Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Communicating in Symbols

In my previous blog entry here:
I mentioned the process of acquiring language rather than learning it, which sparked a lively exchange in the comments all about communication which is so much the heart and soul of every romance.

On http://editingcircle.blogspot.com/2009/03/in-beginning.html , the comments on my entry about the art and craft of constructing the beginning, opening, and narrative hook of an SF Romance novel got into a discussion of the Protagonist's Goal at the opening and how that determines the ending.

In one of the comments, I pointed out how it is possible to telegraph the Protag's goal to the reader without the Protag actually knowing what his/her goal is. That is the goal that will be achieved at the ending in order to resolve the conflict, but the protagonist might have his/her conscious mind focused on a different goal, or even on avoiding the actual goal.

When you open a story with the Protag declaring (aloud or within) that under no circumstances will they do this or that -- you are telegraphing to the reader that in the end, they will do it (and might not even consciously know they have done it), and there will be unforeseeable (suspenseful) consequences.

The adamant declaration that an action is out of bounds is likely to be taken as true by the reader if the declaration comes in the Middle (low point - major defeat - certain failure looms). But if that declaration is on page one, or in chapter 1, the reader knows this is blind stubbornness that must be overcome, not an expression of a true point of Honor that must be lived up to.

How can this be? The same words on page one mean the opposite of what they would mean on page 200?


The novel's structure is what it is (varying across genres, but even in new genres settling into what the readers enjoy most). The novel is an artform in which the very structure telegraphs a philosophical position, a theme. And that structure telegraphs the theme of the genre by symbolically representing some well-known pattern of real life.

Remember on Buffy The Vampire Slayer -- they would often refer to "oh, this is the sad part" or "oh, this is the happy part?" Kids learn early that novels and stories have "parts" and even before the kid has lived long enough to know life has parts, they understand "parts."

Writers use the novel structure to SYMBOLIZE those "parts" of life that bespeak the theme of the genre. Break the genre pattern and you have a very difficult commercial sell, or you have a NEW GENRE.

Stories as a whole are SYMBOLS, and the 3 points, Beginning, Middle, End, are SYMBOLS for "life" - the shape of some part of real life is symbolized by that sequence.

The location in the novel structure of the story-event symbolizes the real meaning of the story-event, regardless of the words (which are also symbols.) People, readers in particular, believe the message in the symbolic placement of the dialog about say, goals or values, over and above the message in the event itself. "I won't" means one thing on the first page, and the opposite on page 200.

Writers communicate with Readers in symbolism.

Structure is symbolism too.

Art is symbolism.

Oddly, algebra and higher math rely on SYMBOLISM.

Science relies on Math, and Math is symbolism.

Religion teaches and conveys values, behaviors, and runs the gamut of all philosophies, invades every aspect of life, and speaks to our deepest mind, heart and soul -- in symbolism.

Great films speak to us in symbolism.

Film uses a set of symbols established and evolved only in the last century or so, but now part of our culture. For example, in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, the Fashion Industry symbolizes everyone's job in every industry.

Written language is symbolism. Alphabets are symbols -- the more so in pictographic writing.

What about spoken language? Conversation? Dialogue?

Yep. Symbolism. "The map is not the territory." But in the realm of psychological and philosophical symbolism used by novelists, there is a magical link between the symbol and the territory. Powerful change can be wrought in a reader who responds to the symbols in a story because in magic, the map is the territory, and storytelling is magic.

Also by manipulating the symbols, by manipulating the map, we can learn new things about the territory. We can learn about hard, objective reality by manipulating fictional symbols.

Our brains are not digital. We're analogue creatures.

So, to interface with reality, we have to build, in our minds, an analogue of reality, a set of symbols that seems to "work just like" the reality outside us. I've borrowed from E. E. Smith's LENSMAN SERIES the phrase Visualization of the Macrocosmic All to refer to that internal analogue of reality we all build.

In the Lensman Series, the aliens called Arisians were energy beings, pure thought, whose main hobby was visualizing the macrocosmic all. By perfecting that Visualization, they could predict events thousands of years hence, and had done so in their age old battle against Boskone, manipulating human history and breeding the special humans called Lensmen who had an ironclad ethical code built into their genes. The Arisians were the Good Guys (just read to find out what Boskone was!) and the Arisians perfected the symbolic analogue of reality as no human ever can, not even the Lensmen.

Science calls this symbolic analogue a MODEL.

A novel (or feature film or TV Show) is a model of a universe built by the writer to be analogous to your personal small corner of reality so that it will speak to you on a deep, inner level, stir emotions you never knew yourself capable of, and let you walk a mile in some character's moccasins, learning lessons you may never need in real life.

Science does most of it's work on models - trying to "model" reality in such a way that the model behaves like the reality it represents. Get the model right, and you can predict what some small corner of reality will do under stress -- just as the Arisians did in fiction for the entirety of all creation.

This is what the Treasury department is trying to do now with "stress testing" big Wall Street firms. They will run a computerized, mathematical model of the economy crashing further, input the firm's current financial data, and the model will produce a graph showing at what point the firm would have to declare bankruptcy. (OK, it's not THAT simple; but that's the idea).

The touchstone of science is predictability -- the model of reality should replicate the behavior of reality so well that when you make a change in the model that has never been made in reality, what the model does will be exactly what reality would do if hit with that change.

The failure of the levees under the impact of Katrina was a failure of the engineering MODEL, as well as politics that prevented spending on upgrading the levees before Katrina. To date, the levees haven't been upgraded to withstand what a Katrina type storm making it all the way to land might deliver, according to some models of the atmosphere.

If this sounds a bit like voodoo dolls, think really hard about that. Math is the cornerstone of magic, too.

Our political decisions are made by politicians under the impact of public opinion which is guided by the media -- and the media speaks to us in symbols such as dead bodies floating in the exact same New Orleans streets many of us had visited.

Madison Avenue advertising firms have spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying how large populations respond to symbols -- what makes you buy this toothpaste or that car? (OK, sex. The hope of romance. But what else?)

Today, I saw an item on CNBC about the dire state of the advertising industry, and learned a new buzzword from this science of manipulating behavior with symbols. "Influence Consumer" -- that's you, the consumer of products designed to influence your behavior, the person at whom this multi-million dollar research is aimed.

How much have you spent learning to resist that well financed force?

Trust me. You haven't a chance against this kind of force unless you invest in mastering symbolism and how it works inside you, personally.

Our largest decisions as a civilization are rooted in models made of symbols and communicated to us in symbols -- dramatized by symbols. We understand drama better than expository lumps, which is why so many "news" shows are nothing but gossip about individuals.

Remember Ross Perot running for President - the man who coined the term "giant sucking sound" to designate the loss of jobs that N.A.F.T.A. would bring - and how resoundingly he lost that election?

Remember also his speeches being expository lumps illustrated with mathematical graphs in color - like a Corporate meeting, not a political speech fraught with symbolic rhetoric. Contrast with Obama's speaking style. See how the public handles symbolism. Remember that when you set out to write a popular novel about love.

Modeling is a process which is currently in progress with our atmosphere. There are competing models, some predicting global warming, some not, some predicting a cooling cycle. These are computerized mathematical models made of symbols connected in ways which are mostly theory, or even untested hypothesis.

The disagreement over global warming is not just political, but also represents two groups of scientists, each emotionally invested in their own carefully built "model," trying to communicate with each other -- over the barrier of the press, politicians and the general public in between them.

This generates screaming and yelling not unlike what we discussed about Twitter as portrayed on YouTube, and for pretty much the same reasons pointed out in the comments to that post. The participants are not talking about the same subject and they aren't "in the conversation."

All our lives and our grandchildren's lives are at stake in who's right about which model replicates the Earth's Atmosphere correctly -- and these groups of scientists are not able to communicate properly despite having symbol-sets in common. Because of all the people in between them, they can't argue until they figure out which Model replicates the atmosphere. They can only take sides and yell.

Their MODELS OF REALITY don't match -- so they are shouting at each other like the Tweeters on Twitter. They're using the same symbols, the same math, but their models of the rest of the universe besides the atmosphere don't match so they can't communicate about the atmosphere.

Or take another example, Kaynesian vs Freidman economic theories -- each mathematically MODELED from reality to represent the behavior of large economic systems.

NEW KAYNESIAN theory http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/NewKeynesianEconomics.html

MILTON FREIDMAN's Nobel winning theory of economics

These two MODELS of how an economy functions are currently duking it out for control of the US government and the world.

The fights over Pres. Obama's 2010 budget and the stimulus packages are huge, prominent and dire examples of how mere mathematical SYMBOLISM controls our lives on a very intimate level. The two articles I referenced are couched in words, "made-simple" articles, but the textbooks about these theories contain a lot of math, graphs, statistics.

Which model is the correct model? They are mutually exclusive, aren't they? It is a zero sum game, isn't it? One works and the other doesn't, right?

In childhood, each of us creates an internal symbol set, pretty much originally, and on our own. Forever more, those symbols represent TRUTH for us.

Symbols (from kid book illustrations of Moses parting the Red Sea to novels full of words without illustrations) can bypass intellect and connect directly with our emotions. Isn't that ironic -- Symbolism, the most powerful tool of the "coldest" discipline, Mathematics, is actually the most powerful tool of the "hottest" discipline, rhetoric, President Obama's forte.

Semantics is the study of the emotional loading of words -- and of course words aren't the "thing" they represent, "the map is not the territory;" words are symbols.

Words have power. But some of the power they have is invested in them by the child first ACQUIRING them. Think about the comments on my blog entry of last week:

Children store the newly acquired word in context associated with the sound or written symbol, smells, colors, possibly the perfume of the woman bending over them and pointing out the word under the picture of Moses.

Forever more, that word MEANS "right." Or possibly "fear" if the teacher was harsh. Or whatever the context suggests. That emotion will always rise on hearing that word, though adults can cram the emotion back down into the subconscious and pretend it isn't there - even believe it isn't there. Nevertheless, it's there and it can manifest in a person's choices and actions.

Given this idiosyncratic response to symbols, the random way we acquire those responses, and the writer's absolute necessity of choosing the most effective symbols to communicate a story to the widest possible audience, how do you choose symbols for your Chapter One?

Your own internal symbols won't mean the same thing to your readers, especially if you are aiming this story at a broad readership.

Perhaps the most prominent symbolic utterance pivotal to all Romance sub-genres is the phrase, "I love you."

You would think everyone knows what that means. Well, we all do know. The problem is, we all know something different about that phrase than other people know.

We each create a mental model of the universe around us, a Visualization of the Macrocosmic All, and having invested so much of our Self into creating that internal model, we cherish that model as we cherish our own souls.

Therefore, we subsequently take any incoming information, any event or tidbit of fact, and try to fit the new bit into our Model.

If the bit does not fit -- we discard the bit not the model. The model we have created is our own self on a very deep level. A threat to our model of reality is a threat to something more precious than our very life. That model we create is our main symbol of reality

"The Levees will hold!" we scream. Or "The Economy Is Sound!"

Adherents of Friedman say, "Sound Economies Hold Recessions! It's Good!" and Keynsians scream back, "Recessions Must Be Controlled, Damped Down, Eliminated By Government Action because that's what government is for!"

"There is no Global Warming!"

Whatever does not fit our model of reality, we reject. That's how we decide what's right or wrong, what's true or false, and it's also how we decide "Does she/he love me?" We take all the little, tiny gestures, expressions, tones of voice, and fit them into our model, and feel either love or rejection according to how well the bits fit into our model of how a lover behaves.

We'd throw our lover away long before we'd ever consider modifying our model of the universe.

That fact is so universal that you can code it into the symbolism of a novel in any genre. It is symbolized by the moment of epiphany when the Protagonist has been beaten down, destroyed, (this is usually the 3/4 point of the novel, what I call "the worm turns" point). At that moment when the protagonist's model of the universe has been totally smashed, he/she can reach down inside and create a NEW model of the universe more congruent with actual reality. Or at least the reality the reader/viewer prefers.

Readers live for experiencing that moment of epiphany with a protagonist. Make it deliver everything you've promised up to that point, and readers will memorize your byline.

Readers love watching a protagonist they really like (SAVE THE CAT!) change their model of reality into something closer to the reader's own model (but not the other way around). It's so much less painful to watch a fictional character change their model of the universe than it is to change your own.

The new model of reality that your protagonist adopts must fit into your reader's personal model of reality. That fit is at the core of the concept "plausible." We believe plausible things because they fit our model. We reject "implausible" things because they don't fit our model.

If you want the reader to believe six impossible things before breakfast, this is the level of your fictional construct where you do that. Plausibility has everything to do with that symbolic level of the model of reality. I've discussed this on this blog in relationship to "background" and "worldbuilding."

Plausible means "fits my model" -- and "my model" is a symbol composed of symbols, each of which has an idiosyncratic meaning.

So what's a writer to do?

In any Romance based story, the writer has to show-don't-tell "What does she see in him?" and "What does he see in her?" These are the key questions that, when answered in the right symbolism, trigger a cascade of great emotions in the reader. Real lovers see each others' models of the universe.

Where do you look to find the most universal symbols that carry the most widely understood semantic loadings?

Think about it. The letters you are reading in this message are symbols that we agree on. People with different accents might make different sounds out of these letters, but still get the gist of what I'm saying.

I might make typos, or (heaven forefend!) actually misspell a word, but you could still make out the gist of what I'm saying.

We have a symbol system and a language built from it in common.

Likewise with the pictorial images, the symbols such as Moses parting the Red Sea become common symbols among us.

Oh, yes, it's in the Bible of course -- but that's just words. The SYMBOL, the image that speaks across cultural gulfs is something like Charlton Heston in the Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, Oct 5, 1956. (correlate that date with advances in Keynsian economic theory and ponder it all from a futurologist's point of view). It's the visual image that has such incredible power. That's why kid's Bible Study books have pictures.

Anne Phyllis Pinzow,
a professional reporter who moonlights in film, says of Heston in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS:
What they could do with creative editing for a few thousand dollars can only just be matched by millions in technology now. Him standing there, both hands on the staff in front of him, spreading his arms proclaiming to the Hebrews to see the power of G-d. WOW Star Wars looks like shlock compared to it. Not because it's shlock but because it looks like a comic book come to life, or really high-tech animation. Yes, there was animation in The Ten Commandments, and yes, some very sophisticated editing for the time. But when watching The Ten Commandments, audiences looked at that and felt it WAS REAL. THIS ACTUALLY WAS HAPPENING. I don't think anyone could ever say that about Star Wars. Also, this was just 11 years after the Holocaust, and 8 years after the founding of Israel. In a very huge sense, the movie was symbolic of what was actually, really happening at that time. Take that in your symbolisim and smoke it.

I couldn't have put it better. Note how Pinzow draws the parallel between what was happening in the world, and the images that rocked the entertainment industry. SYMBOLISM. Something currently real reduced to symbolism -- taken from something far older, something studied by most of the intended audience in words, cold print or static pictures -- suddenly turned into a Big Screen Reality. The impact was epic for the intended audience of 1956.

That's an important part -- INTENDED AUDIENCE. Wouldn't play so well in Moslem countries.

Images, pictures, become a language of their own. One symbol goes with another -- but not with a third because the third is in a different "language."

Our cultures and societies and civilizations have ordered and organized our symbol sets -- and we've inculcated those subconscious symbols into our children for generations.

The writer, on a very mundane level, belongs to such a society or culture, and can speak in their symbols natively -- because the writer (being of an artistic temperment to begin with) has ACQUIRED the image-symbolic language of the writer's own society.

A drastic change in that acquired symbol set (video games) has made the current generation gap much wider than previous ones.

If Jung was right, there may be some universal (primal) human symbols that communicate across civilization boundaries.

But today, the USA is such an un-mixed stew pot of cultures that we don't have a "universal" symbolism in which to speak to each other any more. The generation gap is only one cultural gap dividing us.

It seems to me that one of the important tasks of the splintering and reforming Romance genre is to re-establish a common language of symbolism in which we can speak to each other in the USA, and across the world, about the things that matter most - love, aspirations, nesting, building a life for our children, all the ingredients in the HEA ending -- the part of the story the Romance writer does not write but symbolizes for the reader.

Love is universal. It is our job, as writers, and maybe especially SF Romance writers, to establish a common symbol system in which future generations will be able to communicate - even on Twitter.

Analyze what deMille did with TEN COMMANDMENTS -- think about what Moses parting the Sea means to you today and drop a comment about what tidbits like WWII are floating around in our collective consciousness that could be dramatized to become a symbol of love across all our communication gaps.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vid Interview: The story behind Gabriel's Ghost, Shades of Dark & Hope's Folly

Another segment from the video interviews from Romantic Times Magazine, just in case anyone thinks writing is a logical, planned experience:

Linnea Sinclair - HOPE'S FOLLY from Romantic Times BOOKreviews on Vimeo.

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, Feb. 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books: www.linneasinclair.com

With any other woman, he’d interpret her absence as sulking. But this was Rya Bennton. She wasn’t sulking. She was scheming. He knew it. He could feel it.
He was just going to have to outscheme her.

Have mop, will travel. Dirty Jobs of the past and future.

My mind is in the sewer. Again. It's a confluence of things. Isn't it always?

Yesterday on Twitter, the "Squeeee" factor was in full force. Shuttle astronauts have returned from the International Space Station bearing a precious gallon (it might have been a pint) of recycled perspiration and urine for taste testing.

It will have to be passed by an inspector, no doubt.

This is new? I think not. In Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, mention was made about Roman soldiers on the march having to drink "the stale of horses". We all know how important bodily fluids were in "Dune".

Warning. Don't click the links if you don't want to see.

On Reality TV, we've seen Bear Grylls doing his Fear Factor style demonstrations that a human can drink almost anything if he is thirsty enough. In Germany (unless someone was pulling my leg) I was told that part of a pharmacist's training requires her to drink urine. Not recycled urine, either. Moreover, I understand that some medical conditions or treatments deplete a person's healthy intestinal flora, and that a familial fecal transfusion is required to repopulate the patient's intestines.

There's something else. Oh, yes. A mild scandal over colonoscopy equipment at some hospital somewhere in the civilized, modern, developed world where the equipment was allegedly used up to a thousand times without being cleaned. (Or was it simply not "sterilized" between jobs?)

Which brings me to Ancient-Mystery author Gary Corby, and his edifying blog about one of the most unpleasantly long drawn-out methods of execution ever devised. Since my mind was where it was, thanks to the news, I wondered (aloud, on Facebook) whether the equipment... the blunt stakes... were reused.


Now that, I thought, would be a Dirty Job. I began to play (and still am playing) with the heroic and romantic potential of a Carl Markus Rovius --name chosen for the oxymoronic fun potential for political satire-- of a roving execution-pole cleaner. He wouldn't be your traditional alpha male of historical or alien romance. On the other hand, the Discovery Channel's Mike Rowe has possibilities, doesn't he?

In homage to George Orwell, I might call my budding anthology "Down and Out Along The Appian Way" or "Down and Out Along The Silk Road". Puns intended.

Could a modern day Dirty Job translate into an Ancient Historical? I think so. Whether or not it would catch on is another matter. How about into science fiction? Presumably there will still be dirty jobs in the future, and on other worlds, and even on space arks, that cannot be automated or assigned to intelligent robots.

After all, why does the recycled water from the international space station have to be taste tested by a human on Earth? Is it morbid curiosity? Is our physics and chemistry technology not up to automating or outsourcing to the end-user that sort of analysis? If not, why not?

If we are still doing as the Romans did, it seems likely that some things may never change. So, what dirty jobs will always be with us? What new ones may emerge? Who will do them? What will be the social status and salary level of those who do the necessary and nasty work? After all, some jobs simply must be done well or the economy, and more importantly, the plumbing could collapse.

For the time being, my editor has found my Tigron Empire nasty enough without any need to investigate the sort of discipline and interrogation methods that my tyrannical god-Princes such as Tarrant-Arragon would probably sanction. The methods would be barbaric. If sweet reason prevailed, it wouldn't be rational that one person would be supreme ruler because his father (and his father's father etc) ruled before him, even if his birth ensured his access to the best possible education and job-specific training from birth... or would it?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Fantastic in Florida

Last week I attended the annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (held by the International Association for the Fantastic on the Arts) in Orlando. Small and friendly, it combines the best features of academic and fan conventions (except without costumes). In addition to scholars of horror, fantasy, and SF, lots of editors and fiction authors take part. Ellen Datlow, David Hartwell of Tor, Brian Aldiss, and Peter Straub, along with many others, are among the regulars. Since I missed 2008, this was my first year of attendance since the con moved from our old location in Fort Lauderdale.

The new hotel has many desirable features, although spread out—I tried to think of the randomized layout as an opportunity for exercise—including a full-service Starbuck's. There’s a small lake behind the hotel, where I spotted a couple of long-beaked waterfowl. I wanted to see one of the alligators the lakeside signs warned about, but I never found one. I arrived in plenty of time for the opening remarks and panel, followed by my author reading from WINDWALKER’S MATE in the late Wednesday afternoon slot. Later in the weekend I heard Jean Lorrah read from a movie script about teleporting teenagers and Suzy McKee Charnas read from a fantasy novel in progress about an elderly female magic-user facing a prophesied cataclysm.

I chaired a panel on Vampires and Other Immortals and Recent Dracula Research. (Two topics had to be combined because of scheduling constraints.) We discussed vampires and corporeal immortality in reference to creativity, procreation, and the soul. Elizabeth Miller, a premier Dracula authority, participated in this session and later spoke about passages Stoker deleted from the novel on the final revision before publication. This year’s con featured several provocative sessions on fandom and fan fiction, including a paper titled “Blessed Mary Sue,” framing certain medieval devotional books as fanfic on the Gospels!

This being the thirtieth anniversary of the conference, Thursday night spotlighted an interview with the founder of the organization and a panel discussion by people who’ve had “almost perfect attendance” over the three decades. Jean Lorrah was present, not having missed a single year. Panelists talked about the wild frontier period when funding and conference venues were uncertain from one year to the next. In 1979 the field of speculative fiction was considered too frivolous for academic study, so this conference filled a serious gap. They expected a few dozen paper proposals in the inaugural year and received about 600. How lucky we are that attitudes toward popular culture have broadened! This gathering is one of the annual high points of my year, when I briefly transform from a mild-mannered legislative editor and minor novelist into “Vampire Scholar.” It’s always a wrench to fly home to the March chill and turn back into a pumpkin.

Margaret L. Carter (www.margaretlcarter.com)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The New CB Radio: "Come on back!"

Let's do a little futurology today, always a good exercise for SF/F/R writers.

Patric Michael pointed me to this YouTube video


It's a high-production-values animated satire about addiction to twitter.com and tweeting. The theme seems to be that the practice of tweeting is pointless.

The piece is worth seeing just for the production itself, not the message.

The message is populist but I think way off base. However, it's worth listening to carefully because it does express accurately and with an appropriate amount of tasteful humor what non-tweeters see tweeters doing.

This is a viewpoint I've seen expressed variously about golfers, runners, skiers, gamers, bird watchers, dogshow competitors, and hobbyists of all sorts. Tweeting is much cheaper than most social activities.

But frankly, because of the social barrier to social networking highlighted in this video, I am not at all sure twitter.com will survive this economic downturn. It was heavily funded at startup and is still striving to deal with that debt.

I've been on twitter.com (as http://www.twitter.com/JLichtenberg so you can follow me there easily once you set up a free account) for only a few months. I'm just beginning to discover some of the off-twitter.com tweeting tools that have built up around this communication device.

There are endless blogs and pages full of tutorials on how to social network, and I've read only a sparse few of those. Lately, there have been tutorials circulated for how to use twitter to advertise your wares -- any product you want to sell. Those tutorials are of interest to writers because we have books to hawk. People with something to sell see a market (word of mouth is the best advertising) and greed ignites the hearts and minds. The smoke from that inner fire of greed makes your tweets reek.

Veteran tweeters shun the commercial push, and other tutorials advise strictly against making your tweets about you and what you want or are offering. The advice is to make your tweets about other people, not yourself or your wares. Tweet about a well defined subject, and give real information -- that's the kernal of the advice I've seen. The key is to GIVE.

And when you give real value for your reader's time, you tend to get "retweeted" (which is like a good online review for a book - word spreads).

Here is an article on getting retweeted (seriously, people are studying twitter.com member behaviors this closely). The article gives this advice: typically, people want to pass your Tweet on for one of three reasons: they found it useful, funny, or informative

I've seen the exact same advice and admonitions in several articles. Apparently there is an audience on the web that thirsts for advice on how to relate to new people you've just met. Or maybe there are just a lot of people with nothing of their own to say who are repeating to you what you already know. This might be considered in the category of a useless waste of time.

However, I see something going on here that apparently a lot of people don't.

Place the micro-blog or tweet (a 140 character message useful because it will auto-shrink a long URL into a micro-URL -- a service available at some websites directly) against the background of the macro-trends of the world over the last few decades. (Good futurology starts in the past, you see.)

Blogs are the equivalent of the snailmail letters and letter-zines and APAzines (all SF fanines used to be non-fiction until Star Trek fanfic hit a voracious market). Fans used to exchange these longer more involved essays on the subject of the moment, the latest book, movie or TV show on paper, or (again with the advent of Star Trek fandom) by telephone.

Twitter and micro-blogs on social networks are the equivalent of the post cards we used to exchange. The phone calls tended to be midnight low rates, and last for hours apiece, so they were more like conversational blogs with lots of comments.

What you can fit on a post card, taken out of the context of the 'zine or round robin letters, is utterly meaningless. Yet for those to whom it is addressed, it holds great, deep, and consequential meaning.

Likewise microblogging -- any single message is meaningless. Taken in context of "who" this person is, what comments they've left on Yahoo News blogs, in their own blog, comments on other people's blogs -- in context, the microtweet "Had pizza for lunch" gains GREAT meaning (knowing this person is allergic to milk products but addicted to pizza).

The odd thing is, I never (ever) saw any tutorial on how to use letters and post cards, or even how to publish a paper 'zine. People just knew how to social network despite the week or more between sending and receiving. Even us nerds who were considered so socially undeveloped in those days hit the ground running once connected with someone who had something to say we wanted to hear! No tutorial necessary. Pure instinct. The instinct of a social creature finally finding another member of our own society -- people who read.

I recently saw an item that the post office is closing several more distribution plants and firing a huge percentage of the postal workers in layoffs and attrition. Nobody snails anything they can e anymore.

The snailmail fan network generation raised their children on Sesame Street. That show reduced attention spans. Children grew to adulthood without the ability to sit still and concentrate on one thing long enough to read a book. Parents used the fascinating TV screen as a baby sitter while they snail-mailed and many have lived to regret that.

In the 1970's the biggest topic in macro-trends was the information explosion and how would we ever deal with so much data. SF writers doing the futurology never got the results of the information explosion right.

Then AOL gave the average American online access with dialup. That business model collapsed as cable provided broadband. Now it's wireless everywhere. 3G networks. More information, faster eventually meant music, video and TV shows on your computer or cell phone.

Google emerged with an innovative algorithm to conquer a lot of that deluge of information. You can now find what you want when you want it. Spam exploded, forcing the development of closed and monitored associations which we now call social networks or Web 2.0.

LiveJournal started the blogosphere, I think -- though there were individual web-log keepers among the geek community long before that. The blogosphere exploded, expecially after Google bought blogspot.com and blogger.com, although it was huge before that.

Meanwhile, in the 1980's and 1990's, CB Radio grew prominent. CB has limited range and frequencies reserved. When TV goes digital, more frequencies will be available for emergency first responders, but we can't have better civil defense response because a couple million out of 310 million didn't get their coupons.

Many cars had to had CB radio to talk to cops, truckers, other motorists. I've had several, and found them a lifesaver when driving interstate, when I needed to ask for help. But mostly I just listened to what engaged and interested truckers. Marvelous research tool. That trend is gone now because we have cell phones and sat phones for safety driving interstate.

With the phones came text messaging your friends. Texting is a form of microblog -- you are limited to tiny snatches of text so small people invented shorthand to squeeze something sensible into the space. Now many have forgotten there is a thing called SPELLING, not to mention capitalization conventions.

Connect the dots I've mentioned, and maybe you'll see the pattern I see.

More and more communication tools, fast, accurate, easy to use, being placed into the hands of people who have nothing to communicate except the fact that they exist and think they should be paid attention to, counted.

Check out who blogs and what they talk about in what style on this survey page:

That's so similar to what drove the craze for the original CB Radio in cars, though Ham Radio operators are a different breed than the general public. The old fasioned Ham Radio operators were geekish techies and journalists who covered a world-girdling beat and kept each other informed of what was happening that the media was averse to covering. But they are a social network, too.

Occasionally, those socially driven Ham operators saved thousand of lives when mass communication went down during a disaster. They were bloggers! And today Twitter has been used exactly like that - to save lives in wildfire situations, and eventually I'm sure in earthquake and tsunami if they can keep the cell towers functioning. That is, when someone has something important to say, people pick it up and "re-tweet" it until everyone in the world knows it.

Why does twitter.com deserve the flak it gets in this animated indictment?

After all, the folks who behave in the insanely addicted fashion shown in the animation get quickly shunned on twitter (and in the old paper-based fandoms too). On twitter.com they stand out because they may be following more than a thousand people, but maybe 20 follow them. Twitter has recently instituted curbs to prevent that kind of abuse of the system, both by individuals and by salesmen and businesses.

Those individuals who can't "get it" as higlighted in the video, sign on and then never come back. So the two animation characters and their argument in this video is irrelevant to tweeters. Why do both these things happen to these kinds of people?

What is twitter.com , really about? And why did futurologists miss this potential since they were SF writers fully conversant with on-paper fandom? What are WE missing that would make a terrific novel? Movie?

The advertising and sign-in pages for most micro-blogs invite you to post something by posing you the question: What are you doing now?

And that's where the whole thing goes wrong. Many tutorials on how to use twitter advise against answering that question because it's the wrong question.

Way back when my mother was a kid, they taught things in grammar school like penmanship, ellocution, and how to write a personal letter (on paper, with a pen you dip into the ink.)

They still taught penmanship when I was in grammar school all the way to 7th grade. (I flunked.) I took to the typer the instant my Dad bought one when I was in 8th grade! But I had learned to compose the personal letter. Typing was easy.

The very first thing I typed on that typewriter was a letter to the editor of IF MAGAZINE lambasting them for the lousy artwork illustrating the stories -- they never got the image correct according to the text. I had an urgent and firey need to communicate this simple point - DRAW IT CORRECTLY. Given the high tech communications tool of the day, I did just what new tweeters do - expressed myself without even knowing the person I was yelling at, and not caring. I just had to get this message OUT. It was personal.

They published it and that changed my life. Years later, my first story was published in IF -- and had a grossly inaccurate illustration! It's as if illustrators can't read English. (Thank G-d, Patric Michael isn't one of those!)

Today, the best language courses and learning systems rely on what became known as the Ulpan system, invented by the Israelis when they had to take in more refugees than the total population of their country and somehow get them all able to speak, read and write a language in common.

The Ulpan system relies on a basic human need that is being fed by the microblogs like twitter.

The Ulpan relies on the ultimate, life-or-death, very primal (that's a word Blake Snyder uses a lot, and I'm using it in the sense he does -- as a fictional element that must be present in order to make a story happen) -- a primal human need illustrated by my need to write that first typed letter.

More primal than sex, a little less primal than the need to breathe air or to eat. But it's right in that level of primal. It is a survival necessity.

The very first thing a newborn does after taking a first breath is SCREAM.

It isn't "crying" in the sense of being driven by emotional pain.

It's more driven by physical shock. It's a scream. And that primal scream of the newborn is the first action taken by a human being. It's a reflex, clears the airways, and announces Need.

Newborns need to be cared for. They are nothing but need. Way before they have any awareness that "others" even exist, they communicate that need.

Those that don't cry, don't live.

Think about newborns abandoned in dumpsters -- that tiny little cry pierces the cold steel and sometimes rescue happens.

The CRY is uttered -- and something happens. The newborn doesn't have the brain cells to connect cause and effect at that point, but the CRY IS ANSWERED.

Way before we ever say anything on purpose to get a response, the first thing that ever happens (and this might not be true for other species out in the galaxy!) is we RECEIVE a response to something we don't even know we did.

NOTE THAT WORD RECEIVE -- it's crucial to some of the more esoteric and abtusely philosophical writer's block breakers I talk about. RECEIVE has vast mystical significance.

Receiving is simply that primal. Cry and receive. That's how we learn to communicate, and we learn it in that life-or-death circumstance and the NEED TO COMMUNICATE is engraved on every braincell with the warning SURVIVAL NECESSITY.

Using that innate need to communicate, the Ulpan method of language learning deprives the student of all other means of communication besides the language to be learned. It's often called the immersion method, but it's far more than that. The technique isn't so much the presence of the new language as the total absense of any and all other languages or methods of communication.

You don't learn by translating. You learn by acquisition (even if you're an adult). Nobody tells you what words mean. You have to figure it out.

The need to communicate is so primal that even adults end up thinking in the new language, even to the extent of forgetting how to speak their native language!

The need to communicate is that powerful.

The need to communicate can re-arrange your brain cells to use whatever channel is open. Any response that comes in will ignite the greed to communicate.

Now if you haven't watched that little animated video, watch it now with this need to communicate concept in mind. (and if you're an Alien Romance writer, watch carefully the communication gulf between these aliens from different planets in the video). Yes, even though they are both human from Earth and work in adjacent cubicles, the gulf between them is interstellar.


What the one man can't grasp is that the other's need to communicate is totally independent of content - of having something to say that is selected to be of interest to those you are talking to.

A baby's first cry isn't aimed AT someone, saying "HELP ME" -- there's not yet any sense of "me" in contrast to "you." Where there's no "you" there can't be any "me." It's just SCREAM.

Placing these communication tools such as twitter into the hands of people who have nothing to say and nobody to say it to is like attending a birth, clearing an airway, and listening to that first CRY.

It's a SCREAM. It has no content. It says OUCH. It says HELP but not HELP ME, for there is no "you" to be summoned. No awareness of the identity of "other" is in that scream.

It is a SCREAM FOR ATTENTION -- a continual, hour by hour all day whimper for attention, just like a baby's fretting and learning how to fret to get results as the twitter-ites are searching the web for tutorials on social networking.

Is that SCREAM contemptible?

Think about it a bit more. If we looked at all newborns as contemptible because they can't do anything but cry, whimper, and scream, how many of us would there be?

Do these neo-tweeters need to be held in contempt? Or do they need to be nurtured until they have something to communicate, someone to communicate it to, as well as the means to do so?

Recently, a number of domains have sprung up to index twitter.com's membership so people can find like-minded people -- people who have similar interests are being drawn into circles. They then discover they do have something to say that someone else wants to hear. Eavesdrop on them and you'll hear gibberish.

So, with the advent of mass-personal communication media, Earth is girdled with a tweet-o-sphere.

What do you suppose this might look like to the Aliens Who Watch?

Do all species throughout the galaxy go through this phase of infancy in communication?

In the 1950's and 1960's, Science Fiction glibly predicted that we were being watched and that Earth was embargoed because of our SCIENTIFIC infancy. We wouldn't be admitted to the galaxy civilization until we had conquered War and made our own space ships.

Well, in the 50's and 60's -- WWII was the big shame and blot on human conscience. And Science was leading the charge to a better life for all.

What's our problem today? We have space ships and a space station, and so much orbital junk there are accidents. But the aliens haven't invited us to the galaxy picnic yet.

We still have war, and it's brewing up to be bigger than WWII unless - unless what?



We can communicate -- with a fury and a vengeance. Both combatant sides in the ideological war are using these communication tools, blogs, tweets, whatever, SCREAMING their messages. But they aren't all talking about the same thing at the same time. So (like overheard tweets) their messages are incomprehensible.

We aren't in two-way communication even at the level of scratchy, static-ridden CB Radio. (Have you seen TV "news" where the interviewees and the anchor all are shouting at once? What does that imply about their audience?)

As tweeters mature, and the blogosphere evolves, perhaps we will pass some galactic agency's test in communication skills and be allowed into kindergarten for new planets -- providing we can nurture the neo-tweeters to begin to inject content into their utterances.

At the moment, though, far too great a portion of our population has nothing to say. You can generally tell who they are by the number of meaningless words they interject into their utterances. The more rage they feel, the more driven to get your attention, the more meaningless expletives pepper their sentences, and the more their posts seem like primal screams rather than messages.

Maybe our urge to communicate, primal as it is, just isn't galactic class?

What can we do to attract "their" attention? What's the primal scream of a newborn civilization? What do we have to say that anyone "out there" would want to hear? Respond to?

Think again about how the social impact of the internet and the web were missed by SF futurologists, though they predicted A.I. robots which we almost have now. Think about the bemoaning of the information explosion and how it would be a destructive force because we had no means of taming it. Now think about Google Search, Web 2.0 and social network sites like facebook and myspace.

Futurologists are as overwhelmed by the implications of twitter and blogs as their predecessors were in 1960 by the information explosion and photocopiers in every library busting copyright to smitherines.

I got an email today mobilizing blog combat targeting the blog of a Florida newspaper about an issue local to New York but with national implications for air traffic controllers. That's also going on with the Yahoo news blogs -- huge organized groups of ordinary people are swarming into combat zones on the web.

What does the popularity of twitter.com mean for the future of world society?

Please drop a note on this blog to demonstrate that you have something to say, someone to say it to other than yourself, and know how to say it. Maybe someone "out there" will notice us inside this dumpster? Maybe that won't be such a good thing? Or maybe we'll learn to talk if someone comes to teach us?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, March 23, 2009

Background, Star Trek and Science Fiction Romance

Linnea Sinclair - Background, Star Trek, and Sci-Fi from Romantic Times BOOKreviews on Vimeo.

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, Feb. 24, 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books: www.linneasinclair.com

“If we can’t do the impossible, then we need to at least be able to do the unexpected.” —Admiral Philip Guthrie

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Space Shuttle takes off

I didn't post last weekend because I was in Florida. I took this photo of the space shuttle just before the booster tanks fell away.

World Water Day

It's World Water Day. http://www.worldwaterday.org/page/2097

In honor of the occasion, I am twittering about the importance of water in fiction. I am also posting an excerpt from Judi Fennell's next merperson book, In Over Her Head.

Reel crossed his arms and studied her. "You're taking this a lot better than I thought you would. I didn't know Humans had such open minds."

"Apparently we have lots of neat tricks, us humans. Like breathing water, for instance." Erica sucked in a few pints just for kicks and giggles. She hoped she remembered this hallucination when her body recovered from the bends.

"Actually, you can't breathe water."

"But I am, ergo, I can." She demonstrated again.

"Well, that's only because I did that to you. To save your life."

"Oh. Right." She choked on that last pint. "Um, to save my life? Well, that's a relief. I had thought that I might be um, well, dead, but then, this certainly isn't my idea of Heaven. So, I'm alive but unconscious? I just have the bends, right? I mean, yes, I'm seeing you as a naked, water-breathing stud-muffin, but you're really just an illusion, aren't you? Maybe a doctor at the hospital some passing boater took me to?"

Reel didn't say anything. He didn't have to. The tittering of the little fish scattered among the whelk art answered for him.

"Um, Reel...?"

"Erica, I think you better rest on the bottom."

"Why?" She did as he suggested, but put her hands up as he floated toward her. He had to be a figment of her imagination. He had to.

"Sweetheart, you've been out for a few days and you're not in a hospital. You can't have the bends because you never went up to the surface. Chum reminded me about them, actually. So I did the only thing I could."

His face was grave, which, considering the situation, might not be an appropriate analogy, but then, what was appropriate when facing the impossible?

"What. Did. You. Do?"

"I turned you."

"Turned me?" Somehow, that phrase did not offer comfort.

"Yes. Into a water-breather." He crossed his arms, which flared some really nice pecs that tapered down to slim hips and--

Wait a minute--

"A fish? You turned me into a fish?" Forget the pecs. And other parts.

"Not a fish. Do you see any fins? Gills? You're not even a Mer. I just gave you the ability to breathe underwater. Otherwise, you would've drowned. And Vincent would've had the right to, well, eat you. I couldn't let that happen."

"Of course you couldn't." Well, see? That made sense. "And Vincent was the, um, shark?"

"That's right." The faintest glimmer of pearly whites showed between his lips.

"And he wanted me for dinner."

"Yes." A bigger smile.

"So you somehow managed to re-route my entire oxygenation system and voila! Here I am at the bottom of the sea."

"That's it." Full-out grin going.

"I'm going to be sick." She turned her face to the side and felt her insides heave.

But then the floor blinked at her.

"What the hell was that?" she screamed, crab-walking backward.

"Flounder. They like to hang out in here since no predators are allowed."

She put a hand on her chest, her heart beating three times as fast as normal. Or was that now normal with her newly-acquired aqua lungs? "Well there's a relief. So I won't have to worry about my body being torn apart by Vincent or others like him? Good to know. Now if I could only guarantee my mind won't fall apart, I'll be just fine."

To find out more about Judi Fennell check out her website:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Futuristics discussed on TheAuthorsShow

The Authors Show host, Don MacCauley, wrote of my interview (which is streaming today, March 19th on http://www.TheAuthorsShow.com ,
"I have done hundreds of interviews throughout the years. Most are enjoyable, some are enlightening, a few are downright painful. Others though, stand decidedly apart from the group. These interviews create memories that I will enjoy for the rest of my days. My recent interview with Rowena Cherry was one such interview."

Behind the scenes...

When an author queries a radio station to request airtime, quite often she is offered the opportunity to suggest ten or so appropriate questions which she'd like to be asked.

If I get the chance, I like to get the word out about the speculative romance subgenres. Even if I'm not the most eloquent or best qualified spokesperson, any discussion is better than none.

So, I suggested that Don might ask:

You write "FUTURISTIC ROMANCE." WHAT is that?

I gave him a brief overview of what "Paranormal" covers:

"Paranormal" is much more than ghosts. It covers space opera, speculative romance, dark fantasy, light fantasy, fantastic "snark", science fiction romance, time travel, also historicals and contemporary romances with strong psychic heroines.

This means that my aliens hang out in bookstores with vampires, shapeshifters, angels, demons, gargoyles, were-wolves, were-dragons, ghosts, elves, faeries, gnomes, mermaids, genies, and gods.

Don was kind enough to compare his experience of my interview to being dropped into the middle of a Monty Python skit.

"I believe I enjoyed the interview so much due to the fact that, throughout the conversation, I kept getting the distinctly odd impression that I had somehow been magically transported into the very middle of a somewhat peculiar Monty Python skit."

He's in great company with that comparison. I'm not sure what I said that struck him as Pythonesque, but it might have been this comment about how I see Paranormal Romance:

"It's a confusing family! So, I visualize "Paranormal Romance" as like a giant hen. Under her wings are multi-colored, dark and light chicks, a gosling, couple of kittens, a puppy… and a very small dragon!"

If you get the chance to listen, to my interview, I'd love to know what you think.

If you visit http://www.TheAuthorsShow.com and scroll down the page, you can submit your own request to be interviewed. If you live in Arizona, or don't mind traveling, you can apply to be on their sister TV program, too.

Best wishes,
Rowena Cherry

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


One of the most bewildering things about "becoming a professional writer" is figuring out what a writer is.

What exactly is it that you want to "become."

In what way would achieving that goal make you different than you are now?

What is the difference between yourself and professionals who sell and get paid (two totally different things, as you will discover when you learn the business of writing.)

Creating that mental model of what this profession is all about is hard because our society as a whole considers it unskilled labor. Writing is something you can do it only if you have "talent" and that is innate and not anything to your credit. So when you're writing, you're essentially playing around.

People who are spending years writing and not getting chosen by publishers are generally considered a little cracked or lazy -- "get a real job" -- and are required by moral and ethical rules laid down by society to drop whatever they're writing at a moment's notice and drive carpool, pick up the dry cleaning, dash to school to get the sick kid the parent (a neighbor) can't leave work to pick up -- because YOU aren't "working."

In other words, what you're doing isn't critical, important, lucrative, or bound by discipline -- you have nothing better to do, so do my work for me.

It's an attitude, even selling writers have to deal with. "You can write anytime. Just cut the grass before my boss's family gets here for the picnic."
"What picnic?" you ask, bewildered.

"I told you last week! You never listen to me when you're at that computer!"

Then comes the citing of a dozen studies proving how unhealthy it is to sit at a computer all day. It makes you violent, and you just proved it by screaming inarticulately at a perfectly reasonable request.

What's really going on here? What is the gulf between the writer and the non-writer? Does this have anything to do with the paradigm shift I was talking about in this previous post?


I've been discussing the state of the modern education system on Facebook, and thinking about the learning process.

What can be learned in writing -- and what has to be innate, a Talent?

Most beginners present their earliest efforts with the hopes of a professional reading it and saying, "You're very talented."

Frankly, that's the last thing a beginner should want to hear. You can't tell if someone is "talented" by reading the end product of their work.

Talent doesn't mean you can think of things nobody has thought of yet.

Anyone can do that, and it isn't an inborn trait but a learned one.

Talent means not that you can do something nobody else (or few others) can do, but rather that it is EASY for you to do a thing that is HARD for others.

The thing is, what others think is easy for you, you may find hard for you.

I am not convinced there is "a talent" for "writing." Writing consists of so many different sorts of activities, some of which are crucial to commercial success and some of which are irrelevant to success but necessary to storycrafting, that I don't think there can be a talent for it.

There can be a talent for verbalizing or learning verbal skills. Note the commentary by Suzzette Hadin Elgin in the previous post here, discussing the fallacy of the universal translator. There can be a talent for languages, but it avails nothing if the infant and young child aren't exposed to many languages -- to "acquire" them rather than "learn" them.

There can be a talent for research, for sleuthing out odd facts and forming them into a pattern that could make a story.

There can be a talent for Business -- for discerning what could be popular and knowing when and where to market it, again based on a talent for sleuthing out facts and forming them into a pattern.

There can be a talent for ART.

Any of these talents, and dozens of others, can be applied to fiction writing and take you far. Other talents may work better in non-fiction writing.

None of these talents will make you a writer, or anything else. Talent is meaningless. It's cheap. Everyone has a few. Talent won't take you anywhere unless it's trained, educated, fed, nurtured, and developed.

And the truth is, many very successful people are successful at things they have no innate talent for -- but only a passion for.

You don't necessarily like the activities you have a talent for, and some people actually have an aversion to their own talents. "It's too easy. I could do that if I wanted to, but I don't."

So what it comes down to in life is pursuing your passions -- because only a focused and disciplined passion can get you up that verticle learning curve in education, training, and experience. The quitters don't make it up there, talent or no.

That's true of life in general, but also of The Arts.

I chose the mottos of the Worldcrafter's Guild with care. "Writing is a Performing Art" was the first bit of wisdom taught to me by Alma Hill, a professional writer who ran the writing workshop of the N3F, the National Fantasy Fan Federation, back when I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was my first clue about what it was that I wanted to do with myself and why I wanted to do it. I wanted to PERFORM, but what I wanted to perform was my own novels.

And later, Robert Heinlein borrowed the adage for one of his books, "Sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation." To me, that ever so accurately portrays the difference between a civilian and a writer.

This last week, Rick Schefern whose newsletter introduced me to Google Reader which led me to using Feeddemon has nailed something very important in explaining how people learn to do something. STAGES OF LEARNING.

This is, I'm sure, not original with him, but he's presenting it in a spotlight as a clue that can unravel the mysteries of the world for you. And I believe it may be a vital clue to many writers.

In his NL of 3/10/09 Rick says (you could look up the whole NL online and maybe subscribe (free) -- here's the top of his website
http://www.strategicprofits.com/ ) that there are 4 easily identifyable stages of learning. (all his NL's pitch some product at you claiming to make you rich but he gives away an interesting tip now and again).

Stage (1) - Unconscious Incompetence - you don't know what you don't know
Stage (2) - Conscious Incompetence - you now know what you don't know
Stage (3) - Conscious Competence - you now know it, but you have to
concentrate to use what you know
Stage (4) - Unconscious Competence - you know it, and you can do it without
thinking about it

This sequence is something I've mentioned several times in the posts on writing craft.

My posts point your conscious mind at the internal mechanism of various craft techniques -- the learnable things, the repeating drills and disciplines necessary to bring a Talent online, or to forge ahead in writing without talent.

Rick Schefern lays out the stages any writer goes through during the mastery of any of the techniques I've pinpointed for you.

In other words, you don't go through these Competence stages ONCE and "become" a writer. You go through them again and again and again -- until the day you die. In everything you learn. And if you're wise, you will adjust yourself to this fact and learn to enjoy displaying your Unconscious Incompetence as step number one to mastery.

So how is it that some people are recognized as BRILLIANT?

Very often, a writer (new or seasoned) will produce something and jump up and down for glee at having finally done something totally BRILLIANT!!! Only to have it sneered at and tossed in the trash.

Why is that? Why is an artist not competent to judge their own brilliance? It works that way in other performing arts than writing, too.


When you FEEL BRILLIANT, it's stage 3 working -- you are conscious of out-performing your previous best.

When you actually ARE brilliant -- it's stage 4 and you aren't aware of it.

So what is brilliance? Is it something that's acquired only after slaving away for decades gaining craftsmanship mastery?

No. It was there all along. You're born with it. Or it's gifted to you from Above when you least expect it.

The inner brilliance of your artistic vision is what first ignites your passion to "become" a writer or other performing artist.

It's the fire that fuels all that unrewarded and denigrated effort through the lonely years.

It's not talent, though. Talent is something that's always an innate part of yourself (it even has a signature in your astrological chart - the Quincunx aspects between some outer planets and some inner is one part of that pattern).

Brilliance comes and goes in sparks and cascades. Brilliance happens to people just as it happens to diamonds.

First you, as a personality and character, have to be cut -- the lumpy, muddy rock carved away, the milky, irregular lump inside revealed, then cracked into pieces (emotional pain matures). Then after all that hard work (the attaining of Stage 4 Competence in a variety of skills), you must be placed in the right position in the world (on black velvet) and then AN EXTERNAL LIGHT has to shine upon you.

If the cutting and polishing stage of acquiring competence has been done well, WHEN that external spotlight hits, you will SHINE BRILLIANTLY. You will simply funtion at stage 4 competence without knowing you're doing anything -- and you will do this simultaneously in more than half the skill areas you've acquired stage 4 competence in.

You, as a human being, have no control over when that light will shine on you, no way to predict it or dictate what color that light will be.

It will happen many times in a lifetime -- your only contribution is to be ready when it happens. To be at stage 4 competence in a wide variety of skills, and to be positioned as best you can in the world.

When you shine brilliantly, you may (or may not) be chosen -- i.e. your novel may be bought, or passed over.

When the recognition comes, though, you will be dubbed AN ARTIST -- and in writing, that means a PERFORMING ARTIST.

So the upside of recognition is that people admire the brilliance of the words you've produced (but you look at them and don't see anything special, don't know that you achieved anything wonderful).

The downside of recognition is that everyone expects you to do it again. (look at any number of really wonderful series that get pushed beyond the natural end for commercial reasons.)

But since you didn't do "it" to begin with -- you can't do it again. The light will shine when it shines - and then you will be brilliant because you have mastered Stage 4 competence.

So what does the brilliance of their elders look like to the young people I discussed in the PARADIGM SHIFT - the shift in expectations of what you have to do in order to get what you want?

How will the current crop of 16 year olds go about displaying their brilliance?

Now read this little essay over again and think about how you can apply this Competence Stage concept to a set of fictional characters in a novel of your own.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, March 16, 2009

Perky Author has Run Out of Perky


see more Lolcats and funny pictures

It's more than deadline brain. My beloved cat, Daq, goes for a tumor (bladder) biopsy Wednesday. Daq is "Tank the furzel" in my GAMES OF COMMAND. He and his little buddy, Miss Doozy, are my constant companions, but where Doozy is stand-offish, Daq is on my desk, at my feet, by my side, 24/7. I can't imagine how parents cope when their children face a diagnosis of cancer. The past few days have been, quite honestly, horrible. And since it will take over a week for the pathology report to come back in, it appears as if horrible may hang around for a bit yet.

Yes, I'm still writing the book on deadline but it's really not much more than throwing words on the screen. I just keep plowing through it and hope by the time edits happen, things will be better.

So that's the scoop. Daq-cat is in for a rough haul the next few weeks and my primary focus is to be by his side as he's been by mine. Which means the creative muse has taken a hike. Perky author has run out of perky.

But prayers are good. Hugs all, ~Linnea & Daq & Miss Doozy


Friday, March 13, 2009

Universal Translators

I’m delighted to introduce a guest blog by linguist and SF writer Suzette Haden Elgin. Among many other works, she’s the author of the Native Tongue trilogy (in which she invented a language designed for talking about the life experiences of women), the Coyote Jones novels, the Planet Ozark trilogy, and the nonfiction series of Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense books. THE COMMUNIPATHS, the first Coyote Jones novel, can be read free online at www.jackiepowers.com. An updated edition of THE GENTLE ART OF VERBAL SELF-DEFENSE, incorporating references to cyberspace communication, is going to be published by Barnes and Noble on March 31. Her website is www.sfwa.org/members/elgin. You can find the link to her blog on the sidebar of this blog. Here she’s posting on the problem of the Universal Translator:

The "Universal Translator" has been the magic wand of science fiction for a long time; reader tolerance for any discussion of language differences was until very recently so limited that you almost had to have a UT, just to let you get on with the story. The problem for linguists has been that UTs were unquestionably part of the fiction -- a "Shazam!" device that writers and readers agreed was needed -- but they were presented as if they were part of the science. Nobody bothered to include any sort of disclaimer; nobody had their characters talk about how inadequate the UT was, or how inadequate its translations were. [If you know any examples of that being done, I'd be very grateful if you'd share them with me, by the way.] And the progress that's been made in machine translation in the past decade has only made things worse. The stories you read about the handheld translation devices now being used by the military, for example, would lead you to believe that the Star-Trek-style UT now exists.

Maybe a couple of examples -- a very simple one and a more complicated one, both restricted to human languages -- would be worth posting. Translation means taking a sequence of Language X and providing a sequence of Language Y that is what a speaker of Language Y would say/write/sign in the same situation. So, in a situation where an English-speaking parent would tell a child, "Be good!”, a French-speaking parent would instead say "Be wise!" That doesn't mean that the word for "good" in French is "wise," nor does it mean that one or the other of those utterances is "only an idiom". It doesn't mean that the French concept of wisdom is equivalent to the English concept of goodness. It just means that "Be wise" is what a French speaker would say/write/sign in a situation where an English speaker would say "Be good." That's the simple example. And we now have the technology necessary to construct a handheld translation device that would contain an assortment of ParentSpeak Utterances (like "Be good!" and "Behave yourself!" and "Go to sleep!" and "Go to your room!" and "Don't eat that!" and -- I hope -- "I love you with all my heart") in a whole array of different languages. That sort of machine translation is surprisingly good when the languages involved are closely related, or when the semantic territory is carefully restricted, or both. It's like the job I had as a translator in the 1960s, where I translated a law firm's correspondence in French, Spanish, German, and Italian into English and wrote the responses. It wasn't that I knew all those languages well; it was just that 99 percent of what the letters said was predictable in advance from the context, and I had a book (primitive handheld device) with the necessary equivalents in all five languages.

And then there's the more complicated example. Suppose the question in a dialogue is "What were you doing all morning?" and the English answer is "I was riding a horse." The utterance that a Navajo speaker would use in that situation is, literally, "A horse was animaling-about with me." The utterance a Hopi speaker would use is, literally, "I was using a horse to move about with." (And of course the utterance a French speaker would use is "I was on a horse.") We have the technology to construct a handheld machine translation device that would provide an array of utterances about riding horses in all four languages and a batch of others. But would that let us carry on multilingual conversations about horseback riding?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Price of Eternity

Next week I'm going to Orlando for the annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I'll be leading a panel on vampires and other immortals. Here are some of the thoughts I've noted down for my part of the discussion:

In contemporary fiction, most authors who write about vampires tend to emphasize the vampire's status as an immortal rather than as a walking dead creature. Traditionally, immortality always has a price. The Struldbrugs in GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, although undying, age normally and are declared legally dead at the age of eighty. The ogre or sorcerer of folklore who ensures his invulnerability to death by removing his heart from his body and concealing it in some inaccessible location becomes, in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, whose fear of death drives him to split his soul into seven pieces. Each fragment that is removed diminishes his humanity. The soulless quality of traditional vampires is symbolized by their inability to cast a reflection in a mirror. In the TV series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, an essential component of vampirism is the replacement of the human soul by a demon. Angel and Spike, exceptions to the norm, have had their souls magically restored. The series never makes it clear exactly how the soul is defined; overall, it seems to be approximately equivalent to the conscience. Angel reveals in one episode that the return of his soul doesn't eject the vampire demon; both coexist within him.

Much vampire fiction portrays the price of immortality as loneliness and alienation from the surrounding flow of humanity. Immortals in the HIGHLANDER series suffer a similar fate. HIGHLANDER Immortals also share with many fictional vampires the inability to beget or bear children. Since Immortals drain each other's power through the "quickening" by cutting off the rival's head, they can be regarded as energy vampires who prey on their own kind rather than on ordinary people. The short-lived TV series AMSTERDAM, in which the protagonist receives immortality from a Native American woman as a reward, yet the condition seems more like a curse since it can be ended by true love, felt to me like "HIGHLANDER lite."

Peter Pan possesses immortality because he never grows up, but he is explicitly described as heartless. As a symptom of this condition, he readily forgets about people after a prolonged separation. Although he treats Wendy as an exception, Peter shows his tenuous grasp on both memory and the passage of time by mistaking her daughter for her. The price of his eternal childhood seems to be the loss of part of his humanity. The eternal child appears in vampire fiction as Claudia in Anne Rice's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE; she is so changelessly frozen that her hair grows back to its length at her "death" hours after she cuts it. And of course the film LOST BOYS directly alludes to Peter Pan. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain retains all the scars he acquired as a living man, but he can never acquire new ones; all wounds heal without a trace, demonstrating the unchanging nature of vampire “life.”

Some fictional immortals achieve that condition, not by preserving their physical bodies, but by transmigration of the soul or personality into a new body whenever the old one becomes damaged or worn out, for example, the wizard in H. P. Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep." An evil sorcerer using that strategy appears as the villain in a fantasy series by Mercedes Lackey. A similar premise appears in a series by Octavia Butler. This kind of immortality, going back at least to the psychic vampirism of the title character in Poe's "Ligeia," is almost inevitably framed as evil.

Since the 1970s, many authors have shown transformation into a vampire as a positive change instead of an accursed fate. LOST BOYS, for example, invites, "Sleep all day, party all night, and never get old." Vampire romances, however, constitute the subgenre that most frequently represents the human lover's change into a vampire as a happy ending (those that don't take the opposite route and "cure" the vampire by restoring his mortality). Is this trend connected to the secular nature of our culture? Do such authors assume that most readers no longer regard the loss of one's soul as a fate to fear? Or, if they directly address the question, do they deny that becoming a vampire necessarily entails soullessness? In either of these cases, can we now have immortality without a price? If you were offered physical immortality as an ordinary human being in the prime of life and health (immortality without tangible disadvantages), would you accept? One of the few authors who presents this situation as mostly a Good Thing is Robert Heinlein in the Lazarus Long novels, and even Lazarus gets tired of life at the beginning of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. If you were offered unending existence as a vampire, with at least some of the traditional limitations, would you accept?

Margaret L. Carter (www.margaretlcarter.com)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beauty and the Beast: Constructing the HEA

To some people it may seem somewhat narrow minded that readers of Romance insist on the Happily Ever After ending.

After all, HEA is so unrealistic, a childish fantasy. Thus people who read Romance must have something wrong with them, which means Romance as a field is not to be taken seriously, which is a topic we've discussed at length in this blog.

I think those readers are missing something important about the novel as an artform. As writers, our job is to explain what they're missing in "show don't tell" technique.

Whatever type of novel you prefer reading, you read it for the satisfaction, the validation of your world view in the artform.

The Romance as an artform is not different, even (or especially) when you cast the Romance plot against an alien background or involve a non-human character in the main plot thread.

The worldview that the Romance HEA validates is something like "No Man Is An Island" or in modern psychological research, that happier, healthier longer lives are lived by those who have firm and dependable Relationships.

Here's a recent report in a long list of such reports on marriage and health:

March 5, 2009
Chicago -- Women in strained marriages are more likely than other wives to have high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease, researchers said today.
... and: The researchers found that women in marriages with high levels of strife were more prone to depression and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms including thick waist, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and abnormal blood sugar that significantly raise the risk of heart disease.

Oh? HEA is unrealistic, eh?

If a relationship crystallizes solidly, settles into a supportive and low-strife paradigm, then (science is beginning to discover) AS A CONSEQUENCE the future course of the partners lives will be ENHANCED by good health and an assortment of miseries that are absent. That is they will live "happily ever after" because of the formation of this Relationship.

There have been other studies that showed how women are physically healthier than men because of the maintaining of relationships with other women, particularly that of the confidant. Relationships cause consequences -- and good Relationships cause HEA.

Of course, humans being human, while you're living an HEA arc of a life, you will find other reasons to make yourself miserable. You never think of all the diseases and disorders and dysfunctions you DON'T have in your life, so you can't see that you are happy.

People who have this kind of very real misery in their life might want to read horror or tragedy -- soap opera stories of unrelenting misery -- to stay aware of the troubles they don't have, troubles worse than theirs. It's a way of convincing yourself you are happy. And there's nothing wrong with that. It can motivate changes in relationships to raise the odds of an HEA in life. HEA endings can do that too - spark aspiration.

So how does a writer construct an HEA ending?

Well, it's an ENDING.

There are 3 points in The Novel that have to be nailed before you can outline the novel. Beginning. Middle. End. Determine any one of those, and the other two become determined.

If the END must be "happy" - an up-beat ending - then the MIDDLE must be the worst point in the main character's life (utter ruin; total hopelessness; conquered, captured, vanquished, left for dead, stood up at the altar).

With a low Middle and high End -- the Beginning has to be the ORIGIN of the problem that nearly kills the main character in the Middle and which he overcomes to triumph in the end.

Solve this one problem and all his life-troubles are over for good. There's HEA potential in every other genre, even or especially Horror.

Plot is driven by Conflict. To have a conflict, you have to have at least two elements that conflict. This vs. That. An urgent MUST vs an equally formidable CAN'T.

In the Romance, the urgent MUST is provided by the attraction to the other party. Science has revealed why we feel that MUST.


is an article on discoveries about brain chemistry and love. I think I've mentioned that here before, and on goodreads.com in SFRomance.

Add to that the subliminal awareness that our very lives depend on founding solid Relationships, and when a candidate for that Relationship appears it becomes an urgent emergency to "catch" that guy or gal.

Theory has it that it's the reproductive urge that drives us into Relationships. And that certainly seems reasonable -- BUT, if you don't live long enough to have and raise kids, reproduction becomes a moot point. I think we are aware in every cell of our bodies that our minute to minute existence depends on solid Relationships.

Mystically, the First Chakra (staying alive) always trumps the Second Chakra matters of reproduction. Our priorities are ordered for us on that basic a level. This premise lurks far in the background of my Sime~Gen novels.

The brain chemistry study shows us why we have the objective of establishing solid relationships. Relationships protect basic health so that we can reproduce.

Sothe URGENT MUST part of the conflict: "here is a POTENTIAL PARTNER; I must have this person or die!"

Your very life depends (literally) on reaching out to and securing that person in your life. That is not melodrama, it's science.

For all HEA Romances, that piece of the formula is established by the genre rules. The Urgent Must has to be an attraction to a partner and everything else is "complication" or background.

Now, the writer gets creative and the genre walls disappear into the distance. The writer can explore the universe finding things to prevent the attaining of this objective. What obstacles prevent people from forming partnerships?

The art of the romance novel lies in the variegated CAN'Ts writers have hurled at their characters.

What the CAN'T actually is does not matter as much as that it is just about equal to the MUST. To craft the HEA, there has to be a tangible chance that the Relationship won't gel.

But success has to be plausible, so the CAN'T has to have a "fatal flaw" that makes it believable that the two people do overcome this obstacle.

It is very possible that the low prestige of the Romance Novel (and particularly the Paranormal or SF Romance) comes from the choice of obstacle.

Some people may pick up Romances where the obstacle is fabricated, and in technical parlance, "contrived" so that it can be overcome. The "paper tiger" obstacle.

As a result, casual readers may judge all Romance to be "thin" -- a puppet show where the strings are visible.

Judging an entire genre by one or two novels is fairly common. Have you ever done that?

So, the Romance HEA is crafted from a scientificly verified array of MUSTS vs. artistically invented CAN'Ts. The HEA point is where the MUST overcomes the CAN'T -- i.e. the point where the conflict is resolved.

So tell me why all Romance isn't classed as Science Fiction Romance? If all Romance has the MUST part of the plot formula as a scientific premise, why isn't every Romance considered SFR?
The answer to this puzzle may be found by reading something outside the genre.

I have here a novel, a police procedural which raised the question of the HEA requirement again.

FLIPPING OUT by Marshall Karp. It's an April 2009 book I got from the amazon.com VINE program in ARC. It's copyright is held by a film company. I already posted my (4 star) review on amazon.

The intriguing premise is that a famous mystery writer is in a scheme to buy a run-down house, fix it up, write a murder mystery set in the house, then sell the house at auction on the day the book launches (complete with fictional murder victim's outline in tape on the bedroom floor).

It's set against the background of Hollywood. HUGE amount of money involved in the house flipping scheme -- very interesting background, like Columbo, a glimpse of the rich and famous.

It is a pretty good cut and dried, well turned and well written police procedural mystery with a nice clue-trail.

You can solve the mystery before the detectives do, but not TOO MUCH before, and the ending comes with a nice tricky TWIST shocker-scene, after which you get told what the detectives knew before you knew it. It's a good twist ending and provides a nice film moment for the climax. It's a good book.

Ah, BUT!!! There are many buts I didn't mention in my amazon review.

Reading this novel right in the midst of reading a sequence of fairly good fantasy novels, I found the contrast striking.

The mystery formula also requires an HEA ending. The mystery has to be SOLVED, and the reader has to feel satisfied that they could solve it as well or better than the detectives (but not a lot better because then it's too easy).

So while I'm thinking about the HEA reader requirement in Romance, I'm reading this mystery and second-guessing the detectives.

And I realized WHAT'S MISSING from FLIPPING OUT. It's a factor that I find very satisfying in say, Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series. And that is characterization. It's a reason I like Columbo and Murder She Wrote, too. The mystery and its solution hinge entirely on the psychology and relationships of the victims, suspects AND the detectives!!

FLIPPING OUT provides a huge, stark, high relief contrast to the psychological drama type mysteries that I love. The stringent absence of the psychology dimension makes for a dry, clean, stark, and austere reading experience (very much like old fashioned neck-up science fiction, I discussed last week) that is, no doubt, very satisfying to the reader looking for that simple puzzle without any psychological tangles.

FLIPPING OUT puts the emotional lives of the bereaved, terrified and frustrated characters in the background while the foreground focuses on the puzzle itself. That's what this genre is supposed to do.

So this book is perfect of its kind, but unsatisfying to me. Yet it has the perfect ending for a mystery. The detectives solve the case which is equivalent to the HEA where the gal gets her guy and vice-versa.

At the halfway point, the darkest hour, the detectives think they solved it -- everyone above them thinks it's solved. The perp was the last person in the world they'd suspect. They're crushed. Then they discover they're wrong, and the perp is actually someone even more last-person-in-the-world than they'd expect.

FLIPPING OUT is likely to be a best seller, very popular, might even make a movie. The author's other novels have garnered serious respect, the sort we'd love to see SFR get as a genre.
What does FLIPPING OUT have that Science Fiction Romance doesn't?

Could it lie in the CAN'T rather than in the MUST part of the conflict formula?

One really great Romance that did make it onto TV as a series is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

This series spawned a plethora of fanfic on paper on on the web, and some really great fan novels, too. It grabbed the imagination of the SFR type reader-fan. But why did it fail on TV?

The premise stalled the plot.

The premise was that the couple could NEVER get together. That's not bad in itself. The CAN'T has to be formidable.

But the characters accepted the CAN'T. They didn't fight it. They didn't try scheme after scheme (like I LOVE LUCY plots). They didn't attempt to go public. They didn't plan to run away. Neither was willing to sacrifice to go live in the other's world.

Neither of the main characters was HEROIC about overcoming the plot premise CAN'T. And in the end, the writers tried to salvage that, change and evolve the premise by revealing that one of the characters was actually of non-human (alien from outer space) blood -- but by then the audience was losing interest.

They hadn't sold the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST series as SFR so the audience deserted them when they tried to turn it into SFR, making the problem solvable.

Why did the audience lose interest? Because the MUST didn't show any progress toward overcoming the CAN'T. The conflict was not moving to a resolution without breaking the original premise.

There couldn't be an HEA unless you changed the premise - which is of course what the fanfic writers did.

So contrast and compare FLIPPING OUT with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and think about it. Too little psychology and the actions and reactions don't seem plausible enough to make a story interesting even if the plot is fascinating. Too much psychology and the story stalls dead in its tracks because there isn't the gumption to pay the price for conflict resolution.

To create the HEA effect (in any genre), the trick is matching the MUST (and its motives, conscious and subconscious) with the CAN'T (and its motives, conscious and subconscious), in such a way as to challenge each of the characters to overcome some internal barrier, to CHANGE (or ARC in screenwriting parlance) in a way that opens the opportunity for the MUST to overcome the CAN'T.

In the Murder Mystery Police Procedural the Must, Can't and HEA in the foreground is the whole, logical why-done-it puzzle. It's who knows whom and follow the money for motivation. The angst, grieving widowers, and fear of discovery are all way in the background, told rather than shown.

In the Alien Science Fiction Romance, the affairs of state, plot puzzles, science and logic of brain biochemistry are in the background, told rather than shown, while the angst, grief, fears, hopes, dreams, and fantasies are in the foreground, shown rather than told.

What is in the foreground and what is in the background very often determines the audience that will most appreciate the work of art.

Or the fanfic writers will reverse foreground and background to tell each other new stories.

For more on those psychological and spiritual internal barriers and how to construct them for your characters out of the material inside your reader's mind see my blog post:


For a writing exercise related to setting up foreground and background and "worldbuilding" the background see my blog entry writing assignment and read the exercise posted as comments on


Jacqueline Lichtenberg