Lost in Translation

A few years back, I got on a ‘best films of all time’ kick, telling myself that I’d watch the highest-rated films from the silent era up through whatever year it was. I dove into silent films with a vengeance, curious to see Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their heyday, as well as seminal films such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and The Passion of Joan of Arc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. (Watch them. Watch them all.)

Because these were DVDs, most of them had commentary tracks. So I’d watch them without the commentary first, then again with commentary. Sometimes multiple times, if there was more than one commentary track. (No, I’m not OCD, why do you ask?)

I forget which silent film I was watching — I only know it was one of the Charlie Chaplin films — when the commentator (Leonard Maltin) remarked on a unique aspect of silent films that had never occurred to me before, and which has forever changed the way I consume them when I do so.

The scene was Chaplin, as the lovable but hapless tramp, waddling down the middle of a railroad track, oblivious to the fact that there is a giant steam locomotive approaching him from behind. The train gets closer . . . and closer . . . and closer . . . and then just as it’s about to hit him, he blithely steps off the tracks, avoiding certain death by mere inches.

He never once reacts to the fact that he has narrowly escaped death. Because he never turned around to see the train. Because . . . it’s a silent film. He couldn’t hear it. Wait. What?

As I watched, I was tense. “There’s a train coming! Get out of the way, you idiot!” And as he stepped off the track, there was a corresponding release of tension. The “Whew!” moment when the hero narrowly escapes whatever peril the world / villain has in store for him. I had bought into the world entirely.

Maltin made me aware of something I had never considered while watching: we, as the audience, accept the fact that these are silent films. Only certain things make noise, even though we don’t hear them, the character does. Dogs barking, someone calling their name, dropped plates shattering on the floor — they “hear” all of this, and react to it.

But the train? He couldn’t hear it, or even feel the vibrations through the tracks. Because in the world of the silent movie, if the character doesn’t react to it, the audience knows that it is truly silent.

Never mind that in the real world, he would have heard the train approaching and leapt to safety long before death was nigh. Steam locomotives were among some of the loudest machines in the environment at the time, and yet he gave no indication that he heard it.

If a passer-by had shouted, “Hey! Look out! There’s a train!” the tramp would have “heard” and reacted. But not a train as it barrels down on him. This is remarkable if you stop to think about it. It’s never explained. You just get it.

Now. What if this were a short story, instead? Or a “talkie” film? It simply wouldn’t work at all, because we wouldn’t buy the premise.

A scene that always bothered me in the first Harry Potter film reminds me of this. There’s a pivotal scene in chapter 10 of the book in which Harry and Ron, already best buds, Seamus, Hermione, and a bunch of other first-years are attending Professor Flitwick’s class, and he is teaching the students the spell for levitation of an object.

“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too — never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.”

It was very difficult. Harry and Seamus swished and flicked, but the feather they were supposed to be sending skyward just lay on the desktop. Seamus got so impatient that he prodded it with his wand and set fire to it — Harry had to put it out with his hat.

Ron, at the next table, wasn’t having much more luck.

“Wingardium Leviosa!” he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.

“You’re saying it wrong,” Harry heard Hermione snap. “It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”

“You do it, then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled.

Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!”

It all works well on paper, and we, the readers, accept it without much thought. Because we, as readers, can’t actually see the swish and flick of the wand, nor hear Flitwick say the words.1 But then, neither can Ron, Harry, Seamus, or Hermione. We gloss over that fact while reading. It’s just part of the world.

And then the movie came out. And there is Professor Flitwick standing in front of the class, and he clearly says, “Wingaaardium leviooosa!” and equally clearly demonstrates the wand action. We can hear him and see him do so right there, in Technicolor and Dolby Surround.

And yet . . . only Hermione can apparently use her ears and eyes, because none of the other young witches and wizards gets it even close to right. We hear them mangling the pronunciation — Ron manages something like ‘wingardria leviosaaa — and hideously over-exaggerating the subtle swish-flick of the wand.

But we had just seen and heard the correct pronunciation and wand actions as Flitwick demonstrates them moments before on screen. Which Hermione then duplicates in her condescending tone to Ron.

What worked perfectly in the book simply made no sense on the big screen. Something bothered me about it immediately, but I didn’t really close in on what it was until much later when it dawned on me. It’s the same as Chaplin’s silent locomotive.

It would have made more sense if, say, Flitwick had a thick accent of some sort the students weren’t used to hearing, such as Russian.2 But with Flitwick and the students all being some flavor of British, they’d have grown up at least hearing the various accents spoken around them all their lives (on TV, if nothing else), and would get awfully close.3

Which brings up another point. There are languages that have sounds which English does not, and languages without sounds English does have. Would a Japanese witch be simply unable to cast the levitation spell because the ‘w’ doesn’t exist in her language? Would a wizard with an l/w lisp be likewise unable, because he couldn’t properly pronounce “leviosa”? Would he wind up with a wombat on his chest?

But I digress. :)

I find it interesting, is all, how sometimes the medium in which something is presented plays a huge role in whether the thing makes sense to the audience, and how translating it to another medium loses something fundamental.

  1. More importantly, Flitwick never actually speaks the words ‘wingardium leviosa’ in the book. (I checked.) I guess we’re supposed to either believe that the students read the words in their book — and Flitwick inexplicably never teaches them the proper pronunciation — or he did so off-scene.
  2. Rowling does, in fact, do this later, in the character of Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum, who can’t pronounce Hermione’s name, and whose speech Rowling portrays phonetically, for example, in this question he asks Harry: “I vant to know vot there is between you and Hermy-own-ninny.”
  3. In the same way that, although I was born and raised entirely within the state of Alabama, I heard accents from all over the United States on television all the time, and knew that ‘dawg’ and ‘dwaug’ both meant the same four-legged, barky animal. I had an internal translation table. The same as a British kid would have had for ‘translating’ between a Geordi accent and a Scottish one.


NaNoWriMo 2013, Day 3

NaNoWriMo 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013

I’m charting my daily progress on NaNoWriMo. Since you may or may not care, I’ll kindly hide it. Thanks for taking the time. :)


So, I’ve Been Thinking . . .

Thinking is dangerous. Thinking causes other bad things, like ideas.

“But how is an idea a bad thing?” you’re no doubt asking right now. And to everyone’s utter lack of surprise, I’m going to explain. (That’s how my blog works. I imagine your questions and answer them. It’s my schtick.) But first, there is background. (Also my schtick.)

A writer friend sold me her Kindle DX (the magazine-sized one) because she got an iPad and hasn’t used the DX in months. Her loss is my gain. Before I purchased it from her, I borrowed it for a few weeks to get the feel of it. and I was able to read some of her books.

Several of those books were on writing by Holly Lisle. In them, she talks about methods she uses to “trick” her subconscious (she called it her “muse”) to help her come up with story ideas. A couple of these involve boring, repetitive tasks — thus forcing the muse to come out to play — and asking oblique, open questions. Not, “What does my antagonist want, exactly?” but more like, “What does my antagonist like to do? What are his passions?” The answer to the first question is going to be a metaphorical shrug and an “I don’t know. You tell me. You’re the ‘writer.'”1 But the answer to the second one might be a veritable stream of useful goodness.

Because ideas can pop up at any time, not just when it’s convenient to write them down, I always surround myself with either note-taking material or something else, just in case. In the car, I have a digital voice recorder. I use it to take down thoughts and ideas as I’m driving. Every few days I transcribe the notes into Evernote and label them so I’ll know which stories they relate to, etc.

I’ve also been struggling trying to figure out what my urban fantasy novel has that makes it different than all the other urban fantasy novels out there. What about my universe would entice people to read it instead of one of the others. It’s been weighing heavily on my mind. The fact that magic is “out”? The ensemble cast (at least three POV characters). The magic itself? (For those keeping score, the question put to my ‘muse’ was “What’s special about my world?”)

August 13th was a Tuesday. As I do almost every Tuesday night, I left work and drove (a boring, repetitive task) to the Barnes & Noble at The Forum in Norcross, wherein meets The Forum Writers, a critique group that’s been around as a coherent entity for nearly eleven years. I’ve been going for just a bit over five of those years.

On the way, at 5:32 PM, I recorded this2 on my DVR.

It seems like most urban fantasy involves some other realm. The Gray [Kat Richardson‘s Greywalker series]. The Nevernever [Jim butcher‘s The Dresden Files series]. Alternate, parallel dimensions [Katharine Kerr‘s Nola O’Grady series]. Etc. In my Dummies book, I wrote a little thing about astral projection and kind of picked up on Kerr’s [Deverry Series concept of the] silver thread that connects the body to the consciousness. Well, that could be my ‘other world.’ An alternate Atlanta inside the mental space, but existing externally, created communally by all the minds inhabiting it.

Four minutes later:

What if this alternate Atlanta exists alongside and on top of the real Atlanta, and it’s similar to but not exactly like the real one? And maybe people who have the ability to do magic stand out in some way. Ooh, and every crime the MCU investigates would then have to be investigated both in the real Atlanta and over in that other Atlanta?

Fourteen minutes after that:

Maybe one of the characteristics of the stasis spell [on the crime scenes in the novel] — the thing that makes them really stand out — is that the stasis also extends into the other place as well as the real Atlanta.

Then I made it to the book store and we did our critique thing, and then I had dinner. And then, on the way home at 11:08:

And now we come full circle. What if this alternate place is the source of magic? I was trying to stay more ‘scientific,’ but I’m not sure I can.

A minute later:

So this other place is built from the subconscious or unconscious of all the people who have magic. It therefore only exists as long as there are people who can perform magic. For a while, it was almost gone3, but now it’s back, because of breeding. But if that’s the case, then I can foresee a future book where gifted people are dying — being killed — and it’s weakening the other place. But why do some people get more power and others less? Why is it disproportionate?

And I think maybe — just maybe — my subconscious might have — out of sheer boredom — provided me with something that will give me a little more oomph to play with. Maybe these notes are my first steps into a rediscovery of my world and a re-invigoration of my desire to write in it.

Oh, and I’ve since tentatively decided to call that other place “the Flux.” I hope it hasn’t been used other than the one place (Jack Chalker‘s Soul Rider series) I absolutely know it has, which is kind of where the idea came from.


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 116 prompt: First Steps

  1. I wonder exactly what it says about me that my subconscious and any alter-egos I personify are always assholes? Hmm.
  2. These aren’t direct transcriptions. I left out all the repetitions, cursing, hedging, speech disfluencies (uh, um, er, ah . . .) and edited it to make it look like I wish I talked to myself instead of like a crazy person, which is how it actually sounds.
  3. A small bit of world-building I’m not sure I’ll ever use, but it’s there if I need it. There was a time in the past during which science and religion nearly killed magic, but thanks to a brave few people, it survived.


Like a Bolt Out of the Blue

NaNoWriMo 2011 Winner Badge

(Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible if you now have the song When You Wish Upon a Star stuck in your head. Preferably the Linda Ronstadt version. Well, OK, now I can, having purposefully—dare I say “maliciously”?—brought it to your attention, and gone so far as to prompt you with a voice. You’re welcome. It’s a great song, isn’t it? But I digress.)

Last year around this time, I had already had many, many ideas for NaNoWriMo. I hit upon the idea of writing 26 short stories, which I won’t go into again, here. Suffice it to say, it was a raging success. One of those stories got me into Viable Paradise.

But this year? What with all the preparations for Viable Paradise, I haven’t really had time to stop and think about what to write for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been re-working ideas for my urban fantasy series, but it’s been like beating my head against a wall. I want to do something that will help me with that instead of something entirely new and different.

One of the major problems I’ve had with my urban fantasy is the magic. It’s set in modern-day Atlanta, but magic works. And I am specifically staying away from sexy vampires and werewolves. My main characters are agents in the Paranormal Crimes Investigation Unit of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. They are also mages. Two other characters are normal (non-magical) cops. Another is a TV reporter. And so on.

Magic for DummiesBut how does magic work? I’ve written a ton of words, but I haven’t been able to just nail down that one little point: how does magic work? What are its limits? How can it be used? How prevalent is it? Does the public in general know about it? Etc!

And I need to know these things.

And that’s when I said to myself: "Self, what you need is a magic book for dummies."

KaZOT! (This is the theoretical sound of a bolt out of the blue. Fate steps in and sees you through . . .)

I guess I know what I’m writing for NaNoWriMo, now. A "For Dummies" book-type thing, but all about magic in my universe.

I can literally use it as a reference if I get stuck. Or I can modify if it I need to. :) And having that hard deadline of November 30th by which it must be finished should help me get past this snag I’ve been stuck in for a while.

Of course, I found a way to generate a nifty cover for it. Because, really, why not? On the Internet, if you build it, they will come.


Waaaaiiiiit a Minute…

whoop by jason tinder, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  jason tinder 
(It’s a whooping crane.)
(Get it? Like, “Whoops!”)

I was trapped on a plane today for several hours, and as I am wont to do when that happens, I either read or listen to podcasts. Today was a podcast kind of day.

As it happens, one of the podcasts I listened to was The Creative Penn hosted by Joanna Penn. It’s a new podcast for me, and I’m still trying to decide if I like it enough to keep listening. For now, it’s interesting and a keeper.

The episode I heard was “Writing Religion and Spirituality With Jill Carroll.” Jill Carroll, as it turns out, is a doctor of world religions. She and Joanna had an hour-long talk about how your own faith (or lack thereof) informs your writing, and how writing characters who follow specific faiths (or none) can help make them more rounded characters.

Which brings me to my epiphany.

When I listen to writing podcasts—and I listen to several—I almost always end up thinking about how whatever the host(s) (& guest(s)) are saying can apply to whatever I’m currently writing. In this case, I’ve been restructuring my urban fantasy universe in my head. I haven’t put much of it down on “paper,” yet, but it’s churning around up in my cerebellum, making waves.

I describe it to people as “It’s paranormal FBI agents and Atlanta police solving crimes in modern Atlanta, only magic works.”

One of the main three characters is a devout Catholic. I know almost nothing about the Catholic religion, so I’ve been glossing over that when I write him. Just mostly using it as “background information” that the writer (me) knows, but the reader (hopefully, you, one day) is not necessarily even aware of, except that that bit of information informs how the character reacts to things that happen in the book.

And that’s when it hit me: in my world, magic is . . . well, it’s special in that not just everyone can do it, but the ones who can do it can pretty much do miracles.

In a world where many people can perform genuine, demonstrable, repeatable, scientifically verifiable “miracles,” . . . well, what place does religion based on miracle-working have in that world?

I just love it—no, really, I do—when a passing thought causes me to go “Oh, crap,” and rethink pretty much everything.

Of course, there’s still the concept of divinity and having a direct line to a god or gods (as it were). But if my characters can do things that are only in the purview of gods in our real world, what, then, is a religion in a world of magic?

I’m gonna have to think on that one.

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