Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

So It Goes

December 6, 2017

Earlier this year, I noted that there might be times when the Wednesday Wanderings would be shorter than usual.

Writing Pens Dry

To my surprise, despite having met a lot of my aspirations – including producing new editions of my out-of-print novels Smoke and Mirrors and When the Gods Are Silent as ebooks; writing 150,000 words on a rough draft of a new novel/novels; starting a new Firekeeper novel, and writing some new short fiction – I’ve usually managed to write a fairly long Wednesday Wanderings piece.

However, I have a lot going on right now.  I’m working on the final production stages of my forthcoming novel Asphodel; doing cover art and proofing for the new e-book editions of the original Firekeeper novels (which will include short original essays on some of the aspects of my writing the series); and, of course, writing new material on c.

So this is going to be one of those weeks where the Wednesday Wanderings are brief because, while my life is intense, events of late don’t make for great anecdotes.

I encourage you to send me questions about what you’d enjoy hearing about over the next few weeks.  I always enjoy answering questions.

Now, off to find the purple spiral notebook in which I’ve been writing the new Firekeeper novel (working title: Wolf’s Search) and start scribbling!

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Real and Imaginary Friends

November 29, 2017

This past week was crazy-busy, what with fitting in getting ready for Thanksgiving between writing (both fiction and non-fiction), and proofing.  I planned to give myself a full four-day weekend, but then a funny thing happened.

Constructing a Wizard’s Museum

Thursday I woke up in the night.  As I was drifting off again, I heard Blind Seer (a character from the “Firekeeper Saga”) talking in my head.  The only way I could keep him from repeating the same phrases over and over again was to promise him (or myself) that I would make time to write on Friday.

So I did.  This meant giving up doing yard work (which I like) on an absolutely lovely day, but… Well, as those of you who know the series are aware, Blind Seer is a very large wolf and can be very persistent if he chooses.

One of the tougher things I find about being a full-time, self-employed writer is balancing work time and play time.  Achieving this balance is more important than it may seem because, if I don’t take play time, my subconscious tends to fizzle up on me.  Making finding a balance a bit harder, at least some of this play time needs to be creative.  Watching television or even reading doesn’t always provide the necessary oomph.

The answer would seem obvious, right?  Schedule in play time.  Well, as with most obvious solutions, it’s not that easy.

As I explained to the prosecuting counsel when I was called for jury duty a few months back, if I don’t work, nothing gets done: business or writing.  I don’t have an assistant.  (Although my friend Julie Bartel, forever blessings on her head, helps me with my Facebook page.)  You’d be amazed at how many full-time, high profile writers have one or more assistants who handle not only routine business, but also more writerly jobs like proofing or reviewing copy edits.

Others have a non-employed spouse who handles the routine house running chores.  I don’t have that either.  Jim is an excellent partner who does his share, but he’s not at my disposal.

By the end of a typical day, even when I’ve anticipated having some time to listen to an audiobook and do some sort of craft project, I’m often too beat.  And when this happens too often, burnout starts wavering on the horizon.

Making matters worse, if I don’t make time to write as well as doing proofing and such, I become a person that I don’t like living with…  So clearing my desk of routine matters first to give myself “time to write” is also a strategy that doesn’t work.

So this weekend, I made sure to replenish my creative batteries by not writing (except on Friday).  I did manage a little craft time.  In addition to having folks over for Thanksgiving, we made time to see friends other days.

On Friday, our friend Michael Wester came over.  In addition to introducing him to the joy of throwing atlatl darts, we viewed some of Jim’s slides from a long-ago archeological project. Then we played a round of a very amusing tabletop game called The Wizard’s Museum.  I lost, but I had fun.

On Saturday, we went to Page One Books to help with their Indies First promotion.  In addition to doing my gig as a Guest Bookseller, I had a chance to visit with several of the local SF/F fans: Dawn, Mike, Erika, and Daisy.  I also enjoyed chatting with some of the other writers who shared my shift.

Sunday we hosted our usual role-playing game.  I’ve had people ask me if running a really complicated RPG drains my creative juices.  Actually, I’ve discovered that it does the opposite.  I find it invigorating to adapt my story around the dual random factors of what the dice indicate and my gamers’ whims.

But the work remains.  I have a list on my desk that I use to remind myself what needs to be done.  At least right now, a little bit here, a little bit there, seems to be the way to go.

Now, off to pull out a notebook and get back to scribbling.  Blind Seer is delightful in many ways, but I really don’t want him keeping me from getting my sleep!

Iron Hack

November 8, 2017

It probably says something about modern life that the last two conventions I’ve attended have included panels focused around encouraging would-be writers to examine how much writing can be done in a very short period of time.

Twenty Minutes Tick Down!

The panel I was on at MileHiCon took its inspiration from the “Iron Chef” cooking show.  In this case, the three secret ingredients were supplied by the audience moments before the writing started.  They were asked to give us a profession, an item, and a setting, all of which should be included in the story.  Our audience gave us a chef, a ray gun (specifically a toy ray gun), and a lunar colony.

Stace Johnson, the moderator, announced that we would have twenty minutes to write.  So the audience wouldn’t get bored watching us scribble and grimace, they were encouraged to take part as well.  Three of the panelists had some electronic writing device – a laptop or a tablet with keyboard.  I had a notebook and pen.  The fellow to my left did his writing on an unlined hotel notepad with a hotel pen.

Unlike most panels I’ve been on, the format of this one didn’t give me a chance to firmly set in my mind which names went with which panelists, but I want to assure you all four all dove into the challenge with enthusiasm.

Stace Johnson set his timer and we were off!  For your amusement, I’ll transcribe what I wrote in those twenty minutes.  (I’ll leave out the cross-outs and creative spelling.)

Gran Prix was scrambling eggs when Gordon Garb, the sheriff of Lunar West, came racing in, ray guns drawn.

 “Did you see him?”

“Who?”

“Ostrich Al!  He just swiped a load of diamonds from the shipping dock and headed this way.”

“Nope.  Sorry.  What would he have been doing here?

“No idea.  We figure he probably was meeting a confederate.  Anyone here but you?”

“No one.”  Gran Prix placidly pulled his mixer attachment out of the egg froth and extruded his griddle.  Then he poured the eggs onto the surface and started gently turning them with his whisk.

“Sorry for bothering you, Gran,” Sherriff Garb said.  “May I go out back?  Al might have circled around to the loading dock.”

“Sure.  Watch out for the chickens.”

Gran Prix slid the scrambled eggs onto a serving tray, activated the anti-grav boost, and sent it out into the dining room.  Out back he could hear that Gordon Garb hadn’t paid any attention to his warning about the chickens.

On the Moon, chickens ceased being the squat, slightly ridiculous creatures they were on Earth, and became the ferocious aerial warriors they had always imagined themselves as being.  When Sherriff Garb returned, he looked as if the sky – well, at least as if something – had been falling.

Grab Prix was now busy stir-frying chunks of fresh meat.

“Smells good, Gran,” Gordon Garb said as he availed himself of the spray mist washer attachment more usually used for cleaning veggies from the hydroponic gardens.

That’s where time was called, but if I’d had another twenty or thirty minutes, I could have finished the story.  I still might.  I’m happy to say the audience seemed to like my venture, although (and I completely agree) the “win” went to the fellow on my right who had written the tale of an alien chef and his very difficult to please client.  Unlike my piece, he managed to come up with more of an ending.

What was interesting was what the writers chose to seize on.  For me, setting combined with chef were the inspiration.  The ray gun (and an interesting chat I’d had with Eric Flint, Dave Boop, and Jim) gave me the “Wild West” note.  For Stace Johnson “toy ray gun” was the inspiration around which he centered his story.  The fellow to my left completely forgot the ray gun in his original draft, but worked it in at the last minute as he was reading his piece aloud.

So, what did I get out of this other than 250 words of prose?  Well, if I finish this, I’ll have a short story – possibly only a bit of “flash fiction,” but still, better than staring at the wall and brooding.

I also got a window into how the same topic can create wildly different stories.  At least four people from the audience read their selections, and not a single one of the nine pieces read aloud were the same.

I think this activity could be a great way of getting out of a dry spell.  Even if a writer doesn’t have an audience to supply the three ingredients, items like Rory’s Story Cubes which I wrote about a while back, or decks of image cards (which Artist GOH Carrie Ann Baade said she uses in some of her classes) would supply the prompt.  SnackWrites provides free writing exercises that might provide the seeds from which a story could grow.

I also learned how what’s going on in my day-to-day life fills in the gaps.  If I hadn’t had that discussion about Westerns, would I have made my setting Lunar West?  If I hadn’t been on a panel the day before in which chickens came up for discussion, would I have included the chickens?  This exercise was a good reminder that writers need to keep stimulating their imaginations by doing more than just staring at the screen.

On that note, I’m off to do some more stimulating things…  And definitely to do more writing!

Living Jewels

October 18, 2017

These days, pulled as I am between various projects, I feel like Persephone – no, not my cat – the goddess who lived between worlds because she had dined on the fruit of the Underworld and ever after could never be fully at home in either world.

Persephone and Pomegranates

I’ve finished a rough draft of the novel, possibly novels, I’ve been working on since April.  I’ve written a proposal and given it to my agent.  Now I’m reviewing the treasure chest of future projects.  Looking at the omens, I think the next one is likely to be Firekeeper-related, so I’m sinking myself into that world and those characters.

I’m also considering a short story.  This not as contradictory as it may sound.  I tend to get fidgety if I’m not writing, so doing something short is a good way to let my creativity relax so my subconscious is freed up.

This doesn’t mean I won’t be working on other promised projects.  Asphodel – my first original, self-published project – is still on track for release early next year.  The new cover art for the e-books of Changer and Changer’s Daughter is just about ready.  I have several e-book reprints in the works.  However, if all I did was editorial and administrative, I’d be unpleasant to live with.

In most retellings of the Persephone myth, the fruit she dined on was a pomegranate.  I have a thriving pomegranate shrub in my yard.  Seen from the outside, the fruit doesn’t look like much, but when you crack it open, it shines like jewels.

Nice when metaphor and reality fit so neatly, isn’t it?

What’s Good About Stereotypes?

October 11, 2017

These last couple of weeks my pleasure reading has largely centered around rereading some of the works Dorothy L. Sayers and Terry Pratchett.

This Will Make Sense. Honest!

Last Sunday, as I was cutting up apples for an apple/quince pie, it occurred to me that both of these authors get a lot of mileage out of using stereotypes to develop creative three-dimensional characters.

Yep.  You read that right.

I know, this seems a complete contradiction.  One of the worst things critics can say about a book is that the characters are stereotypes.  Yet both Sayers and Pratchett are repeatedly praised for their thoughtful and well-developed characters.  How can they be both?

What exactly is a stereotype?  Well, to oversimplify, a stereotype is when something – I’m talking about characters in this Wandering, but this can apply to plots or settings or nationalities and many other things – is oversimplified down to a few highly recognizable details.  The thing is, the reason stereotypes work is that there’s usually a grain of truth at the heart of them.

The first time I attended an archeological conference with Jim, I was bemused to find my weathered, long-haired, bearded husband fit in very well in the company of his tribe.  The fact is,  many male archeologist do wear their hair longer and are often bearded.  Why?  More hair protects the neck and face from exposure.  Also, if you’re living somewhere without running water, shaving is a real nuisance.  Weathered skin comes with working outdoors in all sorts of conditions.  Sunblock can only do so much.

I can already hear the “buts…”  Hold onto them.  I’m getting there.

Stereotypes certainly have a negative side.  However, the negative reaction to stereotypes has become more pronounced in recent years both as a very justifiable reaction to profiling and a cultural obsession with individuality.   The reality is that, not so long ago, people delighted in wearing the badge of their particular tribe.  And, no, I’m not talking about the traditional peasant dress of European cultures or Native American tribes.  When I was in college, the “preppie” look was all the rage.  Before that there were hippies, beatniks, and red necks.  These days we have Goths and so on…

I’m sure you can think of others.

The trick with using stereotypes effectively is knowing when and how to give the stereotype the twist that turns the character into a three-dimensional person.  An added bonus is the fun that comes when the stereotype acts out of type – or when another character judges the supposedly stereotypical character on appearances alone.

Remember I said I’d come back to your “buts”?  There are always exceptions to the stereotype – so much so that the phrasing for reacting to such has become standard in and of  itself.   “I never would have imagined you were a…” Fill in the blank: librarian, soldier, police officer, kindergarten teacher.  Or, by contrast, “He was so typically a fill in the blank that it was a surprise to find out that he fill in the blank.”

Terry Pratchett so often uses stereotypes as the building blocks of both his characters and plots that I could write an entire book on how cleverly he subverts, inverts, and probably even coverts expectations.  I’ll restrain myself to just one example here.

The classic “Mother, Maiden, Crone” triad is at the heart of his three original witch characters: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick.  However, right from the start he starts playing with the stereotypes.

Granny Weatherwax is not just the wisest because she’s the oldest – the crone (though never call her that to her face, not if you want to keep on having a face).  She’s the wisest because she’s what you might call an intellectual witch with a specialization in “headology.”

Nanny is definitely a mother…  In all senses of the word.   She’s matriarch of an impossibly large clan, deliverer of numerous babies, and definitely an “earth” mother type.  In fact, the word “earthy” was probably invented for hard-drinking, gluttonous, highly sexual Nanny.

Margrat is the modern witch.  Let her speak for herself:

“Witches just aren’t like that… We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and don’t do no harm to anyone, and it’s wicked to say we don’t.”

The next line is the kicker that swerves the stereotype around into reality:

“We ought to fill their bones with lead.”  (Wyrd Sisters)

Dorothy Sayers often carries her use of stereotypes  as far as giving her characters names that reflect some aspect of their character – although even there, she’s often being sly.  Lord Peter Wimsey is thought by most who meet him to be the stereotypical British peer: idle, drawling, “a bit of an ass.”  Even his family motto “As my Whimsy takes me” seems to support this view.

But Sayers swerves this hard to one side because it turns out that where Peter’s whimsy takes him is in on unflinching quest for discovering the truth.  Those who judge him on stereotypical surface traits are in for a shock.  Is the rest a lie or pose?  Not at all.  It’s just another part of a complex human being.

I could go on at greater length, but I shall restrain myself.  After all, I might fall into the stereotype of the author, former professor of English, who cannot restrain herself from pedantic exposition.  Instead I’ll go off and paint a horse…

FF: When I’m Writing

October 6, 2017

When I am immersed a difficult or complex part of a project, I still read, but very often I re-read, because this lets me moderate the extra voices in my head.  Think of it as a literary soundtrack meant to be enjoyable and even stimulating, but not distracting.

Kel says: Sink into a Good Book!

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:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Audiobook.   This book was published in 1934, and still speaks to many issues.  Two that immediately come to mind are writing from the heart, rather than only the brain, and the challenges that face professional women in a way they do not their male peers.

On Bowie by Rob Sheffield.  The author notes at the end that this book was written in a month, and that Bowie’s now-classic album Low was also done in a month.  I must admit, I didn’t see a correlation.

In Progress:

Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich.  Audiobook.  Jim and I often listen to Stephanie Plum novels on road trips.  We were so taken by the scenery, that we didn’t quite finish, but doubtless will – maybe while running errands or doing a puzzle.

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett.  I believe this was the first Pratchett I read, a gift from a delighted Roger Zelazny.

Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers.  Audiobook.  Re-read.

Also:

I’ve moved on to the most recent issue of Smithsonian.

Enough Time

September 6, 2017

I caught something vicious and determined at Bubonicon, and have been in the world of sore throat, headache, wobbly, sniffly, exhausted, definitely-not-the-best for over a week.

Enough Time

As I struggled to drag myself through my obligations, the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else was write.  If I could slip into that other place for a while I would feel – if not precisely “better” – not so bad.

On Tuesday, as I downed hot drink after hot drink (fresh limeade was best), I found myself thinking, “But I don’t think I’ll have the energy to sit at the computer for very long.  I guess this is going to be a wasted day for writing.”

Then I found myself thinking about the SnackWrites panel I’d been on at Bubonicon and, how much I was able to write in just five minutes.

(You can find two of the exercises we did here.)

I realized that having a prompt had helped, so I designed a prompt for myself by re-reading what I’d done the day before, then turning the material over and over in my cloudy brain until I knew where I needed to start.

This worked surprisingly well.  I didn’t write a lot on Tuesday, but I did write.  I tried the same tactic on Wednesday, then on Thursday, and each day I managed to write a little.

The most memorable day was Friday.   After struggling and struggling to write, I stretched out on the sofa and thought myself through all of that day’s false starts.  I nearly drifted off to sleep a couple of times, but eventually I realized my “prompt” was wrong.  After about a half hour, I hauled myself upright, turned on the computer, and wrote a thousand words in about a half hour.

So, why not just take “sick leave”?  After all, I don’t have a deadline for this piece.

Well, as I mentioned above, writing was a great way to escape feeling horrible.  Another advantage was that I never “lost touch” with my piece.  I’ve talked to many writers about how, when you’re away from a project more than a couple of days, it often takes as many days to get back into the mindset in which you’d been writing.

I’m accustomed to taking weekends “off,” so two days wouldn’t have mattered much, but if I’d taken a week, it’s likely I would have needed another week to get back into the flow.  Since even as I write this, I’m still battling the bug, I’d be feeling pretty discouraged.  Instead, I’m already designing today’s prompt, part of which is going to involve some research reading.

“Not enough time” is one of the most common excuses I hear for people never starting a beloved project – whether writing or drawing or singing or whatever.  I’m learning that five minutes can be enough, and that that thirty can be a good day’s work.

Now…  Off to down another mug of hot limeade and then to write!

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.

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.