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.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 10: Sex Sells

This is not so much a rule-breaking in and of itself, unless you count it as a specialized bird walk. Really, though, it’s more like an annoying observation. I have no advice for you this time, just an opinion.

I am not a fan of romances novels or their various spinoffs. The last thing I want to read is a hokey description of reproductive biology. Since you just about can’t avoid reproductive biology lessons in the romance genres (without buggies and bonnets), I do my best to avoid them. Imagine my annoyance when about half of the books on my challenge list interrupted a perfectly good plot with two or more beings doing the horizontal mambo “on camera.”

Ugh. Get a room, and close the door.

Yes. I know sometimes the plot depends on a certain amount of intimacy between — or in some cases among multiple — characters. And, yes, I can scan past it and keep going, which is what I did. Nevertheless, in a couple of the books, it really didn’t seem to do much to advance the plot or the character development. A perfectly reasonable plot was interrupted for … no good reason.

Yes. I have been accused of being a prude, and there’s probably something to that and a good reason for it. Still, as disagreeable as I find them, including explicit sex scenes “on camera” is a writer and editor decision like a lot of things. I’m not a fan, but my opinion plus $2.50 will buy someone a soda.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 9: Taking Your Bird for a Walk

The next “forbidden trait” I found in the Hugos and Nebulas I read was … failure to stay on topic.

When a writer goes off on a wild tangent that really doesn’t relate to the story, that’s referred to as “taking a bird walk” or “going down a rabbit trail.” Some writers are noted for these useless excursions. My best example is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was given an English unabridged version once years ago because I enjoy the tale. The book was huge – over 1200 pages worth of story. Incredible! Even more amazing? A 100-page description of the history of the Paris sewer system and another rather extensive description of a battle involving Napoleon. Those were some serious bird walks.

None of the Hugos and Nebulas had bird walks nearly that impressive, but some had some pretty substantial digressions for bizarre minutiae that really had no significant impact on the plot. According to the Rules of Excellent Writing, every chapter, scene, page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter, and punctuation mark must prove it has a reason to exist. If it cannot, out it goes! … Even if it was the most brilliant piece of writing you have ever done. It serves to advance the plot or develop a character or it gets the axe.

I have writer pals who boast of their ability to cut a third of their drafts while revising. That saddens me. What kind of incredible stuff was lost? Sure, some stuff needs to go. Some things that sounded great in Draft #1 are clearly destined for the debris pile during the revision process, but cutting stuff because some Expert says you must lose X% of the word count in revision? Foolishness, I say.

When revising, test everything. If it’s necessary, fix what needs fixing and keep it. Get rid of what you don’t need, particularly if it’s uninteresting or unfixable. When it comes to those things that may not be necessary but add interest? Maybe you can keep a few of those. After all, the name of the game is entertainment.

In the end, there aren’t many who will care how many words were cut from the first draft. They only care if the story kept them entertained.

On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 8: You Name It

Names. Ugh. Sometimes the hardest part about writing is finding a suitable name for each characters. Complicating things are the ever-present rules.

  • Not too long.
  • Not too complex.
  • Easy to recognize.
  • Pronounceable.
  • Don’t repeat initial sounds for 2 or more characters on the same story.
  • Don’t rhyme.
  • Be consistent-no nicknames.
  • And on and on, and ON …

One beta reader even admonished me to avoid repeating similar-sounding names between unrelated books. Apparently, no one filled in the Hugo and Nebula writers on all the naming rules, or else, the vast majority of these writers served up a Bronx cheer for a response. Every single rule I listed was mercilessly violated by one or more of the books in the challenge.

That puts me in good company, really. Even considering just my published works. I’ve laid waste to many of the name rules. I don’t mean to suggest that you can or should totally disregard the naming rules. They’re there for a reason but if you’re going to break them, consider them in light of your story and decide whether your rule-breaking is for a good cause. Ringworld‘s excruciatingly long name for one character emphasized her alien-ness. Dune‘s multiple names for one guy reflected how he changed as the story progressed. Some writers intentionally give different characters similar names to show how similar the characters are.

Like most of these rules, if you’re going to break the rule, do so for a good reason and make sure you don’t confuse the reader.