Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gatekeepers - you're one, too.

There are always gatekeepers.

I think when we writers most commonly use the term we're thinking of editors, because editors are he most famous. We think of the magazine slushpiles and those assigned to read them, whether they be designated first readers or head editors. We think also, of course, of the agents and editors in the novel-publishing world. Gatekeepers are the ones who get to say to you,


or to put it less gracefully,


Here's the thing, though. The editors and agents aren't the only gatekeepers here. Every one of us who participates in this enterprise is a gatekeeper. It's just that the job of gatekeeping without an official title is far more complex, and more likely to go unnoticed.

Say I'm online and I get approached by someone I don't know, asking to connect or even to have a live hangout with me. How do I know that person is for real, and not some sort of spammer/scammer?


Say I'm at a convention and someone wants to come up and talk to me about my writing, or their writing, or writing, or science fiction and fantasy in general. And I have somewhere to go, or I feel uncomfortable, or I've been deluged by fans (not that this happens to me!) and have had enough, etc. etc. I say no or back out of the conversation. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons to do this. Some of them have to do with mental bandwidth and exhaustion rather than anything else.

However, this is also where inclusiveness succeeds or fails.

Let me tell you about an experience I had early on in my writing career. I found my way to the local convention because I had started writing, and absolutely loved it, and figured that was a way to meet people in this business (guess what? It was a great one).

At my first visit, I had a three-month-old baby and was just trying to figure out which end was up, and I approached an author after a panel and asked how to get involved, and he very kindly directed me to apply to the convention's writer's workshop. It was a super-brief interaction, but just what I needed. So I went off and a year later showed back up with a story for the writer's workshop, joined the workshop and really enjoyed it... At that point, when I approached the same author to thank him and attempt to have a conversation, he didn't want to talk to me.

This is a hard one, of course. Why should he feel obligated to talk to me? Nobody is obligated to talk to anyone, are they? People have demands on their time. The better known they are, the more likely they are to be deluged with people. They might just be having a bad day. It's not all about me in this world! But the thing that bothered me was that after several consecutive years of attempting to approach him, I showed up with a copy of Analog with my story in it, and his attitude changed instantly. Suddenly he was back to being willing to have a conversation.

That's gatekeeping. Every time we are agreeing or not agreeing to have a conversation, we could be opening a gate or shutting one for someone who needs it. It's a tough responsibility - and involves tough decisions. It would be so easy to lose every moment of our time to people who won't be able to have constructive interactions with us. We have to protect that time, or we can't function as professionals.

So we are always looking for reasons to say no.

Legitimate reasons.

I'll get back to that word "legitimate" in a second.

First off, what exactly is it that says to us at any given point, "This person can't be serious" or "This person is a waste of my time"?

I come out of academia, and in that context, the best way to be taken seriously on the most basic level is to engage with the texts. Of course it depends on whom you're dealing with, but if you can come in having read something, and not just say "I read this" but express an opinion that refers to a particular part of a scientific argument, or a contentious quote, etc. then you are more likely to be taken seriously (this is obviously not foolproof!).

When I approach an author whom I want to interact with as a fellow author and not simply as a fan, I make sure to have read something and thought through an opinion about something very specific. Worldbuilding, most often, since that's my geeky thing. "I liked what you did in X book when you created Y in Z way" is something I like to be able to say. It's sort of a statement of good faith - not foolproof, but at least has a better chance of receiving attention because it's my way of saying I care.

It's important to realize the person just may not have time for you at that moment. And that's okay. They don't owe you, just like you wouldn't want to feel like you owed anyone else.

On the other hand, so many people have helped me that I always feel inspired to some degree to help people out. This is why I find my way to workshops, which are structurally designed to give me a forum for interacting with people and discovering their work. That makes it much easier than just chatting in a hall!

There's something else going on here, though, that comes back to the question of legitimate reasons to say no.

This is a place where bias creeps in. Right there, in that split second when you're turning around to see someone and decide whether to interact with them. When you're looking for a reason why you need to be off to that lunch you have, or why you are too tired to deal with anyone right now, etc. etc. Something about the person can make you say no without you fully making the connection as to why. These are little tiny moments. They pass by us so quickly, but they can be terribly important.

And they are also the places where we can make a big difference for inclusiveness. If we try to think consciously. If we give it a second or two, a word or two of encouragement.

I won't claim this is supposed to be easy. Everybody has a different balance of introversion and extroversion, a different threshold of safety - and maintaining that safety is vitally important. But I also think it's important for people to realize that we are all gatekeepers. We are all constantly re-creating the inclusive or exclusive environment of our social milieu, whenever we say yes or no.

It's something to think about.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Where is the best place to put worldbuilding exposition in my story?

One useful definition of "worldbuilding" is the construction of a sense of world on the page. I like to use this definition because I feel that the word "setting" fails to capture the active process that authors engage in. In order to build a sense of world, we have to use several tools - implying world in the actions and judgments of characters, for example, or in their dialogue. Of course, the most obvious and straightforward (if not complete) way to accomplish worldbuilding is through descriptive exposition in the story text.

I am going to call this descriptive exposition rather than "infodumping" because in my view, the latter is simply the former done badly. We definitely want to avoid "infodumping," yet descriptive exposition is quite critical to the success of our worldbuilding.

I've written before about how to get this exposition done with as much finesse as possible, but this summer I had a different aspect of exposition brought to my attention:

When is the best time to include worldbuilding information?

As finely wrought as any verbal carrier of worldbuilding information is, it won't work well if it's stuck in the wrong place. As a general rule, the beginning of a story is better for exposition than the end, and high action or high tension spots are not good for it. There are possible exceptions, of course, such as whenever a new environment is introduced, and the author must take some time to establish the parameters of that environment.

But the general principle is quite a strong one. I'll give you an example. I was working on revisions of my novel, For Love, For Power, and my agent suggested that I should put in a bit more explanation of the Varin pantheon. I therefore had to go back and try to figure out what might be the best place to add in this information. Two possibilities suggested themselves: one in Chapter 3, where my MC Tagaret went to visit a chapel that had been converted into a concert hall, and another in Chapter 15, where Tagaret went to visit someone's home for the first time. I was intrigued by the idea of putting the description in Chapter 15, using statues of deities in the home both to elaborate the pantheon and to demonstrate the host's desire to hide his affiliations with musicians by publicly displaying an icon of a non-musical deity.


Though the idea of using statues for multiple story purposes was more interesting than simply sticking them in the converted church, it really didn't fit. By that time in the story, there was just way too much going on. My protagonist had just come under threat, and had no room in his thinking for noticing anything like a statue. It would have been irrelevant to him, and therefore he would not notice it at all. Making him do so would have been entirely unnatural.

So I went back to Chapter 3, and sprinkled the information in carefully. I started by establishing an overall paradigm for the deities by referring to them as the Holy Celestial Family (which gives readers a sort of filing cabinet to store forthcoming information on the pantheon's members). Then I had Tagaret discover one deity on the way in, and once he was there, explore different areas of the chapel as the action progressed, so he could encounter different deities in each place but eventually cover all the critical pantheon members.

The whole experience got me to thinking about information distribution through a story. I think of it a bit like a river (this one is from Wikipedia):
 At the start of the story, the pace is the most relaxed. This does not mean the pace is slow! However, this means that there is more room to examine the environments that surround your characters. As the story goes along, the river narrows and its pace quickens. This allows much less room for exposition, and even new environments are best confined to only the most optimally relevant information. Action, and escalation of stakes, act like a block put into the river (as in the picture below of a wall contributing to the creation of a surfable wave in a Czech river).

So this means that you should avoid putting exposition in anywhere that action must occur. Keep it to a minimum in critical set pieces where the reader's attention needs to be on events and how they are occurring. If there is some piece of information about the environment which readers must critically receive in order for the set piece to work, put it in earlier: have them discover the environment in some way before the set piece fully takes off, or seed the information into the narrative even earlier.

It's something to think about.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pause in your writing for intense worldbuilding - "the grocery store" edition

I'm always discovering more about my Varin world. This makes sense, since every time I enter a new environment in my real world, I discover things, too. New people, new experiences. A species of caterpillar I've never seen before. Woodland flowers. New languages.

I've written an article before about how to worldbuild after you've already started a story. At the time I approached it as though this were something special and unusual. It's not, though. Even if you've spent bunches of time building your world before writing a story in it, you will, and should, keep worldbuilding as you go. You never know when you will encounter an environment that will require some thought.

I documented one example of this here on the blog when I talked about designing a pharmacy. That was fun, and you can read about it here.

Last night and this morning, I was designing a grocery store. Because in all my years of thinking and planning, and writing an entire novel in this world, none of my characters had ever visited one.

There are a surprising number of considerations that go into designing something like this, which is why I encourage you to take a pause and think it through.

When I think "grocery store," I think of the stores I always go to first thing. When I think "not like my usual store," I usually think of the grocery store I went to in Japan, Kitamura, which was quite different and which I describe here.

First things first, though. This isn't "a grocery store." This is a grocery store in the small cavern city of Daronvel, which is up in the mountains of Varin, built with the help of drills and quarrying equipment in a set of lava tunnels. You're not going to be seeing high ceilings here. The other thing you won't be seeing is a lot of lowland foods, because all of those would have to be imported from surrounding cities on the connecting roads. Imported stuff is going to be expensive, and not a lot of people in the city are going to be able to afford it - possibly a few nobles (maybe around 10?), police, and some top-level bureaucrats. Conceivably some of the region's engineers will also make enough money to afford it.

That brings us to the question of "what is local?" The region surrounding Daronvel is alpine, so I took inspiration from a place I've visited in the Alps. Honey will be available, and bushberries (like blueberries), and products of the mountain creatures that most resemble goats and sheep (cheese, meat, etc.). There are also food plants that can be grown in the caverns, such as river lettuce (a form of edible algae) and mushrooms of various varieties. The special conditions that prevent large-scale construction and agriculture on the surface - namely, wysps, for those of you who may have read Soul's Bargain (in Clarkesworld 94) - mean that there isn't a lot of grain grown here. Note for those readers: things have changed a lot socially between Soul's Bargain and the story I'm currently writing.

Okay, so at this point I have a pretty good idea of what's going to be in the store. But there's a social twist: the character going to the store is a member of the undercaste. She's not welcome in the front. So she has to go in the back door, and the merchants will be assuming that she's likely to be a shoplifter. They have quite a few undercaste customers, though, so they have a specially designed back access.

My character will have to go to the back where the loading dock is, and enter a door to one side of it. That door has a handle on the outside, but not on the inside, which means she can't open it to go back out. At that point she's standing between two rows of stainless steel bins holding merchandise. These rows are a continuous line, so she has to walk between them, picking items out of the bins. There is no wall behind them, though - it's at the back of the staff area for the grocery store. I imagine the way it feels looking through into the back of a shop or post office. Conceivably, there might be a curtain set up to keep the customer from seeing the merchants working with each other. So, back to the bins. The items there are often going to be seconds or nominally expired merchandise. At the end of the rows of bins is a counter with a merchant-caste cashier. That person has a tall shelf behind him/her where the more expensive items are kept, so they can take them down upon request. The customer is then expected to pay and package their own items in a bag or basket they have brought for themselves. Only once they have paid does the cashier release the door-latch allowing them to leave.

My immediate thought upon understanding all of this was that this is going to be a pretty nervous place to go for my main character, who is currently on the run from the police. Being trapped is not so great when you might have to escape at any moment! But she needs the food, and she's hoping to find a friend there, so I have to send her in.

Now this place feels really different, and not at all like the stores I know.

Some people might say that this kind of intense worldbuilding of such a quirky location is more fitting, or more likely to happen, in a novel. However, concentrating a lot of worldbuilding effort on a single item or location can actually gain you a lot of mileage in a short story, because this tiny peek actually can imply a whole lot about the world overall.

It's something to think about.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Fear of beginnings, and fear of sequels.

Beginnings of stories are very difficult. I think it's partly because of the way I write - I like to put together a puzzle that comes together into a certain type of constellation at the end. This means I usually know what I want the end result to look like - but it also requires that I start all the beginning pieces in the right place so they will progress into that final desired relation.

I wrote the opening chapter of For Love, For Power probably upwards of six times. The same thing happens pretty often with short stories. I spend a lot of time walking around with different kinds of beginnings rattling around in my head, until insight strikes and I can see the optimal starting configuration. Sometimes, as with my current novel Work-In-Progress, I write the opening in one way, and then before I get too far out of the starting gate I realize it's not right. In the case of Secrets That Bind, I realized that the chapter I'd written as chapter 1 could not be chapter 1. I therefore promoted what had been chapter 2 to the beginning, and took that original chapter 1 and integrated it with the chapter that had been chapter 3.

Let me get concrete. I have two undercaste characters in Secrets, Meetis and Corbinan. Each one has a very particular role. Corbinan is the person who first stumbles into the big conflict. Meetis is the one who drives the solution to that conflict. In my original draft, I thought, "jump into the main conflict as soon as possible." It's often an approach that works well. In this case, however, it was not working, for two reasons. First, Corbinan is not the solution-driver. He stumbles in and is swallowed by the conflict - in a sense, he's the "damsel," though he does act on his own behalf in ways that damsels don't. Meetis is a person in trouble, but she's all about the solutions, and the solution to her first (seemingly unrelated) problem soon delivers her into an identifiable relation with the main conflict, so readers can anticipate her entry into it. Second, Corbinan speaks in undercaste dialect. So does Meetis, but her language is far more accessible (because she's younger, and because she's someone who is good at placating Highers). By encountering Meetis first, we're able to get a more gradual entry into the language, and learn the context surrounding the way Corbinan talks, so that he's less of a jolt when we encounter him.

This is one of the reasons why I like to have an "entry" beta-reader. I'll write the first chapter of each point of view character, and then run it by someone who can tell me if they are feeling very confused, and which characters they relate to most easily. It's a kind of critical orientation to the story that allows me to make sure the jumping-off point is solid. Jumping off stone is far more effective than jumping off sand.

When I write short stories, I like to think around until I find a first sentence that gets me jazzed to jump in. I'm willing to spend concerted time on this, even up to a few days. I've gotten better at it as time has gone by.

Now, however, I am about to attempt two short story sequels, and I find I'm hesitating (in the case of one of the two, this "hesitation" has amounted to several years of not being able to start). The crux of the problem is bridging - creating an opening that not only sets up the ending properly, but also evokes the first story for those who have read about it, and provides enough backstory for those who haven't read it, without bogging down the current story.

I think I need to start thinking about these stories a little bit the way I think about novel openings - that is to say, to enter in a place where I feel familiar with the world, and excited about the plot, and worried about other people's entry later. Backstory can be added. Revisions are possible - and more than that, they are inevitable. What better opportunity to create a bridge between two islands than when both ends of it can be anchored on solid ground?

Wish me luck.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Picking the right word (it's okay to use a thesaurus/etymological dictionary)

On a couple of occasions I've heard writers say that using a thesaurus is not a good idea. The argument was that if a word isn't part of your natural usage vocabulary, it will come out sounding wrong in context.

That is always a possibility, but it does assume that you don't have a lot of flexibility in your writing voice. I could make an argument that on the contrary, it's better to go for the right word, and if necessary, get help integrating it into the voice later.

I was thinking about this topic while I was recently watching Avatar: Legend of Korra with my kids. They use a lot of technologies that parallel technologies of our world, but they don't use the words for them that we would use. In particular, the character Bolin becomes a movie star. The problem with calling them "movies" would be that it might pull viewers out of the environment with too strong a reference to our own world and its technologies. Therefore, the show uses the word "mover" instead. Same idea, different word, different associations.

In our own world, we use different words for the same thing. Think, for example, about when you might expect to see or use the following words:

motion picture



Can you imagine yourself saying, "Did you like that motion picture?" I can't. I'm more likely to ask, "Did you like that movie?" or possibly "What did you think of that film?" Motion picture seems to be something used exclusively by studios to describe their products: "A major motion picture." The more familiar and colloquial shortening "movie" has become the default word for this thing. "Film" refers to the material that movies were originally recorded to, and has a slightly different feel.

That different feel issue is right at the heart of this question of naming things. Sometimes you can feel happy going with your gut on what the word for something in your world should be. Sometimes not. An etymological dictionary can help you to delve into the "feel" behind the word and see if you can get more of a sense to it. A thesaurus can help you to see what other options might be out there with very different connotations.

I often use generic words when I'm in fantasy or science fictional settings. Generic words are words we have heard so many times in so many different contexts that we don't immediately associate them with one specific context. They can be very useful, because that lack of immediate context can allow an author to create their own associations within the story world. There are other instances, however, when the right word, with the right connotations, is out there and your story world would benefit immensely from having it appear in the right spot.

One of the words that I spent a long time looking for was the word "indulgence." It's not a word I use  a lot in my own life, but it's really really useful for my Varin world, particularly when I am working with servant-caste characters. I remember writing along in my servant-caste character Aloran and feeling that word hovering out there at the edge of my consciousness. I would think to myself, "There's a word he would use to show how he understands the way that nobles express kindness to him, but I just can't think of it." In that case, I didn't use a thesaurus - one day as I was revising, the word finally just popped into my head. I was pleased, because I could go back through at that point and put it in the places where I'd been gesturing vaguely at that same idea without having the proper word for it. It probably would have been sensible of me to spend a bit of time with a thesaurus seeing if I could run across the word in a more systematic way!

What words do you need in your world? Is there one waiting out there for you that might have just the right social connotations to give your world extra dimension?

It's something to think about - and don't be afraid to use your references!


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We all need to be reminded about the inspiring feminist Clara Barton

During my trip to Washington, D.C. I took a trip out to the town of Glen Echo, Maryland with my mom and my kids. It's a delightful place, featuring a park area with artist yurts and a children's playground and a theater for kids and a puppet theater and a merry-go-round, etc. etc. I highly recommend it. This is a place that has been a "destination" for so long that it used to be an amusement park, and before that it was a "chautauqua." It was also the center of civil rights protests in 1960, so you can investigate that if you are curious, because it's very interesting.

It is also the site of Clara Barton's house (here's a good blog article on the house, where I found this photo).

If you go there, you can wait on the bench out front and take a tour of the house. The information I'm sharing here is paraphrased from the verbal presentation we got during our tour from a lovely guide by the name of Clara Ferrari.

You probably learned about Clara Barton in elementary school. I couldn't say if I did, because I didn't remember anything clearly. She is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring badass feminists ever, and the ultimate testament to how much a person can learn on the job. She went from teen elementary school teacher, to founder of the New Jersey public schools, to Civil War nurse, to founder of the American Red Cross and the First Aid Society.

Clara Barton started out as a teacher in her local school at the age of seventeen, figuring out how to teach while doing it. When she realized that there were no free schools in the state of New Jersey, she went there and offered to start one. She was given a warehouse space totally unsuited to running a school, and on her first day had 6 students. They attended for the morning, and then because there was no cafeteria facility, she had to send them home for lunch, imagining they might never come back. When she reconvened school at 2pm, they had brought 14 friends back with them. By the end of that year the school had 600 students. Clara Barton was ideally suited to become the school's principal, having built it from the ground up, but there was one problem. I'm sure you can guess what it was.

She was a woman. So the principal's job was given to a man, and she left.

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay." (all italicized quotes are from this quote site)

She was excited when the civil war came along. Not happy about it, of course. But she saw it as an opportunity.

"The conflict is one thing I've been waiting for. I'm well and strong and young -- young enough to go to the front. If I cannot be a soldier, I'll help soldiers."

She started a letter-writing campaign asking for supplies for the troops before the war even officially got started, and managed to gather three warehouses full of supplies. Then she went to the powers that be for the North and said she'd give them the supplies if they let her go serve as a nurse on the front. The powers that be said, basically, "You can't serve as a nurse on the front. You're a woman." She came back with, "Okay I guess you don't need these three warehouses full of stuff, then."

That was how Clara Barton got to go and serve as a nurse on the front. She was never trained as a nurse, but again, learned on the job. She faced horrors and death. She even narrowly missed death herself several times. Here are two more quotes from the same site:

"A ball had passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through the sleeve and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?"

"I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them."

She became so famous for her activities during this time that she was a household name, and when the war was over, people from all over started writing to her and asking whether she had seen their missing loved ones. The therefore spent a number of years finding missing soldiers - either figuring out where they were after the war, or finding witness accounts of their deaths, to bring closure to their families. As this site explains, "Her search concluded at the end of 1866 with over 22,000 men identified."

To take a break after this exhausting activity, Clara Barton went to Europe. This is where she encountered the International Red Cross organization, which at the time was all about doing what she had done in the Civil War - nursing and caring for people in war time. She served during the Franco-Prussian war, came out alive, and returned to the United States, where she asked the US government to start a branch of the Red Cross. She had to lobby for ten years before it actually happened. Clara Barton became the president of the American Red Cross. Her home in Glen Echo was built for her during this time, because the builders, who were residents of Glen Echo, thought her presence would be prestigious for their community. The house is huge, and the large entry hall is basically all closets. (The house has more than 500 closets.) It was easy to open a wall, pull out emergency supplies, and take them to wherever they were needed.

This brings me to Clara Barton's essential innovation in the activities of the Red Cross. She was the first person to see that the Red Cross could serve during natural disasters and other peacetime emergencies rather than just in wartime. Not only that, but she was the one who brought peacetime activities to the international organization as well. She changed the whole world, and served as president of the American Red Cross until she was in her 80's. Then, in 1904, she was forced to resign as president by people who felt she was too old and and too old-fashioned and, yes, too female to continue as president of the still-healthy, still-growing organization. She resigned, and promptly went on to establish the National First Aid society. So if you have a first aid kit in your house, or your car, or your workplace, you have Clara Barton to thank for it.

I walked out of that place inspired to tell everyone I knew about Clara Barton and her incredible life and achievements, and also to make sure I made a difference in the world. I hope you may feel similar inspiration. I feel certain that stories will emerge from this experience.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Back with a bang! SALE to Clarkesworld!

Sorry for being away so long from the blog! I had a lovely trip to Washington, D.C. to visit my parents, and now I'm back. I have more than one cool story to share from the trip, but the most exciting news is something that happened just yesterday: I sold a second story to Clarkesworld!

"Soul's Bargain" is special to me because it's a story from my Varin world, making this the first time I've ever sold a story from Varin to a pro market. It's actually a peek into the world's distant past, 750 years before the "present" (as represented in the novel that I just signed on with my agent Kristopher O'Higgins).

Pelisma has worked passionately her entire life to expand and strengthen the cavern city where she lives, which has borne her name ever since she saved it from a catastrophic flood. But the city of Pelismara can never achieve its greatest potential, because the surface wilderness of Varin is dominated by wysps, tiny floating sparks that pursue and burn anyone who builds a fire or attempts to clear land.

Now Pelisma's eyes have failed, leaving her dependent on the assistance of others, able only to ask in frustration, Is this all the ambition we have left? To beautify and perfect a confined existence?

Something more alarming has also changed: wysps have begun to approach her without warning or reason, piling fear and uncertainty atop her frustration. Are the wysps a force of nature, or are they souls? What possible explanation lies behind their anomalous behavior? Can she find it before they consume her in flames?

The story comes out tomorrow, July 1! I hope you enjoy it!