On Commitments

There was a time when a verbal agreement was as good as done. If the average person agreed to do a thing, only an Act of God would prevent it. Commitments were set in stone.

(c) 2009 Glenda Sims // Downloaded 3/13/15 from Flickr Creative Commons and used unchanged

(c) 2009 Glenda Sims // Downloaded 3/13/15 from Flickr Creative Commons and used unchanged

That isn’t necessarily so now. People make commitments and don’t follow through. From what some people have told me, they never had any intention of following through. There’s something very sad about that.

Commitments are broken, and getting upset about it would be easy but fruitless.

What causes this breach of commitment? Setting aside those gooberheads who make commitments they intend to break, I don’t believe most breaches are caused by malice. Really I think many people have forgotten how to count the cost of the commitment. They get caught up in the moment and jump in without fully realizing what they’ve gotten themselves into and how it will mesh with other, firm commitments.

At other times, Mack Truck Theory happens. That’s when a virtual Mack Truck comes screaming out of nowhere and flattens all your best laid plans. You do know, right, that one of the Murphy’s Corollaries is that no plan survives first contact with reality.

So what can we do when we see a commitment deadline bearing down and know for sure we’re going to flub it?

If you find you’re about to slip a deadline, contact the other person and let them know. As a rule, people handle disappointment better when they see it coming and know the cause.

If someone breaks a commitment with you, consider a little grace. Try a kind reminder and offer a revised deadline. Relationships are too valuable to throw away on little things. That doesn’t mean you have to perpetually set yourself up for disappointment. If someone has a history of blowing commitments to you, that might be your cue to avoid agreements with that person until their situation or outlook changes.

Sadly, sometimes we reach a point where we can no longer maintain a relationship with someone who constantly fails on their commitments. Such an extreme move should be a last resort, but sometimes that’s all there is. For most other situations, a little kindness, a little grace, and maybe a bit of wariness for the future will go a long way.

On Parting Company

Unfortunately, some relationships come to an end. People drift apart, needs change, or something totally catastrophic happens and one or both parties decide that moving on in separate ways would be for the best.

Even before the internet era, different people responded in different ways. The rare person grieved or celebrated the separation and moved on. Some people found creative outlets to vent their feelings. Others went around and made sure everyone knew what a total jerk the other person was.

With the explosion of social media and the entitlement mindset, that last option has spread like an epidemic of Biblical proportions. People can’t wait to go write a 2-page blog and post demeaning, even vicious comments about a once friend or partner.

These outrages are not limited to the personal relationships. Business relationships can go much the same way, even though most business contracts include statements of ethical conduct standards forbidding badmouthing the company. A major retailer I work for includes the caveat that posting derogatory comments and then taking them down is no good. That only makes sense. Once some comment is anywhere on the net, it’s everywhere on the net.

“What about the freedom of speech? I can post whatever I want, right?”

Well, yes and no. If we’ve signed an agreement, then we voluntarily gave up some of our nights. We can still post what we want, sure, but a signed contract is a legal document, and we could get in hot water if the other person decides to make an issue.

“I’m simply warning others so they avoid the mess I was in.”

Are we? Or are we really just venting some spleen? I’ll admit that it’s possible for someone to be out to protect others, but we need to check ourselves long and hard on that one. I’ve seen many people claim that they were looking out for others but they really just had an axe to grind. They were in revenge mode, not guardian mode.

“They had it coming.”

Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t. What happened to grace? Sense of common decency? For the majority of us, we would be grateful if we did not get what we really deserved. A little grace and understanding can go a long way.

“I’m not saying anything untrue.”

That may well be, but gossip and rumor need not be false to be damaging. I for one would not like the unvarnished truth publicly spoken about me in some cases. Try as I might, I mess up now and then and so do other people. Wouldn’t we all take offense if the other person wrote a scathing blog or vicious social media posts because we made a mistake?

“I needed to talk through it because I’m so [insert emotion here].”

Understandable, but there’s a big difference between a private message or phone call with a trusted friend and airing the dirty laundry in social media and blogs.

“They started it!”

Pick an idiom:

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Don’t feed trolls.

Both responses work.

Parting ways can be difficult, even when the reason to do so was excellent. Don’t make a bad situation worse by giving in to the temptation to lambaste the other party on the web. Yes, we may feel better when it’s all over, and we might succeed in dousing the other person with verbal mud, but mud splatters, and the diatribe will reflect poorly on us.

(c) 2008 Isabelle // Downloaded on this date from Flickr creative commons

(c) 2008 Isabelle // Downloaded on 3/13/15 from Flickr creative commons

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 15: Dialects and Accents

In my writing adventures, I often play around with accents (pronunciation differences) and dialects (changes in word choice or cadence). Most of my stories have one or more characters with some kind of weird speech quirk. I’ve even written a couple with accented narration. The tricky bit is getting that to appear on paper to match what I hear in my head.

While reading the 10 Hugos and Nebulas for a challenge, I was surprised to find that very few of them had dialects or accents. Does that mean that we should not write with accents?

No, but you do need to be careful with them. This is one of those cases where a little is good but a lot won’t be better.

When I’m writing a rough draft, I’ll write the accented character exactly as I hear him in my head. This usually results in an accent or dialect that is far too dense, and I have to tone it back. I often use feedback from beta readers to help me determine if my accent is a little too stiff. Reading it aloud can help in some cases, too, particularly if you’re totally making up the accent instead of copying a common one.

Here’s an example from Remnant in the Stars. This is an early version of that scene, after I had already toned down the accent once. Sora is speaking to Derek about an event that happened years ago. The rules I decided on for his accent were these: no pronouns, no To Be verbs, no contractions, and no past or future tenses.

“Derek needs to understand that Sora’s condition resembles nothing like normal. Sora’s parents served on a scout ship run by the Hadesha Household. Sora ages fifty years by the time the scout ship finds Earth. Normally, little ones remain with the fleet, but Sora’s telepathy develops at the time of the event. Sora’s parents bring Sora on the scout when the fleet reads Earth on the scanners. League mechs shoot down the scout. The League and Coalition fight over the wreckage. When the Coalition’s rescue team arrives, only two on the scout survive. One survivor sits in the room with Derek. The other dies soon after the rescue. Sora’s telepathy develops very far before the fleet catches up. When Sora’s aunt and uncle and Sora’s grandfather try to teach Sora control, Sora learns too little. Too much time goes by.”

What rule did I kick out from the first effort? No complex or compound sentences. Can you imagine someone’s dialogue being all noun-verb-object? Wow. This version’s better than the original version, but not by a whole lot. Reading it, especially out loud, was tough to do without tripping.   Here’s the published version. The final rules I decided upon were no contractions and no past or future tense verbs.

He checked that line of thought before it could devolve into harsher self-deprecation. “Derek, you need to understand that I am unusual even for my kind. My parents are part of a scout ship run by the Hadesha Household. I am a boy of fifty years when our ship finds Earth.”

“Now hold on. That’s two hundred years ago.”

He grimaced. Why did humans always round their numbers? Had they no sense of precision? “Two hundred fourteen. I am two hundred sixty-four now. Normally, little ones remain with the fleet, but my telepathy develops at this time, and parents must be near at hand to give the early instruction. Other relations, even close ones, cannot reach into those deep parts of the mind to give the correct guidance.”

Derek’s posture relaxed some, and the sense of loathing abated. “I know the first contact story. The Aolanian scout was intercepted by the League and shot down. The League and Coalition fought over the wreckage. When the Coalition’s rescue team arrived, there were two survivors, and one died later. The other was a kid. You?”

Even two hundred fourteen years, five months and twelve days later, Sora recalled waking up in an unfamiliar place with a human female watching over him. What had panicked him more? All the tubes and wires or the hard cast wrapped around his arm?

“Yes, yes. I am that child. My telepathy develops very far before the fleet catches up. When my aunt and uncle and my grandfather try to teach me control, I do not learn as much as I should. It is too late for me.”

Better, yes?

When you write an accent or dialect for a character, you need enough of it in there to provide the flavor of it, but like seasoning your dinner, you don’t want to dump in the whole jar of spices. Most of the time — because there are always exceptions — I try to pick one or two quirks and stick with those. Too many and you get a mess. Not enough and what’s there looks like a mistake.  Just be careful what you pick. In Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo, one of the alien races trills on the letter r.  Just one quirk, right? Shouldn’t be too bad, right?  Welllll… check out the original version of this dialogue.

“Don’t be rrridiculous.” Brachi rose to his full height and stalked closer to Patina. “Why would Patina rrrequest forrr you to arrrange such inapprrroprrriate quarrrterrrs when she had alrrready told us to make a place of honorrr for ourrr guests.”

I had a critique partner tell me she hated it when that guy talked because she had to slow way down to make sure she was reading it right.  That’s bad. So, I toned it back some and arrived at this version:

“Don’t be rridiculous.” Brachi rose to his full height and stalked closer to Patina. “Why would Patina ask you to set aside such inappropriate quarters when she had already told us to make a place of honor for our guests.”

*Phew* More readable now, but just enough weirdness to provide the general idea, especially as you read on and discover that he only trills the r when it’s in front of the word..

Another thing to keep an eye on is making sure the accent is consistent for a character all the way through. In Lines of Succession, I use an accent to differentiate between the nobility and peasantry in the story. Here, check this out from the published version. Baldwin, a guard who’s part of Princess Elaina’s escort, is helping her figure out a cryptic letter she received from a prophet:

When he finished [reading the letter], he started again. “This path none would go alone. If ‘e’s meanin’ a real one, the only one I c’n think of is Kalinda Rift. It’s north o’ here, and there’s a path right through themountains. And see, there’s this weird  rock at the Sonjikstani side. They call it The Needle. It’s tall and straight, and it ‘as this ‘ole at the top.”

She looked way up at him. “You actually pass through that hole?”

“Nay, Yer ‘Ighness. Far too small for a real griffin.”

“I see. Most of the rest is pretty easy.” Elaina pointed to the next few lines. “Whatever the path is, someone joins me. I fight Toshiroans and win at some expense. Then I’m Zane’s regent for some bizarre reason.”

“Could be all manner of reasons for that.”

She turned toward the north. “If we took the Rift, we’d be home by nightfall tomorrow.”

Baldwin shook his head. “Not with the slow old ‘ens we’re flying. ‘Cept my young’un, we must’ve gotten the oldest, slowest ‘ens in the ‘ole aerie. The sergeant says we been making poor time every step of the way.”

On an earlier draft, I found that his accent shifted around some as he appeared in later scenes. That happened when, after the initial accent was way too dense, I had to back up and ease up some. Here’s a second draft with the same guy in a later scene.

“What seems to be the trouble?” He beckoned Baldwin closer, and they met halfway. “Not hurt, are we?”

Baldwin shook his head. “No, Yo’ Grace. Jus’ a rough turn o’ events is all.”

Uncle Grady scowled. “Speak plainly, man.”

“Fo’give me, Yo’ Grace.” Baldwin cast a glance at Oswald. “Master Aquilane, he–”

Michael twisted around and stared hard at Oswald. “Me and Baldwin made a fort, and Oswald rode his horse right through it!”

Uncle Grady’s scowl grew. “You weren’t in it, were you?”

“No, Yo’ Grace. When I saw wha’ Master Aquilane’s meant t’ be doin’, ‘Is ‘Ighness and I hid b’hind a tree.”

Notice how it doesn’t quite match?  To deal with this, I went through the manuscript and every time Baldwin opened his mouth and spewed forth words, I copied them into another document so I had all his dialogue in one place without extraneous verbiage to distract me. After deciding what quirks I wanted in his speech, I went through the entire pile of his lines and made them all match that standard. Now he sounds consistent throughout.

Dialects and accents are fun to play with in writing, but remember one key thing to their usage: Clarity must triumph over authenticity.  No matter how cool or realistic the accent is, anything that ejects your reader from the story or makes them slow down to figure out what in the universe you’re trying to do … is bad. You want the reader to sit down with the intention of reading a chapter or two and look up to find a few hours have gone by because they were so engrossed in what you wrote. That won’t happen if you make it hard for them.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 14: Fake Words

Science fiction and fantasy are good at fake words. They have to be. Without fake words, how could writers realistically describe fake things? “Snake that gives you pleasant dreams and takes away anxiety” is nice but “Dreamsnake” is a lot easier to type, say, and read. “Helicopter with bird wings instead of rotors” is nicely descriptive, but “avicopter” gets the idea across much more nicely. There’s no reason why Klingon should be using the metric system — or the Imperial, for that matter — but with a bit of context, “Kellicam” gets the job done.

Sometimes science fiction writers borrow fake words from each other. Left Hand of Darkness used the term “ansible” for a communication device capable of transmitting information across interstellar distance at instantaneously. One of the Hugos I read after that — Ender’s Game —  used it again and gave LHoD indirect credit for it by mentioning that someone borrowed the term from an old book.

What about the rules? What do they say about fake words? This point of contention comes up often in writer’s groups. Many insist the practice is evil. Just use the nearest available English word as and rely on description to handle the rest. Others insist nothing less than arrogance demands that all alien species be fluent in English. This camp claims no problem with generating their very own words.

So, what did the Hugos and Nebulas do? Some totally made up words. Others generated words by using Latin and Greek or Germanic roots and affixes. Some did both, but I don’t recall any of them doing neither.

In my own writing, I have totally made some woods up (urushalon, kiandarai). I have also built words from roots and affixes of other languages (astrogator, avicopter). Sometimes, I have badly spelled those on purpose or combined the two techniques (seeyay, atravay). The reaction from readers is mixed. Some of my betas, critique partners, and readers have had no problems, at least not that they’ve told me. I do sometimes get feedback that a word I used — even a perfectly good but less common English word — caused confusion.

So what’s a speculative fiction writer to do? Strive for clarity.

Whether you repurpose an English word like Dune’s “spice,” or use a less common English word like “piste,” or build a word like “avicopter,” or totally make one up like “kiand,” use context and description, or even some outright telling *gasp*, to make the meaning clear. Do this not only the first time the word comes up, but periodically throughout the tale. Link the reader back to the meaning of the word.

Clarity. That’s the thing.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 13: Titles

Coming up with a good title for a book is the second hardest thing about writing. (The first? Writing the back cover blurb. Wow, I can write a 106,000-word, coherent, interesting story but the 106 words to describe it? Pffff…) That’s why I usually skip the idea of chapter titles. One title is hard enough.

There are, of course, rules about good titles. According to The Rules, titles should be…

  1. short
  2. related to the plot
  3. devoid of uncommon foreign words
  4. devoid of made up words
  5. interesting
  6. unique.

Is it any wonder some of my works go through several versions of titles before we find a good one?

So, how did the Hugos & Nebulas in my challenge do?

  1. Dune: Hey. not bad. 6 out of 6.
  2. Left Hand of Darkness: 4 of 6. Sorry but I can’t give it short or plot related (unless you pick up on the obscure reference to the alien proverb)
  3. Gateway: 6 of 6.­
  4. Fahrenheit 451: If you happen to know the spontaneous combustion temperature of paper, you’ve got 6 of 6.
  5. Starship Troopers: 6 of 6
  6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 5 of 6. Definitely loses on the length requirement, wow.
  7. Rendezvous with Rama: 5 of 6. “Rama” appears to be made up, but it’s actually foreign (The name of a Hindu god). Either way, it breaks the obscure (to most Westerners) foreign word/made-up word rule.
  8. Ender’s Game: 6 of 6, but iffy. Ender is the kid’s name.
  9. Ringworld: 6 of 6 If you count a made-up compound word built from common words.
  10. Dreamsnake: 6 of 6, with the same caveat as Ringworld.

So, really, the “experts” did a pretty good job with their titles.

Here are my existing and forthcoming titles. How did I do?

  • Lines of Succession
  • Remnant in the Stars
  • Negotiator
  • The Hat
  • The Last Mission
  • The Loudest Actions
  • The Condemned Courier
  • Urushalon 1: Like Herding the Wind
  • Urushalon 2: Into the Open
  • Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo
  • Jewel Among the Stones
  • Interference
  • Hand Knocks
  • The Fall of the Invincible Man
  • Dragon’s Bane

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 12: $#*%!

If you want to see a group of writers go just crazy about something, start a conversation about whether cussing is appropriate. Asking this question in a group of children’s books writers or religious writers is like adding jet fuel to a bonfire. Maintain minimum safety clearances at all times and wear the appropriate protective gear properly. Better yet, Run! Run away and hide!

I will freely admit to you that I am one of those prudes who does not want bleep-able language in my entertainment, so I don’t use it in my writing. I’m not even a fan of “made up” cuss words. Once the meaning of those fake words is established, you lose whatever you thought you gained by making it up.

If other artists and writers feel the urge to use “technician talk,” that’s up to them. I only control my own pen. I might not enjoy the work as much as I would have if the writer had kept it clean, but I will only make suggestions. You control the output from your pen.

So, how did the paragons of speculative fiction do on their potty mouth tendencies? That varied a great deal, actually. There, at one extreme, was Gateway, whose main character was apparently wholly incapable of uttering 10 syllables without an expletive. Taking the middle ground was Ringworld with its made-up swear words. I don’t recall that any were completely clean. Even the Harry Potter book Goblet of Fire had NSFW language, or at least language not suitable for kids, IMHO.

So, to have good speculative fiction, do you have to get some words from the verbal sewer? No, but apparently doing so is not a hindrance to greatness.

Ultimately, you get to choose your vocabulary, but for me, I would rather be creative than crass.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 11: Speaker IDs

If you put 5 writing experts in a room and ask them to explain the best way to identify speakers in dialogue, you’ll end up with
6 opinions. Variations on the theme include…

  1. Don’t bother unless absolutely necessary. Most people ignore tags anyway, and if you do a good enough job developing your characters, people will recognize them by the way they talk.
  2. Use “[name] said” at the end of the line. Anything else is redundant.
  3. It’s perfectly okay to use whispered, yelled, asked, or any other variant of “said” that will better communicate the action to the reader.
  4. ID the speaker with whatever technique you want, but make sure you do it within the 1st 6 words of dialogue, even if you have to interrupt the speaker to do it.
  5. In a long conversation, ID the speakers once at the beginn­ing of the exchange. The reader will know they alternate the rest of the way.
  6. Have the characters address each other by name once in a while during a long conversation
  7. Use the “[name] said” ID sparingly and only at the beginning or end of the line of dialogue. Never interrupt a speaker with a short ID tag. The rest of the time, use an action to ID the speaker and build up the scene to avoid “talking heads.”

There were examples among the Hugos and Nebulas that used at least one of those conventions. Many used more
than one.

So, which is the-right one to use? Use the one that makes the most sense in your story at that point and results in the least amount of confusion. I personally favor the last one after Terri Pray, the editor at Under the Moon, suggested it. I liked the result.

Your editor may also have some input for you, but if you feel strongly about a particular type of ID be ready to explain your choice clearly. Most of us editor types — and certainly all the ones I’ve dealt with — are reasonable sorts. We have opinions, of course, and sometimes they’re very strong opinions, but we do listen, so be ready to hear us, too. We might have a good idea or two.