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Friday, August 30, 2013

Video: Schools and Education in Worldbuilding

Here is the video of yesterday's hangout. Erin and I had a wide-ranging discussion that touched on a lot of issues surrounding the kind of schools one might find in a fantasy or science fictional world (and brought up still others!). I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dining and Eating Practices: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

It looks like I'm getting caught up on my recent hangout reports (though some of the older ones will remain video-only; sorry)! I was joined last week by Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Lesley Smith to talk about Dining, and Eating Practices.

I specified this topic in this way because it's all too easy to talk only about foods in a food-ingredients sort of way, and I wanted to make sure I looked at some of the ideas surrounding it as well, such as for example the way that meal times are defined and organized (which is definitely open for worldbuilding variation!). At this point the ideas of breakfast, lunch, and dinner are somewhat international, but for example in "At Cross Purposes" my otterlike aliens had very high metabolisms and had to be able to eat far more often, so I made sure to build rooms full of fish into their spaceships. There are other variations available here as well. When I first visited France, the pattern was to eat the largest meal of the day at midday and a smaller supper in the evening (though it has drifted more toward the American pattern at this point). Then there is of course what kinds of things one eats at the different meals - such as the difference between America, where breakfast is usually sweet, and Japan, where the traditional-style breakfast consists of fish, tofu, rice and miso soup (and sometimes raw egg and seaweed.

Lesley brought us onto the topic of eating implements by mentioning chopsticks and the spork. This of course made me think of the eating utensils used by the Skekses in The Dark Crystal - basically, tiny forks that attached to the tips of the fingers. Knives are also an option (one I used in "Cold Words"). There are also places where people eat with their fingers, and water bowls are used to keep the fingers clean. This made me think of napkins (which in Australia are called serviettes). In Colonial Williamsburg this summer we ate at a pub where the napkins were huge and intended to cover your whole front from neck to knee - and we also visited Japan, where they give you a (very) hot or cold towel called a "shibori" at the start of the meal, but then do not typically provide napkins at all thereafter.

There are also endless variations possible in table manners. Where do you rest your hands? Can you put your elbows on the table? Is it all right to slurp your food, or to burp or make other sounds associated with the eating process? Is it rude, or is it a compliment to the chef?

Are animals allowed at the table? I always imagine the descriptions I've read of medieval-style feasts with dogs wandering about under the tables. My cat always tries to sit on my lap at dinner, though he's sweet enough not to try to steal food from my plate. I could easily imagine a society where some kind of companion animal was important enough, and/or intelligent enough, to be expected to sit at the table and have some kind of table manners. Lesley mentioned how the cats were expected to eat the sacred food in Hand of Isis by Jo Graham.

Of course, as is the case with many worldbuilding elements, there are the expected stereotypes of fantasy eating. Often it's a big dining room with a big wooden table and lots of fancy silverware, with a giant roast animal of some variety. This contrasts with the typical depiction of travelers eating - which essentially consists of a campfire by the road and some kind of stew. Or perhaps the travelers stop into the inn by the side of the road and engage in a socially regularized interaction with innkeepers and other guests. It's certainly worth considering how to move away from these, especially if your scenario is not actually medieval European.

I'll refer you here to my description of the banquet I attended in Kyoto's Arashiyama district. For this meal, every person had an individually sized table, and the tables were lined up in two parallel rows so the guests could face each other and the servers could move in between to access everyone's table without disturbing them from behind (but you can find a lot more detail at the link). We thought about other ways that the arrangement could be different: Roman banquets eaten on couches, for example.

I believe it was Jaleh who brought up the idea of the formal European meal where men and women alternate seats. This got us into some fascinating questions. Do men and women eat together at all? Are they expected to alternate seats? Do the people at the table order themselves by rank? Does it matter who is at your "right hand" or your "left hand"? And who controls the seating? Does it have any social intent? Sometimes at weddings (or in movies about them) you will see scenarios where people swap place cards trying to change who they eat with.

At my own wedding we had a French-speaking table and two Japanese-speaking tables, and we were careful not to seat all the Japanese guests together so that they wouldn't feel isolated from the group socially, but to seat them with American friends who also spoke Japanese. So are there language considerations to take into account when sitting down to a meal? Jaleh also mentioned that you don't see a lot of potlucks or buffets in fantasy; her wedding meal was a potluck. Lesley mentioned the "wedding breakfast" as a meal that was super-formal and generally associated with not-so-delicious food! Glenda talked about how in her area of small town Texas people would get married in their finery, then go home and change into jeans for the reception - which would be an outdoor barbecue with country music and dancing. What kind of entertainment is normal for mealtime? Is there any for day-to-day meals? Lesley mentioned that the "American-style prom" is popular in the UK right now, and associated with "hog roasts" - which surprised me!

Is there restaurant eating in your world? Stopping by the inn is a familiar scenario, as is the family eating at home. Occasionally you will see cafés, or marketplaces with food stalls (as in Anne McCaffrey's Gather days), but not as many scenarios where a group goes out to a restaurant, or goes to a mercantile district and has to pick a restaurant from several available in the area. Science fiction offers us cantinas, or hole-in-the-wall restaurants - even places like Quark's or Ten Forward or the dining area on a spaceship. There are also scenarios where people stay in their quarters and eat by themselves and never (have to) learn to cook.

As you are putting together the dining scenarios in your story, it's a good idea to consider the general bases of diet and eating - namely, agriculture and trade. What kinds of foods are grown? What kinds of foods are available? How expensive are they, and how difficult to acquire? What kind of currency do they use to purchase food? Is it "cash" or "credit"?

Is food an art form? Do people gain fame through cooking (on tv?)?

Jaleh asked what clothes people might wear for dining. Formal wear? Jeans and t-shirt? What other kinds of options might there be in alien or fantasy scenarios? We agreed that there were practical reasons why white gloves wouldn't work well for a barbecue.

How are you called to the table, and how do you come there? When do you leave? Do you have to ask permission?

Are you expected to finish your food? Do you leave things on the plate to indicate that you are finished? What are the expectations for the person serving? How do you show that you've had enough? When drinking beer in Japan, you are not expected to pour for yourself, but another person can pour for you so long as there is room in the glass, either just to help you or to indicate that they would like you to help them with their own glass. If you are finished drinking, you have to leave your glass full so nobody can attempt to refill it!

How much food is available in this society? Times of scarcity and plenty will vastly change the rules and manners surrounding meals. In times of scarcity, you eat every bite whether you like it or not. In the Depression, people would keep pan drippings so they could make gravy and serve it over stale bread.

In America, it is very common to be overserved at a restaurant, and there is an expectation that you will take food home. My husband and I often share a meal because typically there is enough food there for two.

Lesley mentioned that in the current times of austerity in the UK, "A girl called Jack" has become very famous by teaching people how to cook with very little money.

We also mentioned how Americans are out of touch with cooking, and how there is the "foodie" movement which is getting people back to cooking, but which is biased toward people with lots of money. Glenda mentioned a weight surgeon (stomach band surgery) who became a cooking teacher because he felt that teaching people to cook was as big a part of their health as the surgery he performed.

There is so much more to this topic! However, we had to stop here. Thank you to everyone who attended and came up with so many fantastic ideas. Today at 11am PDT on Google+ we will be talking about Schools and Education. I hope to see you there!


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TTYU Retro: Manipulating the Feeling Conveyed by Character Names

Naming characters can be fun. It can also be hard. When you're using real names for people - by that I mean ones that come out of this world - I see lots of people using baby naming sites like this one to get ideas. One of the things that you'll run into on a baby names site is listings of the "meaning" of each name. The name Juliette means "soft-haired," for example. Peter means "rock." Averil, according to the baby names book we had at my house, means "wild boar battle maid" (I always loved that one!). There are tons of options and they will not only invoke their meanings (for those who know those meanings) but they will also invoke individuals' experiences with other people who have had that name. I know some people who will say things like, "I could never name a child Susie, because I've had bad luck with Susies."

Fantasy and science fiction often involves making up names. This can be fun and challenging in its own way - and also full of potential pitfalls. Each time you make up a name, it's important to consider not only the onomatopoetic feel of "bright" or "dark" consonants and vowels, for example, but also the different similar words that will be evoked by the name. Take Snape for example. It's just one letter removed from "Snake," and the p that replaces the k is quite similar to the k in that it is an unvoiced stop (unlike, say, "Snafe" or "Snade"). Combine that with the fact that he's in Slytherin, where we "slither in," and instantly he's the poster boy for every unpleasant characteristic we associate with snakes.

Sometimes you can have a name that gives you trouble. Take the name of my protagonist in For Love, For Power. Years ago, when I first named him, he was called Taglet. At a certain point, of course, I realized that was too similar to "piglet" and that was why things were feeling weird. I didn't want to change everything about the name, though, so I changed it to Tagret. That I thought was cool because it had a kind of "target" vibe, and a kind of "regret" vibe, both of which were relevant to my character. I have run into trouble, however, with critiquers who actually have misread the name as "Target." I have no doubt that the ubiquity of advertising for the merchandiser Target is in part at the root of this confusion... but here I am stuck in a place where my name is doing just what I want it to, and yet it's not right.

So, how to change it without changing the fundamentals?

One friend suggested that I remove the "r" and change the name to Taget. This had a certain appeal, except that the default pronunciation for the name would suddenly be "Tajet" or "Tazhay," and that I wasn't too big on. Doubling the "r" would turn it into Tagrret, with a big growl in the center. He's not the growling type. Doubling the "g" turns it into Taggret, which removes the misreading and doesn't change the pronunciation, but I'm leery of it because it may be seen as evoking "aggressive," which he definitely is not. Tagrit sounds too "gritty." In the end, I chose Tagaret (like Margaret).

The longer you've been using a name, the more time you've had to become accustomed to it as an identity for a particular character. This is one of the reasons why changing names can be so difficult. After all, you don't want to rename the person completely for fear of losing the "feel" you've already achieved. I appreciated the suggestion that I change one letter here or there, because it's taken me into a place where I feel I understand the name a lot better, and also what I was trying to achieve when I created it. It's something you might like to try if you're not entirely comfortable with one of the names you're using. Then you can see what kind of similar words you end up evoking with the various options you consider, and hopefully arrive at a better character name than what you started with.

It's something to think about.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Religion - Daily Practices and Religious Diversity, a Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This is a written report of the discussion I held on Thursday, August 15th on the topic of Religion in Worldbuilding, with a focus on Daily Practices and Religious Diversity. I was joined for the discussion by Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, Lesley Smith, Misha Gericke, Brian Dolton, and Spencer Ellsworth. Thanks to you all for your great contributions!

We started by asking the questions, "What are the kinds of evidence for religion that one can put into a story? How do you create a religious atmosphere?"

Lesley told us about an interesting fictional scenario in which the government was by Oracle, so was essentially theocratic, but where belief didn't have bearing on law.

Erin jumped in by talking about services and ceremonies, and daily practices such as saying "bless you" when people sneeze, of saying Grace. These don't necessarily have so much to do with faith as with habit, but they are the visible evidence of the existence of the larger faith within the culture. Names of the days of the week are another example of this, as are dietary practices.

Swearing is one common way to indicate that a society believes in a deity or set of deities, but though it can be fun and flavorful, it's usually not sufficient to give the sense of a religion permeating a society.

Sometimes it is interesting to ask: is there a place for contemplation in this society? Is it religious contemplation? What form does it take?

Lesley mentioned that she had been to a place in Kyoto, Japan called Teramachi (temple town) and that there had been all kinds of temples, including one dedicated to octopi. I myself have been to a temple dedicated to rats and mice, where a friend of mine who worked in biology (involving experiments on rats and mice) would make an offering each year.

If there is a religion in your society, how uniform is it? Christianity has been known throughout its history for having all kinds of heretical schools (or we could say, subgroups with varying beliefs).

Spencer mentioned his work on an Indian reservation, where the Tribal College is a community and spiritual center but also a 'law center.' He explained that in this small community there was a lot of blending between the spiritual, the social, and the political. We asked whether it was more likely for a cosmopolitan society to have religion be distinct from politics or law, rather than incorporated into all aspects of daily life.

Japan is a place where daily practices of religion can be found all around, yet at a low level. Most restaurants will have a shrine of some sort, and many families have a small Buddhist shrine, or Shinto shrine, in their homes (my homestay family had one Buddhist shrine and two small Shinto shrines which they kept fresh every day with salt, water, and fresh leaves).

When you are working with a fictional world, consider where that world falls on the spectrum of religious impact. How important is religion? Does it impact every aspect of daily life, or is it only relevant upon occasion?

Religion can sometimes serve as a motive for small social groups to cut themselves off from others. We considered the departure of the pilgrims for the American colonies, and also the isolation of the Mennonites in  Paraguay and Bolivia, and the family who lived for 40 years in isolation in the Russian taiga after fleeing for religious reasons.

The idea of separation of church and state came up, and Lesley asked about it in the context of US strife on the basis of religion. Erin explained that its intent is only to say that the government must tolerate any religion (or no religion) rather than specifying that the people themselves must be tolerant. I also mentioned that the era of Russian "godless" communism created a swing toward more overt expression of Christian religion in the United states, including the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and the words "In God we trust" on US currency.

These historical events and trends in the area of religion are excellent sources of inspiration for worldbuilders. I think it's really important to look at the religion that you are using in your world and ask yourself how it came to be in its current form. History leaves long-lasting footprints in all kinds of areas, and religion should not be exempted from that. I created a history for the Varin religion after I realized (years ago) that I only had one major religion in Varin, and that that was not a particularly "normal" state of affairs. Thus I came up with the idea that the Varini had been religious fugitives who had gathered members of their sect from various areas of the place where they previously lived, and left in ships to try to find an isolated continent where they would be free of persecution. Brian remarked that though the United States is a nation of immigrants, but for a long time all of them were Christian.

The US is known for being very Christian, and I have often been asked by Japanese people if I am Christian. Explaining the diversity of US religions can be an interesting challenge when traveling overseas. Erin remarked that though we think of the Middle Ages as being entirely Catholic, they were characterized by all kinds of splinter groups and heresy was something to worry seriously about (whether you were looking out for it, or part of it!). Religion does not stay monolithic - and neither does language, and the two have enormous influence on one another.

Lesley mentioned that the Tudors in England were known for burning people. Faith is divinely inspired but it also causes people to get into wars and political conflicts of all varieties.

We talked for a while about syncretic religion. There are places where multiple religions can coexist and sometimes more than one can be held by a single person. This is certainly the case in Japan, where Shinto and Buddhism both became accepted, and Buddhism adopted and reinterpreted a lot of deities from Hinduism as well. Christianity also is present in Japan. Sometimes people say "you are born Shinto, get married Christian, and die Buddhist" because they perceive each of these religions to be the "best at" a particular type of ceremony. This syncretic tendency in Japan is why Japan was open to learning about Christianity from the Portuguese early in their history. However, when Christian missionaries made it clear that syncretism and Christianity were not compatible - that they expected people to reject their previous beliefs if they took up Christianity (and by the way, they had armies) - that was when the Japanese government decided to outlaw Christianity. It led to a very bloody and ugly period in Japanese history when missionaries were hunted down and either martyred or forced to apostasize. Silence by Endo is a book which dramatizes this era, as is Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn. The treatment of Christians in this era was horrifying, but Japan had a serious vested interest in not letting the adoption of Christianity lead to the colonization of their country. (And if that's not a historical source of fascinating conflict, I don't know what is!)

I mentioned the author Mizuki Shigeru, who used the Japanese ghost stories in a series of manga, and also the recent discovery of 500 new fairy tales in Germany. We often think of these as cool or cute stories, but it would also be interesting to consider a society in which these tales were active as teaching tales, and as a means of teaching morality and right action to the young.

Thanks again to everyone who discussed this topic with us! I will be trying to get into the habit of posting my written reports on the Friday following each hangout, giving myself eight days to get my reports written (I should be able to handle that, right?). Thus, the report for the Dining hangout will be up this coming Friday.

This Thursday's hangout topic will be Schools and Education. I hope to see you there!

Friday, August 23, 2013

"Smoke and Feathers" is out!

Today my very first published fantasy tale has hit the electro-shelf, and I'm excited about it!

It takes the form of the ebook version of When the Hero Comes Home 2 edited by Gabrielle Harbowy and Ed Greenwood. The paper version will hit shelves in September...

But if you want to read "Smoke and Feathers," you'll need the ebook anyway, so why wait?

The book has a fantastic Table of Contents including stories from Deborah J. Ross, Chaz Brenchley, Cliff Winnig, Fanny Valentine Darling, Leah Petersen, Elaine Cunningham, Dan Rabarts, Mercedes Lackey, K.D. McEntire, and many more!

Here are the links:

To the Dragon Moon Press pop-up store for epub:

To the Dragon Moon Press pop-up store for Kindle:

To Goodreads:

I can't wait to read these terrific stories. I hope you enjoy them!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Video: Dining (eating practices) in Worldbuilding

We had a very nice discussion today about some of the more subtle variables involved in eating - both of the formal and informal varieties. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did, and can get some ideas for your own worldbuilding projects!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

TTYU Retro: When do you give up or start over?

There are some who will say "never give up." I would agree that if you really want to be a successful author, you must never give up on the process of trying to get there. But what about your stories? What if you have a story that's not coming together? When it's not working, how do you know whether to try to fix it or to let it be?

Here is my first piece of advice. If you don't care about the story, then you can give up.

But wait. What about "never give up"?

Only give up on your story if you don't care about any of it. At all. And the important point of this post is that it's going to be pretty rare that you don't care about anything in a story you've been working on. Don't look at a story like a single block, but as pieces coming together. Break up your concept for a minute and take a look at what it's made of; then ask, "Which parts of it do I really care about?"

 Here are some possible story elements that may be worth keeping:

The theme.
Maybe you want to tell a story that will bring up issues surrounding environmental protection, or about the loss of a parent, or about ethics in medicine. If that issue deeply speaks to you, hold onto it.

The characters.
Maybe you think your main character is so amazing and you dream about her, or it feels like he speaks to you, etc. Maybe the elements of that person's personality just won't leave you alone. You may find that you have to change everything around him, or that you have the wrong main character and you have to promote that other character - the one you care about - into the limelight.

The world/setting.
Is it the city you've always imagined? Or the steppes? Is it the social aspects of the society you've created or the magic system you're working with that really gets you going? Don't toss a whole world away if it moves you.

The plot.
This happens, and that leads to this happening, but then that other thing happens, and guess what they have to do? You may have particular sequences of events in the story, or particular single events that must occur - and they must occur, because they're so exciting that you just can't bear to let them go. So hang onto them.

A scene.
You know, that one scene where the two people are doing that thing together and this happens and they realize that and it changes everything? Well, there can be more than one way to lead into a situation, and the scene itself may be able to stick around even if aspects of the characters' attitudes change.

The tone.
The feel of the text is right where you want it, but for some reason the events and the characters aren't coming together, or the world feels like it has holes in it. Keep the draft so you can keep the evidence of the words you used to create that fabulous tone.

Now we get to the part where I talk about starting over. In a way, a story is a bit like a musical chord: all the different elements have to come together and resonate just the right way. Sometimes you're working on a story and something about it isn't working, but you can pinpoint the particular issue (say, the psychology of one of the characters) that you need to fix. Then you can go in and try to fix it. But say the whole thing is strangely off, and it feels like multiple elements aren't matching up, and they're creating dissonance. At that point it might be a good idea to start with a blank file.

Notice, I say "start with a blank file," not "start over." Starting over is a horrifying idea because it makes us feel like none of the words we've written, none of the effort we've put in, has been worth anything. But even if we've only got one element that will be retained, it's still worth that time and effort. And most of the time you'll find that you'll have 50% or more of the original concept remaining. The best reason for starting with a blank file is to keep the old text from pulling you back into the old chord, and the old broken harmonies. If you can redo the concept in your head, and start with a blank file, you may find that all the stuff you really care about will pour out of you in just the right way.

I had a story that I'd written half of, but which felt like it was never going to be finished. I had a character, but her motivations seemed all wrong. The theme of the story was belonging, but the belonging idea was totally implausible because the plot of the story called for too short a timeline for any kind of plausible belonging to kick in. So I re-tooled the character, changed the theme, brought in a different backstory, and changed only just a little of the front story, and suddenly everything started coming together in my head. I pulled up my blank file and it started getting written, flowing in a way it hadn't before. I've taken big pieces of the old text out of the file where I kept them for reference, but a lot of the stuff that had made it feel clunky was no longer necessary. With the story's new configuration, it was clear where the excess lay and how to remove it.

As long as you have something in your story that you believe in, don't chuck it out entirely. Keep what has value, even if you have to shelve it and think about it for a long time. The things on your shelf may come together differently and let you start over. And when you're starting over because it feels right, and you're excited about the way it feels now... it doesn't really feel like you're having to start over. It feels like an opportunity.

It's something to think about.


Monday, August 19, 2013

My thoughts on the Synopsis Struggle

We all need to know how to write a synopsis. My kids get asked to do this all the time with their reading, and as writers know, people who are working with you on your book often want a synopsis so they can quickly encapsulate the book's content. Great.

I think most of you are aware that writing a synopsis is nothing like writing the original book.

I'm currently writing a couple of versions of a synopsis - one at a length of 1-2 pages and one "detailed." I thought I'd give a little description of my process in case any of you are working through the same task.

My first piece of advice is this: don't try to work off the text. Any attempt I have ever made to "reduce" my book to a synopsis has resulted in a long, winding, completely pointless waste of time. If you have an outline, use it as your basis. If you don't, work off the major arcs as you understand them. I went back to my outline and pulled line items out of it to start, so that I wouldn't miss any of the really critical events. The result of this was a list of events. A list of events is not a synopsis, because it lacks cohesion, and more importantly, feeling.

Perhaps the toughest part of synopsis writing is encapsulating the book in a way that makes people care. Essentially, goals and stakes and emotional connection are just as important in a synopsis as they are in the book - just expressed differently.

It's worth giving some time and words to your inciting event, especially if (as is often the case) it sets the major arcs of the book in motion. I found myself describing it in more detail than I expected, but at the same time, its events are fundamental to understanding the stakes, so I just went with it. That actually made it easier for me to outline the continuing arcs thereafter.

Arcs are really important to a synopsis. The synopsis isn't going to have room for any but the most major ones. This novel has three point of view characters, each with two major and often several minor arcs. But only one character is the "backbone character," so it's his arcs that have to define and organize the synopsis, and in fact, only one of his two major arcs (the power arc that organizes the book's events chronologically) gets most of the attention. His goals, and his emotions, have to organize all events and any mention of other characters. I think of it as being a little bit like a very tight short story where you know everything has to serve the central point. Everything in the synopsis has to serve the central drive. It may be that in your story you have two people who are so equally responsible for the plot's events that they are well-balanced. Not so here. Things are going to drop out. A few things are going to change.

No, of course you don't want to report your story's events inaccurately. However, if you keep them in the precise order in which they occurred, down to the tiniest detail, you can end up with a synopsis that blows up in length awfully quickly.

I'll compare it to the way that Peter Jackson handled The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien told each main character arc completely separately, leaving readers to interpret their interrelation; Peter Jackson alternated the main arcs constantly. Jackson's is the technique that's most common in books and movies I have seen recently, but when you're synopsizing, you might not have time to do a lot of switches back and forth. It's okay to take some concurrent events and separate them out from each other a la Tolkien, to reduce the number of times you need to say, "Meanwhile..."

Once you've got all your events down in an engaging way, check to make sure that each thing links to the next, and that you have mini-arcs evident in your synopsis. In this case, mini-arcs mean three mentions of something important (as in my post Three Points Make a Story Arc). Also, make sure there are no events that seem to have no relevance to the whole. It's a good idea to have other people read and critique the synopsis and ask the questions, "Does everything make sense?" and "Do I care?"

The last step for me has been to ask myself whether there is anything missing that might contribute to the emotional impact of what I've already included. It's an interesting question, and I've found a couple of places which will make a lot more sense (especially on the emotional level) if I can add a few words. In the case of my current synopsis, it's hovering right at two pages long, so every few words I add have to be counteracted with streamlining in other places. It's always a good idea to strive to find the most economical way to express what you want in a synopsis, but particularly if your book is on the long side, you want to use all your words well. Don't give a reader the impression that you aren't able to use words efficiently, or they might guess the whole thing is padded unnecessarily.

It's a lot to think about, and still something I haven't done enough times that I feel entirely confident. However, the process itself has become easier and more logical, more subject to my own control. I guess practice makes us better at all kinds of writing!

I hope you find these musings helpful in your own process.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Video: Religion in Worldbuilding 2 (Daily practices and religious diversity)

Here is the video from our hangout yesterday. I had seven guests, and we had a great, in-depth discussion that centered largely on the question of daily religious practices, but also on the various kinds of evidence that appear to suggest the presence of a societal religion. We also talked about religious diversity of various kinds. I hope you find the discussion illuminating.
Many thanks to everyone who attended! I hope to see you all again soon.

Next week's hangout will be at 11am PDT on August 23, and we will be discussing Dining - food, eating implements, etc. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

TTYU Retro: The scariest question - "Why should I care about this story?"

Have you ever gotten a critique that said, "I'm not sure I care about this story"? It could be the most frightening comment out there. Not "the setting needs work" not "the characters aren't coming together" - no, seemingly everything is working but the reader just doesn't care. This question is a complete deal-breaker on a story, but very often, a critiquer who wants to ask the question doesn't dare, because he or she knows how terrible it will sound to the person being critiqued.

That's why you need to be asking yourself.

There are two optimal times when one can ask this question. The first time is when you're designing your opening hook. After all, the hook is going to have a much harder time "hooking" if the reader doesn't care! The next time is when you've finished a draft and are going back to make sure it's all working as planned.

So what is it that makes a reader care?

This is a tricky question, and not everyone will answer entirely the same way. However, the best place to look is at the protagonist and their goals, and what will happen if those goals are not met. Typically I'd recommend doing the check by asking three (pairs of) questions:

1. Is this a protagonist I feel like following? Why?
2. What is the protagonist's goal? Does it seem worthwhile?
3. What will happen if this goal is not achieved? Is it bad?

Question 1 is really about how relatable your protagonist is. Likeability can be a plus, but if that person shares some general concerns with the reader, that can make them more relatable. Also if the protagonist has very unusual skills or other features that make them fascinating, that is a great help.

Question 2 is a bit sneaky. Occasionally I'll have trouble with it - not because my protagonist has no goal, but because my sense of the protagonist's goal might not make it out of my head onto the page. If the protagonist doesn't want anything, it's hard to get on their side. It's also hard to see where the story might be going. So make sure that you're checking to make sure your lead character has a direction to go.

Question 3 is about stakes. As Janice Hardy would say, if a character has a choice, and both are fine so it really doesn't seem to matter which one he/she picks, then why should we care? If my character's goal is to eat the ice cream, that's not necessarily worth caring about. If my character's goal is to keep from starving, that's a bit more meaningful. Or if my character's goal is to eat the ice cream without permission and thus pull a prank that will make him/her the god of all kids at the school, risking getting in serious trouble with the principal, then that could work too.

In my experience, this is the comment that hurts most from a critiquer. But it is also one of the most critical. I therefore encourage you all to ask it of yourselves before you have to hear it asked by someone else!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The (frightening) power of a good story

We all know that good stories can be very powerful. They can broaden our minds, put us through the emotional wringer, even teach us things that are relevant to our real world experience.

Then, of course, there are times when they teach us things that are wrong.

Not long ago we saw a really good - and hilarious - video describing the real sound that swords make when they are pulled from a scabbard (which has unfortunately been taken down since). Essentially, it explains that the noise we commonly hear in movies when we see swords drawn is incorrect. Swords do not say "ssshhhinggg!" when they are drawn. But we've heard the "story" so many times - so many more times than we've heard the real sound - that it's hard to hear the actual sound in our minds! We can easily end up writing that "ssshhhingg" into our own stories without even thinking about it. And thereby we perpetuate a myth.

This is something that also happens with internet memes, where we engage in the repetition of a story. Sometimes the story is true, and sometimes it isn't. I know I've been caught out before, accidentally passing on a story that was incorrect. I generally try to let everyone I passed it to know that I made a mistake, but I still feel bad. I've been helping to perpetuate a myth.

Stories have real power. A story that is shared by thousands and millions of people doesn't just exist on its own any more. It persists as a kind of language - a vocabulary shared by all the people who have shared the story itself. I think of the way that geeks of all stripes will trade quotes from their favorite books, often supplying the first line of a pair and waiting for the other person to supply the second as a kind of password. The world is now full of people who know what "muggles" are. And words like "chortle" have become part of the general English vocabulary because of Lewis Carroll's success.

At least we know the sources for those stories. It's far more dangerous when the stories told are told about real life. Here is an article I found both dismaying and fascinating, about characters we create. The characters of our reality myths can be the most damaging of all. "Fake geek girl" is a current one, which has been accepted by the members of a particular social group as a shared story, a shared character, a shared overlay upon reality. Anyone who has ever had such a character overlaid upon them knows how frustrating this can be. The character becomes the lens through which you are seen and understood by whoever accepts the underlying myth/story. The character also serves as a blind that covers up and attempts to streamline the complex reality of a person.

Stories are important. We turn the events of our lives into stories, which we share with others. These stories do fall into patterns. However, they can't be entirely regularized. Every person's story is unique. Furthermore, we can't help but understand other people's stories in terms of our own. It's when we stop at the borders of the story as we have understood it that the story has the power to shut down understanding and create problems.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Google+ Hangouts to resume tomorrow, August 8th

I'm excited to be starting hangouts again! Our first one will be tomorrow at 11am PDT, and our topic will be Pets in Worldbuilding! I hope you will come to join us for the discussion.

Here are all the hangout topics for this month:

August 8th:  Pets

August 15th:  Religion Part 2

August 22nd: Dining
August 29th: Schools and Education

I look forward to seeing you! Tell your friends! :)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Culture Share: Japan - A Banquet by any other name...and Cormorants!

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture ShareJuliette Wade discusses the city of Kyoto, Japan.

When I was in Japan last month (the jet lag is just wearing off!), my family was invited to a banquet. It was such an astonishing experience, and so entirely escaped my default vision of a "banquet" that I thought I should share some of it with you. It just goes to show how, when you change the underlying cultural values and assumptions, lots and lots of little attendant details change as well.

I'll tell you about the evening and how it happened.

We had gone to a lunch restaurant run by one of my friends - a friend I have had for 22 years, now (yikes!), ever since I was attending my senior year of university in Kyoto, Japan. It was my first chance to introduce my kids to my friend, and she was as always extremely welcoming and the best cook I can think of (the kids are still raving about her donburi). She asked us if we would like to go out to dinner with her the following day, and to do X. Never having heard the vocabulary for what X was, I asked her to clarify, and she said, "We're going to watch the birds eat." My husband and I both agreed that dinner and watching birds eat would be wonderful, and made arrangements to attend.

We had no idea what "watching birds eat" meant. However, we are always ready for new experiences. Also, we know there are many seasonal activities in Japan which happen in conjunction with eating and drinking in some way. Hanami, for example, is when you go out and eat and drink under the cherry blossoms in April. Tsukimi is when you go to an evening party in the autumn and watch the moon.

Note for people writing Japan-based stories: always, ALWAYS know what season it is during the story you are telling. And do a bit of research on that season and what it signifies in Japanese culture.

So the following day we met my friend and took a taxi out to the far northwestern district of Arashiyama. Arashiyama is famous for its hills covered with maple leaves which turn red in the autumn. This particular area is also known for the monkeys which come down from the hill to drink and play by the riverside, and for the temple that the monkeys visit. We didn't see any monkeys while we were there.

The banquet was in a big formal restaurant. This is the approach to the restaurant after dark:

We went in, removed our shoes, stepped up into the slippers provided by the restaurant, and were led upstairs to the room where the banquet was to be held. First to arrive in the room was my son, and he received a round of applause from the people assembled there - I assume because my friend had been telling stories about us and announced that we would be attending. This group is made up of about eighteen to twenty people, a group of friends who have been getting together for events like this for quite a number of years.

The room was rectangular, with one of the short ends of the rectangle (and the corner) all in windows looking out onto the river and hills. The people were arranged in two parallel lines. Each person attending the banquet got an individually sized table about two feet across, and these tables get lined up in two facing rows, each with its own high-backed chair. This was not a tatami room (i.e. with rush mats). I suspect that in one of those, the tables would be of the same size but far lower height so people could sit on zabuton cushions on the floor. In between the two rows of tables was a staging area for the servers, who wore kimono. On my table as I sat down was a copy of the evening's fixed menu, which had been originally written in near-illegible (for me) calligraphy. I could read just enough to get a vibe off of each entry and know when I'd be seeing fish, or meat, or something boiled or fried etc. I was sitting beside my friend on one side, and my family on the other, and my first impression was that I probably wouldn't be speaking to anyone else for the duration of the evening, since the people who would have been across the table from me were actually about eight feet away. Here's a photo which shows many of these details:

If you have ever eaten a traditional Japanese meal, you will know that it often has many small dishes with different little things in them. In the photo above, you can see that my kids were served special bento boxes, and also plates of tempura with dipping sauce. And tea, of course, and an orange soda (the label reads, "Kirin Drink up! Enjoy refreshing times."). This was the children's meal option. The adults drank mainly cold tea or beer, and our own meal came in waves, most of which involved only a very few bites of food. This was fortunate, because there were so many of them. Many of the things which I hadn't figured out on the menu were just as opaque to me when they were put in front of me, and a few remained mysteries even after I had eaten them! The theme of the evening's menu was dishes appropriate to the Gion Festival season in mid-July. One example of a dish was a single mouthful of minced beef with seasoning on it, which came in a tiny glass bowl just the size for the food it held. Another was a red flower that looked almost exactly like a small red pepper, which when you opened it contained a single yellow-dusted bead of gelatin candy, only mildly sweet. There was also a banana leaf that had been curved up into a boat shape and had three individual bites of different foods on it. Here was another item, somewhat resembling a miniature shabu-shabu, thin slices of pork over bean sprouts that cooked on the table before you, and which you could dip into one of two dipping sauces:
The tiny dish in the foreground holds a pinch of grated daikon with red spice on top, and some finely sliced green onions, to be measured as needed into one of the dipping sauces. You can also get a glimpse of the menu there behind the cooking dish. The quantity of dishwashing required after a meal like this is prodigious.

As the meal proceeded, people began talking more and more, and several members of the party got up and walked around the tables (both outside and inside) to chat with other people while they ate. In fact, by the time we were all finished eating, the atmosphere had become a lot less formal and more friendly. People were joking and talking, and my daughter was exchanging waves and signs with some ladies across from her.

Before we left on our trip, my husband and I had decided to teach our kids some short Japanese songs to sing while we were in Japan. We proposed, toward the end of the banquet when everyone was feeling more comfortable, that we might like to sing them. This suggestion was enthusiastically accepted, and the four of us got up in front of the windows and sang "Haru ga kita" (Spring has come) and "Mikan no hana" (The Orange Flowers), to rousing applause. Several people even sang along with the first song. Of course, they weren't suited to the season of Gion festival (oh, well) but everyone really appreciated the songs. Time and again during our trip we were shown that this was a really good thing to have done.

After dinner we all came back down to the front of the restaurant, passed by a beautiful arrangement of flowers which are only displayed during Gion Festival season, and crossed the street to the riverside. There we walked down a gravel area to the river's edge, where a boat was waiting for us. We boarded one or two at a time by getting into the stern of the boat, taking our shoes off and putting them in plastic bags, then stepping over a little bench into the flat center section of the boat, which was covered with tatami mats. The boat itself had a roof over it, hung with white lanterns. Each lantern had pictures of cormorants on it. Once we had all gotten settled into places on the mats, the boat pushed off. It was poled out into the middle of the stream and then came to rest against a set of small pilings that separated one level of the river from another (with about a step-sized waterfall). There we rested and watched the cormorant fishing.

I struggle to describe what this was like. There are moments when you realize that there is magic in the world, not as it exists in stories, but as it exists in the atmosphere of experiences that you have not anticipated, had never imagined, and may never experience again. It was dark, except for the dim white lanterns and the lights of the Arashiyama buildings reflected on the water. Then from further up the river came wooden fishing boats, each managed by three men. One of the men poled the boat, another carried an oar, and the third (who wore a straw skirt) held six cormorants on rope leashes. These birds apparently are not fed the morning of these excursions, so they will fish avidly. They have rings around their necks to prevent them from swallowing the fish they catch. There is an iron basket of burning firewood suspended over the water from one end of the boat, and its light attracts fish. The cormorants are released into the water, where they dive after fish. When the bird-handler notices that one of the birds has caught a fish, he reels it in on its leash, wrestles the fish out of its throat while it flaps its wings indignantly, then tosses the fish into the boat and the bird back into the water. My kids were rather indignant on behalf of the birds, but we were at least assured that once they are finished fishing, the cormorants get to go home and have a big meal of their own. We watched this process for about twenty minutes before returning to shore. This is the best photo I was able to get of the fishermen.

I hope this gives you some ideas for stories, some thoughts about different ways of life and different definitions for familiar words, and maybe the idea that you should visit Japan someday. Not just for Pokémon and Studio Ghibli, either.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

New Column out in Blue Shift Magazine!

Today I was excited to see that Blue Shift Magazine is available! This is a brand-new science fiction magazine from White Cat Press, and I have a worldbuilding column in the inaugural issue. Go check it out, here!