A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.


Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE #5: It’s Lovely, Under the Stars

Last week, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook for random writing prompts. From those, I wrote seven micro and flash fiction stories. I’ll be posting them here over the next week. (You can read #1 and #2 and #3 and #4 already.)

The fourth story is courtesy of Melissa Dominic, who gave me a bunch of prompts:  forest stream, tall and short, violet, bunny, moons. Here is my 500-word interpretation…


It’s Lovely, Under the Stars

“Marty, we’re stuck,” the shorter man said. “That pisses me off.”

“Everything pisses you off, Big Jack,” the taller man replied.

Big Jack nodded slowly. “True. But we’re trapped out here because of those things and that’s worse of all.”

“It ain’t too bad. Look around.” Marty moved his arm in a wide, sweeping motion. “We got the forest, and this here stream, and our gear. It’s like a camp out.” He smiled, crinkling up his angular face and revealing a mouthful of perfectly white teeth.

Big Jack frowned, his face relaxing into familiar wrinkles. “You think it’ll ever be safe to go back?”

“With those big mouse-looking things? No, I do not.” Marty looked away then, and picked up a stick. He poked at the fire, stirring up embers, which floated away as tiny orange specks in the night. “You saw what they was doing to people. Breaking open houses and just lifting people out, popping ’em in their face holes, like so many wriggling snacks.” He sighed.

“It ain’t right,” he added, after a moment, and much quieter.

“I think they was bunnies,” Big Jack said. “They looked soft.”

“No, now, they ain’t bunnies,” Marty said. “You can’t think of ’em as anything you like. They were giant space mice, bigger than trees, come from the meteor that crashed last week.”

“You figure?”

“I do, and they can’t be beat, so don’t go trying.”

Big Jack sat down near Marty and the fire. He looked up the sky. “Maybe the meteor came from that new moon?”

“That makes sense. The extra moon just appeared in the sky after that storm and the earthquake we had a few weeks back,” Marty replied. “That is smart thinking, Big Jack.” He smiled again. “I need you to keep thinking smart if we’re going to survive out here until those space mice get tired of being here and go home again.”

Big Jack’s face pulled to one side, the way it always did when he was thinking. “They might get homesick,” he said slowly.

“They might do,” Marty told him, patting Jack gently on the arm. “Now lets get in our bags and get some sleep. We walked a long way today, and yesterday, too. I’m beat.” He kicked some dirt onto the fire to put it out.

They took off their shoes and got into their sleeping bags – a red plaid one for Marty, marked XL but still not enough for his gangly body, placed next to a smaller blue bag that was longer than his friend would ever need. In the deep dark, the forest was quiet, and the stars were bright.

“That extra moon is pretty, though, isn’t it Marty?” Big Jack asked, his arm under his head for a pillow. “It’s like the color of my grandma Helen’s African Violets.”

“It is real pretty,” Marty admitted. “You go to sleep now.”

“Goodnight, Marty,” Big Jack said quietly. “I kind of like mice, too.”

“I know, Big Jack. Goodnight.”

Want to write like this? Take my online flash fiction workshop, beginning September 2! Registration is now open — read more and sign up here.

10 Seemingly Polite (But Actually Racist As F*ck) Things You Need To Stop Saying To People You’ve Just Met

  1. Where are you from? Unless you’re prepared to respond to “I’m from Cleveland” with “You must be happy the Cavs got LeBron back”, do not ask this question of people you’ve just met. Why not? Because in America, the people who get asked that question are almost always people of color, and answering with the name of a US city usually gets “Ok, but where were you born?” as a response. The implication is that if you’re not white, you’re automatically not from here, you must be from somewhere else. The one exception to this is black people, who are usually assumed to be African-American (even if they’re not) because of course we know where they came from, right?
  2. Do you have an American name? If the person you are talking to was born in America or later became a citizen of the United States, their name is their American name. They are American. Even if they’re not, no one is issued an “American name” when they get their passport stamped at the airport on their way into the country. What you’re really saying here is “Do you have a more white-sounding name because I’m not going to bother to learn how to pronounce yours.”
  3. What ethnicity are you? Unless you’re taking a census poll, you do not need to know this when you meet someone. (As a white person, I have never, not once, in my life, been asked what my ethnicity is, even though pale-skinned people are not from the same hegemonious group somewhere in Europe.) If it’s relevant to the conversation, they’ll probably volunteer it. If they don’t, it’s either not relevant, or they may not want you to know.
  4. [greeting them in a foreign language] Unless you know for a fact the person’s ethnicity, place of birth, country they grew up in, and that they speak the language you’re attempting to use on them, AND THEY’VE TOLD YOU THEY ARE FINE WITH YOU SPEAKING TO THEM IN THIS WAY, do not do this. You’re most likely going to be wrong about either the language their ancestors spoke or that person’s ability to speak it, so you’re going to look like an idiot; worse, you’re starting off the conversation with proof you’ve both racially profiled and stereotyped that person, all at once.
  5. Who’s baby is this? when the infant in question is not the exact same skin tone as the adult you’re asking. Really want to be a jackass? Follow up them telling you, “Oh, she’s mine” with “Aww, is she adopted?”
  6. Your jacket/jewelry/outfit is so interesting/pretty/cool, is that from your home country? You know who rarely gets asked something they’re wearing is from their “home country”? White people. But, white people wear “ethnic looking” stuff all of the time. Mexican embroidery on peasant tops, Native American imagery on jewelry, Asiatic dragons on practically everything, and yet, few people ask about it with the idea that it’s somehow representing something specific to that white person. People of color get asked because they’re the other, they’re different, they’re foreign… even when they’re not. (Or do you just not ask white people about the origin of their clothes because you already know it’s appropriation?)
  7. Your hair is so complex/interesting/unusual — it must take a long time to do. Translation: you don’t have white people hair, your life must be hard. I’m so glad I have easy hair.
  8. Your hair is really pretty like that (when the person has a Western/American hairstyle that they don’t always wear). Translation: you made your hair look like white people hair, good job! You’re more acceptable to me now.
  9. What do your parents think of you being/working/living here? If you’re at a strip club, perhaps asking a dancer that question is reasonable — there’s a common misconception that erotic dancers are doing something immoral, and so, maybe their parents wouldn’t like their job. But it’s probably still the wrong thing to ask. When you’re asking it of a person of color, you’re signaling to them that you think it’s weird they’re there. You’re saying that you wouldn’t expect someone like them to have that job, or be in that place, and by phrasing it as a question about their parents, you’re trying to put a polite veneer on excluding them from what you think is “normal” for that place.
  10. Oh, do you know Bob Chu? He’s my neighbor/coworker/employee of a place that I go to. Pro tip: people of the same ethnicity do not automatically all know each other. Even people of the same ethnicity who are all in the same town, or all attending the same convention, do not know each other. By asking this, you’re letting the person know you aren’t going to remember anything about them except their ethnicity, and to you, all of those people are interchangeable and connected. Good job, jackass!


On WFC, and doing what you can when everyone thinks you’re wrong

Once again. the 2016 World Fantasy Convention is on the horizon, and it’s plagued by the same sorts of problems it’s had for at least the last several years. The big issue this time is the programming and the programming head, Darrell Schweitzer, who’s online in various places doubling down on the racist, sexist, ableist, old fashioned, and out of touch panel descriptions people have been arguing against since they were first announced. #SFWPro

Some people have pushed back against this, in various ways. The fabulous Ellen Datlow has stepped in to create a couple of new panels (2 YA, 1 MG, and one on contemporary Asian authors) but that’s all she can do, since she wasn’t on programming in the first place. Fran Wilde put herself in the bullseye, using her position as a well-liked and popularly-selling author to force a change in the worst panel descriptions by refusing to be on programming, and didn’t agree to be on one of Datlow’s panels until those changes were made public.

We had already bought our memberships, when they first went on sale in 2015 and we could get 2 for same price as 1 would be later — entirely because it was in Columbus, and my partner was from there. Wanted to show me around. We can’t afford to take the time/money for a “vacation” but combining it with a convention, where we could see friends and do some business… That made sense.

After talking it over with him, I publicly announced that we weren’t going to attend WFC 2017, and wouldn’t buy a membership to 2018 (or any other year) until we saw real change in the con. And then I went to work figuring out how to use my attendance this year to make the most difference.

Which is when I ran into the same problem I see time and time again: When issues arise in the genre community, there’s no right answer. For a lot of us, situations like the current WFC drama are unwinnable. Someone — that you care about, or work with, or need to not piss off because it affects your career or your personal life — will announce that you’re wrong no matter what you do.

For example, here’s my possible choices and what I’ve already been told about them:

  1. If I participate, I’m “committing to a terrible con”.
  2. If I don’t, I’m throwing away the money I paid to go, without it affecting the con runners in any way — I’m not important enough for them to care, and they already have my money.
  3. If I sell the membership, I’m giving up my spot to someone who wants to be there enough to buy a membership, so who probably won’t stand up for what’s right the way I am/would.
  4. If I don’t go, and make a big public point of why I’m not going, I get drama from people who like the con as it is, and that includes industry people, which affects my career.
  5. If I go, appear on a panel, and use that time to broaden the panel description, point out that the original was wrong and why, help enlighten the audience as to the bigger picture they may not be aware of, I’m “showing the programming head he was right to have that panel in the first place, by being on it”. I get drama from people who want the con to change overnight, exactly their way, and that includes industry people, which affects my career.

I want to do what’s right, make the con better, support my friends who are doing the same, and not let the bad parts slide. My decision was to:

Let everyone know we’re not attending 2017 and possible skipping future years too, unless there’s a concrete and visible improvement. Keep reminding programming that I suggested other ideas which were ignored, the panels don’t have a single 100% great topic/description, and they need improvement. Go this year (I have the memberships), be on one panel only, do item #5, and educate people as much as I can. Not buy new memberships until change happens. Keep talking about this issue. If there’s an opportunity to be more involved and fight for more change from the inside, I’ll take it.

And yet… that’s not good enough, or it’s too much, or I’m not being enough of an activist, or I’m causing trouble for no reason. I don’t mind causing trouble, good trouble, when I’m standing up and pushing for change. I can handle the people that don’t like my SJW ways; I am willing to risk my career over doing what I think is right.

But the folks who say they’re allies and activists and then get dismissive and rude because I’m not doing *enough* or “other writer” isn’t? You’re ignoring the emotional effort it takes to do this work in the first place. The people who hadn’t bought a ticket and weren’t going anyway but expect those who were to just drop out now? That’s easy for you to say, isn’t it? You already weren’t invested.

The truth is that big, old fashioned, institutions like WFC can stand to lose a couple of dozen left-leaning people who don’t attend regularly; they can ignore the people who aren’t buying memberships. Readercon and Wiscon didn’t change because people stopped going — they changed because people who cared enough to GOT INVOLVED and made those cons better. We need bloggers and Twitter shouters and people who’ll stand up and say, “This is wrong and it needs to change,” but we also need the people who’ll draft the programming and be on accessibility committees and show up. The people who sit on those panels and bring something new to the audience, rather than the stale and repetitious same old.

To those who want to keep things rooted in the past, in some imaginary world where white men were the bestest most influential writers, and women and PoC and queer folk only had a few good books or stories so we don’t need to talk about them much: you’re missing out on unique, beautiful, entertaining and moving and memorable stories by those people you’re ignoring in favor of your long-dead heroes. You’re missing out on the way the genre community is changing now, growing and evolving and becoming something amazing to be a part of. If you insist on fighting against the tide, we’ll eventually drown you. I welcome you to get on the boats with us, though. Make a place for all of us, and we’ll ensure there’s still a place for you.

To those who care more about being able to say that they are right than actually doing right: You’re not just tearing down the institutions. You’re tearing down the people who are working to make bring those institutions into the 21st century. You’re making it harder for people to stand up; you’re wearing on us, just the same way the folks on the other side of the fight are. If you want real change, support everyone who’s making an effort, at least a little, and save the derision for the ones who stand in our way.

To those who are taking heat from both sides to make WFC — or any other part of the genre community — a better place: I love you, and I’m with you, and you’re going to make a difference. Don’t give up.

Even when it feels like everyone thinks you’re wrong.

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE #4: Dachshunds from Mars

Last weekend, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook for random writing prompts. From those, I wrote seven micro and flash fiction stories. I’ll be posting them here over the next week. (You can read #1 and #2 and #3 already.)

The fourth story is courtesy of Bryan Thao Worra, who suggested “Dachshunds from Mars”, which of course I wrote. (Dachshunds are an easy sell to my brain, right up there with dinosaurs and robots.) Here is my 467-word interpretation of that prompt:


Dachshunds from Mars

“Cut!” the director yelled. A bell rang, and the set ground to a stop. On the other side of the camera, the buxom blond teen wearing the shimmery gold bikini and fishbowl astronaut helmet froze.

“I did it again, didn’t I?” she asked, her words muffled by the helmet.

“Candy, baby, if you can’t hit your mark, I’m gonna have to replace you,” the director said. He was a portly man in his late forties with a megaphone and a look of perpetual exhaustion. “You’re blocking the dogs.”

Candy glanced down, and jumped back a little. With her out of the way, the two stiff-backed dachshunds — still holding their positions (facing stage-right, heads held high so the overhead lights didn’t reflect off their miniature helmets) — were perched at the top of a mound of red-tinted sand. “Sorry, pups,” she said, her voice high pitched and contrite.

“Places!” the director called out. The larger of the dogs, a short-haired male with a black and brown dappled coat, immediately turned, walked down to the bottom of the dirt mound, and raised one paw in the air, ready to move forward. His co-star, a long-haired female (white, with large black spots), followed him, setting herself slightly in front of him, and a little behind, so the camera could clearly see them both.

She looked over at Candy for a moment, and shook her head slightly.

“What’s that?” the director asked of the dog trainer, who was sitting in the chair next to him. “Her helmet not on right?”

“Oh, no,” the man said, “Sadie’s just… picky about who she works with.”

“Yeah, well, she’s not in charge of our budget,” the director muttered, “or she’d understand why we hired the producer’s daughter.” Louder, he shouted, “All right, ready?” through the megaphone.

Candy quickly moved to position a few steps behind the dogs. “I’ll get it right this time!” she yelled back.

“I swear to God…” the director whispered, before yelling, “Action!”

Music swelled, the dogs walked forward, backs straight, head’s high, climbing the Martian hill toward the climactic final scene and —

Candy tripped, and fell, showering the dogs in a rain of red sand.

“Cut!” the director yelled. “What’s going on? Did she land on the dogs? Somebody check the damn dogs!”

The dust settled, and the two dachshunds strode purposefully, unhurt, to the front of the stage. Sadie put her head down and used one paw to take her helmet off. Beside her, Kauaʻi did the same. As one, they looked at Candy — who was shaking sand out of her bikini — looked back at the director, and walked off stage.

“I guess we’ll be in our trailer,” their trainer said, and hurried after them.

The director sighed. “Candy, baby…” he said, “we gotta talk.”


Want to write like this? Take my online flash fiction workshop, beginning September 2! Registration is now open — read more and sign up here.