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Monday, January 27, 2020


If you're looking for a post on how to be more productive in your writing, this is not it.

However, if you're looking for a discussion of how we conceptualize productivity and its value in society, you've come to the right place!

We often are asked whether we are productive or not, but we don't always talk about what productivity is. How do you benefit the society that you are a part of? Do you have to make stuff? Or is there more to it?

Kat remarked on the difference between people who live in the Caribbean and people who are tourists there. The tourists want to "get more out" of the experience while the people who live there simply live it.

Productivity is, in some sense, a story that we tell ourselves about our role in society. However, it does have real life impact. Morgan pointed out that it puts focus on the idea of "product," and can devalue service and education as human vocations, because they don't create piles of gold.

Division of labor is also relevant here. Many people fall for the total independence fallacy. People do tend to need other people around to perform certain functions for them. It's extremely difficult to do everything for yourself.

The words and metaphors we use to describe ourselves and our behavior influence our behavior.

Class is an important consideration here. Certain classes of people are expected, and indeed required, to be productive, while others are not. Consider the difference between the words "leisure," "idle," and "lazy."

We often find societies where there is a leisure class and a labor class. In the labor class, high productivity often works people to death. Those in the leisure class have a lot of free time.

We are taught to be as productive as possible, but it's important to recognize that this is not sustainable or an economic, human, or environmental level. Humans are not machines, and the resources of the environment are both necessary and finite.

Different cultures place different value on productivity. Kat described a video in which a group of people in France was building a bridge across a viaduct. They stopped and had lunch with beer as a group before they finished the bridge. Having leisure time, and social time, help people to be more creative on and off the job. When we are forced to keep going at a frenetic pace, at all costs, we get burnt out.

How would you go about building an economy where frantic productivity is not necessary?

This applies to the world of school as well as to work. In the US right now the culture of homework has taken over, leaving kids no time to play and little time to engage their creativity. Even schools with excellent resources and teachers create an environment where kids are dying inside with riches all around them because they can never rest.

People love to force others to be busy for the sake of being busy (especially kids), when love of a subject should be the goal.

Accomplishment and productivity are not the same.

Industrialization has significantly changed our expectations in the arena of productivity. Medieval serfs had time off for feast days, and winters are not high productivity times in the are of agriculture.

Some of our desire for work comes from a desire to keep people from causing trouble, or to keep them out of our way.

Paul noted that in Germany people work shorter hours with more holidays. They just work less. Here we are taught to engage our scorn for such values. But why? Is it related to the idea in Christianity that suffering is somehow noble?

The level of busy-ness is not necessarily linked to the amount produced by an individual. The question is sometimes "Do I see you working?" more than it is "What are you accomplishing?" Do you need to be seen working? Can you leave before your boss does? Paying by piece work creates a different kind of pressure on a worker from paying by the hour. Take a look at what kind of pressure and coercion are happening on the management side. In this kind of an environment, someone who stands out for productivity as an "eager beaver" will ruin things. If you excel in productivity, you may only teach management that they can get that much out of you.

What about work in the home? Laundry and dishes are finite in quantity, but they cycle infinitely. What happens during the "wait times" while you are required to be attentive waiting for a machine to run?

A lot of these concepts are gendered. Women are often expected to be able to do 70 things at once. Men tend to be taught that they can demand space to do one thing at a time. This is actually related to the reason why it's easier to recognize ADD in boys than girls.

Who gets to perform incompetence and be excused from house or other work?

Morgan noted that people generally need to be able to produce food to keep themselves from starving, but that this is not the same thing as knowing how to cook.

We don't do things communally as much in our current US culture.

Why do we shame behaviors that don't conform to our expectations?

There is pressure to cook, but in fact, people selling food have always been present in human communities, so it's not "going back" to some idealized past to learn how to cook. Some activities require expertise.

This returns us to the total independence fallacy. How independent are you if you can take a road into the wilderness (who built the road?)? How independent are you if you can shoot your own food (who made the gun and ammunition?)? Spencer Ellsworth, in his visit to Dive into Worldbuilding, talked about how much work goes into producing your own food, so definitely take a look at what he said.

Settler technology can be very toxic. It may work for one day's survival, but surviving for generation after generation is different.

In a fantasy world, if elves mature slowly, what are they doing with all their time? How long does it take to potty train? Maybe they have seeming superpowers because they have 500 years to learn things. Are there no elf children? If you find that everyone is 18-35 in your book, maybe you should rethink things. Are children and elderly people expected to be productive? How?

Thoreau thought he was being independent on Walden pond, but he was constantly being tended. He wasn't alone, but he refused to admit it.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. This week, we meet on Tuesday, January 28th at 4pm Pacific to discuss What Communicates Power. I hope you can join us!


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What's on the Page?

One of the problems that worldbuilders sometimes run into is when they have a massive world designed and planned, but then they start writing and feel like the world on the page is coming out as much more shallow, in spite of all their work.

One of the challenges here is that not everything we know shows in what we write unless we're doing deliberate work on that. The things that resonate in our own heads may do that not because they are in the writing, but because we know about them before we come to the writing. It's therefore really important to engage outside readers.

An outside reader is someone who doesn't know your world, but will be willing to read what you've written and tell you about their experience of the place. They will be able to see only the things that are actually shown in the words on the page, and hopefully, to tell you about it.

How do we manage to put so much on the page when we have so little space? Carefully chosen small details are vital tools. These can include objects or interactions.

A couple examples from my Varin world. Varin has a time system that is not entirely like our time system. I want people to know it's there, but I don't want to spend a lot of time explaining it. So I pick an interaction people might find familiar, like time estimation, and I change it. In our world, we'd say, "Five more minutes," and it would be a time estimate, not a precise number. "Four more minutes" would be a measured quantity of time. In Varin, "Four more minutes" is a time estimate, and "five more minutes" is measured time. I use the social context to help a reader interpret the tiny piece of information correctly. Another example is when one of my teen characters says "Can I borrow your Aloran?" He's asking to borrow the services of a bodyguard so he can go out, but the social context is set up to have it be as familiar as a teen asking to borrow the car so he can go out. It implies caste information in a comprehensible way.

We talked about syntax. Specifically, I mentioned that I like to use subordinate clauses to hide world information. Readers will often expect main clause material to be immediately relevant to the main conflict, and can sometimes resent being taken off into an explanatory aside. Putting this material in a clause subordinate to a main one, where the main one is relevant to the main conflict, can help you get the necessary information in under the radar. I'm not suggesting you jam your work with subordinate clauses, but they're there for you if you need them.

Idioms can also convey a lot of information. One Varin idiom is "When the sun rises in Pelismara," meaning NEVER.

Conflict is another great way to create context for informing the reader of things that people wouldn't ordinarily notice.

If you look at your writing, can you estimate the information density? Is it too dense already, or too thin? What kind of thing could enhance it or clarify it?

Creating context for your concepts is very important. You can do this on multiple levels. A surprise might be good or bad depending on the context. You can create context to introduce readers to invented words, or to redefine existing words. What you put in the story at one point will create context to strengthen other aspects of the story later down the line.

As the author, you have ideas of what the characters are like, and about what you mean. Outside readers don't have that. You might get a critique that totally lambastes you, but that doesn't necessarily mean your ideas are bad; it could be that your critiquer got lost, or didn't care. A lot of things can become tedious if you don't care!

Sometimes you might imagine a pice of information is on the page, but it's not.
Sometimes you might imagine a piece of information is NOT on the page, when it is. (Racism and sexism and other biases unfortunately often fall into this category)

We spoke about how readers come to a story with different backgrounds, which means they bring different forms of social and cultural context that will give different meanings to what they read.

It's easy to think that when we write, we are transmitting ideas to another person, but we're not. The words on the page EVOKE a context of usage in the reader's mind, and they may have heard the same word in dramatically different circumstances from you. With conlang words (ones you make up), there is almost no context of meaning beyond the phonological. You are the one who has to do the job of creating the context in which those words become meaningful. Even words like replicators and skimmers require some work. Replicators in Star Trek produce food. Replicators in Stargate are scary.

The question of context also applies to second books in a series. How much can you count on readers to have experienced before? Do they have context to understand?

Good writing will provide contextual support in a seamless web so that readers almost don't notice how much they are learning.

Some series have carefully engineered entry points for unfamiliar readers/watchers. Stories with long continuing arcs are harder to come into in the middle.

Kate notes that it's very important to provide readers with information on whom they should be caring about and why. What is important? What is not?

How much do you explain? How much do you allow people to infer?

It's important to acknowledge that different people will have different visions of what is going on.

Writers typically put words on the page for a reason. The more words there are, the more time it takes to read them. This increases the sensation of time passing within the story. It also means that we consider things that are given lots of words to be more important, because we are taking more time, and they have to be worth our time.

In McCaffrey's Pern books, there was a creature called a watch-wher, and it had a very basic early introduction. Twenty years of writing and books later, you learn that's what dragons were bred from.

Kate says it's important to say yes to things you didn't necessarily plan to say yes to, as when her co-author added five characters. Give the story the space it needs.

Remember that each word you see => other words you see => words and ideas you can't see.

It can be frustrating, or it can be super cool! You have to know lots of things in order to make what's on the page come out well.

It's a good idea to set up environments, people, etc. before the climax so you don't have to distract from quick pacing by stopping to introduce new things. Put it on the page in one place so you don't have to put it in another place.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this interesting discussion!


Monday, January 13, 2020

Managing Spaces

This topic was a little tricky to explain, and I'm sorry about that. We spoke about how we fill the spaces around us, or don't fill them, and whether and how we make spaces of our own.

In some sense, it's about being the Dungeon Master of your own life, or of the lives of your fictional characters.

What shape are the rooms that people normally expect? Cliff mentioned a story, The Machine Stops, that had hexagonal rooms that were metaphorical for a hive and gave the story a sense of unreality. Kat mentioned that some stories have characters who are uncomfortable with square rooms. "Humans are cubical." We have quadrilateral cardinal directions.

I spoke about designing the cities of Pelismara, Selimna, and Daronvel in Varin. Pelismara is organized like a stack of plates of shrinking sizes. Selimna is a city where a river runs between two cliff faces. Daronvel has been carved out of rock, so that there are no buildings with "outsides," only internal spaces. The three cities have totally different features and feel very different.

Cliff mentioned that the spaces on a spaceship or space station are very important to how stories there play out. 2001 featured a curved floor. Babylon 5 had a station so big you didn't really notice the curve. Some stations have an area at the center where there is no gravity. Science-fictional environments often have unusual properties. Forbidden Planet had the Krell doors that were pentagonal.

Morgan talked about how you could say "3/4 spinward" within the context of a space station.

Kat mentioned that island cultures can sometimes say inward our outward. They can say hillward or seaward. On the big island of Hawaii they say windward and leeward. You could conceivably say orbitwise or anti-orbitwise. The space around you changes how you talk about direction.

What is considered a person's space? How far does it reach around their body? Does their body have to be in it? Are any spaces communal? Are all spaces communal?

Americans sit in rows of chairs leaving space in between, and only filling those chairs when there are no more spaced-out spaces left. How full does a restaurant have to be before you would share a table with someone else? Or maybe you wouldn't under any circumstances.

On public transport, are there seats for disabled people? When do they get filled? Do all the window seats on the bus fill up before the aisle seats fill?

What are table seating rules? Where is the seat of honor? In office seating, where do you sit relative to the desk? What if there is a desk in a huge room? Do people have shared offices? Window offices? Private offices? Flex offices, where they are shared based on the time of day?

Do you expect to be alone while sleeping? At an inn, do you share rooms or beds with strangers?

Morgan mentioned the cultural expectation that a married couple will share a bed in the same room. This is not always the case!

When I lived in a dorm in Japan in college, I decorated my small single room in a very specific way that indicated my tastes. My friend Tim had almost no decoration except family photos. How do you decorate your space?

Do you make your bed in the morning? Morgan mentioned how you might put temporary things like papers on top of your bed, and if you are not sharing the space, you might not put them away.

Do you put things away between instances of working on a project? Do you have enough space to put them away? Do you have enough energy? Will the space rock, move, or otherwise cause things that left out to get moved or damaged (like on a ship)? Will other people in the space interfere with your things if you leave them out (like in a family home, or even a prison)? Will someone take your stuff? Does it bug you if you don't put things away? Do you live in a pristine white nothing space?

Do you leave cabinet doors open? How tall are you relative to those doors? Will they hit you in the head if you leave them open?

Does out of sight mean out of mind? Do you remember all the things you have? Are glass cabinet doors awesome, or awful? Do you have slatted doors?

Do you expect things to stay where they are put? I talked about how my toddler used to pull all the CDs out of the cabinet, and I'd put them back, and he'd pull them out again... until I thought to just leave them on the floor (which was boring, and he eventually forgot about it). Do people childproof their homes? For how long?

Cross-culturally, expectations for the use of space differ. Where does the outside of a house begin? In a Japanese home, the outside starts at the genkan entry hall.

Do you use a shoe rack so you don't end up with piles of shoes on the floor? What do you do in an apartment without a broom closet? How much storage space do you expect in your home? Where is the washing machine or washing space in your home? Where is the kitchen? Are they in the same space?

How large do you expect rooms with different functions to be relative to each other?

Do rich people expect to be able to live in large spaces? In Varin, the highest-ranked nobles live in relatively small spaces because they live in proximity to the Eminence. They look down on the nobles who don't have enough clout to live in this environment and have bigger spaces in their large houses outside the Eminence's Residence. Maintenance of big spaces can be a challenge, however.

What is the accepted motivation for living communally?

Think about these questions on a historical scale as well as concurrently to your story's timeline. Has use of space changed? Why? Paul brought up how many stories feature noble homes with lots and lots of unused spaces, like the neglected wing of the palace.

How are shops and residences organized relative to one another? Are they segregated? Side by side? Shop on the street and home upstairs?

Kate was reading about a space habitat with single family homes and fields and wondering how that could be managed. People look at their constraints and adapt to them.

What do kitchens imply about other parts of the house? Does a house have a root cellar? A storm cellar? No cellar? Does your property feature a spring house to keep food cold?

Does your house have a dog run? Space allotted for animals?

Is a kitchen space with hot ovens attached to the house by a covered walkway rather than being inside? Is it for heat reasons? That might change the focal part of the house from the kitchen to the dining room.

Climate has a huge influence on use of space. In a hot climate, you only heat as necessary for food etc. and keep things as breezy as possible. In a cold climate you have a fireplace or cooking space that is enclosed so it can share its heat with spaces around it. In the hot, you will eat colder food, and in the cold you will eat hotter food. Climate control, like air conditioning, can change all of this.

Where is your focal social space in your house?

Do you divide child and adult spaces?

Cliff mentioned that in the middle east there is often rebar sticking out of the tops of walls because the next generation is expected to build upward onto the existing house.

Colonization can drastically change how space is used. One example we thought of was that a society which makes square or donut-shaped homes with an inner outdoor space for women might start making totally enclosed homes, but the women would then lose their outdoor space.

When you have servants, the kitchen is not going to be the center of your home.

Paul talked about how tea houses in Nepal had a central room with heat. The sleeping rooms are cold. The Sherpas hung out in the kitchen.

Kate mentioned microclimates. You might have a room or tent behind the stove so you could have privacy amidst all the social interaction. There might be an inglenook anyone could use.

Library carrels create a sense of private space within a larger public space.

Thank you to everyone who joined us to take on this fascinating but tricky topic!