On eclipses and omens

(I’m writing this post early, as I so often do. For reference, today, from the author’s perspective, is July 17, 2017. In other words, it’s 5 weeks before the posting date. In that amount of time, a lot can happen, but I can guarantee one thing: it will be cloudy on August 21. Especially in the hours just after noon.)

Today is a grand day, a great time to be alive, for it is the day of the Great American Eclipse. I’m lucky—except for the part where the weather won’t cooperate—because I live in the path of totality. Some Americans will have to travel hundreds of miles to see this brief darkening of the sun; I only have to step outside. (And remember the welding glasses or whatever, but that’s a different story.)

Eclipses of any kind are a spectacle. I’ve seen a handful of lunar ones in my 33 years, but never a solar eclipse. Those of the moon, though, really are amazing, especially the redder ones. But treating them as a natural occurrence, as a simple astronomical event that boils down to a geometry problem, that’s a very modern view. In ages past, an eclipse could be taken as any number of things, many of them bad. For a writer, that can create some very fertile ground.

Alignment

Strictly speaking, an eclipse is nothing more unusual than any other alignment of celestial bodies. It’s just a lot more noticeable, that’s all. The new moon is always invisible, because its dark side is facing us, but our satellite’s orbital inclination means that it often goes into its new phase above or below the sun, relative to the sky. Only rarely does it cross directly in front of the solar disk from our perspective. Conversely, it’s rare—but not quite as rare—for the moon to fall squarely in the shadow created by the Earth when it’s full.

The vagaries of orbital mechanics mean that not every eclipse is the same. Some are total, like the one today, where the shadowing body completely covers the sun. For a solar eclipse, that means the moon is right between us and the sun—as viewed by certain parts of the world—and we’ll have two or three minutes of darkness along a long, narrow path. On the flip side, lunar eclipses are viewable by many more people, as we are the ones doing the shadowing.

Another possibility is the partial eclipse, where the alignment doesn’t quite work out perfectly; people outside of the path of totality today will only get a partial solar eclipse, and that track is so narrow that my aunt, who lives less than 15 miles to the south, is on its uncertain edge. Or you might get an annular solar eclipse, where the moon is at its apogee (farthest point in its orbit), so it isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole sun, instead leaving a blinding ring. And then there’s the penumbral lunar eclipse, essentially a mirrored version of the annular; in this case, the moon doesn’t go through the Earth’s full shadow, and most people barely even notice anything’s wrong.

However it happens, the eclipse is an astronomical eventuality. Our moon is big enough and close enough to cover the whole sun, so it’s only natural that we have solar eclipses. (On Mars, it wouldn’t work, because Phobos and Deimos are too tiny. Instead, you’d have transits, similar to the transit of Venus a few years ago.) Similarly, the moon is close enough to fall completely within its primary’s shadow on some occasions, so lunar eclipses were always going to happen.

These events are regular, precise. We can predict them years, even centuries in advance. Gravity and orbital mechanics give alignments a clockwork rhythm that can only change if acted upon by an outside body.

Days of old

In earlier days, some people saw a much different outside body at work in the heavens. Even once a culture reaches a level of mathematical and astronomical advancement where eclipses become predictable, that doesn’t mean the average person isn’t going to continue seeing them as portents. How many people believe in astrology today?

And let’s face it: an eclipse, if you don’t really know what’s going on, might be scary. Here’s the sun disappearing before our very eyes. Or the moon. Or, if it’s a particularly colorful lunar eclipse, then the moon isn’t vanishing, but turning red. You know, the color of blood. Somebody who doesn’t understand orbits and geometry would be well inclined to think something strange is going on.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction can use this to great effect, because a rare event like an eclipse is a perfect catalyst for change and conflict. People might see it as an omen, a sign of impending doom. Then, seeing it, they might be moved to bring about the doom themselves. Seven minutes of darkness—the most we on Earth can get—might not be too bad, but a fantasy world with a larger moon may have solar eclipses that last for an hour or more, like our lunar eclipses today. That could be enough time to unnerve even the hardiest souls.

Science fiction can get into the act here, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. If a culture only sees an eclipse once every thousand years or so, then even the memory of the event might be forgotten by the next time it comes around. And then what happens? In the same vein, the eclipse of Pitch Black releases the horrors of that story; working that out provides a good mystery to be solved, while the partial phase offers a practical method of building tension.

Beyond the psychological effects and theological implications of an eclipse, they work well in any case where astronomy and the predictive power of science play a role. Recall, if you will, the famous story of Columbus using a known upcoming eclipse as a way to scare an indigenous culture that lacked the knowledge of its arrival. Someone who has that knowledge can very easily lord it over those who do not, which sets up potential conflicts—or provides a way out of them. “Release me, or I will take away the sun” works as a threat, if the people you’re threatening can’t be sure the sun won’t come back.

In fantasy, eclipses can even fit into the backstory. The titular character of my novel Nocturne was born during a solar eclipse (I wrote the book because of the one today, in fact), and that special quality, combined with the peculiar magic system of the setting, provides most of the forward movement of the story. On a more epic level, if fantasy gods wander the land, one of them might have the power to make his own eclipses. A good way of keeping the peasants and worshippers in line, wouldn’t you say?

However you do it, treating an eclipse as something amiss in the heavens works a lot better for a story than assuming it’s a normal celestial occurrence. Yes, they happen. Yes, they’re regular. But if they’re unexpected, then they can be so much more useful. But that’s true of science in general, at least when you start melding it with fantasy. The whole purpose of science is to explain the world in a rational manner, but fantasy is almost the antithesis of rationality. So, by keeping eclipses mysterious, momentous, portentous occasions, we let them stay in the realm of fantasy. For today, I think that’s a good thing.

Release: The North Wind Blows

The Linear Cycle keeps moving along, and it’s fast coming to a conclusion. Part 5, “The North Wind Blows”, is now available, and it’s the penultimate act in this grand tale. All that’s left is the finale, but you’ll have to wait a few more weeks for that.

“The North Wind Blows” is another one like “Forged in the Fires”, in that it’s not really heavy on the action, but it’s got a lot of drama. In this case, we get a chance to see an outsider’s perspective. In more than one way, actually, as our protagonist, Leliya, is outside the action twice over.

She’s the lost Valtian princess briefly mentioned way back in “The Last Captain”, and she hates it. First, she doesn’t like her new home, her royal marriage, or her in-laws. All of it is just too cold, and the coming winter is only going to make that worse. Add in the fact that she’s watching refugees stream in from her homeland, all bringing dire tales of woe, and she’s left wondering how it all went so wrong. Like anyone her age, she wants to do something to help.

I won’t say I’m a master of court intrigue and politics. I’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire, and I know enough about myself to realize I shouldn’t even bother trying to emulate it. Besides, these are short stories. There’s not enough room for convoluted schemes. (I’m also not afraid to admit that I punted on that by saying that Leliya isn’t experienced in the art, either.) Still, it was an interesting change of pace.

As always, the link above takes you to the site page for “The North Wind Blows”. You can also pick it up over on my Patreon, or on the Kindle Store. Either way, get ready for the ending, because it’s coming soon.

The JavaScript package problem

One of the first lessons every budding programmer learns is a very simple, very logical one: don’t reinvent the wheel. Chances are, most of the internal work of whatever it is you’re coding has already been done before, most likely by someone better at it than you. So, instead of writing a complex math function like, say, an FFT, you should probably hunt down a library that’s already made, and use that. Indeed, that was one of the first advances in computer science, the notion of reusable code.

Of course, there are good reasons to reinvent the wheel. One, it’s a learning experience. You’ll never truly understand the steps of an algorithm until you implement them yourself. That doesn’t mean you should go and use your own string library instead of the standard one, but creating one for fun and education can be very rewarding.

Another reason is that you really might be able to improve on the “standard”. A custom version of a standard function or algorithm might be a better fit for the data you’ll be working with. Or, to take this in another direction, the existing libraries might all have some fatal flaw. Maybe they use the wrong license, or they’re too hard to integrate, or you’d have to write a wrapper that’s no less complicated than the library itself.

Last of all, there might not be a wheel already invented, at least not in the language you’re using. And that brings us to JavaScript.

Bare bones

JavaScript has three main incarnations these days. First, we have the “classic” JS in the browser, where it’s now used for pretty much everything. Next is the server-side style exemplified by Node, which is basically the same thing, but without the DOM. (Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable.) Finally, there’s embedded JavaScript, which uses something like Google’s V8 to make JS work as a general scripting language.

Each of these has its own quirks, but they all share one thing in common. JavaScript doesn’t have much of a standard library. It really doesn’t. I mean, we’re talking about a language that, in its standardized form, has no general I/O. (console.log isn’t required to exist, while alert and document.write only work in the browser.) It’s not like Python, where you get builtin functions for everything from creating ZIP files to parsing XML to sending email. No, JS is bare-bones.

Well, that’s not necessarily a problem. Every Perl coder knows about CPAN, a vast collection of modules that contains everything you want, most things you don’t, and a lot that make you question the sanity of their creators. (Question no longer. They’re Perl programmers. They’ve long since lost their sanity.) Other languages have created similar constructs, such as Python’s PyPi (or whatever they’re using these days), Ruby’s gems, the TeX CTAN collection, and so on. Whatever you use, chances are you’ve got a pretty good set of not-quite-standard libraries, modules, and the like just waiting to be used.

So what about JavaScript? What does it have? That would be npm, which quite transparently started out as the Node Package Manager. Thanks to the increase in JS tooling in recent years, it’s grown to become a kind of general JavaScript repository manager, and the site backing it contains far more than just Node packages today. It’s a lot more…democratic than some other languages, and JavaScript’s status as the hipster language du jour has given it a quality that sometimes seems a bit questionable, but there’s no denying that it covers almost everything a JS programmer could need. And therein lies the problem.

The little things

The UNIX philosophy is often stated as, “Do one thing, and do it well.” JavaScript programmers have taken that to heart, and they’ve taken it to the extreme, and that has caused a serious problem. See, because JS has such a small standard library, there are a lot of little utility functions, functions that pop up in almost any sizable codebase, that aren’t going to be there.

For most languages, this would be no trouble. With C++, for instance, you’d link in Boost, and the compiler would only add in the parts you actually use. Java or C#? If you don’t import it, it won’t go in. And so on down the line, with one glaring exception.

Because JavaScript was originally made for the browser—because it was never really intended for application development—it has no capability for importing or even basic encapsulation. Node and recent versions of ECMAScript are working on this, but support is far from universal at this point. Worse, since JavaScript comes as plain text, rather than some intermediate or native binary format, even unused code wastes space and bandwidth. There’s no compilation step between server and client, and there’s no way to take only the parts of a library that you need, so evolutionary pressure has caused the JavaScript ecosystem to create a somewhat surprising solution.

That is the NPM solution: lots of tiny packages with myriad interdependencies, and a package manager that integrates with the build system to put everything together in an optimized bundle. JavaScript, of course, has no end of build systems, which come in and out of style like seasonal fashions. I haven’t really looked into this space in about eight months, and my knowledge is already obsolete! (Who uses Bower anymore? It’s all Webpack…I think. Unless something else has replaced by the time this post goes up.)

This is a prime example of the UNIX philosophy in action, and it can work. Linux package managers do it all the time: for reference, my desktop runs Debian, and it has about 2000 packages installed, most of which are simple C or C++ libraries, or else “data” packages used by actual applications. But I’m not so sure it works for JavaScript.

Picking up the pieces

From that one design decision—JavaScript sent as plain text—comes the necessity of small packages, but some developers have taken that a bit too far. In what other language would you need to import a new module to test if a number is positive? Or to pad the left side of a string? The JS standard library provides neither function, so coders have created npm packages for both, and those are only two of the most egregious examples. (Some might even be jokes, like the one package that does nothing but return the number 5, but it’s often hard to tell what’s serious and what isn’t. Think Poe’s Law for programmers.)

These wouldn’t be so bad, but they’re one more thing to remember to import, one more step to add into the build system. And the JavaScript philosophy, along with the bandwidth requirements its design enforces, combine to make “utility” libraries a nonstarter. Almost nobody uses bigger libraries like Underscore or Lodash these days; why bother adding in all that extra code you don’t need? People have to download that! The same even goes for old standbys like jQuery.

The push, then, is for ever more tiny libraries, each with only one use, one function, one export. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that larger packages—you know, applications—can depend on all these little pieces. Or they can depend on each other. Or both, with the end result a spaghetti tangle of interdependent parts. And what happens if one of those parts disappears?

You might think that’s crazy, but it did happen. That “left pad” function I mentioned earlier? That one actually did vanish, thanks to a rogue developer, and it broke everything. So many applications and app libraries depended on little old leftpad, often indirectly and without even noticing, that its disappearance left them unable to update, unable to even install. For a few brief moments, half the JavaScript world was paralyzed because a package providing a one-line function, something that, in a language with simple string concatenation, comes essentially for free, was removed from the main code-sharing repository.

Solutions?

Is there a middle ground? Can we balance the need for small, space-optimized codebases with the robustness necessary for building serious applications? Or is NPM destined to be nothing more than a pale imitation of CPAN crossed with an enthusiast’s idea of the perfect Linux distro? I wish I knew, because then I’d be rich. But I’ll give a few thoughts on the matter.

First off, the space requirement isn’t going away anytime soon. As long as we have mobile and home data caps, bandwidth will remain important, and wasting it on superfluous code is literally too expensive. In backwards Third World countries without net neutrality, like perhaps the US by the time this post goes up, it’ll be even worse. Bite-size packages work better for the Internet we have.

On the other hand, a lot of the more ridiculous JS packages wouldn’t be necessary if the language had a halfway decent standard library. I know the standards crew is giving it their best shot on this one, but compatibility is going to remain an issue for the foreseeable future. Yes, we can use polyfills, but then we’re back to our first problem, because that’s just more code that has to be sent down the wire, code that might not be needed in the first place.

The way the DOM is set up doesn’t really help us here, but there might be a solution hiding in there. Speculative loading, where a small shim comes first, checking for the existence of the needed functions. If they’re found, then the rest of the app can come along. Otherwise, send out a request for the right polyfills first. That would take some pretty heavy event hacking, but it might be possible to make it work. (The question is, can we make it work better than what we’ve got?)

As for the general problem of ever-multiplying dependencies, there might not be a good fix. But there also might not be a need to keep the old maxim in mind. Do we really need to import a whole new package to put padding at the beginning of a string? Yes, JS has a wacky type system, but " " + string is what the package would do anyway. (Probably with a lot of extra type checking, but you’re going to do that, too.) If you only need it once, why bother going to all the trouble of importing, adding in dependencies, and all that?

Ultimately, what has happened is that, as JavaScript lacks even the most basic systems for code reuse, its developers have reinvented them, but poorly. As it has a stunted standard library, the third party has had to fill those gaps. Again, they have done so poorly, at least in comparison to more mature languages. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work, because everything we use on the Internet today is proof that it does. But it could be better. There has to be a better way, so let’s find it.

Otherworld talk 3

If all goes well (as far in advance as I’m writing this, it may not), the third episode of the Chronicles of the Otherworld should have hit my Patreon page not too long ago, and that means it’s time for another little chat. This time around, I want to talk about my choices of characters.

The expedition

I decided on the full complement of the expedition very early on in my writing, and there was very little that changed in the long period between Episodes I and II. Sure, my scrapping of the original subsequent stories did shift some things around, but almost all of the “core” details of the twenty characters from Earth remained the same.

The idea of the “student dig” was pretty much the seed of the Otherworld saga. I needed a reason for all these college-age kids to be together, to be educated, and to be ready to survive. Thus the team was born, and the eleven who made the interplanetary journey were always going. I’ll admit a bit of convenience in the way that the older adults are absent (the storm in Out of the Past), but I think that’s well within the bounds of artistic license.

These eleven were the team from the start, and the seven POV characters were also chosen essentially before the first word of the series was written. Following my idea of this being a TV-style episodic drama, there are the requisite nods to diversity, though I do despise the often forced style that Hollywood seems to prefer. In this case, I don’t have a problem with it, because the framework of the story practically requires it. This is a university-sponsored archaeological expedition, so of course there will be a mix of men and women. They’re digging in Mexico, so it’s only natural that the party would include a Latino. Yes, the cast is diverse, but every member of the team has a reason to be there. They’re not just shoved in to fill a quota.

The main seven, in particular, have their positions for two reasons. One, I felt they had the best stories to tell, while the four “secondary” members of the party were mostly going to be in the background, largely overshadowed by others in the team. (Admittedly, this decision came about before some of those four went in wildly different directions than initially intended.) Second, though, each one, I feel, reflects a part of my own personality. They’re my own personal rainbow, in a sense.

The optimist

Amy is the first character introduced in the story, and she also has the distinction of being the last of the “main” cast to be the focus of a scene. (Yeah, that’s a spoiler for Long Road’s End. Sorry.) She’s an eternal optimist, something I sometimes wish I could be. I wouldn’t call her aloof or anything like that, though. She’s just one of those naturally happy people. She might be hesitant to try new things, but she’ll give it her all once she accepts them. Sometimes even more than that, as you’ll see in later episodes.

This optimism works as a narrative device, too. It takes a lot to get her upset, so when she finally is, that makes it even more powerful. (Hint: wait until Episodes V and VI.) Writing her chapters always cheers me up, because she has an…innocence about her that borders on childlike, especially when it comes to the wonders of the Otherworld. In a sense, Amy is how I wish I could see myself.

The linguist

Chronicles of the Otherworld, and indeed the whole Otherworld setting, was started as a linguistic playground, so it’s no wonder that I’d have a linguist as one of the main characters. At first, Jeff doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he finds a purpose once it’s clear that somebody has to step up and be the communicator. You might think he’s there for no other reason, but he works as a kind of outsider—he’s not an archaeologist by trade, so he doesn’t really know all the rules. And (spoiler alert) he gets into some pretty hairy situations later in the series.

Jeff illustrates my own fascination with languages, obviously, but his role is more than that. He’s someone who can bear the brunt of the “info dumps” regarding the tongues of the Otherworld. Even better, as he’s the most knowledgable about them, his chapters tend to have fewer untranslated words and phrases. Unless, of course, he’s the one doing the translating.

The wanderer

Jenn has the third chapter in Out of the Past, and the first where the whole “alien artifact” thing is on display. Later on, in the Otherworld, she becomes the de facto leader of the wayward expedition. Now, I’m not a leader. Far from it. And I’m also not religious in the slightest, unlike this particular character. So she may not seem like that much of a reflection of me, but she is. As much as I hate to say it, she echoes my frustration with the world when it fails to live up to my expectations.

More than that, though, Jenn represents my burning desire to make things better. She doesn’t always succeed—I almost never do—but that won’t stop her from trying. When she has the narrative voice, it’s full of her thoughts about doing just that. (Wait till you see Episode VI!) Yes, she gets angry when she fails, but who doesn’t? Finally, Jenn is a challenge, because she’s one case where I’m way out of my comfort zone. By the end of the first season, she’s positively zealous. If I ever get that way, somebody needs to have me locked up.

The manager

Ryan’s fourth on the list, and he is somewhat of a conundrum. Again, he’s another leader type who is pretty much my exact opposite, and he’s also athletic, so even less like me. Still, he’s a character that fits me, because he looks at the world in much the same way I do. He’s a counterpoint to Jenn’s sometimes overbearing leadership style, and he has a certain charisma that leaves me envious.

Most of Ryan’s chapters tend to focus on the big picture, and that’s another way he reflects me. That’s my strategic and managerial thinking coming through, honed through all those years of playing building and strategy games. And he’s a bit of a diplomat, always looking to defuse an argument before it blows up in his face. That’s something I strive for, too.

The joker

Fifth in order of appearance is Lee. Storywise, he exists for one reason: the inhabitants of the Otherworld are descended from the indigenous population of the Americas, and so is he. He’s closer to them than any other member of the team, and I saw that as a great breeding ground for storylines. Then, as I began to flesh out his character, he became the comedian of the team, the kind of comedian whose best jokes are about himself.

Lee is sarcastic, even acerbic, and he has an edge to him that comes from the pivotal moments in his life. He knows he’s intelligent, but he’s not afraid to call himself stupid when things go awry. Out of all the men on the team, he’s probably the most emotional. In other words, he’s just like me, and that’s probably why his chapters tend to have the longest and most frequent thought sequences.

The thinker

Alex, by contrast, is me for a different reason: he’s how I see myself. Out of shape, introverted, he knows his place in society, and he’s grown to make it his own. He takes pleasure in others’ misfortune because he figures that’s the only kind he’s going to get. His internal monologues and narration are a lot like Lee’s, in fact, but with a lot more despair and self-loathing. In a way, he became my release valve for negative emotions, in the same way Amy is my indulgence in the positive.

Besides all the negativity, Alex is the closest thing the expedition has to a scientist, and that makes him more valuable there than he would be here. Lots of interesting character conflict there, although his is usually internal. Naturally, his chapters also tend to focus on the two worlds, the mechanism that sent them to the Otherworld, and how they can go home—later on, he even has to wrestle with the question of whether he wants to go back. And finally, I’ll admit that Alex later becomes a bit of wish-fulfillment on my part, especially once Season 2 gets started. You’ll see what I mean.

The enigma

Ashley is the last of the seven to receive her first chapter, though the second to get another. To start, she’s the “tough girl”, the classic girls-rule feminist who’s always looking for a reason to be offended. As she realizes that the Otherworld isn’t oppressive to women in particular—it oppresses everyone equally, for the most part—she does soften up, though she does have a number of moral constraints that she isn’t afraid to enforce on others. (And she has what she believes is a very dark secret, which comes out later in the season.)

How does she fit in? For the story, she’s the eyes and ears for the cultures of the Otherworld. That’s her specialty, so her chapters are full of such minutiae. She makes her own clothes (and hates every second of it), and she makes friends at the same time. How she connects to me, on the other hand, is a lot harder to say. I’m not friendly, and I’m pretty much the exact opposite of a feminist. But I’m interested in the way things fit together, the way people work, and that’s Ashley’s thing.

The rest

The other four main characters in the expedition don’t get to be the center of attention until the final chapter of Episode VIII. (Three of them get their own stories in A Bridge Between Worlds.) They’re secondary, and it shows. Mostly, they began as filler, so it took me a long time to “find” them.

Ayla began as a foil for Alex, but then I got the idea of her becoming a kind of mad scientist, which plays out later in the season and in her story. Ramón originally had no purpose other than to sprain his ankle in Episode III (in the rewrite, that’s Lee’s job), and Season 1 doesn’t give him a lot to do that doesn’t appear through the lens of Ryan. Sara does very little at all, but she’s a nice counter to Amy’s boundless enthusiasm. And Damonte might seem like the token black guy, but he’s anything but: for one, he knows that’s what he is. (Episode IV, coming next month, gives him a lot of screen time, but…don’t expect too much after that, at least until Bridge.)

The four professors were never intended to be much more than quest-givers, although William’s role has greatly expanded in Season 2. The same is mostly true for the others of the expedition, those five that didn’t go to the Otherworld. You won’t be seeing them again until Episode VIII, and most of them barely serve any purpose until Bridge or Season 2. Antonio, for instance, is basically just an extra, while Tyler becomes a bit of a running joke.

To be continued

Some of the characters might not be that important to the story, but all of them are important to me. As Chronicles slowly morphed into a character drama, the eleven unlucky students, their nine Earthbound companions, and the multitudes they meet in the Otherworld all had to become something more. The top seven, being the faces of the story, all exemplify different parts of me, yet they’re also their own people. The rest are left more to their own devices, but I hope I’ve done a good job of letting them all speak for themselves in their limited opportunity.

Technically, Episode IV (Written in Black and White) comes out this month, on the 29th. However, due to scheduling concerns, I’ll most likely post the fourth Otherworld Talk entry the week after, on or around Labor Day. By then, I might be deep into writing Season 2, or I may have given up. Who knows?

Discourse particles in conlangs

Speech is a funny thing. It really is, if you think about it. Compared to written language, it’s a lot less fixed in form. When we talk, we don’t speak perfect English (or whatever your language is). The words we say sometimes bear little resemblance to those we write.

One of the ways the two forms of language differ is that spoken language tends to include a lot of “filler” words. Writing doesn’t need them (unless you’re recording dialogue, obviously), but they come into our speech naturally, because we can’t talk as fast as we can think. It’s common to stop speaking while we come up with the next words we want to say, but silence is uncomfortable and ambiguous, so dropping a meaningless syllable or two here and there helps keep the conversation moving.

Filling the gaps

Pretty much any language meant to be spoken is going to have filler syllables or words. They won’t always be the same, but they’ll be there. For English, we’ve got a sizable collection, ranging from neutral syllables (“er”, “uh”, “um”) to entire phrases lacking in actual content (“you know”, “you see”, “I mean”).

Grammatically, these words and phrases add nothing to a sentence. They don’t really have a part of speech, even if their constituent parts normally would. Nor do they have semantic content, though some can indicate by their presence a very subtle difference in mood. Beyond that, they serve no purpose but to fill a gap. In short, they’re just…there.

Curiously, filler syllables, like English “er” and “uh”, do tend to have a few things in common across linguistic boundaries. It’s by no means universal, but there are patterns to be found.

For one, these syllables tend to have “neutral” vowels: unstressed, short, lax, central. Middle of the road, if you will. Even those closer to the corners of the vowel space, like “ah” (/a/), won’t be emphasized. In five-vowel systems, /e/ seems to be the most common filler phoneme. Seven-vowel systems often use /ɛ/ or /ɔ/. If there’s a schwa phoneme (or even allophone), you’ll likely find it here.

The consonants used in filler syllables also show a slight pattern. Whatever they are, they don’t tend to have a lot of “force”. Like vowels, they’ll tend to be the lighter, weaker type of phone. Something like /h/ is common in languages that have it. (Probably the weakest filler of all is /hʌ/, “huh”. Amazingly enough, recent research suggests that it might be universal among human languages.) Other “weak” consonants, like /ɹ/, /l/, /j/, etc., can also show up, but you’re probably not going to find too many voiced stops.

For both vowels and consonants, it’s also possible that a filler syllable uses an allophone that isn’t normally found in the language. Languages with smaller vowel systems that lack reduction might still have fillers with a schwa. A consonant inventory lacking /h/ might still have “huh”. The sounds would be analyzed by speakers as variants of something else, of course, but filler doesn’t even have to follow the normal phonotactics: English “yeah” and “nah”, which have filler uses, both show a final /æ/, a combination of phone and position that occurs nowhere else in the lexicon.

Discourse

Moving on from syllabic filler, we come to the broader category of discourse particles. These include the fillers we saw above, but also a set of language-specific words that have meaning in other contexts, but lose it when used in this manner.

For English, we’ve got a good collection: “like”, “well”, “so”, and many, many more. All of these are actual words, and we use them often in other places, but they become meaningless filler with ease. Overused, they, among others, tend to indicate something amiss with the speaker; “like” and “you know” are stereotypical markers of low intelligence or immaturity, for instance.

Other languages have their own sets of discourse particles. Like filler syllables, these words and phrases do show some patterns. They tend to be made from utterances that already have little semantic content, or that don’t add appreciably to a sentence. “Like”, in translation, is very common, though this may be English influence showing up.

Construction

Discourse particles and other forms of filler are perfectly natural in spoken language. In writing, of course, they should be avoided, with the exception of recording actual speech, but they are not, in themselves, harmful. And if they are natural, then a conlang made to look natural might want to consider having them.

How best to make them? For filler syllables, it’s not too hard. “Huh” is possibly universal, and it can be used as an interrogative with nothing more than the proper intonation. Others are slightly harder, but look for the most neutral sounds your conlang has, and start with those. Central or mid-open vowels, approximants, nasals, nothing that requires much mouth effort. You might even think of a filler syllable as a kind of glide between words—like glide sounds, there’s simply not a lot of friction involved.

Actual words and phrases are a bit tougher. Again, look for those that already don’t do too much. Your conlang’s word for “like” might be a good start, as are simple demonstratives like “this” and “that”, colloquial forms of “yes” and “no”, and generic confirmation phrases such as “right”, “you know”, or “I said”. Here, the type of language you’re making will have some influence: isolating languages might be more likely to have longer filler phrases, especially if they have restrictive phonologies—in this case, all the “good” words are already in use.

However you do it, remember that the point of filler words is to be, well, filler. They don’t mean anything, not really. But that’s not to say they’re truly meaningless. They serve their purpose, and that purpose is to give us time to think about the “real” words we want to use.

Release: A Matter Settled (Chronicles of the Otherworld 3)

Another few weeks, another episode in the Chronicles of the Otherworld saga. This time around, we’re on Episode 3, A Matter Settled. As you might expect, the story is becoming a bit more, well, settled. That’s not to say there isn’t action, or drama, or questionable decision-making on the part of some of our characters, but the life-or-death struggle for survival is no longer the concern it was last time.

Surviving is one thing. Living is quite another.

The eleven members of the expedition have survived their first test in their new world. Now, they must endure. They must explore. That human desire beckons them all, each in his or her own way.

But this strange place, this other world, is not without its pitfalls. Stripped of their modern conveniences, how will these young students cope with the rigors of life itself? How can they integrate with a people so different, so…alien? For one of them, the answer is much more difficult, but all must learn to live in this land they call home.

Remember that Chronicles of the Otherworld is exclusive to my Patreon, so you can only get it over there for the time being. At only $3 for the month, though, it’s not too bad a deal. You’ll get DRM-free copies in EPUB and MOBI formats (readable on just about anything you can find).

And because of the way the calendar works, a single month’s pledge will get you two new episodes this month. That’s right. Episode 4, Written in Black and White, will be released on August 29, so you can reach the halfway point of the story with minimal investment. How can you go wrong?

Thinking about thinking

The title of this post sounds awfully meta, doesn’t it? But it really is about writing and story creation. Particularly, it’s about a facet of character development that is often overlooked: thought.

Very many books (and other written-form stories, even including video games) let you get inside a character’s thoughts. They might be set off in italics, occasionally interspersed with the running narration, but it’s not that hard to find a story that gives you a direct link to someone’s thought processes. In some, it’s practically dialogue, albeit a one-sided dialogue. More of a monologue, if you will.

As with any part of writing, how much you use this particular storytelling device depends heavily upon the story you’re trying to tell. Some are far more amenable to extended thought-speech, while others do best with a more indirect approach that only vaguely refers to what is going on in a character’s mind. A few might even require something more heavy-handed; I can imagine a work (let’s call it avant-garde, or something pretentious like that) that is so based on internal monologues that they become the narration.

I don’t write stories like that, however, and you probably don’t, either. But adding a bit of thought (pun intended) can be a boon.

Why?

As I’ve stated before, my personal preference in narration is for a limited third-person perspective. With this style, we effectively see the story through the eyes of the character who is currently “in focus”, and the reader’s knowledge of others’ thoughts, feelings, etc., is mostly limited to what that character can perceive.

In this particular case, I think internal thought fits perfectly. We’re already in the character’s head, so to speak, so what would it hurt to let us hear their thoughts directly? It breaks up exposition that might otherwise be dry and boring, and it gives us a closer experience. We see through their eyes, and now we hear their thoughts. It’s almost natural.

In other styles, direct thoughts still work, but it takes more care. First-person stories can be tricky. With these, you’re already hearing straight from the character—that’s rather the point of the first person, isn’t it? It’s like the character is telling you the story, and how often do you mention direct thoughts when you’re telling a story? It’s not unheard of, but it is rare.

Beyond whether it’s a fit for your story, you also need to ask yourself if thoughtful monologues are appropriate for your characters. More introspective types will be more prone to thinking things through. The kinds who shoot first, by contrast, probably don’t have a lot of need for italicized paragraphs detailing their thought processes. (And that’s even a genre thing, too. A fast-paced thriller simply won’t have time for extended discourses that take place in a character’s head, while a thousand-page epic fantasy might easily slip too many of them into its length.)

Why not?

Is there a case to be made against using internal thoughts? Beyond the obvious (it doesn’t fit the story), I don’t think so.

Almost all of my works involve internal monologues, sometimes becoming quite extended, but with Nocturne, I made a conscious choice to avoid them. Most of the story is told from a first-person perspective, where, in my opinion, direct thoughts aren’t what is needed. (And, in fact, this perspective is supposed to be the main character telling his tale, so that’s another mark against direct thoughts, as I said above.) The third-person parts, on the other hand, should be a natural fit, but I refrained here, too, mostly because I didn’t feel they would mesh well with the rest of the book.

That’s a bit of a special case, I think. Mostly, the choice boils down to this: is the story better served by the reader having direct access to a character’s thoughts? A lot of narrative “tricks” don’t work well with that notion, including the ever-popular unreliable narrator. A mystery novel told from the detective’s point of view, on the other hand, might need the details so that the reader can follow the logical reasoning used to solve the case. And even a “solo” chapter, where only the focused character is present, could use something to break up what would otherwise be pages of exposition and description.

In the end, though, it’s up to you. Find what works best for what you are creating. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes. That’s usually a great idea, and so it is here.

Let’s make a language, part 26c: Government (Ardari)

As is ever the case, Ardari is more likely to construct terms of its own. This is certainly true in the realm of government, where a number of words are derived from the root verb tysan- “to rule”. Indeed, in the short list below we already see tysanönda “authority, right to rule”; tysanègh “government, center of rule”; and tysanyn “rule, regulation, law”. Note also that these are native terms, not borrowings, though Ardari does have a few of those, including zhudis “court” (probably from “judicial” or something similar) and polisa “police force”.

These two are examples of modernization at work. The area where Ardari is spoken hasn’t entirely transformed into a modern Western democracy. There are plenty of elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and bureaucracy still around. At present, it might be best described as a parliamentary monarchy, closer to the UK than the US. It’s certainly not decentralized, however: the word for a province, dalrit, being a transparent derivation from dal “nation” is proof enough of that.

Most other terms are native, and they often have other connotations besides those shown here. For instance, makhèla, here glossed as “army”, can also connote any gathering of forces. (Phrases can be used to disambiguate: dalin makhèla “national army”; idyaze makhèla “attack force”; illin makhèla “rebellion”.) The same goes for byara “navy”, with creations such as dable byara, literally “land navy” but actually referring to an amphibious assault.

Word List

  • army: makhèla
  • authority: tysanönda
  • border: aroned
  • capital: präzdoza (lit. “great city”)
  • court: zhudis (borrowing, cf. “judicial”)
  • crime: karha
  • free: arin
  • government: tysanègh (lit. “place of rule”)
  • judge: tölera
  • law: gla
  • official: (tysanèghin) fèlokön (shortened nafèlokön “worker”)
  • nation: dal
  • navy: byara
  • peace: sèsym
  • police: polisa
  • province/state: dalrit
  • right (a right): èkhros
  • rule: tysanyn
  • tax: èzas
  • to control: träm-
  • to elect: soslin-
  • to permit: ejoten-
  • to prohibit: èkoten-
  • to punish: laqas-
  • to rule: tysan-
  • to vote: jamull-
  • war: jova

Release: Beneath the Surface

The second half of the Linear Cycle kicks off with “Beneath the Surface”, out now. This story begins the downward slide into the culmination of the series, where darkness has settled over the Valtian lands, and all that is left is to look for the glimmers of light within.

Those are few and far between, however, as this short novella contains one of the darkest scenes I’ve ever written. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s at the very end, and it’s one of those things where I was left thinking, “When did I write that?”

Our tale this time around focuses on Porter, a wizard who has just realized his obsolescence in this new world of magical plagues and animated dead. But he’s still fighting, still defending what little remains, and not only out of self-interest. Because, if he succeeds, there may be a chance to turn the tide.

As usual, the link above is for the page here on the site. You can also get “Beneath the Surface” by subscribing to my Patreon for a dollar a month, or buy it from the Kindle Store for 99 cents. Part 5, “The North Wind Blows”, will be released on August 14, so keep watching.

Let’s make a language, part 26b: Government (Isian)

Isian, when it comes to its government, fits into the usual “small” Western mold. It follows the typical European-style parliamentary system, with a number of parties vying for power. But it still has vestiges of a monarchy, too, a time when the land was ruled by a lakh or king. Today, even that is long gone, but remnants survive in words such as lactor “province”, literally a “king’s land”. The fact that nashil had to be borrowed should say something about Isian speakers’ centralization…or lack thereof.

The rule of law is also respected in its modern form. There are courts, judges, trials, etc., and they are (mostly) fair and just. On the national level, there is a standardized police force (borrowed term polisi), while localities generally have a holtedos—roughly speaking, a city guard or neighborhood watch. Officers of these are generally called holtem, which can also be more literally translated as “guardian”, while national policemen are instead polisimi.

In these tumultuous times, it’s also important to note that Isian speakers are protected by a defensive army (ancha) and navy (busa), though the latter is quite small and admittedly anemic. Historically, it has always been thus; Isian is a language of land forces, not sailors. But peace (histil) has reigned for a long time, and the last war involving speakers of the language is simply known as Cabrigo: The Great War.

Word List

  • army: ancha(s)
  • authority: awtorit (modified borrowing)
  • border: obres
  • capital: lireblon
  • court: caje
  • crime: cofan
  • free: mir
  • government: orisanas (from orisi “to rule”)
  • judge: teldem (from telde “to judge”)
  • law: rokh
  • official: rokhesam (from rokh + sam, lit. “law-man”)
  • nation: nashil (modified borrowing)
  • navy: busa(s)
  • peace: histil
  • police: holtedos (also holtem or borrowed polisi)
  • province/state: lactor (from lakh + tor)
  • right (a right): mas
  • rule (regulation): liyo
  • tax: ferma(s)
  • to control: camida
  • to elect: jiro
  • to permit: likha
  • to prohibit: nasco
  • to punish: agri
  • to vote: banki
  • war: cabri