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Tag: james glass

MisCon 28: Putting the Military in Fiction

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Putting the Military in Fiction
Panel members: Dave Bara, Steven Erikson, James Glass, John Goff (with guest insights from John Dalmas)
Panel description: What is military fiction and how do you write it convincingly? Is a military background necessary? Do the rules change when you’re writing space opera, military fantasy, or other sub-genres?

JGlass: I spent one year in ROTC and it was helpful in writing about a character who was trapped behind enemy lines.

DB: I have no background in the military, but apparently books sell better if they’re called military science fiction rather than space opera. In the future, technology can be so advanced that everything could be automated. So nobody has to go into war unless you’re on the receiving end. Or maybe no one will commit anyone to battle and just use drones and robots instead.

JGlass: But on the ground, there will always be casualties.

JGoff: It’s always necessary on the ground. An equivalent force might not be effective for a village in a third world country.

SE: It would have a canceling out effect if all the machines wipe out each other.

JGoff: Hacking may be less expensive than building new machines.

JGlass: There’s technology for foot soldiers like exoskeletons.

JGoff: The effectiveness of a gatling gun depends on whether it’s used for offensive or defensive sides.

JGlass: There’s a new gun with a packed barrel called a metal storm that’s fired electronically. Speeds are getting incredibly far.

DB: In my favorite movie, Patton, there’s a line: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

JGoff: The other side wins by taking less casualties.

JD: The importance is in winning the peace afterwards. For example, after World War II, we treated the Japanese well and it paid off.

JGlass: I haven’t seen much in science fiction about the post war aftermath. How do you bring it to a good end? It’s not dealt with in science fiction. But it’s in real life.

JGoff: Historically, man has not been able to win the peace. World War II is an exception.

JGlass: Or Alexander the Great. He married the princess.

SE: Alexander the Great was the only successful foreigner in Afghanistan.

Q: With the recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan and the guys in vests willing to kill anyone, it’s become asymmetric.

JGoff: Thing is, we’re faced with individuals. We can’t attack everyone. We’re on the defensive. They have the initiative. It’s the same thing in Vietnam. We’re not willing to kill everyone in the room, but they are. That’s when warfare becomes terrorism.

Q: Does it become technology against will?

JGlass: Morality is an issue if you kill everyone. We can win if we throw out morality.

DB: If you have no military background, what’s the best way to learn?

JGlass: With experience, you learn a lot. Also read a lot to see how it’s handled. Use Google. Use lots of sources.

SE: Writers mine their own experience. Hope for some similitude to what you’re writing. For instance, I was once in Manitoba mapping boulder formations but we had problems with bears. We would often lose sight of co-workers so to stay in touch, we would often shout at each other. Once, I accidentally got in between a mother and her cubs. The bear charged and chased me into a lake. I mined that experience in my writing. Once I was drunk and had to piss in the bush. But it turned out it wasn’t a bush. It was a bear and it hit me down while my pants were around my ankles. The absurdity of warfare is implicit. Mine your experience and translate it. In 1983, I was in a helicopter in flames and got dropped in the middle of the jungle in Central America during a civil war. Use whatever you can, the rest is imagination.

JGoff: Don’t get into the minutiae of the background. Use what is needed for the story. In The Black Company, the reader doesn’t get into the minutiae in the background. Instead, you get a sense of what’s there. It’s more about the character.

JD: In conventions, fans want to know how something works, but I don’t know!

JGoff: Schwarzenegger doesn’t know how a machine gun works, but it’s still a good movie. You will always run across such fans.

DB: The brain collects all this data. I needed a name for an energy gun in my story so I just made it up and called it a coil gun. Later, I Googled it and saw that it really is a weapon.

JGlass: I usually look it up. But you can also make things up. If it sounds good, then it works for the story.

Q: What are you trying to show by using the military in your fiction?

JGoff: It makes something interesting to read.

JGlass: You can explore contemporary issues like the morality of war, etc.

SE: A kind of empathy is established if the point of view is the grunt on the ground. It shows them battling helplessness, despair, and fear. Many of us feel it with the surrounding geopolitical situation. It’s universal. It resonates with the reader because it’s about forces that we have no control over.

DB: I wanted to put a character on a military ship because it’s more interesting than tracking orcas. Use military in fiction if you want to give characters infrastructure. It forces them to make moral choices.

JGoff: You can’t tell a story with depth without narrative conflict. Military fiction often makes you question. Often characters go in believing in one side and later they begin to realize that the enemy isn’t faceless. It’s switching perspective in the struggle.

Q: Do military movies say the same thing?

JGlass: They say something about the human condition with all the conflict.

DB: I like bringing up internal conflict. In the Warhammer series, there are too many intense battle scenes. There should be more happening in their heads.

JGoff: If an author is influenced by Vietnam, military fiction gives you an insight of the cultural mindset in the time it’s written.

JD: In the Swedish invasion of Norway, many people died from the weather.

SE: In Cambodia, people marched into the jungle and were never seen again. In the book Blood and Bone, the jungle rots away the entire army. It’s interesting stuff. The King of Wulfar led an army. The king died but the army kept fighting. It became a headless army.

Q: What are your favorite non-fiction resources?

DB: Wikipedia, Tom Clancy.

JGoff: I like large overview books rather than detailed ones. Atlases of world history, depending on what time you’re writing about.

SE: Autobiographies by soldiers.

JGlass: Biographies about Patton, Alexander the Great, etc. Military fiction is tactical. Readers like that because it’s like a game.

MisCon 28: Writing What You Don’t Know

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Writing What You Don’t Know
Panel members: Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass, Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Panel description: Maybe you love researching for a book or story, and maybe you hate it. Regardless, you have to do it, or you risk having your book thrown across the room in disgust. In this panel we’ll learn the best ways to research, how to organize your notes, and how to achieve balance between research and writing.

JG: What if you don’t know how to research?

DPF: My book, The Black Ship, was set on a clipper ship. I have never sailed in my life so I realized that a lot of research would be involved. The language of sailing. The captain’s orders. Weather. Navigation. Even if it’s fantasy, you also need to get it right. I looked at fiction and nonfiction about sailing. I did a three hour tour in Seattle on a ship. I talked to people, like captains and workers at maritime museums. I kept notes and kept it in my head so it could flow naturally from my tongue. If you still have to look things up, you’re not ready.

JRW: I wrote a book on neurobiology so I had to take a course to become familiar with the concepts and the language. I learned how people reacted to stress. In my weird west and alternate history stories, in order to do it right, I needed to know the change points in history and how to extrapolate from that. For writing an alternate history about how the Oregon Territory became independent rather than part of the US, I needed to study books on Northwest history since you still have to get the details right. I use Evernote to clip articles and tag it.

DPF: Scrivener also does it.

JRW: It helps especially for online research.

JG: Life can also be research. Live life. If anything interests you and you have the opportunity, do it. Write from your own experience. If you need to know about biology, read it. If you have a problem with science, read a freshman textbook.

DPF: You can also take online classes.

JG: TV, science news, subscribe to their feeds. Read up and keep up about it. Live life to the fullest.

JRW: I wrote books about politics. I drew on my experience as a political activist during my 20s. If you’re doing fantasy or historical, then you should embrace living history, museums, and historical reenactments. Get all the senses, not just hearing and seeing. You need sensory knowledge.

JG: I wrote a story about ballet dancers. I was the president of a ballet company, but I also had to read ballet reviews and used the library for research.

DPF: Living history is a great resource. There are people out there who still work in traditional ways. I have links on my webpage for research. It could be about clothing, tanning, fighting, etc. Keep track of where you did your research, you can milk it more than once. Transcribe interviews. But don’t overload the narrative with detail to prove that you know it. 90% of the research won’t make it into the story. Characters should act and speak appropriately.

JRW: Know and acquire the correct word. It can make a huge difference.

DPF: In one book, I had a goshawk. I did research by asking a colleague of mine who knew all about them. A goshawk “stoops” which is a falconry term. However, the copy editor decided to replace “stoop” with “swoop.” If I had let that go, I would have been killed by the readers. It would have killed my credibility. It would have been like mistaking manual for an automatic transmission.

JG: Copy editors can be dangerous. I thought Dan Brown described Istanbul beautifully and brought it to life. If you can’t afford to go, then read books about the place. Look at pictures. Travel is best if you can. If you’re going to put in a restaurant, ask permission for their name. If not, then change the name.

JRW: P.R. Frost needed a picture of a location in Las Vegas for her book. Since I was going there anyway, she got me to get a picture of it. Getting your friends is another resource.

DPF: I was writing about San Diego so I used Google Earth. I needed to know what was at a dead end street near Balboa Park, but Google didn’t show it. So I asked online and got a stranger who lived there to get pictures for me. With Facebook and Twitter, take advantage of social media.

JG: If you’re writing about a place on earth, you should be able to visualize and experience everything.

JRW: Be careful with what resources are reliable. Don’t count on Wikipedia. It’s a starting place. Sometimes, though, you want to get the crazy stuff if you’re writing about that.

JG: YouTube is a resource, but make sure you screen it. There are some good crash course material. John Green has some good YouTube videos.

DPF: If you don’t know where to begin, get an overview from places like Wikipedia. Then start digging.

JG: Even if you think you know the subject, you get to a point that you don’t know. I’m a physicist, but I needed to get the position of Titan so I had to go back to research it.

JRW: I have experience with horses for 15 to 16 years, but I also have to look up references for writing about horses. Even if there’s stuff you know, you need to do the research.

DPF: Sometimes you don’t know you have to do the research until you run into it.

JG: Don’t hesitate to call the local university.

DPF: They want to share their research.

JG: Research can also be used to generate ideas. Do interviews.

JRW: Sometimes you can get ideas from your Facebook friends by looking at the feed.

DPF: Discovery Magazine.

JRW: Boing Boing.

JG: How much is too much? When does the research stop and the writing begin?

DPF: When I can start writing without looking up things constantly. When the story pushes, I do it by feel. I still look stuff up, but when I can start, I start.

JRW: When I write and need to look something up, I put it in brackets–look up X, Y, Z–and do it later. If you can explain the concept to someone else, you’re ready to write.

JG: Research enough for a general idea. If you need to get a detail, just lie and circle it. Then go back later and check. I don’t let the details stop me. Get the first draft done. Then the corrections.

JRW: It depends on the scene. If I’m in the middle of action, I write that first.

Q: Do you have to be 100% accurate in fantasy?

DPF: Physics still works in fantasy. Unless specifically something doesn’t.

JRW: There’s still geography in fantasy. Think about the implications.

DPF: Make maps. Where do they get the food and other supplies? Where would they build cities for trade? What makes sense? Can it be that way? There’s one place in the maps that’s wrong in my book.

JG: You want your magical system to be consistent. Establish the rules and stick to them.

DPF: People don’t like deus ex machina, especially when you violate your magical system.

JG: You need rules and limitations. Otherwise it’s not believable.

JRW: A planet with only one ecosystem is not believable.

JG: In science fiction, you need to get your science right. In one of my stories, I said that methane smelled. But it is actually an odorless, colorless gas. If you have the tiniest error, the readers will nail you to the cross.

Q: In fantasy, if you need to know the geology, you can do the research. But if you’re doing science fiction, how can you research alien physiology?

JG: In that case, you can make up your own. Balonium. But if it’s carbon based, you need to research that.

DPF: Make it consistent. Think about the world on which they developed.

MisCon 28: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, Steven Erikson, Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass
Panel description: What is an anti-hero? How do anti-heroes differ from standard heroes and villains? Do we still love them even though they’re good and bad? What attracts us to them? Who are some of the best ones in modern culture?

DPF: What is a hero?

SE: I’ve been obsessing about that notion for the past ten books. I play with Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero. I wanted elements of the hero’s journey on the page but I wanted the reader to take the journey. In order for something to be called heroism, it must be witnessed. So in my books, the idea is to write an unwitnessed hero. The reader is the witness, but the reader is also a silent witness. It’s a hard thing to define.

JG: I think a pure hero is someone who is noble and has no flaws. An anti-hero has flaws.

SAB: The hero gets the job done and comes through in a pinch. But he gives up something in the process. For example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings chooses to do the greater good over comfort.

DPF: I’ve read stories growing up of heroes slaying dragons. They sacrifice themselves for strangers. Heroes get the job done but they can also be selfish. They don’t want to do it, but they choose to do so.

JG: The pure hero does it for someone else. He’s selfless.

DPF: But what if you’re only doing it for some people you care about? What about the anti-hero?

JG: An anti-hero has something good in him but is also villainous. The anti-hero has good and dark sides and is more like a real person.

SE: The anti-hero is fundamentally flawed. We need that flaw because it’s a recognition that they’re doing things against their nature. Readers like that. The anti-hero is the most human of these tropes. The heroes and villains are dehumanized because of their extraordinary abilities or actions. You need motivations in villains. There’s no motivation if the heroes can do no wrong.

JG: Villains who are pure evil are one dimensional and boring. A villain believes what he’s doing is right. In writing, you can make the villain or hero change.

SAB: The creepiest villain in Harry Potter was not Voldemort but Dolores Umbridge because she was so awful and human. She thought she was right. Voldemort was one dimensional. In The Man Who Used the Universe (by Alan Dean Foster), the overlord was doing all these awful things, but he was preparing the world to meet an alien threat. Even though he wasn’t good–he was a psychopath–he did it for his own reasons.

DPF: Sometimes the end justifies the means. Hitler didn’t think he was a bad guy. It depends on the point of view. Mercedes Lackey said that “Even evil wizards get up in the middle of the night to eat chocolate chip cookies.” It’s shades of gray. Some people want to protect their family but they don’t care about others. Truth is no excuse for fiction.

JG: How did they get that way? We are what we experience. We are the product of life experiences.

DPF: There are a number of popular not good guys on TV today. What qualities make them sympathetic? You can lose the audience if you let the dog die. How do you decide on a hero or anti-hero’s qualities? Do you consciously play them up?

SE: I use multiple points of view. Heroism appears in countless forms. I like to see heroism through innocence and in characters that get beat down the most. When I write big convergent scenes with a larger tragedy, they need to be balanced with a gesture of humanity. In one of my books, all the heroes die, but two dogs are saved. That’s the smallest gesture of humanity for the largest tragedy that they’re capable of doing under the circumstances.

JG: I write biographies of the characters, histories of what happened to them. My characters start as anti-heroes because of what happened to them before. How they react is because of what happened to them before. In my book Shanji, the main female character has superpowers, but they’re triggered by her memories.

SAB: I used to write organically but I ended up writing about the same character. So now I’m more organized. I ask myself what is the best and worst in a character? I had a character who was very abrasive because of the things that happened to him, but he was also very loyal. Actions are totally driven by the backstory.

JG: It’s a lot harder to do in a short story. In a novel, you have more space. In a short story, I could only tell how one guy became a child molester in one sentence.

DPF: If someone’s a serial killer or did something horrendous, we need a reason for why they did that. But on the flip side, when they’re on trial, we don’t care why they did it. We want to understand them but not necessarily sympathize. I had a character who was a gambler who got into debt. He did something bad but he convinced himself that it wasn’t so bad. He stopped gambling for a while but then he went back to it. It takes a struggle to break habits which creates interesting tension.

Q: I used to write short stories but now I’m transitioning to longer fiction. I have nice scenes but the parts in between are bland. How do you keep the journey fresh?

JG: Write a good novel like a good short story. Make everything count. If it doesn’t count, cut it out.

DPF: Everything in the story should do two or more things.

SE: You can use transitions to include subtext and foreshadowing. Like Chekhov’s gun, keep piling it up for every transition. Keep a list. You can include it in conversations, settings, etc. These can carry the story far, especially for emotional impact in contrast to action scenes.

DPF: If you don’t have to say that they’re moving from place to place, cut it out.

SE: If you look at the films from the 1940s and 1950s, you see that they’ve included all the scenes from when the character wakes up and brushes his teeth to the time he gets into the cab. Now we skip all those scenes because we’ve been trained. We don’t need all those transitions.

JG: I like how Dan Brown transitions. He puts hooks for the next chapters. He cuts scenes in half. He shortens chapters. In today’s writing, many things can be cut out.

Q: We’ve mostly talked about dealing with the banality of evil, so how come there’s an appeal for more over the top villains like the Joker or BBC Sherlock’s Moriarty?

JG: The Joker adds humor. In the written word, the bizarre becomes interesting. Moriarty is an interesting case because he serves as the perfect foil for Holmes.

SAB: There’s a certain appeal for over-the-top. How much can you stretch it before it becomes too creepy? It’s interesting to explore even though it’s not realistic.

DPF: Even for the Joker, maybe the writer had a backstory for him that we didn’t see for the character motivation. The writer still needs to understand the character even though it isn’t explained to the reader.

SE: You need the hero and the villain. They are two halves of a whole. Batman and Joker. “Every Moby has his Dick.” There are always reasons in fiction even though it’s not true in reality. Where there are supervillains, there are superheroes. They are reflections of each other.

JG: The character of Two-Face used to be good before he changed.

SAB: The villain offers an opportunity for tragedy. Villains are people who could have done better but didn’t. That’s human. There’s a moment that they have to choose; it’s a way to round them out.

Q: How can you prevent the villain from overshadowing the hero? If he does, does the villain become the protagonist?

SE: Sometimes. The notion of the hero is more dangerous than the villain. Lex Luthor is human but Superman is the omnipotent god. Luthor is battling an implacable force.

DPF: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

JG: Even with a protagonist, you can have a strong antagonist. If the antagonist is too strong, maybe you need to change the story.

Q: There’s fantasy with many villains but no heroes. I can’t think of any science fiction like that. Is it a function of genre on how to treat the hero, anti-hero, and villain?

SE: No. They all have goals. It depends on your approach.

DPF: Fantasy has the traditional good versus evil. But now, evil isn’t strictly evil. Hitler, for instance, saw everyone else as villains.

JG: In science fiction, the protagonist doesn’t have to be human. It could be the environment or something else.

SAB: In my Elements series, the protagonists fight against the elements. The elements are the antagonists. You don’t necessarily need an evil overlord in fantasy. Ask yourself, what else can be a threat?

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 5

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Learning the Game: Query Letters/Elevator Pitches
Panel members: David Boop, James Glass, Rhiannon Held, J.A. Pitts, Patrick Swenson
Panel description: It’s the game we all have to learn: how to sell our books. Our esteemed panelists will talk about what it takes, how to do it, and all those little details they wish new authors knew.

JG: Let’s start with the assumption that you’re a new writer without an agent and you’re trying to get published. How do you get yourself recognized and be seen by the main editor out of the slush?

JAP: It depends. Everyone is different. I met my editor at RadCon and we did not talk about books. Eventually I sent an e-mail and she said to send her the manuscript. There’s always someone who will break the rules.

PS: I met my editor at Clarion West on week five in the 1980s. I learned how editors worked with stuff sent into Talebones where I was an editor. It was because of Talebones and Fairwood Press that I got recognized in the business first.

DB: I owe it all to conventions where I met other writers. My first book was published by a small press. Get to know the editors as people. Ply them with alcohol while you remain sober. I found out that I graduated at the same time as an editor at Baen. Pitch when you know what they publish.

RH: I got my editor first when I got a short story critiqued. Think of the editors as human beings rather than dollar signs.

JG: The context is important. I started writing short stories. From my reputation as a short story writer, I got an agent. When I wrote a novel, I started at Baen because the editor there knew I won the Writers of the Future Contest.

PS: It doesn’t hurt to know someone.

JG: Even another author, a big author, can get you there. I’ve gotten a recommendation from C.J. Cherryh. Context in industry.

RH: It’s not only your writing talent but your social talent. Prove you’re intelligent, pleasant, and that others can work with.

DB: It’s no longer the idea of the solitary writer. Now editors want to know if you’re going to be a brand, if you can do readings, and decide on that. There’s no one way to do this right. You can try writing short stories, going to cons, workshops, etc. One will strike gold eventually. Persistence.

JAP: They used to give you a contract from a synopsis of your story. It’s now changed. Everything’s on Facebook now. Publishers will google you. Will they find you blogging about writing or drunken pictures from the last party? It’s all for public consumption. When you meet someone, you don’t know who they know. The query is the first person contact. It’s short and succinct and now they do it by e-mail. The rules to writing queries is used to deter people because they already have huge slush piles. You need to pique their interest if it’s not solicited. And have stuff ready for them when they contact you, unless you’re an already established author. You have to have product.

PS: When I worked at Talebones we had a couple hundred submissions in a month. If you’re a slush reader at an online mag, you learn a lot about the process and get to meet the editor.

JG: I published ten stories in Talebones. Everyone’s connected. Get your name out there. Produce something. I once did an elevator pitch for Tor. Learn to summarize your book in ten seconds.

RH: For my first novel, my editor wanted the whole thing after I sent a synopsis. I got an agent after I sold the book and that was when I used the pitch. I “synopsized” my synopsis since it was too long. It’s a lot about marketing–what genre fits and what’s different. Something the same but not a clone.

JAP: When editors acquire books, they only have a certain number of slots. Editors need to go up to the board to pitch your book so they use your pitch.

JG: Editors can love your book, but marketing can stop it.

DB: Or if editors already bought something similar.

PS: I gave a long pitch to an editor and his eyes started glazing over when it went too long. But he was more interested when I gave a short pitch. I didn’t have a pitch until I got an agent.

JAP: Don’t pitch until you’ve already written it. Otherwise you will lose them.

DB: Not every time. I got them reading three chapters. They bought it when it was completed.

JG: When you’re getting started, you need everything written.

RH: When I wrote my first book, I only found my theme after I finished writing it. When you pitch, you also need a theme.

DB: You need to lead with emotion. Why should I invest in these people?

JG: There are one minute and ten minute pitches, which are rarer. Some workshops have pitch sessions.

JAP: Cascade Writers is in July. They’re reading pitches and they will tell you if it worked or not. You can still do it without meeting face to face.

DB: There’s also the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference.

JAP: Publishers want to buy your product.

PS: They need to eat so they want your stuff.

JAP: It’s not a zero sum game with e-books. There’s collecting and reading. There’s no shortage of people buying.

DB: You can be more specific in particular genres. For instance, I know someone who publishes nothing but gay space pirates and they’re popular.

JG: Amazon has changed the game with publishing. In a query letter, explain the book, how long it is, what it’s about, what special qualifications you have for it, and ask if they would like to see a partial. Then you wait.

JAP: Look at their guidelines. If it says, “don’t do X”, then don’t do X. You don’t want to piss them off.

RH: It’s a test that you’re following directions. Make a good impression.

PS: There’s no excuse nowadays. Everything’s on the internet.

JAP: If you get rejected, don’t argue with them. Agents will post that out there.

JG: Even if they stung you, write a thank you letter.

PS: Actually, some editors don’t even want that.

JAP: Be polite. It’s like a job interview. They want to see if they can work with you.

DB: You’ve got to roll with it. It’s not always about the writing. It could be just the fit. Maybe they will want your next story, so don’t burn that bridge.

JG: If they want the partial, you want to include the synopsis so they know what goes in the story, that there’s an end, and that you know how to write a synopsis.

RH: I’ve revised my synopsis as many times as my novel. You want main character arcs, not events. For example, if the theme is how your character deals with fear, you want to only include what relates to the arc.

DB: I once sent in a twenty page outline. My agent told me he wanted a synopsis that was five pages. Don’t include sub-characters or events that won’t move the character.

JG: Keep it short. Leave some mystery. Don’t tell all of the story, like the back jacket blurb.

RH: But reveal the ending. Don’t stop before the end. The editor wants to know.

JG: There could be years of delay. Always send the first chapters and then the manuscript. Then it’s up to them.

JAP: And while you’re waiting, write the next book.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 10

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.

The panel “Pitching Your Project” was presented by James Glass, J.A. Pitts, and Eldon Thompson. (AQ is an audience question.)

JG: Are there different kinds of pitches?

JAP: I first met my editor in a bar. And we didn’t talk about books. It was only later that I sent an e-mail and asked what she wanted. My editor said, “Send whatever you’ve got.”

ET: I can’t understate the personal connection. Go to film festivals. Make a connection so they will remember you. So if you have a chance to talk to an editor or agent, don’t just jump into your project. For an elevator pitch, the harder you do your work, the easier it is. And unless you’re a proven writer, when you pitch, your work should already be done. It should be ten to fifteen words. A teaser pitch is about one sentence. A two page synopsis is longer. Be able to pitch in different formats. An expanded pitch would be like a jacket blurb. Take time to craft a pitch at each length.

JAP: You don’t know when you’re going to pitch. So be prepared. Practice.

JG: My elevator story is over three floors. It was at WesterCon for the novel Brain Gate. I was in the elevator and Tom Doherty got on. He asked, “Jim, what’s new?” So I had ten to twelve seconds to tell him about my novel in two sentences. Then he said, “It sounds interesting. Talk to David Hartwell.” It can happen unexpectedly so you need to be prepared.

JAP: But don’t do the bathroom pitch. I heard about the story of a Penguin editor who had to go to the bathroom in order to get away from some woman. But while she was in the bathroom stall, the manuscript was slipped under the door. Once I was in the elevator with the editor and asked her how she was doing. She said her dog died. So all I could do was say my condolences. Don’t be a jerk or they’ll remember it.

JG: For a short story, you can just send that in. The story will go to either the slush stack or A stack. Here, the editors want you to succeed. But novels are a different ball game. A good place to pitch is a convention like a big regional one. NorwesCon or WesterCon. WorldCon can get hairy since there are so many people.

JAP: You can also meet editors and agents in a bar but don’t be a stalker.

ET: In Hollywood, you mostly pitch in person. In books, you usually do a query letter. In Hollywood, you set up a ten to fifteen minute meeting. Agents are notorious for doing something else while you’re trying to pitch. Producers are better because they’re more invested in the project. If the producers like your sample, then they want you to write their stuff as a “hired gun.” If you love your work, go the book route and worry about Hollywood later. In Hollywood, scripts are written by committee. You can make a good living at it, but unless you’re a writer-director, you have no say.

JG: George R.R. Martin mentioned that things are also written by the director.

ET: Sometimes the director shows up without the script and starts changing things. For scripts, it possible you will have nothing to show after six to nine months of work. Whereas if you write a book, you do have something to show.

JG: But there’s the money.

JAP: I work at Boeing so I make enough in the day job to write in the cracks.

ET: Do what you love. Because otherwise, how do you deal with the BS? You need to deal with it.

JG: What about written pitches? You can do a short pitch at a party. You need to play it by ear. Are they receptive? As a new writer without an agent, you want to break in. But many publishing companies don’t want unsolicited work. However, some pubs, like Baen or Ace, will see unsolicited manuscripts. You need to learn the difference between partials, query letters, and a synopsis.

JAP: The most important thing is to have the best possible novel to be written. Because that’s the final pitch. My editor might take two years to get back to you. So be ready for it.

JG: Say you want to send your work to a big house that doesn’t want unsolicited work. Do you send a query letter?

JAP: We mentioned it in the query panel. You don’t want to waste their time so do an elevator pitch. The editor will remember if you’re nice and kind. When you’re ready, send it in.

JG: Do you go in cold?

ET: More commonly, target the recipient. Do your homework. Pitch the story in one sentence. You need a core idea. Who’s the character and what’s at stake? There are lots of resources out there about writing a synopsis. If three-fourths of your synopsis is the set up and the rest of the stuff is tacked at the end, you give a false sense of how the story goes. You need to pace the query at the rate as the story. You need a teaser or hook. Examples are Titanic, Kissing Jessica Stein, and Billy Elliot.

JG: It’s analogous to the summaries in TV guides.

ET: They’re log lines.

JG: You need a short paragraph which includes that your novel is complete, something about the novel, and something about you related to the novel. And then a short inquiry about what they might like to see like a partial or the first three chapters. But the time until you receive a reply to see the partial can be long. So just wait. And write a thank you letter.

JAP: And while you’re waiting, write something else.

JG: Baen bought one author’s book and while he waited, he wrote books two and three. Which Baen subsequently bought.

AQ: There’s the Query Shark.

ET: You need to lead with your strongest point. Don’t reference any weakness.

JAP: Don’t tell them it’s been rejected elsewhere.

JG: Print out a new copy to send in to other editors because they will know others have read it. The partial should contain a synopsis.

JAP: Learning to write a synopsis is critical. Don’t hide stuff. Give out the important relevant details. Tell them the ending.

JG: How long should the synopsis be?

JAP: It depends. My publishing house wants ten pages or less. Try to keep it short. Two to three pages is better.

ET: In Hollywood, don’t send in ten pages.

JG: So it’s whatever that works for the editor.

ET: Find out the guidelines. A two page synopsis for a 250,000 word novel.

AQ: Is it 250 words per page?

Panel (all): Yes, double spaced.

JAP: Keep it within 500 characters.

ET: Or less, like Twitter.

JG: It should also be entertaining. Don’t be dry. Think of it as an expanded jacket blurb. You could leave some mystery, but you need the ending. Take the synopsis seriously because it’s a selling tool.

ET: Whoever you’re pitching to, they want the same thing–something that’s proven–but also something new and fresh. For example, take a new tack on proven stories. But they won’t take you if it’s too similar or too different.

JG: In pitches, do you compare it to the media? For example, you say your story is “Darth Vader in New York City.”

ET: Do something appropriate. Be true to your material. Don’t compare it to Hunger Games if it’s not like it.

JAP: Run it by other people. Some pitches are insulting such as “Like Good Fellas but with characters.”

AQ: In a Hollywood pitch, should you have a line up for many things?

ET: Yes, they want to know you have more stuff. Think of your career. You want a breadth of material.

AQ: Does anyone still write plays?

Panel (all): Yes.

AQ: What about slush readers? How do I get into doing that?

JG: Graduate from Brown, I suppose.

JAP: You should meet editors at cons, read Locus, blogs, and magazines. E-mail the editor. They’ll contact others if they don’t have an opening. They won’t pay you, but you will learn a lot about what not to do in writing. Check Ralan and Duotrope. Query places.

JG: Nowadays there are less slush readers but the editors read more slush.

AQ: How much do you value your publishing company? Some publishers don’t read their books unless they sell 5,000 copies or more.

ET: Editors do less editing now due to volume. The more you can do, the more likely they will hire you.

JAP: More books are published in one month now than the entire year of 1952.

JG: At Tor, there’s only four people who do it all. The more work you do, the better.

ET: But I don’t want to do my own marketing. So the publishing house is valuable for that.

JG: They send stuff out for you. But publicity, not so much although places like Tor and Ace are better about that. They’ll send your stuff to Publisher’s Weekly to get reviewed. But some houses don’t do that.

AQ: Is there a difference between large and small publishing houses? What about electronic and traditional publishing?

JG: It’s the same deal. You need to check with the individual houses.

JAP: But you pitch the same to all those places.

JG: But don’t neglect the small press. It’s a start. And you can build a career from there.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 11 which will include a panel on gender roles.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 9

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

Since I’ve been planning to do a sci-fi story for June’s Camp Nanowrimo, I thought the next panel would be particularly informative. “Psychological Issues in Deep Space” was presented by Joyce Reynolds-Ward and James Glass. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Joyce Reynolds-Ward [left] and James Glass [right])

JG: I had worked in the space industry but mostly on ion engines and the physical end. But what happens on longer space missions? It would take at least a year to get to Mars. You have to consider weightlessness, muscle deterioration, and being in close quarters with other guys.

JR: What are the psychological effects when suddenly you find yourself floating and there’s no one to catch you? What about generational ships? Educating the young? How will the kids’ minds change? And if they’ve lived their whole lives on those ships, what do they take for granted? There’s research that says that maintaining a healthy mind requires access to natural settings. There were studies in which subjects looked at scenes through either a window or a camera. Subjects looking through windows were more relaxed. Would being in space without these natural settings change the human organism or can we replicate these settings indoors?

JG: I can get natural light from a lamp even when it’s gloomy outside. So what’s the lighting in the ship? Lighting can have an effect. On a generational ship, maybe the kids are used to the artificial lighting.

JR: To what degree is this a hardwired need or a psychological need?

JG: Before you’re born on earth, for nine months you live in an environment that has no gravity. And then, when you come out, you’re suddenly in gravity and bombarded by light. So when does the hard-wiring start? Is it learned? If you disrupt a cycle, there are psychological issues. There will be issues if you transplant people to a planet with seven hours in a day from one with twenty-four hours. Even when people go to Alaska from the south, people can’t get used to the change in daylight.

AQ: Does anyone do research on psychology on different geological locations?

JG: People have done studies on psychology at the south pole, especially on sleep deprivation. Apparently at the south pole, people can’t go to sleep.

AQ: There have been experiments done underground on circadian rhythms. People underground adjust to their own cycle and turn on their lights whenever they want.

JG: It would be the same in an undersea colony.

JR: The environment is cut off.

JG: Space is also a zero-g environment. Artificial gravity may also come with problems. Like the Coriolis effect.

JR: What kind of personality is recruited to go to space? In skiing, people practice falling.

JG: It’s the rush.

JR: You might need to recruit that same personality.

JG: Similar to recruiting for submarines.

AQ: Project Mercury called for extreme sports people.

JG: Or test pilots. But in space, there is no ejection seat.

AQ: They say that you need a slightly aberrant personality–unstable, loner, antisocial, wild, not gregarious.

JG: But in a cabin with other sweaty guys?

JR: You need someone with boundaries.

AQ: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Bowman was very calm and unflappable. He was flat, like a dead fish. Clarke and Kubrick thought that this was the sort of personality needed for space.

JG: On the other hand, you have Chuck Yeager. He was quick in extreme senses. But he was also a party animal and hot shot.

JR: Like extreme sports kids. How athletes prepare and analyze sports is like how astronauts prepare for their missions.

JG: You have to know where you’re going to the foot because you don’t want to go off the cliff.

JR: They’re wired for sound.

JG: You need to distinguish the psychological issues between a normal person and an adventurous person. Those guys are unflappable, fearless, well prepared, and love risk.

JR: But there’s also a lot of inaction on a trip to Mars.

JG: You’re sitting for a year without doing anything because the ship is on automatic.

JR: They might need to play World of Warcraft or some kind of deep immersion training for physical and mental preparation.

JG: There’s boredom.

JR: Adventurous people have little tolerance for boredom.

JG: You should stick to the psychology of people who are being recruited to these missions.

AQ: What about cryogenics?

JG: That’s not looking good. We don’t have the chemicals for that like insects. We have to do it artificially. Best is the quick freeze because otherwise the cells would rupture. But the problem is the thawing. Freezing is not done well except in insects and some small animals.

AQ: Could you bring plants and animals with you?

JR: But how can you get the payload up? You could do cloning, but right now it’s only for breeding purposes. And there are some problems. Cloned sheep age more than cloned horses. And there are issues with pigs.

JG: We don’t know the long term effects on the brain from weightlessness, even with exercise. There are no studies on the long term. But there is forgetfulness from being up in space. The brain needs a certain amount of stimulation. And in space, it’s a static environment.

JR: The psychological and the physical are intertwined.

JG: You can eliminate muscle deterioration with exercise. But you can’t prevent bone loss because that needs weight. You can’t with zero-g.

JR: Maybe you can walk around with shackles to replicate gravity.

JG: Or spin the spacecraft to produce gravity.

AQ: Is it possible to make a spinning space station?

JG: Wernher von Braun had such an idea, but it never came to fruition because of economics.

JR: How far have we got on that technology?

JG: Well, the space program is dead, but there is the private sector. There’s no money for a Mars mission.

JR: Neil Armstrong mentioned that we need to be prepared for a congruence of factors in order to get to Mars: economy, people in the right place, inspiration.

JG: But the space program came out of a fear of the USSR and the atom bomb. When the danger was over, the public lost interest. There have been psychological studies on satellites but no studies on going to Mars where no one will come out to get you. So how do you prepare? Out of fear?

JR: What kind of mentality do you need if there are outside threats?

JG: On a ship, one danger is a solar flare. If one comes up, you only have twelve minutes. The hull is thin. If there isn’t anything else, you will die. A meteor the size of a marble can destroy your ship. So what’s the psychological effect of that?

JR: One analogy is that of the explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. How many ships and fleets got lost?

JG: You think and dream about all the things that could go wrong. I dreamed about all the possible mishaps when I was going mountain climbing.

AQ: What about the opposite effect? Kids don’t think about the atom bomb or they’d go bonkers.

JG: Maybe that’s true for children. But I remember during the Bay of Pigs, the adults were certainly thinking about it.

JR: I remember in the late 50s, we were thinking about Nixon and Kissinger.

AQ: What’s the minimum crew needed? Is it for a stable social group?

JR: Yes. They’re doing studies on these things now with climbing groups, the Antarctic station, and the space station.

JG: You need four or five people. Three’s a crowd.

JR: You need an odd number.

JG: For a colony, maybe around three hundred?

JR: It’s a one way stop, so plan for genetic drift.

JG: And inbreeding.

JR: Any genetic conditions could cripple a colony.

JG: But one bad apple can screw everything up.

JR: Consciously culturate each generation. Allow for wild cards. And how will they function off the ship?

JG: Gene Wolfe in The Book of the New Sun, theorizes that on a multigenerational ship, eventually there will be no memory of the home world. In Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, the AI systems on the ship are considered gods because people can adapt so well within two or three generations.

JR: Soon there’s no one in living memory who’s been off the ship.

AQ: Other examples of authors who have written about it are Harlan Ellison, Poul Anderson, and Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children.

JG: The psychology moves towards normal when there’s no one who’s been off the ship.

JR: There’s also physiological change.

JG: The type of fear changes. The fear of a meteor going through a ship may become less, like a meteor coming through the atmosphere.

AQ: Some say that as technology becomes more advanced, society will become more tribal.

JG: Yes. Wolfe does that.

AQ: On a colony ship, jobs may become inherited positions.

JR: That can be dangerous. What if a war breaks out between factions? The more time you spend on the ship, you will change in ways that are more congruent to a generational ship. It’s like now how kids get used to new technology.

AQ: So how long will take to get to Mars?

JG: One year to go to Mars. And two years to get back.

AQ: The Russians have an experiment where people are sealed in for 500 days. Seven men only, ground based.

JG: But you need the real test up in space with all the dangers and no gravity.

AQ: on NPR, I heard it was a one way trip.

JG: Some claim you need to find water and make your own fuel, but they’re not taking this seriously. It takes longer to get back because there are orbital problems. You also need to take into account staying on Mars for some time. Because what are you going to do once you get there? And there’s another batch of problems you’ll encounter on Mars, like UV. So in summary, you need to recruit people who are like astronauts or submarine operators. These people have separate psychological problems from normal people. They should have no fears for risk or falling, but they should also be cautious. They might even have less psychological problems. And are these fatal issues? Probably not.

JR: I would be interested in what the generational issues are for people living in space. I would definitely like to explore this.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 10 which will be about pitching the story.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 7

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

“The Grammar Panel” was attended by M.J. Engh, Brenda Carre, Andrea Howe, and James Glass as moderator. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: M.J. Engh, James Glass, Brenda Carre, Andrea Howe)

AQ: There are specific rules used in novels that are not taught, like dialogue. Are there any copy editing resources for that?

MJE: How you punctuate dialogue depends on what sentence it is in. For example: He said, “I’m hot.” and He smiled. “I’m hot.” Is the dialogue part of the sentence or not? One resource is Woe is I by Patricia O’Conner.

JG: Strunk and White.

BC: The Transitive Vampire.

AH: I recommend the Gregg Reference Manual. There are examples for every rule.

MJE: Chicago Manual of Style.

AH: The books aren’t cheap, but they’re worth it.

AQ: Is the discussion on “who” versus “whom” dead?

MJE: Language is always in the state of flux. “Whom” isn’t quite out yet. And it depends on what audience you’re writing to on whether it’s correct or not. Know the rule and apply it appropriately.

JG: One exception is when the character doesn’t know the grammar rules.

MJE: In dialogue, it’s the character’s viewpoint.

AH: Dialogue usually has not “whom” but “who”.

BC: It’s word choice.

JG: One of the dangers is getting overly obsessed with grammar in fiction. You don’t want a character speaking in high English. You need rhythm. Break it up with sentences of different lengths as long as you don’t overdo it.

MJE: There’s often a misapprehension of grammar. It’s not a set of rules. It’s like language, always changing. When you’re learning a foreign language, you can’t just memorize words. You need to learn the pattern of the words. The “rules” are from studying how people talk.

AH: It’s very fluid because the language is alive. Ancient Greek and Latin are dead. As writers, you need to keep up with the times or you’ll lose the audience.

JG: You should read a lot, of all kinds. Go back and read what you’ve written. Does it sound right, even if you don’t know the grammar rules?

BC: Look at how other writers write. You don’t have to write in that style, but you can try it–even typing it out–to see how it works. It’s like painters learning from the greats by copying them.

JG: You’ll learn the rhythm and the beat.

AH: Examine how they communicate on the page strikes you. Is it in the word choice, punctuation, etc.?

JG: I liked to put commas everywhere which broke things up. It helps to read aloud to see where the natural pauses are.

MJE: Even when it’s not grammatically correct, it’s mostly common sense.

AQ: How do you approach inner dialogue? Do you explicitly state, “He thought”?

AH: It’s “He thought” not “He thought to himself”.

JG: I underline thoughts to indicate italics.

MJE: It can be flexible but be consistent on how you indicate this. If everything in the story is his thoughts, then you don’t need to underline.

JG: But you need to give the reader a clue that it’s his thoughts.

AH: Make sure “He thought” is not italicized since it’s part of the narrative.

BC: George R.R. Martin uses a lot of internalization.

AH: Italics are very common.

MJE: People know what it means.

BC: The problem is when you also have telepathy. You need to be clear and consistent.

AH: Mercedes Lackey used colons to indicate telepathy.

MJE: I’ve seen brackets used, too.

BC: Anne Bishop had a story where there were three personalities in one person. The personalities carried conversations with each other so she needed a way to distinguish the three. She used stars and such.

JG: You can also distinguish different people by the way they speak.

AQ: I’ve seen dialogue in foreign languages in angle brackets.

JG: They also put them in italics.

AH: Or subtitles.

AQ: Do you use the Oxford comma?

MJE: Absolutely yes.

AH: Yes.

JG: If you have two things in a list, you don’t have to worry. But more than that, yes.

MJE: There are definitely two schools of thought. Some publishing houses have rules to leave it off. However, there are situations where the last two items are difficult to distinguish.

AQ: There are the examples, “I like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa, and the Pope” or “I invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

AH: It’s okay to use commas. There’s no shortage of them.

AQ: Commas between two clauses are now disappearing, especially between short clauses.

AH: You decide on how short the clauses should be. But whatever you do, be consistent.

AQ: What if you have dialogue, then something happens, and then more dialogue–do you break it up into different sentences?

JG: You can do separate sentences or use a comma. Whatever reads best.

MJE: You can break a quotation in the middle with a dash. It depends on mood, rhythm, and meaning.

JG: There’s the long dash.

AQ: What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

AH: They all have different uses, so see a grammar book. The hyphen is used to combine things like compound words (twenty-five, eight-and-a-half-years-old). The n-dash is used for ranges (8-25). The m-dash is used as an interruption for dialogue. This is a different thing in poetry.

AQ: What about the situation where you have dialogue, some action done by someone else other than the speaker, and then more dialogue?

AH: You need a new paragraph.

JG: Because it’s a topic shift.

BC: If you have someone explaining a great deal, not only do you need new paragraphs, but you need to use action to break it up.

AH: For instance in Buffy, the character Giles is always moving while explaining. If he wasn’t moving, it would be boring.

MJE: You can also break it up with the reaction of the person who’s listening.

AH: Make it realistic. Use a comma when it’s a verbal action. If the action isn’t realized, it’s a period.

JG: Again, read. See how other writers do it.

AQ: If you can get older copies, you can find grammar exercises with sentence diagramming. If you can’t decide if it’s wrong or right by just listening, try diagramming the sentence. If you can’t diagram it, it’s the problem.

JG: You can also learn a foreign language to know grammar.

AQ: Someone once told me that everything should be in past tense, including the character’s thoughts.

Entire panel: That’s a problem.

AQ: Some people have been taught that it’s the convention.

BC: A lot of things on the internet have bad copy editing. You need someone to vet it.

AH: Not your best friend or mother.

AQ: What degree should the grammar be when sending something to the editor?

JG: If it’s not a good story, then it doesn’t matter what the grammar is. But if you want a story that sells, you need to clean it up well.

MJE: The editor will think, “If the writer doesn’t respect their own work, then why should I?”

JG: Be professional.

AH: It’s the same thing as a job interview. They won’t think you’re taking the job seriously if you come in with cutoffs and flip-flops. Put a business suit on your manuscript.

JG: You might get told by the editors that they get 2,000 submissions, but in reality you’re only competing with 200 because most of the submissions are written in crayons.

AH: There aren’t many copy editors any more, so your submission could go straight to publication.

AQ: The blog Making Light has a post called Slushkiller and another on how to get published.

JG: It’s the same in magazines as big book publishers. There’s a slush stack and the A stack. Keep writing and get better and better and one day you’ll get into the A stack. It took me eight years. It’s a process that takes a long time.

BC: Editors talk to each other. They’re waiting for the right story.

* * *

On Saturday, I also attended a panel for Inuit fairy tales (presented by Parris ja Young) and heard the tale Skeleton Woman. There was also a panel on vampires presented by Virginia Jones and Elizabeth Brock which talked about vampire mythology around the world. Much of the talk was based on the book Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran.

In the evening, there was a costume contest. And then after that, a drag and burlesque show. I was very entertained by the drag queens. The burlesque dancers–not so much.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 8 where J.A. Pitts, Peter Orullian, and George R.R. Martin talk about plotting a book series.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 4

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Sometimes, no matter how many pictures you take, they all come out blurry. Or some random person’s head is in the way. Nonetheless, I have notes from the panel on constructed languages called “Creating Realistic Languages.” The panelists were Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass, and George R. R. Martin. (AQ is an audience question.)

JG: Is it really a requirement to make up a language in fantasy and science fiction?

GRRM: It’s not required. You might need a new language in a fantasy or ancient setting or in a world where it makes sense because the people speak multiple languages. Usually you render the main language as English for the reader. Tolkien set up different languages for us to follow by saying something like, “This rock is called Weathertop, but in Elvish it’s this and Dwarvish it’s that, etc.” But I have a problem coming up with one name let alone five names for every damn rock. Tolkien was just showing off. It’s like an iceberg. Nine-tenths of his work was below the surface. But for the rest of us, we give the illusion that we’ve created a language–it’s more like ice cubes on a rack. I once had a fan who asked me for a dictionary on High Valyrian. But I had only made up six words. In Game of Thrones, we hired a language creation expert to make it up. He was part of an entire language creation society.

DPF: That’s called “passing the buck”! You want consistency of language. Language helps create the world, so it must be developed in conjunction with the world. One easy way is to use a language that already exists. In my work, I’ve used Latvian and Estonian. Do you really need to have a foreign language in your work? No. But do readers expect you to? Yes.

JG: In science fiction, I never made up a language. But I have used French and German. You can also use English inflection–different formalities can be used to simulate another language like Chinese. If you want to create a language, how do you go about it?

DPF: If you have countries side by side, they should have similar languages because of crossover. They should share language commonalities.

GRRM: You have to consider: How do you render the language on the written page? Does the viewpoint character understand the language? If the character already understands French, then you can render it in English. If not, keep it in the original language. This will vary if you have different viewpoint characters with various abilities to understand language. And how does this translate to screen? A lot is about ear. Elvish sounds different than Dwarvish.

JG: You can describe the sound of the language. For instance, with Polish and Russian, you can say one sounds softer than the other and then translate it to English.

DPF: I agree.

JG: What do you think establishes language to match culture?

GRRM: Language not only fits the culture, but it also shapes it. In science fiction, different languages shape culture. See Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delany. If there is no word for one thing, then that thing does not exist in that culture. For example, there are many Eskimo words for snow so they can recognize many different types of snow. If a language has no word for thank you, then that culture has no concept for it.

JG: It’s the same for a jungle culture…

DPF: Language also reveals religion. How people swear and curse reflects culture. What’s blasphemous and taboo in that culture and why? Culturally, you expect that certain classes of people can or cannot say certain things.

GRRM: In Deadwood, David Milch determined that the characters didn’t speak like those in other westerns. Thieves and criminals were foul-mouthed, so he wanted to capture this in speech. But during the Victorian era, the worst that was used was “hell” or “damn”. So if he reproduced this for the modern audience, it didn’t seem unusual. So the writer had to ratchet up the speech to capture the flavor of the time rather than go for accuracy. In other words, he had to convey the feeling of accuracy by being inaccurate.

JG: What about the reverse: what does culture censor? For example, making a comment about someone’s dress is punishable by death.

DPF: In my Crosspointe novels, people live by the customs and by what people are willing to do or not do. There’s lingo, like on a sailing ship or what you do for a living. Here, we have the terms soda, coke, and pop. Dialects tell where you came from and the economic situation. Language also builds the world through syntax and word order. Readers tend to hate arbitrary apostrophes in names.

JG: Readers also hate words that are not pronounceable.

DPF: I once found an angel name in real folklore and used it in a story. But apparently no reader can pronounce it. Instead, they call my character “Tootsie Roll.”

GRRM: I don’t use any long names, but I still get letters from fans about pronunciation. In LeGuin’s Earthsea books, she’s very particular about the pronunciation of “Ged”. It’s “Ged” [hard “g”] not “Jed”.

DPF: Also “Shannara” by Terry Goodkind.

JG: What if the language isn’t spoken or written?

GRRM: In The Long Price series by Daniel Abraham, verbal language is supplemented with gestures and poses. There’s a pose of submissiveness that the character takes while saying “sorry.” But he doesn’t describe any of the poses! What does the pose “I don’t give a shit?” look like? Nonverbal speech looks good in prose, but does it look good on screen?

DPF: That’s like manners during the Victorian era. When you bowed, how did you bow? There were different bows for insults, asking for marriage, etc. It’s called a physical language.

JG: Chinese is a tonal language. In a sci-fi story where tone is used, the language is sung rather than spoken.

DPF: Or the African Click language. Another example of tone is how you say it. For instance the phrase “bless your heart” can be meant as an insult. It’s not so friendly. The speaker can kill with words without you knowing it.

GRRM: In Donnie Brasco, “fuggedaboutit” has many different meanings.

JG: What about other means of communication? Like color. What’s the color of pain? Is there nonverbal language in fantasy?

DPF: There are gestures. For instance, our gesture for “okay” actually means “flicking people off” in Brazil. The word “bloody” doesn’t mean much to us, but it’s a pretty bad word in the UK.

JG: What if you were forced to make up a complete language like Klingon? How would you go about making up the words and grammar?

DPF: When I was getting my Ph.D. in lit theory, I learned that language is arbitrary. You just assign a name to something. You make words up.

GRRM: It’s a daunting task. I would hire someone to do it. I would go back to the roots. Is it fantasy or science fiction? Who are the people? What is the culture? What type of people are they? What are their vocal capabilities? What’s the technological level? However, you can’t just call a rabbit a “snerp” and say it’s science fiction. That’s not a language but a code.

JG: For grammar, I would just follow the grammar in a modern language. But there would be words missing because in some cultures there would be no concept for certain things due to differences in environment.

GRRM: You also need to consider sexual codes and habits. Asimov had three sexes in one of his stories. So what pronouns could be used? Another example is LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Language also tells us about the sexual attitudes of that society. For instance “waiter” and “waitress”–“waitress” and words like it were discarded after the feminist movement.

DPF: It also tells us about how people think about race. Like “black” and “African-American.”

AQ: In speculative fiction, how much thought is put in on the change of language over time? Language changes over thousands of years and different time periods.

DPF: Look at England. Over a time of a thousand years, there is a considerable difference. Some people keep some words the same as the past, but others changed. Words enter the language due to religion, technology, and physical changes.

GRRM: Language changes over time, but some languages change faster than others. If you compare Portuguese in Portugal and Brazilian Portuguese, it’s like Victorian English and modern English. But Spanish is pretty much the same everywhere. Except in Barcelona. But you have to cheat about some things or your book will end up being more about the language than the story. That’s why in science fiction there’s the universal translator.

JG: Groups of languages can also combine into one so that only one language is left. There are different evolutionary paths for language. Even just by adding new words for technology, language gets more complex as time goes on.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 5, which is on the query letter.

Eating Alpha Centaurian Crickets for the Camera

For the past couple of years, I’ve had this idea for a Nanowrimo novel which involved a team of documentary makers being sent out to some wacky place (either some fantasy land or some weird planet) trying to record some foreign customs in reality show style for audience ratings (because that’s what the executives want) but more often than not falling into one hilarious mishap or another.  The original inspiration for the idea was a documentary series that Michael Palin made for the BBC called Himalaya.  Palin, of course, didn’t encounter too many mishaps, but it did make me wonder what was going on behind the camera and before the editing.

Some time earlier this year, I began thinking about food shows, particularly culinary adventure ones like that of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.  Maybe it would be cool to send this fictional band of documentary makers out to some distant planet to try the native foods.  This could be ripe for comedy of the chest-bursting alien variety*.  But by melding food with science fiction, this led to another question: what has already been said about the future of food by other sci-fi writers?

The answer is: not a whole lot.  Sci-fi foods, particularly in old school sci-fi, tend to fall into three camps–pill, gross weirdness, or genetically modified foodstuffs.  These ideas are not original.  Nor do they lack for counterparts in the real world.  Even in pre-industrial times, pills have been created as medicines and nutritional supplements.  One could even argue that the bland freeze dried stuff they used to send up with the astronauts and the highly processed foods found in the middle aisles of the supermarket are also pills of a sort.  They feed the body but not the soul.  There is no pleasure inside a pill**.  The gross weirdness can be summed up, in short, by a Klingon banquet with its squishy and wriggly edibles.  Which really isn’t weird unless you’re completely stuck in a western mindset.  In other parts of the world, fried tarantula on a stick or gooey mopane worms are just some munchies you can pop in your mouth on a lazy Saturday night.  As for genetically modified food, we’ve been doing it ever since we’ve adopted agriculture.  Our modern methods for directly tweaking the genes is just that, another method.  The concept remains the same regardless of whether or not you consider it natural.

At the end of July, I went to a science fiction and fantasy convention called Spocon.  One of the talks I went to was held by James Glass, a science fiction writer who also happened to be a physicist.  The topic of the talk was about the state of science in general, but 99% of it ended up being about physics.  Much of this was due to the audience which was composed of vociferous physics junkies.  I was really dissatisfied because there wasn’t any biology, chemistry, geology, or pretty much any other science***.  But I wonder if this isn’t a symptom of something else–of hard sci-fi writers wanting to present Big Ideas which try to illustrate why we exist in the first place.  Maybe that’s why the subject of food and how it might change in the future is virtually ignored by everyone writing speculative fiction.  In sci-fi, food is tribble fodder, not a Big Idea.

If you think about real life for a moment, you can immediately point out the fact that food is absolutely central to our existence.  We could very well go about our lives without the existence of spaceships or knowing about muons and neutrinos.  While a gigantic asteroid, wandering black hole, or anti-particle parallel universe might someday threaten us as a species, those aren’t the sort of things we worry about from day to day.  Instead, we all worry about stuff like dinner^.  And not getting any dinner (or breakfast or lunch) is a far more immediate danger to us individually.  We may not think much about it, but the way food has evolved throughout human history has had a profound effect on our lives.  Think about the invention of agriculture which have changed our active habits to more sedentary ones as well as given us more free time to develop civilization.  Modern transportation and processed foods have revolutionized the human palate.  Because of what we eat, it has changed how society functions and how we view the health of our bodies.  Who’s to say that a future revolution in food–one that we can’t even imagine–will change us further?

One idea I’ve been pondering about is how not only future food may be tailored to us but how we may already be custom tailored for certain foods.  When I went to the American Society for Microbiology conference in May, I attended a lecture on wine by Sakkie Pretorius.  Most of the lecture was about identifying strains of yeast and possibly genetically modifying the organism so that they would metabolize the grapes in such a way to give wines certain flavors and aromas^^.  At the end of his talk, the speaker made some very interesting remarks.  He noted that it’s already known that some people can detect certain flavors while others cannot.  And while some people might like these flavors, other people might prefer others.  Maybe there’s a genetic component to this, he speculated, and perhaps in the future when large scale human genome sequencing is extremely cheap, wine companies could capitalize on this–by targeting certain wines to particular markets.

Nowadays in industrialized societies, thinking about food is confined to how it will affect our health.  Some could say that it’s become an obsession^^^. Current dialog is about organic food or corporations who say they’re going to feed the world but care more about profit.  No matter where you fall in the debate, I think it’s good to have this discussion–because with the combination of personal medicine and the commercial possibilities inherent in such future technology, who knows what our views on food will morph to.  It’s just that sci-fi writers are completely ignoring this revolution.  Just as they’ve completely missed the boat on the Internet even a few decades ago.

So back to the possible Nanowrimo project that I’m currently contemplating.  If it’s going to be about food in the future, I’m definitely going to attempt to weave all of these ideas into the narrative.  Although I admit that the first approach I’m going for will be more akin to space opera with ray guns# rather than some philosophical magnum opus with lots of jargon like “metabolically compatible” or “gustatory stimulation”.

*May the Schwartz be with you.
**Gustatory pleasure, that is, little blue pill notwithstanding.
***I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised after all.  The speaker was a physicist.
^Unless, as they say, we pass through some Singularity and humanity evolves into energy beings with metabolisms akin to a perpetual motion machine. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about this happening in our lifetimes, though.
^^Or you could do this to the grape instead.  But it’s easier with yeast because along with E. coli and the fruit fly, it’s one of the workhorse organisms in biology.  Compared to the grape, the yeast genome is well studied and the organism can be manipulated genetically far more easily (and faster due to generation time).
^^^Check out one of Michael Pollan’s latest oeuvre.
#The ray guns probably won’t be used on any villains.  Instead, they might be used on cheese.  Wiggling cheese.