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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Body Modification - a Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

I recommend this video for brainstorming because of its broad-ranging discussion.

We had a fabulous discussion on body modification. We started out with its modern meaning, talking about people who inject saline solution to change the shape of their faces, or the man who has tattooed himself to look like a lizard and had a crest inserted in his head to make him look less human.

However, there is a whole lot more that could be considered types of body modification. For example, foot binding in China was a very dramatic historical form of body modification, and things like castration to make a eunuch or castrato would also count as body modification. Cliff suggested that even circumcision might also be seen as falling under this category. Che mentioned that the Maya aristocracy shaped their heads by tying their babies' heads to boards, and also as adults inlaid their teeth with jade. Scarification and tattoos are found all over the world, and also count as modifications.

Very often, body modifications have an important social meaning. They can mark membership in a religion or other social group, and they can also mark changes of status (such as gaining adulthood or seniority).

We asked, "Do temporary changes count?" Henna tattoos are associated with special social circumstances, but fade with time. Hair style changes may not count because they are too easy to change.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox had a third arm added to his body. It's arguable whether his second head was added or original.

Neck stretching, which occurs among the women of the Padaung people of Burma as well as among several groups in Africa including the Ndebele, is a form of body modification. We discussed whether the neck was actually stretched, and whether the rings could be removed.

We noted that some of these body modification practices were intended to show that a person was aristocratic, and some were specifically geared to render a person unable to perform labor. Foot binding was one such practice, as was the growing of very very long fingernails. There have historically been various ways of marking oneself as being outside the working class.

Tattoos have in the past (and in the present, for some jobs) been a problem for people seeking jobs in the US. Cliff mentioned that his wife had a belly ring, but as a doctor, she received pushback from patients who didn't feel it fit the stereotypes of what a doctor should be like.

Our thoughts on body modification also took in modern beauty modifications, such as breast implants, botox injections, and even extreme dieting. Weight changes aren't necessarily permanent, but there remains the question, "What are you willing to do to your body for a job?"

Body modifications may also be coerced, such as female genital mutilation. But what about unintended modification? Does the damage done by coal dust count as a body modification? What about the sun damage sustained by people who must work all day in the sun?

We also talked about teeth, including the straightening and whitening of teeth as well as more unusual things like sharpening, etc.

There are also medical modifications, as when people get a pacemaker implanted, or get an artificial knee or hip. Morgan told us that her husband had had cataract surgery, and now his eyes glow in the dark.

In science fiction, many body modifications have been cybernetic as well as mechanical. Cliff recommended I, Cyborg by Kevin Warwick. In the book, Warwick talks about having cybernetic implants put in that allowed him to trade neural signals with his wife, among other things.

This led us to the idea of prosthetics, especially the modern thought-controlled ones, as a form of body modification. Do these things, which are attached to the outside of the body but function as body parts, count as body modification? What about exoskeletons that allow paraplegics to move, and may be brain-controlled, but are not actually a part of the body? A wheelchair is not considered a part of the body, but it does form an important part of a person's identity, as do other forms of mobility or functionality aids.

This thought led us to cochlear implants, which have raised very complex cultural and identity questions in the deaf community. Are these, and medical interventions like artificial ear bones, worth considering body modifications?

And what about genetic modification? To cure disease, or to create particular traits? If you were to alter the genetics of your child, what would you be doing to their identity? Would these changes be permanent? In Iain Banks' Culture books, people can change their gender.

We argued that humans have done rather extreme genetic body modification on a lot of different animal species, including turkeys and dogs.

Cliff mentioned a story he'd read where children were accompanied by adults whose bodies had been modified to be child size. Other stories we've read have had people modified to breathe underwater, or breathe nitrogen (other atmospheres), etc. Lois McMaster Bujold had people adapted to microgravity with four arms and no legs. Neuromancer featured a large number of cybernetic and other modifications, while in C.S. Friedman's book This Alien Shore, the first faster-than-light engine had made dramatic genetic alterations in humans so that they had now become significantly alien to one another.

Che remarked that one sees body modification mostly in science fiction rather than fantasy. What would it look like in fantasy? Che mentioned a story where someone had been punished by having the arms of the baby she killed magically grafted to her head. She also recommended the Monsterblood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish, where monster organs grafted magically into human bodies gave them particular powers.

Glenda mentioned the idea that eating the heart of a lion will give you a lion's strength, and this took us to the idea of magic potions. Magic potions might change your body's attributes, whether permanently or not.

This got us thinking that taking steroids was a form of body modification, if done over a long period. We also talked about medications and other techniques used to make genetically small people taller.

Cliff suggested that Gollum was modified by the One Ring, and so were the Nazgul, but we noted that in fantasy, complete transformation is more common. One of the brothers who were transformed into swans did end up with one wing after he was changed back.

I was really impressed with the range of topics we touched on, and hope these will get you thinking for your own projects. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Our next hangout will be in the new year on January 7th at 10am Pacific, and will be hosted on the Google Hangouts service if possible. I will keep you updated on how our technology is changing to the best of my ability. Our January guest will be Charlie Jane Anders, who will join us to talk about her book All the Birds in the Sky at a time to be announced.

I hope you all have wonderful holidays!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Megan O'Keefe and Steal the Sky: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

We were joined by awesome debut author Megan O'Keefe, who spoke to us about her book, Steal the Sky, which will be out in January! As she described it, Steal the Sky is about a con man and his best friend who try to steal the airship of a mean lady. Things go sideways and they get involved in a coup...

This is an adventuresome book! So we dived a bit into the worldbuilding that Megan had put together.

The first thing we talked about was this substance called "selium," which she says can be pronounced either with a long or short "e." It's a gas with special properties, mined through "firemounts" - volcanoes, in other words. It exists in the earth's crust and bulges up in hot magma areas. It's mined by "sel-sensitives," who are magic users attuned to this particular substance. These magic-users can control the selium in different ways, depending on their level of skill.

Megan said she was "allergic" to the Aristotelian concept of elements, i.e. earth, wind, fire, water.

Selium is used for many things in this world, one of which is for lift. Some of the sel-sensitives can just move the gas; others can change its colors or do more destructive things with it. The miners are not sophisticated users. Sophisticated users are seen as dangerous and pogroms are used to get rid of them. Also, overuse of selium magic leads to a disease called bonewither.

I asked Megan how she explored the selium system and discovered new things about it. She said that if a person can change the color, why couldn't they change the texture, or other things? The underlying backbone of the system needs to be known to the author, but mysteries can be left for readers.

Megan told us about her research. She studied geology in college, so the geological research she did for the book was a refresher. She looked up upswelling. She created an Australia-sized continent with lots of volcanoes, where the earth's tectonic plates are moving slowly - more slowly than the one over Hawaii. There is lots of spreading, and there are earthquakes, though none occur in this book. The seismic activity does have some mythological implications for these people.

Socially, she said that the native Katari people of this land were pushed off by the Valathean Empire, who sent them off to less seismically active areas. There is a belief that they can take back their land when certain conditions are met. The Katari are more accepting of sel-sensitives. Sel-sensitivity is not genetic, but is caused by the environment, ingesting the groundwater, etc. However, Valatheans thought it was genetic. The story takes place three generations after the conquest, so those Valatheans who live on the Scorched Continent have a new identity. Of course, the Valatheans gave the continent that name. Their own area of the world is jungle-y. Megan says that the city where the story takes place is like a frontier outpost, with a degree of lawlessness.

In fantasy stories, Megan explains, often characters develop powers they shouldn't have, and people come to get them but they are saved by revolutionaries. In the case of this character, nobody saved him, and he was experimented on. Eventually he got away from them, and now he cons and harasses them to release his anger and get back at the people who hurt him.

Another character in the story is Ripka, the female protagonist and watch captain. Her motive is to care for things. She grew up low-income and watched refugees from the war come through. She's facing tough moral decisions. There is something of the feel of a Western to the aesthetics in this book, including the sense of expansion and the desperation and hope in the city.

The two ethnic groups, Katari and Valathean, are on the cusp of full integration. There is some friction between these groups but as yet the Empire has a stranglehold. Megan told us she got a lot of her inspiration from England's trade empire, and influences from Portuguese and Dutch history.

She told us there are "two and a half" points of view. The "half" is a Katari who shows up every five chapters. It's not clear if she's a bad guy because she has complex motivations and is seeking revenge in complex ways.

Overall, this is a secondary world fantasy, with a world not related to earth.

I also asked Megan about the flight of the airships. These are like sailing ships with a wood body and sails... except that the typical sailing ship wouldn't work well in the air because it would have no way to steer. Selium provides the lift, but the ships also have ailerons and propellers and flight control surfaces. Megan says she got her research for this from her own experience as a private pilot. There are no dirigibles, but "fliers" look something like Chinese or Nile river barges with buoyancy sacs above them. Note: they still have ailerons!

The Scorched continent has a monsoon season. This causes more bugs, while more water animals start coming in from the coast. Animals in this world include marsupial rats, goats, rock cats (the size of savanna cats). There are poisonous bugs and aggressive, softball-sized bees. Also, giant spiders the size of your hand!

Rajnar asked about volcanic vugs, the pockets where gemstones form. Apparently, in this world selium can form into stones under the proper circumstances. There are extremophile creatures, but they are not (yet?) encountered by the characters.

Megan told us that people in this world wear glasses. That has some technological implications. We asked, "why wouldn't they then have telescopes?" However, a lot of different technologies come together to create something like a glass bottle or a pair of glasses or a telescope. Faience glass, which was made in Egypt, did not involve the kind of grinding technology necessary for a telescope. It's also tricky to get glass to be clear (rather than translucent). Megan told us, "For me, everything follows something else. They [the people in this world] want to read longer, but why? What is important to them?"

I asked about the Black Walk. This is a method of capital punishment unique to the city featured in Steal the Sky. Normally, people will go around this volcanic area - a hot aquifer covered over with a layer of shattered obsidian. People who are stripped and asked to walk across it will quickly lose their shoes and then their lives, being cut and then burned to death.

I asked Megan if she had a favorite thing about this book. She said it was the friendship between the protagonist and his best friend. She said it was special because it was a really solid friendship, despite being tested multiple times. In particular she said she felt that friendships aren't usually given enough weight and importance, that they are treated as too fragile in many stories.

There are also sequels coming up! Book 2 will take us to a southern coastal city with different cultural mores, and different architectural style... and an island prison off the coast, while Book 3 will give us a peek into the Valathean Empire. Megan says she also has novellas planned.

Thank you so much for joining us, Megan! It was really fun to explore your world and your worldbuilding process. The book will be out in January, so look out for Steal the Sky...


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Fairy Tales: A Dive into Worldbuilding Hangout Summary

We thoroughly enjoyed this hangout, but one of the resolutions that came out of it was that I need to invite fairy tale experts Alethea Kontis and Theodora Goss to come and hang out with us on the same topic sometime!

The first questions we asked were, "What makes a fairy tale world recognizable?"  and "What makes it stereotypical?" We agreed that fairy tale worlds are often magical, but don't always have a strict magical system. They often have talking animals, some of which turn out to be enchanted people! Characters tend to be archetypal, and there is an oral narrative feel to the story. They are similar to folk tales, and possibly a subset of folk tales with particular features. Folk tales also commonly have talking animals and magical births, as well as people who can be swallowed whole and still emerge alive.

A fairy tale world tends to have magical properties, though spells can be cast in it. There can be witches.

I mentioned Alethea Kontis because she is an expert on fairy tales and blends lots of them marvelously in her books.

Glenda mentioned that typically, fairy tales feature a pre-modern context rather than a modern technological setting. Obviously, modern versions like Once Upon a Time have begun to change that. There have been a lot of changes in fairy tales over time, though. The older forms of fairy tales were much darker, with more deaths and violence. The old tales also had a teaching aspect. Some of these qualities have been updated in the form of urban fantasy, but urban fantasy can have more consistent and systematic rules. We speculated that Magical Realism might be closer to fairy tales in the way that it imbues the world with magical properties.

In a fairy tale world, the characters may not know all the rules, but the author should. I mentioned our earlier discussion with Laura Anne Gilman about her book, Silver on the Road. That story has many things in common with fairy tales, in that it features localized place magic, and a very organic magical system.

We also noted that fairy tales often have their own particular logic, which is not the same as that of other kinds of stories. There is a level of trust established between the storyteller and the listener that makes certain kinds of events and reasoning possible. We spoke about how Spirited Away, the film by Hayao Miyazaki, utilizes some of this same fairy tale style logic, with rules like, "hold your breath across the bridge," that have no reasoning behind them, yet are accepted as part of the way the world works. There is also the idea of not looking back, which occurs at the end of the film, and also in quite a lot of stories going all the way back to Greek mythology with the story of Orpheus. There is a common inventory of talismanic objects, places, and relationships (including childless parents and parentless children!).

Mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales are all related to one another in many of their features.

Che asked if we had ever seen fairy tales within a magical secondary world. None of us could think of an example. Legends are relatively common, but they often turn out to be real.

There is a very common trope, in fact, of the world in which gods and magic are real. If you live in that kind of world, do you extrapolate from it at all? Do your teaching tales take a metaphorical form when magic is real? Would a place like our world be mythical to them?

When you are working with a type of story, often what you see is that there is a prototype form that the world or story takes, based on a shared set of features - but not all of those features are always shared. Thus, it's possible to avoid European defaults and still have a story with the same power and flavor as a fairy tale.

Thanks to everyone who participated! I hope you will join us tomorrow to talk about body modification and worldbuilding. We'll meet at 10am Pacific on Google+.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Personal Titles (Honorifics, etc.): a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We had an interesting discussion. Titles include things like the Japanese suffixes for names, including:
-san on names, and also on professions when you don't know a person's name
-chan for intimates, usually young women but not exclusively
-sensei for teachers, doctors, dentists, and artists.

In English we have Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, Ma'am, sir, and (I hear) Mx.

If you don't know someone, what do you call them? Honey? Sir? Ma'am? In Japan, you usually use a kin term that approximates their age and gender.

There are also professional titles. Doctor can be a profession, or it can indicate the completion of a degree. Whether people use the title "Doctor" after they have earned it depends on public perception of its use - and this is something to keep in mind when designing titles in a secondary world. Lawyers in our world don't use the title "doctor" though they have earned the academic equivalent. Using a title can create a social distancing effect, even as it creates a certain type of respect. Whether you drop the title or add it creates a different effect depending on the title.

Another important question to ask is how you get a title. How is membership in this social group awarded? Is it hereditary, like "Your Highness" or "Your Majesty" for kings and queens? Is it awarded by a king or queen, like "Dame" or "Sir" the knighthoods? What about Baron, Count, etc?  Do you get this title because you are married?

Who is entitled to award titles? Is it a "God-given" title requiring a religious figure to award it?

The details will vary depending on the world and its cultural influences.

Morgan told us about her title system, which has a special name for the Ruler, one for the Ruler's Spouse, the Heir, and then family members not in the order of succession. A title tells you about relationships between people in this world.

Titles often come with strong associations, such as the word King, which should be used with care if you don't want all its associations to come with it. Mayor has a very specific definition, as does Governor. I made up my own title, Alixi, for city rulers in Varin, because that position doesn't fit with the associations of either Governor or Mayor.

There are also military ranks and titles. These can be defined differently depending on which branch of the armed forces you are talking about. Titles tend to be conservative, in that they reflect the social order and authority of the past.

Ms. came to be because of a demand for a title that did not have the marital implications of Mrs. or Miss.

Varin uses caste names that come before the first names because they used to be titles.

Many military titles came from French. In fiction we often see Captain or Lieutenant. Sometimes we see Roman ranks like Decurion or Centurion.

If a group of people gets conquered by another people, they will often be forced to use the conqueror's titles.

When you choose a term different from the expected one, in fiction, what you are doing is telling the reader to be on the lookout for differences in the social relationships.

Thank you to all who attended! Here's the video:


Monday, December 7, 2015

Dive into Worldbuilding meets Tuesday 1pm Pacific

This is just a note to remind everyone that we have a guest author joining us this week. Author Megan O'Keefe joins us to talk about her new novel, Steal the Sky! We'll meet on Tuesday, December 8th at 1pm Pacific.

I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Idioms (and Proverbs): A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

My thumbnail makes this look like a lively discussion! (It was.) We spoke about idioms - expressions, or words that come in clumps. "Let the cat out of the bag," "What the ____" "sick as a dog" etc. These are generally things we say that started out as metaphors or similes, but at this point have become contextualized to the point that their content is almost meaningless. The phrase has meaning as itself, but loses its idiomatic sense and becomes literal if you try to change the words.

Apparently the phrase "pulling my leg" in English, meaning when someone is attempting to fool you, translates in Spanish as "pulling my hair."

Che told us about The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, in which people studied proverbs and acted out stories behind the proverbs. There were originally specific contextual meanings behind things like "eat in the east; sleep in the west." A story behind each one.

This reminded us, of course, of the Star Trek episode "Darmok" in which the alien language is entirely composed of opaque idioms and the literal is meaningless. We discussed that for a while, since it's one of my favorite episodes and I wrote a story using it as inspiration.

In a fictional world, you can make up your own expressions, or alter ones from the real world to fit. I mentioned two from my Varin world: "A rock roof is safer than a blanket," wrote itself but has no parallel in our world, while "out of the dark" is a variant on "out of the blue." A reader needs context in order to understand an idiomatic epxression.

If you run into a spot in your narrative where you instinctively want to put an English idiom, but it doesn't fit, think about what the secondary world context might support. Watch for contextual mismatches.

Morgan mentioned "feathers in the wind" as an idiom suggesting that gossip can't be captured.

Our capacity to understand metaphor helps us to understand idioms.

Che mentioned "blood adds sauce to the meal," which depending on context could mean "fresher is better" or "you have no taste."

My own character Rulii says things like "only the scavenger doesn't expect to find his meat still struggling," and "are your teeth sharp enough"?

Each idiom can have meta-implications.

Che mentioned how real world proverbs are often used to teach. "If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas" "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

You can have similar proverbs in your world.

Glenda talked about how you need to know the story behind "sour grapes" in order to grasp all the implications. This led us to talking about canonical stories. Are they religious stories? Folk tales?

If you are using idioms or proverbs in your world, you get more metaphor, and a bit of historical linguistics folded in. There's an opportunity there to have real events give rise to an expression that becomes idiomatically opaque later.

Che mentioned that if you are looking for idiom contexts, there are lists available on websites for people studying English as a Second Languge (ESL). Is there a character in your story who is a proverb-using person?

You can look for ideas in books of proverbs from other countries.
More detail and examples can be found in the video:


Nancy Hightower and The Acolyte: A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Author Nancy Hightower joined us to talk about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte, which she told us she wrote over the course of 10 years! These poems deal with loss, despair, and hope - many of them in a Biblical context. Nancy said she had wanted to revisit the Biblical stories, treating the characters in them as real people.

She says she "tried to listen to the unspoken narratives." "Where do you have to be emotionally," she asked, "to nail somebody's head to the ground?" That is just what one of the Biblical women does, saving the nation in the process.

I asked Nancy why some of the poems have Biblical quotes preceding them and others do not. She explained that the more well-known verses aren't quoted because they are familiar to more people, while more obscure ones are quoted. In addition, the verse that precedes the poem "She" serves as a trigger warning for the gang rape that occurs in the verse and poem. We briefly discussed the purpose of an envoi at the head of a piece.

She said everyone talks about Moses going across the sea, but no one talks about how he's not able to go into the promised land. In this sense, all of the poems are about breaking expectations for how the Bible content will be treated and discussed. Bible verses tend to get used in very restrictive ways, and her worldbuilding choice was to frustrate the usual sense of narrative closure - the sense that "those stories were only good for one thing."

There is a fascinating temporal hybridization in these poems. Some are focused on the events of archaic time, but others bring in glimpses of our modern era as well, such as the story of Sarah, which brings in an evocation of the modern struggle of fertility as well as the events of the ancient time. Nancy told us that Transformations by Anne Sexton influenced how she talked about things. Nancy particularly wanted to give more of a voice to the archaic world. She says the political re-reading of these stories is too flat and cliché., and that we don't give that world enough weight or validity. She wanted to treat these people as characters beyond their traditional flat portrayal.

I asked her about how she decided which poems to include. She spoke a bit about her own spiritual journey. Her father worked for three televangelists, one of whom was Jim Bakker. She says that she came through the experience more full of doubt than surety, but that this was part of the strength of her faith. She relates to characters who wrestle with faith as a result.

I asked her about her use of poetic language, and how poetry is different from her prose writings. She says there are different mental modes for each style. Poetry is image-driven and "collapses the journey." She says poetry can be intimidating because you can travel so far in just a few lines. She described poetry as giving a strange feeling like they're the strongest surreal portal into other worlds, bordering on uncanny and maybe even violating if you're not ready.

I also asked her about how much she went by gut feel and how much by analytical technique. She says the first draft is intuitive, while you hammer it from a story into a poem. She said she drafted "Tamar" in one sitting, but "Leah" took three years. You have to find the best way to collapse it. You can travel great distances in 12 lines, and you must do whatever is needed to collapse that distance.

She said "Tamar" is her favorite. Tamar had two husbands die on her. She married Onan, but Nancy says the verse about him spilling seed on the bed is not about masturbation. Most importantly, she says, Tamar totally alters Judah's personal narrative, from the point where he sends his brother Joseph to be enslaved, to the point where he offers himself up.

Nancy likes pulling in multiple narratives and letting them reflect on each other. She sees these poems as falling between literary and genre. They are not as abstract as some. She explained, "I could have written these as mini-stories," but then she said it would have taken pages, and required a lot of backstory. To be a portal into the stories of the Bible it had to be shorter and more disorienting. She aimed for these poems to be dark and uncanny, and not evangelical. Narrative is comforting, she says, but poetry less so.

I asked her how she chose the title "The Acolyte." She said that the original title was going to be Slow Journey, but then the poem by that name was removed from the collection. The name "The Acolyte" is more liturgical, and taps into the sacred, tying it in to a liturgical world, but that these are not liturgy. The gothic cover features an apocalyptic scene with an angel who is not at all comforting. An acolyte is someone in training. I had the sense that perhaps the reader was the acolyte. Nancy didn't disagree. "I do want to change the paradigm," she said.

One thing she wants to look at is "what happens when you are un-chosen?" Ishmael is thrown out but sees the angel. Leah is un-chosen, trapped in a loveless marriage. Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth. Jeremiah. People in exile. Nancy suggests that this may because the postmodern mindset is one of exile. People will ask "Where do I belong?" "How do I stay in the story if I'm the un-chosen one?" She wants to continue to explore this and see where it goes.

Nancy says that people often come to stories with an emotional expectation, but to poetry with an intellectual expectation. With these poems, she expects people to be emotionally engaged, even gut-punched. She also says "something within me is in each poem." High poetry is very abstract, "close to heaven." She wanted to use the expressive medium for unexpected consequences.

Nancy, thanks so much for joining us and giving us insight into your work! If you'd like to hear more detail, do watch the video below. We'll be meeting today at 10am Pacific on Google+ to talk about Fairy Tales, and next week we'll be joined by guest author Megan O'Keefe, who will tell us about her new book, Steal the Sky. Join us!


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Book Titles: A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Book titles are important because they are your first opportunity for worldbuilding, and one that works in concert with cover art. I think it's worth talking about them so you can learn about some of the parameters that are important, even though in some cases authors don't have a ton of control over the titles that get used for their books.

Reggie told us that the title of her book, "Haunted," was potentially an issue because it's a very common title. However, she said, it was the only title that matched the content of the book.

Your title differentiates your book from others. Che remarked that one-word titles can tend to blend together.

A title sets expectations for the genre of the book as well as the content.

Deborah remarked that "Love's Red Passion" would not be expected to be a picture book. Romances and Westerns are very good at genre-specific titles.

A title says, "This is the reading experience you will have." Therefore it's important for the title not to mislead a potential reader. You don't want someone thrilled about the title to start reading and then fling the book across the room.

I mentioned Janice Hardy's first novel, which was entitled The Shifter in the US, but The Pain Merchants (her original title) in the UK. We speculated that the latter title might make US parents think of drugs, and that might be a reason why the US booksellers weren't fond of it. The series itself is called The Healing Wars.

Word meaning is really important when you're dealing with as few words as you find in a title. When you hear a word, your brain accesses all its possible meanings simultaneously, in order of most to least common. This is what gives some words more "resonance" than others.

Che mentioned reading a book called "Under the Skin" which she had guessed might be about a serial killer, but turned out to be about aliens. Her expectations were so strong that she doubted the storyline through most of the book.

Deborah called a title a "contract with the reader." She said you can be mysterious without being mystifying.

Ambiguity can be a problem, if the meaning of the title is not clear. However, if an ambiguous title is relevant to the story in multiple ways, that can be cool. In titling a work you can deliberately use a readers expectations within the genre to surprise them.

Titles can vary in length. They can be anything from "Hild" to "The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Sheip of her Own Making." We discussed some of the implications of the Cathrynne Valente title (Fairyland).

If you use non-English words for a title the meaning that emerges from it has a lot to do with onomatopoeia and association with similar-sounding words.

A title can relate to a character or characters, can use a quotation from the book, or can relate to a theme of the book.

A title like "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" suggests fantasy, but also scope and diversity. The use of a non-exact number is really important. "The Seventeen Kingdoms" would be very different.

A title like "Who Fears Death" sounds very active and confounds expectations.

We talked about parts of speech in titles. A great many of them are noun phrases, "The Noun" or "The Adjective Noun" etc. For interest, a noun phrase title needs specificity, like "The Winds of Khalakovo." Deborah said that "The Children of Kings" was a terrible title for a novel she wrote but that it had already been publicized and she couldn't change it. Using very different parts of speech can help a book stand out.

Don't distort the story to fit the title.   ...except sometimes publishers may insist that you do so.

We discussed the difference between "To Become the House" vs. "Becoming the House." The former implies intent on some level, while the latter implies a process that has already started. The former doesn't make it clear whether the process has started or not.

"Nightshifted" (Cassie Alexander) is a good title because it plays on "the night shift" and on the concept of shift as a verb.

Some interesting titles:
"Repent Harlequin, said the Ticktock Man"
"Watership Down"
"Blackhawk Down"
"Wild Ducks Flying Backwards"
"On Stranger Tides"
"To Kill a Mockingbird"
"The Dying of the Light"

Verb forms in titles have a very different feel, even if they are in their more adjective-like forms.

Series books tend to have titles that are somehow similar. "Soulless," "Blameless," etc. by Gail Carriger. "Divergent" and its sequels.

Sometimes things title themselves, but at other times it's best just to take a notebook and write out a lot of options. You might discover something fantastic that you hadn't previously thought of.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday, November 11 at 10am Pacific on Google+. We will be joined by guest author Nancy Hightower who will tell us about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

First Sentences: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

First sentences are interesting. Some are even famous! They are your reader's first entry into the story, and a really good one can make you curious to hear more. It's your first opportunity as a writer to get your reader to commit to the story, and to care. I told the group about a workshop my friend Janice attended, where agent Donald Maass took first page writing samples from the crowd, read the first sentence of each, and then asked, "Do you want to hear more?" It was a pretty brutal way to approach the topic, but it did make the point. Gatekeepers (like agents and editors) tend to look for excuses not to read something, and a weak first sentence can lose them.

Some things to look for in first sentences: attitude, intrigue, orientation. Attitude is the mood and mindset of the protagonist. Intrigue is curiosity about the content of the book. Orientation is a sense of place or time to help the reader know where they stand.

I read quite a number of first sentences as samples, but if you want to hear our discussion of each one, I'm going to send you to the video.

Deborah J. Ross The Heir of Khored
Marguerite Reed Archangel
N.K. Jemisin The Fifth Season
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale

The question "who" is a critical one. Whose voice are we hearing in a first sentence? This person will be your first host, and your first guide to the world of the story.

We looked at the first sentence of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It seems very clinical in its description of a body. One wonders, "Is this a murder mystery?" "Who could be so clinical and objective?" Both of these questions can cause readers to read on, and the second one is already revealing a lot about the protagonist.

At the beginning of a book, a reader relies a lot on existing assumptions about what is true and possible because they have so little information yet from the book itself. This critical point is where breaking assumptions is most critical if you don't want the reader to continue to rely on them until the end of the book.

Orson Scott Card Ender's Game

Whenever someone is singled out as "the one," we wonder why.

J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

We pointed out the phrase "perfectly normal, thank you very much," and noted the attitude, particularly the sense that someone doth protest too much.

Stina Leicht Of Blood and Honey 

We spoke about the word "yabbos." Some of us knew the word, and others didn't. When you encounter an unknown word in a speculative fiction context, you may or may not be inclined to look it up, because many unknown words in SF/F have been created by the author and won't be found in a dictionary! Yabbo, on the other hand, will.

We looked at some first sentences from the discussants. Che brought us an intriguing one with the phrase "bird toes" in it. Glenda's was "Dardith hated Festivals."

Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book

It was written 1000 years ago, but it has a great first sentence full of attitude!

Janice Hardy The Shifter

This is the infamous "chicken sentence" that I remember to this day as an example of a stellar opening sentence.

We spoke briefly about the idea of an envoi. Does it count as a first sentence if you have a quote before the text starts? Certainly it helps to set the expectations of the reader, but readers may also suspend judgment since opening quotes don't usually open the narrative. The opening rhyme I used in "Mind Locker" was intended to set the scene in mood and age of protagonist.

Thank you to everyone who attended. It was an interesting discussion!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dive into Worldbuilding tomorrow at 10am Pacific: Idioms!

Dive into Worldbuilding folk, we will be meeting tomorrow on Google+ at 10am Pacific. The topic of the week will be Idioms! This should be one where we can have some fun.

Something else to look forward to - on Wednesday, November 11 at 10am Pacific, we will be joined by guest author Nancy Hightower who'll be talking to us about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte. I hope you can join us!


Monday, October 26, 2015

My appearance at the Canopus Awards and the 100 Year Starship Symposium

Exciting news!

This Friday I'll be appearing at the 100 Year Starship Symposium for their Science Fiction stories night. The event will take place at the Santa Clara Mariott hotel (Just down the road from the Hyatt where we have had BayCon in the past).

I'll be speaking on a panel with awesome authors Pat Murphy and Brenda Cooper, and publisher Jacob Weisman.

Thereafter there will be the presentation of the Canopus awards, one of which I helped to judge for. The Canopus awards are for fiction that depicts and/or helps to inspire space travel.

At the end of the evening I'll be part of a signing with a number of other amazing authors.

I have to offer special thanks to Jason Batt for inviting me. Thanks, Jason!

Keep in mind that the symposium also has a lot of fabulous scientists giving presentations, so if you are interested in seeing me or anyone else, take a look here and see if you can register!


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

No Dive into Worldbuilding hangout 10/21/15 - sorry!

I've had a guest at my house this week and at hangout time I'll be driving her to the airport. Our hangout on Idioms will be delayed until next week, October 28, 2015 at 10am Pacific.

I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Laura Anne Gilman and Silver on the Road: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary!

We had a great time this week! We were joined by author Laura Anne Gilman to talk about her new book, Silver on the Road. Laura described the book as a historical fantasy in a divergent American West, in which the Devil stopped the Louisiana Purchase.

She says she prefers to describe this as "divergent history" rather than "alternate history." She says the divergence point is right around 1600 during DeSoto's exploration. In actual history he dies at the Mississippi river but his explorers continue on; in the book's version of history, a force stops the explorers at the river.

The story of Silver on the Road starts in 1801. At this point all governments and militaries are held back by "the Devil" from entering the territory that made up the Louisiana purchase. The Devil is not exactly the devil - it's clear that this is a nickname given to him by outsiders. He's known for hosting an honest card game in the town of Flood, and that's about all people know about him.

I asked whether there was a map in the book. Laura Anne said there was, but that she's not a fan of maps and would prefer for people just to go by the text. The area covered in the book is a reimagining of North America and Central America. Spain possesses Mexico, New Mexico, some of Texas, adn California. The United States exists, but stops at the Mississippi river. Louisiana is the Devil's territory. Washington hasn't been claimed. This area is huge, and full of all sorts of different terrains; it is also occupied by a lot of native tribes. Laura Anne has done a fascinating job exploring what the territory would look like without acquisition by the US.

Laura Anne told us she was a history major specializing in pre-1930's American political history. This was clearly a useful foothold into the information she used for this book!

She said at the beginning she knew far less about the physical aspects of the territory that come across so powerfully in the book. She says, "I've actually used the words 'flyover country' unironically." In order to research the book, she took a road trip through Kansas up to Colorado Springs, looking specifically for areas of restored or untouched land. Boots on the ground lets you discover more, including smells and feels, and the immense quiet that people must have experienced in this era, when you could travel for days without seeing anyone. She joked that this book is "epic fantasy with a cast of four."

When she could, she talked to people. One of the difficulties with the research was that the native people who currently live in these areas are not the ones who lived there originally, because of our history of displacement and genocide. She was specifically looking for oral traditions and would ask for stories, and for "the oldest tradition you can think of." Researching without a written record is very challenging, especially since there was huge change in this region in the 1830s, and most of our recorded knowledge comes from after that period. Laura Anne says, "Next time, I'm picking something well documented, with photos." She tries to use original names and histories, and hopes she doesn't get it wrong in ways that are obvious.

"I stole a lot from magical realism," she says. The feature of magical realism she picked out was the way that everyone is already immersed in the cultural milieu, and everything is so well understood that they would not think of questioning it. There is no "let me explain this to you," and no infodumping. She wanted to keep it as organic as possible.

She also played with expectations. "The Devil," also known as "the boss," cares for his people. You trust him, though you're not sure why, and not really sure if you should.

The magic system in the book is very organic, and I mentioned our earlier discussion with Silvia Moreno-Garcia where we talked about organic magic systems. Laura Anne explained that there is a physical basis for the magic in Silver on the Road, but it is expressed through culture. In this era, people haven't felt the urge to codify it. Very often it takes the form of a list of things one needs to remember in order to survive. For example:

  • Beware of demons because they are a pain in the ass, and also deadly.
  • Beware of crossroads, because they build up power because of the passing of people.
  • Beware of magicians, because they are "batshit crazy" with no civility or common sense. You should always run from them and let them prey on each other.
  • Always get permission before going into native territory, and behave like a good neighbor.
These are the kinds of things that you would teach your kids.

In the east (read: the US as we know it in 1801) these natural powers have been tamped down by too much science and too much civilization. Magical powers are uncommon outside the Territory. If you don't acknowledge it or teach it, it disappears. Fear pushes magic down. Laura Anne specifically mentioned the witch trials as something that would have forced magic down in this world.

Animals are very interesting in this book. There are wolves, bears, bison - which Laura Anne calls "buffalo" because that was the word that people used for them during that period - lots of mammals, birds, and insects. Most are actual animals, though the Reaper hawk was one she amended in a logically feasible way.

Laura Anne described blending the cultural myths of north and central America. Some of the myths she referenced are south American, and some are from northern Canada. She called it "my attempt to write a mythology that was entirely north and central American."

People in the book are very diverse and speak all kinds of languages. There is very little German, French, or English. There is more Portuguese, Spanish, Canadian French, and more Amerindian languages like Metis.

Laura Anne told us that she was trying to use historically accurate words and terms from the old West prior to 1810. She recommended the Online Etymology Dictionalry and said she had a bookmark of about 9000 websites from her research. She tried to learn about the first documented use of a word, and thought about how long it would take for the word to move west into the territory from its origin. She had to be careful about sourcing loan words and words for locations. Some of the native words for locations came from tribes that were displaced into an area rather than those who lived there originally.

One thing she noted was that the native tribes had areas in which they lived, but there was a lot of movement. She had to be very careful about the placement of towns. One book she recommended was Looking East from Indian Country, which talks about the history of migration into the West from the point of view of the peoples already living there. Laura Anne said "it reset my brain."

I asked about the title, Silver on the Road. She said she'd initially called it The Devil's West, or The Devil's Left Hand. The first one of those became the series title. She told us that in first drafts, she doesn't write the final scene. She discovered this title (Silver on the Road) well into later drafts, and thought it had no chance with the publisher, but in fact it was accepted.

Book 2 in this series is tentatively called "The Cold Eye." Laura Anne told us she learns as she goes. She's usually a plotter, but in this book she said she discovered a new level to add in with every pass through the revisions. She said it felt like learning a new way to write.

Silver, in the book, is a cleanser. It can also be used to indicate power buildup, as in the case of a crossroads. The territory's currency is silver coins cut into quarters. Only a Marshal has the power to cleanse a crossroads. Silver tarnishes if the area is unsafe, so everyone who travels on the road carries a bit of silver as a talisman.

The book, from concept to publication, took more than two years. Laura Anne said it was very challenging to find someone who could support it. However, it is now out! Book 2 has been drafted, and Book 3 is being planned. She has written two short stories in this world, "Crossroads," and "The Devil's Jack."

Laura Anne, thank you for joining us and telling us about your awesome book! Here's the video if you'd like to get more detail on our discussion. Next week's hangout will be on Wednesday, October 21 at 10am, and we'll be discussing Idioms. I hope you can join us!


New Hangout Time for Dive into Worldbuilding

Here is a reminder that starting today, 10/14/15, the Dive into Worldbuilding hangouts will meet on Google+ at 10am Pacific on Wednesdays. Today's hangout will be at 10, the new standard time, and we will discuss Titles. I'm thinking we'll talk primarily about book titles, but if we run out of steam on that, we might take the topic in a different direction. I hope you can make it!


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Neurotypical or not? A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Although this was a topic hangout rather than a guest author hangout, we did have a special guest - Lillian Csernica (who is an author and you should really read her pirate romance novel because it is so much fun and has authentic ships in it).

Lillian is an expert on the topic of neurotypicality because of her experience raising a child who is high functioning autistic. If you hear the acronym ASD, it refers to Autism Spectrum Disorder. The word "neurotypical" was coined by the neurodiversity movement to create a label for people who are not on the spectrum - a useful thing to do since the only other word would have been "normal," which has a number of inappropriate implications. The opposite of neurotypical is neuro-atypical.

Lillian jokes, "There is no normal, only undiagnosed."

Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella term that helps people to obtain special services and accommodations. It covers a number of different named syndromes including Asperger's Syndrome, Angelman's Syndrome, and Rhett's Syndrome.

Fundamentally, it has to do with how a person responds to sensory input. She recommends a book called The Out-of-Sync Child. Lillian describes how her son used to touch things in order to confirm their existence. Some people on the autism spectrum are high-contact, in that they want to touch things a lot, some are medium-contact, which is "normal," and some are low-contact, where they can't stand sensory input. People on the spectrum are not necessarily antisocial, just overloaded.

Some people find that adaptive playthings help them cope with sensory differences.

What can be hard is getting information out about what a person on the spectrum is feeling. Lillian's son John is visual; he is not good at verbalizing what he needs but will draw the things that he is thinking about.

An adaptive skills trainer can give people strategies for interaction. Often of use are social stories, where you construct a story to create a map of expectation for a particular type of experience. This story functions as a map to certain kinds of social cues. Sometimes she would rehearse these stories with cue cards. Role-playing with adults provides an opportunity for practice in a safe environment.

Lillian gave us a list of stories featuring characters on the autism spectrum:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and its sequels) by Stieg Larsson
Rain Man (yes, it's a book) by Leonore Fleischer
Beggars in Spain (and the Sleepless books) by Nancy Kress
With the Light (a manga) by Keiko Tobe

I added This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman

Life as the parent of a child on the spectrum is very hard.

Che mentioned The Bridge as having an autistic female detective. Morgan mentioned that some believe the Twelfth Doctor to have autistic characteristics.

The "popularity" of ASD diagnosis has grown, and so we notice more people with these traits. Lillian explains that "there's a starter kit" of core symptoms, including delay in speech development and possible problems with receptive language skills.

Autistic people often know how to fake it because of the desperate importance of social success. The question can become "how far can this person (or character) go before someone spots a symptom"?

Sherlock is described (on the TV show, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) as a high-functioning sociopath. Some of us wondered whether business and politics were especially well suited for people with lack of empathy. Lillian noted that people working in the ICU often have OCD or similar conditions that actually help them function successfully in that environment. She said "surgeons need to be able to cut into humans."

We spoke briefly about Temple Grandin. Her biography and nonfiction are great resources on the autism spectrum. She showed us you can live with this condition.

Mercury Rising apparently does a good job of portraying an autistic child. It is based on Simple Simon by Ryne Douglas Pearson. Simon carries an icon schedule in a ring binder.

It is important to note that the simplicity of communication often necessary with ASD masks complexity of thought.

In portrayals of autistic characters, people often pick out the glamorous, useful things but leave out the downsides. Fixations, for example, can last 2-3 months. Lillian mentioned that her son went through a phase of fascination with pagers, and would walk up to people and grab the pagers without warning.

Transitions are often difficult for ASD kids. This can be anything, including stuff we might notice, like a change of room color. Lillian makes sure all the clocks in the house are synchronized because if a particular time is set for a change of activity, John will pick the clock that gives him the greatest advantage.

Heavy-input people need stimulation, and so often they will provide it for themselves. Sometimes this helps with proprioception (defining the boundaries of one's own body). Lillian says John has trouble keeping apart the real and imaginary. She will have to remind him that cartoon characters are not real. He also struggles with diffuse awareness, such as the attention required to cross a street safely. He can also be literal-minded, which is a source of concern for her because literal-mindedness can be used against you.

Glenda mentioned that some scientists hypothesize that there is a timing component in the perceptual differences involved in ASD.

Lillian says that John perceives temperature differently. He respects the concept of "hot" but doesn't understand cold.

Kids with ASD are often given substitutes for self-stimulation, such as favorite objects like a security blanket. Repetitive motions such as hand-flapping, pencil or foot tapping can provide grounding for nervous tension. Looking someone in the eye can be overwhelming for some people with ASD, especially high-visual people. John used to have a compulsion to knock things off the table. Lillian describes self-stimulation as a compulsion. Angelman Syndrome, which involves a fixation on water, can be very dangerous for a child's health.

Constant attention must be paid to the management of sensory input. Some foods are not tolerated due to texture, or possibly taste.

Thank you to Lillian for joining us with your knowledge and for sharing so much about your life.

Here's the video:


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reminder: This week's Dive into Worldbuilding will be on Thursday

Friends, I just thought I'd post here to remind you that we'll be speaking with Laura Anne Gilman tomorrow at 11am Pacific on Google+ about her new novel, Silver on the Road.

I hope to see you then!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Henry Lien and Pearl: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

We had just a delightful hangout with special guest Henry Lien, whose short fiction has been published in many venues including Interfictions and Asimov's. He has created the world of Pearl, which he describes as an Asian young adult world. He has published two novelettes in this world, and is working on a novel. The central city is called "Pearl" (perhaps no surprise), and the architecture there is entirely coated with the substance also called "pearl," which looks like ice but is warm and dry. The city is very white.

And you can skate on it!

As Henry described, the pearl is everywhere, and you can skate on anything, even railings and roofs. all humans and all cargo are transported "by blade." They also have kung fu on figure skates, which is incredibly awesome. He says he combines forms from martial arts with figure skating, because he enjoys the combination of the martial with the sense of performance.

When I asked him about his inspiration for this world, he said that he was determined to write "things only I could have written" with "everything I like in one place. That means:

Architecture. Kung Fu. Figure skating.

Henry called it a personal brainstorm, from which he had to retrofit reality and believability. He really enjoys the combination of incredibly noble and incredibly tacky and embarrassing, which he says is appropriate to his experience in the Taiwanese diaspora. He really enjoys negotiating the space between the noble and the tacky. The example he gave of this phenomenon in other contexts was "concubines flying around the room with swords."

He has strong feelings about his portrayal of female characters, because of his children's literature sensitivities, and noticing how women weren't portrayed well. He chose the sports he did in part to address the question of the "strong female character." He wants his worlds to be realistic, diverse, and respectful. Henry objects to the idea of strong female characters doing male things. That's why he picked a sport (figure skating) where he says men and women are equal but make different contributions. He mentioned specifically how Tara Lipinski was the first to do a quadruple jump. Women's competitions in skating have equal or greater support than men's. The sport capitalizes on feminine body qualities; small size is an asset. So is balance and flexibility.

I asked Henry who his favorite character was in the world of Pearl. He said his favorite character was in his novel, but that he couldn't talk about that yet! His favorite from the stories that are already out is Doi Liang, from the novelette "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters." The story deals with a cram school/penal colony and he says he imagined it as a sort of female Fight Club. He wrote the story at the Clarion workshop with instructor Chuck Palahniuk. In contrast with Fight Club, which was a male-on-male scenario, he wanted a female-on-female scenario. Henry describes what he sees as a feminine desire to determine the nature of relationships quickly. Doi, however, resists any impulse to form relationships and defies typical female socialization.

I asked him how much of his world he felt was directly imported from China, and he said about 40%. He has done a lot of research and outlining, and made himself an encyclopedia of worldbuilding including back history and customs. Pearl mixes influences from Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese cultures. He is strict about not referring back to sources while he writes. This, he says, helps him to filter out unimportant detail, and also allows improvisation. He might remember something like "you aren't supposed to point at the moon" but not remember why, and so in the interest of keeping this aspect he will spin his own background of new folklore.

There are hidden Easter Eggs in the stories for people who speak Chinese, in the form of puns. He wants to make sure, though, that the stories are very accessible.

"If I wanted to write about China I would have called it China."

Interestingly, he says the mixture of cultures he has been using never gets objected to by natives of those cultures, but is occasionally criticized by outsiders. Henry emphasizes, "I am free to play with this." Playing, he explains, reflects the reality of many cultures, and no culture is monolithic.

While he might be tempted to use all the back history he has created, he says not all of it is needed. He has written songs, and knows a lot about food culture, which speaks both to values and to the relationship between people and nature, and people and medicine. He says it was important to make Pearl richly imagined in order to "take it out of the realm of the wacky."

Our attendee Sally Smith highly recommends the book "Cuisine and Empire" by Rachel Laudan, an analysis of food history.

Henry says that he likes to let readers do a lot of sleuthing to figure out the implications of the things he puts in his stories. He doesn't want to dumb it down. Connie Willis taught him that any new idea has to be mentioned three times if it is to stick in the reader's mind, but he says that when he had his work edited, those extra mentions were the things that typically got slashed. He worries sometimes about letting readers work, because he doesn't want to be a "bad host" in his world.

I asked Henry about food culture in Pearl. Henry says that he brings his special perspective as a Vegan to the way he discusses food culture. Taiwanese and Chinese cultures have a huge variety of foods and a fascination with exotic meats. As an example he cites pangolin, which tastes bad and is an endangered species, but still people are drawn to it. From this he picked up the idea of people exoticizing particular foods for novelty. In Pearl, there are both ancient and contemporary dishes. In the novel, he says, there is a tsunami that causes very little structural damage because of the properties of the coating of pearl on everything. One of the things the tsunami causes is a flood of people trying to pick up the rare sea creatures that have washed out of the ocean, so they can eat them before the scientists get to them. These are served at a banquet for foreign students, causing a very uncomfortable situation for the outsiders to this food culture.

Henry remarked that there are food practices, like the killing of dophins for food in Japan, that are reinforced because of the opposition that the practice has incurred from outsiders. He says, "we cling to traditions because we are tired of being attacked." He described the enormous cultural changes that had happened in Taiwan within his parents' lifetime, and said that his grandmother had bound feet. For military or other reasons, people can be forced to leap a century forward. Foot binding was discouraged after the cultural revolution, and thus not by a group of outsiders, but was nevertheless resisted by many. He says there is a similar dynamic of resistance to stopping the practice of female genital mutilation. In his own fiction, he says, he tries to keep these questions "fluffier" by focusing on things like eating weird stuff.

Glenda asked about what happens when you have multiple layers of conquest, and whether that adds richness to a culture. Henry responded that it's interesting when you have to negotiate your own culture relative to others. Identity is a choice to some extent. Collisions and stresses produce beautiful results.

I asked whether his novel dealt with questions of sexuality as well as gender, and he said yes, but would not elaborate due to spoilers! He said it these questions were important in every culture, as was the question, "how do people construct themselves?"

When asked what area he attacks first in worldbuilding, he said really it's more important to ask the last question, which is that of money. Money motivates and constructs so much of culture. Following the money therefore becomes very important for the cohesion and success of a world.

At the end of the hangout, Henry treated us to his own rendition of a new anthem he's creating for SFWA, called "Radio SFWA." He played piano and sang the chorus for us. It was awesome!

Thanks for appearing on the show, Henry, and hearty thanks to everyone who joined us for the hangout last week. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, September 23, and we'll talk about questions of neurotypicality, including autism and other differences in neural function. We'll have an expert on the topic with us, Lillian Csernica. I hope you can join us!

Here's the video:


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Modesty: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

We started this hangout talking about the meanings of the word "modesty." Modesty can mean covering your body with clothes. It can mean being sensitive about showing off. It can mean not being arrogant. It can mean not making eye contact. It can mean "not extravagant."

This is a very socially fraught word.

Essentially it comes down to not showing off, not challenging. Exactly what is being shown depends on context. Wealth, power, one's body, one's gaze. Sometimes the meaning of modesty is very sexual. Sometimes it is more casual. Modesty is generally considered a good thing, but not always.

It's a really fascinating thing to play with in fiction.

You can go about approaching modesty from the larger scale, by importing a kind of cultural analog society and letting the modesty register for that society fall roughly where it falls in the real world society. I mentioned Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon for an instance of that. Alternatively, you can build up a society piece by piece, and end up with quite unexpected, but still consistent, rules for modesty. The example I gave of this was glove-wearing in Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch books. Morgan mentioned that in Darkover (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross), it was important to keep the back of the neck covered, and so that influenced hair styles.

Many real world cultures have historically (or contemporarily) required the hair to be covered.

These rules are not always "logical," as when it's totally fine to show the bare bust and shoulders with a low cut dress, but not okay to show the ankles. They really are culturally dependent. I mentioned the example of erotic art in Western and Japanese ukiyo-e traditions. In the former, one tends to see bare bodies with only the naughty bits covered; in the latter, the body tends to be completely covered except for the naughty bits!

I mentioned the painting Olympia by Manet, and mentioned how I had been shown the contrast between that painting and others at the Musée d'Orsay. Olympia was considered scandalous because the woman in the painting was making eye contact with the viewer. A nude goddess with her eyes turned toward the sky was not.

Eye contact is a pretty big deal in modesty. Veils of various sorts can mitigate its effect. We might leap to think of a burqa, but there were also thin veils on women's hats in the US in the 1950's whose purpose was to cover the upper face.

We asked: For whose benefit does modesty exist?

It's a double-edged sword. Covering up can protect women from having to make eye contact, and might give them the freedom to have facial expressions that might otherwise get them in trouble. Covering up might protect a woman from the male gaze. However, there is always the tricky question of what lies underneath: male ownership or personal choice. A woman who has been forced to cover up to keep herself from being looked at by other men (keeping herself under the ownership of one) is very different from one who has chosen to cover up to deflect attention.

In the Victorian era, lowering one's eyes or turning away was considered modest.

In the Middle East and other hot regions of the world, covering up is an extremely practical way to avoid sunburn!

The meaning of any particular act of modesty depends on the individual, but it also depends on society. In the 1930's and 1940's, men did not go shirtless, and it was considered scandalous to show up on a beach without a shirt. Men protested and went out in shirtless groups, and suddenly it became okay. Social rules change over time. Glenda showed us an awesome photo of her father in his swimsuit in 1929.

We then talked about verbal modesty, in particular, how people handle compliments. Sometimes people deny the compliment, saying that whatever they have is not so special. Sometimes they deflect it. Sometimes they will launch into extended sequences of self-denigration. There are also indirect deflection techniques, as when one explains why a particular piece of clothing has a special meaning. One can also respond non-verbally to compliments, with eye-lowering bowing, blushing, etc. There is also the traditional response, "thank you."

Could there be a society without modesty? We guessed probably not, but the parameters of modesty wouldn't need to be something that we humans would easily recognize. It would all depend on how power was expressed in that society.

"Tooting your own horn" is considered immodest, as Glenda noted. We briefly mentioned how tricky it is to know the boundaries between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.

It's good to be aware that making eye contact has very different cultural meanings. In many societies, direct eye gaze is seen as challenging rather than engaging (including some native American Indian groups and some Asian groups). This difference can cause quite a bit of misunderstanding, in which people are seen as rude, or in the opposite situation, seen as evasive. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Look at me when I'm talking to you?" This can also be problematic with people who are autistic or non-neurotypical.

The particular iconic meanings of eye contact can raise big problems. Staring is bad. Hiding is bad or a sign of untrustworthiness.

Have you ever noticed that you avoid eye contact when speaking, but watch the other person when they are speaking?

If you are hard of hearing, staring might mean you are trying to understand.

Blindness would also affect these rules. Sally Smith left a comment confirming our suspicion that the blind are socialized to face a speaker when they are speaking.

This was a fascinating discussion and we all felt there was more to touch on, perhaps in the future. Thank you for attending!


Realism in Worldbuilding - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

I decided I'd take off "with video" from the title above because these days I have videos with everything! This was a very interesting discussion, and it's a shame it took so long for me to write the summary, but there you are. The fundamental question we began with is this:

"Why are we so hooked on realism when everything is made up?"

The general consensus was that Glenda had it right when she said that "when you make your one big SF/F assumption, the realism makes it more believable." In other words, realism sets up a context in which the suspension of disbelief becomes easier.

This doesn't necessarily mean that things have to be grim and dark (or grimdark!) in order to be realistic. We're talking things like not having the heroine of your historical romance act like a 21st century woman; not transplanting modern views into an inconsistent context.

It's hard to change "human nature" plausibly. In a sense, people want to hear human stories, stories they can relate to. It doesn't matter if the characters involved are not strictly speaking human. This is an envelope that can be pushed pretty far, since humans vary a lot, especially culturally. But beyond a certain point people are going to stop caring.

There's another important issue in the question of realism, however, and that is the question of assumptions. People tend to come into a story with a starting set of assumptions they won't challenge (and those aren't always the same). Those assumptions might be called "realism" by the person who holds them, but they don't necessarily reflect actual reality. One salient example of this is the statements that are so commonly made about people of color and their presence in Europe at different time periods. Many people out there would protest that they weren't there, that that's not "realism," when in fact they are speaking from assumption and shared narrative. People of color have been present in Europe for thousands of years, and if you want to find examples of this, and art that reflects it, there's no better place to start than MedievalPOC.

It's worth saying again: Perceived realism may simply be a shared narrative.

This above all, in my mind, is an argument for thorough worldbuilding and textual support. As worldbuilders we are always dancing with the Discourse of Expectation. The way that the words we use are understood will always be influenced by the perceptions of our own time because of the way that our expectations set up a sense of the marked and the unmarked. Whatever is normal is unmarked; anything marked stands out. But since "normal" varies so widely, what stands out to different people will similarly vary. This is one reason why you'll find people who prefer to ignore a topic like homosexuality saying that it "stands out" or "doesn't fit" in a story.

Grimdark is a genre. But do all the people really have bad teeth? Does everything smell and is everyone sick, etc. etc.? One of the problems with portraying a different reality is not making it too precious and pretty, but not making it too gross. After all, things may have been gross in that era, but if it was normal, it would not have made the same impression on the people involved that it would in our own era. There are ways to get around the problem. My own solution for tooth problems was just to assume that the government of Varin puts fluoride in the water. Teeth weren't always bad. People who ate sugar had it worse, of course. Apparently in Egypt, the upper classes had worse teeth because of stone dust in their food.

Realism will be important, but you can have realism in different kinds of scientific arenas. It's a matter of focus. Is it really critical for story purposes that the audience know exactly how this thing works? Can you justify what's going on without explaining science? Which science are you using? Physics focus will turn out very differently from linguistics focus!

It's also possible to have one big premise assumption that is in the background of a story and doesn't get any attention, such as the fact that people have faster-than-light travel. It may be counterfactual, but we're not paying attention to that right now; we're more interested in the interaction with these aliens.

When you want realism in science, you have to pay attention to how scientists talk about what they know. You also have to ask what sorts of things they actually do for daily scientific activities. What does the laboratory actually look like? Different labs contain different types of things.

I always find it worthwhile to stay true to psychology as a science, and since culture is so important to me, to anthropology/linguistics.

Don't just stick a lot of "stuff" in a story without considering the underlying system that ties everything together, its connections, and how it influences character judgment.

We're also allowed to let an author set up a bunch of premise assumptions in the background of the story, such as the presence of the wizarding world and its relationship with the Muggle world in J.K. Rowling's work.

We touched on the question of rape and violence. Is it occasional? Is it constant? In medieval times it occurred, but how often? The author gets to make decisions about how much focus to put on such actions. The answers to these questions will often vary based on level of privilege in the society. What happens to people, when and how? Are there systems that are supposed to work against it? Why are they working or not working?

Brian mentioned that medieval war was seasonal. In the autumn you needed soldiers home to take in the harvest, and in the winter there was no light, a lot of cold, and things like sea ice trapping ships in harbor.

Some good questions to ask:
If you have a constant war going on, who is growing the food?
Could you live there and raise kids?
What kind of economy does the place have?
Is there a past or a future outside the story bubble?"

Thank you to everyone who participated. Today the hangout will meet at 3:30 Pacific on Google+ and we will discuss grammar! I hope you can join us.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sofia Samatar: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

For this discussion, we were joined by award-winning author Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria.

Sofia described her work as embracing genre and not feeling tied down by where it has gone before. I mentioned that she has been remarked on for the richness of her world, and she says that is not necessarily new, since there are worlds that include huge vocabularies and even whole languages. She said that Gormenghast by Mervin Peak and Tolkien's worlds were inspiration for her. She took her time to create the world featured in A Stranger in Olondria, and a new book, The Winged Histories, will also take place in that world. It is due out in March 2016.

When I asked her about the inspiration for this world, and how she created it, she said, "I created it by wandering around in it." Apparently the first drafts of these books were "huge enormous drafts": the initial draft of Stranger was twice as long, and the initial draft of Histories three or four times longer than the final drafts.

She says she writes scenes that don't need to be there, "but I needed to write them." Writing these scenes helped her to learn more about the world and the atmosphere. She told us about a part of the capital of Olondria which is very old, which she explored in depth. Only one or two things from it might end up in the book, but the understanding of this area, its history, and the debates that occurred there seeps into the feel of the book.

I pointed out that our understanding of a context often seeps into our use of language without us realizing it, and that this might be one way a deeper knowledge of the world might become evident to a reader.

Sofia described her writing as "not self-aware," and told us that she taught herself to write by writing A Stranger in Olondria.

Jevik, the hero of Stranger, comes from a non-literate culture, but Olondria itself is highly literate. When he goes there, he becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman of his own culture. She said it was important to put those two ways of knowing - literate and non-literate - side by side, and have them equally well known.

Though The Winged Histories is also set in Olondria, it is a stand-alone book. Jevik is mentioned in one sentence in the memory of someone else - a priest's daughter who appeared in Stranger, and who has become a main character. Chronologically, the events occur directly after those of Stranger. There are four points of view, all of them Olondrian women: a soldier, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite. The story deals with a religious and ethnic war connected to the events that occurred in the earlier novel. It is a complicated conflict, because Olondria is an empire. Its central valley is ostensibly one of the provinces, but in fact that province took over the others either through war or economics. That means there are different political interests and movements within it. People are dedicated to different gods, but the main goddess of the region called Kestenyi has been outlawed and replaced by an Olondrian goddess. A new cult has also appeared, trying to overcome the past. These religions are linked to cosmologies and in some cases to ethnicities.

I asked her about the time she spent in Africa, and how this related to the books. She said her time there was a direct source of ideas. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria while teaching High School English in the Sudan. This experience really made the distinction between oral and written traditions very present to her. She was there to help people make the transition from oral to literate, but she came to question what she was participating in. The common idea is that by teaching literacy, we are solving a problem, but it also leads to language and cultural loss.

The Winged Histories, Sofia says, is more concerned with gender than was A Stranger in Olondria. It examines what happens in societies with strict gender roles, where men and women live separately, and questions the relationship with militarism. Separation supports specific types of violence. She took inspiration here from Sudan and Somalia.

We asked about her use of point of view in the two novels. In Stranger, there are two points of view, but the second is there only because Jevik is taking dictation from the ghost and recording things in her voice. In Histories, there are four points of view in four sections that flow chronologically, though the 3rd and 4th parts happen at the same time. Point of view is an excellent tool to take a look at different things happening based on which character was present to witness them.

I asked whether disease was a part of book 2, because a genetic disease was described in book 1. She replied that both books are about identity, culture, memory, and history - and that genetics is a form of history.

There is also a cultural difference between the points of view. Two of the women are sisters, within the culture of the royal family. Others are from different provinces: one from the Olondrian core province, and the other from the most resistant province. This can create a contrast of values, since what is good for unification may be negative socially.

Glenda asked whether the Roman empire served as an inspiration. Sofia said yes, in terms of creating the pantheon. She also was inspired by Egyptian mythology. Glenda further asked whether there was a parallel between the new religion of Olondria and Christianity. Sofia said there was none intended, but "you hear it and you say... maybe." The new cult of Olondria is severe, conservative, against drinking wine, passionate about the written word, and desires to stamp out oral systems. There is a further parallel to Greece in that as Olondria expanded, it incorporated new deities into its pantheon.

Sofia, thank you so much for joining us and giving us insight into your work! Thanks also to everyone who attended and contributed to the discussion.

Today's hangout will be at 3pm Pacific and we will discuss mourning practices. Our guest for September will be Henry Lien, who will be with us at 3pm Pacific on Wednesday, September 16th.

Here's the video of our chat with Sofia Samatar, for those of you interested in further detail:


Monday, August 24, 2015

Humor and Pranks: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

Hands-down, the Humor and Pranks hangout was the most ill-fated hangout I have ever attempted to this point. I kept having to delay it, and delay it again, and then didn't have time to write it up... it was almost as if the whole thing were in itself a humorous prank!

Mischief and pranks have an important place in human cultures. Locally, we have April 1st, a holiday dedicated to fools and mischief, as well as Halloween, in itself a sort of mischief night (which can border on destructive). Brian mentioned that April 1st in Britain has historically been an occasion for elaborate stories and japes, including by television and newspapers, though he thinks the prevalence of satire sites has diluted the effect of the day itself. In the early 1960's the BBC had a whole report on the spaghetti harvest (from spaghetti trees) in Italy. There was another one in the Guardian in 1977 about the fictional country of San Serriffe. The whole idea was to make it just plausible enough, while at the same time using a semicolon-shaped map, and engaging other print-related jokes.

Che asked if humor was universal. It probably is, but the shape it takes will depend on which culture it appears in. Humor may have arisen as a form of play. Play, we decided, is a great way for young creatures to learn adult skills in a safer environment where it's not literally life or death.

Humor often relies on playing right at the edge of established social rules or taboos. It can lead to discomfort and people will sometimes protect themselves from reprisal by saying "only kidding" and trying to classify their speech as attempted humor (whether or not it actually was!).

Fools and jesters have an important role in mental health. They reduce tension. They play with exploring uncomfortable ideas. A step away from stress is probably also good for physical health. People with chronic pain are often very humorous because they use humor to distract themselves or protect themselves.

There is always the question of who is allowed to tell a joke. My sense was to compare it to the concentric circles of the diagram of tragedy - the innermost circle, the most affected, can joke to others, and it's probably acceptable to joke "outwards" about uncomfortable topics, but not inward. The more common way to talk about it is to say it's not okay to "punch down."

Jesters were also allowed, more than anyone else, to mock the powerful. George II apparently banished his court jester.

We talked about the tradition of roasts, where the guest of honor gets mocked. That guest is still in a position of honor and power, however.

There is a lot of cultural capital and privilege invested in the use of humor.

When you are paid for being funny, there are extra rules... like, "Don't offend the people who are paying you." Humor always walks that fine line.

We discussed some of the historical records of jesters. The earliest names known in Europe generally come from the Renaissance. Henry II had a jester. Apparently in the 5th century, there were people who farted on command. Apparently there was a jester in China called Chin Huang Ti in 207 BCE. Though the stereotype of jesters is medieval European, this is not really true.

Humor gives a degree of safety. Flirtation is a form of humorous play allowing approach while defusing the serious aspects of sexual interest.

What is the lowest form of wit? Puns? Sarcasm? Potty humor? In babies, you see humor around their discoveries about their bodies. It also becomes a way to gain power relative to parents, to explore and seize power.

There is scatological humor, visual humor, slapstick humor, language humor. Non sequiturs can be really funny, as can lack of sense-making.

If you are using humor, consider who tells the joke.

What is the role of profanity? Is it just for shock value? Is it identity politics?

We spoke briefly about the humorous interviews on The Daily Show and why they were humorous. We also talked about how sarcasm is rare in Japan, and not used in the same contexts.

Thank you to everyone who participated. I'm so glad this report is finally out!

This week's hangout will be Wednesday, August 26th at 3pm Pacific and we'll be discussing Modesty. I hope you can join us!


My new SF/F Reading Journal for next year's Hugos

I have been inspired by this year's Hugos.

It's become clear to me, as perhaps it has to many others, that entrusting my opinions of the latest genre works to others to nominate for awards is not enough any more.

One might ask: why haven't I done the active, thorough job I wanted on nominating? Easy: life. The biggest factor in my failure is my faulty, distracted, non-eidetic memory.

Therefore, I'm starting a reading journal.

Essentially, I am a very busy person (as many are), and I can't always call to mind every story I've read in a year, even the good ones. From now on, every time I read a story in the field, or a brilliant article, etc. I'll be writing down title, author, and publication.

That way I can get to the end of the year and remember not just the one or two stories that totally blew me away, but the other ones I loved but read on a day when I had 20 errands and a home play date. Or the ones I loved on a day when I was sick, or when I was in the middle of a crazy vacation.

I'm really excited about this, actually. I love to support stories I have enjoyed. The whole field is better off when we read each other's work, talk about it, and support it.

I hope everyone with a Hugo membership this year will consider doing the same going forward. We need everyone involved.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Stina Leicht and Cold Iron: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO!

Last week Stina Leicht dropped by to talk to us about her new book, Cold Iron, which is out now! This was a really fun conversation because in Stina's last visit to Dive into Worldbuilding, we got a few hints about her work on this project, and this time we were able to talk about how the novel had come together.

Stina says it's hard to do elevator pitches for epic fantasy, but that she began it with a starter question: What if Tolkien were American? She got the inspiration in part from an essay about how epic fantasy glorified feudalism. So her idea was to take the tropes of Tolkien, and change them. She set the book in a world resembling the late 1700's (technologically and culturally). She did some research on the time period to get inspirations from the history. One thing she picked up was the smallpox epidemic.

In this world, there are humans, and kaenin. Kaenin have magic and pointy ears, and humans don't (Stina finds a lovely backwards way of showing this in the book, too). Kaenin are diverse. People came to their nation, Eledor, from all over the world. Skin tones vary among the Kaenin but they are not the thing that identifies them as Kaenin; possession of magic is. People without power are not considered worthy by them, and thus humans are looked down on. So are Kaenin born without power.

The magic of the Kaenin is "command magic." They can tell you you are seeing things that you are not, as when, for example, they hand you dead leaves and you accept them as money. Different families among the Kaenin have different powers that are handed down. Stina described an inspiration she got at a retreat with her agent, Barry Goldblatt. Magical power is a "footprint in the world" like money. She asked, "How can you treat magic like money?" It doesn't work in every situation, but it leads to some interesting opportunities.

In Cold Iron, the Acrasians are the enemies, the Big Bad. Book 2 starts in Acrasia. The Acrasians come through Rifts; the first Rift occurred in Eledor.

The book notably includes a map. She said that she hadn't wanted to draw a map, because Tolkien did it so well. I noted that the map she included looks a bit like America. She told us she'd agonized over details like "Is this accurate?" "Would mountains really form here?" "How long would it really take to travel from here to here?"

She said she got inspired by an image from Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook, which shows a dragon outline made out of layered cloud shapes. She decided to take ghosts and demons and layer them over each other to create her map. The native peoples of the region are Kaenin, while the immigrants are the Acrasians, coming from a culture like ancient Rome.

Despite her protestations that she did a minimum of research, so she could "have fun," I suspect this was simply in contrast with the years of incredible, politically exacting research she did for her novels set in Northern Ireland. Stina says she did quite a bit of reading about the Georgian era in America, and particularly recommends the book Pox Americana.

In her world, the Acrasians have developed the musket. It has been around in their culture for a while, but has not been in Eledor for very long. Rifling is very new to both cultures.

The book is the first of a planned series. Each book will stand alone, but all will be connected. Stina is enjoying playing with the characters, and letting the world breathe and grow. She wants people to be able to pick up Book 3 and not suffer from the lack of knowledge from books 1 and 2.

Che asked whether we will be going to places other than Eledor. Stina said, "Eventually." She told us about the water-born nations, which are clans who live on ships at sea and believe in the Sea Mother. She says she took inspiration here from the East India company. No one outside a clan gets to learn where their home island is. They have magic that works on the water. She loves this group because she has always loved pirate stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

The first book uses three points of view and a mosaic plot structure. The three are Nels, Suvi his twin sister, and Ilta, a powerful seer and healer whose power nearly drives her crazy.

I asked her about the significance of the color black in Eledor. It is used to separate the soldier class from the rest of society because they deal in death. They are therefore considered unclean, and have cleansing rituals they must complete; they must also be careful whom they associate with, or touch. The black means they are marked by death. People in the Kaenin culture are frightened of death and blood. She took inspiration for this from the 1970's and the way soldiers were ostracized when they came back from Vietnam. Deaths in the normal population are ignored, and the word "death" is similarly ignored, always turned into euphemisms.

Stina also remarked that royalty exists in Eledor - that Nels and Suvi's mother wanted a more democratic government but she dies.

Korvas are scouts, thieves, and assassins. They look normal but they have keen hearing and the ability to hide very well. They are employed by nobles and the army. The army, interestingly, is considered a punishment for Eledorians. They choose to go into it to avoid jail, and the family grieves for them. Korva actions are illegal but used anyway; bad korvas are executed, while those who get caught get scarred distinctively.

For language, Stina told us she used a lot of Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish to inspire Eledor. The word korva, for example, means "ear." The title of a seer means "eye of the people," while the names of the months are Finnish. She wanted to emulate the way that the United States has varied place names from different languages.

"Cold Iron" refers to a sward. Water steel is a specialty of the Eledorians, and effective against the Acrasians. There is also a method used against Eledorians that is particularly destructive, and that is also referred to as Cold Iron.

Che asked whether Stina had done research on gunsmithing, to which Stina replied, "Lots." She feels that as an author, you have to know how things work. Gun hobbyists would likely call you out for errors. Some things in a fantasy book can be made up, but others you ahve to do research on. She promises that there will be magical rifles, and a character who is a gunsmith who leaves Acrasia with stolen knowledge. Something to look forward to in Book 2!

Stina says she enjoys character-driven fiction and tries to make her own work character-driven as well. She says she felt her books set in Northern Ireland were very stressful because of the pressure to get every last detail exactly right. This series allows her to play with ideas and what-ifs.

Thank you for joining us for this great conversation, Stina! Everyone keep an eye out for Cold Iron.