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>Eating Our Words

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Before I go into how to make up an alien language that at least superficially makes sense, before I go into how to sprinkle this into your writing, let me explain why – for me at least – a little of this goes a long way.

To me – and this is perhaps a philosophy not many agree with – the language you use in a story should not be a barrier to the understanding of the story. The reader is not approaching your story with the burning desire to work hard, he’s approaching it for entertainment. A strange or intruding use of language must have enough value-added to pay for the extra trouble you’re giving the reader.

This is a very important thing with me, because – having learned English abroad, primarily in the British variant and in a classroom – the word that comes naturally to me is often the ten dollar word, not the twenty five cent one. So I fight it constantly.

Even in English, not going into invented, foreign or dialect type of expression, the “look at my humongous vocabulary” author tends to put me off, partly because I can see them strain to do what to me comes naturally and I fight. Now, there are some that don’t strain, and whose language does provide enough value-added to me, though the only one I can think of right now off the top of my head is Ray Bradbury.

Beyond being a speaker of English as a second language I – being the gift that keeps on giving – am hearing impaired. This means if you try to reproduce dialect on the page, you’re going to bring me to a screeching halt. There are entire bookshelves of authors of the picturesque/regional variety I can’t read. It would be like reading in an archaic language and working it out word for word. In earlier days – when I was merely a graduate student of English, having lived only one year in the US – a word in a Heinlein book popped me out of the story, because it required I pronounce it aloud to know what it was. The word was “purty.”

So, my feeling – mostly – on invented and foreign languages in writing is “don’t.” That said, I’ve seen it done very well and even I admit that particularly in sf/f giving your alien/different Earth characters or places a set of names that are linguistically cogent with each other is important. So I’ll go into that next time.

Meanwhile, what are your pet peeves on dialect use? Do you disagree with me? (It’s okay if you do, I left the hand-smacking ruler in Texas.) Are people like me such an outlier that the author shouldn’t worry about them?

>Resonance

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Resonance is a term from movies meaning ‘To evoke a feeling that lingers in the mind’. (Or that is the way I interpret it).

Think of the movie ‘American Beauty’. There was that opening shot above the suburbs. It seemed to say, here in Middle America we will peel back the covers and reveal what goes on. The red rose, the American Beauty, has been bred to look beautiful but it has no thorns or scent, which is another comment on the film’s theme.

When I’m writing a book I collect photographs and research fascinating details which convey evocative feelings for me.

The book I recently handed over to my agent ‘The Shallow Sea’ was a fantasy set in a tropical paradise. I collected images of azure seas, exquisite lilies and details about deadly creatures. For me it was the combination of the idyllic tropical setting with dangers hidden below the surface, that was a metaphor for the book. It had a resonance, a flavour in my head as I wrote.

I know many writers play music while they write. It helps them get into the mood to create the resonance for their current work-in-progress. Music bypasses the higher brain and goes straight to our emotional hind-brain.

I used to work as an illustrator, so I think I’m more visually oriented. I can get ‘high’ on beauty. If I go to the art gallery to see an exhibition, I come away feeling as if I’m floating on air, with images flooding my mind.

Some books evoke a stronger resonance than others. It’s not necessarily the characters that linger, it might be a sense of mystery, elegance, or tragedy. It’s like taking a mental holiday to another place and time. For instance, ‘Perdido Street Station’ lingers in my mind. I’d just finished reading a book about London from its earliest times to now. The thought of those pits where they buried the plague victims, then built housing estates over the top, still makes me shudder. Almost anything by Michael Moorcock stays with me years later. I can still remember Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and I read that thirty years ago. I think it was the layering of backstory, the obsession with detail and the eccentricity of the characters.

Resonance is not something we talk about much as writers, it’s hard to pin down.

What books have stayed with you, resonating in your mind and why?

And do you set out to create a resonance for the books you are currently working on?

>The Tale of a Tired Writer

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Thanks to Dave for filling in for me yesterday. Considering I am currently nothing more than a zombified writer, if I’d tried to blog yesterday, it wouldn’t have been pretty — or coherent. Now, I’m not guaranteeing coherence today, but ….

This past weekend was fun, informative and oh-so-very-tiring. For those of you who don’t know, our own Sarah A. Hoyt graciously agreed to come to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to conduct a 3-day writers workshop. If you have never taken a workshop by Sarah before, run to register the next time she conducts one. Not only will you learn so much about this industry of ours and how to have a chance to succeed at it but you will never, ever be bored.

One of the participants asked Sarah the other day what they should do to have a chance at getting published. Her comment, one that she’s posted here before, was “read, write, submit, repeat”. And it is so very true. You have to read to know what is being published in your particular field or genre. You have to write — and finish it — in order to have a chance. Then you have to let go of your baby and send it off into the world. If you keep it at home, you will never have a chance to be published and then, when it comes back — and we all get rejections, whether we admit to them or not — we have to send our baby back out to see if there’s another editor out there who likes it better than the one who just rejected it. Add into the mix that while you’re doing all this, you have to be writing the next story and the next and the next and kicking them out of the nest as well.

There was a second piece of advice to come out of that weekend and it came from Rebecca Balcarcel, a local poet who took part in a 6-author panel on Saturday night. Rebecca told the audience that she finally had to give herself permission to make mistakes and not be perfect when she is drafting her poem or story. Trying to be perfect her first draft was keeping her from finishing anything. Listening to her, I realized this is something I have to allow myself to do as well.

So, you read, write, submit, and repeat by allowing yourself to make mistakes and not be perfect the first time you put pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard. The important thing is to finish your story, your novel or whatever it is you are reading. Hopefully, once I’ve caught up on my sleep, I’ll remember this and be able to put it to use.

My question for you is what is the best piece of advice you’ve recieved that’s helped you advance your craft as a writer?

>Carpe diem and all that stuff

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Dave standing in for Amanda -It’s not your lucky day is it? Ah well you’ll just have to take the best out of it that you can. Let’s face it, there is an element of luck in this business. But then, there is in fishing too. And that’s the carp part of the diem, because we all bitch about our luck (when fishing too) BUT in spite of that a lot of us trot off for another go. And you know, while the bloke who writes greats books/stories and keeps trying doesn’t always succeed. But the one who parks that great story under the bed in a shoebox will NEVER succeed. And yes, it’s a lottery (but if you do it right, the odds are closer to the school funderaiser lottery than the Euro-millions) but if you don’t have a ticket, you can’t win. And if you take lots of tickets (they’re not free – they cost you time, commitment, hope, courage – none of which are low value coins but will never earn you tuppence in satisfaction or return if you won’t spend them) and fill the forms properly and enter every lottery going, well, you might win big. You’re more likely to imitate my fishing (which means if you’re very sensitive about bad smells, or critics whose comments smell that way… maybe take up stamp collecting) and never catch any vast whale-fish but reliably bring some pan-fish home. A bit on the small side, bony, but edible. And there is always the chance of the bigger one. Because this really is a profession where being in the right place at the right time can make you… you need to be in possible right places (authors forums, cons, competitions) and when opportunity knocks, don’t be a fool like I was (my publisher asked me if I wanted to co-author with a big name. He wouldn’t say who. I was cagey because there are a couple I really don’t like much. The opportunity passed. It was Dave Weber, and I would have been very happy to do it). Now, because caution is not exactly my first or even my middle name, there have been chances I’ve taken since that just didn’t pan out. And a few that have. The ‘fish’ are not inspirationally large, but I’ve loved catching them. And damn me if I won’t go and throw another line. The place I see as worth being in is Electronic publishing. See you all there.

>Dracula Was Framed

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Or: The Importance of Good PR

Quite a few of you know that I’m something of a Dracula geek, and that I’ve spent a good chunk of time researching both the 15th century Wallachian prince and the vampire mythos that’s grown mostly from Stoker’s novel. Given the popularity of the undead porn subgenre, I don’t think there’s any need to discuss PR for vampires, but Vlad III Dracula, “the Impaler”, definitely suffered from bad PR.
Okay, I can hear people thinking “Yeah, right. They didn’t call him “the Impaler” because he was a nice guy.”, and yes, you do have a point. Vlad was not a saint by anyone’s standards. But – and there’s a message in here for us, now – if you look at him and his life without looking at the context of the era and his contemporaries, you get a very distorted picture.
Perhaps the main source of information today on the kind of man Vlad was are the Dracula stories. The problem with using these to judge him is that the Dracula pamphlets and the Russian chronicles were written by his enemies. The Russians regarded him as apostate for converting to Catholicism (something he did because it was the only way he was going to regain anything resembling freedom). The writer of the German/Saxon pamphlets was financially dependent on the King of Hungary and the Germanic merchant families in Transylvania, both of whom had reasons to want Vlad portrayed as an evil monster. Even the name by which he is mostly known today – “the Impaler” – was coined by the Ottoman Turks, who were probably his bitterest enemies.
Possibly the only sympathetic sources are the Romanian peasant legends, which portray him as harsh but just, and have a subtext that he needed to take drastic action to restore a country which today would be considered a failed state.
Now to his contemporaries. One of the best insights I got into the mindset of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, “the Conquerer”, came from translations of contemporary accounts of the siege and fall of Constantinople. All three accounts I found, two from the defenders perspective and one from the besiegers, agreed closely on the events. The short-short version is that Mehmed besieged the city while building an immense cannon to bombard the walls, and carried his ships around the chain stretched across the mouth of the Golden Horn to position them where he could attack the weaker sea-walls. Even so, he might still have failed if not for the good fortune of a small gate left open (or possibly deliberately opened) through which he was able to send forces and get one of the larger gates opened, after which his armies went on a rampage of rape and slaughter (which Mehmed had encouraged – and that information comes from the sympathetic source).
Some of the side excursions proved most illuminating. While the great cannon (also known as the Great Turkish Bombard) was being built, Mehmed took a smaller force to one of the ancillary fortresses, where he besieged it, bombarded it with cannon fire and threw men at it until the garrison surrendered – after which he took the men who surrendered back to Constantinople and impaled them outside the walls of the city. Oh, and standard operating procedure for the Ottoman customs forts further up the Bosphorus Straits? If a ship tried to evade them, sink the ship and impale the survivors.
Mehmed is – mostly – remembered today as a sophisticated, cosmopolitan man who oversaw the restoration of Constantinople to a major trade and cultural center. What’s forgotten is that he had his infant brother drowned while the child’s mother was congratulating him on his succession to the Imperial Ottoman throne. His harem of attractive young boys and boyish young men is also mostly forgotten – although some of the braver clerics of the time condemned that particular habit. Then there’s the known fact that he was precocious in matters of intrigue and murder, and is suspected of arranging the murder of at least one of his older brothers. I’ve never seen any suggestions that he was involved in his father’s short illness and death, but the illness is curiously unspecified.
Then there’s the hero of Hungary and his father the White Knight – King Matthias of Hungary, and his father John Hunyadi. Hunyadi’s efforts included attempting to negotiate a truce with the Ottoman Sultan while he was organizing a war alliance against the Ottomans. Matthias went one better – he received a good deal of money from the Pope to finance a campaign against Mehmed II, and used the money to ransom the Hungarian crown from Poland. The leader of that campaign? Vlad Dracula. Matthias arrested Dracula on obviously false charges to deflect questions about his lack of action – and his employee produced the first of the Dracula pamphlets shortly afterwards. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pamphlets depict Dracula as a bloodthirsty madman.
So… Filtering the various Dracula stories through that lens (as well as the knowledge that there is simply not enough space in his castles and palaces for him to have impaled hundreds there)… The Dracula ‘atrocities’ fall into three broad categories. First, there’s the law and order set. Remember, he was ruling a failed state. In order to shut down rampant crime, fast, he opted for severe penalties for pretty much everything. Given that he started from a culture where mutilation for minor crime was the norm, he didn’t go that much further. Then there are the politically motivated executions. Those were done to break the power base of the Wallachian Boyar class – not least because they were quite willing to swear life-long loyalty to a man, then murder him a couple of months later to install someone else on the throne. The notorious “Forest of the Impaled” falls into this category as well – it was calculated to terrify Mehmed, because Dracula didn’t have the numbers to defeat Mehmed in battle. It worked: Mehmed remained terrified of Dracula despite the disparity of power between the two men, and never attempted to directly attack him again. The third category was perhaps Dracula’s biggest weakness. He was prone to insane rages that resembled berserk fits. The only Dracula stories that involve him doing something clearly counterproductive show him in one of these rages.
On the positive side: he was the only one of his contemporaries who never broke an oath. The evidence I could find suggests that while he initially paid the tribute required by the Ottomans, he didn’t actually swear loyalty to them and never considered himself a vassal of the Sultan. He remained loyal to the Hungarian King despite Matthias’s lack of support and later betrayal. He risked his life to help one of his few friends, Mihaly Szilagy (who was later sawn in two by the Ottomans) and helped his cousin Stephen of Moldavia (known today as St Stephen the Great) to claim the Moldavian throne. He appears to have belived in honor and duty, and maintained both to the best of his ability all his life. He was also acutely aware of his failings, if his time praying and the large amounts he donated to various churches are any guide.
Complicated? Hell yes. Easy to find? Not bloody likely. To find out more about Dracula the man, I spent a lot of time digging through obscure legends, translations of primary documents that would leave you cross-eyed, and a whole lot of international politics in 15th century Eastern Europe. The point, of course, being that ultimately what gets remembered is what other people say about you, not why they said it.
I should probably apologize for inflicting so much Dracula geekery on you, but I’m not going to because it illustrates something particularly useful to us as writers – good PR matters. None of us are likely to be remembered as one of history’s greatest villains, but we writers do work in an industry largely driven by gossip, and gossip is basically viral PR. If we don’t control it and seed the rumors that help us, we will be controlled by it and not in a good way.
What other historical figures got really bad PR? Conversely, who’s been unfairly glorified? And what tactics can be used to seed helpful rumors for the gossip mill?

>Godzilla Attacks Sydney!

>Recent reports of a massive dust storm in Australia — with an 800km storm front and sweeping across thousands of kilometers — fail to advise that the irradiated dust has drawn an attack on Sydney by the feared Godzilla! The image on the left was sent to our office only moments before the brave soul was incinerated by radioactive flame.

Mothra has been spotted on satellite images, and is moving swiftly toward Brisbane. Scientists fear it is being drawn to the Sunshine State by the scent of radioactive mangoes. The east coast of Australia remains on high alert. . .

OK, well maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but the recent dust storm that blanketed the east coast of Australia (and is heading toward New Zealand) was certainly epic in its proportions (it really was that big). It was the biggest dust storm in 70 years, and dumped more than 75,000 tonnes of dust on Brisbane in one hour. More than one observer reported ‘It was like the end of the world’ or ‘It was like being in a science fiction movie’. The sunset was awesome, the sky as red as Martian dust (Australian desert sands have a high content of iron oxide).

When you see something like that — really experience it — it truly is amazing. It got me thinking about settings in books. If only we could channel that experience directly, make the reader feel that same creepy wonder, that otherworldlyness combined with the wake-up-and-look bite of something that is absolutely real.

It also made me realise that we owe it to ourselves as writers, and our readers, to get out there and really experience everything this world has to offer. There are some truly strange and wonderful things out there. It took that massive dust storm to remind myself of that.

So what things have you experienced that have made your head spin? That lifted you out of your own reality? And what writers have inspired similar feelings in you with their sense of setting?

By the way, if you want to see some great images of that dust storm, check out this link: http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/gallery/0,23816,5060705-17382,00.html

>What do I say now?

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Currently I have a proposal with a relatively good chance of selling sitting on my desk. I need to do a final read over, adjust the outline to coincide with what changed in the sample chapters (yeah, yeah, but that’s life) and send it out.

It’s been sitting on my desk for two days, in this state.

I can hear you go “What’s wrong, Sarah? Allergy to money?”

Uh. I went to a con over the weekend. It’s not just the proposal that’s sat. There’s dust bunnies (well, technically havey-cat bunnies or perhaps dust havey cats) on the stairs and the guys are running out of clean clothes. I’ve caught up on some of the more urgent emailing. I haven’t even gone to the diner, because I don’t have the energy. I’m just starting to recover but I’m leaving tomorrow to teach a workshop in TX. (Looking forward to it, but also glad it’s the last trip of the season.)

The entire summer has been like that, and I’ve got remarkably little accomplished. I know I can’t be “normal” on that, because I know people who are off to a con every weekend or every other weekend and still write encyclopedic amounts. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like flying.

All this prompted me to think about the life of a writer. See, I thought it was going to be sit down and write, and go to coffee shops and look romantic. Sometimes talk to other writers about our precious gift or something.

Okay, I didn’t exactly think that – I’m not a total prat – but at the back of my mind, I think I imagined something like that. Instead, it’s writing proposals, tracking advances, staying on deadline, all the while trying to promote the books, read enough to stay on top of the field and – heaven help me – at least try to stay in touch with the real world and your family.

We live in a walking area because I’ve found I need to go out preferably once a day and see people. Not necessarily talk to them, but just people watch. Strangers. Passerbys. It keeps me grounded on the fact that there are people outside my head. I haven’t gone out in weeks.

So, what is the purpose of this, other than bitching? To ask you guys a bunch of questions. I know we’ve been running a mini workshop of sorts for the last several months. And I know lots of you are writers. But I also know not all are. And the workshop format does have limits – for one, how many years can we keep this up and still have something interesting to say?

No, I don’t propose leaving the blog. I like you guys and I like my fellow bloggers. My question is more – what else would you like us to talk about? Our current projects, that might never see the light of day? What we’re researching at the moment? The reading cravings that have afflicted us and we have no idea where it will lead? Whom we met at the last con and how they seem to be doing? (Not in mean spirit, but we all have many friends in this field.) Our current impression of what’s going on in the publishing district right now? (I don’t mean just bitching. We have to keep that to a minimum, anyway. But “Did you know such and such merged? What do you think?”)

I’m asking because I found at cons that fans like to hear us talk about this sort of thing. Stuff like “I thought DST was going to be this story about a thief named Imogene and then this Athena chick took over.” (And no, that’s not true. Spare me. It’s five thirty in the morning for me.) They like to know what books we’re currently reading – non-research – how we’re enjoying them, and how they relate to the writing, sometimes in a tortuous way.

Would there be any interest in that type of thing? Not so much “writing” as “my writing life.” (Mind you there’s use in that for aspiring writers too. One of my mentors told me, when I was a wee writing lass – it’s five in the morning! – that in this field you trade up for bigger problems ever step up the ladder. I think it’s true. You also trade up for bigger rewards, and I don’t mean just monetary. Sometimes only knowing a writer over years allows you to see both sides of it.) So, talk to the blitzed between-trips writer. What would you like to see more of?

No, I’m not proposing leaving the blog. I enjoy both the blog and my co-bloggers. I’m just trying to figure out how to make the blog more useful to more people. And also more fun to the rest of us.