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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Blind Spots and White Rooms

What are the things you don't see?

Sometimes a story will feature sections of bare dialogue. These are like overhearing a conversation, and you have to guess what is going on around them based on the content of their talk.

It's all right not to specify things in a story, but we need to be aware that very often, a reader will fill in what they don't see with defaults.

Defaults are culturally dependent. They can be influenced by regional expectations. In some regions, "of course you have a basement." In others, "of course you have central heat." Where I live, it's astonishing if your house is not bolted to its foundation (because houses will walk off their foundations in a major earthquake).

When you are thinking about what kind of room your characters are in, remember that rooms have idiosyncracies. Ask who decorated them. What were they intended for? We noticed that Paul has maps and a sword in his room. I have wall hangings and a dresser. Morgan has a gaming chair and a dusty exercise machine. Ask whether a room was deliberately decorated. Was it filled by someone who had time to fill it? Were they in a hurry in some way?

Characters don't always think about everything around them. What does a kitchen look like if your main character has no interest in cooking? Morgan talked about having a character like that and comparing her view of the kitchen to that of her boyfriend who cooks.

Why do people pay attention to particular things? How does that change depending on their circumstances?

LaShawn noted that it's fun to play with character blind spots, with things they don't notice. If you want a reader to notice something that the character doesn't, you can always lay out an array of important and unimportant items. Paul remarked that sometimes an author doesn't plan the array, just puts a bunch of stuff out there and then some of it proves to be useful later.

Morgan asked how much we all look at hotel rooms. Not much, unless we're first walking in or noticing something wrong or different. Paul noted that if you are in a hotel room overseas, the room can be more distinctly different. LaShawn told us she once stayed in an older building that used to be a Men's Club because she was in overflow of people into rooms for a conference. It was unique and bizarre, because the doors were eight feet high and even the wall fixtures were very high up. It's worth noting that a hotel is not the same as a b&b or a ryokan, etc.

Any change in height or angle can really change our perception of a place. Adult heights tend to come in a much smaller range than those of children, and particularly so within a single culture. Our expected range of heights is smaller than the actual range of heights.

How do people learn not to see things? We notice things when they are new, and after a while our eyes gloss over them. There is a difference between not being taught to see something, and being taught not to see something. In China Mieville's The City and The City, people are taught not to see things right in front of them. We are taught not to look at homeless people when we encounter them. A change of environment will cause us to see things we might not in our most familiar contexts. If we go to a foreign country we are trying to watch for new languages, etc. so we pay attention to more things.

LaShawn noted that not everyone is the same, with the same opinions and experiences. This means you will notice different things. Kate remarked that you can be a relative outsider to an area even when everyone in the area is native to it. People also don't necessarily fit into the roles they have been assigned. When characters struggle with expectations, that teaches readers more about expectations.

It's helpful to try to understand secondary characters.

Kate brought up unreliable narrators. You can't necessarily orient reliably based on what is in a character's head.

My own view is that there's no such thing as a reliable narrator.

You can use situational irony to point up the unreliability of a narrator.

Kate noted that it's a problem when everyone sounds the same.

It's good to get multiple people to look at and critique a story while you are writing it, because different people will notice different things. People who don't usually read genre will be able to tell you if the genre conventions you are using are opaque to outsiders.

If you are writing in someone else's universe, you need to be able to speak the language of the people who live there. Star Wars people need to know Poe Dameron's idiolect. LaShawn told us that Mary Robinette Kowal was able to fool a whole bunch of people into thinking she was Patrick Rothfuss because she had studied his tweet style.

It's a really good idea to pay attention to language. It's our tool for writing, but it's also largely unconscious. People can't actually tell you what they will say in a given social situation; only what they think they ought to say.

Make sure you do your research. Kate can't stand it when someone has girl scouts "be prepared." (The Boy Scouts motto) The person who hypothesized about the Yucatán meteorite was not Luis Alvarez, but his son.

Know what you don't know.

Morgan noted that spoken and written language are very different, and it helps to read your dialogue aloud.

LaShawn said she looks at some of her early short stories and wonders, "Why did I pick this name?" Morgan noted that you often have to come up with a reason why someone is named something a bit unusual for their culture.

The blind spots and things you don't notice will change over time. If you have a new baby, you will be on the lookout for baby emissions, and if you have a toddler you will look for small people so you don't trip on them.

If you see someone wearing spurs in a grocery store,  (Kate did, and then later found herself post-riding in nearly the same situation) you can't really know the path someone took to get there. Be aware that there are things you can't know. Find experts to help you. Ask for the help of sensitivity readers, and pay them.

There isn't only one way for us to be who we are.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion! I really enjoyed it.


S. Qiouyi Lu and As Dark as Hunger

It was a real pleasure to have S. come on the show! We got to talk about their story, As Dark as Hunger, which is now out in the latest issue of Black Static magazine.

This story takes place in a secondary world. S. told us that while Tolkien made his own language, they, like Paul Krueger in Steel Crow Saga, use existing world languages set into a context that is not the real world.

Since I'm a linguistics geek, of course we followed up on that immediately. The story features English, which S. refers to in the story context as Common; it also has Esperanto, called Komuna. Esperanto is a conlang originally designed to promote global communication and peace. It also uses Manchu, a language now known to have only 10 remaining native speakers as it has been supplanted by Mandarin. S. has some Manchu heritage in their family, and uses it for the mermaid language in this story, and uses the word for language/tongue to refer to it. They said it was fun to put together sentences. In the story world, the mermaid language has become isolated because mermaids are hunted, and that has contributed to additional divergence. S. uses different terms for the languages in the story because once you start referencing Earth terms, you have to assume Earth exists.

As they construct the world of the story, S. uses imagery of the bayous in the southeastern US, and of Asian riversides. There's the stench of the riverbank buildup, too. Smells trigger memory in really effective ways. S. told us that smelling a particular type of garbage or sewage smell makes them think "I miss Beijing." Smells can be difficult to describe but they are very powerful. S. is intrigued by the idea of scent as language. They said Pratchett's Discworld does a good job with scent and "werewolf smellovision."

There's a balance between having things readers can reference and understand, and things that are unique to a world. If you say "green as Nyquil," that implies the existence of Nyquil. If a particular word or language usage stands out, we say it's marked; if it doesn't, then it's unmarked. Using unmarked language can help sneak things under the radar for readers, but not all readers consider the same things marked or unmarked. For some readers, lotus flowers in a pond evoke an atmosphere and a scent.

S. told us about a story called "The Scent of Memory" by Zhao Haihong, in which a character who was kidnapped and doesn't remember his family uses perfume to restore his memory.

In "As Dark as Hunger," the main character lives a simple humble life fishing, but then her former lover comes to the village. Her lover wants to hunt mermaids, because people pay handsomely for them, but to find a humane way of doing it that won't kill them. S. told us that part of this conflict came from the conflicted feelings they have about shark fin soup. It's a celebratory dish, but cruel because it kills sharks.

S. told us that they struggle with xenophobia in the US, where there is an anti-China climate. They want to be able to defend their personhood without feeling obligated to defend Chinese politics they don't approve of.

In the story, there is a contrast between the village and the city. The village is downstream from the city, which pollutes its water. Talented people seek opportunity in the city, and children and the elderly are left behind. The city drains away the village's people. The main character has an ethical objection to hunting mermaids, but she does want a better life than the stinking river.

One of the major themes of the story is diaspora, of being removed from the motherland. While, in this story world, foxes can shapeshift back and forth many times, mermaids can only shapeshift from tail to legs once, and then can't change back. Their children are human. This is a metaphor for immigration and assimilation. One of the main character's ancestors made this change in order to keep her descendants from being hunted, but in so doing, closed a door that could not be re-opened.

The mermaid who ends up at the main character's house is fluent in mermaid tongue, but the main character herself only knows a few words. S. described how they are able to learn Mandarin, but there are things about Chinese culture that they can't ever grasp in spite of that learning.

Kat asked S. if this story featured any forcible conversion to the new culture.

The story does refer to the story of the main character's grandmother as her parents were trying to transform. The mother does it first with a haunting look of resentment. The grandmother ends up being part of a sort of 1.5 generation, of young children who came to a new culture with their parents. From the second generation on, it becomes hard to hold on to the language.

S. Qiouyi Lu's story "Mother Tongues" literalizes assimilation by featuring a mother who is literally selling her ability speak her heritage language. Like "As Dark as Hunger," it captures a feeling of yearning, the feeling "you're so close; you're almost there but not quite."

With people in the diaspora, there's still a hope that you can learn your culture, and open the door a little bit. The language is not forcibly diminished, but gradually replaced.

This is not exactly like language loss in indigenous groups. When you are looking at situations with indigenous culture, you see the links of culture being broken.

S. described growing up in Southern California with a significant Asian-American population where you could access tutoring in heritage languages. It would be a lot harder if you were the only Asian kid in your community.

The idea of spaceships could easily be matched with the themes of diaspora, but you don't often see them explored. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather takes up interesting questions in an intimate narrative with a larger conspiracy. S. said they liked how it explored religion as an arm of control, but it didn't really take on the question of colonization. Aliette de Bodard addresses questions of how culture permutates and varies. Lois McMaster Bujold asks what happens if culture is isolated.

S. told us they found the idea of Earth being destroyed as a default is quite depressing. They are glad solarpunk is growing.

As Dark as Hunger is part of a larger series of novellas that S. is still working on. The stories occur in the same world but are not necessarily linked. They are planning to link the stories together with a frame story about a cabinet of curiosities, in a similar way to Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

S. has created maps of this planet, and has some idea of the cultures on it. They are enjoying the opportunity to finish stories they had thought about for a while, set in different geographical places, with Earth cultures in an alternative context. One features necromancy, and a character seeking to do magic on his brother's ashes, but unable to succeed in China, goes to look for a bruja in Mexico. S. said this story was inspired by their childhood in a desert region. Another story features a girl with bound feet who creates a steampunk mech to move around without pain. It is inspired by the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia. It's a secondary world they explore piece by piece, seeing what fits.

S. told us they are very happy to see so many Asian-derived secondary worlds coming out now, like in J. Y. Yang's work, or like in Paul Krueger's Steel Crow Saga. One advantage of working in secondary world versions like this is you don't have to do extensive research on the real Chinese mythology because you can "make up stuff." There is less pressure to get it right. This generation is starting to show the influence of anime, manga, and Japanese roleplaying games rather than relying on the same Western genre background. S. finds it interesting to see people drawing on these influences.

S. told us they hated History in High School, but it was mostly because it was taught badly - too much big picture, and not enough knowledge of what was happening to various different groups. Chinese-American history is has fascinating pieces we don't know. Idaho used to be one quarter Chinese. S. likes exploring these lesser known histories as a good jumping off point for stories.

I asked S. about their background in Linguistics, and they explained they have a BA in Linguistics, and their favorite areas of linguistics were Sociolinguistics and Phonology. They enjoy grammar books and dictionaries. Wikipedia can often give you an overview of a grammatical system. You can look in language grammars for examples of words and sample sentences. Once you have these pieces, you then have to figure out how to change them for context. If you working with a language that has only ten native speakers, as S. was for this story, it's hard to reach out to verify things.

J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series doesn't include Earth language. The main character realizes they are nonbinary or trans. That person uses the masculine version of the pronoun "I."

Steel Crow Saga uses Tagalog, Chinese, and other languages. There is a character with a taboo against using the first person pronoun, so he uses the third person to refer to himself.

S. said they always wish there were more science fiction based on linguistics, especially sociolinguistics. There isn't often as much about diglossia, when there are two languages used. Some societies have had one language for written work, and another for spoken. Singapore has four national languages, used in different contexts. You can do a lot to stratify or deconstruct a society based on language.

We talked briefly about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language influences thought. The strong version of the hypothesis, which posits that language constrains thought, has been debunked. S. said they know Ted Chiang is a great writer because he based a whole story on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and S. didn't throw it across the room.

Paul asked how S.'s work as a translator has influenced their fiction. S. said the reverse was more true, that their fiction writing has helped them be a better translator. If you can't write well in the target language, translating a story will be difficult. Literature in different languages has different conventions. In Chinese literature it's not a faux pas to use a lot of adverbs. S. said they have to make a lot of decisions about translating phrases like "ran quickly" as "dashed." They try to balance editing and adapting for an English audience without losing the Chinese voice.

It's harder for them to translate into Chinese. There is stuff you can't look up in a dictionary. They would have to internalize vocabulary and writing conventions.

When asked if there should be a Hugo award for translations, S. argued that it is better to have translations integrated and listed alongside English-language works. There is an award in Japan for translated works, but so much there is translated that it makes sense. In addition, in the anglophone context, people already have the idea that translations are "different." A dedicated award might boost the profile of translated works, but might also turn people away. Having these works in the main Hugos shows that they compete.

Kat asked if S. comes under any pressure to create a flavor of Chineseness that is expected by anglophones. S. replied that individual translators have different styles, and some stories have more Chinese flavor than others. They quoted Ken Liu who said, "Authenticity is something other people use to describe your work." One interesting question S. runs into is whether to translate names into their literal meanings or not. Translating them is more "othering." S. has sometimes seen an interesting mixed approach used.

Thank you so much to S. Qiouyi Lu for being on the show, and to everyone who attended! This was a fascinating discussion.


Monday, November 11, 2019

Personal Habits

This is something of an underrepresented topic, but it's incredibly useful for world and character.

Do characters brush their teeth? How do they open and close doors? Do they slam them? Turn the handle and un-turn it afterward? How does the door open and with what kind of handle? Does it behave differently in different types of weather? Is it like a car door, where it has to slam? Do your characters make a mistake because they are accustomed to a sticky door when another door is less sticky?

What about going to the bathroom? Do your characters' clothes have zippers? Elastic? Buttons? What does that mean for getting in and out of clothes? Do they have socks with garters? What holds up your hosen? You can cut fabric on the bias if you want it to stretch a little, but how much does that affect the way you wear a garment? Kate notes that we don't thank the universe enough for Lycra.

Do you shut the door behind you or not? On a farm, you should leave a gate how you found it, or you might cause huge problems for livestock. Do you know how to go through a gate with a horse? There's a whole process involved. When you have farm animals involved, one mistake can cause a disaster. Kate asked, what if you need the gate open for the cows to come home, but you don't leave it open?

Morgan lived for a long time with cabinet doors that wouldn't close. Now they do, but people still don't close them.

Does your character close drawers? Why or why not? This will give you an insight into the character's style and thought processes.

My character Nekantor has obsessive-compulsive disorder, so his habits are really important to his character. A lot of our impressions of a character's habits have to do with what our expectations are. Do you expect a small person to have a small car? But what if they need a large car because they have horses and tack to carry?

Morgan says she likes looking over the steering wheel of an SUV to look at the road. Sometimes the advantage of a particular thing will diminish if everyone else has the same thing, as when everyone starts having large cars, or cars with fast acceleration.

Think about the size of the characters and how it affects their habits and interactions. Kate says she always ends up with the biggest horse, and it's ridiculous.

Do your characters shove their hands in their pockets? Do they have pockets? What do they carry in them? Does a character carry string? Or a worry stone? Or a knife?

How do people look at each other? Up or down? Can you see up the person's nose? Can you smell the person's armpits if you're short? Do people lean on a smaller person's head? Do people joke about height? Does a large person have careful habits to minimize size so as not to scare people?

Tall people in a small house will have to duck a lot. What about on a submarine? Or a ship?

Do you carry writing implements or paper with you? Sand, wax, or blotter? Do you have a barrel of sand handy to remove rust from your tools?

Morgan takes her keys and puts them in her purse before she exits the car to prevent herself from locking the keys inside.

Some habits are self-protective.

My character Adon has a lot of clothes-related habits. He changes clothes when upset, and analyzes people's attitudes based on their clothing.

Kate wrote about a bunch of aliens reacting to hearing a human describe how they lie to get laid. Normal-seeming things can become very weird if you step far outside your normal sphere.

Would carnivorous aliens have dental floss? Probably not.

How do people apportion food? Do they have moral reasons or ostensible health reasons why they would do that? How many vegetables do characters eat? Do they have meals at particular times? We have TONS of narratives and habits around food.

We also have habits related to what we talk about, when, and how.

Do you serve food in the kitchen or at the table? Who gets served first? Do you fill plates in an order? Do you eat standing at a counter with your laptop open? Do you eat fast or slow? Mercedes Lackey does a lot of interesting things about how people access food.

If you're hungry, should you offer everyone else food before you get your own?

What are your dietary habits like?

How do you manage permissions for boundary-crossing? In Mazes of Power, the Imbati ask permission before asking a question, and have a gesture specifically intended to get permission to touch someone.

Do we ask other people before we change the heat settings in a car? In the house?

Kate said when she visited Africa, the habit was to grab the forearm with a handshake. French people who are friends give kisses on the cheek, but which side goes first?

Remember that habits often take time. Sometimes they take other people's time.

Thank you so much to everyone who attended. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Tuesday, November 12 at 4pm Pacific.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Designing Voices 1

We had so much fun with this discussion that we thought we should do it again (which is why I added the number 1 to the title). When talking about voices in this context, it is important to note that I mean character voices rather than author voice. Character voices can show in speech/dialogue or in internalization. If you are using character voice for different points of view, the voice of each point of view must be distinct. When it's done well, you can often tell who is speaking even without the dialog tags.

Morgan mentioned that P. N. Elrod's Blood List as an example of a book with very good character voices.

What are the ingredients that go into distinct character voices? There are many. Vocabulary is a big one. Syntax is another. So is slang. You want to be able to sense the character's cultural background in the way that they choose whether or not to speak, as well as how.

When I was writing The Persistence of Blood, I had a two-year-old character, Pelli. I set her at the two word stage of language development so that I would have a clear set of limitations on how she could communicate. Morgan said she used two word tweets! The trick was allowing her to play a small but important role in the plot, so she had to be able to communicate in a way that was limited, plausible for her age, but also meaningful.

We spent some time talking about word choice. The importance of word choice cannot be understated. The difference between "fall ill" and "get sick" can tell you a lot about a character. It can tell you where this person learned language and what kind of education was available.

A character can have a "native register," i.e. the language they learned first, and also be able to use a prestige dialect, and to code-switch between them.

In one of the later books of my Varin series, I have two characters, Meetis and Corbinan. Both are undercaste. They speak two regional varieties of the undercaste dialect, because they are from two different cities. The biggest difference between these two regional varieties is the pronoun usage. (Pronoun usage is a hugely useful tool for differentiating voices). Meetis also knows how to code-switch to her local prestige dialect of Varinin, while Corbinan cannot. This makes an enormous difference in how they are treated by gatekeepers.

It's important to note that people without power often develop an instinct for understanding those with power and how they speak and operate. It's a survival skill. The reverse is much less the case.

In English, use of sir or ma'am is regional.

How people choose their conversation moves as they open talk with another person is also an aspect of voice.

If you ask a classroom full of people to write about what the teacher is doing, you will find they have different voices. One of the elements that often differs is the term of address used for the teacher. Does a student call him Mr. X? Does the student call him by first name? Do they call him "Dad"? How far a person can flout the formal context of the classroom will vary depending on where the class is happening. Our friend in Japan taught her daughter in class for a year and they both used exclusively formal forms of address (Y-san, Y-sensei) while in the classroom context.

We spoke briefly about dialogue tags. Many people these days argue that "____ said" is the only acceptable type of tag. I personally use all sorts. This brought us to the question of repetition.

Repetition is such a critical topic that we really need to spend an hour on it another time. That said, we spent some time talking about it here. It's a powerful tool in writing, and you need to be aware of how you are using it. Very often in edits, I find myself eliminating repetitions of words. The reason for this is that readers will notice if you repeat words, and they will expect there to be some reason why they are being repeated. Is a word being repeated because it's important? If yes, great. If no... ask yourself if it is a marked word or an unmarked word.

"Said," as used in dialog tags, is an unmarked word. You can repeat it as many times as you like and it just fades into the background. Small function words like "the" are also unmarked. Marked words are ones that are more important and draw attention. Those repetitions are the ones that should either be significant or absent. If a character uses a particular word or phrase repeatedly, it can help to make clear that their character is the one speaking.

It's important to think both about the character points of view, and about the potential audience. Thinking about your reader's pattern of language use is critical because a word choice that means one thing to the characters can mean something different to readers. Watch out for things that will hit the reader in a weird or problematic way.

One of the tools I love to use when I'm designing voices is meter. By this I mean "poetic meter," or the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each word, and how they string together. Iambic pentameter, well known as the Shakespearean meter, is five "feet" where each foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (an iamb). You can actually take classes on the linguistics of poetic meter - I have taken one, and I found it fascinating. Shakespearean sonnets and their iambic pentameter (example) are very different from the rhythmically different poems of the Australian Banjo Patterson (example).

A speaker of the Pelismar dialect of Varinin might say "I'm sorry I'm late."
A speaker of the Safe Harbor dialect of Varinin would say "I blame the tides."
Metrically, these two are very different.

"Bless your heart" is an example of a phrase that can mean different things depending on context. It can either be "Wow, this person has no clue and I don't know how to dignify what they said" or it can sometimes be sympathetic, or mean "You're so kind." This isn't always the phrase used for those purposes. Depending on region or time period, someone might say "Isn't that special," or "Thank you for sharing with me."

The House on Mango Street is an example of a book with a very distinct and powerful voice.

When we talk about voice, then, how does that connect with worldbuilding? Basically, a person's identity and background have a lot to do with what they care about and what they notice. Culture, in the sense of how a person was brought up and what they were taught was important, can easily be seen in voice.

In Transgressions of Power, the character Adon tends to judge noble people's attitudes based on what they are wearing. "Lady Selemei's dress looks like it's made of panels of steel so she's obviously taking this seriously."

The voice carries the character. Personality is expressed in language. People also have different contexts in which they speak differently.

Morgan and I had a great conversation. There is so much more here to talk about that I am planning to revisit this topic very soon.

Dive into Worldbuilding will meet this week on Tuesday, November 5 at 4PM Pacific. I hope to see you there!