Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Thought Bubbles

Friends know of my love for video games--though I hardly have time to play these days. My favorites, though, are still those put out by Bioware and which are known in the trade as RPGs (role playing games). A hallmark of the Bioware RPG is that the protagonist--this means *you*--lands in a world or planet and wanders around listening to conversations. Often the conversation appears as text in a screen below so you can read at the same time. Sometimes you can converse with a character. And sometimes you can't. But the chatter always tells you something about the world you are visiting--the politics, the mystery you need to uncover, the mood.

In recent years, as I go from city to city--and especially as I repeat cities--I am a little bit humbled by the fact that the people at Bioware sort of got it right. I am just back from Mac World and--inveterate eavesdropper that I am--the conversations one hears in SF, even if not at Mac World, are most emphatically *not* what one hears in NYC. Samples:

"Me and my friend, we're working on this ap . . . " (this by the way I would hear repeatedly)

"And then I realized one day that it was up to me to really project a sense of purposefulness . . ." (these moments of self-actualization are common, particularly at brunch on a weekend).

"No. Dude, no. It's 60 40. Not 80 20. Apple is *never* 80 20." (I have no idea what they were talking about. But they looked like programmers. I realize it is wrong, wrong, wrong to socially profile people, but they looked like programmers. We don't have many programmers in New York, unless they were hired to fix financial software, in which case the programmers tend to look irritated that they have to look after bankers who make money but are clueless. In California, there is a sort of freed elitism about programmers--like, they are *finally* where they should be, and can wear something other than black.)

Then, I got to New York and heard:

"But it can't be art if it doesn't have an intellectual component."

"Let me put it this way. If they offer 5 million, there is no deal." (Smarmy, he was).

And I was like: Dude! Stop it! Stop being some Bioware character! You don't have to signal to me that I have flown on my airplane, and landed in this other place where people are not building aps or arguing esoteric percentages. I get it. I'm in New York. But it did make me wonder--what do I say randomly? Does it pinpoint me to one place? It's a fun game. Try it some time. Fly some place and write down little dialogue gems and then compare to what you hear at home. It's even more fun if you do this overseas, which of course I do in Japan or in the UK.

But it all made me wonder--how do we as writers explain to readers that they are now in a new place? I don't think we offer up little snippets of conversation like this. I think in general, our first response is to try to describe things. So, randomly, I have stacked some books and pulled some scene-setting, opening quotes.

"People think blood red, but blood don't got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red." (Got that? Is that vivid? Some sounds, but no pithy dialogue).

"In our little fishing village of Yoroido, I lived in what I called a "tipsy house." It stood near a cliff where the wind off the ocean was always blowing. As a child it seemed to me as if the ocean had caught a terrible cold, because it was always wheezing and there would be spells when it let out a huge sneeze--which is to say there was a burst of wind . . . " (you get the point).

(That's northern California, by the way. Not Japan).

"Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. My father said there was a time when he would have been able to stop her, and I wasn't sure if he mean ta time in our lives when she would have listened to him, or a time in history when the Desert Valley Sheriff's Posse would have been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair." (You know where you are, you know the voice is funny but biting, and you know that something has happened before anyone has spoken).

"I've hurt things, the boys showed me this. Pulling legs off spiders and such. Kevin Ryder next door and his friends, they let me come into their fort. But that was years ago, I was a child, it didn't matter if I was a boy or a girl. It would be against the law to go into their fort now I suppose. The law of my mother." (Scary! Why do we writers like scary? I don't think we *like* scary. It's more that scary is interesting).

"It was just the two of us, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie's son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in." (Relationships. A situation. A voice).

Anyway, this all goes to show me, at least, how like life a book is not and how closely its reality is authored by the, er, author. And, how tightly and clearly you had better imagine that world, beyond tidbits of conversation, but for how it feels, for how it sounds, for what it makes you *feel*, more than what it sounds like. How different is that from our encounter of a place, when we set out in reality (or virtual reality). But it's also a lesson as to why you cannot necessarily know how your novel will start--you can only know after the world is fully realized. And that only happens when you are done. Tricky business.

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