Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Book Titles: A Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

Book titles are important because they are your first opportunity for worldbuilding, and one that works in concert with cover art. I think it's worth talking about them so you can learn about some of the parameters that are important, even though in some cases authors don't have a ton of control over the titles that get used for their books.

Reggie told us that the title of her book, "Haunted," was potentially an issue because it's a very common title. However, she said, it was the only title that matched the content of the book.

Your title differentiates your book from others. Che remarked that one-word titles can tend to blend together.

A title sets expectations for the genre of the book as well as the content.

Deborah remarked that "Love's Red Passion" would not be expected to be a picture book. Romances and Westerns are very good at genre-specific titles.

A title says, "This is the reading experience you will have." Therefore it's important for the title not to mislead a potential reader. You don't want someone thrilled about the title to start reading and then fling the book across the room.

I mentioned Janice Hardy's first novel, which was entitled The Shifter in the US, but The Pain Merchants (her original title) in the UK. We speculated that the latter title might make US parents think of drugs, and that might be a reason why the US booksellers weren't fond of it. The series itself is called The Healing Wars.

Word meaning is really important when you're dealing with as few words as you find in a title. When you hear a word, your brain accesses all its possible meanings simultaneously, in order of most to least common. This is what gives some words more "resonance" than others.

Che mentioned reading a book called "Under the Skin" which she had guessed might be about a serial killer, but turned out to be about aliens. Her expectations were so strong that she doubted the storyline through most of the book.

Deborah called a title a "contract with the reader." She said you can be mysterious without being mystifying.

Ambiguity can be a problem, if the meaning of the title is not clear. However, if an ambiguous title is relevant to the story in multiple ways, that can be cool. In titling a work you can deliberately use a readers expectations within the genre to surprise them.

Titles can vary in length. They can be anything from "Hild" to "The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Sheip of her Own Making." We discussed some of the implications of the Cathrynne Valente title (Fairyland).

If you use non-English words for a title the meaning that emerges from it has a lot to do with onomatopoeia and association with similar-sounding words.

A title can relate to a character or characters, can use a quotation from the book, or can relate to a theme of the book.

A title like "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" suggests fantasy, but also scope and diversity. The use of a non-exact number is really important. "The Seventeen Kingdoms" would be very different.

A title like "Who Fears Death" sounds very active and confounds expectations.

We talked about parts of speech in titles. A great many of them are noun phrases, "The Noun" or "The Adjective Noun" etc. For interest, a noun phrase title needs specificity, like "The Winds of Khalakovo." Deborah said that "The Children of Kings" was a terrible title for a novel she wrote but that it had already been publicized and she couldn't change it. Using very different parts of speech can help a book stand out.

Don't distort the story to fit the title.   ...except sometimes publishers may insist that you do so.

We discussed the difference between "To Become the House" vs. "Becoming the House." The former implies intent on some level, while the latter implies a process that has already started. The former doesn't make it clear whether the process has started or not.

"Nightshifted" (Cassie Alexander) is a good title because it plays on "the night shift" and on the concept of shift as a verb.

Some interesting titles:
"Repent Harlequin, said the Ticktock Man"
"Watership Down"
"Blackhawk Down"
"Wild Ducks Flying Backwards"
"On Stranger Tides"
"To Kill a Mockingbird"
"The Dying of the Light"

Verb forms in titles have a very different feel, even if they are in their more adjective-like forms.

Series books tend to have titles that are somehow similar. "Soulless," "Blameless," etc. by Gail Carriger. "Divergent" and its sequels.

Sometimes things title themselves, but at other times it's best just to take a notebook and write out a lot of options. You might discover something fantastic that you hadn't previously thought of.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding meets on Wednesday, November 11 at 10am Pacific on Google+. We will be joined by guest author Nancy Hightower who will tell us about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte. I hope you can join us!


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

First Sentences: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary

First sentences are interesting. Some are even famous! They are your reader's first entry into the story, and a really good one can make you curious to hear more. It's your first opportunity as a writer to get your reader to commit to the story, and to care. I told the group about a workshop my friend Janice attended, where agent Donald Maass took first page writing samples from the crowd, read the first sentence of each, and then asked, "Do you want to hear more?" It was a pretty brutal way to approach the topic, but it did make the point. Gatekeepers (like agents and editors) tend to look for excuses not to read something, and a weak first sentence can lose them.

Some things to look for in first sentences: attitude, intrigue, orientation. Attitude is the mood and mindset of the protagonist. Intrigue is curiosity about the content of the book. Orientation is a sense of place or time to help the reader know where they stand.

I read quite a number of first sentences as samples, but if you want to hear our discussion of each one, I'm going to send you to the video.

Deborah J. Ross The Heir of Khored
Marguerite Reed Archangel
N.K. Jemisin The Fifth Season
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale

The question "who" is a critical one. Whose voice are we hearing in a first sentence? This person will be your first host, and your first guide to the world of the story.

We looked at the first sentence of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It seems very clinical in its description of a body. One wonders, "Is this a murder mystery?" "Who could be so clinical and objective?" Both of these questions can cause readers to read on, and the second one is already revealing a lot about the protagonist.

At the beginning of a book, a reader relies a lot on existing assumptions about what is true and possible because they have so little information yet from the book itself. This critical point is where breaking assumptions is most critical if you don't want the reader to continue to rely on them until the end of the book.

Orson Scott Card Ender's Game

Whenever someone is singled out as "the one," we wonder why.

J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

We pointed out the phrase "perfectly normal, thank you very much," and noted the attitude, particularly the sense that someone doth protest too much.

Stina Leicht Of Blood and Honey 

We spoke about the word "yabbos." Some of us knew the word, and others didn't. When you encounter an unknown word in a speculative fiction context, you may or may not be inclined to look it up, because many unknown words in SF/F have been created by the author and won't be found in a dictionary! Yabbo, on the other hand, will.

We looked at some first sentences from the discussants. Che brought us an intriguing one with the phrase "bird toes" in it. Glenda's was "Dardith hated Festivals."

Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book

It was written 1000 years ago, but it has a great first sentence full of attitude!

Janice Hardy The Shifter

This is the infamous "chicken sentence" that I remember to this day as an example of a stellar opening sentence.

We spoke briefly about the idea of an envoi. Does it count as a first sentence if you have a quote before the text starts? Certainly it helps to set the expectations of the reader, but readers may also suspend judgment since opening quotes don't usually open the narrative. The opening rhyme I used in "Mind Locker" was intended to set the scene in mood and age of protagonist.

Thank you to everyone who attended. It was an interesting discussion!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dive into Worldbuilding tomorrow at 10am Pacific: Idioms!

Dive into Worldbuilding folk, we will be meeting tomorrow on Google+ at 10am Pacific. The topic of the week will be Idioms! This should be one where we can have some fun.

Something else to look forward to - on Wednesday, November 11 at 10am Pacific, we will be joined by guest author Nancy Hightower who'll be talking to us about her new poetry collection, The Acolyte. I hope you can join us!


Monday, October 26, 2015

My appearance at the Canopus Awards and the 100 Year Starship Symposium

Exciting news!

This Friday I'll be appearing at the 100 Year Starship Symposium for their Science Fiction stories night. The event will take place at the Santa Clara Mariott hotel (Just down the road from the Hyatt where we have had BayCon in the past).

I'll be speaking on a panel with awesome authors Pat Murphy and Brenda Cooper, and publisher Jacob Weisman.

Thereafter there will be the presentation of the Canopus awards, one of which I helped to judge for. The Canopus awards are for fiction that depicts and/or helps to inspire space travel.

At the end of the evening I'll be part of a signing with a number of other amazing authors.

I have to offer special thanks to Jason Batt for inviting me. Thanks, Jason!

Keep in mind that the symposium also has a lot of fabulous scientists giving presentations, so if you are interested in seeing me or anyone else, take a look here and see if you can register!


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

No Dive into Worldbuilding hangout 10/21/15 - sorry!

I've had a guest at my house this week and at hangout time I'll be driving her to the airport. Our hangout on Idioms will be delayed until next week, October 28, 2015 at 10am Pacific.

I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Laura Anne Gilman and Silver on the Road: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary!

We had a great time this week! We were joined by author Laura Anne Gilman to talk about her new book, Silver on the Road. Laura described the book as a historical fantasy in a divergent American West, in which the Devil stopped the Louisiana Purchase.

She says she prefers to describe this as "divergent history" rather than "alternate history." She says the divergence point is right around 1600 during DeSoto's exploration. In actual history he dies at the Mississippi river but his explorers continue on; in the book's version of history, a force stops the explorers at the river.

The story of Silver on the Road starts in 1801. At this point all governments and militaries are held back by "the Devil" from entering the territory that made up the Louisiana purchase. The Devil is not exactly the devil - it's clear that this is a nickname given to him by outsiders. He's known for hosting an honest card game in the town of Flood, and that's about all people know about him.

I asked whether there was a map in the book. Laura Anne said there was, but that she's not a fan of maps and would prefer for people just to go by the text. The area covered in the book is a reimagining of North America and Central America. Spain possesses Mexico, New Mexico, some of Texas, adn California. The United States exists, but stops at the Mississippi river. Louisiana is the Devil's territory. Washington hasn't been claimed. This area is huge, and full of all sorts of different terrains; it is also occupied by a lot of native tribes. Laura Anne has done a fascinating job exploring what the territory would look like without acquisition by the US.

Laura Anne told us she was a history major specializing in pre-1930's American political history. This was clearly a useful foothold into the information she used for this book!

She said at the beginning she knew far less about the physical aspects of the territory that come across so powerfully in the book. She says, "I've actually used the words 'flyover country' unironically." In order to research the book, she took a road trip through Kansas up to Colorado Springs, looking specifically for areas of restored or untouched land. Boots on the ground lets you discover more, including smells and feels, and the immense quiet that people must have experienced in this era, when you could travel for days without seeing anyone. She joked that this book is "epic fantasy with a cast of four."

When she could, she talked to people. One of the difficulties with the research was that the native people who currently live in these areas are not the ones who lived there originally, because of our history of displacement and genocide. She was specifically looking for oral traditions and would ask for stories, and for "the oldest tradition you can think of." Researching without a written record is very challenging, especially since there was huge change in this region in the 1830s, and most of our recorded knowledge comes from after that period. Laura Anne says, "Next time, I'm picking something well documented, with photos." She tries to use original names and histories, and hopes she doesn't get it wrong in ways that are obvious.

"I stole a lot from magical realism," she says. The feature of magical realism she picked out was the way that everyone is already immersed in the cultural milieu, and everything is so well understood that they would not think of questioning it. There is no "let me explain this to you," and no infodumping. She wanted to keep it as organic as possible.

She also played with expectations. "The Devil," also known as "the boss," cares for his people. You trust him, though you're not sure why, and not really sure if you should.

The magic system in the book is very organic, and I mentioned our earlier discussion with Silvia Moreno-Garcia where we talked about organic magic systems. Laura Anne explained that there is a physical basis for the magic in Silver on the Road, but it is expressed through culture. In this era, people haven't felt the urge to codify it. Very often it takes the form of a list of things one needs to remember in order to survive. For example:

  • Beware of demons because they are a pain in the ass, and also deadly.
  • Beware of crossroads, because they build up power because of the passing of people.
  • Beware of magicians, because they are "batshit crazy" with no civility or common sense. You should always run from them and let them prey on each other.
  • Always get permission before going into native territory, and behave like a good neighbor.
These are the kinds of things that you would teach your kids.

In the east (read: the US as we know it in 1801) these natural powers have been tamped down by too much science and too much civilization. Magical powers are uncommon outside the Territory. If you don't acknowledge it or teach it, it disappears. Fear pushes magic down. Laura Anne specifically mentioned the witch trials as something that would have forced magic down in this world.

Animals are very interesting in this book. There are wolves, bears, bison - which Laura Anne calls "buffalo" because that was the word that people used for them during that period - lots of mammals, birds, and insects. Most are actual animals, though the Reaper hawk was one she amended in a logically feasible way.

Laura Anne described blending the cultural myths of north and central America. Some of the myths she referenced are south American, and some are from northern Canada. She called it "my attempt to write a mythology that was entirely north and central American."

People in the book are very diverse and speak all kinds of languages. There is very little German, French, or English. There is more Portuguese, Spanish, Canadian French, and more Amerindian languages like Metis.

Laura Anne told us that she was trying to use historically accurate words and terms from the old West prior to 1810. She recommended the Online Etymology Dictionalry and said she had a bookmark of about 9000 websites from her research. She tried to learn about the first documented use of a word, and thought about how long it would take for the word to move west into the territory from its origin. She had to be careful about sourcing loan words and words for locations. Some of the native words for locations came from tribes that were displaced into an area rather than those who lived there originally.

One thing she noted was that the native tribes had areas in which they lived, but there was a lot of movement. She had to be very careful about the placement of towns. One book she recommended was Looking East from Indian Country, which talks about the history of migration into the West from the point of view of the peoples already living there. Laura Anne said "it reset my brain."

I asked about the title, Silver on the Road. She said she'd initially called it The Devil's West, or The Devil's Left Hand. The first one of those became the series title. She told us that in first drafts, she doesn't write the final scene. She discovered this title (Silver on the Road) well into later drafts, and thought it had no chance with the publisher, but in fact it was accepted.

Book 2 in this series is tentatively called "The Cold Eye." Laura Anne told us she learns as she goes. She's usually a plotter, but in this book she said she discovered a new level to add in with every pass through the revisions. She said it felt like learning a new way to write.

Silver, in the book, is a cleanser. It can also be used to indicate power buildup, as in the case of a crossroads. The territory's currency is silver coins cut into quarters. Only a Marshal has the power to cleanse a crossroads. Silver tarnishes if the area is unsafe, so everyone who travels on the road carries a bit of silver as a talisman.

The book, from concept to publication, took more than two years. Laura Anne said it was very challenging to find someone who could support it. However, it is now out! Book 2 has been drafted, and Book 3 is being planned. She has written two short stories in this world, "Crossroads," and "The Devil's Jack."

Laura Anne, thank you for joining us and telling us about your awesome book! Here's the video if you'd like to get more detail on our discussion. Next week's hangout will be on Wednesday, October 21 at 10am, and we'll be discussing Idioms. I hope you can join us!


New Hangout Time for Dive into Worldbuilding

Here is a reminder that starting today, 10/14/15, the Dive into Worldbuilding hangouts will meet on Google+ at 10am Pacific on Wednesdays. Today's hangout will be at 10, the new standard time, and we will discuss Titles. I'm thinking we'll talk primarily about book titles, but if we run out of steam on that, we might take the topic in a different direction. I hope you can make it!