This is a fun and wide-ranging interview I gave to Sherri Rabinowitz on her Blog Talk show, “Chatting with Sherri.”
Powered by dice!
100 Pages of Hand-Made Story Elements
The way this works is that she has created 100 lists of 10 possible story elements. First she rolls the percentile dice to select the page, then she rolls one for the list of ten.
I told her she should make it an app…then i realized how charming the little book was
When I tried it out, I rolled up: Student, Hotel, Time Travel. Pretty good bones for a story, no?
Nina sharing withtwo of this year’s winners: Ryan & Stewart
3 Days left! Larry niven, Mike resnick, nancy kress…
NANCY KRESS: “Develop writing rituals to train the ‘Little Man in the Basement.'”
LARRY NIVEN: “If Lucifer’s Hammer gets humanity to do something about this threat, I’ll feel my life was justified.” 🙂
MIKE RESNICK: “You sell your first 3 books on promise. You sell your 4th on record.”
Since I was a finalist already, I knew this was either going to be good news (that I didn’t place in the contest, but I could be happy to be a finalist), or astounding news (that I’d placed).
“Are you ready?” she said. “Your story is one of the winners!”
I’m not sure what she said after that. Something about this being the biggest quarter in the history of the contest (8,000 plus submissions?) and how they were flying me and the other eleven winners (three for each quarter) to LA in April for an all-expense-paid week of workshops and parties and classes with instructors like Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth, and guests like Larry Niven, Ken Scholes, Robert Sawyer and Mike Resnick.
I’m still stunned just thinking about it. And yes, I’m incredibly excited.
I couldn’t get to sleep that night. I had to step out for a walk. I felt, and still feel, overwhelmingly grateful. I am so thankful that something in my story caught someone’s eye. I know how subjective story judging is. There were surely stories better written, funnier, smarter, sexier. But someone noticed something in mine that set it apart, and I thank my good angels for that.
The Conference is the Real Prize
Yes, there is a generous cash prize, and yes, they publish the twelve winning stories in an anthology. But the real prize is the conference and the intangibles of learning and exposure that week.
A 2010 Winner Explains the Benefits of the Contest and Conference
Brad Torgersen wrote a complete breakdown of the value of the contest and all of its intangibles on his website, here.
Thank you, Writers of the Future! : )
Weirder than Fiction
Building Believable (and Fantastic!) Fantasy Worlds
Reality is often truly stranger than anything you could make up, so it pays to research.
Take this picture from a late 17th century fashion mag displayed in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. Look close.
Look how hard these guys are working! That hair! Those stockings! Those accessories! They look like 80s glam rockers!
Turns out, there was a name for this Captain Jack Sparrow style of dress back then. Here is what the Rijks Musuem had to say about them in their Fashion Magazines exhibit: They were called, “The Incredibles.” Not kidding.
So This was Actually Satire of the High Fashions of the Rich!
Still, I am not sure they succeeded in making it more ridiculous than the actual fashions. How could they? Here is one of the men they mocked, also from a fashion mag of the time:
Dude. You’re wearing pink and white candy-cane-striped tails with yellow pantaloons. Nailed it.
Extremities of Female High Fashion
I wish I had more pictures of ridiculous wealthy men’s attire from the time, but most of the extreme examples are of women’s fashion.
Like these insane hairstyles for women.
The Ship one is my favorite:
Here is the Timeless Message of High Fashion:
1) Since no one could possibly do work in such attire, I am clearly wealthy.
2) Since the time it takes to design and execute such confections of hair/clothing makes it impossible to do any actual work during the day, I am clearly wealthy.
3) Since the cost of my fashion–not just in time but in money–is astronomical, I am clearly wealthy.
Building This Principle Into Fantasy A World
A good illustration of this in fantasy is in Martin’s A Game of Thrones (the books, anyway) where the fashion of the noble women of the slave city of Meereen is a dress that is essentially a mummy wrap from neck to ankles, making it impossible for the women to walk in anything but tiny little steps. Clearly, those women are NOT doing any work!
Here’s a dress from modern day high fashion that might have been from Meereen:
Finally, a Note on the Timelessness of Junk Grabbing
Okay, pant-sagging may not have been around in the old days, but the Incredibles did, apparently, grab junk. They were straight up Gs.
I recently attended an author reading of a humorous supernatural fiction novel that shall remain nameless. After hearing several chapters from the beginning and middle, I found my self thinking, “The main character’s voice is hilarious, but the dude is a douche, a parasite who makes a living ruining other people’s lives; he never shows remorse for it, never justifies it, nor in fact does he ever give us the sense there is need for justification.
It brought up a question I have as a writer that is still not fully resolved. It is based on the assumption that a protagonist must be a sympathetic character. I used to think this meant the reader has to like the main character, or identify with her/him. A wise writer friend of mine suggested that we don’t have to like them, per se–nor particularly identify with them–but we do have to be able to sympathize with them, at least in some small way.
I suppose that’s why the protagonist of Breaking Bad was able to keep people with him for x seasons; he was despicable in many ways–more and more as the seasons passed–but viewers sympathized with his troubles and miseries. Likable? No. Sympathetic? Quite.
If I Laugh, Do I Sympathize?
Back to the supernatural novel. The only thing this protagonist had going was that he was funny as hell. His snarky voice made me chuckle. But sympathize? I don’t know.I suppose the roots of the word sympathy mean literally, “to feel with.” I guess if this unlikable protagonist is making jokes and I’m laughing, I’m sympathizing with him–literally “feeling humor with him.”
But that reasoning makes me dizzy and I still don’t feel I sympathized with him.
Not Funny Enough
So I bought the book based on the chuckles I got from the reading, but only read halfway through before I put it down. NOTE TO SELF: Turns out, funny isn’t enough to form that emotional attachment with a protagonist I need to want to spend a lot of time with them.
To be fair, the author seems to have cherry picked some of the funniest passages in the book to read to us, so maybe I lost sympathy simply because the rest just wasn’t funny enough. I was there for the cherry passages of hilarity, then…the ick showed through.
Until I meet another such character who is much funnier, I won’t know the answer.
Corollary Observation: The Comic Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card
A funny narrator can get away with much that would spoil a story with an ordinary narrator. for example, info dumps of exposition cause readers to skim ahead, or sigh and doggedly push through in hopes such dumps won’t come often.But I’ve read info-dumps that were so funny I didn’t care at all. My friend Craig has that knack. I could read his exposition all day.
So I remain undecided as to whether an unsympathetic protagonist can be similarly redeemed by being very, very funny.
If you know examples of characters that fit that bill, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
The reason you don’t see lots of new Tolkeinesque stories of halflings and dwarves and elves in the book stores is that those things have been done. Most people want something new. It isn’t that dwarves and elves and halfllings can’t be used in stories any more, it’s just that if you use them, you probably need to re-invent them in some unexpected–even iconoclastic–way in order to make them fresh again for the reader.
One could argue that the genre of urban fantasy is largely the result of just such a need for newness and rethinking. Black Blade Blues comes to mind, with its investment-banker dragons–what a wonderful re-imagining that is! (Who are the hoarders of gold today–the symbols of greed–if not the Gordon Geckos?)
I recently took my kids to the wonderful Crest Cinema to see the animated film, Rise of the Guardians, in which the artists reimagined the all too familiar figures of Santa and his elves. How did they reinvent them?
Santa became a burly, tattooed Russian with a rolling Russian accent, a huge rough laugh, and the words Naughty and Nice tattooed on his massive forearms.
His “elves” were replaced with teams of huge and hairy yeti, who were responsible for all the toy making (as well as any fistfights that needed staffing).
Okay, there were elves present–the standard cliche elves with tiny bodies, cute faces and pointy ears and hats–who laid about (drunk, in my memory) and idle, as a kind of window dressing, but even that was a reinvention of elves.
As a result, the old tropes were again fresh and entertaining, and in some cases can even cause us to question our assumptions about the familiar (do Russians have a different idea of Santa?).
The excerpt below is also from Mary Sisson’s Trust (see previous posting).
This scene actually precedes the one in the previous post (sorry–out of order, I know). it is actual moment of first contact when Daring Attack sees Trang and his marines before they have the universal translator present.
Since the universal translator is not yet in the scene, language is not the thing being held up in the “mirror” for us to examine. Instead, Daring Attack focuses on our physical form, which, to him is very strange as his species is an eye-less quadruped with no “head,” to speak of. His first guess is that the humans might be Mechanical Aliens (i.e. remotely operated drones operated by a third species of alien that can’t move around in air).
He was closer to the Mechanical Aliens now. He could hear them.
“Oupa oupa oupa!” said one.
“Oupa oupa,” replied another.
The aliens were mostly sticking near their vehicle, folding something up. But one of them began walking closer to where Daring Attack was. As it came closer, Daring Attack realized with a start that it had only two legs.
A Two-legged Alien, not a Mechanical Alien, he thought. Unless the Mechanical Aliens also have only two legs.
No, he decided, as he watched the alien tip forward, lurch a leg underneath itself to keep itself from falling, and then repeat the process. It was a miracle the thing didn’t just flop over and wriggle about helplessly on the ground. This two-legged thing is too bizarre to have been ignored.
(And then later when they find the translator and can talk to him)
The Two-legged Aliens said they were happy to see him, which made Daring Attack wonder if he had overreacted when they surrounded him—maybe they had just been curious. In any case, after a few minutes of conversation with the diplomat, the four in the brush stepped back out into the clearing.
Not that talking to them was any less unnerving. Close up, Daring Attack could see that the aliens had this ball-shaped appendage that was connected to the rest of their body by only a slender stalk, which looked like it could be chopped through in an instant. This appendage never stopped wobbling—it would wobble when they talked, it would wobble when they were silent, and when they walked, the appendage wobbled atop their wobbly, lurching bodies.
It made Daring Attack dizzy.
God I love that. Those last four of five lines had me laughing out loud.
Some of the best spec-fic holds up a mirror in such a way that we see aspects of our species/culture anew. Often this is accomplished by showing first contact. Ursula Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind, with its human diplomat arriving at a planet of hermaphrodites; also Larry Niven’s Ringworld, with its humans, puppeteers, and kzinti.
The First-contact Mirror
I recently found a hilarious first-contact mirror in Mary Sisson’s novel Trust (sequel to Trang), which follows the human diplomat Phillipe Trang as he interacts with five or six different species of alien.
In these scenes, inter-species communication is made possible by a Universal Translator device, which struggles to decode the expletives of the human space marines assigned to protect Trang. Since the POV in the scene is that of the alien, the results are hilarious and thought provoking.
Excerpt from Trust
(Setting: Trang and his marines meet the alien (named Daring Attack) near their crash site on a wild and remote part of an alien planet as a giant T-rex-like thing referred to as a “Giant Mankiller” approaches through the jungle. The dialogue starts with the marine nick-named Princess).
“I cannot see it,” said Noble Person, who was holding a machine to its face.
“Of course not—if it was that close, we’d be dead,” said Daring Attack.
“What distance—” Noble Person stopped.
“His units for measuring length—” said the diplomat.
“I am knowledgeable of that fact,” said Noble Person. “If the carnivore continues toward us at the rate of travel at which it is currently traveling, at what time will it reach us?”
“His units for measuring time—” said the diplomat.
“May it remain for eternity in the mythological place where the spirits of the ignoble dead reside!” said Noble Person.
“I express my regret,” said the diplomat.
“There it is,” said the alien holding the sheet.
“Sacred digestive by-product,” said Noble Person.
Daring Attack tried not to dwell on the fact that he was risking his life for people who worshipped digestive by-products. Instead, he noticed a large dark blob on the sheet.
“Mythological figure who regained life after being dead for three days and is engaged in reproductive activity, it is large,” said the other alien.
“Is that the carnivore?” asked Noble Person.
Daring Attack looked at the blob. Was that the Giant Mankiller? He couldn’t tell.
(When the marines send armed drones to attack the Giant Mankiller, the marines watch through video monitors, muttering…)
“Draw closer on, you small individual conceived in a socially inappropriate manner,” said the alien. “Draw closer and obliterate that buzzing flying insect that is engaging in reproductive activity with you.”
Has it gone insane? Daring Attack wondered.
After I was done howling with laughter, these are some of the things I found myself thinking about:
Why do humans use feces and sex in expletives? Okay, we’re primates, we like to throw poo, and now that we have words to do it with, we don’t need to get our hands dirty. I get that. But sex? Do all human cultures do that, or just puritanical Western ones? For that matter, do (puritanical) Islamic cultures do that? Do Hindis? Do the Chinese? The Japanese? Maori? Australian Aborigines? Are we all sex-and-potty mouths?
If you are fluent in these cultures, please comment and share.
I take a lot of inspiration and instruction from Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide. The book is full of fantastic inventions that he limns with only in the lightest brushstrokes. I referred to his “surrogate” technology in the post on “Filtering Setting Through Character POV”. In this post I want to share two other examples: one of the “jug” dwellings in the riverbanks on Miranda; the other of a drug/toxin derived from a bacterium or micro organism.
First, the jugs.
This far east, the farmland was too rich to squander, and save for the plantation buildings, most dwellings hugged the river. Unpainted clapboard houses teetered precariously on the lip of a high earth bluff. Halfway down to the water, a walk had been cut into the earth and planked over to serve a warren of jugs and storerooms dug into the banks itself (176).
He doesn’t tell us what a jug is. He just refers to them, because his POV character, the bureaucrat, knows what they are, and would not pay them any particular notice, so we don’ t get to either. It isn’t until eight paragraphs later when the bureaucrat is inside a cafe that we learn.
…In a niche by the table a television was showing a documentary on the firing of the jugs. There was antique footage of workers sealing up the new-dug clay. Narrow openings were left at the bottom of what would be the doors, and to the top rear of the tunnels. Then the wood packed inside was fired. Pillars of smoke rose up like the ghosts of trees and became a forest whose canopy blotted out the sun. The show had been playing over and over ever since its original broadcast on one of the government channels. Nobody noticed it any more.
“The heat required to glaze the walls was—” The bureaucrat reached over and changed the channel (176-177).
What I love about this is that he trusts me as a reader enough to let me hang for eight paragraphs before I find out what it means. Yes, I had to read the first description twice, because I didn’t know what a “jug” was, but there was enough context for me to assume it was some kind of dug-out dwelling space, and that was enough for me to go on till I got some more description.
He could have explained it right away: …a warren of storerooms and jugs, ceramic-walled rooms carved from the clay and baked in place with massive internal bonfires or something, but that would have bogged down the action at hand.
In the end, was this neat invention relevant to the action at hand? No. in that regard it’s a throwaway detail. But in terms of sustaining the protagonist’s sense of alien landscape and people, a kind of stranger-in-a-strange land vulnerability and therefore tension—it was.
Here’s how he introduces the drug/toxin.
Pouffe sat opposite the two of them, his back to the land. His face was puffy and unhealthy in the window light. His eyes were two dim stars, unblinking…
Gregorian walked over to Pouffe, and crouched. He cut a long sliver of flesh from the old shopkeeper’s forehead. It bled hardly at all. The flesh was faintly luminous, not with the bright light of Undine’s iridobacteria but with a softer, greenish quality. It glowed in the magician’s fingers, lit up the inside of his mouth, and disappeared. He chewed noisily.
“The feverdancers are at their peak now. Ten minutes earlier and they’d still be infectious. An hour later and their toxins will begin to break down.’ He spat out the sliver into his palm, and cut it in two with his knife. “Here.” He held one half to the bureaucrat’s lips. “Take. Eat.”
The bureaucrat turned away in disgust.
“Eat!” The flesh had no strong smell; or else the woodsmoke drowned it out…He obeyed (232).
(The bureaucrat then experiences hallucinations, out-of-body experience, into-Gregorian’s memory experience, like the pensieve in Harry Potter, and that’s all we get.) He could have had Gregorian explain what the toxins do, and how they work—he could have had the bureaucrat muse on what he knew of feverdancers, but he doesn’t. We are left to assume all that from these few clues, and it is enough.
Light brush strokes, carefully limited by the POV character’s POV.
In the late 90s I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I did some contract writing for the guys at Iron Crown Enterprises, the creators of the wonderful Role Master fantasy role-playing system.
At the time they were designing a game world for a new series of modules, and the game designer, John Curtis III, mentioned something that struck me as odd at the time and so it sticks with me today. After explaining to me the intricacies of the world’s cosmology–how his world and it’s peoples were created by what gods and for what purposes–he said, “but that’s just half of it. Now I have to figure out how each of those peoples think the world was created and by whom for what purpose. None of the mortals would know the real story, only nuggets of truth here and there.”
I think of that as the “Through a glass, darkly” principle in worldbuilding. Even Christianity, which claims to be the sole true religion in this world, doesn’t claim that humans are capable of full understanding of the divine in this life. Of this world and the next Saint Paul wrote, “We see now through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” Likewise the mortals of ICE’s game world were granted only a dim and muddled view of its cosmological reality.
If you go with that metaphor for your world, the people’s mythologies will be only a shadow of what is actually going on, warped by human passions and frailties and limitations.
Playing with the Glass
Those warpings can be lots of fun. They’ll show up in contradictory scriptural passages like “God is a jealous god”, “God is love,” and “Love is never jealous.” (Wait, what?) It will show up in confabulations of folklore and scripture, like some of the Jewish golem stories, and in outright imaginative superstition, like imbedding nails in the shape of a cross in the heel of your left boot to keep the devil off your trail, as Pap does in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Making up your own versions of that is plain fun.
The Curse of Chalion
One of my favorite examples of a secondary world designed upon the “through the glass darkly” principle is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion universe. The gods in that world are very present but so inscrutable as to seem arbitrary at times, remote beyond human understanding. In books like that, I feel I’m being made to examine life and spirituality from a new angle, and I value that. But just as important is the simple verisimilitude of such crafting; it resonates with the way humans experience the divine in –through a glass, darkly–and thus brings credibility to the world.
Of course, you might well decide to create a world in which the gods live in the temples among their priests, and if there is any dispute in doctrine the priests simply ask the god, who settles it definitively. (Such a world presents an entirely different set of challenges.)
Vonnegut’s Advice in Tacoma
In 1986 or so I attended a lecture given by Kurt Vonnegut at Pacific Lutheran University. It was a “Creative Writing” conference, and he was the keynote speaker. After an hour of ranting about Ronald Reagan, he paused, took a drink of water, and said, “Well, I guess I should say something about writing now, since this is an English major conference. So I’ll give you two pieces of advice. First of all, if you want to be a creative writer, don’ t be an English major. English majors learn too much taste, and once you learn to be tasteful, you can’t be creative. I was a Chemistry major.
“The other thing is this: Go ahead and write your story, then throw away the first pages, because that’s when you explain everything. And when you explain everything, no one gives a damn any more.”
Loved that guy. I could see the professors in the room forcing smiles on their rebellious faces.
Fun with Folly
Excellent spec fic writers build this absurdity into the worlds they create. Recently, I’ve noticed two wonderful examples of writers or directors who employ this understanding to great effect. The first is George R. R. Martin, whose Slave Masters in the fifth Game of Thrones book have wonderfully absurd hairstyles sculpted in shapes like bird wings or rearing animals or supplicant hands in primary colors. The women in that culture wear tokars, which are essentially a kind of fancy mummy wrap from the armpits down, making it almost impossible to walk.
Hunger Games Fashion
The Emperor Has Clothes, and They are Ridiculous
The wonderful absurdity of fashion is not a new phenomenon either, as witnessed by the bizarre confections of silk and wool dreamed up by renaissance tailors in Italy. Collars of any era are likely to have a high absurdity factor—think of the Virgin Queen, or John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. Shoes are also common offenders, and hairstyles.
Recently I viewed a Roman tomb that captured in stone a noblewoman’s hairstyle from the decade she died, which appeared to be a mass of tight curls piled in what can be only be described as a cross between a beehive with a radar dish.
Wonderful article, by the way, in which a hair dresser plays archeologist to explain how these crazy roman hairdoos defied gravity:
Trial and Error
Soon after reading Neutron Star for the first time, one of my students appeared with an asymmetric beard, and it actually looked pretty cool. He had very thick facial hair, so he could do extremely precise designs in it; I imagine sparse beards would not look so good. In any case, Niven’s use of the asymmetric beard got me thinking of the wonderful absurdity of fashions when viewed across cultures (or even within cultures).
No era is immune to this absurdity. As evidence, I submit to you the saggy ass-pants of teen culture. (Really? You want to show me your underpants?) Nor is it only sub-cultures who are guilty, as anyone can tell you who has picked up their high school yearbook after twenty years away. If you haven’t lived that long and you think your high school yearbook pictures look “bomb,” just you wait. You’ll cringe. Or wait until you show them to your kids. “Mommy, what was wrong with your hair?”
Exhibit two, my sophomore tolo picture. That’s right. I’m wearing a brown tuxedo with brown-accents on the ruffled shirt and cuffs. Eat your heart out.