Thursday, February 23, 2012

Saying Yes

Say yes to the broccoli bolting, wild and free.

I imagine that yes is the only living thing.
~e. e. cummings

Last week I talked about no, but obviously, we cannot live by "no" alone. To create worlds worth visiting, you have to be equipped to travel to strange, unknown lands and to carry back a story. To create a character worth knowing, you must crawl inside someone else's skin and look out from his/her/its eyes. How do you gain these near magical powers of creative intuition? By saying yes, here in the world. Our world. The one filled with traffic delays and laundry, stubbed toes and kid's tantrums. While you're busy sopping up sticky melted popsicles and pulling weeds, remember to say "yes."

Say yes to what life throws at you, the great days and the awful days.
Say yes to the dear friends and the difficult people.
Say yes to the thoughts and feelings that frighten or bewilder you.
Say yes to your daydreams. 
Carve out a little real estate in your head where ideas can grow into stories. 
Say yes to what if... or else... and then...
Say yes to what is difficult to witness, hard to understand, and impossible to express.
Say yes to this moment. This one. Right now. 
Say yes to company, and then say yes to solitude
Say yes to play, actual play, Frisbee, tag, wrestling on the living room floor, 
and then sit down and say yes to the work.
Say yes to the "shitty first draft."
Say yes to the work of revision.
Say yes to finishing and to sending the story out.
Say yes to the rejection, the acceptance, the misinterpretation...

And finally, say yes to the next story because it can't wait to be told.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Saying No

image by Wayne White
"It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much." 
 --Steve Jobs BusinessWeek Online, Oct. 12, 2004

This one's going to be short as I've got a draft and a couple revisions going this week. Yet, sadly I'm not even saying NO to my weekly blog, but neither am I saying YES. I guess in my half assery I should more accurately title this one "Saying Maybe."

I have always been interested in just about everything. I love embarking on that long, gently sloping learning curve of a new craft/foreign language/art form/scientific discovery -- I could go on. I truly enjoy being a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. This unbiased curiosity is well suited to the writing life where half the fun is imagining characters, their loves, their jobs, and the worlds they live in.

But it's dangerous when combined with the ubiquitous encouragement that many of us have heard, also known as "The American Dream." It goes like this: "You can be anything you want to be." Great, right? What a world we live in. And we do, and you can, but you have to understand about "anything" because that kind of freedom can be a real albatross around your neck. I think it would be better to say, "You can be any ONE thing you want to be."

Okay maybe two. I think I can say that I can be both a mom and a writer. And it's my daughters who can take the credit for helping me figure this one out. When you first have a baby they take pretty close to ALL your time away. And while children are amazing, and the time freely given, it's hard. Saying yes to my girls means showing up as a parent. Being there for them. And with every step towards independence they take, I get another ten minutes back to do ANYTHING with. This time I'm on to you "anything," and the one thing I choose to do is to write. So, no to the half knitted second sock, no to learning Russian, no to yoga (though yes to commuting on my bike).

In the end, of course, it's more complicated than just saying no. It's a constant balancing act, a dance with yes, maybe and later, but that's a post for another day.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Frell and the Frak

You knew Chewbacca was swearing, right?

Speaking of us as a species, it's safe to say that everybody swears. Every language has taboo words and every culture employs certain words to insult, abuse, curse, or simply to express strong emotion.

Perhaps it's called "salty language" because of sailors reputations for swearing. To me it suggests seasoning. Swearing seasons our language. There is even some evidence that swearing temporarily relieves pain, and I --and my stubbed toes and veggie chopped fingers-- totally believe that!

So swearing provides an outlet for emotion, and an insight into a person's mood, class, and culture including what that culture holds sacred or most intimate. For this reason writers have always employed swearing from the greats like James Joyce and J.D. Salinger to -- well, I'm sure you won't have to think very hard to come up with your own dirty dozen.

In 1939, Gone With the Wind used the first swear word in modern American film, kicking off a weedy growth of rough language in movies that has plateaued with the likes of Quentin Tarantino (who works in swears like a painter does in oils). Unfortunately the great ones always spawn a flood of mediocre imitators. A little goes a long way. Apart from Tarantino (or, say, South Park for TV), I am not alone in feeling that many movies, shows and books are ruined by too much foul language.

The broader censorship of network television forces writers to be creative, which often leads to worthy innovations, especially in science fiction and fantasy. From Mork's "Shazbot!" to BSG's "Frak," these shows have a long tradition of employing nonce words, in place of words that would never make it past the censors. Television, and specifically science fiction TV, has inspired some of the most creative uses of invented language. It can be an education for any fiction writer in any medium.


My favorite example is the Firefly series. There are nonce words like "gorram" for "goddamn," but also the use of long strings of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese phrases, which are not only fun to listen to, but illustrate the melting pot culture of the human diaspora across multiple terraformed worlds. Because, of the show's Western influences it also comments on the fact that the American Western Expansion was considerably more multicultural than is generally remembered (I do like a little past with my far future). There are many sites where you can learn Firefly swears and even an iPod app.

Next would have to be Battlestar Galactica, who even in the 1978 series employed "frack" and "felgercarb." The reboot changed the spelling to "frak," so that it would literally be a four-letter world. They also added the racial epithet "toaster" for Cylons. Recently, "frak" has been enhanced by its connotation with the term fracturing, as in hydraulic fracturing. The environmentally destructive, and controversial method of blasting oil out of shale.

It's pure joy watching the actors (and yes the puppets) on Farscape give life to swears they utter. "Frell" is by far the most common, there are quite a few others, listed here.

The dialogue in Babylon 5 is liberally peppered with the words like "frag" and the Narn word "shrock."

Red Dwarf replaces most of its characters' profanities with insulting terms, mainly "smeg," leading to the term "smeg-head." Other common insults include "goit" and "gimboid".


Writing science fiction and fantasy means creating strange worlds filled with alien beings and the culture that goes with them.  Inventing swears serves more than just making your characters salty yet family friendly. Seasoning your character's language is a kind of world building. You can give a distinctive flavor to your characters personalities and their interactions. You can also illustrate something about the culture from which a given character springs.

Orson Scott Card observes that human profanity encompasses words dealing with sexual intercourse and waste excretion, and states that that tells one something about human beings. He suggests that what aliens might find to be profane can be a useful tool for suggesting the alienness of a culture. When creating swears for your characters think about what our culture considers transgressive then think about how you could change it up to illustrate the differences in the alien culture you're building.

It may also help to consider all the different ways that we swear. Here's a brief refresher.

(I drew much of this from Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language by Ruth Wajnryb)

ABUSE - Aggressive language, name calling, and derogatory metaphoric curses. Monty Python's The Argument Clinic illustrates this at around 0:41 (come for the abuse, stay for the tutorial on arguments)

BLASPHEMY - A form of swearing that deliberately vilifies religion. What's important here is the swearer's intention. E.g., in the strictest cases a word like "Jeez," standing in for Jesus can be taboo.

CURSE - Often used for  more general terms like swearing or cussing. To curse means to invoke a higher being for the purpose of calling down some evil on the cursee. It is more ritualistic and deliberately articulated and may not involve the use of foul language. In more religious times, curses were serious and intended literally, now days curses are more spontaneous and metaphoric e.g. Rot in Hell!

EUPHEMISTIC SWEARING - "Sugar!" Substituting an inoffensive term for one that is considered taboo. (My high school track coach did this all the time.)

INSULT - An abusive term meant literally: "you, ugly, fat, pimply, idiot," rather than the metaphoric sense of most swear words "you're screwed."

INVECTIVE - Insult's fancy cousin, more refined and often used in more formal contexts employing irony, wit, puns, and wordplay. It often does not involve profane or obscene language.

SNARK  The sarcastic often malicious speech especially found on the Internet (no relation to the fictional creature Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark).

SWEAR - In this context, the general term for using profane or obscene language. In it's verb form it is the act of taking an oath as in "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

OATH - A formal promise, swearing by the bible, by Jove, or by whatever flips your switch, including yourself: "cross my heart and hope to die."

OBSCENITY - Explicit use of indecent or taboo worlds to refer to intimate parts of the body and the body's functions and products.

PROFANITY  - Words that abuse anything sacred, it's a wider term than BLASPHEMY and often has no intention to vilify, instead uses religious terminology in a secular and indifferent manner.

TABOO WORDS - Words that have been proscribed by a particular culture as being off-limits. It encompasses all of the above plus stigmatized topics such as mental illness and birth defects.

VULGARITY - Broader than obscenity, it makes use of foul language by breaking taboos related to intimate language often substituting words that are DYSPHEMISTC (the opposite of EUPHEMISTIC). E.g., "Wow, look at her ass!"

Whether you use nonce words or real swears,  done well swearing can enhance your writing and your worldbuilding by illustrating culture, personality, and emotion.

Just remember too much seasoning ruins the dish!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reading About Writing: A SciFi/Fantasy Friendly Guide

I almost always have a book about writing going along with my other reading. I consider them my vocational devotionals. Over the years I've read most of the standard how-to-write books, but there's always more out there. This past year as I've been writing more and more, learning the craft, and working to improve specific issues in my writing. So, I have sought out books with more specific advice. Here is a sampling of the best of what I read in 2011. Some are non-genre specific, others are written by people who have worked in Science Fiction and Fantasy and so have some useful insights that you won't find in more general guides.

Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint
by Nancy Kress
I like the whole Write Great Fiction series because they split up the different elements of writing and story crafting. This means each individual book has room to take a deeper more complete look at the topic covered. I picked this one up because I have gotten story notes on my work saying that readers were having trouble connecting with my characters or knowing how they were feeling. This book really came through with some practical and specific ideas that I could immediately put into practice. Nancy Kress is a Hugo and Nebula award winning author of short stories and novels, her most famous is probably Beggars in Spain, a near future story dealing with the social ramifications of genetic modifications. Clearly Kress is an experienced teacher, and well read. She uses both genre and non-genre examples in her books. I liked her teaching style so well I went on to read Elements of Fiction Writing - Beginnings, Middles & Ends (mostly for the "middles" part).

Starve Better
by Nick Mamantas
These essays are entertaining in the shoot-from-the-hip style that comes from expanded blog material. There is practical advice for both writing (short stories in particular), and for navigating the writing life. Mamantas is best known for his horror and dark fiction, but has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and a Hugo. He spent some time as the co-fiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a publication I would very much like to break into, so his insights into the editorial process there were especially interesting to me. Apparently, he stirred up some controversy a few years ago when he wrote about supporting himself by writing for a term paper mill, but I found chapter where he discussed it interesting and honest. It's worth the paperback price. If you have a Kindle a copy is only $3.99.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Gerrold David
David has won a Hugo and a Nebula. His other claim to fame is that he penned the classic Trouble With Tribbles episode from the original Star Trek series, which was enough for me to check out this book. It's out of print, so I did have to literally check it out from my local library. The second half is a little padded out with some rather extensive examples from his own work, but the first half of the book is worth the price of admission. In the first chapters he discusses the difference between (writing) science fiction and fantasy. He explains that, "the first issue in science fiction is believability, because Science Fiction is rooted in science," On the other hand: "Fantasy is not the abandonment of logic. It is the reinvention of it ... the creation of an alternate structure of logic." Those two statements are a jumping off point for a meaty discussion about the similarities and differences in these two genres, and they really helped me understand what I need to accomplish when writing one or the other.

The Art of Fiction
by John Gardner
Absolutely required reading. I read it in college and just reread it this year. This book manages to be  a primer, but also to go beyond basic advice and touch on what it means to elevate your writing to something approaching art. Some complain about Gardner's idiosyncratic style. While I have to honestly say I've never really connected with Gardner's fiction, his personal style in this guide book is one of the things that makes it such a pleasure to read. The exercises are also worth the time. I've had more than one grow into stories in their own right.

The Writer's Portable Mentor
By Priscilla Long
I am still doing the exercises in this one. This book is not genre or even fiction specific but everything in it applies to anything you might be writing. In the section about working with language, she suggests gathering a lexicon specific to whatever piece of writing you're working on. I now have lexicons running down the margins of all my drafts, and have found the practice of gathering words specific to a given project both practical and inspirational (NOTE: this is NOT about opening a Thesaurus and copying down all the synonyms). There is a set of exercises geared to hone your ability to capture observations both social and sensory. She goes on to cover several ways to structure a piece of writing, and has a section on the art of sentences and paragraphs that includes, but goes beyond, basic grammar. Another thing I especially like is that while the exercises useful in their own right,  she stresses that you use the exercises on your current project. Because the point isn't to fill a journal (and your writing time) with endless exercises, but to create and polish a piece of writing that you can go on to sell.

How Not To Write a Novel
By Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
"What do you think of my fiction book writing?" the aspiring novelist extorted.
"Darn," the editor hectored, in turn. "I can not publish your novel! It is full of what we in the business call 'really awful writing.'"
"But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!" The writer tossed his head about, wildly.
"It might help," opined the blonde editor, helpfully, "to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid the very thing!"
Some people find this sort of thing irritating. Not me. Nothing like seeing what NOT to do demonstrated so hilariously.

It's time well spent reading any of these books as they're all full of great advice and plenty of inspiration. Of course the magic dust of advice and inspiration only work if you're actively writing, and wrestling with your stories to make them stronger.

Here are the next couple books the top of my 2012 pile. Here's to another year of writing and of reading about writing.

Nascence: 17 Stories That Failed and What They Taught Me
By Tobias Bucknell

Since I am a writer's group friendly kind of writer, I think this book may have something to teach me. I find the practice of critiquing other writers' work (either in person, in a writer's group, or in writing over the web) to be an excellent way to improve. While it's important to be reading great short stories, but it is an entirely different experience to read a story that isn't quite there yet, a story that is broken somehow, and to articulate -- in a constructive and helpful way -- exactly why it isn't working (Kindle only).

How to write a Sentence: And How to Read One
By Stanley Fish
Because I enjoy reading Stanley Fish. And I love sentences.