Thursday, October 16, 2014

Elysium by Jenn Brissett: a Dive into Worldbuilding (interview) hangout summary with VIDEO!

First I have to offer a big thank-you to Jenn Brissett for coming and talking with us about her book! We discussed Elysium, which will be coming out very soon from Aqueduct Press.

Since the book features a very layered and complex reality, I started by asking about her process of discovery in learning about it. She explained how it grew in complexity as it went on, and she had to be very careful about keeping it under control! She starts writing beginning with the character, and the story, and then she builds out and creates the world based on that. She says it's much like the way that cities are built, organically.

She began with difficulties in a relationship between characters, and then swapped genders, and then as she went it became a memorial to New York. Thematically, it began to explore aspects of the experience of 9/11. A lot of what really excited her was being able to dig in and explore broadly, to see how far the story could be pushed in various directions.

In the book, she creates an amazing sense of constant flux and change that gives readers a sense that the ultimate reality behind the story is not what readers are seeing in any single piece of the story, but of a much deeper significance. She uses as a unifying theme the history of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his relationship with his lover Antinous. This image of deep loss to the point of insanity functions as an anchor for the story, and the story revisits that loss over and over in different forms, which she refers to as a "spiral narrative." The idea of revisiting loss over and over connects deeply to the feeling of New York after 9/11. People disappeared for various reasons, but loss was everywhere; it connected with Jenn's own experiences of running her bookstore and having clients disappear without any knowledge of what had happened to them. It also connected with the fact that memorials of the event cause people to relive the loss and trauma every year. Brissett explained that the 9/11 connection flowered out of the book naturally. She describes New York as a "city of renewal." It has renewed itself many times.

Brissett explained that the way the theme of 9/11 blossomed naturally out of the book, as an aspect of it but not the primary focus, was one of the true strengths of science fiction as a genre, that "there are so many aspects of life that you can explore." Authors end up finding things subconsciously that they have layered into the scenarios they have created. It's important to be able to explore real issues in a non-real way. I said that science fiction and fantasy are like playgrounds where we can play with dangerous stuff without hurting people as badly. It's a unique way to address difficult issues that people need to process. The book itself is an examination of love and loss in a larger context than just this single event.

Brissett is very detailed and specific about sensations and emotional connections in her writing, and it's one of the strengths of the book that keeps readers tied into the story in spite of all the flux. She talked about the switches of genders and character relationships etc. She described each piece as ending when the person gets to the part where the mourning process begins. It switches "just when you're getting a chance to absorb the blow," creating a rhythm within the story.

She uses index cards to do her planning. This was a book where she had planned gender swaps from the beginning, but it changed as the writing continued. The index cards helped her to look for options among the ideas and images she'd come up with, and find the most natural place to go next inside the story. Playing with the parts felt like playing with the puzzle. She described enjoying particularly when the two characters both became children.

She described her next book as being based on the story of Demeter and Persephone. Elysium uses all kinds of relationships - male lovers, female lovers, father and daughter, father and son, brothers, etc. She is saving mother and daughter for the next book!

There is an interesting pattern of repetition within the book as well, recurring images that draw connections across the different iterations of the loss scenario. Brissett said she enjoyed rewriting song lyrics for the book. She did get personal permission to use a poem by Saul Williams as a tribute to the world of hip-hop "before it was hip-hop."

Brissett describes her book as a struggle, a deliberate sort of controlled chaos. She wanted the feeling of chaos, but also a feeling of control. I noticed that there were a lot of things people didn't understand, and had no hope of understanding - an interesting contrast with stories that rely on the idea of solutions to problems. We like to have a feeling of control but we generally don't know on a certain level, and we just have to deal with it. She described finding someone to love as the most important thing to do in life.

I asked whether there was particular recurring imagery that she wanted to share her thoughts on. There are elk, owls, etc. and many images of wings. She described wanting to show nature invading a computerized space. She's fascinated with the idea of how quickly cities would degrade without people maintaining them, and also the idea of animals that appear in an urban space like New York. She used many images of wings to explore the idea of flight as well as having a different perspective on the city from above.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story was not just the gender-swapping, but the way that each scene changed the social structures and rules of the societies around the main characters. Brissett described doing research on the Vestal Virgins in order to create one of the worlds she uses in the scenes within the book. She deliberately wanted to switch power structures over what one sex can do, and one sexuality can do.

There is a very interesting reversal in Elysium of the normal pattern in which readers keep track of what changes between one scene and the next. Because so much changes between scenes, on a large scale the reader ends up tracking the patterns of stability in the book - the patterns of what does not change.

I wish Jenn Brissett all the best with her book launch! Go pick up Elysium by Jenn Brissett when it comes out this year from Aqueduct Press.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Place Names and Geography: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

This was an enjoyable discussion following on from our discussion of character names into place names and geography. Many of the issues of sound and association are similar to those we spoke about in the discussion of character names, here.

Sometimes we leave out place names to create a more diffuse sense of place and to help people feel immersed, as though the location belongs to them. Sometimes we use specific places. Sometimes we pick a real-world region, but not a specific city. A specific name can send someone looking on a map. Sometimes we can choose names, like Springfield, that come across as generic, or recombine parts of known place names to create names like Midwich, plausible but not anchored.

If you are thinking of a place name, do some research and figure out where it may have appeared before.

Morphology, the study of parts of words, can be very helpful for place names. Suffixes like -burg and -ville are called morphemes, and can be very useful. You can also create your own suffixes to indicate place.

In Britain, a lot of place names have specific meaning in context. The same is true for Native American Indian names for places, which are often linked to local landmarks and other features of place. The English re-naming of locations created a dissociation between the land and its place names by overlaying an imported context.

Uniformity is to be avoided, because it gives a sense of perfect newness, or of monocultural imposition. However, linguistic consistency is important if you are using a conlang.

When it comes to geography, it's important to consider issues like climate and biomes. Research is critical for developing this aspect of your story. Geographical features like mountains can be good for adventure, but they should make sense within a larger system. If you have a mountain range and one side of it is wet and the other dry, it's good to know why that is the case. Consider your planet's rotation, and consider placing your story in the southern hemisphere (because the fact that we have more land in the northern hemisphere is just coincidence).

Brian noted that before the Renaissance, the placement of north vs. south on the top/bottom of maps was not standardized, and you often saw other approaches. (And different projections!)

If you place your story on a different planet, or in a different place on our planet, consider how that might change the night sky. On our planet, different stars are visible, and they move differently, depending on whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere, or near the equator. On other planets, stars could potentially vary in brightness, concentration, etc.

Thanks to all who attended!


Monday, October 6, 2014

Check it out - Not Our Kind: Tales of (Not) Belonging, and "The Valiant Heart"!

So... I have a story in this, and I want you to help me make it happen:

When I was approached by editor Nayad Monroe, I was instantly fascinated by the idea of this anthology, and so I was thrilled when the story I submitted got accepted! Now that it's up at Kickstarter I've discovered who else is in the Table of Contents, and I'm blown away:

Wes Alexander, Alex Bledsoe, Maurice Broaddus, Jennifer Brozek, Amanda C. Davis, Sarah Hans, Janet Harriett, Tyler Hayes, Michael Haynes, Erika Holt, Gary Kloster, Marissa Lingen, Remy Nakamura, Andrew Romine, Ekaterina Sedia, Lucy A. Snyder, Reinhardt Suarez, Juliette Wade, Tim Waggoner, Damien Angelica Walters... OMG!

The story they have from me is called "The Valiant Heart":

A nobleman of Varin, Pyaras, has fallen in love with Captain Melín, a woman of of the Arissen officer caste. He believes their relationship is secret and safe, but then Melín's adjutant challenges her to a duel to the death, and Pyaras is called before the Eminence himself to account for his actions in turning traitor to the noble Race. The two elope, believing that once he has Fallen to become Arissen, he will be out of the Eminence's reach and they can be happy together. But other Arissen are not so willing to see a gutless nobleman among them, and Pyaras must fight for his new identity. Will his heart be valiant enough?


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Naming Characters: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a fantastic discussion of character naming. Most of the participants began with the idea that they name characters on gut instinct, but we quickly started digging into what lies behind those gut instincts - and the resulting discussion was very interesting! There's so much hidden in our subconscious...

Very often, people like to have the name reflect the nature of the character. The choice of a name like "Cain" or "Thor" says something very specific, because these names already exist and bring along context ("baggage") with them. We made a list of six factors that can contribute to a choice of name.

1. intertextuality (a name that has occurred before in another context, literary or not)
2. onomatopoeia (emotional/semantic associations sound of the vowels and consonants making up the name)
3. etymology (the origins of the name-parts making up the word suggest meaning, as in Voldemort, wanting death)
3. personal experience with people who have the name
4. similarity to actual words (in English or another language)
5. ethnic or foreign language associations (the name is common to a particular cultural group)
6. gender associations (the pattern of female names ending in "a" for example)

We knew of several cases where authors had deliberately tried to break the gender-name pattern link. Using gender-neutral names can be confusing for some readers, but it worthwhile in many contexts, and overly uniform use of a particular gendered name pattern is unrealistic.

Morphology can be part of names. This is when different pieces of meaning get added onto a name through the addition of meaningful affixes (prefixes, suffixes, etc). Brian gave us the example of "Sim" which would have the suffix "on" added to it for males and "el" for females. There can also be honorific suffixes added. A great example of this from N.K. Jemisin is the following:

"My name is Yeine. In my people's way I am Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre, which means that I am the daughter of Kinneth, and that my tribe within the Darre people is called Somem."

We discussed how, if you are choosing to use names associated with a particular nationality or cultural group, it's a really good idea to research those names (start on Google, but don't stop there!). Tolkien used names that had actual literal meanings in the elven languages he created. My Varin world has names from at least three different language groups.

You can also take a look at alliteration if you have a reason to link names, and considering the metric compatibility (rhythm) of names is also valuable. Kimberley gave us the example "Brighton and Rice."

We looked at the phenomenon of Apostrophes! in fantastical names. They are overused, but still can make sense if they are motivated, like the apostrophes that abbreviate the Dragonriders' names in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. In general, though, names don't need distracting decorations.

We also spoke about whether we should care if readers pronounce our names correctly. If the language used is an existing world language, then accuracy is a really good idea, especially for audio/podcasts. I myself made a recording of myself saying all the Japanese words in my Clarkesworld story "Suteta Mono de wa Nai" to make the task easier for the (awesome) narrator Kate Baker. Generally, if mispronunciation of the names in your book makes you cringe, consider having a pronunciation guide as part of the book.

It's best not to let names get too similar to each other. Often it's helpful not to have the same first letter for more than one character name - if you get three people in the same room, all with names starting with M, it can be very confusing. You can also vary number of syllables, and final consonants.

Sometimes you'll find you need to alter a name mid-process, when it comes into a context where it bears too much similarity to another name. This happened to me quite recently when I discovered Yaniss and Innis were too similar in sound, so I changed the first name to Yanir. I also went through a process of spelling-changing when readers had trouble with the name Tagret, reading it as "Target." I tried a whole bunch of alternatives before landing on "Tagaret" (like Margaret).

We also spoke briefly about nicknames. Some people hate seeing them in fiction; others don't. Some cultures use nicknames a lot, while others tend to do so less. Nicknames are full of interesting information about community membership and relationships. They can mark people as insiders. They can also give people a very different feel for a character, revealing something about the difference between the way outsiders view them, and the way insiders do.

Join us next week, Thursday, 8/9/14 to meet guest author Jenn Brissett and learn about the worldbuilding in her new book, Elysium!

Here's the video:


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fashion: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

We had a great time with last week's discussion of Fashion!

The importance of fashion in fiction varies across genres. Some genres, such as steampunk, historical, and romance, put a great deal of emphasis on fashion details, while others, such as science fiction, tend to spend far less time. A focus on fashion detail in a genre where it is not expected can come across as irrelevant and unnecessary, but fashion is actually far more useful than it may appear.

Fashion is about world. It is also about cultural and personal identity.

What a person wears tells you a lot about the world, because it reflects available materials in the environment. It can also tell you a lot about the character, because we use our fashion choices to show our identification with different social groups as well as to distinguish ourselves as individuals.

The "what" of fashion may not be as important as the "who," the "why," and the "how."

Often in science fiction, fashion gets de-emphasized or even made unrealistically uniform. Literal uniforms are common to many scenarios, especially military ones. Utopian societies and those that strive for equality will often be given very uniform fashion choices.

Costume designers work on symbolism in their fashion choices, and so can authors.

There is a pretty common view that fashion is frivolous, that it is frippery. This feeds into the sexist view that it is a feminine thing to care about (hint: it's not). The identity marking that we engage in with our fashion choices is common to both men and women - it's just that the two are typically associating themselves with different social groups, and thus differentiating their choices.

I explained how the caste marks work in my Varin world as an example of how you can have a regulated system of identity markers without falling into uniformity. Some fashion choices are regulated; others are traditionally associated with caste identity even though they are not required by Varin law.

School uniforms are often accessorized for individuality by their wearers.

There is also a utilitarian aspect to fashion. Dune has the stillsuits, which are a means for the inhabitants of Arrakis to retain their precious water. Armor is also utilitarian - but even utilitarian items are often decorated as much as a person can afford. Wealth shows in detail.

There was a trend in 1960's futurism toward stripping away detail both in fashion and in architecture. However, at the same time, there was a trend toward more detail, more art, more reference to world ethnic traditions, in the counterculture.

We talked about the contrast between visual media and text. In visual media, an entire outfit in all its detail can be conveyed in a split second. In text, words and implication are required. You don't want to put a lot of words on fashion choices without a very good reason. That said, character judgment and other reasons can function very effectively as supports for the relevance of fashion detail.

I gave an example of fashion being relevant to plot and character from my novel, For Love, For Power, and from my WIP.

Fashion and its significance are all around us. We can choose to notice or not.

Fashion has a lot of very specific terminology that comes with it. Within the industry are formal terms. There are also colloquial terms and regional terms. These are very important to research and track when we work with fashion in our fiction. When you work with a real or quasi-real (i.e. period influenced) context, accuracy is very important. Specific time periods bring with them certain kinds of value judgments, and those will be brought along with the fashion unless the author deliberately changes or subverts them. There is a lot of subtext. Words and terms come with baggage. When you find generic terms being used, and fashion choices being made generic, that can be a method by which authors try to avoid subtext.

Kim suggested it would be hard to create a context in which a Hitler mustache was considered endearing.

Ask how beauty and ugliness are defined within the cultures you're working with.

Reggie pointed out how some kinds of simple visual cues become iconic, such as the Groucho Marx nose/mustache combination. You could have something like this in fiction, but none of us could recall seeing it used. In the 1800's facial hair fashion was the rage for men. It influenced not only itself but other things such as the invention of the mustache cup. An unusual object like that can bring real interest to a story. Fashion has also influenced other things, such as how sidewalks and saddles were constructed. Other inventions influence fashion, such as how bloomers arose when women wanted to ride bicycles.

How much detail matters? We reveal as necessary, but small details can make for big implications, and even have multiple functions in the narrative. Details help us to avoid a sense that the world only exists for this story. They also help us to define what is normal and build reader expectations.

It's interesting to ask what value is placed on newness (of fashion or other things) and by contrast, what value is placed on old things such as antiques or vintage fashion. Also, if you are designing fashion, be careful to avoid too much uniformity of time frame in fashion (different generations will often dress differently).

Thanks to everyone who attended! Today's discussion (in 20 minutes from the time of this post) will be about Naming Characters. I hope to see you there!


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Come see me at Convolution!

Next weekend I'll be making an appearance at Convolution, taking place in Burlingame, CA. I'll be reading on Friday night and in addition to the writer's workshop, I'll have panels on Saturday and Sunday. Here's my schedule - I would love to see you there!

Friday, September 26, 8-10pm    Reading

 This is going to be an awesome time. I'll be reading aloud from my work alongside a number of wonderful authors: Deborah J. Ross, Helen Stringer, Setsu Uzume, and Christopher Villa.

Saturday, September 27, 9am-12pm    Writer's Workshop

Saturday, September 27, 2-3pm    Autographing 
Come and see me, and bring your copies of Analog and/or Clarkesworld... I'll also have a few copies available for purchase!

Saturday, September 27, 4-6pm    Handling Rejection in Writing
 Sometimes your skin just isn't that thick. How to cope with a chorus of "No" on the path to a "Yes!"
with Gail Carriger, Matthew Marovich, and Deborah J. Ross.

Sunday, September 28, 10-12am    Bend it like Bechdel
 Finding an alternative to the Bechdel test. The Mako Mori test isn't quite right either. We know when we've found a movie or story that we feel is at least some better representation of women. But it doesn't always pass the test. So, what does it need? What do we want? Or, what are we willing to accept?
with Elanor Hughes, Lance Moore, and Michael Rhodes

Sunday, September 28, 12-2pm    Social Worldbuilding
Let's talk about designing societies and their behaviors and institutions, and the kinds of real interactions those will lead to between characters. While we're doing it, let's try to look beyond traditional European-based models and get really diverse and interesting.
with Marie Brennan, Steven Mix, and Madeleine Robins

We're going to have a ton of fun and talk about loads of great stuff. I hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Villains: a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" hangout summary with VIDEO

Here's my summary of last week's discussion of Villains! We had a great time, and talked about a lot of great stuff, so I hope you'll think of this summary as a way to get ideas and possibly follow up by checking out the parts of the video you may be interested in.

We felt that villains were distinguished by their motivations. Good villains have motivations that make sense to them, and are grounded in them as people. You can answer the question, "What makes them bad?"

One of our participants said Stephen King had felt that even bad guys have friends across the street. We all agreed that it was better to make villains complex rather than simple.

They stand in opposition to the hero, which means that their goals, and/or the means to accomplish those goals, are socially unacceptable. Note that this will mean different things depending on the cultural and social context.

Generally we felt that villains were destructive and chaotic rather than creative. However, we do see some pretty destructive heroes like Superman leveling Metropolis in his last battle. It's a good thing if a hero has concern for bystanders; generally a villain does not.

We talked about the question of killing in fiction. Are characters being killed off too often and too easily? It's a big problem if a character dies and we don't see the effects of loss, or other effects such as legal ones. Game of Thrones provides a cultural environment where there is no concept of a modern police force that's not supposed to be in the rulers' pocket. However, being in different social circles can change the expectations for accountability for deaths. Soldiers of a regime are different from police (even if those police are somewhat corrupt).

How do we create villains? One participant immediately said "they're really hot." Certainly there is a recent trend toward attractive villains. The much older style of villain typically had the evil within expressed in their physical form, and thus were marked with "unattractive" qualities, whether that be deformity, overweight, underweight, etc. These days we're more inclined to treat villains as human beings and separate things like body form from the quality of the spirit. (There's a pretty horrid beauty standard/ableism problem in using the old way, too.) Villains often get to wear the coolest outfits!

Raj noted that there was a time when the unspoken rule was that you couldn't kill heroes, and that killed the tension in stories. There was a time when such deaths were very powerful because they were unusual, but now we are becoming more desensitized. If we know that "everybody's safe" there is less tension, but too much killing can cause people to detach themselves from caring about the story.

There are fates worse than death. Also, there are consequences for the living when someone dies.

Saving the world is not enough. Killing the villain is similarly not enough. The stakes have to be personal. It's best if both the hero and the villain have personal stakes in their own victories. Revenge motives are tried-and-true, but old.

All-powerful villains are boring without limitations and character. Tolkien, in The Silmarillion, ended up creating backstory for his villains because he was seeking reasons for their evil. Moral restrictions create more interesting situations, because they put systematic restrictions and expectations on what your villains are willing to do. Without these, they can seem too random and unmotivated, or motivated simply by the author. Examples came from Alphas, X-men, and the 4400.

We talked about insanity in Bad Guys. Just saying "he/she is insane" is sloppy (and insulting to people who deal with mental health issues in their daily lives). Go into the research and figure out exactly what these people struggle with, and how it affects their behavior and decision-making.

Raj noted that it's good to ask if the ends justify the means, and whether the villain believes this. Are they willing to do horrible things?

Sometimes we see stories where a single event breaks a bad guy's soul, but it's more interesting if they have a complex and developing psychology. It's good to have the villain change over the course of the story, not just the hero. Look at the social and power dynamics surrounding the villain as motivations for their behavior. A villain can change to be much more evil, or much more good, as the story goes on.

Villains are often given a personal agenda that is more important than "justice" as it's defined by the larger society.

Villains can also just be people who are acting within the confines of an evil system. The evil system can be designed to break people down (it's always good to read about the Stanford Prison Experiment in this context). In my own Varin world, I have villains, but in fact the larger system is where the true problem lies; the villains are, in part, explorations of how people would develop within that system.

Zero-sum games, where one person OR another person can win, but not both, can cause characters to do villainous things. If you want to protect yourself or another, then someone else has to suffer.

It's good for villains to have plans and a worldview. Also, it's good to know where villains get their money to do all their nefarious things, hire their clones or build their high-tech hideouts.

Thanks to everyone who attended this discussion.

Next week (9/25): Naming Characters! You are welcome to "bring" examples of names you have developed or changed or love from your own work.