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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Myke Cole and BREACH ZONE: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Google+ Hangout Report with VIDEO

We had a great time at our specially scheduled hangout. Myke Cole treated us to many stories and insights into his books and his worldbuilding.

I started by asking him to describe his latest book, third in the trilogy consisting of Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone, to our guests. He told us that Peter V. Brett describes it as "Black Hawk Down meets the X Men." In the third book, the US government's heavy regulation of magic breaks down and leads to an invasion of New York City. He says he's proud of how the three books differ from each other: different main characters, and differences, in how people view themselves and interact. Myke considers character interaction to be very important (and I agree!).

He told us how he considers this trilogy a kind of exploration of people's reaction to unadulterated power. He cited Max Weber's statement that governments have a monopoly on the use of force. The argument is that we don't speed because we might get pulled over, might have to pay a fine, and we have to pay a fine because we could potentially have violence or death visited on us as the ultimate penalty. He cited Somalia and Afghanistan as places where the government's ability to use force is exceeded by that of the population, and where that has become a serious problem.

Thus, in his books where magic has returned to the world, it becomes the "new nuke" and directly challenges this force dominance relationship. Myke sees the extensive rules surrounding the military and behavior within it to be necessary because its members possess deadly force power, and thus must be predictable and controlled. When people refer to military members as "machines," it is often pejorative, but that quality is by design. As he sees it, a war band values heroism, but a modern military values professionalism.

The background of his trilogy is quite similar to the story of tragic terrorist events, in that the advent of magic leads to disasters, and then to outcry and overreaction, the demand to "make us safe." Then of course there comes discontent with a world of restrictions.

I then asked Myke how much of his vast knowledge of the military actually makes it onto the page. He spoke about how valuable the writer's workshop Viable Paradise had been for him, but as with most kinds of training (even spy training!), it's hard to know how much of the information imparted will be vitally important and really be what the learner needs. In a large heap of "good" there will be a small piece of "precious," but you never know when you will find it. He also mentioned a friend's father who built model ships, and made sure to put 1/16 scale hams in the fridge in the mess hall on a deck that people would never see when the model was completed. Writers do a lot of work that nobody sees. You can have vast amounts of knowledge, but only a small amount makes it onto the page. Myke says that he also has to balance 2 sets of reader expectations and 2 audiences. Some readers come in with an expectation of a particular attitude toward the military, an expectation of a particular type of gender depiction, and an expectation of lots of detail about military hardware. Other readers are alienated by military jargon. He wants to make sure he appeals to those readers, and so he estimates that 75% of the military stuff doesn't make it onto the page. There are also things that he didn't put on the page that his readers, including his agent, asked him to explain. These include things like specifying that ROE stands for Rules of Engagement.

Myke spoke about his frustration with people's assumptions about military people being heroes and kickass etc. based on superficial expecttations. Myke's main character from Control Point, Oscar Britton, was criticized by many readers for being a person who struggled with his situation, and a "screwup."However, Myke emphasized that membership in the military does not diminish one's humanity, and that portraying that was important to him even if it violated reader expectations. He says "You have to take risks." He believes in following his own vision, even if it means taking unpopular positions, and he has even had disagreements with his agent, though he admires his agent's instincts greatly. He decided to weave together two narratives in two time periods, rather than keeping it chrono-linear, and he felt it worked best in the end.

I asked him about his interactions with fans, in particular the contest he had for fans to come up with new covens and insignias for them, and asked how much influence his fans had had on the way his world developed through the three books. He felt that his readers had helped him by crowdsourcing some aspects of the world's complexity. He cited his experience fighting in Iraq as something that really increased his awareness of the complexity of the world. He was sent to capture and kill specific people, and there was a certain demonization that went with that in order to make the job doable, but though the people he was sent for were Sunni Muslims, he was also shot at by Shi'a who had nothing to do with the people he was looking for. Then of course, there were some quietist Shi'a and some non-quietist. There were political complexities, and varying attitudes toward Americans. The understanding he came to about the complexity of the situation was part of his realization that he didn't want to be part of this conflict. He also feels that a fictional world has to be as complicated as ours or it's not believable. However, such a world (like ours) can only be handled in short narrative bits. This is one reason why he appreciated his fans' help in expanding it.

Reggie Lutz asked Myke if he has ever worked in collaboration, given his sense of being in charge of his work. He said he's considered it but it makes him nervous. There are certain kinds of things where he digs in his heels. I mentioned my own experience with collaboration and talked about how important it was to establish expectations up front about the different collaborators' contributions.

At the end of the hangout we talked a bit about his forthcoming book, Gemini Cell, which is different yet again from the trilogy he's published, being set in an earlier time when magic is first coming into the world. He also said it has no epigraphs, which differentiates it from the other books. He is a guy who always likes to be doing something new and exciting, and he felt that Breach Zone could not easily be followed chronologically, since it was definitely the grand finale of the trilogy

Thanks again to Myke for coming and sharing his world and his insights. If you would like to hear his thoughts in more detail, here is the video:


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TTYU Retro: Too many names? Tricks for managing your "cardstack."

I remember when I wrote my first ever short story. I took it in to the writer's workshop at my local convention, and I clearly remember the reaction of Dario Ciriello, who said (among other things) that I had way, way too many characters. I believe the number was 25 or so, in a 7500 word story.

The character number problem was the result of always having been a novel writer. I had come into that story already knowing all the characters because they were from a novel I'd already written, and I felt that it would be more accurate to reflect the actual knowledge of the POV character(s) by giving the names of the people they interacted with. This is not the wrong instinct, necessarily, but when you're working with a short story, or when you're working with the very first chapter of a novel, it's not a practical approach. Too many character names will lose your reader very quickly.

I suggest you think about the number of names as a stack of cards, a bit like a Rolodex. Each time you introduce a new person's name, the reader adds a card. If the cardstack gets bigger than what the reader can hold in short-term memory at any given time, the reader will start to lose track. It's worse when you're dealing with a non-real world, because the unfamiliar names you give to elements of the physical or social environment will also require cards. This is a pretty heavy memory load.

So how do you go about easing that memory burden for a reader, in order to keep a short story from getting out of control, or in order to help your reader enter your world more smoothly? Here is a list of suggestions that I often employ in my own work.

1. Name your protagonist.
This isn't always necessary (in first person narratives, the protagonist can often get away with just being "I") but in fact it helps the reader create an unambiguous "card" for your protagonist if you give them a name. So I highly recommend it.  I also recommend:

2. Make your protagonist the subject of the sentence within the first paragraph.
Again, this isn't always necessary, but to have the character appear in the position of actor/person who drives the story, right up front, can be incredibly helpful when you're trying to get grounded and stay there.

3. Keep track of the named characters to be introduced in any scene or chapter.
Making a list of the people present in any scene is often a practical approach. If it's looking like one person, easy-peasy. If it's more like 10, you should see red danger lights flashing! If you can keep track of the number of characters that need to be there, then you can more successfully decide how to manage their cards.

4. Try to introduce characters one at a time - or in systematic groupings.
 One at a time is, honestly, the easiest way to remember characters. However, if you are doing the one at a time approach for more than two people, it can start to look like a list, and you may want to vary your approach. In For Love, For Power, I introduced my protagonist Tagaret first, and then when he entered the ballroom with his three friends, I did them all at once to get the names out there, and after that started into the action where each of them had a chance to do different things. Here's what it looked like:

[Tagaret] stepped through the doors into the Eminence's grand ballroom, with his three best friends following behind him. (this section says, get ready to hear about three best friends) 

All the finest people were here; Announcements brought out a bigger crowd than musical events. Politicians, gentlemen and ladies murmured in anticipation, their jewel-colored suits and gowns glittering in the electric light of the chandeliers. Tagaret led his friends into the right side aisle, feeling the gossip-hungry eyes evaluate his new height, his poise, and his maturity before moving on.

"Fifth row," he said, as the chandeliers dimmed slightly. He handed extra tickets back to Fernar, Gowan, and Reyn. (after priming you to get ready for them, here are the three names in a list) 

"Wow," said Fernar. "Right up front — how'd  you get such good tickets to an Announcement?" (Character #1 gets his own turn, in the same order he appears in the list)

 Tagaret sighed. "They're for the concert, Fernar. My mother's the patron of the concert series."

"Great," said Gowan. "We can look right up at the Speaker of the Cabinet." (Character #2 gets his own turn, in the same order he appears in the list) 

Reyn aimed a punch at Gowan's shoulder. "Come on. Tagaret just said, we're here for the music." (Character #3 gets his own turn, in the same order he appears in the list, and aligns himself with Tagaret against the other two)

Placing Reyn and his alignment move as last in the series helps him to stand out from the others in the list. The scene then continues into more interactions where the three friends get to behave differently from one another. Part of what I was trying to do was prime the reader to get ready for a list of three so that he or she wouldn't start hearing one character after another and then wonder if or when it was ever going to end (would there be five friends? seven?). It's a question of trying to keep the information to a manageable bite size.

5. Use titles and relationships, not just names.
You can have a much easier time if you don't have to give everyone actual names. Readers will have a hugely easier time dealing with Mother and Father or Uncle or Bro or Sissy than they will with names, particularly names in an unfamiliar fantasy or science fiction language. Those relationship-based names will become annotations on a single card rather than requiring an extra card for each. You can also use titles like the Speaker of the Cabinet or the Eminence. These are not quite freebies, since they do require the reader to create a model of the government (I suppose you could call this its own type of card) but they are much more easily parseable because they have meaning in and of themselves, relative to a type of government. Names just have to be memorized as-is, so anything you can do to scaffold them meaningfully will be helpful.

6. Try to stay focused on the needs of the scene at hand (one cardstack at a time!).
When I was writing the first chapter of my novel, the first set of names that came up were those belonging to Tagaret's family, and I chose to keep Tagaret in name form and all the others in relationship form (Mother, Father, his brother). Then I moved into the main action of the chapter, which includes Tagaret and his three friends in a very crowed place. There, everyone was described in relation to their appearance or position, and none of them had names except for Tagaret and his friends. The only other names that appeared were caste names, which have to do with societal structure and do require their own cards (which is one if the reasons I wanted to keep other names to a minimum). At a certain point, Tagaret had an opportunity to mention some of his family members in relation to a topic that the boys were talking about. What I found was that if I actually mentioned his brother's name, it seemed to shift the focus of the chapter back on the "family cardstack" that I had established at the beginning, and make it harder to stay with the action of the scene which was focused on the "friends and society" cardstack.

The point here is that we tend to think of things in groups (names, numbers, etc.). Handling a single group and the names within it is easier than switching from one group to another. When I left behind the family cardstack at the front of the chapter, it needed to stay out of the picture until the main action - the one that required the friends and society cardstack - had finished.

I hope you'll find these techniques useful when you're working with complex worlds that require a lot of names and memorization. Again, anything you can do to make your reader's job easier will help them stay with you.

It's something to think about.


Monday, January 20, 2014

What gives a story "lift"? Three types of story arcs.

We often talk about external and internal conflicts in stories. The idea of having both - i.e. having an external challenge the protagonist has to deal with, but also giving her or him some internal struggle - is a very important one. Only having external conflict makes the story seem flat; only having internal conflict makes the story feel like nothing's happening. It's great to have both! Moreover, having the external conflict's arc line up with the internal conflict's arc so that the two can be resolved by the same climactic event is also really great. It gives the story dimension and drive, and certainly lifts it above what it could have been with one arc type alone.

But there may be still more you can do.

Stories don't just have one or two arcs total. They have many. Any time you see a progression of change within a character, or a series of three (or more) events that occur on a related topic with a timeline of development, you have an arc. You can make sure to put in an arc of one type or the other.

For example, I recently wrote a story about a girl who was going crazy trying to study for her college entrance exams, who runs afoul of some ghosts. I knew she had an arc relative to her success on the exams, and an arc relative to her personal sanity. Those two were solid. But the ghosts didn't have much of an arc at first, and I was struggling to give them one. Then I realized that this was a fantasy story, so it would be far more meaningful if my character encountered some kind of supernatural danger that threatened her directly - and that was where I got the idea for the character arcs of the ghosts. Suddenly, with an arc of supernatural risk that linked both to the ghosts and their purpose, and to the girl herself, the story came together and became more meaningful.

I've also been working on a story in my Varin world. The main character is Pelisma, a woman who has held a position of power but who is losing that - or worries about losing that - because she has also been going blind. [internal] She is also encountering a problem with a potentially dangerous type of organism that has inexplicably become attracted to her. [external] I had the story completely drafted, but it still felt like it was missing something.

One of the things I've noticed when I speak to friends who are authors - at least the ones who tell me about their fan mail - is that readers love when there is something in the story that is relevant to their own lives. This can be a "message," if it's handled well. (I know messages in stories can be really annoying when done badly, but they can be done deftly, too.) A story that evokes real issues in the real world has a kind of "lift," or extra dimension, that it would not have without that.

I decided that Pelisma's story was missing that special "something" to link it back to our own world, and give readers a sense that in Pelisma's experience, they were seeing something from their own lives. When I thought back over what I had written, I knew that loss of competence was something people could probably relate to in a distant way, but that it didn't really tackle anything deeper (and certainly didn't articulate with disability issues in a way I would have liked, since it treated her blindness as a "problem" that could potentially have some "solution"). On the other hand, there were hints in the story of another issue. Pelisma is also struggling with strong surges of emotion, such as frustration and helplessness, as she deals with the changes in her life. Overall, this leads her to feel that she doesn't have the control over herself that she once had. She feels as if her competence and self-control in the emotional arena have been compromised... and that to me was far more interesting.

Pelisma's story ends up with three arcs: 1. the external threat, 2. the internal issue of whether she can continue to do her job and keep her purpose in life, and 3. the additional internal issue of whether she is becoming "emotional," and whether she should consider that a weakness. The word "emotional" in our own world is definitely one with negative connotations, and is central to disputes about femininity, masculinity, and bias. I'm excited about strengthening that arc in the story, because I think that this will create an extra dimension that will take the story from "interesting" to "compelling."

What kind of arcs in your story might readers relate to on a personal level? What real world issues might it evoke?

It's something to think about.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Misunderstandings in Worldbuilding - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout Report with VIDEO

I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Reggie Lutz. Great to have you, and thanks to everyone who watched online!

We began the discussion by talking about the question "What is a misunderstanding?" I wanted to make sure that we knew the boundaries of what we were talking about. In particular, misunderstandings are not "lack of understanding," as when two people, or a human and an alien, or two aliens, etc. do not share a common language and thus cannot communicate effectively. Very commonly when we think of misunderstandings, we think of disagreements of manners and politeness, like the episode of Star Trek where the crew met diplomatically with another group that required perfect greeting manners and pronunciation or the meeting would fall through. There is a danger in that definition that misunderstandings will be underestimated in their importance, and that the group who might become offended can be perceived as hoity-toity, stuck in a not-so-intelligent mindset, etc. Misunderstandings can often be far more important despite earnest good will on the part of both sides.

Jaleh mentioned an episode of "Firefly" where Mal accidentally got married. This was a case where two groups of humans with different kinds of customs got together, and he agreed to engage in activity that he believed had no ceremonial significance, but it turned out he had participated in locally binding marriage rites. There seemed to be possibly a degree of entrapment involved, but the gap in understanding was certainly there! There was a somewhat similar episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which Trip unknowingly engaged in physically binding activity with an alien and was impregnated.

We all agreed that we found it most interesting when misunderstandings were used to propel the plot of a story. Reggie said that often we hang our hat on manners when there are lots of other ways to be misunderstood. She gave the example of her bird, who was making unhappy-sounding noises that she explained to us were really sounds of the bird being thrilled. She also told us that the bird likes to put its head in her mouth, which she finds pretty gross, but which is an expression of affection among birds (mouthing the head).

I have always been frustrated with situations in film and TV where I figure all people had to do was talk to each other and the problem will be solved. This may in part be due to the fact that I have little trouble being frank, and am not often in situations where there are high social costs for speech. Reggie mentioned Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest as a wonderful example of plot-driving misunderstanding within our own culture.

Jaleh noted that there were many plot-driving misunderstandings in Babylon 5.

I told the story of a cultural misunderstanding between myself and my husband when we met. The two of us were studying in Japan, and thus surrounded by a foreign language and culture. The result was that we overestimated the extent of our cultural similarities (being an American and an Australian). One specific thing we misunderstood was the cultural significance of swearing. In my experience, swearing was used for aggression and forcefulness, while in his, swearing was added for flavor (like pepper on a pizza!). Before we realized we needed to discuss it, this was something that kept us from becoming close, because I would be overly hurt when he wanted to speak colorfully!

Glenda noted that different cultures have different rules of physical personal distance. Is coming close aggression or friendly behavior? Is backing off standoffish, or polite? The rules of distance are not confined to physical position either. Jaleh mentioned that people can be crammed together on a subway train but feeling safe unless someone decides to make eye contact. Glenda followed up on that, noting that eye contact rules can be very different in cultures and can cause serious problems in classrooms where a teacher equates attention with eye contact. Jaleh also mentioned the question of whether, when meeting new people, it is more appropriate to be introduced by a third party or to introduce oneself. Breaking rules like these can lead not only to offense but potentially to fear of harm.

I shared the story of a colleague of my husband's who was startled during a summer meeting with Japanese clients when all the clients became flustered suddenly. It turned out that this colleague had placed one of the clients' business cards beside his water glass, and it had started absorbing condensation from the glass. When a business card is metaphorically associated with a person's face, this can be rather alarming. This is also why, in Japan, you take someone's business card with two hands, and never stuff it in your back pocket.

Jaleh insightfully pointed out that often misunderstandings arise when you don't know another person's motivation for their behavior, particularly when you don't know how to ask a question about it.

Reggie mentioned the situation when older couples, or members of the same family, will start sniping with each other and give outsiders the sense that they hate each other, when really it's just a joking exchange of insults. If we don't understand a group's expression of intimacy, and we overhear a conversation without understanding the background, we can draw the wrong conclusion quite easily.

I noted that in Brown and Levinson's research on Politeness they drew a distinction between "negative" politeness, defined as politeness behavior that deliberately references the autonomy of the person one is talking to, and one's own lack of desire to invade that autonomy; and "positive" politeness, defined as behavior that references an intimate relationship and a sense of closeness. Typically we tend to think of politeness in this negative sense, with our uses of please, thank you, etc. However, aligning ourselves with our friends in their social groups often involves positive politeness. The distinction between the two is definitely a possible source of misunderstanding. There is at least one culture in the world where to say "thank you" to a family member is insulting, because it is considered to be a distancing act that denies the importance of the intimacy relationship.

Reggie talked about her experience as a waitress, because one of the things waitstaff often do is use extreme politeness to create boundaries between them and their customers. She speculated that because we are accustomed to being served food in the home by parents or intimates that a degree of intimacy can be subconsciously expected by the people at the table. Boundary-crossing is common. Depending on the person, it might be welcome or unwelcome.

Another tricky question for misunderstanding is the borderline between politeness and dishonesty. My husband once entertained his friends (or so he thought) with a story about how he'd ridden a kangaroo to school. It went on too long because, he realized, they weren't recognizing that he was kidding. When he brought their attention to the joke they asked, "You were lying to us?" It's a funny story, but when relationships are at stake, it might not be.

Glenda mentioned that misunderstandings are common in negotiations, especially when trying to hash out middle ground. What exactly does "We'll consider that" mean? Is it positive or negative? There is also the problem of taking an exaggerated position as a prelude to more extensive bargaining, but being misinterpreted by someone who doesn't expect bargaining to be part of the interaction.

In a social setting, say one where you don't like the food, do you say you don't like it? Do you say some kind of white lie about not liking it? What are the social expectations for finishing what is on your plate vs. serving more food or drink? In Japan, if your beer glass is less than full, others will pour it full again, so if you want to stop drinking you need to leave it full rather than finishing it. This can cause trouble as it's a great way to get way too drunk! If someone makes you an offer, are you expected to refuse it? How many times? What if you really want help with your luggage but feel obliged to accept only on the third offer... and then the person takes your word for it after two refusals?

There are a lot of missed opportunities for misunderstandings in film and in books. I think specifically about James Cameron's Avatar, where they had a delightful exploration of the meaning of the alien phrase "I see you" but where no substantial cultural or linguistic understandings kept the plot from being anything but full speed ahead. These are real obstacles, and they can add so much to your story!

Another type of misunderstanding, that isn't typically classed as a misunderstanding, but I believe is one everyone should be paying attention to, is the privilege misunderstanding. What I mean by this is that in any given society, there will be social groups with privilege (of various types) and social groups without, in all kinds of interesting intersectional combinations. Typically the group with privilege does not experience the same social patterns of discrimination as the non-privileged group, and so those patterns of discrimination are functionally invisible to them. Thus, the significance of any single behavior is going to be interpreted drastically differently by groups who are privy to the patterns of discrimination and those to whom they are invisible.

One good example of this has been brought to my attention by a number of friends. It is the "black guy dies (because he got close to the white woman, or to save the white guy)" pattern in films. There are similar patterns for gay characters which don't allow them to pursue their own goals, only to support the straight characters and to sacrifice so that the straight characters can achieve what they need to. I will admit that I wasn't aware of these patterns because I hadn't been paying close enough attention. On the other hand, I have been aware of discrimination against women, like objectification, damseling, not letting the female character have any goals that aren't "supporting her man" etc. Typically a person will notice discrimination patterns if it they are highly relevant to them, if they are unusually observant, or if they have them brought to their attention. Without this awareness, however, you get the typical accusations of "you're so sensitive" "you're overreacting" "that's not happening" etc. These are misunderstandings, but of a very critical, and very volatile variety.

I would like to see more examples of privilege situations portrayed in fiction. I challenged the discussants to come up with examples, and Jaleh provided a great one, from Mercedes Lackey's DragonJousters series. The main character, after escaping serfdom and farm life, returns to his people, the Altans. His very different life history causes power and privilege distinctions in the Altan society to stand out to him, such as the power struggles between the priesthood and the Magi. Something's not right, and nobody notices. In this case, an outsider is able to see things differently. People in the non-privileged position also see things that others don't, but face different struggles in bringing them to the attention of others, and trying to make changes. I have spent a lot of time setting up a complex set of privilege relationships in my Varin world. Each caste is very self-centered (naturally) and has all kinds of strange ideas about the others - particularly those in the lower layers. Blindest of all, however, are the nobles, for whom it is quite easy to ignore the constant complexities and conflicts that the caste system sets up for everyone else.

There is plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding to become catastrophic. Glenda agreed that a sense of insult can lead to big effects. Jaleh mentioned conflicts of parenting style which can blow up spectacularly.

Misunderstandings can occur at many different social levels - family, relationship, diplomatic, international, and between coexisting social groups in a single society. A single individual's actions can be misunderstood if the people observing her do not have a sense of the reasons behind her behavior (Reggie mentioned a particular example of a character from her work whose love makes her fear, leading her to become rigid and critical).

Reggie mentioned also how technology errors can have devastating effects, as in This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow, when a bird is misunderstood to be a missile and leads to WWIII. I mentioned the Mars mission that failed because the two groups were using different units of measurement.

Thanks again to everyone who attended! I really enjoyed this topic. Join us at 4pm PST next week for a discussion with Myke Cole, author of Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TTYU Retro: Caught between too much pointless detail and not enough? Choose your "logic of caring."

This post was originally written in response to writer Linda Adams. Commenting on my post, "How much worldbuilding before you write?" she asked,

"Any additional recommendations for someone who is not detail-oriented? I can do the research, accumulate the details, but they don't mean anything to me. I end up either having not enough or putting way too much in. Makes it hard to figure out what to research. ... According to all my critiquers (this is a very consistent comment), my writing lacks details. When I put them in, I do too little or go too far, because they don't really mean much to me. Someone at Capclave said to just look at my coworkers desks to pick up details I could use, and I'm sitting here thinking: Yeah, and then I'd shovel all my observations in the story and everyone would tell me I'd gone too far with the details. So it makes research tough for me because I'm not sure what to research for specific details. Right now I'm reduced to: I have a garden. Gardens have trees, so I need tree names."

Perhaps some of you have run into this issue. I certainly have! Linda, thanks for asking this question, because it's an important one.

So what does make the difference between important and "extra" detail?

It's not whether details are available, because details are always available. If you think about it, the world is full of so much detail that we can't even begin to comprehend it all. As Linda says, gardens have trees, and trees have names, but they also have parts, and scientific names, and then there are the flowers, and who the heck cares about all that?

In my own experience, that is the fundamental criterion: whether someone cares about the detail, rather than the detail itself.

Now, you may say that this doesn't even begin to solve the problem, and you'd be right. How do you know what readers are going to care about? It's all a matter of taste, right? 

Fortunately, though reader opinion enters in, it's not entirely idiosyncratic. There are (at least) three logical ways to deduce what kind of details will be most relevant for readers. You can choose one or all of the above!

1. Genre
Readers will often come into a book looking for a particular type of experience. In fantasy, or in romance, the word "lush" is often used in praise - not so in thrillers or police procedurals. As a first step, consider what your audience will be looking for. If you're writing Regency romance, the details of people's clothing and the details of what rooms and homes look like are going to be very important, and demanded by readers. If you're doing very technology-filled science fiction, people are going to want to be able to glimpse how the world is put together and the kinds of technology that keep it running. All these details must not drag a reader off the main conflict of the story, but if they are absent, people are likely to feel the loss.

2. Character
This is the one I use the most. Characters, their cultural backgrounds and attitudes, and their differing perceptiveness, make a perfect filter for detail. Ask yourself what your character is looking for, and why, as he or she enters a room. That will tell you a lot about what details the character will notice, and if you are writing in tight point of view as I do, that basically means that you've eliminated all other details from contention. If the character doesn't notice it, or care about it, then it doesn't matter. Only if you are trying to make sure some special detail makes it in - like for example some clue to a puzzle you're leaving for the reader, which the character notices but doesn't understand until later - will you have to include something that the character doesn't pay much attention to. To go back go Linda's garden example, there's really no reason you need to know the names of the trees in a garden unless your character is a gardener, or a botanist, or for some reason deeply cares about the names of trees. Otherwise the character's emotional impression of the garden is more important, and the details you choose should contribute directly to that.

3. Metaphorical meaning
This is the one you'll often hear people laughing about. "The curtains were blue, and was it because the character was sad? Why does it have to be because the character was sad, when the curtains were just $&^%$ blue?" While I can see the humor in the joke, metaphorical meaning is a really good way to think through what details you would like to include. In some sense, you can tie it back to the emotion of the character, but this isn't the same as working with the character (as above) because it can be done with or without internal point of view. Even if you are working with a considerable degree of narrative distance, the details you choose to include will reflect - or can/should reflect - the character's attitude, and what's important to the main conflict about that scene.

I'll give you an example from my own work. Recently I was revising a scene in which the Lady of the house is about to go see her abusive husband in the hospital. She's feeling very conflicted about his illness, and feels like she needs strength, so she asks her servant to get her a jacket to wear (the "detail" is that she chooses to wear a jacket rather than going without). Her servant gets the jacket, internally realizes she wants it to be like armor, and thinks that he needs to become part of her armor as well. The first part of his realization, I suppose, is leading the reader into the meaning of the jacket detail (armor). But the second part, where he feels he needs to become part of the armor, evokes two things: a. the servant's desire to protect her, which he has always had, and b. the servant's desire to be close to her (to be worn). To be more specific, the servant goes from wanting to be her shadow (suggesting one kind of relationship) to wanting to be her armor (suggesting a different kind of relationship).

I hope this gives you some meaningful and logical criteria on which to base your choice of details. I have some other posts on this issue (Insider setting details/Audience setting details, Making description subjective) and I'm also happy to discuss in comments!


Monday, January 13, 2014

Some thoughts on the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

Recently I found myself watching the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" with my family for the first time in many years. I remember this being one of the movies I loved so much upon first viewing that I went to see it a second time in the theater - an honor which I bestowed on perhaps two or three films during my childhood (the other one I remember doing this with was Splash). At the time we decided to watch it, I wondered what my current writer-brain would think of it. If you're also a writer, you may have noticed that diving into this craft can sometimes mean drastically lowering one's opinion of many shows, books, etc.

The good news is that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" stood up to the writer-brain test. In fact, I think I had a deeper appreciation of it this time than when I was a child. The plot was really well crafted and I loved the way the protagonist's backstory fit right into the overall mystery. However, the biggest reason for my glee was stellar worldbuilding.

The story is set during the 1940's in Los Angeles, and the environment is well set-up. However, this is a very special kind of alternate history. They didn't just put together a vision of 1940's L.A., but one in which cartoons were real people and creatures who acted in the cartoons as actors do in films, and had their own district, and had grown along with the town. The inception of different characters along this timeline was clear, and for example we meet Betty Boop, a black-and-white cartoon character who has ended up working as a waitress because she has a hard time finding work "since cartoons went to color." While the origins of the toons were left relatively mysterious (we know they were drawn but not how they got their life force or precisely who created Toontown etc)., they clearly have a life of their own.

They also have their own culture. They have different driving rules because neither the toons themselves nor the cartoon cars can be destroyed by having an accident - which is why Eddie Valiant doesn't want Roger driving his car. They have different kinds of expectations for the manners of others. Eddie does well in Toontown because he's familiar with the 'toons and their ways, as when he is being pursued, and rips the white line from the center of the road and directs it into the wall (thereby causing his pursuer to follow it and splat against said wall). Judge Doom is also familiar with cartoon ways (for his own reasons) and therefore has a failsafe way of discovering that a toon is hiding behind the walls in the bar: "the shave-and-a-haircut trick." Because he is a cartoon, Roger continues to follow his own rules even when he is outside Toontown, as when he slips out of the handcuffs that attach him to Eddie while Eddie is trying to saw them open.  Eddie growls, "You mean you could have taken those off at any time?" and Roger replies, "Not any time. Only when it was funny." This really made me wonder if we were dealing with a physical law unique to cartoons, where Roger literally could not have extricated himself unless it was funny, or a cultural rule, where it would have been inappropriate for him to do so.

I was impressed again by the character of Jessica Rabbit, whose actions in the film lie right on a marvelous intersection point between strong-woman-character and cartoon culture. Modeled physically as she is between Veronica Lake (hair) and Vikki Dougan (the backless dress), she is in the ideal position to question sexist expectations. There's a reason why this scene is still well known, with its famous line, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." (it appears at 0:45 in the video below)
Jessica becomes a victim of others' judgment of her appearance in the film, but she does not sit there and let it happen. She's intelligent, she knows who to talk to to make change, and she does it. She also does some things that cast suspicion on her because of cultural misunderstandings between the cartoon world and the human world. In particular, she hits Roger over the head with a frying pan, stuffs him in the trunk and drives away with him to Toontown "because she doesn't want him to get hurt." This is perfect logic from the cartoon point of view, but from the audience's point of view, and from Eddie Valiant's, it looks very different. The other thing I like is that while she does get put in danger, she is never turned into a damsel in distress. When she does get tied up and has to be rescued by Eddie Valiant, she is tied up with her husband, which for me changes the traditional damsel equation significantly. The two of them are in danger because they are cartoons, not because they are male or female.

There is a lot more I could say, but these were the points that really stood out for me. If you enjoyed these observations, then it's highly likely you would also enjoy a rewatch of the movie. I welcome discussion in the comments.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Colors in Worldbuilding - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout report

Boy, did we have a lot of fun at the hangout this week. Either everybody was in the mood to start the year with a hangout, or colors was the perfect topic, or both, because lots of people came, and we even had folks discussing in the comments. Thanks to everyone who attended!

I began by explaining that we are accustomed to associating colors with certain kinds of values, certain kinds of emotions, and certain kinds of objects or situations within our culture. These associations come in "sets," but in fictional worldbuilding it's often valuable to try to break up these sets. Of course, as Cliff Winnig noted, the problem with using unfamiliar color values is that you can confuse people. He described a situation in which a bride wearing white was misinterpreted by Chinese viewers because white is traditionally a funereal color in China. Of course, our knowledge of other cultures' color values will depend on how much exposure we have to them through various media including TV and movies.

The author's task is to manage the associations brought into the mind of the reader as much as possible so that they can feel the understanding we create in the text.

Chandra rightly noted that readers are bringing associations with them to the text that may come from diverse microcultures. Thus, we can't assume that all readers will come to the text with the same sets of associations, anyway, and it behooves us to take the time to draw the color value associations so long as they improve the book, the character, the world, or a practice or doctrine in that context.

Colors can have religious, social, or magical significance. They can also be used for symbolism in the background of a piece. The movie Hero used colors wonderfully as a background emotional effect.

Because we'd been discussing the significance of white in Chinese culture, I spent a minute explaining its significance in Japanese culture, which is somewhat different. In Japan it means purity, and it's worn for weddings (brides wear white in both Shinto and Christian traditions, and male wedding attendees often wear white wedding ties). At New Year's, red and white are very important but they are also associated with female and male qualities. There is a TV song contest with a "red team" that is all female and a "white team" that is all male.

Glenda pointed out that when we are worldbuilding and wanting to change a color system, we shouldn't just translate our own system and switch a few of the values around, but really dig into the cultural reasoning behind specific changes.

Fashion and paint colors have a lot of complexity in their names. Where might colors have similarly complex patterns in another society?

Chandra told us that Egypt and Burma use yellow for funerals, because I had mentioned that my Varin world also uses the color yellow (moon-yellow) for funerals.

Cliff remarked that he'd enjoyed the moment in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire when Peeta and Katniss discuss their favorite colors - in particular the use of the sunset orange, which gave an additional emotional feel to the scene.

Cliff mentioned that in secondary worlds we can really manipulate colors - the colors of the environment - to interesting effect, because of the emotional associations that colors have. He has a world with a white sun and everyone has white skin and hair, so that everything looks bleached. People begin to wonder how long the trees will be green, and he uses dogwood because of its white bark and flowers.

Glenda mentioned that if we are using aliens, those aliens may be able to see other colors, including colors on the spectrum that are beyond human perception. Chandra brought up the predominance of green and red in Klingon ships and their color schemes, contrasted with the blue and white of human spaces. Apparently this has been linked to some kind of physiological trait of Klingons as well.

Of course, if aliens perceive extra colors, they would also have words for them. This isn't even exclusive to aliens, however, because even human words for colors differ across the world. Russian has something like six words for different shades of blue, and in fact, Russian speakers become better able to distinguish between these shades. Stina Leicht wrote in with a comment remarking that Irish has two words for green - one for the green found in nature, and one for other non-natural shades of green.

Color words throughout the world have been studied and compared by linguists, who note that there appear to be universal patterns based on our visual system and on how many total words for color the language has. If a human language has only two color words, those will basically mean "light" and "dark." (For example, Pirahã)  If it has three, the third word will be "red." If it has four, the fourth word will be "blue-green," and if it has five, the fourth and fifth words will be "blue" and "green." After that, there is more variation in the colors that follow.

We listed a few unusual uses of color in description. Apparently gold (the metal) was described as "red" in Beowulf. In Japan, traffic lights are "aoi," meaning blue (blue-green). While in the US, traffic lights are described as "yellow," in the UK and in Australia they are described as "amber."

Many languages associate the words "warm" with red, yellow, and orange, and "cool/cold" with blue, green, and violet. (Harry Markov confirmed that this is true in Bulgarian, for example.) So there are temperature associations as well as emotional associations. Colors can also be used for subtle, almost subconscious associations, as in the movie The Matrix when shades of the color green were used to indicate that the characters were operating inside the Matrix, and blue and white were used outside. Cliff noted that in the film Oh, Brother! Where Art Thou?, the filmmakers radically changed the background colors in the film from gorgeous green trees to sepia tones. Pitch Black portrayed a place with a bluish sun and a reddish sun, and changed the colors of the environments according to which sun was in the sky - which also changed the sense of atmosphere. A filmmaker establishes a color vocabulary that is mostly unconscious. Aidan Elliott McCrea added in the comments that Elf Quest made an interesting reversal of traditional color associations, when the nocturnal denizens of the world associated warm colors with danger and apprehension instead of cold colors, and associated the cool nighttime colors with safety and happiness.

In the same way that filmmakers establish their color "vocabulary," authors can establish their own color associations in text and teach them to readers.

Chandra mentioned the film Sin City, where the villain was yellow but all other parts of the film were in gray scale. He particularly noted the use of light for emotion in that context because of gray scale. Learning from this could be useful if you are working with characters who don't see in color.

The Wizard of Oz created a big surprise for its viewers by going from black and white to color partway through. We talked about the yellow brick road (oh, boy, my US History teacher had a great time associating various aspects of the Wizard of Oz with Gilded Age politics!) and the green glasses worn by the people in the Emerald City. Apparently there was even a version of the book that included a pair of green glasses, and if you wore them you would see more different images in the illustrations than if you didn't.

Cliff mentioned the book In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, a series of essays that begins with a discussion of the difference between Japanese shadowy bathrooms, and American bathrooms which are white and full of light.

To pursue the question of Chinese color associations, you can always start with the wikipedia page:

Thanks again to Harry Markov, Karen Rochnik, Reggie Lutz, Chandra al-Alkani, Anthony Sullivan, and Cliff Winnig for participating, and thank you also to everyone who watched and commented!

I hope to see you next week for our discussion of Misunderstandings.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TTYU Retro: Why you shouldn't rush your writing

I wonder if any of you have had this experience: you feel the completion of a story coming, and you want to slam that baby out and submit it!!!!

I suspect most people have felt that urge at one time or another. Some of those same people may also have had the experience that once the work was submitted, they wished they could have changed something about it. I certainly have experienced this - once was enough for me to give myself a good hard kick and say, never do that again!

Every time I get toward the end of my revisions, I feel that sense of urgency and rush. I'll be pushing hard, but when it comes to getting the book out the door, I need to force myself to wait. I'll ask for one or two more readers. I'll give myself at least a week to step away and do other things before I come back to it and send it out (I think that's the minimum time, honestly).

If you are working on your own deadline, and particularly if you are trying to achieve something unique and distinctive, TAKE YOUR TIME. Yes, of course there are sometimes deadlines. Actual ones, where you have to get the story out the door by a certain date or else. In that case, do your best to build in post-draft rest time to your schedule.

I have heard writing likened to trying to build a mountain out of marbles. If you actually think about the number of words in a work (my current novel is at about 125,000), and you think from a logical standpoint about the number of different patterns that can occur in a set of so many words, it's mind-blowing. I've been writing this book for more than a year now, and I'm still finding little subtle things to make it better. If you take the time to really sink in to your book, and to consider it on all its multiple levels - character, world, plot, theme, symbolism, chapter structure, paragraph structure, dialogue, syntax, lexical choice, metaphor, meter, etc., etc., two things will happen. First, you'll be amazed at the complexity of what you're working with, and second, you may be able to develop your sensitivities and abilities at each of these levels to achieve something new and really exciting.

You may hear the argument that you're over-thinking things. If you find yourself going over and over the same material and changing things with no consistent reasoning behind those changes, you may indeed be over-thinking things. But if you're changing something to conform to a larger structural pattern, that's different. If you're seeing resonances in your work that you haven't seen before, that's valuable.

You may also hear the argument that there's no point in being overly literary, and that's all silly unnecessary stuff because nobody really notices that stuff anyway. The fact is that even though we may not notice things consciously about the way we read, we can still feel them. How many of these things are absolutely necessary to comprehension and the success of the story? That's arguable - after all, people can do unusual things with the rules, and as long as the story itself holds up by other means, then the effect can still come across. But think about the way that people love to find inside jokes in movies, where if you happen to know about the right sorts of things, you'll find a little nugget in there just for you. People love that. And it takes time to know the right sort of things to add in, so that it will fit smoothly into the whole, and not seem added in or inexplicable. Besides which, putting in patterns which are literary is not about having to make the curtains blue to make people sad. It's about finding the patterns which fit into your work, not into some outside model of symbolism. Especially in a worldbuilding context, color symbolism may be totally different (in Varin, the color of grief is moon-yellow), so making curtains blue when everyone is sad might be just as silly as it sounds!

The point here is that if you don't take your time to let the details and patterns sink in, you might miss something really exciting. There is a point in creating a story where you may not be able to detect anything wrong - but there may still be opportunities available to raise the story further, and you wouldn't want to miss them.

So don't rush.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Welcome to 2014 at TalkToYoUniverse! + Topics for January Hangouts

Happy New Year, everyone!

I'm very excited about this year, both in terms of my writing and my hangouts. We've got some great guest authors coming up (Myke Cole and Brad Beaulieu)! So let me start by announcing the worldbuilding hangout topics for January:

Thursday, January 9th, 11am PST: Colors

Thursday, January 16th, 11am PST: Misunderstandings

Thursday, January 23rd, SPECIAL TIME 4pm PST: Guest Author Myke Cole will talk about his forthcoming book, Breach Zone!

Thursday, January 30th, 11am PST: Privilege and Intersectionality

I'm looking forward to talking to you. Brad Beaulieu will be joining us on February 13th at 4pm PST, to talk about the worldbuilding in his Lays of Anuskaya series... I'll announce that again at the start of February. If any of you out there have books coming out and would like to join us as a guest speaker, please contact me - we always love to talk about something new!

This year is also going to see two of my stories coming out (so far!). This month will bring the inaugural issue of STRAEON anthology, led by my story "Lady Sakura's Letters," and later this spring my story "Mind Locker" will be appearing in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I'll give you more specific information about those releases when I have it.

Last year I achieved two major writing goals: one, to increase my short story productivity, and two, to meet anthology deadlines. The achievement of these goals cut my blogging back a bit as you may have noticed. This year I'll be working hard on marketing both short stories and novels, so you can expect me to post Mondays, Wednesdays (TTYU Retro), and Fridays (Hangout reports). I'm also open to guest posts, so contact me if you're interested.

Thanks for being so great and continuing to explore universes with me!