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Your Opinion Does Matter: On Privilege and Conversation

I read a very interesting blog post recently.  That post was “I’m Still Here” by over on YA Highway.  Daud makes a lot of good points in this post.  About the issues of using your privilege to take over a discussion, for example.

However, she makes a key point in the post which I have to disagree with.  Particularly: “But here’s the thing: your opinion doesn’t actually matter.”  Please do click the link and read the entire post before you jump to judgement, or even conclusion.  Context is important.

But, even with that context in mind, I don’t agree with this argument.  Your opinion does matter.  What you have to be careful of, though, is that, because of historical issues that Daud explains in depth, the opinion of someone on the privileged side of a privilege debate is often taken more seriously than the opinion of someone on the other side.  That is definitely something that should be avoided if possible.

One of the supporting points Daud makes in her post is the issue of how the same conversation happens over and over again, and how that is evidence of people not listening.  But that’s not an issue of listening, and it’s not specific to discussions of privilege.  Neither side of the debate is a cultural monolith.  New people are constantly entering the conversation on both sides.  Constantly.  The same way they are in any conversation.  They weren’t there the last time.  They may have read the transcripts, if such exist.

But there’s a reason small group discussion is so common in schools.  That’s how people think and learn, by talking it out.  Until we get to the point where diversity is the default, there will always be more people to convince.  So yes, maybe you have just clicked with something that others have been discussing for ages.  That’s not called privilege, or not listening, or over-eagerness.  That’s called being new to the discussion.  Perhaps even relatively new to the planet Earth and life itself.  There’s a common saying in the writing community that every story under the sun has been told and retold a thousand times.  There’s a reason we get that repetition.  I still agree with Daud that new voices, especially privileged ones, should not be engaging in hostile, or even relative peaceful, take-overs of the conversation.  But to say that those new voices don’t count at all?  I can’t go along with that.

The following paragraph, on only talking to the privileged groups who control the structure of, in this case, publishing makes some good points, but I don’t think the transition to that from “your voice doesn’t matter” is quite so smooth as implied by Daud’s post.  That aside, I absolutely agree with the conclusion of the entire post: that rather than children or helpless invalids, minorities in publishing (and all other spheres) should be thought of as equals who are in fact driving the conversation.

Rather than muddying up that discussion, the people who are privileged on this issue should be having their own private rooms for private discussion, always remembering that those are side conversations, and that the real discussion is being arbitrated by the groups who actually have to deal with the unfair treatment, consideration, and lack of representation.  Your voice and your opinion are important, but they should be adding to the discussion, not taking space away from minority and under-privileged voices.  As a privileged person in any discussion, that’s a responsibility you must always keep in mind.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in atsiko, Publishing, YA Fiction

 

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Immersive vs. Intrusive Settings

I thought I’d piggy-back off of Farah Mendlesohn‘s distinction between Intrusive and Immersive Fantasy in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy.  Essentially, Mendlesohn proposes and axis between “immersive” fantasy on one end, and “intrusive” fantasy on the other.

 

Immersive Fantasy– a fantasy setting which is presented as the norm for the protagonist, while also not being the norm for the reader.  Generally there is little info-dumping or explanatory narrative.  Most proto-typical immersive fantasy is secondary world fantasy which remains “impervious” to its existence as a foil for our world.

Note:  Not all immersive fantasy is secondary world, and not all secondary world fantasy is immersive.

 

Intrusion Fantasy– a fantasy setting in which the fantastic intrudes into the real world or a close approximation thereof.  The protagonist generally shares the readers confusion, ignorance, and/or skepticism of the fantastic elements, unlike in immersive settings where the protagonist considers fantastic elements as normal parts of their everyday world.

 

Now, my proposition is this post is to expand these words to describe and sort of fictional setting.  Certainly, science fiction can be immersive or intrusive.  Going even further, a great deal of mystery and horror fiction is intrusive, in the sense that there are metaphorical worlds beyond the everyday world of the protagonist.  Keep in mind that immersive vs. intrusive is one continuum, following one axis of possible descriptors for a setting.  Secondary world vs. primary world is another such axis.  So is high fantasy vs. low fantasy.  Hard SF vs. Soft SF.  These are not genres.  They are not prescriptive labels.  They are purely descriptive.

 

As a basic example of  non-speculative fiction with an immersive intrusive distinction, consider:  getting caught up in a whistle-blowing chase thriller surrounding a company’s environmental crimes is no less intrusive to “everyday” life for you or me than is getting caught up in a war between vampires and werewolves.  What makes a setting intrusive vs. immersive is the relationship between the character’s perspective before and after the inciting incident.  For example, the White Walkers in Game of Thrones are an intrusive element relative to the understanding of the Starks and their people.

There are, in reality, two immersive/intrusive axes in any story.  One is based on the perspective of the character, and one on the reader.  Proto-typical intrusive fantasy has a protagonist and a reader sharing a basic understanding of the world.  Then an element foreign to both perspectives enters the story.  Proto-typical immersive fantasy has a protagonist and a reader with different understandings of their worlds.  But there’s no rule that the reader and character axes can’t intersect.

 

I believe that this method of looking at setting (and plot) can create a much closer interaction between writers of various genres, as many of the same methodologies and story-telling tools are held in common across genres.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in World-building, Writing

 

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SpecLing #2: A Language Without Nouns?

Better late than never, I thought I’d talk today about the possibility of a language without nouns.  Last time, I talked about a language without verbs, and delved into what exactly defines a part of speech.  Here’s a quick recap:

  1. Parts of speech can be defined in a few ways: lexically, where a given root is only acceptable as one part of speech; syntactically, where a their location in the sentence and the words surrounding them are applied to the root, and there may be no lexical distinction involved; and morphologically, where a category of roots undergo a specific set of morphological processes.
  2. Nouns are content words, meaning they have a meaning that can exist independently of a sentence.
  3. Verbs and noun roots in English can in fact switch categories.  You can bag your groceries by putting them in a bag, and rope you some cattle with a rope.

 

There have been several languages and language families put forward as lacking nouns.  Tongan, Riau Indonesian, the Salishan languages of Oregon.  In the case of Riau, it seems words are lexically underspecified–that is, they can be used in any category.  In Salishan languages, you have what is often considered to have a verbal category, while not having a nominal one.  So, the word for “dog” is actually a verb meaning “to be a dog”  The same goes for being a man.  One mans.

 

A question arises here:  While “man”-ness is a verb syntactically and morphologically in Salishan languages, is it possible to argue that these “verbs” aren’t just nouns by another form?  In the previous paragraph, I used the word “man” as a “verb” in English.  Are such verbs in Salishan merely placeholders for a true noun?  One difference in using verbs as opposed to nouns is the removal of the tedious “to be” constructions in English.  “He is a man.” requires more words than “He mans”.  That brings is back to the issue of the multiple definitions of a part of speech.  Lexically, its reasonable to say a language with such constructions lacks nouns.  Morphologically, if a root undergoes the same processes as words that are verbs, it’s reasonable to conclude it’s a verb.  The only argument to be had in this case is syntactic.  A predicate requires a verb.  If a Salishan pseudo-verb can be a predicate all on its own, then doesn’t that imply it’s actually a bona fide verb?  But verbs must be nominalized to become arguments of another verb, in which case you could argue they aren’t.  Now, the truth is that a noun/verb distinction has never been 100% delineable, so I think it can be argued in good faith that these roots are truly verbs.

In which case, it’s much simpler to conclude that we can have a language without nouns than that we can have a language without verbs.

 

As far as methods to construct a noun-less grammar, we have:

  1. Stative verbs as in Salishan
  2. I don’t know?  Any suggestions?
 

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Social Media and Plagiarism: How the Dynamic Web Has Changed Speech

There’s been a lot of hubbub on the internet lately, in social media circles as well as the traditional press, about the issue of plagiarism in social media.

Now, plagiarism has been a problem online for a long time, but social media brings something different to the discussion.  Back when the internet was young, and you had to pay your own hosting fees and code your own website, it was a lot more difficult, and just plain inconvenient to plagiarize.  You had a static site and relatively few ways to distribute your work.  Much like with books, the Static Web was everywhere, but not all that hard to police.

But social media and the content creation movement has changed all that.  Where once we had the Static Web, with people coding their own sites by hand, or paying someone else, we now have the Dynamic Web, where for the cost of an internet connection or a walk to the local library, anyone can have as-good-as-infinite accounts on the hundreds of content creation and social media sites whose struggles carry vibrations all across the Web.  And these sites auto-create pages from databases and some PHP/RoR/Perl code.  No more commitment-heavy hand-coding.

There are actually two issues at hand here.  Although content creation platforms and social media platforms are different in method, they are similar and ethos, and their differences shrink daily, as VBulletin includes blogging features in their forum software, and Facebook Groups function much like an old-style message board.  The effect of both of these Dynamic Web implementations is to bring written speech much closer to casual speech.

It used to be that creating written work required a commitment to the end product.  People struggled over letters to friends, competed to be published in newspapers.  Many people ascribe the various issues with Dynamic Web speech to the lack of gate-keepers or competition.  But what’s really going on is deeper than that.  Although social media sites like Facebook and Twitter store speech in text format, a status on Facebook, or a tweet on Twitter, is not really the written word.  It’s treated and acts much more like a comment tossed off in a college discussion class, or a joke made to a friend.

And where the disconnect between people in the Static vs. Dynamic Web paradigms happens is that the Tweeter or the Facebook poster isn’t thinking of their status as a publication.  So when they leave off a citation, or mis-attribute a quote, they don’t consider the consequences.  After all, we’ve never policed the spoken word to the extent that we police the written word.  It would be impossible.

So when I stumbled across the false MLK quote doing the rounds on Facebook and looked it up on Snopes.com, it didn’t surprise me that it wasn’t really from MLK.  If it had been a spoken word mis-quote, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.  The maximum propagation rate for the spoken word is relatively small.  It’s limited by memory, by audience, by time, by importance, by significance.  But because the text Web is searchable, because it allows instant access to much larger social networks, because the Web is forever, the propagation rate of a statement is significantly higher.  What would have been an un-important mistake in a casual conversation with a few friends has the potential to reach a much larger audience.  And that audience, reached through the Dynamic Web, is more likely to treat the statement as normal speech, and therefore, before passing on this mis-quotation, they are unlikely to source and cite it.  And then we have the issue that we had with the MLK quote and many others in the last few years.

As an example of this dis-connect, I have an anecdote I heard from a friend of mine.  He was perusing his Facebook feed, and came across an screencap from tumblr showing images and recipes for cocktail shots based on Eevee’s evolutions in the Pokemon games.  He shared it.  As it happened, one of his friends was friends with the person who had created the shot recipes.  And who was shocked and a bit creeped out to find it coming back to her in this circuitous Kevin Bacon effect manner.  Whoever had learned about it from her probably didn’t consider it plagiarism to pass it on.  After all, one of the features tumblr is most well known for is the “reblog” feature.  Which actually does a decent job of citation.  Tmublr has a system for that.

And so we encounter the other disconnect of the Dynamic Web.  Not all sites have the same terms of service, and very few sites, if any, have clear rules for how content is to be treated if shared outside the boundaries of its original, individual site.  You may have come across the auto-citations that many sites have started adding to links and copy-pasted quotes.  Or how a major art-based social media and display site, DeviantArt, implemented an anti-hot-linking system a few years ago.  All of these are individual sites’ attempts to combat the casual speech ethos of the Dynamic Web.  But what we really need, what would actually do something to solve the greater problem, is to educate people on the differences between social networks and content creation platforms and casual, real-world speech.  Perhaps the chat systems implemented by Facebook and other such sites are somewhat equivalent to casual speech.  But a Facebook status or a blog post is not.  You can’t treat them the same way, because as a decade or so of evidence has shown us, the consequences of such speech are very different.

Now, it isn’t a sure thing that Dynamic Web speech is the same as professional publication or journalism, either.  It may be in-between.  But better to err on the side of intentional publication than of casual speech.

(Maybe next time I’ll address plagiarism of status and blog articles more specifically.)

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Blogging, Publishing, Rants, Social Media, Writing

 

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World-building Depth vs. Relatability: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

A friend of mine and I recently read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.  It was a fun book.  But as someone who is extremely interested in world-building, I found a few things disappointing.  The style of world-building in Throne is allusion-analogue world-building:  There’s a secondary world, but it has strong similiarities to cultures and history from Earth.  This style relies on the reader’s familiarity with the real history and culture involved to build a world with less of the info-dumping common to many secondary-world spec fic.  It also allows the author to make more straight-forward references to the real world for comedic or moral or philosophical effect.

Although I don’t personally do a lot of academic reading on genres in general, and spec fic in particular, there is some useful material pointed out to me by my friend:

Farah Mendlesohn wrote a book called Rhetorics of Fantasy, which described an axis of categorization between including “immersive”, portal, “intrusive”, and “liminal” fantasy.  Essentially, immersive fantasy involves a secondary world that is “impervious to knowledge of an outside reality”.  That outside reality being Earth.  Basically, it avoids direct reference to Earth in the narrative.  The Malazan series is a strong example of immersive fantasy.

Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon inhabits a twilight zone somewhere between immersive fantasy and portal fantasy.  It is a secondary world in which the Earth does not exist, and yet it makes a great deal of references and allusions to Earth history and culture.  You can clearly see the analogues to Arabic and Turkish culture, as well as to Islam.  The Islam connection is particularly direct.

This style of fantasy has its advantages.  It’s easier for a reader to get into.  They have places of references, and a great deal of knowledge and sentiment that allows them to understand the setting and sometimes even the characters.

However, it has some disadvantages, as well, and these were pretty relevant to my response to the book.  There’s a tradeoff to be made between difficulty of reading and depth of world-building, and finding the perfect balance can be tough.  (I want to be very clear that this post is not about cultural appropriation.  It is about methods and techniques of world-bulding, and how each style has its pitfalls.)  Throne lands solidly in the very relatable, less deep quadrant.

 

A major problem I had with the world-building and characterization of the novel was that I felt the middle-eastern setting was somewhat superficial.  And I mean that in the literal sense of being only on the surface.

For example, Adoulla made references to scripture in his magic, and Raseed is classified as a “dervish”.  But beyond the basic middle-eastern flavor many Western readers associate with those words, they didn’t have a great deal of effect on the characters.  Raseed is a sword-weilding prodigy, is a bit naive and strait-laced, and has a single, short-lived, relatively lacking-in-tension confrontation with some “allies”.  But you never really learn what effect on his character his childhood in the Order has.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be one, at least based on the events in this first novel–perhaps it changes later.

The politics and culture of the city suffer a similar shallowness.  The “Khalif” behaves and is portrayed as a fairly standard Grand Duke/Prince/King character.  Despite the existence of an Islam-like religion in the world of the story, you never see any real evidence beyond Adoulla and Raseed playing out their grizzled mentor/innocent apprentice relationship.  There are some few details, such as Adoulla’s love of cardamom tea, and a general lac of alcoholic beverages.  However, these are few and far between.

It’s a fair argument to make that Western European fantasy follows similar patterns, and suffers from similar failures.  Much high and heroic fantasy uses similar world-building techniques, and relies on references to Earth cultures to create its setting.  There’s no reason non-Western settings should be required by default to have superior world-building.

And certainly the methods involved make things easier for the reader and writer.  It can be hard to orient oneself in a truly secondary world(immersive) fantasy.  Creating a fully realized original world is a challenge for both writers and readers.  And many readers are more interested in an epic quest or back-alley battle than in exploring secondary worlds.  That’s a perfectly valid approach to reading fantasy.  And writing it.

Throne is a heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery homage, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in that.  It is most often epic fantasies in which the truly immersive fantasy is found (although that’s descriptive, not prescriptive).  It is not a terrible book, and the market loves such works.  There is a great deal to enjoy in the story, including the dilemmas of the characters.  It is completely possible to see the flaws in a work and still enjoy it.  And that is a good description of how I felt about this book.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Difference Between Spoken and Written Language: Acronym Edition

Something I’ve noticed recently online is the issue of the indefinite articles: “a” vs. “an”.  Many people probably know the rule for this, and many people probably just do it unconsciously.  Essentially, you have “a” before a word beginning with a consonant sound (not consonant letter!), and “an” before a word beginning with a vowel sound (not vowel letter!).  This kind of thing is called “allomorphy”, made up of the Greek roots(morphemes) “allo”, meaning “other”, and “morph”, meaning “shape”(form).  They have different forms depending on the words around them.

Now, there’s an interesting intersection between written and spoken language here:

1. Often, people taught the rule explicitly put “a” before any written word with an initial consonant letter, and “an” before any written word with an initial vowel letter.  There are a few variations of this.  And with dialects, there can be differences, as well.  The “a historical”/”an ‘istorical” debate is still raging, for example.  And then you have the examples like “an apron”, which was originally “a napron”, but because of the ambiguity in speech, people reanalyzed the morpheme boundary to get our modern usage.  The “an (vowel)-” beginning was just so much more common than the “a n–” combination, so people who were hearing the phrase for the first time just assumed one analysis based on their past experience.

2. The issue of whether an acronym should be read as its individual letters, it’s whole word pronunciation, or the entire phrase that it represents.  For example, should the indefinite article for the new age category in publishing, “New Adult”–acronym “NA”–be written “an NA” or “a NA”.  The first version would be correct if it was being read “en ey”, but the second would be correct if it was read “New Adult”–despite being written in acronym form–and although it doesn’t apply for this case, if “NA” was a true acronym instead of an initialism, you could argue it should be “a nah”.

 

Personally, I would never read “NA” as “New Adult” out loud, and so seeing “a NA novel” confuses the heck out of me for a second or two.  But other people seem to think that’s a legitimate reading, and who am I o gainsay them?  I wonder how this might apply in an editing situation, where the editor and the writer disagree about which is the proper way to read an acronym.  Or in a critique?

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2014 in Linguistics

 

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All The Small Things: Shitty First Drafts and Editing

By now, everyone has probably heard the cliche that everyone writes shitty first drafts.  It’s not true, of course.  Some people go straight from first draft to best-seller, and it’s okay to hate those people.  In aggregate, if not as individuals.

But for most people, there are rounds of editing, critique, beta reading, and revision, or some personal combination thereof.

The reason for this is that there are so many little things, no matter whether you write literary or pulp, or in between, that you have to keep track of to create a first draft that can go straight to the press.  This is especially true for long-form prose or any kind of poetry.

For example:

1. Using verbs or perception or thought:  “It seemed like…”, “Michael knew that…”, “Mandy heard…”.  For some styles or some writers, that’s something to avoid.  And it’s so natural in many people’s casual writing, or in oral story-telling/conversation, that it can take many careful passes to make sure it’s all edited out–or not.  (I like to call these “distancing verbs”, because they often create a sense of distance between a narrator/character and the read.)

2. Punctuation:  Are you using Oxford commas, commas between fronted adverbial phrases and the main sentence, colons, commas, or em dashes? 

3. Showing vs Telling:  No matter your preference, it can be hard to be consistent.  Or maybe getting the scene down quickly is more important that the specifics of the prose.  Or perhaps in a certain scene, it’s more effective to tell the reader how a character feels.

4. Pet words and phrases:  Many authors have words or phrases that they use constantly in their work, usually unconsciously.  It can cut across genres and styles.  S.M. Stirling uses the phrase “cloven air” constantly in his Change series to describe the flights of arrows.  It annoyed the crap out of me, though I liked the books for the most part.  David Eddings constantly has his characters telling each other to “Be nice.” throughout his books.  These things can be much less obvious, though.

 

There are tons more.  The point is, though, it’s almost impossible to keep every single one in your head at the same time.  Your brain is already keeping track of so much language junk unconsciously, just forming thoughts or speaking.  I know I often have the experience of reading a blog post, or listening to a podcast, and the author/speaker will mention some word-level writing topic, and give some fantastic advice.  And I’ll realize I’ve heard that before, from someone else, thought it just as awesome, and vowed always to remember it.  But then I’ll completely forget that specific detail I wanted to keep track of when writing a story or poem.

And there are dozens if not hundreds of these little issues.  Some writers resort to making lists of them for when they edit, or even making specific editing passes to account for them.  So the next time you’re on your fifth draft, and you realize that you’ve found another “you’re” instead of “your”; or that you just used three distancing verbs in the same sentence; or you’re on your fourth pass for passive voice, and you found four examples on the current page, just remember that everyone has that problem, and it’s completely normal.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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