Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To Diacritic or Not to Diacritic, That is the Question

Following recent discussions with friends on inventing names for places or characters in fantasy writing, I've been musing on the topic a bit further. Not without cause....I'm an inveterate lover of diacritics, those little 'visual signifiers' that can add subtle sound changes to letters. The question is: do they work for readers the same way they work for me? And if not, what do I do about it?

Other issues arise too, of course, such as the length of names - just how big a mouthful are they - and the familiarity/unfamiliarity factor. What sort of word roots and stems do you work from? Are they Latinate, Celtic, Greek, Japanese, Klingon or something startlingly 'other'? You might choose your linguistic base to give your fantasy culture a certain 'flavour', or simply to render the strange into something approachable, recognisable. Then there's word length. As I'm finding, too many long names can have readers stumbling, or becoming distanced from the characters, which is the last thing I'm hoping to achieve!

But back to diacritics, those lovely little hats, cups, dots, bars and squiggles above (or below) letters familiar to readers of Spanish, French, German, Scandinavian, Eastern European and Asian languages, but not to readers of English. I heave a wistful sigh. My love affair with diacritics goes back a long way, to the age of fourteen, when a schoolfriend and I taught ourselves Quenya (Tolkien's invented 'High Elven' language) and began writing letters to each other in beautifully calligraphed script (tengwar). Tolkien used diacritics with dual intent; firstly as a vowel system (with each vowel represented by a different diacritic marker) and secondly, to create a specific visual aesthetic (Quenya being in the realm of 'art languages'). I'll come back to the visual aspects of diacritics and letterforms in just a moment.

In the present revision, I've been working through my novels and stripping back squiggles, creating shortened versions of long or otherwise unwieldy names, and looking carefully at the cultural bases of names for people of different races. And I'm finding that it's not as painful as I thought it would be (although keeping all the alterations straight in my head is a bit challenging!), and that I'm enjoying the simplifications as much as my readers undoubtedly will. In each diacritic instance, I've asked myself whether the name/word could survive without it, and have mostly been answered with a resounding 'yes'. Some subtlety of sound-form has been sacrificed for the sake of ease, but I think the basic aesthetic/aural principles are still holding good. Thank the gods! Imagine the terrible angst otherwise! (Reaches for the smelling salts).

What I'm left with no doubt relates to my background as a visual artist; the squiggles that have made it into the mix exist as visual cues just as much as sound modifiers. So, for instance, the only apostrophes (other than showing possessives) are in words used as magical commands; they all follow the same basic visual pattern for ease of recognition. All the grave and acute accents, diereses (umlauts) and circumflexes are gone - apart from one, which I've again kept for visual emphasis of the most important racial name. Other than that, I confess to my chief villain's name starting with the dreaded 'X', since I like the visual significance of the letter ( as a cross for 'wrong', or 'dangerous' as in skull and crossbones, or as an 'alert' - x marks the spot). I smile to myself, since a short story I'm currently reading (Aliette de Bodard's The Lonely Heart in the Panverse anthology Eight Against Reality) features an antagonist whose name starts with X (although this is also related to the story's Chinese origins and setting). On the other hand, Charles Xavier of the X-Men was a good guy of the highest order. Anyway, enough musing for now. Back to the novels!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Aussiecon 4: Carol's Epilogue

I arrived at Aussicon 4 (my first) with many expectations including the will to listen and learn from this rare gathering of experts in the field of speculative fiction. I knew I would be dazzled by the Hugo and Ditmar award ceremonies, and of course I was. I also knew that I would have the opportunity to speak to writers whose work I have read and admired over the years. To this end I was not disappointed.

I had also signed up for three panels and from the very start felt daunted at the prospect. But my fears were quickly dispelled when my fellow panellists proved thoughtful and generous. I not only learned to voice my knowledge confidently, but also learned many new ways of understanding the topics we were discussing. I’d like to thank Juliet Marillier, Trudi Canavan, Richard Harland, Leanne Hall, Ellen Kushner, Rani Graff, Helen Lowe and Ben Chandler for giving me the opportunity to work with them. You all rock.

My only complaint about the panels (it’s actually a compliment to the organizers) is that there were too many to choose from, and for every panel I chose to listen to, there was one or two running at the same time that I wished I could attend also. But for me, the panel that helped the most with my writing was The Steampunk Playground with John Berlyne, Richard Harland and Jay Lake. I went into it expecting to learn about the direction that steampunk was taking and was not disappointed. But something else happened for me as well. I started thinking about the novel I am still second drafting and, as John, Jay and Richard spoke about the mad science factor and the attraction of Steampunk’s visual elements, it suddenly dawned on me how to make my novel not just work but really work. Thanks to this panel, I am now on a much better footing to get this novel finished, knowing exactly where I want it to go and how to get there. I thank John, Jay and Richard for that. Their panel alone made Aussiecon 4 a worthwhile venture for me.

One of the most daunting aspects of the con for me was the twenty-five minute reading slot I signed up for. I decided before hand that I would read from something published – something safe, that I knew more than one reader would approve of. However, at the last moment, I decided that I’d take a risk and read from my novel instead, and hopefully gauge genuine listener reactions to it. So I read the first chapter – one that has been redrafted several times over to the point where I cannot think how to improve it. I began, terrified that people would walk out. But when they stayed till the end, I felt confident that yes, this novel is starting to work. And yes, I will finish it. Huge thanks to everyone who came and listened to me.

Finally the fun part of Aussiecon will be as memorable as the work aspects. I am infinitely grateful to all the generous, amazing people that talked to me, dined with me, partied with me, as well the new friends and old friends who made me feel like I belonged at Aussiecon. For me, this convention was one of those life experiences that will always remain up there with the best.