Fantasy Slang: Building a Lexicon

Using the origins of slang I talked about last week, I came up with 120 slang terms and over 50 different idioms for the Air Pirates world. Sound like a lot of work? Well, it was and it wasn't. I didn't do it all at once, but over a long period of time (actually all 19 months I drafted the novel).

It was very hard at first, but once I got some patterns down and got a feel for the air pirates' language it became easier. Here are some things that helped:

Many of the methods I outlined last week require an understanding of the culture involved. Metaphors arise from what a culture is most familiar with: a farming culture will use farming metaphors, an underwater civilization will use ocean metaphors, etc. Jargon that has transitioned to mainstream slang will be dependent on the subculture from which it came (in my case, pirate culture).

The Air Pirates' world is one of airships, pirates, and the ever-present fear of dark water. Sam talked about this some in his Talk Like a Pirate Day post. Knowing the foundations of their metaphors made it easier to come up with them. Then I often evolved or shortened them (thus obscuring my sources), but not always. Modern slang is a mix of phrases whose origins are immediately apparent and phrases whose origins have been forgotten. I wanted the Air Pirates' language to be similarly mixed.

Don't try to come up with 100 idioms at once. That'll drive you nuts, and you won't even use half of them.

While writing Air Pirates, I mostly came up with slang words as I needed them. Sometimes I thought, "I feel like they'd have a special word for this. But what?" But mostly I came up with my own slang whenever I found myself using modern idioms and cliches. This had the added benefit of wiping my manuscript (relatively) clean of cliches.

Every time I made up a new slang term or idiom, even if I didn't end up using it, I wrote it down in a separate document. Sometimes I'd make up an idiom only to cut it as part of a larger revision. But I still had the idiom saved in my "Pirate Slang" document for use later.

Then every time I needed a slang term or idiom, I'd skim through the existing ones to see if anything fit. Sometimes I'd use a word I already came up with, sometimes not. If nothing else, skimming the old words made it easier to come up with something new that fit the existing pirate lexicon.

And that's pretty much it. Next time I'll talk about how to introduce all this odd slang to the reader without overwhelming them.

Meanwhile, have you ever made up slang for a story? How did you do it?

DON'T FORGET! There's still a contest going on for a free book. Link to the contest post for a chance to win. Read Pawn's Gambit to improve your chances. Contest ends May 6th!

Your Guest Post Here? Why Not?

First of all, I'd like to remind you of the (still on-going) contest to win a free book. A lot of you haven't entered, and I don't know why. FREE BOOK, PEOPLE! You don't even have to read the story to get it, just tell others about the contest. So what are you waiting for?

Okay, so. In a couple of weeks, I'll be leaving for the cold, exotic land of the United States of America. I will generally have access to internet in the places I'm staying, but no guarantees on how much time I can give to posting and what-not.

So I'm asking for guest posts while I'm gone. If you're interested in writing something for this blog, while getting a little exposure for your own, write a post and e-mail it to me at adamheine(at)gmail(dot)com. Some anticipated questions:

You want me to e-mail you the whole post?
Yes. I have a lot to do before we leave, and if I get a bunch of promised posts at (or after) the last minute, I might not have time to schedule them.

Will you use it if I e-mail it to you?
Probably, but not necessarily. I don't know if I'll get zero or twenty responses to this, and there are only so many post days to fill. Plus I need to like the post (don't worry, that's not as hard as it sounds).

Wait. So you want me to write you a whole post, but you might not even use it?
Ummm, yeah. But hey, if I don't use it, you can just put it on your own blog and give yourself a day off instead.

Can I use something I've written before, or something I'm going to repost on my own blog?
Sure. This isn't Nathan's blog. We're a small operation, and if you want to send me your favorite post from 2005, I won't complain. Or if you want to repost on your own blog later, you can do that too.

What do I get out of it?
A small amount of exposure (like I said, this isn't Nathan's blog). You also get my gratitude, which can be exchanged for future favors of a similar magnitude, like "Hey, would you mind giving me a day off on my blog too?" or "Could you read this query/synopsis/chapter for me and tell me what you think?", etc.

Okay, fine. What should I send you?
A post up to 500 words (ish -- I'm not going to count). A title. A short paragraph about yourself with a link to wherever you want (e.g. your blog). E-mail to adamheine(at)gmail(dot)com. Topic is up to you, though I'll be happiest if it's more-or-less PG and generally related to my normal topics (e.g. writing, drawing, geekery).

I'll accept posts until May 6, 12:00 PM EST (the same time the other contest ends), or until I have too many posts to handle. Whichever comes first.

Wait, that's it? No post today?
That was a post. But if you still need your fix, try this one about query letters and hell.

Fantasy Slang: Origins of Slang, Part II

Language evolves in interesting ways, often without its speakers being aware of it. Last time I talked about how slang comes from euphemisms, metaphors, and reverse meaning. Today, let's talk about jargon, shortening, and swearing.

Technically, jargon isn't slang. The purpose of jargon is to allow its users to speak more precisely about technical issues in a given field (usually). Slang, on the other hand, is often used to exclude non-members from a group. But the two are closely related, and jargon can become slang over time as knowledge of a field becomes more widespread (e.g. everyone knows what it means to download something now, but in 1980 the word was as obscure as "SNMP" is today).

Jargon can also take the form of a thieves' cant or rhyming slang, where the intent is to exclude. As languages evolves, and these code langauges become more generally known, they can become slang for a whole culture.

Just like their real-world, seaborne brethen, air pirates have their own jargon, some of which has passed to the public. A ship's brig is called the klack (though this meaning now means any prison). Crewmen might be navvies, turners, swabbers, stokers, machinists, gunners, or just plain skylers. And any of those terms have passed into the language as metaphors; for example, a swabber is a generally derogatory term for someone with a crap job.

Language often evolves to make things quicker and easier to say, to the point of obscuring the origin of the phrase in question. "Goodbye" was once "God be with ye". Internet acronyms occasionally find their way into spoken speech. And no one knows what the heck "okay" used to mean, but nearly every language uses it now.

Almost everything is shortened in the Air Pirates' world. I mentioned the term "baron" last time. And hardly anyone actually says "spot of blue in the dark;" they're more likely to say "a spot in the dark," "a spot of blue," or even just "a spot." Likewise, mercenaries are mercs, anchors are anchs, and centimeters are cents. (That last one actually comes from the Thai language, where shortening words is practically a national sport).

Making up swear words is really, really, really hard. That's because swearing is only effective because we decide it is so (or have been taught so). There is nothing inherent about swear words that make them worse than any other word -- only the meaning we assign to them. Most made-up swear words sound silly to new readers because they have assigned no meaning to the word.

If you decide to make up swear words, imagine what kinds of things would offend members of your culture. References to sexuality, feces, or blasphemy work for almost any culture. But if your culture is particularly fantastic, you might decide other things (i.e. things that are normal to us) are vulgar to them.

I didn't get too creative with the swearing in Air Pirates, preferring instead to choose words that sounded like swear words but weren't. Words like flack and tullit. I also borrowed words from British slang like sod and bleeding, once again giving a feel of swearing without actually being offensive to the (American) ear.

Using euphemisms, metaphors, reverse meaning, jargon, shortening, and swearing, you should be able to come up with a number of phrases to make your made-up culture feel more real. It is a lot of work, but you don't have to do it all at once. I'll talk more about that next time.

DON'T FORGET! There's still a contest going on for a free book. Link to the contest post for a chance to win. Read Pawn's Gambit to improve your chances. Contest ends May 6th!

Fantasy Slang: Origins of Slang, Part I

A while ago, I talked about a method to make up fantasy languages that don't sound made-up. Today I want to talk about slang, where it comes from, and ways to make up your own. If you've read Pawn's Gambit (or this old post), you know the Air Pirates' world has tons of slang. These posts are a taste of how that evolved.

Slang is a bit harder to come up with than fantasy languages. A foreign word can be completely made up and still work, but slang often uses recognizable words in unusual ways. Done wrong, it makes the world feel silly. But done right, it not only makes a fantasy culture feel deeper, it can provide clues to the culture itself.

Slang often arises as a roundabout way of discussing harsh or taboo topics. For example, English has a thousand euphemisms for sex and death. Kicked the bucket. Knocked her up. Sleeping with the fishes. Sleeping with each other. And so on.

In the Air Pirates' world, a pirate might "rack" a girl, especially a "woman of easy virtue" (prostitute). Knockers don't kill people, they pack them (why don't they knock them? I don't know. Language is funny like that).

Metaphors -- idioms, really -- are slang's cultured cousin. "Bite the bullet" used to be quite literal, but became a metaphor for doing anything painful or difficult. Criminals want to stay "under the radar," even if they've never flown a plane in their lives.

Metaphor is a powerful tool to make up slang unique to a fantasy culture. There's no radar in the Air Pirates' world, but a good pirate knows to stay "in the clouds" even if they're not in an airship. A "spot of blue in the dark" literally refers to ocean without dark water, but mostly means hope in the midst of trouble.

Remember when "bad" meant cool? How about sick or phat? Sometimes slang is not a new word, but an altered meaning of an old one.

I didn't use this method very often in the Air Pirates' world -- I tried, but the results often sounded contrived. One that worked (for me, anyway) was the term "baron" for a shopkeeper. The idea was that "robber baron" used to be a derogatory term for a merchant who cheated you. Over time it came to be a common title for all merchants, good or bad. When it was shortened to simply "baron", it became almost a term of respect, like a title.

That's enough for now. Next time I'll talk about jargon, shortening, and swearing. Meanwhile, you tell me: where have you seen slang done well? Done poorly? Do you think they used any of these methods, or something else?

DON'T FORGET! There's still a contest going on for a free book. Link to the contest post for a chance to win. Read Pawn's Gambit to improve your chances. Contest ends May 6th!

Pawn's Gambit Contest

It's here! "Pawn's Gambit" has officially been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. (Read it here. Do it! DO IT NOW!)

(If my self-promoting gets a bit out of hand today, I apologize. I'm just really, really excited.)

This story is set in the same world as Azrael's Curse, the novel I'm currently querying. Though I often refer to the setting as the Air Pirates' world, "Pawn's Gambit" is somewhat pirate-deficient. But it does have smugglers, assassins, and bounty hunters, so hopefully there's something there for everybody. (Read it now!)

In celebration of my publishing debut, I'm giving away a free book. For a chance to win, all you have to do is mention this contest (linking to this post) on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter, and fill out the form below.

If you'd like to improve your chances (while simultaneously enjoying a free adventure story), there's a bonus question requiring you to read the story -- or at least skim it in a fact-finding sort of way. Answer correctly to triple your chances.

Contest is open until May 6th, 12:00 PM EST. So if you don't have time now, bookmark this, star it, send yourself an e-mail -- whatever you need to do so you'll remember to read it later.

That's it. Go read the story.

That Thing Where I Draw: My Nightmares

I also had a dream in which Jennifer Jackson told me that leaving my query letter in the bathroom for agents to read was not a good idea. "Think about what they're doing in there and how that will make them feel about your novel."

Why Agents Should Blog

Some agents have so little information online that I feel like a stalker when I finally come across something. But that's not why agents should blog.

Some agents have so many clients, and are so good at their jobs, that they don't really need to be known. Those agents probably don't have to blog.

Some agents blog about stuff that has nothing to do with submissions, business, or publishing. That's totally cool, but that's not why agents should blog.

Some agents blog about writing and querying and publishing. That's extremely cool (I'm a much better writer for it), but that's not why agents should blog.

I figured it out while deciding which agents would go on my A-list and which on my B-list for querying. After taking everything into account -- genres they represent, deals they've made, stories they like --  I noticed a very strong trend: every agent on my A-list had a blog.

Now, probably, I'm just being a novice about this whole thing. My A-list agents should be ones making the big deals, or those selling stories similar to what I write, right? Then again, for someone who hasn't (and may never) go someplace where writers can meet agents, querying is very scary. And I don't mean the whole oh-my-gosh-I-hope-they-don't-reject-me kind of scary. I'm talking about the fact that I'm basically proposing a long term relationship with someone I've never met, I hardly know, and, let's be honest, whom I've been stalking.


Granted, that's how this business is, and there's nothing anyone can do about that. But when an agent blogs -- even if I only read a few posts before shooting off my query -- I feel like I know them a little better. I feel more comfortable. And in many cases, I feel certain I got their submission guidelines exactly the way they like it.

Blogging is branding (or if we're being technical, brand salience). You know how you'd rather buy Coca-Cola® than Generic-Brand Caramel-Colored Carbonated Sugar Water? It's not because Coke tastes better. Someone who's never had a soft drink in their life will be more likely to buy a Coke than GBCCCSW,* solely because they've heard of it. Because it's familiar.

I'd like to say I'm immune to branding. I'd like to say I choose my dream agents based on purely objective, business-minded decisions. But the truth is it's easier to ask someone out after you get to know them a little bit.

Even if you have to stalk them to do it.

* Also Jell-O instead of powdered bone slime.