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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!