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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Sounds and Onomatopoeia


These are probably the kinds of things we think of when we think about onomatopoeia, but one of the things we wanted to do in this discussion is expand how we think about the use of sound in prose.

Paul pointed out that paying attention to what people hear in a fictional environment is very important. Sound words themselves can come across as cool, or as esoteric, depending on which ones you choose.

I recently used onomatopoeia in a chapter I was working on, in which my point-of-view character was haunted by the sound of a weapon discharge after nearly being killed by it. What it involved was inserting the word "zzap" at different points in the narrative.

As with most literary techniques, whether it is effective or not depends a lot on how you do it. Any technique can be overused, or become intrusive. Rowan pointed out that redundancy is annoying. My own take on this is that repetition is a very powerful technique, and should be used carefully (because redundancy is annoying!).

Morgan noted that particular sounds can be very meaningful, such as the sound a coffeemaker makes when it's finished. A sawblade sound could also be striking. So can music.

Kat pointed out that the presence or absence of sound can be significant. What is the narrative impact when engine noise stops? What about birdsong? She talked about being in Australia and listening to kookaburras outside the window. This sound has so often been used by sound engineers to evoke the jungle - inaccurately - that it can be disconcerting. We get trained to expect particular sounds in particular environments, but sword-drawing does not make the sound sshhhinggg!

Think about what sounds you are choosing to describe. Why have you chosen them? What is important about them?

Think also about when you might notice sound. A heavy drawer makes a very different sound from a light drawer when opening. In radio plays, these differences would have been important to convey properly, but they're harder to capture in text.

Very often we are taught to write to show off beautiful ways to write. We should also try to think not just about how to make our writing sound beautiful but the larger significance of the techniques we use.

Onomatopoeia is optional in English but less so in a language like Japanese, where it constitutes a high percentage of adverbs.

Brian pointed out that if you focus on sound it can give your story more texture and weight, and a greater feeling of immersion. It directs your attention and adds dimension. It can also be an element of character voice.

The same event can be described with varying amounts of sound in the text. Here's an example:
"Crash" + description of lightning
"The lightning crashed"
Lightning lit the sky.

You can create a lot of sound-like effect just by using particular words with repeating sounds, as in alliteration, sibilance, and assonance. One author who does this beautifully is James Thurber in his children's works The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O.

You can indicate a lot about your world by picking out sounds to describe. Adding those words can take time.

What is the reader's expectation of the soundscape? What do they know, or not know? Is the soundscape important? What should you describe, and how much, in order to capture it?

Steven King provides sound details, because you have to know what the normal sounds of a house are in order to understand what it means when they change. Set up the normal so you can understand departure from the normal. Character judgment is one good tool for doing this.

In comic books, you do have to come up with ways that things sound. This can be tricky!

In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, there is a recurring pockety-pockety sound that never gets explained, but may suggest he works in a factory in his real life.

The sound of a keyboard typewriter used to be the sound of word production.

Kat has written about a character with PTSD who is triggered by the presence or absence of certain noises. She astutely remarked that we should pay attention to the different sounds made by a pine forest and a broad-leaf deciduous forest.

Cliff pointed out that in The War of the Worlds, the presence of silence is very important to convey a ghost city.

What do places full of humans sound like? What do they sound like when they are not full of huans?

How do we represent language sounds that we don't understand? The word barbarian comes from the idea that foreigners used to say "bar bar."

If you don't describe accent or language, people will assume a default majority language. They will tend not to think it's their own language, necessarily.

Tobias Buckell has often dealt with issues surrounding how to portray patois in text.

We shouldn't always demand that the reader supply sonds for us.

Standardizing the "sound" of descriptive narrative is not always a socially neutral choice.

Robert Parker Spencer novels use a Bostonian dialect, and Morgan noted she never noticed the accent in the books until it was pointed out to her.

You can make deliberate choices at the phoneme level, in your word choices, in your prosody and rhythm to change the feel of narrative.

How much is an accent noticed by the point of view character? How much distinction is drawn between dialects in the world?

What kind of ideas do the people of your world have about what an upper-class accent is like? What a lower-class accent is like? All these judgments are culturally grounded.

What happens when you are writing a multi-species story? How do you deal with all kinds of accents?

Keep in mind that a character's native language is generally a major source of their accent in a second language. We have a lot of stereotypes and strong judgments we associate with particular social dialects, regional dialects, and foreign languages.

Thank you to everyone who attended!


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What Do Worldbuilders Mean by World? (Scope and Focus)

Worldbuilding is a word that started out being applied exclusively to science fiction and fantasy settings, but which in my view deserves to be applied more widely. One of the reasons I thought we should talk about it is that when the word comes up, as in a convention panel on worldbuilding, it tends to divide into two options:

1. How to create a planet from the solar system up
2. How to create a rich setting for story writing

Another one of the really common preconceptions about worldbuilding is that it requires you to create a world massive enough to require an entire "world bible," and all before you begin writing any of the story. This is not the case; worldbuilding can begin with the story and continue well after the story has launched, and it should not require you to fill reams of paper with notes before you can create a single word of the story about it.

Kat notes, however, that a key question is "How much divergence are you building into what the audience is used to?" In a sense, we're never NOT using a giant world, because whatever we don't invent tends to come from our own world, and is likely to be unconsidered.

Maris remarked that literary fiction also has key divergences from our world that need attention. Urban fantasy takes these divergences and pushes them further; science fiction and fantasy tend to take them even further. Kate added that even a sitcom that posits a bunch of rich white people living in big apartments in New York has a strong element of fantasy in it.

One excellent example of worldbuilding that involves creating a setting from our own world is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which creates a very strong sense of Sweden and its climate, locations, and culture. In my own case, this is a foreign world to me, because I've never been to Sweden. John Irving's work creates a very strong sense of New England as a setting. One can almost consider the world and its culture as a character in the story. Clarity of scene, and a sense of structure in the setting, arise from excellent worldbuilding.

Historical fiction also has a lot of worldbuilding work to do. It is often called upon to correct wrong ideas (especially about race) and help us understand what it felt like to live in the world during the time period it features.

Kat has a concept she uses called "projected reader," which basically refers to the intended audience of a piece, with a few nuances added - specifically, that the intention may not be conscious on the part of the author. What does your audience know, and what do they need to know? How big is the gap between those two things? What kind of bridge do you need to create between them, as an author? The answer to these questions may be similar whether you are in a secondary world or working in a world that is Earth, but unfamiliar to readers. Here's an example: if you are writing about high school, and your projected reader is in high school, then you are free to leave some things unexplained.

Some people like to know all the physical details so they can describe them in a way that could be rendered in a painting. Sometimes it's important to do this. Other times, it's less so.

Third person limited point of view is a really great way to limit the scope of what needs to be described.

If we want to consider what is happening at the word level, any content word has the ability to bring with it a whole load of contextual information that suggests things about the world. In the conversation I called this a word schema. The author has to choose a word that matches the intended contextual information as closely as possible, and may then have to do some work to control aspects of that information, cutting off some reader expectations and encouraging others.

If you are Tolkien and you write potatoes into your world, is it a problem? Which readers will accept it, and which will start wondering whether Middle Earth has experienced a Columbian Exchange? What happens if you bring silk into your world? What kind of contextual assumptions will it bring with it?

Future science fiction tends to bring traditional assumptions of its own. Rayguns and faster-than-light travel tend to be on the list.

How much do you need to know about a moon in order to write about it?

How do you deal with the iceberg problem, where you generally need to know a lot more than appears on the page in your story? How much are you supporting the material that is there?

Are your worldbuilding details story-relevant? Are they character-relevant?

I had a terrible problem with the worldbuilding for the Star Trek TNG episode Darmok because although I loved the language concept, I felt it was insufficiently supported by the worldbuilding.

In a sense, there's a contract between the reader and the author, what Jed Hartman calls "author points." It's a question of how much the reader trusts the author and what they are willing to allow, and what breaks their suspension of disbelief.

I then asked my discussants whether they felt there was any part of worldbuilding they would identify as indispensable.

Maris suggested the question of what your character can use as a metaphor: would a character use a water metaphor on a desert world, in what way, and what would that mean?

Kat talked about choosing curse words for the world, setting up rubrics of cursing and asking what a character is upset by. Is it religiosity, filth, sexual experience? Or should it be something like randomness? Or leaks (if you live on a space ship)? How does your character think of the world and its relations and expectations? Is the person marginalized? Do they have a struggle with the environment? Attitudes and judgment are really important here.

 Maris remarked that one of the most important things is what the character judges as normal vs. what is weird. 

What if being bilaterally symmetrical was surprising? This would hint at an alien experience.

Paul said he values family structures, relationships and marriages, and how kids are raised. What is the smallest nuclear family? Do people live separated, or in groups? What do societies do? What does that say about the world?

Cliff talked about implied worldbuilding, and what the reader needs in order for the world to make sense. He also noted that epic fantasy worldbuilding and flash fiction worldbuilding have very different requirements. He pointed out the marked/unmarked distinction. Something that is unmarked is considered normal, default, unremarkable; something that is marked is unusual, worthy of note. In our own society, a white cis male Christian Anglo-Saxon Protestant - who is bilaterally symmetrical - is the unmarked default. Anything that is unmarked in our society will be bought to story context by a reader, and the author has to build up story context in order to change that.

Whenever an author doesn't put a marker or label on something they are relying on the default. If you don't want something to be perceived as default in your story world, put a label on it.

A lot of story worlds assume the existence of liquid intoxicants in association with violence. "Saloons" are a genre in and of themselves.

Not all story worlds are built in depth and highly consistent. The kinds of departures a story is allowed to take from its norms are also part of the story's worldbuilding. Cliff mentioned how Futurama brings past assumptions into the far future, as when it features space pirates.

Paul noted you can start writing first and then backform the world later, building the iceberg underneath you as you go.

I mentioned exploratory drafts, which are drafts of a story in which the author is exploring the world for the first time.

Is realism valuable? Sometimes people will swear that it's more important than anything else, but people don't agree on what is realistic. A lot of times, realism has more to do with what expectations the reader expects to have fulfilled than the actual features of a world.

Fans will often build a wiki to try to make story worlds make sense.

Sometimes what you come into story creation with is a set of story kernels, or what Kat called shards. I imagine that story worlds grow like crystals from the shards we come in with. The principles that form those crystals are often unconscious, so we should look out for them and try to understand them.

Comic books retcon, reboot, and do all sorts of things with their storylines. The way I think of this is that comics are often fanfic of themselves. Maris said that instead of running on author points, they often run on character points.

Worlds are not always consistent. In Star Wars, "your outdated religion" was only 20 years ago! Though it should be pointed out that sometimes people in real life refer to each other's current beliefs as outdated.

There are many kinds of worldbuilding. A company like Disney might have teams working on world-internal consistency. When we had Monica Valentinelli visit the show, she talked about how to work for consistency in a shared world.

How much elasticity does the world have? How do readers/viewers cope with departures from norms? How much does this have to do with episodic storytelling? Does the storyline have to re-set to its norms after every episode?

This was a very interesting discussion! Thanks to everyone who attended. Today, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet at 4pm Pacific to discuss Sounds and Onomatopoeia. I hope you can join us!


Saturday, May 11, 2019

Drawings, Paintings, Photos, Video: How We Capture Images

This was a really fun chat, and I loved having so many people there! We started by talking about photos of people and how they are captured. Kat mentioned that occasionally there are places where you can get your silhouette cut out using a 150 year old silhouette technique that was once the best way to capture your loved one's image without great expense. Whatever happened to the silhouette cutters joined our previously-asked question of whatever happened to the buggy-whip makers...

Brian came in to drop some well-researched knowledge about portraiture in the Renaissance. He told us that the painted sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome had all had their paint rubbed off by the Renaissance, so the Renaissance sculptors imitated the greatness of the ancients by creating sculptures with no color added. Portraiture in the Renaissance was a rich man's game. You either did it to show how rich you were (your social status generally), or to show how pious you were. A lot of information in these portraits was symbolic and decodable. What you carried, where the portrait was set, and what you were wearing had specific messages to send to viewers of the portrait. (I've always thought this would be a fun thing to take advantage of in a fictional setting!)

Self-portraits during this period were a form of advertising. You would paint a picture of yourself that you could then sit next to so passersby could see how great you were at rendering an accurate portrait. Still lifes were also a way for artists to show off their technique.

Brian estimated that watercolors first started being used in the 1820-1830 range. They could be easily damaged by water. They also depended on the availability of paper. Pen and ink images, though, go back much further, and if you consider the water-based ink paintings of Asia, they go back much farther.

Art can have periods of little change depending on what is going on in the society. European paintings had about 150 years of stagnation. During a much earlier period, traditional Chinese art stayed very much the same for about 100 years. In the year 900 it was much more advanced than that of the societies around it. Kat pointed out that it had a connection to calligraphy, and that the training for calligraphy (at least) has a kind of cultural conservatism where you want to precisely duplicate the style of the master before innovating. Ink-making in China was also standardized, where it was far more do-it-yourself in Europe. The sinosphere had a lot of social stability, and placed value on social stability. Europe in the Renaissance had a lot of different competing rulers with less hegemonic control (unless you consider the Catholic Church hegemonic). The Ottoman Empire was located between these two very different cultural groups.

One key question to ask whenever you are talking about art history in our world, or in a fictional world, is "What gets preserved?" Whether art gets preserved will depend a lot on whether it's politically accepted.

Brian told us about a piece from Kent, England, which had been broken up. Some pieces were lost, and some were sent to France during WWII to try to get them away from the German attacks, and then ended up in the German salt mines after France fell. Art works have a ridiculously complex history.

In Japan, shrines are expected to be rebuilt because of the dangers they face: earthquakes, thunder, fire, and the old man.

Cathedrals were made of stonework and wood with the expectation that the wood would be lost over the centuries, but the stone would stay and the wood could be replaced.

We're trained to think that the things that count are preserved, but new storage media can cause problems. NASA is losing some of its storage media.

These days, a lot of value is placed on photo-like images. This value started surprisingly early. Brian remarked that the less representative art movements followed the advent of photography, to capture what photos could not, and maintain the relevance of the artistic techniques in an age where accurate representation was already taken care of by the photographic medium.

Of course, photography was used for artistic experimentation quite early, using perspective, and creating images of fairies and ghosts, etc.

In the days of sculptures and painted portraits, the subjects of those portraits were often portrayed as idealized versions of themselves. A body model might be used because a famous person might not want to sit for the length of time required for the portrait to be completed.

Photography gave the sense of being more real, but still people used creativity. These days, digital media are also used in creative ways.

In the Victorian times, people would have death portraits. You would have a picture of a family where a child who had died would be propped up in the portrait. In the 1880's-1890's, taking an image was an expense, and difficult, so for daily life it wasn't so critical, but if a child died then you might have no way to preserve their memory, so you would take the picture immediately after their death as a memorial. By the 1920's it had become easy, and this tradition disappeared.

Polaroids were an image-capture technology of a particular era!

There was also the idea of the "Kodak moment." Photography companies would want you to be aware of times in your life when you might want to take a photograph, so that they could continue to have business. Now, it's so easy to take pictures that Kat has her kids photograph the food inside the fridge and bring her the picture so she can tell them what they can eat without having to stop what she's doing. Brian takes photographs of signs and plaques at museums so he can refer back to them later. For me, having the ability to make digital photos meant I tried a lot more shots, and a lot more risky angles, etc. because I didn't have to waste film if I got them wrong. You can even take a picture of paperwork, or a phone number, rather than having to make a copy.

At this point, three-dimensional solid representations are precious. Busts are not terribly popular currently, but they might become so with the rise of 3D printers.

So how do we incorporate this into our worldbuilding? Well, there's always the Portrait of Dorian Gray... But it's a good idea to ask if you have artists in your sff. A lot of arts and crafts don't make it into our fictional depictions.

In my world of Varin, portraiture is going strong because the people have a religious view that discourages taking too-accurate images of people (called "stealing someone's face"). In Australia and New Zealand, you can often find warnings about sharing images or videos of deceased people.

We have a tradition of not taking pictures of the Queen of England eating, or blowing her nose.

IDs require photos or some kind of biometric information. But are people allowed to keep glasses on? Do you want a photo showing your ears? (Some agencies do) Can you wear a hat? Can you wear a colander on your head?

Do you smile in photos or not?

How do we identify people? Hair and eye color are not always useful metrics. What if someone were identified on the basis of how bilaterally symmetrical they were, instead?

We use photos to show off socially, and to communicate. I just had author photos taken for my forthcoming novel, and how I "come across" in such a photo is an important cultural consideration. There's value in putting a face on an author. What happens if you send a photo of someone else? Or of yourself, twenty years ago? It's a form of communication that makes a statement about a current reality. These days, we are represented by postage stamp-sized images online.

Think about the fake profiles that issue friend requests. What are they trying to achieve with the photos they steal? What values are they trying to access with their images of graying military widowers, or hot young things?

Kimberly brought up the question of verbally describing a drawing of an image, which has its own sort of inception-like redundancy. Describing portraits takes time, and is quite challenging. Artists imagined many different versions of the Iron Throne before one was accepted as the cultural canon. There are moving portraits in Harry Potter. You might take the time to describe a piece of art in depth if it were highly relevant to your plot, but mostly you'll sketch out just a few details.

Morgan noted that art, and feelings about art, can be instrumental in a point of view or a mood.

Where art is displayed, and how much of it there is, indicates things about your world. Think through where art would appear, and what it would depict, and whether it is permanent or seasonal.

We briefly mentioned representational caricatures like the ones you might see at an amusement park. What is the function of that? We decided we could have a whole discussion on Othering in such representations, but that we didn't have time right then.

Kat asked what it would be like to revive a heritage art in artificial gravity.

I mentioned my story "At Cross Purposes," which featured aliens who loved Art and considered it the purpose of civilization and progress.

We wondered about scent art and how that might be used in a story.

How do artists talk about their art? Is everyone an artist? Are only a few people artists?

Thank you to everyone who attended!