Monthly Archives: November 2012

Wednesday Writers – Ethan Fode

Just to prove what a small world it is, when I went over to Chicago for Worldcon there were a number of people in the States who I already met, and was keen to catch up with again. One of those was Ethan Fode, a fellow writer I had met at Conflux and whose company I had really enjoyed. With all the craziness of the convention it took a bit of arranging, but when we managed to cross paths it was great to get to hang out and chat writing and enjoy the excellent bar!

As well as being a very talented writer, Ethan is also part of an exciting and ambitious project to launch a crowd sourced magazine. I’ve been following its progress with a great deal of interest, and it looks to me as if it is coming together nicely. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and subscribed, because as a writer I know we need more pro markets for quality short speculative fiction, and as a reader I love reading the work of new and established writers. As well as subscribing, I thought I would ask Ethan to come and talk about his slushing experiences at Crowded, and I hope that you will at least check out the website (which has awesome stats up right now for fellow stats geeks like me!).

I’ve always wondered what it was like to read slush. A few months ago, I got my chance to be a real live slusher at Crowded Magazine. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that a friend of mine and I started Crowded Magazine; we also happen to be the #1 and #2 slushers.)

A little bit about the Crowded slushpile: it’s basically open to the public. Anybody who submits a story or subscribes to the magazine can read slush. And slushing is anonymous: slushers know the name of the story, the approximate word count, and the story’s genre. But that’s it. The author and the story’s current rating are hidden.

Now let’s get back to me. During Crowded’s first reading period, I waded through a little over 300 stories. This didn’t make me a slush expert—not by a long shot—but it did give me a little insight into my slushing process. Here’s a list of a few things I learned.

Thing #1: There are lots of publishable stories out there. Bazillions of them, in fact. Maybe the top 5 or 10 percent, give or take. But the magazine couldn’t publish all of them, so I found myself rejecting perfectly good stories on gut instinct. For me as a writer, this means that whenever a hot, steaming rejection plops into my inbox, I resist the urge to go back and attempt to figure out where my story went wrong. Because there’s no telling whether the story went wrong or not.

Thing #2: My reaction to a story depends on, but is not limited to, the following factors:

-          My experiences as a reader and writer

-          My job (or lack thereof)

-          My childhood (or lack thereof)

-          The last book I read

-          The last story I slushed

-          What I had for breakfast

-          How much alcohol I drank the prior night

-          The phase of the moon

-           (etcetera)

As you might have guessed, my reaction to a story can be different on any given day. Sure, some things don’t change: I’m a hard sell on vampires, werewolves, and zombies. But at the margins, stuff gets a little muddled. This goes back to Thing #1. A rejection—even a flat out form letter rejection—does not mean that the story wasn’t good. The story just hit me on the wrong day, the wrong way. (Note: this is not an invitation to resubmit a story that’s been rejected. There’s too much slush out there as it is.)

Do I have prejudices as a slusher? Sure I do. Am I going to tell you what they are? Hell no. Because they’re different for every story I read. For example, I’ll forgive one story’s wonky prose and then go crazy when the next story has similar writing. Maybe it seems like I’m being arbitrary, but I think most people will agree that matters of taste are more nuanced than that.

In that vein, some slushers seem to have rigid criteria for the stories they read, and I’ve seen some very prescriptive lists of “slusher don’ts” on the interwebs. For example: Don’t use sayisms. Don’t write in second person. Don’t start a sentence with a participle. Don’t have an ambiguous ending. Don’t go swimming in shark-infested waters. Don’t feed your story after midnight. Don’t don’t don’t.

That’s all great advice, sure, but take it with a grain of salt. Trying to do all that stuff will make you crazy. I’m not saying that you should submit a story filled with typos, or send in a manuscript written in crayon—educate yourself, by all means—I’m just not sure if it’s worth killing yourself trying to follow someone else’s roadmap to quality.

Thing #3: Reading slush makes you a better writer. I’m not sure exactly why, but seeing someone do something badly is a great way to learn what not to do. It’s a lot easier for me to read a terrible story and say, “Whoa, I’ll never do that” than it is for me to replicate what I read in a collection of Hugo winners. And besides providing lots of bad examples to avoid, my experience as a slusher has helped clarify what works for me. After plowing through 300 stories of wildly varying quality and subject matter, I feel like I’m closer to writing the story that I want to write.

For that reason, I think every writer should try his or her hand at slushing. If nothing else, you get to see what it’s like from the other side of the table.

And this is not a shameless plug for Crowded. Honest.

Although if you’re interested in giving it a go, our next round of submissions and slushing starts in January.

Ethan Fode is co-editor of Crowded Magazine, a pro-paying speculative fiction magazine based in Sydney. To learn more about the magazine, visit the website at www.crowdedmagazine.com.

Wednesday Writers – Greg Mellor

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being asked to be one of the interviewers for the 2012 Aussie Snapshot. Not only did I get to work with some of my favourite people in Aussie Spec Fic, it also gave me the opportunity to meet a whole heap of new people (and an excuse to email them lol) who were all doing exciting things and having a big impact on the scene.

One of those people was Greg Mellor, and there is no doubt that he is a writer to watch. Not only is he a regular contributor to markets of the calibre of Cosmos, with an impressive list of overseas sales, he is also one of the most qualified science fiction writers going around! It is not always the case that people who are talented writers of science fiction have such a background, or that people with this academic pedigree are any good at writing quality fiction. Greg has that rare combination of both, and there is no doubt this a big part of why he is one of the rising stars of Aussie Spec Fic.

Science (and Philosophy) in Science Fiction

I think one of the major challenges for science fiction writers is getting the right blend of ideas and entertainment in each story. Hopefully this should result in a narrative that provokes the reader to ask questions about what is going on and why, but also presents the reader with a narrative that has an enjoyable kinesis leading to a satisfying conclusion. I think another major challenge is achieving the right mix of science and humanity. Too much science, and the story may as well be a thesis; too much humanity, and it’s just not science fiction.

As I continued to produce more short stories for Wild Chrome during 2010 and 2011, I found that the cross roads of ideas, entertainment, science and humanity is also the stomping ground for reflection and a little philosophy. I don’t claim to do the philosophy very well, but damn it, I like having a go.

For example, terraforming is a well worn scientific idea involving modifications of extra-terrestrial atmosphere, surface and ecology to achieve Earth-like conditions. I like the idea but I can’t help but think it’s a little arrogant. Do we really think we could replicate a biosphere that has emerged over billions of years of deep time? Hmm, still, imagine if we could use some form of technology to create an Earth-like environment. Now imagine if we quickly followed this up and took our supply-chain economics out there to feed the hungry colonies.

To me this represents the intersection of two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas: could we go to the extremes of creating something as beautiful as a habitable biosphere and ruin it with supply chain madness? We’re doing it with our evolved world because we don’t know any better right now. But will we ever know any better? If I were the terraformer I’d be livid, wouldn’t you? Or would you still hold out hope for humanity? Maybe there’s a chance we would get it right on some planets. It’s not just an ethical dilemma; it’s a deeply philosophical one that goes to the heart of our humanity.

When I wrote “Terra Q” I thought these ideas and the science alone would make for an interesting thesis, but it wouldn’t be fiction. Then I put myself in the shoes of the terraformer. That would probably give me an angry thesis. Then I thought: what if I interviewed the terraformer? How do you feel, dude? How did you get into this gig? How the hell does this technology work? Why are half your planets being ruined? Why do you keep building new ones? That might give me a thought provoking narrative, hopefully entertaining, with science and humanity all mixed in. And no, I didn’t resolve the philosophical dilemma!

My writing also tackles traditional intersections of science and philosophy. For example, I like the theme of technology and death. There are very few stones unturned in the SF genre, so rather than tinker at the bleeding edge, I try to produce stories with heart, even if the protagonist has a black heart. In my Urban Decay series, I wrote about a world after decades of GFCs and climate change, where the middle and lower class are disavowed into the badlands or “mulch” surrounding the shining cities. The really rich people – the ones running business and government – live in orbitals.

In this setting, the protagonist in “Beyond Winter’s Shadow” is a humble store owner who helps a homeless kid reconstruct his dead mum’s persona using an app that responds to external stimuli, but in the process finds some kind of personal enlightenment after the years of service to the community. In “Hollow Places” a desperate mum tries to save her brain-dead son by rebuilding aspects of his personality through a virtual interface, but still struggles to reconcile her own selfishness. I think technology can give us the sense (delusion) that we have some control over the uncontrollable. In these stories it is control over the inevitability of death. We never give up, we’re always, and I mean always trying to avert the course of fate or nature. Are we saving others, seeking our own salvation, or a little bit of both? I suppose there’s also an element of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in this struggle to recreate life. I think future technologies will give us more options and thus more hope, so taking us to even more extreme “solutions” – just find it in the cloud!

I think the antithesis of this is the use of technology to extend the experience of death and decay. In “Time Capture” a deranged father prolongs his own pleasure and despair through a bizarre virtual interface with his murdered daughter. Publishers Weekly said “Time Capture” is “truly disturbing”. I never quite set out for it to be like that, but the protagonist took me on a nasty journey. I imagine that an imbalanced killer with advanced technology at his disposal would seek to fuel his own perversions.

I venture further along the science and philosophy path in several post-human stories in Wild Chrome where society is either on the cusp of, or just beyond the technology singularity. In “Autumn Leaves Falling” the protagonist struggles with the idea that uploading his mind is tantamount to suicide. He wonders whether it is really okay to hope for a richer experience in an uploaded collective, even if it means sacrificing his corporeal body.

In “Heaven and Earth” the very rich families have created the singularity and taken their secrets with them into the galaxy. The story follows a human woman trying to reconnect with her post-human lover. The post-human collective has retained the bigotry of a regular society. As the protagonist evolves, she dares to speak out and be one voice in a billion seeking change. It’s hard enough these days standing out from the crowd, never mind in a collective consciousness where all your hopes and fears are known by others.

In “Fragments”, the Earth has suffered a botched technology singularity, leaving many people in a kind of half-uploaded limbo. The protagonist is a guy left behind looking for the fragmented remains of his wife in the ruins, living in hope that something of her can be salvaged. I think hope drives many of my characters. There is true despair in the singularity event, but there is also hope borne from sacrifice and darkness.

In “Ethos Anthropoi Daimon” the post-human world is dystopian, a reflection of the dark nature of men. The gothic bad guy called Spain lives in hope of something more than the drudgery of dystopia, but in the end it is the character of men that has created his world – character is fate. Try as he may, Spain struggles to escape his own flawed character.

Finally, the theme of morality plays out in several stories of alien contact. “Alien Intent” is set in a colony world on Sirius where the humans have slaughtered the indigenous species. “The Trouble with Memes” is set in the near future Earth where humanity has made contact with an interstellar network of post-corporeal societies. The stories ask, in different ways, whether we are worthy of the responsibility of being an interstellar species, but from the POV of the aliens. In both cases we come up short. The aliens can see us for what we really are, but we struggle to achieve any level of introspection and therefore conscience until the situation forces us to. It seems we are wired to evolve like this, but not yet advanced enough to make the collective choice necessary to lift ourselves out of the “red in tooth and claw” evolution and make moral choices about our future and the well-being of the species around us.

I delve into this theme a little more, but in a sardonic way, in “Ravenous”. Again, I took the alien POV on a world where humans are simply out of control – an interstellar blight. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but there’s some gallows comedy and therefore some dark truth in it. The story basically suggests that we are what we are, and we’ll always be oblivious to this fact. The alien civilisations out there shall accept and suffer us, until the day one of them decides to fight back.

So, in conclusion, I enjoy injecting the philosophical stuff into my science fiction. Of course, it’s not all deep and meaningful in Wild Chrome, and there are stories that are purely action and entertainment, or stories that are purely about one person’s journey.

Producing the book has certainly been a hell of a journey for me and I don’t regret a minute of it. I hope you find it entertaining reading – be it intriguing, funny, gritty, heartfelt or all of the above!

 

Greg Mellor is a Canberra-based writer of science fiction, and occasional writer of horror, paranormal, romance, erotica, fantasy and any combination thereof.  He is also a totally awesome husband and dad – well, at least that’s what he tells everyone. Ask his wife if you want to find out the “home truth”.

Greg has worked and studied in and around Canberra all his life, with a ten year residency in the UK somewhere in the middle. For some reason he felt compelled to do an Honours Degree in Astrophysics, and as if that wasn’t enough punishment, he also completed an MBA in Technology Management. He has worked in professional service firms for the last 15 years and will continue to do so for a while yet to ensure he leaves enough inter-generational debt for his son and future grandchildren. There’s a long, puzzling journey from astrophysics to consulting, involving shelf-packing, builder’s labourer and general dog’s body, technical drawing, business reporting, IT systems trainer, electrical power-line maintenance, four wheel driving, writing science articles and . . . you get the gist. Don’t ask him “how” or “why”, suffice to say there were many “sliding doors”.

He is a regular contributor to Cosmos Magazine with “Defence of the Realm”, “Autumn Leaves Falling” and “Day Break”. His work has also appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Aurealis, AntipodeanSF and Daily Science Fiction, plus several Aus and US small press anthologies including “Winds of Change”, “Flesh & Bone”, “Hit Men”, “Novus Creatura” and others. Greg reached the finals of the 2009 Aurealis Awards, Best Short SF category. His stories regularly receive mentions (honourable and otherwise) and tend to crop up on recommended reading lists around the internet.

In his spare time (is there such a thing?) he reads about consciousness, philosophy, psychology, physics, astronomy, history and evolution. This is usually followed by a self-help book so that he can still feel good about the world. Occasionally he’ll flick through the books of Paul Davies, one of his professors at uni  . . . spot the name drop. Then he’ll follow this up with the odd fiction book or two, referencing Keats for soulful quotes and Wilde for the brutal truth about human nature. Then, when he can’t cram any more in, he will occasionally get back to his writing in the hope that the collage of ideas makes more sense on paper than it does in his head.

Greg was delighted when Ticonderoga Publications accepted his debut collection, “Wild Chrome”. Now he faces the daunting prospect of the SF novel.

He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG), and the ACT Writers’ Centre.

Visit www.gregmellor.com to see pictures of his cat.

ComicBookGuy3

Geek Tribalism and Sexism

In one of those terribly entertaining cases of foot-in-mouth that makes the internet both amusing and depressing, Tony Harris recently made some comments about female cosplayers and fake geeks that, quite rightly, caused the wrath of the web to descend upon him.

You can find two great articles here and here that either address the specific comments, or the wider issues that they spring from, and they sum it up far better than I ever could. But, there were a couple of thoughts that sprang to mind after reading the various conversations that have been sparked by this furore. I think there are actually two factors at play here.

Geek Tribalism

One of the problems is that many geeks take a perverse pride in being part of a minority, whether perceived or real. I’d suggest that there are a lot of people whose interests weren’t exactly considered cool at high school and peer group pressure and bullying created a sort of bunker mentality that endures long after school is done with. If you are getting victimised as a teenager and feel on the outer, it is only natural to form a group of your own where you can feel like you belong, and look down on those who aren’t part of group as meatheads or jocks or less intelligent so you can feel superior to the “cool crowd”. While it is natural, that doesn’t mean it is healthy, especially when you are still feeling the same way when you are in your forties.

It is hard for many geeks to accept that in many ways we have won the culture wars. Superhero movies or science fiction and fantasy based tv shows are no longer the domain of one social demographic, they are becoming increasingly acceptable in “mainstream” society, which means an influx of new fans. For some people this is threatening, when your identity is defined by being the most devoted or knowledgeable fan of a particular franchise there can be resentment of people you see as newbies coming along and suddenly claiming to be fans of “your” interest.

It’s no different than when people loved a band for years while they were below the radar getting frustrated when the band hits the charts and all of a sudden they have to share them with people they see as simply jumping on the bandwagon. I know people who will stop listening to a particular artist when they go “mainstream”, or see the new fans as “poseurs” and treat them with scorn – so it is certainly not limited to spec fic fandom! But, I think that feeling of being on the outer makes it worse, and create a more poisonous type of resentment.

I can think of two areas of my fandom where there has been a huge change in the makeup of the fanbase. The first is the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Since I got involved in the fan group of these books over a decade ago, their popularity has steadily grown and the recent HBO adaptation has meant that the books are suddenly part of mainstream conversation and extremely well known.

The second is Doctor Who. Since the relaunch, and especially over the past few years, Doctor Who is perceived very differently. When I was growing up it was a bit of a laughing stock, definitely not something you were quick to share with others. Now it seems too have become rather cool, I see lots of t shirts out and about and it is even going to feature at the Proms!

As a long term fan you can look at these things and get upset about people “trespassing” on to your sphere of interest, whether it speaking contemptuously of “floobs” (people who have only seen HBO’s series and not read ASOAIF) or disparaging those who hopped on the New Who bandwagon and how they don’t get the heritage of Doctor Who, or you can be excited that something you love is getting the recognition it deserves,

As I said to Neil Gaiman when we were chatting at a party (sorry, couldn’t resist haha), I was really excited by how well attended all the Doctor Who panels I was on at Chicon were, and how there were so many tween and teens there saying that they were happy to wear their Doctor Who tshirt to school and that it didn’t make them a target of mockery. As I pointed, when I was at school that would have gotten me beaten up – and I am not exaggerating, though I am sure that is an extreme case.

I am thrilled that when people at work ask me what I did on a Sydney trip and I say that I hung out with friends from a George R.R. Martin fan group they know who George R.R. Martin is! I love seeing people on planes reading his books and being able to have a conversation about it – if they want one, of course lol

Where is the logic in being upset about being marginalised and mocked for so long, but then not welcoming the fact that all of a sudden there are suddenly lots more people who share your interests and loves, and having common ground to make more friends? As a fan I want as many people as possible to know about the things I am interested in, there is not a finite amount of enjoyment to go around that is diminished by every new person that comes along. Instead, it truly is the more the merrier, the more fans there are the more vibrant a community we can build.

Geek Sexism

While that tribalism is a bit sad and I don’t agree with it, it is understandable to a degree. But, as has been pointed out, there is an even darker side to this whole issue, and that is the double standards applied to males and females when it comes to true fans. I don’t really feel qualified to talk too much about this, and Foz and Tansy have both done a far better job than I could of addressing it, all I can talk is from my own experience. There is a great line in Tansy’s post where she says:

(Frankly in the case of many female superheroes, the concept behind the character can actually be a whole lot more empowering than the reality of the stories featuring that character.)

I am sure this is true, and I am not arguing against or even using it to prove my next point. But, it made me think of the fact that for me that it applies to the majority of comic book characters. I am a huge Superman fan, but I have read maybe three or four comic of the thousands of character arcs that have been created for him. I much prefer the prose books I have read, or Smallville, or the DCAU series. Could I tell you what happened in Action Comics #234, what the hell happened with Red and Blue? And, I think I am a hardcore Whovian but I am only about half way through New Who and I’ve never listened to any Big Finish productions.

Given all that, if you had to guess, how many times do you think I have had my credentials as a fan questioned, or my right to be on as many panels on the subjects as I have challenged? If you said zero, you would be spot on. It is hard not to think that my gender has a huge amount to do with that. And that is just not right – why should female fans have a bigger burden of proof placed on their shoulders?

I do think that a lot of this comes from the fact there is a percentage of male geeks see the opposite sex as the enemy. After a life time of slights and rejections, real or imagined, sometimes people veil hurt and vulnerability under a layer of contempt and misogyny. The way they treat women is a projection of the insecurity and self loathing they feel, after all, it is much easier to blame someone else than take ownership yourself. Rather than run risk of being rejected, they would rather be on the offensive, the only way they can feel safe is by trying to put themselves in a position of power by denigrating others.

Saying that, while you might see why they would act that way, it doesn’t make it acceptable. Like people who were bullied becoming bullies, I have never seen why you would not treat people the way you would wish to be treated yourself, if you’ve been marginalised why would you not want to be inclusive? And, treating the object of your desire in such a fashion seems rather counter-productive, it’s unlikely to make them want to spend time in your company! It’s amazing how effective treating someone like a human being, equally deserving of their own interests and opinions, is in building friendships. Funny that.

As for the treatment of female cosplayers, I think that Foz hits the nail on the head when she says:

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that a straight white male comics artist – that is, a professional member of a fraternity whose members frequently get froth-mouthed with rage at the VERY SUGGESTION that maybe, just MAYBE, consistently drawing female heroes in skintight, skimpy clothes, viscerally sexualised poses and impossible bodily contortions MIGHT JUST BE a little bit sexist and demeaning – is now saying women who dress as those selfsame characters are slutty? Like, do we not see the contradiction, here? How is it fine to rabidly defend the hypersexualised portrayal of comic book heroines as being no big deal, aesthetically justified, representative of their characters, traditional and all that jazz, but then start body- and slut-shaming actual, real live women who choose to cosplay those outfits? If the costumes themselves had no overt sexual component, or if such a component was present, but ultimately benign – as most comics apologists tend to argue – then the idea that actual women could dress that way specifically to prey on the sexual sensibilities of men who like those characters should be fundamentally ludicrous, regardless of the depth and breadth of their personal comics knowledge.

Seriously, angry comic guys: you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that female comic heroines aren’t hypersexualised, and then claim that, merely by donning their costumes, real live women are sexualising themselves, and that their primary motive for doing so must therefore be to mess with you. No. THEY’RE DRESSING THE WAY YOU INSIST ON WOMEN DRESSING, AND THEN YOU’RE SHAMING THEM FOR IT.

As a male there are lots of characters I could choose to dress up as whose bodies are not accentuated by their costumes. But, if I chose to dress up as Superman, in skin tight lycra and my underwear wantonly exposed on the outside, am I trying to entrap the innocent women around me? If you think so, you obviously haven’t seen me in lycra! What I am doing is emulating a character I admire by faithfully reproducing their outfit. The difference is, I can do it without being called a slut.

That aside, so what if women do dress up in deliberately sexy costumes? What right does anyone have to tell them that makes them less than genuine fans? Personally, there are things about cosplay that do make me uncomfortable at times, some of it does seem over sexualised and there sometimes seems to be  an unhealthy exhibitionist/voyeur dynamic going on (in a minority of cases). But that’s not their problem, that’s probably mine. Just like other things that I personally can’t get into, like the SCA or filking or LARPing, I take a live and let live approach. If dressing up in costumes makes people happy and enables them to build a community and to enjoy whatever their fandom is, who am I to stand in their way? Life is unhappy enough without curtailing people’s happiness unnecessarily and forcing your tastes on them. If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, people should be able to express their fandom the way they want without having to prove its worth to people who have elected themselves the arbiters of geekdom.

The reason why I love fandom is because my experiences of it have been of inclusivity and enthusiasm and tolerance. I want everyone to have that same experience regardless of gender or orientation or race or whatever. People like Tony Harris don’t speak for me, but I think it important that those disagree with those attitudes speak up or nothing will change.

Wednesday Writers – David Peterson

As is the case for many of us, I’m sure, my first fantasy love was the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Not only did I read the story itself over and over, I was also fascinated with the appendices attached. I could not help but marvel at the work Tolkien put into the background of his world and his obsession with detail, and nowhere was this more apparent than in his love of language and the tongues he created for the inhabitants of Middle Earth.

From this starting point I have always been interested to see how other writers go about creating new languages, and over the years I have seen examples of how to do it right and of how to do it very wrong indeed. As a writer I want to make sure that I fall in the former category, despite my natural inclination to laziness! I’m always keen to find new resources to help with my world building and make sure I keep learning, and I deeply admire those with a talent in this area.

So, it was a real pleasure to meet David Peterson (the creator of, amongst others, the Dothraki language for the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones) at WorldCon. An incredibly nice and humble guy, you would never know that he is one of the best in the business by him telling you, so I wanted to feature him on my blog to give others a chance see just how talented and knowledgeable he is.

It’s not often that a conlanger is asked to contribute to a writing blog. For a variety of reasons, serious language creation has always remained (and continues to remain) on the periphery of the artistic realm. Even today a high school student who writes “poetry” is more likely to be considered an artist than someone who’s been creating languages for fifty years (and there are several excellent conlangers both living and dead who fit that description).

But while some of the old prejudices remain, language creation has never been hotter. Starting with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy using authentic (or as authentic as possible) Quenya and Sindarin, enormously popular franchises like Avatar and Game of Thrones have profited from extensive use of one or more invented language. Their viability in popular media (and the visibility of these flagship franchises) has led many to consider making use of invented languages in their own works.

In this post, I’d like to give writers some practical advice on incorporating invented languages into their writing. Creating a full language may be out of the question for most writers, but hopefully understanding some of the issues behind language creation will be useful to all writers.

General Advice

Before going into specifics, I’d like to emphasize that in the case of language systems, less is more. It takes a lot of work to create an authentic language, and a great deal of expertise that comes only with study and practice. It’s easy to create a single conlang sentence, which, if translated directly into English without any other details, looks authentic. For example:

Brat danar glin kalag.
“Stay away from the swamp.”

There are potentially thousands of ways that the created sentence can mean what it means in English. For example, perhaps kalag means “stay away from”, brat danar is a compound that means “swamp”, and glin is an emphatic marker used to form commands. Who knows? There are any number of plausible interpretations. As more sentences are added, though, the possibilities decline rapidly:

Vor danar!
“Go away!”

All of a sudden we see danar appearing again in a sentence where it’s likely translated as “away”, which means the other word, vor, probably has to mean “go”, and the thousands of conlinguistic possibilities drop to the hundreds.

Add another sentence:

Mas bratuk danar glin kalag.
“We stayed away from the swamp.”

And now it’s becoming more and more likely that the “conlang” is just, in fact, a fancy way of speaking English, with some minimal changes (e.g. omission of the word “the”).

If one is prepared to invest the time to create a fully fleshed-out language, then, by all means, go for it! For those who just need the illusion of a language—something that could, perhaps, be expanded upon later if there were interest—it’s best not to get painted into a corner.

Sound Systems: The Place to Start

If there’s one aspect of language creation one should focus on if one needs a stand-in language for a novel, it’s sound systems (or phonology). The thing that most immediately distinguishes a language is the way in which all its words hang together. The best way to ensure one does this with a created language is to create a phonology to ensure all words share similar sounds and similar shapes.

Using English as an example, the following are all plausible English words:

  • blork
  • clund
  • gettle
  • sprile

The thing that makes them plausible English words is they all use English sounds and the sounds they use are arranged in patterns common to English. The following words, though, do not:

  • ngsee
  • dleh
  • uzs
  • jlemga

Each of the words above is composed of sounds that occur in English (e.g. the first word is just the “ng” from the word “song” placed right in front of the word “see”), but they’re arranged in ways that are completely impossible (or at least improbable) for English. If one were trying to create a fake English-like language, words from the first list would be far preferable to those in the second.

In creating a new language palette for a work of fiction, then, one ought to come up with a set of sounds (and they can differ from English. For example, let’s say there’s a language with no voiced stops [no "b", "d" or "g"]) and then stick to them any time a word needs to be created. In addition, come up with a set of patterns in which the letters can occur. Here’s a sample language that has no voiced stops, no “r”, consonant clusters that allow only liquids after stops and fricatives, and syllables that end only in “n” or “l”:

  • tlamen
  • ilkun
  • pyesu
  • tikwil

Further levels of detail can be added (e.g. average word length, differences between word-internal and word-final codas, etc.), but the result is to produce word shapes that look like they come from the same language—and obviously so, since there likely won’t be a whole bunch of material for a reader to see.

Inflection

There are only a handful of ways that languages show inflectional morphology (e.g. pluralization, noun case, verb tense, etc.). The most common are:

  • Affixation (including prefixes, suffixes, circumfixes and infixes).
  • Word-internal change (e.g. “goose” > “geese” or “súbject” vs. “subjéct”).
  • Prolix expression (e.g. “antiquated” > “more antiquated”)
  • Suppletion (e.g. “is” vs. “were” vs. “am”).

Without creating actual grammar, one can give the illusion of grammar simply by employing one of these strategies on a key lexeme, e.g.:

Undiama tish hakhlor.                              Zvala dek sabindore lundiama.
“This peach is rotten.”                           “They devoured the peaches.”

The sentences above don’t reveal a lot about the grammar, but we see the presence of an l- prefix on what we would probably assume is the word for “peach”, and we see similarity in the suffixes for what may be the verbs of each sentence. Importantly, the translations still provide some latitude (for example, is the l- prefix a simple plural marker, or does it mark the accusative plural? Or is it perhaps simply a definite article, like “the”?), so we need say nothing definite, but the recurrence of recognizable morphology will give an otherwise fake conlang (i.e. a language that hasn’t actually been created, but is meant to appear as if it has been) a touch of realism.

The Myth of the Monolingual Planet

On Earth today we’ve got about 7,000 languages. While that number may be declining rapidly, it seems almost inconceivable (to me, at least) that there will come a point in time where every person on Earth speaks one language, with all the others having vanished. This, however, is precisely what we see in a wide variety of scifi and fantasy works: one people, one culture, one language.

Consider the case of English. English is spoken as a primary language in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and parts of India. Imagine if one supposed that each of these countries was pretty much the same on account of the common language. And then move within one of those countries. Australians all speak Australian English (with no dialectal variation), so there, at least, is a region where pretty much everyone is the same, right?

Before one goes off to create 7,000 different languages for one’s fictional universe, though, it’s not that difficult to create the illusion of multilingualism. It’s rare to find a place where one and only one language is spoken. While there’s likely a dominant language, what are the minority languages spoken there? They can be referred to by name (even if they haven’t been developed), and can actually be reflected in proper and place names. Dropping these details in sparingly gives the illusion of depth, and results in a more authentic feel for one’s fictional world.

What’s In a Name?

Consider the following list of male names one might find in modern America:

  • Thadeus
  • Sam
  • Jean-Paul
  • Muhammad
  • D’Brickashaw
  • Daniel

What do they have in common? Almost nothing. As a result, one might, then, expect an equivalent list of male names in a fantasy novel to look like this:

  • Sevander
  • Vort
  • Dhannïs-Shaer
  • Zullebi
  • Drîqz’z
  • Forient

And they may look like that. But consider what the list of English names tells us. If we had to rank those names by most likely to be “American” (to the extent that’s a valid category), we’d probably start with “Sam” then go to “Daniel” then maybe “Thadeus” then probably “D’Brickashaw” (easily one of the coolest names ever invented). Why? Because the names themselves tell us something about their history. For example, we know that “Muhammad” (the world’s most common name) comes from the Arabic language, and is closely associated with Islam. We know that “Jean-Paul” is of French origin, and that a name like “D’Brickashaw” is uniquely American, but also not likely to have occurred before the year 1900.

Now let’s look back at the list of fantasy names. How realistic are they? That depends. Are these random names assigned to characters that have pretty much the same socio-cultural background? Their structure suggests not. If these are residents of the same region who share a common culture, it suggest that this is an area that’s seen a lot of immigration in its history. Does the detail given in the story back up or belie this interpretation?

As a final note, one often sees names such as the two listed below existing in the same system:

  • Ambaliessa
  • Dragonwind

That is, in this invented universe unconnected to our own, we have one name that comes from a non-English linguistic system, and another name that does. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Certainly names are sometimes translated (consider “Sitting Bull”), but usually they all are, or they all aren’t. Consistency in this area is desirable. To those who pay attention to such things (more than one would guess), transgressions of this nature are roughly equivalent to the following:

Ambaliessa was a fair maid of the town of Parnilliat—a bit bookish, but uncommonly pretty. She would spend her days riding through the fields on her mare Semia, helping her father at the mill, and watching Gossip Girl.

You may protest, thinking Dragonwind isn’t that bad—and this may be true for some readers. For many, though, it’s a chink in the armor—a break from the alternate reality set up by the novel. For readers who like to get lost in the world of a novel, linguistic anomalies like this can be distracting.

The Phêÿqxh Language

There is a perception amongst linguistically aware readers that sci-fi and fantasy novels make liberal use of…”unique” romanization systems when rendering character and place names, often with the express intent of making the names look foreign. This practice often backfires when symbols are used in contradictory or counterintuitive ways. Consider the (admittedly cool-looking) name Xaro Xhoan Daxos. If pronounced in the most obvious way to an English speaker, the three x’s are pronounced three different ways in three different contexts (as [z] before a vowel in the first name; as [z] before a consonant in the second name; and as [ks] before a vowel in the third name).

While “it looks cool” is an adequate (albeit subjective) justification for most, one will run into problems if the fledgling system that gave birth to the name is ever expanded. One will often be forced to concede either that (a) certain characters are pronounced in contradictory fashions, (b) the romanization system is inconsistent, or (c) the character’s name isn’t actually pronounced in the way that’s most obvious to an English speaker.

Presuming that one’s readers are, for the most part, English speakers (if one is writing in English), I would propose that all names be spelled in such a way that their pronunciations should be obvious to the average speaker of English. As a result, certain practices should be avoided—namely:

  • The use of any and all diacritics, save in situations where one really intends, for example, to include an umlauted vowel as used in German (e.g. “ö” or “ü”). Diacritics like the acute accent (“á”), the grave accent (“à”), and the circumflex (“â”) aren’t used in English, save in a few borrowings, and their functions are nebulous. Including them is bound to produce inconsistent results in the minds of different English-speaking readers.
  • Inconsistent spelling systems. Unless the characters in the fictional universe of one’s story use the roman alphabet as their actual writing system (an unlikely coincidence if one’s world is unconnected to our own), there’s no reason to fabricate the inconsistencies found in natural language spelling systems that employ the roman alphabet (e.g. English, French, Vietnamese, etc.). To the extent possible, a policy of one letter = one sound should be employed.
  • Non-English digraphs. A digraph is the use of two characters to convey a single sound. Thus, “th” in “thus” is a digraph, but “th” in “hothouse” is not. Certain combinations (e.g. “vh”, “xh”, “rh”, etc.) may evoke a certain aesthetic (and, indeed, may even prove useful in romanizing certain phonologies), but are likely to be misinterpreted or disregarded by many English speakers. (Incidentally, for the “g” sound in “genre”, I recommend “zh”, as it fits the following analogy rather nicely: s : z :: sh : zh.)
  • Apostrophes. Apostrophes are used for contractions (e.g. cannot > can’t), glottal stops (like the ‘okina in Hawai‘ian), glottalized consonants (like the ejectives of Hausa) and occasionally pharyngeal consonants (like the first sound in the romanized spelling of the Arabic word for the Arabic language ‘arabiiya). Elsewise they are to be avoided at all costs.

Remember that in the fictional universe one sets up, it’s more than likely that the speakers of an imagined language will have their own unique writing system. The inconsistencies, irregularities and eccentricities one would find in a natural writing system should appear in that system, not the romanization used to convey the sounds of words and names in the language in one’s text.

Other Options

Of course, even this much may be more than a writer is willing to undertake, since the story comes first. Luckily there are literally thousands of conlangers all over the world who’ve been perfecting their craft for years—in some cases, decades. Many conlangers would love the opportunity to create a language for some sort of fictional work, whether it’s a big budget movie like Avatar, or a budding novelist’s very first book. If keeping a language or language sketch straight becomes too much of a hassle, I’d strongly encourage all writers to think about contracting out.

At present the best way to get a hold of a potential language creator is to go to the Language Creation Society’s Jobs Board. There one can post the details of a job and field responses from those who may be interested. Without exception, the best results come from those who have already put in their 10,000 hours.

***

It’s important to emphasize that the above is really just scratching the surface. Language is vast, and the possibilities are endless. If you’re interested in learning more about language creation, you can go to the Language Creation Society’s website, but one of the best ways to learn more about language, I’ve found, is simply to explore the grammar of a language you’ve never looked at. For this, Wikipedia is actually a great resource. Pick a language and type “[language name] grammar” into the search window, and see what comes up! Every language has something unique to teach us, and it’s never too late to start learning.

David Peterson is the creator of the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the alien language and culture consultant for SyFy’s upcoming drama series Defiance. He’s been creating language recreationally and professionally for twelve years, and currently serves as the president of the Language Creation Society.

AWWC 2012 – The Creature Court Trilogy

Disclaimer: Aussie Spec Fic is a very small world, so in most cases I know the writers whose books I am reviewing. And, these will all most likely be very positive reviews, as I find it very hard to get motivated to go to the trouble of writing a review for a book that didn’t excite me. So, while you won’t get an impartial review, you will get the reasons why I loved a particular book, and why I genuinely believe it’s worth your time. This review was written as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge, to find out more go here.

“She almost missed the sight of a naked youth falling out of the sky. He was long and lean and muscled … He was also completely off his face.”

A war is being fought in the skies over the city of Aufleur. No one sees the battles. No one knows how close they come to destruction every time the sun sets.

During daylight, all is well, but when nox falls and the sky turns bright, someone has to step up and lead the Creature Court into battle.

Twelve years ago, Garnet kissed Velody and stole her magic. Five years ago, he betrayed Ashiol, and took his powers by force. But now the Creature Court is at a crossroads … they need a Power and Majesty who won’t give up or lose themselves in madness …

I was a bit annoyed with myself after reading Power and Majesty, the first book in the Creature Court Trilogy. After all, I had promised myself that I wasn’t going to get sucked into another fantasy series that wasn’t finished. There is only so much waiting for the next book to come out a man can take! I had only picked up Power and Majesty because at Swancon 2011 everyone had been talking about it and it had won the Ditmar. So, I thought I should check it out and, as it turned out, I devoured it on the plane flight back to Melbourne. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the second book because at that point I was completely hooked. But, then there was agony of waiting for the final book to come out so that I could get some closure on one of the most addictive trilogies I’ve read in a long time….

It’s hard to classify the Creature Court trilogy, dark fantasy might be pretty close, but it has elements from all sorts of styles, from historical fiction to steampunk. I’d say that it is the perfect for people wanting a break from Epic fantasy, but that might give you the impression that it is light reading or lightweight which couldn’t be further from the truth. The author manages to pack in a vast range of ideas and a twisting, turning plot without ever putting the brakes on what is a cracking story. I read at least one of the volumes in a sitting, and all of them were incredibly hard to put down.

While some of the world’s features appear to be adapted from parts of our own history, it is not simply a thin veneer of fantasy polish whacked over a real world setting, the author has created a complex and convincing world, with its own customs and history. Unlike some fantasy worlds, the pieces fit together in a believable fashion and you can easily imagine the characters acting the way they do and the society working the way it does. But, there is also a disquieting sense of something not quite right about the daylight world and the sense that something is going on beneath – a feeling that is borne out as the story develops.

The characters are more than just the usual fantasy tropes, and each of them has a believable set of motivations that drive their actions and the story, rather than simply being ciphers. Over the course of the series it is hard not develop sympathy for even the nastiest of characters, and as someone who has little patience for moral ambiguity it is a mark of the author’s skill that I invested so deeply in all the characters and empathising with the nastiest of people. Immoral acts are not excused or consequences waived, but we are constantly given a convincing insight into why people act the way they do that is a nice change from the simplistic black and white that we find in too much fantasy. There is a rich back story that is gradually and skilfully revealed, throwing light on the way the characters interact and showing how the past impacts on the present. Velody especially is one of the best realised fantasy characters I have come across in a long time.

One of the things I admired most about this trilogy is that it serves as an example of how to tackle themes of gender and orientation.  It doesn’t pretend that sexism doesn’t exist, in fact gender roles play a huge part in the plot as the constraints that exist on women in this society and the way various characters attempt to transcend them are explored in depth. And it was refreshing to see how sexual orientation was treated, not in stereotypes or as the sole defining characteristic of a character, but simply as a part of the fabric of life and relationships throughout the story. But, there is never a sense of preaching, like everything else all these things serve the story and add to its resonance. As a writer, it’s given me something to aspire to.

The Creature Court trilogy is probably not for the prudish, being completely drenched in every bodily fluid you can possibly imagine, but even this is done in a way that only adds to the story. The air of rich sensuality which permeates the way characters interact with one another creates a hedonistic atmosphere, something which makes perfect sense as you read on. If you a little sheltered like me you might be tiny bit shocked at times, but there is nothing gratuitous, certainly nothing more graphic than many of the other fantasy titles in the bestseller list.

Despite the depth of the themes explored, the Creature Court trilogy is above all an entertaining and captivating read that deserves all the accolades it and awards it has received. I’m not going to say it is the best Australian fantasy trilogy I’ve read, it doesn’t need that qualifier, it’s one of the best I have read full stop. I read it at a canter the first time through, desperate to find out what happened and actually caught unaware by the ending, an ending that ties it all together very neatly and resolves the story perfectly (though I was very unhappy with the author for a while there for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing!!). I’ve since gone back and reread a number of times, enjoying it even more. If you are looking for a fantasy trilogy of the highest calibre to tide you over until the next volume in whatever ongoing series you are reading is released, then you can’t go past this magnificent story.

Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge

Wednesday Writer: Kimberley Gaal

As I have mentioned, many times before, there are so many awesome things about going to conventions. Aside from the development opportunities and the catching up with existing friends, there is also that great feeling when you make a new friend and stay in touch with them beyond the convention itself.

I met Kimberley at Conflux last year, and I have been fortunate enough to read some of the novel that she has been working on. I am really looking forward to seeing the finished product because it is clear to me that Kimberley is an exciting new talent who is going to achieve big things, and will be around for a very long time. Of course, with a mentor of the calibre of Kaaron you would be surprised if the end product isn’t something special!

Here you can read all about Kimberley’s experience of being a mentoree, something I found fascinating as I have just embarked on a similar journey myself.

After moving to Canberra from Melbourne a few years ago, it took me a little while to get the hang of the way Canberra road signs work. In Melbourne, when a sign reading ‘Cheltenham’ points a certain way, it’s because Cheltenham is in that direction. In Canberra, when a sign reads ‘Belconnen’ and points a certain way, it’s because if you travel down that particular road you will eventually end up in Belconnen, but you may have to travel 180-degrees around and across the sun to do so.

My past 12 months in the JUMP National Mentoring program has been very similar, only instead of a suburb name, my sign read ‘becoming a writer’ followed by one of those fat yellow emoticons that might be laughing with you, but is probably laughing at you.

Well, jokes on you, emoticon! I might not have achieved everything I thought I would, but I’ve balanced that by achieving things that had never occurred to me, and now I’m a writer on the cusp! The cusp of what exactly remains to be seen, but there’s definitely a cusp involved.

The JUMP National Mentoring program is an Australian Council for the Arts initiative administered for the past three years by Youth Arts Queensland. It links young artists in the first few years of their career with an established mentor in their field. The program is now being directly administered by the Australia Council. You can find out more about it at http://jump.australiacouncil.gov.au

It isn’t essential to know someone personally to approach them as a possible mentor, but through working in the arts industry I am lucky enough to know a few writers I particularly admire. Once I decided to apply for the JUMP program, I did the sensible thing and made a list. Then I threw out my list. Everyone on there was amazing. Why would any of them want to give up their time to help me?

I felt sorry for myself for a bit, then manned up and made my list again. At the very top was Canberra based writer, Kaaron Warren. Kaaron is one of the best horror writers Australia has produced. I can’t say the best – I’m biased and no-one would believe me. Better you go read her stuff and find out for yourself.

Kaaron doesn’t just focus on horror though. She writes prolifically across many spec-fiction sub-genres, usually leaning towards the dark side but with a strong sense of social commentary and purpose to a lot of her work. Her stories make you think. Sometimes they make you curl up into a ball and cry for a bit first, but afterwards you get to thinking, and you see things in a slightly different way than you did before. She affects people.

Mentorships are not about trying to replicate your mentor’s success by writing the way your mentor writes. They are about recognising the deficits in your own skill-set and finding people who can help you overcome them, so you can be the best writer you can be. Kaaron demonstrates skills that I know I lack, like perseverance, consistency and, most importantly, a strong, unique style. She has a voice that is completely her own. So do I, but it’s buried under the voices of every writer I’ve ever read. Emulating others is a great way to develop skill and technique, but I fluctuate so widely that my books read like they’d been crowdsourced, and the point I was originally trying to make often gets lost in the confusion.

I don’t necessarily want to write like Kaaron, but I want to affect people the way Kaaron does. I want her clarity, her maturity and her passion for writing and literature. Basically, I want to squeeze Kaaron until I have a bottle full of her, distil it into its pure form and spritz myself until I turn into a genius. Whatever’s left I’ll sell, and be rich as kings I tell you!

But I digress.

I didn’t expect Kaaron to say yes. I’m still not quite sure why she did. I’ve had very little writing success – enough to know that I love writing in a way that makes my gut hurt, but not enough to be anything worth noting. When I ask her, Kaaron says wonderful things about seeing talent and potential in me, and enjoying the chance to help me find my way. I try to believe her, but part of me will always suspect she lost a bet. I just can’t work out with whom…

I was accepted into JUMP in December 2011, and began working with Kaaron in early 2012. My major JUMP project is a YA speculative fiction novel with the very clichéd working title Dark Souls. I promise I’ll think of something better, but right now I’m focusing on the words inside the cover. The first draft is finished, as much as first drafts can ever be finished, and the money I received as part of the JUMP program is paying for a professional edit with Stephanie Smith, who I couldn’t have imagined even meeting prior to JUMP.

I had a lot of other goals at the beginning of the year too. Those are the ones that the fat emoticon is laughing at me about, because they aren’t quite as finished as the novel. I had grand short-story writing plans, and they are… getting there. I had the best of blogging intentions and that is…. a work in progress I was going to be a social media queen! (There’s no sugar coating that one. I flopped. I only just worked out how the Facebook chat function works.)

But my unexpected achievements far outweigh my short falls. I – cue orchestral crescendo – made friends! In the world of writing, which can be so isolated, so competitive, and so full of death-of-the-book doomsday prophecies, I now have connections to people across all levels of writing. People I feel comfortable with and encouraged by, people who inspire me, people who teach me (even when they don’t realise they’re doing it) and people I’m pretty much in awe of.

And of course, there’s Kaaron, who hangs umbrella-like across all those categories. I am endlessly encouraged by her belief in me, am constantly learning subtle and not-so-subtle lessons, and am proud of every one of her achievements. Not because I think I had anything to do with them. My contributions to Kaaron’s work begin and end with the pastries I occasionally bring to our writing sessions. But when Kaaron does amazing things, I know it’s because she’s an amazing writer. Every time one of my new friends or role-models succeed, it reminds me that I’m surrounded by brave, talented people. And when someone like that takes the time to teach me, encourage me, or just kick me up the butt, it makes me think that one day there might be something amazing in me. In the meantime I’ll just keep following my road signs and trust that I’ll get there. Eventually.

Kimberley Gaal studied writing and editing in Melbourne until 2005, then moved to Canberra and realised she still knew absolutely nothing. She worked as a writer for the corporate sector, then took a massive pay-cut and saved her soul by shifting to the arts. She now works in the not-for-profit education sector, has remembered why she loved writing in the first place, and has never been happier.

Kimberley just completed a 12 month mentorship with Kaaron Warren as part of the JUMP National Mentoring Program, during which time she surprised herself and wrote a novel.

Cup Weekend

For as long as I can remember, actually for longer than I have been alive, my Dad and his mates have been going up to the Murray over the Melbourne Cup weekend. It’s a very relaxed weekend, and while the purpose is ostensibly fishing, there is no pressure to actually put a rod in. It’s as far as it is possible to get from the city lifestyle to which I have become accustomed and, while I love living in Melbourne, it is always a pleasure to get back to the my country boy roots and just relax. Every year I look forward to the trip and this one did not disappoint.

There were windstorms, sheep races, camp dogs, lots of anecdotes and jokes told around the fire and even a fish or two caught – though many were released back into the wild. Plus I managed to read a heap of books I had been meaning to for ages! So, now I feel refreshed and ready to face the stress of the pointy end of the year.

Then I got to travel back to my hometown and just to show that you never really grow up, Mum insisted on making me a thermos of coffee and a heap of sandwiches for the 4 hours drive home!

How did you spend your Cup weekend?