Putting yourself in your writing

A thinky post for today.

While I’m writing and editing (and posting here) chapters of Shifting Reality, I often think of how much of ourselves we as writers put in our stories.

Sometimes this is visible in themes that keep coming back in our fiction, sometimes it is visible in direct scenes. But even so, truth is sometimes crueler than fiction.

I once wrote a scene about a boy in a primary school setting. The story started with the teacher, thinking to teach kids descriptive writing, setting the students the task to describe one fellow student without mentioning the student’s name. The students then had to take turns reading out their descriptions, and the other classmates had to guess who was being described. So one student gets up, reads, the kids guess. The next gets up, and reads the most vile diatribe on a fellow student that could cross a primary school student’s mind (and they can be vicious to each other), and everyone laughs. They know who it is. The teacher ignores the episode and moves to the next student.

I posted this on an online forum, and several people were all over me for making didactic mistakes. The teacher would NEVER be allowed to do this, they wailed. And this is against all educational guidelines. This is sooo unrealistic. Except it happened. Slight difference: it happened in high school (where the nastiness is even worse). The result was not a fight, as happened in my story, but a complete silence and ignoring of the whole thing. The student being described was me.

Incidents like these colour someone’s life. How could you not write about them? Similarly, I grew up hearing my grandparents’ harrowing stories from World War II in Europe. Some of the things they described were so horrible, they had an effect on me even hearing the stories second-hand. Backed up with some reading about the subject, they make for excellent story material.

Everyone has moving, traumatic, scary experiences, no matter how trivial they may seem in comparison to stories from other people. You’d go “How awful” about the class experience I described, but that would be chicken feed when compared with my mother who, as toddler, lived through bombings and raids. But my direct experience is no less valid.

Looking through my fiction, I can see many stories of my life smiling through the gaps. The small, spread-out family, the taciturn extremely introverted older members of society who will just not talk about personal stuff, the need to be independent, the notion not to take anything for granted, especially creature comforts, living in remote (and very hot) areas, scuba diving, and too many other things, big and small, to mention.

Mining your life, and that of your family members and friends, for story inspiration can be fun or can bring you closer to the subject in question. It can make you understand things you never saw at the time they happened to you or can bring you closer to other people.

Indonesia was another element that ran through much of my family life. I remember feeling dismayed that none of my friends had family members who had lived in Indonesia. How, for one, could they live without the food and the giant family cook-ins we had? How could they not be looking for the best toko to buy all their stuff?

For this latest novel, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Indonesian culture (or, I should say cultures), and I am grateful for all those stories I heard when I was little. Sadly those relatives have all passed away, but the spirit of the stories lives on.

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Technology in society and worldbuilding–an ode to the washing machine

In one of the free-access halls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales you can find this painting. It’s called The Widower, and was painted by Joseph Tisott in 1877. I cannot go to the Art Gallery without looking at this painting, and I cannot do so without tears in my eyes.

This painting encapsulates so much emotion. The little girl is happy; the father worries. The year is 1877. His wife has died leaving him to look after his children by himself. He works a back-breaking job on the land or doing some trade. He cannot stop work or work less to look after his children. There is no worker protection or insurance. There is no 9 to 5. There is no one to look after the children. If he doesn’t already know how to cook, sew or clean, he could learn to do this without a doubt, but, the thing is… merely doing the laundry is a major backbreaking task, and so is cooking and cleaning, and there is no time in the day for him to do this. Not while he is alone. He’ll need a housekeeper, or he’ll need to re-marry.

This post is not about gender issues. It is about how much technology has liberated us from doing menial tasks whose only function it is to keep ourselves fed and clean.

I read an article in the newspaper a while back that the greatest technological invention that has made the most profound difference on our daily lives is not the internet, or the car. It is the humble washing machine.

My paternal grandmother was born in 1897, and she grew up in a fairly backward place, where there was no electricity. Their pre-contraception household had 13 people, and doing the washing was a huge, hard and relentless task. They surely didn’t wash clothes as often as we do, but they did change one sheet on the bed every week, and washed, bleached and ironed all their clothes. Pre-electricity.

Our family has only five people, but the contraption I fear breaking down the most is the washing machine. At our place, I do the washing. If I had to hand-wash our clothes, or even half of them, I would spend a couple of hours a day doing this. I would have no time to work. Moreover, I would not be able to leave the house for more than a day, because my family, lovely and able as they all are, would not have this kind of time in their day to do this either.

So, consider that next time you design a low-technology world.

Speed vs Quality: the eternal debate

I’m probably venturing into dangerous territory with this one, but here goes.

I consider myself a reasonably fast writer. Mostly, it’s because I spend a lot of time writing, more than someone with a full-time job, but also because I think my writing process is reasonably efficient. I am, however, a pantser extra-ordinaire, and this brings a measure of inefficiency. I tried, but cannot write any other way. I could write faster if I was better organised, but my process doesn’t allow it. My process involves going over the manuscript again and again, and again just for good measure, until I’m willing to set the piece free into the world.

There are a lot of writers with different writing speeds, from really fast detective writers to writers who only complete a book every few years. There is, however, nothing that gets fast writers riled up so much as the suggestion that fast writing equates poor quality, and the suggestion that a writer ‘should’ only write two books a year.

I’m on the fence on this one. I could write faster, but I could write a heck of a lot slower.

Does faster writing equate poor quality? I’ll stick my toe in the too-hot tub and I’ll say that it does, sometimes. It does when you can tell that a piece of fiction is written fast.

These are what I consider symptoms of writing that suffers from too little time spent on it:

The introduction of each new character is accompanied by a character sheet, in other words, an infodump (usually peppered with the word ‘had’) that lets the reader know exactly and unambiguously who the character is and what events have shaped him or her. It often spells out clearly whether the character is good or bad, and what their main aims in life are. I use character sheets in-text in early drafts. Remember I’m a pantser–I just stop the show and waffle on for a page or so to get myself acquainted with the character. The important bit is that a character sheet in the final version of your novel is boring as hell. It takes any tension out of the character by taking away the reader’s opportunity to wonder and question. A character sheet is first drafty stuff and should be deleted in a final draft. If that hasn’t been done, the story was sent out one draft too soon.

Too much throat-clearing. A character spends an entire chapter musing about the past and nothing much of note happens in the chapter. This is an extension of the character sheet problem. I write chapters like this in order to become further familiar with the character. It happens at a point where I’m at a loss as to what to write, so I start bullshitting the character’s internal thoughts to get the ball rolling again. This sort of stuff doesn’t belong in a final draft.

Simplistic characters. In early drafts, characters often do the job they need to do, and little more. At this stage, they’re merely chess pieces. Subsequent drafts add depth, quirks or ambiguity. If vital characters are one-dimensional, the work hasn’t seen enough drafts.

Sloppy research or worldbuilding. Facts are untrue or inconsistent. Sometimes the facts aren’t untrue as such but lack depth. The worldbuilding doesn’t venture beyond what can be gleaned in five seconds from Wikipedia.

If you can write really fast and not do any of this, great! But I know that I can’t. For me, fast writing definitely equates poorer quality. Then again, fast means something different for each writer, and I think setting limits as to how fast is too fast is pretty silly. Too fast is when the quality suffers. End of story.

SF writers having fun with seasons

As a writer, you can do all sorts of fun worldbuilding stuff with seasons. The English-language concept of Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter is based on the European seasons. Even on Earth, it doesn’t hold everywhere.

In northern tropical Australia, where I used to live, you have two seasons:
A dry season, when–surprise, surprise–it doesn’t rain, and a wet season, when it’s supposed to rain but often doesn’t, and if it does, it does so in quantities no drainage system could possibly be built to cope with, and in between these bouts of liquid air, it’s just horrible and humid.

Even in Sydney, we have only three seasons. Autumn very slowly morphs into spring, as the European benchmarks for winter–long nights, bare trees, and snow–just don’t hold. Many trees never lose their leaves at all, and some only do so well into spring, and even some of the European trees appear mightily confused.

On your imaginary world, you may choose to adhere to the basic four-season model, but if your setting has a dry or tropical climate, the seasons will be different.

But why not do something more challenging. Let’s go back to what causes seasons. Two things:
1. the inclination of the planet’s axis of rotation compared to the plane of rotation.
2. physical distance of a planet to the star.

Factor 1 is by far the most important on Earth. It is why we have summer while the northern hemiphere has winter. Factor 2 requires an elliptical orbit. No planet has an orbit that’s 100% circular. Earth’s orbit is pretty darn circular, but still, Earth is closest to the Sun in January and furthest from it in July. Therefore, the summers in the southern hemisphere are slightly warmer than summers at similar latitude in the northern hemisphere, and the winters slightly colder. Still, when you consider other factors of topography, this effect is so small as to be meaningless.

Supposing you were on Mars, the facts would look very different. Mars has both an inclination and an elliptical orbit. Therfore, the winters on the southern hemiphere of Mars are noticeably colder (and longer, since a planet moves faster the closer it is to the sun) than those on the northern hemispere and the summers noticeably warmer. However, the inclination of Mars is still similar to Earth’s.

Now imagine if you were on a planet rotating perpendicular to the plane of orbit. We have such a planet in the solar system: Neptune. If you stood on the north pole of Neptune in the northern summer, you’d have the sun not only permanently above the horizon, but straight overhead, as in the tropics on Earth. In winter, the sun would disappear for months. The sun would only rise and set every day on the equator. How would plants and animals survive on a world like this?

Ethical questions in SF

Last night, I posted the hypothetical question on Twitter:

If cane toads were seriously endangered in Hawaii, how would you feel about people killing them in Australia?

To which the replies suggested:
– the Hawaiians are welcome to ours!
– the Australian ecosystem is no less important than Hawaii’s. Kill them!

But, I wondered, what if transporting cane toads to Hawaii was prohibitively expensive?

People still felt that the cane toads should be eradicated, and never mind, because cane toads were disgusting and ugly and not very conservation-worthy.

OK. The European rabbit has almost become extinct. In Australia, we’re killing them by the thousands.

Shipping them back should be easy, but… the Australian rabbit is not exactly the same creature as the European rabbit. There are probably no detectable differences in DNA, but the Australian rabbit lives in the desert. Oh, there are city rabbits, too, but they tend to be heavily contaminated with genotypes that are white, black or grey and don’t look like the European wild rabbit at all.

The place where you will find wild, non-domestic rabbits is in central Australia. These rabbits have excellent desert surviving skills and they’re tough.

Fortunately, shipping them back to Europe is easy and you might give it a go. That said, the rabbits you re-import may no longer be suited to the mild climes of temperate Europe. They might die, or might become a pest of themselves. You could happily continue eradicating rabbits in Australia, because the species does not belong here.

But now imagine a cute animal in an environment that has no native state, such as an environment that has been terraformed, in which all plants and animals are imported. The cost of transporting the animals back would be hideous. The animals may not be genetically the same. And in their native habitat they’re almost extinct. Would eradicating them still be OK?

Some time far in the future, humans are terraforming Mars. Because bamboo is such a successful and hardy colonising plant that stops erosion, there is lots of it. But some dimwit has decided to bring across giant pandas, and the things have gone berserk.

Since transporting them back to Earth is going to be expensive at the very least, do you think it would be OK for people to *gasp* kill them, tan their sorry black-and-white hides and even eat them?

It’s an ethical question to which I don’t propose giving a clear-cut answer. There probably isn’t a clear-cut answer, but it’s fun to think about.

Worldbuilding assistance

When I’m doing worldbuilding, I find it helps if I can find images of landscapes, items or technology that resembles what I’m trying to describe, but sometimes that doesn’t work, so I’ve gotten out the paints and pencils after a long retirement and started to dabble in art again.

I’ll be talking about some of the results.

A key location in a number of my fiction works is the city-state and surrounding enclave of Barresh. The picture above is what I first knew of it when Jessica in Watcher’s Web unwittingly stumbled into the territory after having crashed in the rainforest on top of the cliffs. Getting down to water level is a matter of falling down a rock slide. She ends up in the place shown here. In the lagoon that lies inland from the mouth of the river is a village where natives live. To the left is a huge expanse of marshy ground with little islands, reeds, water plants, thermal springs and geysers, and BIG fish. The large island with the city is way to the left. That’s where she needs to go, but she doesn’t have a boat (remember the BIG fish with BIG EVIL teeth?).

Anyway, while the place was always in my head, I’ve found that trying to put it on paper forced me to think about some of the logistics. How deep is the water (about waist deep in most places)? How far does this cliff go for (a long way)? Is there an ocean anywhere near (yes, on the other side of the city)? Things like that. It’s a very useful exercise.