Tag: writing

Writing in Binary

A map of the Kalqaiki Islands that shows the extreme differences between high and low tides.

I’ve worked from maps for science fiction stories since I was in my mid- to late teens. According to writers on the Early Internet, a good map grounded a science fiction world in reliable possibilities.

There was a lot about geology I didn’t know, though, until I became a geology librarian and started going to geosciences colloquia and talks. As an English major, astro minor, who graduated about 10 years ago (technically, my job is to liaise to the astro, geo, and physics departments, and geo at the uni includes paleontology), the only geosciences class I had was planetary science. As an elective senior year, I took a course on natural disasters.

Planetary science had taught me the signs of water on Mars and the types of terrain common on planets. On Ameisa, for example, the region called the Canyons is actually chaos terrain, and it’s the oldest rock on the planet — the chaos terrain extends even beyond the shores of Narahja to the islands of Nasja, which are the peaks and plateaus of the terrain as it tapers off towards the other continents.

What I did not integrate into my maps at the time was an understanding of wet and dry zones in rotating planets — which I learned about in a geo colloquium about three years ago — but that ship has sailed on Ameisa, so to speak. One of the reasons global warming on Earth is causing changes in rain patterns is that the equator is wet, an area beyond the equator in both directions is dry, and then it becomes wet on towards the temperate zones and the poles. The equatorial wet zone and the dry bands that follow them in the northern and southern hemispheres grow wider as a planet warms, according to many scientists who study such things. There is very little desert on Ameisa, even in the zones that are typically dry. On the map below, Bisa, Marzū, and Qapwā are equatorial desert due to an ecological catastrophe.

The other thing I didn’t integrate was the impact of Ameisa being one part of a binary planet system, which would make it highly tectonically active due to tidal heating from Laseå. I just didn’t want to deal with earthquakes.

What I ended up doing on Ameisa was making broad areas of the landscape nigh uninhabitable due to earthquake zones and megatsunamis. The entire east coast of the Shēdak is uninhabitable — there’s a mountain range along the coast constantly pummeled by tsunamis — and most people in Qawākam live inland on its big island. I also looked at innovators and engineers on Earth who were designing tsunami-proof buildings for those societies that do live in tsunami zones.

The planet Ameisa, with some light annotations about political units (countries).
Ameisa. You can tell I set a lot of stories here by the degree to which I provide political/logistical annotations. I have other maps of Ameisa with more clutter on them.
Laseå, the other planet in the binary system.
Laseå. I don’t set very many stories here, and this is my only map of the world. (Except I have a Draft 1 of this one.)

Meditations on binary planet system dynamics led to Kalqaiki, now uninhabited for millennia. (Context: My Aeon Timeline goes on for ~35,000 years.) At one point in the distant past, a bunch of rich people found this island range and decided to turn it into a recreational/resort playground. It was Ameisa’s first spacefaring age, the wealthy were egregiously out of touch with the masses, and they left a lot of infrastructure on the island range to deal with the inconvenient earthquakes and tsunamis.

The people who lived on Kalqaiki for generations after the fall of that civilization were the descendants of the voluntary and indentured staff who set up their lives on these islands. Kalqaiki was also the only place on Ameisa with a plant that could be ground to make legit blue pigments. It grows in the intertidal marshes there, and for a long time, the plant was not grown anywhere else.

There is no word for blue in most of my conlangs; I almost always use the word opaque or some variant because blue eyes, the sky, and the sea are all illusions of color. For darker blues, much of the time I write the words purple or indigo, we’re actually talking about dark blue and navy — color words occupy a different semantic space in my work than they do in traditional English usage. Of course, purple and indigo just as often mean colors we assign to the semantic space of purple and indigo, too.

A map of the Kalqaiki Islands that shows the extreme differences between high and low tides.
Kalqaiki islands. The part still above water during high tide is the part that was once inhabited, now in ruins.

The map above is rough — a story doodle of the islands. Kalq- is a prefix that loosely translates to all in the conlang, which I added to the map after doing a bit of linguistic work on the three languages spoken on the islands. The conlang includes a phrasebook section with sentences like:

  • Ude nimdarmo ði xixto dið nuaxe. The earthquake forecast today is bad. Lit., Forecast with respect to earthquakes at today bad.
  • To amu zi, muðpaiðo sis etpu ðai? Is a tsunami coming? Lit., Yes or no, directionally here me-wards comes tsunami?
  • Emo nuaxe dið mebo? What is the strength of the earthquake?
  • Podel pilo tal nimnuaxe. The earthquake is a 9.4.

One of the things I have to account for in Laseå-Ameisa is the massive difference between high and low tide — the kilometers of saltwater marshes and their impact on trade routes, plus what features in the landscape make for a good harbor when the difference between high and low tide is so vast. On my major continent maps, cities are inland on the waterways; most rivers show tidal features for a ways inland.

All in all, I agree with the idea that maps are important — but I think that especially for settings that are not a direct Earth-Moon system clone —— such as binary planet systems, Trojan worlds, and the like —— it’s important to recognize the gaps in one’s knowledge and seek to get a good enough (not perfect) grasp of how things like basic geology impact the daily lives of people. One can go to talks, read some good books/audiobooks, or even look around on the arXiv at preprints on exoplanets to see how scientists think about these very different worlds. And then the maps, conlangs, and stories will just get even more fun.

Writing Updates

Before I get going: read my poem (and all of the other stories and poems) in the summer issue of Kaleidotrope.

On Tuesday night, I spent about 3.5 hours working in Scrivener and Aeon Timeline to verify dates for a story against a 35,000-year unity of time cycle, and I’m working in 3 different calendar systems — Objective Count, the Nåkeva Tveshi Calendar, and the Standard Count Tveshi calendar.

I knew I’d overextended myself when I reached 10:00 PM and thought to myself that I had burned the candle so long that there was hardly any wax left. It was the tail end of orientation season where I work, and the semester started on Wednesday. This weekend, I’m finishing up writing an academic article based on a conference lightning talk I presented this summer — due on the 7th.

On Tuesday, despite being fatigued, I pushed on until 10:37 PM simply because I was so deep in calendrical conversions that I didn’t want to spend time figuring out where I had left off. When I turned off my music, I felt fuzzy and hollow. Spent.

August and September are the most hectic periods in the calendar for most academic librarians, with additional rushes in October, December, whenever spring midterms happen (typically early March here), and late April/early May. Late August to early September — I declared in my bullet journal — is a month of organizing and completion for me. Rather than starting new projects, I’m using it to tidy up.

Being the type of person who commits to things and then finishes them means that I have to really watch not overextending myself early on, and Tuesday night is an example of a time when I was pushing myself a bit overmuch. I keep having to remind myself that I have all of September ahead of me to get things done. The first thing I did after considering what I need to do between now and December 31 to reach my goals was to make a document called Large Writing Projects and print it out so I’d know what’s on my plate and my estimated times to completion. It’s taped to the wall above my desk now.

I finished writing a shareable draft of A Matter of Oracles and sent it to a few close acquaintances and friends on my “hey will you read this?” list on Sunday night. Coincidentally, everyone I asked to read it works in libraries, and it’s about far-future library science. Then, I put a smiley face over its section on Large Writing Projects. After being on a panel at Conbust for several years about the depiction of libraries in speculative fiction, I decided that I really wanted to see what it would be like to write something (admittedly on the fantastical side of speculative fiction) that drew on my professional librarian background and created a realistic information environment. You can also see a bit of that in Epiphany, but not as directly; episodes/entries 18 and 38 have a lot of realism. There’s another episode in which a database Salus uses for work has an update that completely overhauls its interface, and that’s common, too.

Right now, I’m putting The Raised Seal in more explicit first person omniscient — updating it to be consistent with what I’ve decided to do in the rest of the epic has been smoldering in the back of my head. Tackling this will free up mental space for projects I want to focus on later in the calendar year, so it’s game on. I’ve just reached Chapter 15 out of 21, which plot-wise is where the shit hits the fan. Many of my longer works are like a Mono piece or one of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos in that they build slow-ish and then the climax happens and stays put.

Otherwise, I’m migrating some of my plain text worldbuilding, character, and story notes into Markdown (using MWeb) and LaTeX (specifically Overleaf). While I use Scrivener for single-story character sheets, locations, and the like, when I’m working on my epic, I need the same things over and over. My conlang documents are so nice and squeaky, and they’re a total breeze to consult when I’m in the middle of writing.

I’ve co-taught file management workshops and practice what I teach, so the worldbuilding notes are straightforwardly arranged — I can more clearly see where I can refine what I do to fit my workflow a bit better. It actually might not take as much time as I thought to fix all of this up.

I shared these stats on Twitter (from which I’m taking a hiatus; social media is very stressful, and I can feel my chest tightening and shoulders knotting whenever I log in), but this is what August looked like for me.

Screenshot of August creative writing time, totaling over 54 hours

One big change is that I discovered that RescueTime premium has a lot of features I want to use to track my time, so I started using it to look at the amount of time I was spending in Scrivener and other writing tools.

Screenshot of time spent in Scrivener, totaling over 47 hours, in August

I said this on Twitter, but I’ve seen people mention that it’s hard to feel productive when there isn’t a word count to measure — RescueTime helps me with that because I can see that despite not having written many new words this month, I’ve been doing a lot of revision. What is not included there is the time I spent reading/annotating some of my work using an app on my phone. That’s another few hours, which would bring the total to 58-60 hours for my creative work.

So those are a few quick updates. I’m doing a lot of stuff, #Lexember will be upon us before you know it, and there’s a thing I will talk about excitedly in a few months, but happy September, and may Demeter and Kore bring you the blessings of the harvest season. 😊

The Richness of Infinity: On Integrating Worldbuilding Across Time and Space

For those of you who loved my podcast Epiphany, guess what? I’m working on a podcast called Ossia right now, and I passed the 32,000-word mark on it this week. It will operate in 5 chunks (seasons?) of 12 episodes each. Optimistically, I will start recording and posting it later in 2018.

But enough of that. I have some brief comments on worldbuilding.

One of my techniques in worldbuilding is to connect everything, at least at an implicit level, because I love solving puzzles. I commented on Twitter that this helps me create enough complexity to occupy my mind. That is true to some extent.

The major reason is more complex. I grew up reading Classical mythology, ghost stories, Star Wars extended universe novels, vampire fiction from the 19th century onward, and occasionally fantasy or science fiction. The way I approach interconnected worldbuilding is most like Classical mythology and historical narrative. It’s less like Star Wars, for which knowing Star Wars is key to understanding or even wanting to read the extended universe (for most people).

Classical myth is deep and wide, and the worldbuilding I do attempts at approximation. In sacred stories, we have the traditional epic cycle of the Trojan War and its aftermath. This exists alongside corpora of other stories. Hermes of the Iliad sits alongside the Homeric Hymn, in which baby Hermes steals cows, invents the lyre, and claims his place on Olympos. You don’t need to read one to understand the other. They all take place in the same divine world — larger than a single story or telos. A key idea in multiplicity is understanding that there is not a 1:1 correspondence between story and setting, that the stories of others exist in tandem to the anger of Akhilleos. The Nile still overflowed its banks each of the ten war-torn years, and people had their own things to do.

I worldbuilt 35,000 years (to varying levels of detail) of the history of Ameisa, which covers the entirety of its habitation, along with the six worlds that became inhabited during the cycles of Ameisi civilization. (On a vague level, I have everything in the 17,000 years before on the planet Jiha.) My worldbuilding includes the idea of civilizational cycles, with mythological histories layered on mythological histories. Traveling among the stars is always in the past because the stars have been reached in the real past, at least for everyone on these worlds. It’s similar to writing in a Classical myth setting because each provides an impressive breadth of stories to create.

The epic I’m writing’s world is Ameisa during a specific historical period that extends from 29964 to the 35500s Objective Count. (Objective Count just means that I have a civilization-neutral calendar dated to the first day humans landed on Ameisa. I convert to specific cultural calendars.) The other six planets only come in tangentially, and even so, their roles in the epic are specifically defined against what is happening on Ameisa during the Blackout Period and its aftermath.

This means that the intricacies of stories on the other six planets don’t often have opportunities to be told. The Blackout is a universal in many of the stories, but most people on Maðz, Atara, Mntaka, Baruwh, Qamaq, and even Ameisa’s sister planet Laseå will live and die during that 5500-year period with no awareness of any events in the epic, having lived out their own lives and stories. (Even the handful of people who interact with the epic know this, and they often resent Ameisa for taking center stage.)

Some of the projects I’ve been working on in addition to the world of 29965-35500 Ameisa include stories on the other planets. It’s refreshing because there’s almost no contact among the planets during the Blackout period, and I get to focus on cultures and languages that I wouldn’t otherwise.

However, I’ve often called stories set in the same universe as The Seven Papers “stories that are set in the same worldbuilding as The Seven Papers,” but I have spent several days reflecting on what that means and have determined that the terminology makes no sense. The Seven Papers is the Ameisi Epic Cycle, and the other stories that have space on the 35,000-year timeline are — what, exactly? They’re not derivative, but they do share a world. I don’t have a word to describe them.

A secondary analogy to make here is to imagine someone writing a historical fantasy novel series set across the vast span of Ancient to Modern Egyptian history who then decides to write a novel about 19th century Tokyo. Tokyo is impacted by Alexandria, but not in a way that most people living out their daily lives would understand consciously. They’re both in the same worldbuilding — Earth history. What happened during the Christianization of Alexandria has a direct impact on the missionary tension in Japan and Japan’s hard line against the cultural violence and destruction that has accompanied Christianity since its cultural revolution ended with the indigenous Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and European religions all but wiped out, libraries destroyed, statues mutilated, and competing polytheistic philosophical schools destroyed. When Christian missionaries converted powerful people in the common era, they often told them that their next job was to destroy the demonic shrines and religious traditions of the places they lived in — and when locals retaliated, the missionaries traditionally played the victim. This has played out everywhere from China (see the Boxer Rebellion) to Japan (see Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was concerned about shrine destruction and European imperialism) to India (just read the news). You cannot write 19th century Tokyo without the geopolitics intersecting with European imperialism, which came out of the Christianized Roman Empire. Someone writing a historical series like that would see the connections, but not necessarily the readers who follow lim.

Writing same-worldbuilding work set in different places and time periods works in a very similar way. One of the novellas is about mountain and death goddesses, family reconciliation, and ghosts. The other is about magic, libraries, and oracles. The protagonists are literally centuries, worlds, and cultures apart (and I finished the first draft of the oracular one at the beginning of April, so go me! 37,000 words!). They will never meet or learn the language of the other. The only place they connect is in their lack of connection, the Blackout silence in the sky.

The principles I used to create the Mamltab and Classical Atarahi conlangs also go by my general principles for the creation of Ameisa-origin languages, which is more subtle. I’ve oversampled for object-verb-subject (OVS) and the types of evidentiality markers that date back to the first language spoken on the planet. The inner unity after millennia is solely based on having the same initial condition, Aòḥám.

And it’s also unbelievably fun to write things that are new and disconnected, to know that the worldbuilding I made has such incredible range that I can use it for extremely different applications. I’m still looking for an elegant term to use in describing these works, but for now, I think I’ll call them co-worldbuilt mythopoetic stories.

Reflections on Writing in 2017

Writing-wise, 2017 was an interesting year. This is the part where I talk about a variety of projects related to writing and constructed languages and what happened over last calendar year (and into January 2018).

In 2017 (and January 2018 — I didn’t finish editing a novella until midway through the month), here’s what I did in long-form writing, for a total of ~334,000 words:

  • A novella about sisters, ghosts, and a mountain goddess: 37,715 words (done)
  • Plowing through writing The Seven Papers: 282,509 words (in progress)
  • Ossia (a serial intended for podcasting): 4,530 words (in progress)
  • An epistolary novel set during Ameisa’s Blackout period: 9,320 (in progress)

This doesn’t include all of the hours I’ve spent working on Epiphany, as that was edited back in 2016. There had been an earlier version of Epiphany online before I worked through a lot of the problems I had — primarily with how to explain Tveshi and Narahji culture — and I wrote the original text of Epiphany in my early 20s. I didn’t switch to using GNP in most of my stories about the Seven Gardens until I was 27 or 28, after I had an epiphany (lol) at Smith College ConBust and realized that I could fix translating gender in my stories about those worlds if I just didn’t do it at all.

It’s not going to make it any harder to get published given that my stories are generally about people we would consider queer doing things other than coming out or falling in love. There isn’t a place in the industry for that. What makes the stories better is, ironically, what makes them even less publishable and destroys their market viability — I care more about producing good work, and I have the freedom to do that because I have a full-time career outside of writing. Since I only have 10-15 hours each week that I can commit to writing, I don’t want to waste my time with things I don’t love.

In short form, I wrote 5-6 poems that I would consider publishable — this doesn’t count devotional religious poetry I write because I don’t consider it ethical (for me) if I’ve already given a poem to a deity. The only appropriate venue for devotional poetry would be a self-published collection, and I’d give the proceeds from that to Hellenic polytheism-related orgs.

Technically, I wrote and submitted 5 short stories, but I stopped submitting the 10K one and turned it into a novella. 3 of the other short stories (4,100 words; 6,200 words; and 1,900 words) are set in the universe I typically write in. The final one is … okay, also set in that universe, but is near-to-us future (7,500 words). I’ve also got a gorgon story that I’m editing right now that was technically written in December/January (3,900 words). So that’s ~23,600 words of short story writing. Based on what I’ve submitted places, I’ve tweaked Duotrope to block listings. It’s a weird block list because it consists of everything Orson Scott Card (who is homophobic) is involved in plus markets I have failed in enough that I know they’re a waste of my time.

In summer 2017, I took vacation time and spent about a week conlanging my heart out to produce better versions of Mamltab, Narahji, and Khessi. And then, of course, there was #lexember, when I worked on my Tveshi dictionary and made significant progress in the revisions.

I started submitting to short fiction and poetry publications in March 2017 for the first time since my early twenties. 26 of the 29 submissions I made in 2017 were rejected, 1 submission was published, and 2 are still pending. I find it hard to tell the difference between personal emails and form letters, so I think I checked form rejection in Duotrope for all but 2 pieces. An essay among those rejected actually never received a response, but it was a bit rant-y, and I don’t think many in science fiction or fantasy beyond me care about how poorly worldbuilt or researched most depictions of polytheism are (by admittedly white Western writers).

The published submission was a poem, “What Remains in the Ruins,” which I wrote after reading The Final Pagan Generation and its section on the priests who followed Christian officials around to vandalize and destroy non-Christian religious sites. It focuses on women’s religious experience in Classical polytheism and is a very angry poem.

Poetry is the one type of writing outside of academic articles and essays where I feel an internal locus of control — although the jury’s out on novellas. (I felt really good and in control while writing the one I just finished. I wrote a bunch of novella-length work in my teens and realized midway through the one I just wrote that I have a better handle on novellas than I realized going in.) I won local poetry competitions in my hometown (in my age category) and have written poetry since fifth grade. I went to a several-day writing camp at Southern Illinois State University during summers as a teen, and I surprised the adults with how good the poetry I chose to read actually was. I have always made a clear distinction between the poetry I jot down and the poetry that is appropriate to share with others. My self-esteem folder of nice things people have said about my work is generally about poetry I published in my early to mid-20s under my given name.

The poem I shared at that writing camp, incidentally, is set in the same universe as Epiphany and The Seven Papers. It was written long before I realized that gender-neutral pronouns were the solution to the gender things I was struggling with in the work. It also uses pre-reform spellings of Narahji terms:

Song of Menarka

My heart sings of Menarka as she rises out of time; 
The mist, her hair, flows over her face in a rainbow spray of color.
My heart sings of Menarka; her rocks are overgrown
With the sweet perfume of a thousand flowers.
My heart sings of Menarka, whose walls hold the music
And lifeblood of my world, my Ameisa.
Shall I withhold the sweet ecstasy of her name?
Dare I not cry “Menarka!” at every golden moment?
Menarka is an emerald jewel cascading over the rocks
Of the sharply dropping cliffs—indeed, she is the cliffs themselves!
She is the epitome of all desire, standing before the mountains,
Her white dome glistening in the sunlight and moonlight.
The people cry her name with rapture as they experience her,
Running through her cavernous depth of rock.
Menarka, we have made our homes in your very bedrock!
We have fashioned ourselves from your beauty! We honor you!
See her reflect in the river far below us; see her smile upon us!
Her walls are the most beautiful in the world;
Her greens are the most luscious; they smell of euphoria!
She is my Menarka, rising out of the mists,
Lifting sweet perfume to the air, dancing in the revelry of music!
My heart sings of her unspeakable beauty.

That’s it for Jan/Feb 2018 updates! I’m moving into a new apartment on Thursday, but will probably be on Twitter with banter about conlangs and writing.