FF: Laughter and Art

August 18, 2017

During a week where the news has been very stressful, I’ve turned to comedy for relief and balance.

Wow! Horned Toads Aren’t Toads!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Goose Girl by Shannon HaleAudiobook.  Bonus on the audio is a very short interview with Ms. Hale talking about some of her considerations when writing this novel.

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers of the Southwest by April Kopp.  New Mexico has six of the seven “life zones.”  The only one we don’t have is “tropical.”  Lovely photos a bonus, although I wish the rule I was taught back in high school that you don’t “gutter” a photo in layout was still adhered to!

In Progress:

How Much For Just the Planet? by John M. Ford.  A completely insane Star Trek novel about a planet that doesn’t want to join either the Federation or the Klingon Empire.  I’ve laughed out loud so many times that Jim has put dibs on this for when I’m done.

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale.  Audiobook.  Just started.  I’ve read the first of the stories included in a charming illustrated children’s book.  I’m curious how the words will hold up without the pictures.

Battlepug, volume 2 by Mike Norton, Allen Passalaqua, and Chris Crank.  Graphic novel.  I saw this one the library shelf and immediately thought of my friend Dominique’s pug Merlin. The story’s so quirky I’ve ordered the other volumes.

Also:

As I gear up to the next stage in self-publishing my very odd original novel Asphodel, I’m spending a lot of time reviewing works on illustration, looking for just the right cover art approach.  I never thought I’d find myself working as an art director, but there it is.

TT: The Rag Week Rag

August 17, 2017

JANE: As some of our readers may remember, you made several resolutions when you retired.  One of these was to get a dog.

ALAN: His name is Jake. He’s a Huntaway (a New Zealand breed) and he’s a very gentle giant.

Ain’t They Sweet?

JANE: Another goal was to finally pursue your long-held goal of writing a novel.  You haven’t finished the novel, but you did join a writer’s group and have been honing your skills with regular writing exercises.

I really enjoyed your most recent one, which turned into a short story called “Rag Week.”

What was the assignment?

ALAN: We were set a homework task to write a story about supporting or donating to a cause or charity. I remembered a jazz band that some university friends of mine were in. They originally formed specifically to collect money for charity. I decided to write a story around that. So, in the immortal words of Hollywood, it was “based on a true story”. I’m sure that phrase will be very useful when I finally sell the film rights…

JANE: Very!  Your topic a great twist on what could be a very dull, even overly pious topic.

For the amusement of our readers, I’d like to quote the first few paragraphs.  I’d really like to include the whole story but if I did there wouldn’t be any space left to talk to each other.

ALAN: If anyone wants to read the whole thing, they can find it at:

JANE: But don’t click on Alan’s link until you’ve read this part!  Otherwise, you’re going to get a spoiler and ruin the rest of this Tangent.  I couldn’t bear that.  Okay…  Here are the opening paragraphs of Alan’s short story “Rag Week.”

“Have you ever noticed that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea?

“We were sitting in the pub trying to decide what we could do for rag week. Rag week, of course, is just an excuse for university students to dress up and do silly things in order to persuade people to donate money to charity. What could be more fun than that?

“The third pint of Guinness inspired me to say, ‘Why don’t we pretend to be a Dixieland jazz band? I’ve got a double bass, Nick plays clarinet, and Paul almost plays the trumpet. I’m sure we can get a few other people as well.’”

First of all, I want to praise you for a great narrative hook.

ALAN: (blushing) Thank you.

JANE: However, as much as the English prof who always lingers in the back of my brain wants to discuss the many excellent things you did with this opening – the line “Paul almost plays the trumpet” is priceless and worthy of P.G. Wodehouse – what I’d really like to talk about is something you mention in your introduction to the story.

If I may quote again…  No, that’s silly.  Why don’t you explain it in your own words how you came to write this story in first person.

ALAN: OK, I will. All the events in the story did actually take place, more or less. But even though the piece is narrated in the first person, they didn’t happen to me. The double bass player for The Campus City Jazzmen was a friend of mine, and therefore I felt comfortable in his skin, which is why I chose him as the narrator. But I wasn’t directly involved in the band myself, so I had to use my imagination and make up a few things in order to make the story flow properly. Originally I wrote the piece in the third person, but I felt that it lacked immediacy. There was a distancing effect that I didn’t like. So I re-wrote it in the first person, and lo and behold, it came back to life!

JANE: Cool!  Why do you think the story came to life after you shifted to first person?

ALAN: Originally the third person narrator was a spectator who was watching the band playing its marathon gig in Slab Square. But that didn’t work because it forced me to start the story too late – the band was already playing when the spectator came across them so there wasn’t any way for me to talk about its formation other than through a flashback, or by having a conversation between the spectator and a band member, and both of those made the story sound as though it was being narrated by a Greek chorus that was telling the audience what had happened off stage. Also it was hard for me to find a convincing reason for having the narrator stay there for the whole of the gig. But of course he had to stay there so that I could finish the story properly. It all got too difficult.

So I tried again. I went back in time and started with the formation of the band. I told the story in a third person omniscient voice, but I couldn’t make that work either. The story was far too short for an omniscient narrator to make much of an impact on the reader. The events of the story started to feel too distant, as if I was looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. The omniscient, god-like narrator simply wasn’t involved in what was going on. The story fell flat.

JANE: Fascinating…  So we’re up to two attempts already.  This is becoming a story in itself.  Go on!

ALAN: I decided that the narrator really should be someone who was actually in the band so that there was a consistent (and much closer) point of view all the way through. I was still hung up on a third-person narrator (because, after all, I hadn’t been a member of the band).

The double bass player was the only band member I had known well, so I made him the third-person viewpoint character. That was a lot better, but it still wasn’t right. I found myself sometimes resorting to reported speech and the passive voice, and those two devices continued to give the story a feeling of distance.

Finally I bit the bullet and re-wrote it in the first person. This gave me an immediacy that I really liked. The passive voice disappeared and, because the narrator was properly inside the story looking out, there was a feeling of intimacy to it that simply hadn’t been there before.

At last I was happy with it.

JANE: Terrific!  Four major attempts and certainly lots of writing and re-writing with each draft.  I agree that you made the right choice.

I’ve just looked at the clock, and I need to run.   Next time, I have another question for you…  I just hope it doesn’t offend you.

Tiny But Amazing (Toad)

August 16, 2017

Life lately has definitely been a celebration of the microcosm.  The little guy in the picture is a New Mexico Spade Foot Toad.  He’s taken up residence in the alyssum bordering our patio; his entire realm measures about four inches wide by eight feet long.

Tiny Toad

Some of the bricks in the wall against which the alyssum grows are beginning to crumble.  One has a hollow in it.  When he’s startled (as when we start to water the alyssum), the tiny toad jumps up and takes residence in the hollow.  When he does this, he looks rather like an amphibian variant on a Mesa Verde or Puye cliff dweller.

In addition to tiny toad, we have numerous first-year lizards (both blue tails and fence) racing around the yard.  They don’t hold still long enough for pictures.  Speed versus stillness as defense mechanisms.

The baby birds are now mostly fledged out and are learning how to be birds.  It’s a good thing that the monsoon rains have started, because we have plenty of grass seed and bugs for them.

Tiny Toad in Cliff Dwelling

After an unusually hot early summer, we’ve settled into high nineties, with the high temperatures remaining at their peak for a much shorter duration.  That’s a relief both for me and for the garden.  This year I discovered that when the temperatures go about about 106, thinking becomes a real challenge.

And I have been thinking, researching, and even writing.  I made significant progress on a few reprint projects over the last few weeks, including reaching a new stage in the production of Asphodel, the novel that is in line to be my first self-published original novel.

After a couple of very stressful weeks – including the phone company accidentally disconnecting our phone and internet for four days (which, when you run your own business out of your home, is not trivial) – I’m hoping to settle in and get more writing done.

In fact, much as I enjoy chatting with all of you, that’s what I’m going to do now.

Later!

FF: Reading on the Road

August 11, 2017

Last weekend, we went to Texas to visit Jim’s family.  The only thing I like about air travel these days is that I have a lot of time to read!

So That’s What the Cats Are Up To!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Monstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana TakedaVolume Two of the graphic novel.  Lovely art with some of the best depictions of animal-human hybrids I’ve ever seen.  Story is pretty good, although somewhat predictable.  The most interesting character thus far is Kippa, although I like the protagonist Maika well enough to care about her search.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire.  This novella has been getting lots of attention on award ballots this year.  I found it a good read with some lovely prose.  Best of all, there was a reason that so many of the characters were a bit outside of the mainstream.  I’d love to have the backstory on some of the ostensibly “normal” types who went to the “rainbows and unicorns” worlds.

Cat-a-lyst by Alan Dean Foster.  On the light side, but given some heft and a liberal sprinkle of irony by the fact that the reader knows a lot the characters do not.  Excellent descriptions of the Peruvian jungle add to the pleasure.

In Progress:

The Goose Girl by Shannon HaleAudiobook.  I always thought this was a dark tale, and Ms. Hale’s version isn’t making it any prettier!

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers of the Southwest by April Kopp.  New Mexico has six of the seven “life zones.”  The only one we don’t have is “tropical.”  This means that the range of critters featured in this book is pretty amazing.

Also:

Lots of magazine articles.  I always enjoy the Southwest Airlines magazine because it’s a window into a completely alien world.

TT: Brain Snake Therapy

August 10, 2017

ALAN: OK! Time to see if we can tame last week’s brain snakes. Tell me more about your thoughts.

Feet Up, Eyes Closed

JANE (putting her feet up on the couch and closing her eyes):  Thanks, Alan.  I really appreciate your willingness to talk to me.  These things keep me up at night.

Puns or word plays are one area where, when I’m writing a story that involves created languages (conlangs, for those of you who are coming late to this discussion), I find myself getting snarled up in the coils of brains snakes.

I know that word play provides a real challenge for “real life” translators as well.  This is because not only is there a play on words, the play on words isn’t just a matter of sound but a matter of cultural context.  Without both, you don’t have a good joke.

ALAN: That’s the difference between idiom and literalism, of course. I have an example from real life, but I’m sure that exactly the same difficulty arises in made up languages.

In both American and British English, someone who falls for a prank on 1st of April is an April Fool. But in France, that person is a Poisson D’Avril – literally an April Fish. But anyone translating that phrase into English would, I hope, always choose the idiomatic version. A literal translation would simply puzzle anyone who came across it…

JANE: I agree.  In the case of April Fish versus April Fool, a literal translation would make no sense at all.

When I’m writing, if I can’t resist a clever bit of phrasing, I’ll let myself provide the word play and hope my readers understand that I’m more or less “translating.”  However, many more times, I’ll just re-write and, sorrowfully, eliminate the word play.

Another area where working in a conlang becomes difficult is when a translation is very culturally specific.  These happen even between types of English.  For example, the breed of dog I’d call a German Shepherd, you’d call an Alsatian.

ALAN: That’s another good example of “two nations separated by a common language”, as the saying goes. You and I originally started these Tangents so that we could talk about the kinds of linguistic and cultural differences that separated us. It has taken us a long time to explore that topic and we definitely haven’t finished with it yet. We still keep finding things that astonish us both.

JANE: Absolutely!  If people knew the number of times I need to ask you what an idiomatic expression means…  But I tangent off.  Back to my German Shepherd (your Alsatian).

What would a translation device do in this case?  Certainly the babel fish wouldn’t have an issue, but what about a mechanical translation device or a spell that provides not a telepathic “save” but an actual sound?

What sound would the Universal Translator pick?  Would it assess the number of American English speakers versus the number of British English speakers and choose based on that?  Would each person hear a slightly different translation in his or her earbud?

ALAN: If I had to choose, I’d choose the latter. At least that way I’d hear something I had a good chance of understanding. The first choice has the potential to flummox me with unfamiliar “English” constructions.

JANE: But if there isn’t an earbud, then that’s not going to work.  What if the translation is coming over a conference call or because the Big Evil Alien is making demands over the ship-to-ship communicator?

Ah, but English to English or even Earth Language to Earth Language is a relatively easy problem.  What do you do when a translation would involve creatures, concepts, or actions that don’t have a “match” in one of the cultures involved?

Let’s say we’re on an alien planet.  I’m talking through a mechanical translator to Noram the Alien.  I say, “I’m looking for my dog.  He’s a German Shepherd.”  Well, Noram has never seen a dog, a German, or a shepherd.

ALAN: But does Noram have the concept of “animal companion”? If “he” does, then perhaps analogies can be drawn that would get the idea across, albeit perhaps somewhat crudely. Only if no analogies exist would we probably see the communication completely break down.

JANE: Even if Noram has the concept of an animal companion, the opportunities for communication chaos are vast.  Even “looking for” could be problematic, since it involves vision.  What if Noram doesn’t have eyes but “sees” via tentacles that perceive radiation wave lengths?  What if Noram is from an asexual race and the concept of “he” or “she” isn’t in its/hier concept range?

Noram might hear: “I am seeking my BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.”

Or the translator might attempt description: “I am [visually] seeking my quadrupedal semi-intelligent omnivorous but primarily carnivorous companion creature.  It provides one half of the necessary sexual equation to reproduce its species.  Its species is associated with one small geographic region of the planet of origin [see map] and was originally bred to guard and guide other creatures.”

There’s just SO much to language, to communication, to conlanging that there are times I’m not surprised that many writers never stray from our world, our culture, and, well, just write vampire romance novels.

ALAN: Or they could take the path of least resistance and make the aliens just like us both linguistically and culturally, except of course that the aliens have green skin or lumpy foreheads.

JANE: (hums the classic Star Trek theme).

ALAN: (patiently continuing):  However, assuming that there is some common ground, some degree of communication is always possible.

My dog Jake communicates primarily by smell, but despite that he and I can still exchange ideas, some of them quite complex. He definitely hears “BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.” when I speak, and I hear variations on “WOOF” when he speaks. But nevertheless we understand each other. He can tell me when he needs to go outside and when he needs to come back in. He can tell me when he really, really wants a treat.  He will happily play tug-o-war with a rope if I suggest it.

But I agree that he will never understand that I don’t want to walk in that particular direction because it’s damp and my boots leak. He understands neither boots (except as things that are nice to chew) nor leaks.

JANE: I absolutely, positively agree with you that it’s possible to communicate with aliens.  I do so daily with my cats, guinea pigs, and husband (actually, I’m sure he feels the same about communicating with me).

The difficulty is how does a writer get these complex communications issues across while keeping the story moving?  How does the writer preserve the plot and not get bogged down in what is essentially a detail of setting?

ALAN:  BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  WOOF. WOOF.

JANE: MEOW!

ALAN: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Organization: The Philosophical

August 9, 2017

For those of you who only wander by periodically, I should mention that today’s Wander is Part Two.  Last week, “Organization: The Practical” is Part One.  You can read it here.

“Breaking the Wall” Stuff

This paradoxically rambling discussion started when a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question: “How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?”

She went on to talk about how she had “so many computer files, in addition to notebooks, all full of background information and research and actual bits of writing I want to use.  The files themselves are fairly well-organized, but they are unwieldy, and honestly I don’t always remember which folder I filed some specific piece of information in and I spend a couple valuable minutes clicking or flipping between documents or notebooks in an attempt to remind myself of a certain characteristic, or plot point, or relevant fact.” 

Last week I talked about notebooks, computer programs, and other physical things you can use to organize your materials.  Today I’m going to talk about the philosophical foundations that underlie how you decide what to organize.  This discussion is going to touch on both research and world-building, since for me the issues are inextricably intertwined.

So here’s the key question.  How much research do you need?  How much of your world needs to be in place before you start telling your story?

Start by reminding yourself why you started writing this story in the first place.  Write down  that thought that hit you one day and made you all excited about writing the book.  This is not a plot summary.  It’s “I wonder how the events in Lord of the Rings would look if you were one of the dwarves?”  (Dennis McKiernan’s ”Iron Tower” books.)   It’s “What happens after a child raised by wolves enters human society?”  It’s “What if mah-jong wasn’t just a game, but building a universe?”

Write this down in a very few sentences, then use it as a talisman to guide how much research and world-building you need.

My experience is that most novices err on the side of too much of both.  They painstakingly draw maps of entire continents or entire worlds when their story isn’t going to go beyond a single area of one small city.  Unless the story is about world politics, a handful of place names and the like will carry the story forward.  Even if the story is about world politics and culture clashes, you don’t need perfect maps.  Through Wolf’s Eyes is a good example of this.  There’s a lot of political intrigue in that novel, but the only map I had was scribbled on the back of an envelope.

I know several people who still have not completed their Great Novel because they keep getting caught up in research.  I’m not immune to the temptation to immerse myself in research.  When I was researching the “Breaking the Wall” books, I read seven books related to mah-jong.  I reach about Chinese writing styles, culture, clothing through the ages, and breeds of dogs.   In addition to my “big binder,” I ended up getting a multi-pocket file folder to stow various bits of additional information related to Chinese myth, legend, magic, symbolism, and the like.

For me, research is usually driven by two impulses.  One is the fear I’ll miss some essential element.  When I realize I’m simply trying to cover all aspects of a topic for no other reason than they are there to be learned about, then I force myself to stop.

The second impulse toward research is more subtly seductive.  It’s that wonderful feeling that hits when you discover something really, really cool.  This leads to the desire to keep researching not so much for information as in hope of getting that “oh, cool!” buzz again.  Beware!

If, like my friend, you’ve been researching your novel for years – a process which, for her, is complicated by the fact that she’s setting her tale in a real city and building the story around actual events (think of the works of Tim Powers) – the question “How much information do I need in order to tell my story?” can be a useful organizational guideline.

After you ask yourself that question, set up a new computer file (or files) or a fresh new ring-binder or both.  Then start transferring to these only the material you need for the story in process.  Not the series.  This one novel.  Focus on characters, crucial settings, and crucial world-building elements.

A reverse outline (if you already have a text) can be of great help with this process.  As you reverse outline each chapter, put the information about the characters, settings, etcetera into the appropriate file.  This will keep you from including material you don’t need.  An added bonus is that by the time you’re done, you’ll have a plot outline.  Given that the three key elements of a novel are plot, characters, and setting, you’ll have all three in a neatly organized fashion.  Tah-dah!

Don’t have a manuscript to outline?  Start writing!  As you discover points that you need to research, make a note of elements.  If the element is something that will stop you from moving the plot forward, then you have a research guideline.  Find that data, move it to your new file, and get back to writing.

If the element you’re missing is something minor (I once had a friend admit she blew an entire day she could have been writing researching the style of hat a character would be wearing), skip it and write!  If you love research, then use researching that hat or weapon style or the name of that grocery store chain as your reward.

Please note, a preliminary outline will not serve you as well as a reverse outline in organizing your research materials.  It’s too easy to start thinking everything and anything is going to be of use.  I strongly suggest you start writing and discover as you write what you actually need.

The rest of your accumulated research and world-building material doesn’t need to be thrown away.  Remember, too much is as useless as too little.  Information hoarding is like physical hoarding.  If you get to the point that you can’t find something, then you might as well not have it, right?

As I hope you agree, the question of organization has nothing to do with whether you use a computer program, a ring-binder, a bunch of file cards, or a Ouija board.  It has to do with organizing your thoughts, then finding the tools that will help you achieve a finished novel.

Now, I’m off to write…  Later I’m going to be doing a lot of both research and organizing of world-building materials, but I’ll have the story to guide me along the way.

FF: Intense Week

August 4, 2017

It’s been insane this week.  This weekend I’m definitely making time to read.

Our Monstress With Monstress

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Several short books on desert environments, insects, and plants.  Next year I want to try growing tepary beans in our hot, dry yard.  They sound like a perfect fit.

In Progress:

Monstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana TakedaVolume Two of the graphic novel.  I had to go back and re-read the end of Volume One to remember the context.  Lovely art and, so far, a compelling story.  I’m going slowly with it because it’s too bloody for before bed!

The Goose Girl by Shannon HaleAudiobook.  I always thought this was a dark tale, and Ms. Hale’s version isn’t making it any prettier!

Also:

Jim and I watched a couple of documentaries.  One was the final volume of the Beatle’s Anthology series (disks seven and eight), which deal with the band’s final years and dissolution.  The other is the two disk Martin Scorsese the Living in the Material World biography of George Harrison.

TT: Twisting Together Language and Story

August 3, 2017

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your brain snakes – or at least the ones connected with language and culture. Speaking as a confirmed ophidiophobe, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by their bright colours and friendly natures, though I did find them to be most unpleasantly wriggly and hard to pin down. Fortunately, they were not at all venomous.

Doing the Conlang Conga

But you dropped a big hint that other brain snakes were lying in wait. Would you care to describe them to me so that I can avoid any ambushes that they might be planning to set?

JANE: You’re an ophidiophobe?  Interesting.  This actually ties into our discussion of language.  I’m more familiar with that particular phobia under the term “ophiophobia.”  Another interesting linguistic twist!

ALAN: Wikipedia informs me that both words are used to describe the condition, but it has nothing to say about why both words exist. Curious…

JANE: Yep…  And such curiosities are at the heart of languages and why conlanging is a lot more difficult than is often imagined.  Here’s another difficulty.   As I mentioned a few weeks ago, lately many of the more popular conlangs have been designed for visual media.  Klingon is a good example.

ALAN: And don’t forget Vulcan, also from the Star Trek universe, Dothraki as used in Game of Thrones, Na’vi in Avatar, and Parseltongue, the language of snakes, in Harry Potter. Do you speak to your brain snakes in Parseltongue?

JANE: No, but maybe I should try.

One great advantage visual media has over print media is that the conlang can be presented via subtitles.  So Klingons can speak actual Klingon, not English with a funny accent.

Writers of print media can’t use that gimmick.  They can use footnotes but even Terry Pratchett – who is my favorite user of footnotes – knows that readers will only tolerate a certain amount of this before they get frustrated.

ALAN: Perhaps I’m an untypical reader, but I love footnotes.  I always consider a Jack Vance novel to be incomplete if it doesn’t have footnotes in it. And as a bonus, Vance’s footnotes are sardonic, pointed and often even funnier than Pterry’s. And let’s not forget Susanna Clarke whose Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell has entire short stories buried in the footnotes. You can’t get more footnotey than that!

JANE: Abuse of footnotes may be a reason why I could never get into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell… but that would be too much of a tangent for here.

When an author of print media is at work, even magical or high tech translating devices only go so far.

ALAN: You mean like Douglas Adams’ babel fish? I thought that one solved the problem beautifully!

JANE: It’s been a long time since I read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books, but that is basically what I mean.  Can you remind me how babel fish work?

ALAN: I can do no better than quote Douglas Adams’ own words:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

I think that describes it perfectly.

JANE: That is indeed a clear and concise description. However, as a translation device, it’s rather facile.  “Understanding anything said to you” only goes so far.  What happens if someone doesn’t have a frame of reference for something – for example, a Neanderthal hearing someone refer to an automobile?  What happens then?

How did Douglas Adams deal with this?  Did Arthur Dent receive full descriptions or did he just hear a nonsense word?

ALAN: I’m not sure that Adams ever thought of that aspect. Facile it may be, but his babel fish just worked.

JANE: So, Arthur Dent never encounters a concept he doesn’t immediately understand?

Curious.  It’s been a long while since I read those books. If Arthur Dent does understand everything he hears, then this isn’t translation.  It’s telepathy combined with an immediate and copious information dump.

ALAN: That’s a good way of thinking of it. It’s a long time since I read the books as well, and without a massive re-read I’m hard put to address the question directly. My google-fu hasn’t worked any too well either. But it seems that Adams had different literary uses for his translation device – he gives us a delightfully casuistical argument which demonstrates that the existence of the babel fish proves the non-existence of God.

However Adams does remark that the perfect communication between species and races provided by the babel fish has been the cause of more and bloodier wars than anything else in creation. That side effect, it seems to me, is at least a partial answer to your question.

JANE: It absolutely is…  So often war is blamed on misunderstanding, but without the white lies of diplomacy where would we be?

Nonetheless – again, maybe it’s me being plagued by brain snakes – I worry about communications issues that I’m not sure a translation device could handle.

ALAN: Why don’t you tell me about it next time…  I may not be able to tame the snakes for you, but maybe talking about it will make you feel better.

Organization: The Practical

August 2, 2017

Last week a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question:

Wolf Section

“How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?

“I think this is a practical question as well as a philosophical one, maybe, and I’m interested in the answer to both implied questions.  How do you keep track of things?  Books like the Wolf series must generate a huge amount of background material and etc. that you need to access to keep consistency over time, at the very least, so I’m wondering: what works for you?”

There’s quite a lot here, so I’m going to start with a basic, practical reply, then move to the philosophical

First, let me clear away an element that I suspect many of you are waiting for me to mention.  There are novel writing computer programs out there – the one I’ve heard mentioned the most often is called Scrivener – that apparently contain all sorts of tools that promise to make organizing a novel and associated materials simple and easy.

I’ve never used any of those programs, so I can’t say from experience whether they would help me or not.  I’ll save whether or not I’d be tempted to use such a program personally for the “philosophical” side of this discussion.  However, I encourage those of you with direct knowledge of programs such as Scrivener to talk about them in the Comments.  As I see it, the more information the better!

Now, turning to my personal experience…Back in the days when I was starting “the Wolf series” (aka the “Firekeeper Saga”), programs like Scrivener did not exist.  In fact, word processing programs contained far fewer bells and whistles than they do today.  Spellcheck was the one everyone was excited about, but even that was slow and the internal dictionaries were small and easily confused.

Searching the document was possible but, especially if the document was large, such searches were slow and cumbersome.  Many novelists I knew broke their documents into multiple files, some chapter by chapter, to make searches useful.  I tended to go with roughly hundred-page blocks, shaped around complete chapters.

These days, breaking up the manuscript isn’t necessary.  However, having a novel’s text all in one file doesn’t remove the need for some sort of organization for related materials – the outlines, notes, character descriptions etcetera that my friend mentioned above.

When I started writing novels, I scribbled down my notes in whatever sort of blank book I had available.  However, I rapidly realized that a notebook with any sort of binding restricted me because it was impossible to shift materials around.  Also, there was no place to put visual materials, such as photographs and maps.

Therefore, when I signed the contract for the Firekeeper novels and knew I would be writing a series (as opposed to Changer, which started as a stand-alone and only later acquired a sequel), I decided that I would need a tool to help me keep my materials in order.  Jim and I went to an arts and crafts store, and there I purchased a very large, very heavy scrapbooking binder.

The one I selected met my two main requirements.  First, the ring binding meant that I could shift materials around as needed.  Second, the oversized cover meant that I could include visual materials that were larger than the size of a standard sheet of paper.  A bonus was that the notebook itself was very solidly made, complete with metal thingies on the cover to keep it from coming apart.

I then bought dividers and set them up for different sections.  Sometimes those sections (such as Characters) duplicated a computer file.  That didn’t matter, nor did it matter that these print materials could become outdated.  Sometimes I skim more efficiently when I am not looking at a computer screen.   Using the ring binder also meant that I could include my scribbled notes.  While these were often superseded when I started writing, those scribbled bits often reminded me of trains of thought that I might want to return to someday.

Areas such as “Wolves” included not only research notes on wolves, but also photos taken from a wide variety of sources: calendars, cards, flyers, and such could all be accommodated.  I glued smaller pictures onto a sheet of paper to minimize the number of tiny scraps floating around.

“Timeline” included not only my reverse outlines – see here if you want to know what I mean by “reverse outline” – but lists with things like names for months in various regions, and a timeline with various significant dates in the history preceding the events chronicled by the novels.

“Reviews” has nothing to do with reviews of the books, but my reviews of various research materials I had read, whether I owned them or had borrowed them and, if so, from where, in case I wanted them again.  This saved me more than once from re-reading a book I already had read or hunting for a book I had borrowed.

“History” included printouts of documents I had written as background for the series, including a treatise on inheritance law (crucial to Through Wolf’s Eyes) and related materials.  I also included proposals for novels in the series, so I could refer to them as I wrote and reassure myself I hadn’t lost my sense of purpose.

“Maps” included maps, both visual and verbal.  “Words” included interesting words or turns of phrase, especially idiomatic expressions or the like that caught my fancy and might be used to stimulate a frazzled brain.  “Places” ended up subsumed into “Maps.”  If and when I write another Firekeeper novel, I’ll probably get rid of this section and use it for something else.

“Miscellaneous” proved to be a valuable section, containing everything from a “relationship chart” my genealogist aunt sent me, to details about odd types of currency (including bricks of tea) or the typical staff to be found in a wealthy person’s household.

Why bother with all of this, especially in hard copy, when computer files are easier to update and can be electronically searched?  I’ll leave that for the “Philosophical” section next week.

FF: Color, Plants, and Monsters

July 28, 2017

Still doing a lot of research as well.

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

Kwahe’e of the Wolves

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh.  Audiobook.  Re-listen.  One of the few novels she managed to set in New Zealand, her homeland.

Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart.  Very informative and interesting.  However, I find the conceit that poisonous plants are “evil,” as if they act with intellectually calculated malice, a bit wearing.

In Progress:

Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language by Esther Schor.  A bit of a slow read, and the author can be catty about the strangest things.

Monstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana TakedaVolume Two of the graphic novel.  I had to go back and re-read the end of Volume One to remember the context.  Lovely art and, so far, a compelling story.

Also:

Still re-reading Through Wolf’s Eyes by Jane Lindskold.  Almost done.