Kickstart Your Writing Orange

June 2017



▪ Q&A: Shanna Germain on inventing words
▪ Yarn Spinners read on June 15 and July 20
▪ Writing prompt: June evening
▪ Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff on June 24
▪ Markets for memoirists
▪ Nerdy words: The ear knows, ding-dong!
▪ Showcase: “Down the Ridge Road” (excerpt) by Andrew Hundt
▪ Subscribe to Kickstart for free!
Q&A: Shanna Germain on inventing words
Yarn Spinners read on June 15 and July 20
Writing prompt: June evening
Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff on June 24
Markets for memoirists
Nerdy words: The ear knows, ding-dong!
Showcase: “Down the Ridge Road” (excerpt) by Andrew Hundt
Subscribe to Kickstart for free!
Shanna-BW-Head small

Shanna Germain

Q&A: Shanna Germain on inventing words

Joining us for a Q&A this month is award-winning Seattle writer and game designer Shanna Germain. Germain writes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. As co-founder of Monte Cook Games, she was instrumental in developing the table-top role-playing game Numenera, which won the Origin Award for Best New Roleplaying Game and a Gold ENNIE for Product of the Year. Germain also created an award-winning game for children that is being used in non-profit therapy and social skill programs for young people. Her writing has been honored with an Utne Reader award, among others.

We talked with Germain about her first published science fantasy novel, The Poison Eater, and the many words she invented for the book’s fictional, futuristic world. The Poison Eater is a tie-in with the Numenera game.

Do you have a background in linguistics or foreign languages that helped you create words for The Poison Eater?

I do speak a few other languages (albeit poorly), but I mostly have my poetry background to thank for guiding me toward a love of word creation. When writing poems, you come to understand that words have all of these elements tied into them—sound, cultural, written, and spoken history, appearance, slang meanings. When you start breaking those apart and putting them back together in different ways, it allows you to see all of the weight that a word has to carry, and how you can use that for impact.

I also did a ton of research before I started building the languages for the book, including re-reading The Art of Language Invention, a fantastic book by David J. Peterson. (Peterson built the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones.) I also read as much as I could find by Nick Farmer, the linguist who created the Belter Creole language for the TV series The Expanse.

How did you go about creating the new, invented words that appear in The Poison Eater?

For me, creating a language isn’t just about making up words (or taking existing words and giving them new meanings). It’s also about creating the cultural phrases, greetings, prayers, and sayings that are meaningful and unique to that place. In the city of Enthait in The Poison Eater, “Moon meld you and you shall shine” is a common wish for someone’s wellbeing. It’s tied into the city’s connection to the moon, but even more so, it’s tied into the very center of the city’s culture: the poison eater. That phrase wouldn’t make sense anywhere else in the world of Numenera, because no other place has Enthait’s culture and history.

How much did you consider the sounds of the words when you created them?

Sounds were very important to me, as they play a big role in the ways in which languages come into being. For example, I wanted the language of the main character’s captivity to be a soft, quiet language, one that could be spoken without having to open your mouth very far, without hard consonants that would bounce off walls and give the speaker away. It’s a secret language, designed to be used in secret places, at close range, without others hearing.

On the other hand, the city where most of the novel takes place is known as a city that sings, and its language is songlike, lilted. Words have a lot of power there. The name of the city’s defense force, “Zaffre,” starts out with ferocity and ends with a softness, which shows they are fierce, but also protectors. The poisons are more languid words—“ebeli,” “iisrad,” “onysa”—to mimic their power on the tongue, which is insidious, slow-acting, subtle.

In a science fantasy novel like The Poison Eater, you obviously need to create some new words for things that don’t exist in our own world, like “the vordcha,” the sinister creatures who tortured and mutilated the main character. But you also created words for concepts we already have in English, like “Zaffre” for the military and “taf” for tea. Why create new words for those ideas?

It comes back to culture, to show what is important to a place and to the story. If a thing is known to the reader, like a tea, and you call it “tea,” it fades into the background. But if you give it a name, it stands out as something that has potential meaning.

The city’s defense is important; it’s the reason that the main character is there, it’s her entire purpose, and so giving it a name gives it importance. This is true of “taf” as well. The word doesn’t just mean tea; it means the entire ceremony, which is unique to the city and to the main character’s sense of belonging and community.

Do you ever worry about the invented words being an obstacle for your readers?

I do worry about that, and I try to minimize that experience unless there’s a good reason not to. If a word is an obstacle for the reader, I try to make sure it’s also an obstacle for the character, so they are learning it together and then that obstacle becomes instead a moment of shared knowledge. The character gets it, the reader gets it at the same time, and they both feel smart.

When else might a writer want to invent new words and languages for their writing, besides in science fiction and fantasy?

I was just reading the glossary from A Clockwork Orange and was thinking how groups of people who are put together in a small space, whether prison or a mental institution or college or office, they all start coming up with slang and phrases that are part of their culture and identities. Shibboleths or phrases or made-up words. Teens are a great example; they have their own language, and it’s ever-changing. Knowing how language grows and changes inside a social ecosystem and using that can provide a strong sense of culture and authority.

Were you drawn to science fiction and fantasy as a child? If so, what did you like about it?

I’ve always been drawn to things that were creative and original, that showed me something I’d never seen before. As a child, that was pretty much every book, because there was so much of the world I’d never experienced. When I got older, I really gravitated toward sci-fi and fantasy because of the way they were able to break apart our cultural expectations about gender, roles, education, class, and so on, and put them back together in new and interesting ways. I was asking a lot of questions (and still am) about why things are “supposed” to be a certain way, and sci-fi and fantasy showed me that there were other options, other worlds, where things could be different.

What advice would you give for a writer starting to make up their own words and languages in their writing?

Don’t make up words that are unpronounceable, unless you have a valid reason for it. Names like “xxbrtlg” and “Zglhrr” might seem foreign, but no one is going to remember them or be able to pronounce them. They can quickly become a deterrent for readers.

Understand the culture within which the words and languages are derived. Language isn’t a solitary thing that someone builds off-stage and plops down for a bunch of people to use. It arises out of needs and culture and technology and tools. A culture that’s always at war will have lots of ways to talk about war and weapons, death and dying, fighting and retreating. It will have slang that has to do with war experiences and will be built of sounds that can be heard over dropping bombs or through gas masks.

What writing projects are you work on now?

I just finished writing a time-travel, pre-apocalyptic dinosaur game called Predation that was super fun. I got to interview scientists, go to museums, and spend tons of time learning about dinosaurs, the Cretaceous period, time travel, and far-future technologies.

Now I’m working with Monte Cook on a new novel called The Night Clave. It’s set in the world of Numenera as well, but gives us a look at a completely different part of the world as it follows a small group of people who are trying to make their corner of the world a better place.

Writing prompt: June evening

Describe a perfect evening in June. Use as many of your senses as you can (hearing, seeing, tasting, touching and smelling).

Yarn Spinners read on June 15 and July 20

Is it June 15 yet? If not, there is still time for you to attend the very first performance of Nancy’s Amazing Assemblage of Yarn Spinners, Tall Tale Tellers, and Big Fat Liars. The evening will include readings by Nancy Woods and her assemblage: Kerry McPherson, Howard Schneider, Jamie Caulley, and Mark Alejos.

The reading will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 15, in the Copeland Commons room of TaborSpace, at 5441 SE Belmont in Portland. Doors open at 6:30. Free. Donations accepted.

Those yarn spinners will appear again in July, on Thursday the 20th. Future readings are being planned.

geraldine brooks

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff on June 24

Love historical fiction? If so, plan on shelling out $15 to hear Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff in conversation on Saturday afternoon, June 24, at the Portland Hilton. The two will be interviewed as part of a readers festival at the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference, taking place this year in Portland.

You might know Brooks from her best-selling novels Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, or March, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Ebershoff wrote The Danish Girl, which became an Oscar-winning motion picture.

You could wait to pay $20 at the door, but the conference itself already is sold out, so registering in advance for the readers festival might be a good idea. Now that you can’t get into the conference, you’ll just have to figure out on your own how to write accurately about historical firearms or religious figures, draw on myths and legends in your novel, and describe an authentic Victorian funeral.

Markets for memoirists

Authors Publish just posted a list of seven publishers that accept book-length memoirs directly from authors, with no agent required.

For writers of shorter memoirs, the Spadina Literary Review could be a good market. This six-year-old Canadian literary magazine accepts all types of literary writing, including fiction, poetry, and comics, but recently has started publishing memoir more frequently.

Memoir submissions to Spadina should be 1,200 to 2,400 words long and about a 100 percent true episode from the writer’s life. Publisher and editor Ian Allaby says he prefers clear, concise writing with a “strong, coherent storyline” and minimal digression.

Founded in 2011, Spadina Literary Review has an international readership. The magazine differs from most other online journals in that its layout is similar to that of a print publication.

Writing Tip

Nerdy Words: The ear knows, ding-dong!

By Ann Sihler

So much about writing has to do with sound, in ways we aren’t even conscious of. Sometimes our ear is far better at telling us what is right or wrong than any book, teacher, or website ever could be.

We all know, for example, that horses' hooves go “clip clop” rather than “clop clip,” and that clocks go “tick tock” instead of “tock tick.”

But why? There is nothing about the meanings of the individual words that would keep them from being reversed, yet to do so sounds absurd. It trips the tongue and nearly pierces the ear.

In English, for whatever reason, if a word is repeated with a different vowel sound, we prefer that those vowels appear in a particular order: I first, and then either A or O.

Examples abound. Consider “zig zag,” “mishmash,” and “ding dong.” Or “chit chat,” “criss cross,” and “Tic Tac.” Or “flip flop,” “tip top,” “dilly dally,” “shilly shally,” “singsong,” “ping pong,” “King Kong,” and “kitty cat.”
Believe me, this list could go on and on. In fact, it’s kind of fun. So many thanks to Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence, who drew attention to this unwritten English language rule in a BBC article last year.

Forsyth helped us all understand why we listen to hip hop, instead of hop hip. Otherwise our language might sound like just so much jibber jabber. And we certainly don’t want that.

Student Showcase

Student showcase: “Down the Ridge Road” (excerpt) by Andrew Hundt

Andrew Hundt joined Kickstart in April with the goal of completing some non-fiction stories for and about his family, which has a tradition of writing down family memories and collecting photographs, family trees, and newspaper clippings about the family.

Through Kickstart he has improved his punctuation. More important, he has learned that he enjoys creating the structure of a story as he goes along, revealing the feelings, plot points, and descriptions simultaneously (instead of working on each sequentially).

Once he has finished a few family stories, he plans on designing a board game.

To get to The Farm from Milwaukee, we drove most of the way by the flat freeway, I-90. But at Bangor we turned off and started the last stretch of the drive on winding rural roads.

Here is where I begin to feel the excitement every time. My pulse speeds up, my skin gets sensitive, my stomach gets gurgly, and my heart begins to sing. It’s the same feeling as Christmas morning every time I get started down narrow State Highway 162.

Winding south from Bangor, the road follows a creek. While I was driving on the raised freeway, the farms were distant scenery I passed by. Now that we’re down on the road, I’m passing through the farmland.

Several of the farms span the road, with buildings and equipment on either side. Close up, I see the rust on the machinery. I see the mud on the animals. Rather than the abstraction of distant buildings and silos, I am seeing momentary glimpses of farm life whizzing by my window at 60 miles per hour. At the edge of the road I pass a barn with an open door and see the stanchions and the dirty walls covered in hay dust.

While passing each farm that is not The Farm, I am thinking about the place I am going. The buildings that are mine. The grandparents that are mine. The rich happy memories that are mine. The place where I belong. On The Farm I get to be myself without any doubts or worries or reminders of the petty injustices and shames of city life.

And now, for only the fifth time in my life, I was bringing a friend into my sanctum. I was feeling good about that, too.

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A Nancy Woods production

Thanks for reading Kickstart, which is a publication of Nancy Woods—author and writing coach. If you have any comments about the newsletter, feel free to email them to Nancy or her newsletter sidekick (aka editor), Ann Sihler.

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