The conflict of language

There’s some amazing discussion of language in fantasy (and especially the ubiquitous and lazy “common tongue”) going on at the moment. Kameron Hurley has written a fantastic piece on common realistic civilisation fails in fantasy worldbuilding, and followed up with more depth on language in particular, and Django Wexler’s writing about languages in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction.

There is just so much YES about all of these pieces that I feel like I have very little to conceptually add except emphatic nods and perhaps the offer of a beer. However, the pieces – especially Kameron Hurley’s second one, and her comments on the inherent tension in the multilingual state – really made me think of a couple of personal experiences that I wanted to throw into the gumbo on this.

1. Communicating, and trying to communicate. A few years ago, Mr Dee and I went to Russia. A friend was getting married, and it was the chance of a lifetime to see a place very different from what we were used to. And it was amazing, but it was also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, one of which was language and communication.

English is not common in Russia. In fact, outside the elite tourism sector (expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, some tourism venues, mostly the popular ones) no one speaks a word of it. Or of any language save Russian. (Why should they? As we tried language after language on one shop assistant – between us, we can communicate badly in about five – she looked at us like we were crazy, pointed to herself and said, “Russki.” She’s Russian. Why would she speak English? Or French, or Italian, or German, or…)

But most difficult was the lack of willingness to make an effort to cross the communication divide. Guides in museums would just speak slower and louder at us; we resorted to mime and gestures and guessing, desperately searching for the “da” or “nyet” that would give us something like a clear idea what we were being told we could or couldn’t do. The aforementioned shop assistant, with whom we wanted to complete a financial transaction, was completely disinterested in working with us to find a pair of shorts that fit, despite demonstrations of the problem with this pair of shorts. And the train conductor on our overnight from Moscow to Novgorod shook her head at our tickets, made us stand aside, and we realised that there was nothing at all we could do. We could be stranded in this country and have no idea what the problem was, no way to attempt to resolve it.

That’s what language means.

2. Language and identity. Same trip, two weeks later, we’re in Belgium. We’re so delighted that basically everyone speaks English (especially in touristy Brugge) that we didn’t really think about Belgium being an officially bilingual country until we sat down for a social beer with our B&B hostess. We’d made our booking by email in French (because Mr Dee could, and it seemed polite to at least make an effort) but had noted that Brugge was in Flemish-speaking Belgium (and therefore strictly shouldn’t be called Bruges); we asked what language she preferred. She noted that she was Flemish, but as a tourist guide and now B&B host, she spoke English and French as well. But her children had learned English at school as a second language, not French. They refused, in fact. They actively avoid the language. They don’t want to know. This is a country with two official languages, one of which is not English, but people aren’t learning both of them. They learn their language. And English.

A year later, we’re back in Brugge, catching up with our hostess for another beer. (It’s what we do in Belgium.) She tells us that Belgium still doesn’t have a government, hasn’t had one since before we were there last time. They haven’t been able to form one, in part because the bilingual issue in the country is so contentious. One party won the Flemish side, one won the French. Both have intractable positions. Other parties want to figure out compromises, but none can make a majority. (While we’re there, the king uses his national-day-of-Belgium address to tell the politicians to get the hell on with it and sort something out.) Language, especially in terms of financial and service use, is such a hugely contentious issue (among others; I’m not pretending this is simple or I know everything about it) that before any sort of resolution can be reached Belgium will have been without an official government for 541 days. In any other day and age, this is civil war sort of talk, and you can’t tell me otherwise.

That’s what language means.

And if you’re missing out on these amazing tensions in your fantasy, you’re missing out, yo.


If there’s one thing my writing group (“The Firm”) would tell you… well, actually, it would probably be that I have a terrible predilection for over-paragraphing and also for long, convoluted, phrase-ful sentences, much like this one, that cram in every idea I have and create a lot of confusion as to the precise point.

Another thing they’d tell you is that I really like world systems. Ruling arrangements and heirarchies are some of my favourites, of course, because of my political-fantasy inclinations. And titles; I love a good extrapolated and nested construction of titles. I’m particularly fond of non-standard-fantasy arrangements and titles. And religious titles are such a treasure trove of amazing options that I get genuinely disappointed every time someone’s just a “High Priest”. They couldn’t be an arch-something? And I admit, I’m the sort of person who finds “sword” boring when it could be sabre, longsword, khopesh, falchion, gladius, flamberge, rapier…

Much of this comes from a desire for the richness of detail that comes with specifity over generic. A rocking story is a rocking story, whatever it’s wearing, but I must admit I enjoy things so much more when the story-scenery is full of interesting things.

My above-all personal bugbear is naming systems. Nothing irritates me more than reading a fantasy where three characters supposedly from exactly the same cultural and socio-economic background are called K’lista, Enid and Dmitri. (Most often this manifests as a hero or heroine whose name shares no construction with anyone else of his/her country.) By all means, mix French and Japanese naming patterns, styles and sounds! Just have a reason for who gets what. (It doesn’t have to be explained. In fact, please don’t explain it. But when I go looking for it, it should be obvious that – e.g. – all girls below a certain class have French names. Bonus points if there are hints in the history/society of the world as to why this is the case.)

There are other, ostensibly “more important” systems in any speculative fiction, of course – the special physics of fantastical systems, for instance, or if you’re KJ Parker, economic forces. But I love seeing all the little details that make a human world be systematic. It thrills me to link them up into complex webs, whether reading or writing. (I know. I’m odd.)

Anatomy of a writing session

My workspace seemed particularly indicative of current trends tonight, so I thought I’d preserve it for posterity.

A still life featuring writing project and cat.
A brief guide for the new initiate:

A: Scrivener. Actual writing project thing! With words!
B: The Google Doc and accompanying chat window of my writing circle. We have been instituting a virtual writing circle (to go with our monthly workshopping meetings) whereby we show up at an agreed time twice a week, register what we hope to get done, and then sit in together in cyberspace and do it. The benefits of this are manifold, and I will expound upon them another time.
C: Zizou. “Helping”.
D: Zizou controlling device, for when she’s not even pretending to “help”.

(Yes, actually, the screen on this thing is enormous.)

The accusing gaze of the flashing cursor on the empty page

Great advice on the terror of starting out on a new anything from Stephen Deas in his first type-along NaNoWriMo post (among other things!).

I have terrible trouble with starting. Not with starting a new project, usually; part of the low-flying seagull of inspiration is usually a beginning, or maybe it’s that I don’t start writing actual narrative until I feel that I have to, compulsive planner that I am. But starting a new chapter or section of the story? I can stare at that for weeks – both physically at the empty screen, and figuratively as I stare out the train window and just past people’s ears in social situations.

The standard breakdown of the period between writing-group deadlines for me can be summarised as:

  • two days of strict and careful planning of story points to be covered in the next chapter (or two, if I’m ambitious)
  • five to twenty days of trying to figure out where to start
  • a week of scraping words together, only to find the place where I should have started
  • two days of fluent writing to complete the chapter, usually the two days before pieces are due for writing-group.

So advice about kicking myself into starting is invaluable, even if it turns out later I started in the wrong spot. (Chances are, I would have done that anyway.) And Stephen Deas’s gem —

“So here’s a trick for getting started if you’re struggling: pillage.”

— has just kicked me off perfectly on my next chapter.

And I’m not even struggling with the plagiarist guilts, because I pillaged from myself. I have an advantage here, inasmuch as in the thing I’m working on, I’m telling three stories in parallel, so I can reach over to chapter 7 of another POV and pilfer the first paragraph. Or, actually, once I got my edit on, the first line. OK fine, the first five words and a general rhythm.

But it worked. Words on the damn page. UNDERWAY. (And there are still SIX days before writing-group deadline, so nyah. >.>)

The slow-food approach to fiction

Rachel Aaron made an excellent post about Story Velcro – the art of “unputdownable” writing through careful and tight layering of hooks.

Let me just say – very few writers write as well about writing (…say that after the third martini) as Rachel Aaron. She has keen observation and scientific rigour and she applies it to the business of writing ruthlessly. There is a lot to learn from her blog! So I’m sure that she is absolutely 100% right about how to make your writing “unputdownable”.

Here’s my sticking point: I’m not sure I like “unputdownable” books.

That sounds ridiculous, and of course it is: I, like everyone else, want a book with heaps of layered interests, with a fascinating world and intriguing characters having enthralling relationships as they pursue outrageous goals. I want there to be heaps in the story to chew on, and for it to be an endless buffet of delights.

But (to continue my food metaphor!) I need time to digest. I need to pause, and reflect, and make connections and considerations and extrapolations in my head. I need to do this to be satisfied with a book. I do not stay up all night reading. I generally don’t even read for hours at a stretch at any time. If I can do that, if the book just slips that easily into my mind, I generally find at the end that it slips right out again. It’s like chocolate; sure, you keep reaching back to the block for one more square, it’s easy and compelling to eat, but once you’ve eaten the whole thing in one sitting, you don’t really feel great about it.

With a truly magnificent book – the sort of book I am going to tell everyone to read – I can find myself stretching out the reading. Using parts of my “reading time” to just hug the book to me and think about it. I ration it out to myself like… well, like the finest and richest chocolate. It’s not about finding out what happens next as quickly as possibly; the experience of reading the book, of unwrapping each new tidbit of delight, is part of the magnificence.

So possibly what I’m ruminating about here is not “story velcro”, but an over-focus on pace. And I think my ongoing food metaphor is going to serve me well here: if you’re writing fast food then maybe pace is king, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I duck in for a quick McBurger sometimes myself.

But I don’t tell my friends about it (unless it’s really bad). I do tell them about that long, luxurious, eight-course degustation with matching wines and attentive but never harrying service.

Something to think about.

All the reasons why not

So here's an interesting sidenote to start with: My work internet blocks absolutely no websites or web apps except LiveJournal. Baffling as this lone exception is, it's also tremendously annoying, since the only time I have to journal and comment-respond is in five-minute gaps between work things, and then I can't respond to LJ comments. I have been going, “Oh, well, I'll get them when I'm at home, then!” but at-home computer time is writing or games (in the midst of a Wesnoth revival pending the release of Neverwinter) and I always forget. I don't want to turn off LJ commenting, because I love hearing from you guys however and whenever, but bear this in mind.

Back to point!

Encountered today: 8 Reasons Authors Don't Complete Their Manuscripts.

More than a few of these hit me where I live – and especially there were a couple to which I nodded sagely: I would not have finished Boralos if I had not overcome them. Others I find myself wrestling with right now.

Portrait of the artist as an exemplar of various of these problems )

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Confessions of a detail addict

One of the most marvellous things about travelling – to my mind – is finding out the details of how life is lived differently in other places by other people. I find the really little things absolutely fascinating. How chairs are arranged at outdoor cafes in Europe. That in America the standard electronic account is cheque, not savings. The ridiculous way Russians queue (…they basically don't, to my English-derived sensibilities).

Fantasy worldbuilding is basically travelling, except you get to make up all the delicious details. )

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The deft touch of worldbuilding

Here's a thing about writing fantasy (or speculative fiction of any kind, really): it relies upon a contract between you and the reader that you will build a world different from the one they know, and if they follow you there, you will tell them a really interesting story.

The differences can be anywhere from slight and subtle to comprehensive and entire, and the reader doesn't really know until you tell her. In a way, therefore, the opening chapters of speculative fiction don't just have to do all the stuff that a 'normal' book does – establish characters and the hook of the story – but also rough out the parameters of the universe, give some idea of the general changes made. (After all, if you're muddling along happily in a world where apparently the only difference is that the Church of England never happened, and then all of a sudden in chapter 45 – wham – goblins, you're going to be ticked off, because that changes the assumptions you've been making for all the preceding pages. Or at least, I would be, if that were sprung on me.)

There are a couple of interesting repercussions of this. 1) Spec fic readers let you get away with stuff )

2) Spec fic readers DON'T let you get away with stuff )

You have to be careful. The contract cuts both ways, and before you know it you end up with giant bunnies. ;)

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My enthusiasm has gone down the back of the couch of my subconscious

I'm having a spot of bother with House of Truth and Lies, inasmuch as I've finished the first part, up to my first major candy-bar scene, and maybe I made too much of that scene to myself, because my brain seems to be acting like I've finished the story.

“What?” it's saying. “Those guys? Aren't we done with them? OTHER SHINY IDEAS!”

I thought perhaps it was just doing that because now I had to specific-plot out the second part of the novel. (I have rough plans, but they need fleshing out as I get closer – and I don't like to plan in detail too much because I find that then I do deviate in writing, as though I'm just being contrary. It is me. This is possible.) My psyche is like water, and always seeks the lowest path of least resistance, so I was berating it up the hill of plot-work with a big stick. But now the middle section is all plotted out, and I'm still not really that interested in writing it.

Of course that just won't do. If I'm not enthusiastic about it, no one else will be.

So now I'm trying to think of ways to rediscover my joy and interest and fun. Maybe I need to really settle in with my characters and learn more about them. Maybe I need more world details. Maybe I do need to do something else in the meantime, though that feels fiendishly like letting my brain get away with it.

Any ideas?

In the meantime, I made the “After Dinner Biscuits” from over here… except the Australian is being a fascist about linking to it (I don't have to log-in to see it, why do you have to when I link it?) so I'll C&P the recipe here: Chocolate with chocolate and some chocolate )

PS: Does anyone ever actually have a tablespoon these days? We just turned out house upside down trying to find one I was sure we had. I suppose I could just get a handy tablespoon measure, but it's the principle of the thing.

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It's a kind of magic

A few things bleeding together in my head have congealed into this post, and if that analogy hasn't completely squicked you away from reading any further, I will now tell you what they are:

  1. an old friend accurately skewered Brandon Sanderson for using his novel as an explanation of a gaming system of magic;
  2. NK Jemisin stamped her foot on the idea that magic has to make sense; and both of these bumped up against;
  3. Holly Lisle's advice, long held dear to my heart, on world-building your special physics.

I'm going to start rambling on the topic of magic, systemic or otherwise, and see if I can pull together a coherent post here – stay tuned! )

This would be a good place to conclude with my “rules” for developing magic in your story. But I'm a big believer in The Rule – you know the one, the one that says “There are no rules”. If you can make it work, then run with it. (Run. Run like you stole something.)

But you have to make it work.

To assist with that, I would suggest:

  • you have to understand what sort of position magic occupies in your universe and your story, because otherwise what's it doing there? Also you will contradict yourself and that will be bad;
  • if you have a magic user as a character, there had better be good reasons why they don't just fix everything with magic, otherwise there goes your believable tension; and
  • think outside the box. Make something new, unless you can say something new about something old, or… y'know what? THERE ARE NO RULES.

Though I would also like to add that one thing that is often hilariously overlooked in “magic systems” is refinement, advancement and all those other by-products of the application of scientific codification to anything. Basically: if humanity's been doing magic this way for a thousand years, why aren't they better at it than they used to be?

In other news, I will be posting some work-in-progress soon, for thoughts and comments and general entertainment, of the House of Truth and Lies variety, so if you're not encircled on my Dreamwidth and you'd like to see the WIP, let's sort something out.

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