Google Mini-Rant and Follow-Up Language Tips

I normally love Google, but this Google Buzz thing is bugging me. The problem, as I see it, is that Google signed me up for a social network and started sending my updates to people (that I may or may not actually know, but whom I've e-mailed at some point) without my permission. That's a Bad Thing.

Now I'm not a big privacy nut or anything. But I am a simplify-my-life nut.* I get requests for random social networks all the time, and I refuse them for a reason. Google just skirted around that by not asking me, and then making it ridiculously hard to opt-out of. Thanks a lot, Google. Screw you, too.

* Which is to say I'm a supporter of it. It doesn't mean I'm good at it.

*deep breath*

Okay, enough of that. How about some random tips on fictional languages that didn't fit in last week's post? Sound good? (I swear this will be the last post on foreign languages. At least for a while. Maybe...

Does slang count?)

MAKE IT READABLE. Even if the reader doesn't understand a word, they will still try to mentally pronounce it. It's frustrating if they can't. Wykkh'ztqaff may look very alien and fantastic, but it'll drive the reader nuts trying to say it -- even in their mind. This is especially true for names!

USE LATIN WITH CAUTION. My method last week involved stealing words from real-life languages and mashing them to hide the source. If you use this method, you should know that Latin and some of its siblings (Spanish, French, and Italian, for example) are so familiar to English speakers that it's very difficult to hide them as a source. (Assuming you want to. See parenthetical below for a counterexample to this tip.)

Take the magical words and phrases from Harry Potter, for example. Their origins are obvious (flagrante enchants objects to burn, gemino duplicates objects, lumos makes light, etc, etc, etc). It works in Harry Potter because it's set in the real world, more specifically Europe. It makes sense that their magical language has the same roots as their spoken language (it also makes it easier to remember what each magic word does). But can you imagine Gandalf the Grey using these same words and claiming they were the ancient language of the Valar?

"The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor... Incendio!"

(Matt Heppe noted in last week's comments that he intentionally used Romanian (a Latin-based language) to give the language a sense of familiarity for English readers. That's definitely a good reason to use Latin. I think, as with anything in writing, intentionality is key.)

WHAT ABOUT ALIEN LANGUAGES IN SCI-FI? It would be a little odd if an alien language sounded like one or more of our Earth languages, wouldn't it? Aliens could be their own post, but off the top of my head I'd say don't use language as we understand it at all. Aliens can speak in hisses, purrs, scents, flashes of color, x-rays, gamma rays, frequencies too low for the human ear to hear... Get creative. Though if you do use a spoken alien language, see the first tip at the top. (There's nothing wrong with spoken alien languages, even if they do sound like ours. I just want to encourage genre writers to stretch their creativity and be intentional about their choices.)

Anyone got any other tips on made-up languages? Do you know any fantasy languages done particularly well? Particularly poorly?

Making Up Words (Without Sounding Like a Dork)

On Wednesday, we talked about using foreign languages in fiction without (a) sounding like a dork or (b) confusing/boring the reader. The bottom line was:
  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.
Today I want to talk about a related fantasy topic: making up your own language.

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy was a language nut. He invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. If this is you, you probably don't need to read the rest of this post. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. Most of us speak only one or two languages with any kind of fluency. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up; it's obvious that they are (made-up, that is).

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining phonology, grammar, or how the presence of two palatal fricative dates back to the Second Age when the Atpians still had two tongues? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most of my ideas: steal from real life, then obscure your sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc.).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point and scoff. So it's time to obscure. Two ways I typically obscure source languages are: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language. I'll do both.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took to invent Quenya, I'll tell you that. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go. Besides which, that would tempt me to break the rules I set forth at the top of this post; they still apply even to made up languages.

So now you know my secret. Now go forth and make cool-sounding languages. Sarama tak.

Being Foreign Without Sounding Like a Dork

Foreign languages are hard to use in fiction. Probably because most of us don't use them in real life (really, we don't). So here I present some tips for helping the reader get that foreignness is happening, without feeling hit over the head by it.

USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. If a character is fluent in both English and Thai, but her listeners understand only English, she will not toss in a Thai word here and there. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And here's a big surprise: that's how it comes off to the reader too -- like the author is showing off some language they picked up on their trip around the world.

THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. What if the character ISN'T fluent in English? In that case, there will be words for which the Thai (or other language) comes to her mind first. Speaking fast, she may correct herself, which not only sounds natural, but gives you a natural way to translate what she says:

"Come on! We have to hurry to catch the rotfai. The train."

If her listeners are also bilingual, even only a little, she may not correct herself at all. In this case, you'll have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context. (Assuming you need the translation at all. Sometimes it just doesn't matter.)

She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. I once read a novel in which the villains occasionally spoke in Vietnamese. It was cool except when the author strung together a long sentence of Vietnamese phonetics. It was pronounceable I guess, but pointless; I don't understand Vietnamese nor did any of the other characters. It felt like the author was just showing off how much Vietnamese they knew. Take a look at these two examples (with Thai, of course):

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" one of them shouted. "Lukkheun diawnii!" She didn't know what they were saying, just put her hands on her head and sobbed. "Tah mai lukkheun diaw ja ying kah man. Ow mai! OW MAI!"

This isn't bad, but by that last sentence probably most of you aren't actually reading it anymore. Even if you did read it, you might wonder why since you gained no meaning from it (unless you speak Thai of course, in which case I kindly refer you to this post). But we can change it so it still conveys foreignness and Bernice's terror, without forcing the reader to slog through a bunch of meaningless phonetics:

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" One put a gun barrel to her mouth, shouting in a language she didn't understand. She didn't know what to do. She put her hands on her head and sobbed, but it only made him scream louder. What did he want from her?

PUT FOREIGN WORDS IN ITALICS. This goes along with not making the reader work. Italics signal the reader that these are words they don't necessarily have to know (also that they're not typos). This even goes for words that you think everybody should know.* A good rule of thumb is if it's not in the English dictionary, italicize it. For example:

"You're hungry? No problema, I'll pick up some burritos."

* I've noticed this problem especially with Californians (like me) who assume everyone took Spanish in high school (like me). Also with British authors and French. I'm American, I don't speak French!

USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. If English is someone's second language, they may have an accent. You've probably read stories where a character's accent was annoying or really hard to read. It's hard to do right, but the general rule is: be subtle. Imply the accent rather than hit the reader over the head with it.

Also, think like the character. If the character's first language does not have definite articles, they may drop them when speaking English. A common Thai mistake is to get 'he' and 'she' mixed up (although that could be confusing for the reader -- it is for us). When I'm playing a game with my daughter, she sometimes says, "You're going to win me," because that's how the word for 'win' is used in Thai (they have no separate word for 'beat').

It helps to know an ESL speaker, or to know a foreign language so you can work out how the character might process English. If you're not sure though, then don't do it. The character can just use simple words and sentences, with the occasional foreign word tossed in where appropriate.

So to sum up. If you're using foreign languages in your fiction:

  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.

Got any other tips? Annoyances with how some authors handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.

That Thing Where I Draw: Ninja Girl

I drew this for a friend of mine. I've said it before, but I put WAY more effort into drawings for other people. I should work on commission all the time. The only thing keeping from doing it is the stress.

I don't know much about this girl. She's some kind of ninja, but beyond that her story changes every time I talk to my friend (he's sort of in the throes of a story brainstorm). Halfway through this drawing, he told me her eyes should be "burning," but I'd already inked them in. Ah, well.

Books I Read: The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Published: 2008
Content Rating: PG-13 for violence*

Growing up in District 12 is hard for Katniss. She has to hunt, illegally, just to feed her family, and every year two children are chosen from their district to fight in the tyrannical Hunger Games. This year, it's Katniss' turn. She must fight for her life against 23 other teenagers put in the same position -- all for the amusement of the citizens of Panem.

No joke, this book reached into my chest, gripped me by the ventricles, and didn't let go. Katniss is an awesome character: tough, often heartless, yet willing to do anything to protect the people she loves. The characters she meets are awesome: the boy who may or may not secretly like her; her surprisingly-sympathetic stylist; her mentor, a previous winner of the Games driven to drunkness, but who makes himself (basically) sober when he sees Katniss has a fighting chance.

The world is awesome: a post-apocalyptic America where the majority does hard labor for the few. And the games... Geez, it's like Survivor had a baby with Lord of the Flies and then gave it steroids. It's that cool. Before I read this, my favorite book was easily Ender's Game. Now... I'm not so sure.

One warning though: it leaves you hanging. I mean, the games end and everything, but the end of the book is not The End, strictly speaking. Fortunately there's a sequel (and more fortunately, I have it on my shelf).

* Content ratings based on what I think a movie might be rated, if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Ratings are very subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure whether the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.

The Problem With Quidditch

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like made-up holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Nobody knows how to play that chess game R2-D2 plays against Chewbacca, but the scene gives the world a deeper feel and gives us a taste of Chewbacca's character (also Han's and C-3P0's). Avatar: the Last Airbender frequently uses a game called Pai Sho to reveal things about one of the characters, but the rules are never explained.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. You might have climactic events that center on the playing field, like Harry Potter's Quidditch. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules, which means there need to BE rules.

The easiest way to make a fictional game is to take a real-world game and change it slightly. Take chess and give the pieces fantasy names. Take soccer* and give it two goals instead of one, or play with three teams at once on a circular field. But whatever you do -- whether you vary a real game or invent one of your own -- it needs to be a game that, for the most part, would make sense in the real world.

Here's where Quidditch fails. The made-up game starts okay: basically basketball with broomsticks, three goals per team instead of one, extra balls that hurt/distract the players, and a snitch to determine the end of the game. None of these variations break the game, and they all make it more interesting. If we had flying broomsticks and semi-sentient balls, this is a game we could play in the real world.

The problem is the point value of the snitch. Every goal in Quidditch is worth 10 points, but whoever grabs the snitch simultaneously ends the game and earns 150 points -- 15 goals. The overall effect is that regular goals don't matter. Ever. Unless the score reaches 15-0,** the rest of the game has exactly the same tension as if both teams just sat around and waited for the snitch to show up (which, really, why don't they?).

The only reason we don't notice is because the protagonist is the one who gets the snitch. Can you imagine if Harry was the one making meaningless goals, while some minor character caught the snitch and won the game? We also don't notice because usually something else is going on during the match -- like someone's trying to kill Harry or something -- so we don't actually have to pay attention to the match. But to me, all the wizards who go crazy over every goal seem silly and short-sighted.

So by all means, include made-up games in your world. But give them some thought. They don't have to win Game of the Year or anything, but they should at least make real-world sense.

Though I guess if you really are writing the next Harry Potter, it doesn't matter.

UPDATE: As I mention in the comments, I do like Harry Potter. A lot. It has it's flaws, but there's a reason I own all seven.

* A term I use, not because it's correct, but because it's the least ambiguous. They call it football in Thailand too.

** Which is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw a soccer team up 15-0? Or an American football game at 105 to nothing? Unless you were watching Big Leagues Beat Up on Tiny Tots Day, these scores just don't happen. Not at a professional level anyway

What's Your Backup Plan?

Yes, I mean the title literally.

Until a few years ago, I never really thought about backing up my stuff, not at home. Part of it was that I had nothing worth backing up; I didn't write much, my music was on CDs, my pictures were on glossy paper, etc. My strongest backup method was to put things I thought were important onto a CD every so often -- which, because it was troublesome and I'm lazy, turned out to be once every 6-12 months.

So when my hard drive failed, I lost months of stuff -- pictures of my friend's Karen village wedding, my son's ultrasound pics, a month's work from my novel... It was a Bad Day. I made a resolution then, and I encourage you to do it now. If your hard drive failed completely, to the point where even recovery services could do nothing, what would you lose?

And what are you going to do about it?

It's not just hard drive failure. Theft, fire, and viruses are all possibilities too. But hard drive failure is the most likely. You may never get robbed and your house may never burn down, but unless you buy a new computer every year or two, your hard drive WILL fail someday.

Go ahead. Prove me wrong.

So as I said, I'm lazy. I needed a backup plan I could set up once and forget. I'm also cheap and well-aware of the strength of the open source community. I found a program called DeltaCopy, which is basically a Windows wrapper around an old, powerful Unix program. It's free, it's fast, and it works with Windows Scheduler so I don't have to think about it.*

Now my files gets backed up whenever my computer is idle and the kid's computer upstairs is on. The backup is usually current to within a day. And every month I copy the upstairs backup to an external hard drive which I keep locked away.**

So if my hard drive fails, I've got the upstairs copy that's a day old. If my house gets robbed, I've got the locked up copy that's a month old.

If my house burns down, I'm kinda screwed. But I figure it'd have to be a magical fire to burn down both floors of my brick-and-concrete house before I can get my laptop out. And I'm not aware of any wizards who want to destroy my stuff.

I've also started e-mailing chapters to my alpha reader (despite the fact that she lives in the same house and uses the same computer) because it's convenient and can be used as yet another backup for my most important documents.

If you don't have a backup plan, stop whatever you're doing and make one. At least save your work and your pictures -- whatever's important to you. It doesn't have to cost much. A little research can find free online storage, or software like DeltaCopy. External hard drives aren't that expensive, and apparently Windows 7 has some kind of backup scheme as well.

And just in case anyone is still being lazy about this, anyone have more horror stories of stuff they lost because they didn't back up?

* Well, usually. Sometimes it has some way-cryptic errors, like "writefd_unbuffered failed to write 4 bytes" which technically can mean lots of things but in my experience only means "the disk is full."

** Said copies are very fast because only files that have been changed since the last backup are copied. Still, it's a good idea to do a clean backup every once in a while.