interaction, which means that they are at the same time neither gender and both. The crux of the matter is that gender is irrelevant to the daily public lives of Gethenians, and is entirely a private matter. LeGuin then is able to create some fascinating tensions with the human male sent among them.

Eliminating gender

I've distinguished this one from Ursula LeGuin's approach, because it involves trying to get rid of all the trappings of gender. Star Trek took this one on in their episode, "The Outcast." The society of the Janii purported itself to have evolved beyond gender and sexuality alike, and the character of Soren got in trouble because she identified as female and became attracted to Commander Riker. One of the contemporary issues brought up in this episode was that of therapy intended to "fix" someone with the wrong gender identification (in this case, any gender identification at all).

I think one of the greatest values of science fiction is its ability to get us thinking outside of our normal patterns. Though I have looked at gender in this post, there are so many more social issues that we could consider. Reading speculative fiction is in some ways like learning a foreign language, or encountering a foreign way of life - by experiencing difference, we not only learn about others, but we learn more about ourselves. The dark corners of our deepest assumptions are put under the light of scrutiny, and thus we are given the opportunity to consider them consciously.

Maybe you'll be the next person to get people thinking in a new way. It's worth the time and effort.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Come see me at ConDor in San Diego!

Next weekend, that's March 8-10, I'll be headed down to San Diego to attend the ConDor convention. Their theme for this year is "There and Back Again: Journeys in Fantasy and Science Fiction." I'm really excited to go, not only because Connie Willis is the author guest of honor, but because there are just so many awesome people coming! David Peterson, the creator of Dothraki for Game of Thrones, will be there, and I'll be rooming with the ever-wonderful Lillian Csernica and Pat McEwen.

Do please, if you are in the area, consider attending! I always love to meet my internet friends. Here's my schedule for the weekend:

Friday, March 8 at 4pm -  
Retelling old stories - the new fairy tales 
with Cecil Castellucci, Michael Underwood, Lillian Csernica, and Laura Luchau

Friday, March 8 at 5pm -  
The inadvertent time traveller - what to do when dumped in another era
with Lillian Csernica, Maudlin, Connie Willis, and Scott Norton

Saturday, March 9 at 1pm - 

Worldbuilding - biology and sentient races
with Jefferson Swycaffer, Sheila Finch, Patricia McEwen, and Barbara Kesel

Saturday, March 9 at 3pm - 

with Lillian Csernica and Patricia McEwen

Sunday, March 10 at 11am - 

Worldbuilding - culture and society
with Eldon Thompson, Art Holcomb, David Peterson, and Lillian Csernica 

I hope you can make it!