A Craft Demonstration on Constructed Language

I was PLANNING to #amwriting in my cave.

But SOMEONE failed to properly charge the hardware overnight. (That would be me. Sherlock would be convinced I’m drunk, but nope, just nearsighted.) I have just plotted a NEW swerve, but it’s gonna percolate.

Instead, a craft lesson.

This is how I write. It’s a way to write. It’s not necessarily the way everyone should write. But it’s how I do it, and I’m willing to break it down using my own (OMG I’m So Sorry) old drafts.

I was talking about constructed languages earlier and this will actually be a single post, with proper sentence structure and stuff. (have I got you fooled…)


I’m gonna be blunt: speculative fiction almost requires constructed language. Go back to Burning Chrome: jacked in. Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon: five-sight and the Om. Snowcrash: the metaverse. Some of the constructed language of Golden era SFF is now standard. Some speculative fiction terms of art described the world we now live in. We didn’t get flying cars, but I’d call an iPad a pretty damn good first approximation of a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. And FaceTime is videophones. What came first? Does the invention spring forth without the fiction first?

Tolkien made an entire world based on language.

I don’t think he’s wrong, but I think it can go deeper, starting not perhaps with thought but with geology, to make the language reflects the nature of the universe. Tolkien lived before me, and he studied language.

The term jargon is often used perjoratively – especially used against younger people in the sciences, because elders in the field feel excluded as newcomers rebuild the working language of the field, and refine the synthesis of prior ideas & technology. It’s a loaded word that most people either use to inflict harm (especially in the sciences) or used unintentionally (but still perjoratively) to create a caste system within fiction, most especially to draw artificial dividing lines between fiction, speculative fic, YA spec fic, etcetera.

Language matters. (I note that Handmaid’s Tale is SF. But wasn’t marketed that way to start, because of the prejudice against SF. Chabon writes a DEEP PURPLE PROSE Victorian Romance and it gets the Lit 🧐 instead of branded with Bodice Ripper.)

Why yes, there are some people who think genre fiction is not worth their time and they should spend their lives reading the thinly veiled sexual fantasies of 55 year old tenured English professors who are bored in their marriages, so write about the affair they’re too cowardly to have.

Or the thinly veiled sexual fantasies of upper middle class white women who aren’t ready to take on the challenge of community property and child support and so pour their frustrations into a chatty story about a snooty place, with maybe a thin mystery.

These people probably shit on Soap Operas, too, though they’ve just described them. My issues aren’t with the work. It’s with the people who think John Irving is more worthy of consideration than Guy Gavriel Kay because Irving writes about New England and GG Kay writes about an almost Europe. At the sentence and story construction level? Kay’s got Irving beat by every metric. Irving has gotten more predictable and trope-y as he aged, and his writing of women especially deteriorated (not that it was ever good). Kay has improved.

I’m unapologetic about my love of spec fic. Novels about newspaper editors & NYC freelancers & jet setting & tennis & weed bore me to tears because hey, all that money and energy on an MFA and they never learned about metaphor. Then I throw the book.

Spec & genre fic? We cut through that noise. There will be sexual frustration. But we’re also talking about big issues, like how racism pervades a society, and what hoarded wealth and power do in a small community, and how a weak government is ripe for exploitation.

Yeah, we’re gonna talk about Harry Potter and the Constructed Language of a generation. And how YA is not the end-all of con-lang work, but is causing some serious glitches in the system.

I’m also gonna show an early draft of Rebellion, to show how Rebellion’s con-lang evolved, as well as breaking down a first chapter of Kingdom to show where I’m going.

(All of this structure stuff? I’m standing at the feet of about a million giants, because I’ve been learning to write for a long time. When I can clearly credit something, I will, but I have a magpie brain and sometimes I heard/read something that I disagreed with, making the opposing view stronger in my mind than the original. I can credit the podcast Writing Excuses, and especially Mary Robinette Kowal; and both of Stephen King’s books on the genre, and the generous discussions at MythCon & the Mythopoetics Society, and Slayage. And about a MILLION discussions at LiveJournal.)

Let’s all try to go back to the first time we opened Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. That first chapter sets the scene, well before we have any idea what anything will mean in the long-term. (Book only, US edition here.)

We open with the Dursleys, who are aggressively normal. Comically so, at least for the target audience of 10 YOs, because we cannot forget that HP1 was intended as a chapterbook for middle grade readers. Written, edited, marketed. The language, including con-lang, grew with the reader.

(I have a tiny bit more sympathy for the Dursleys now than I did 20 years ago. That first year? Getting official custody, documenting how they came to have their nephew, getting his NHS & a delayed birth certificate? While being UNABLE to say anything about Lily & James? Family dynamics are hard enough when the family is healthy. Which Lily & Petunia’s parents WEREN’T. Which doesn’t excuse anyone, but the Wizarding World made a lot of the gaps that put a kid into an abusive family for a decade.

So did the muggle world.)

Page 5 is where we get the first con-lang word, and it’s muggle. There’s been weird (owls, cats, costumes) but it’s normal weird, not a word from a world we don’t know.

The focal character for the first half of this chapter (and this is a rare chapter in the entire series: it isn’t from Harry’s POV, and it SWITCHES POV in the middle) is Uncle Dursley, who doesn’t know the word any more than we do.

Then the chapter switches to a 3rd POV that focuses on the cat, who is behaving oddly, and a Walking Dude (seriously. My first read through, my first thought was … Randall Flagg? Try reading with Dumbledore as a Man In Black sometime.)

And we get another con-lang artifact: the Put-outer. Which is either magic, or Clarkean technology (so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic). How does it work? Where does it come from? Is it available at the shops where Dumbledore buys his milk & paper?

Did he have to collect Green Stamps for it? Or did he forge it in the fires of his private star? Answers we never get, alas.

And we get information that people are breaking the Masquerade (to use the language of another mythos) in celebration.

And that lemon drops are unknown.

This is more of the weird, and it’s a transition from the normal weird. (Though TBF, I was reading Stone with an age-appropriate child, and we had to go *find lemon drops* at the old timey tourist trap candy shop. Everyone stopped carrying them in the 90s. Kiddo was unimpressed.)

Next up was Voldemort/You Know Who, and then Dumbledore’s watch — which is ANOTHER thing that we never came back to. (I assume it’s like the Weaseleys’ clock, but…) And the motorcycle.

In that chapter, Rowling introduces about a dozen concepts of con-lang, but only two terms. One gets used ALL the time, and is pretty obvious by context clue, well before Hagrid defines it 40 pages later. The other is almost never mentioned again, for 6 books.

That’s appropriate for a book aimed at 10 year old children. The concepts start flying a lot faster, but for the next 40 pages, all of the weird is normal weird, with no con-lang. When Hagrid shows up, the con-lang is all over: hogwarts, wizard, keeper of the Keys (another concept dropped).

Again, this is age appropriate. The early weird caught the target audience’s attention; then the normal-weird drew them in, and the con-lang became scenery once the world is established.

HP was revolutionary in that it did take seriously the idea of a con-lang that carried over from book to book, that developed with the reading audience, and that expected readers to just go with it. It had interesting puns in the undertones.

The problem, though? It was children’s/YA. Which started a trend. It’s gotten hard to write/publish genre (especially fantasy) fic that’s not geared towards children.

Which is silly, because while the juvenile market matters, there’s a whole world of literary fantasy that doesn’t get NEARLY enough interest, and requires older readers willing to engage with the metaphor and the discussion.

Making YA carry the bulk leads to problems like lack of representation. I actually understand why we don’t find out Dumbledore is gay until after the end. That’s not something a student needs to know of a responsible adult, unless it’s the child leading the conversation.

These are books that had issues talking about normal teenage behavior, like masturbation. (That’s the whole punchline of the Prefects’ bathroom in Goblet of Fire, remember?? Aimed at 13 year olds…) That glossed over the reality of a mixed gender boarding school.

There are NO married teachers, or at least, none that the students are aware of. (We can make the argument that Harry is merely incredibly unperceptive when it comes to positive representations of adult communication and affection.)

There was never a good entry point for Harry to say “Maybe I fancy Neville a bit?” And for Dumbledore to say “That’s fine and here’s how to navigate that.” There was never even a reason for it. Chalk it up to Harry being a fairly traumatized kid, but he wasn’t ready for romantic.

Even the textual dating feels… dutiful. If we’d had other POV kids, I think it would have been less of an issue. (And let’s be honest. The snark about Headmaster would have been never-ending, and the slash ALREADY went to creepy places.)

Now… I don’t write for children. I just don’t. I don’t want to dance around gender and identity and sexuality except when I’m using it explicitly. I do try to keep my MPAA in the PG-13 range, but I’m not going to ignore something that’s essential to character.

Thus: Chapter 1, Kingdom (not the Prologue) Read along here, and I’ve posted chapter 1 to the blog, so here.


The very first thing we learn about Galantier is When, Where, Who: time of year (just after Midwinter), 1137 years after something, Laarens.

And that someone is missing. First Paragraph.

But we also start getting the language of THEIR world.

Because they have technology we don’t have, and they use it for war, so they have units that do nothing but use that tech. Just like if we swapped a Napoleonic regiment and a modern one. The Napoleonics had farriers. Ours have mechanics. They have very little in common.

Galantier’s language reflects their reality, as ours does. Because I’m NOT writing for children, it would insult the reader to talk down.

But the idea of context clues is so deeply embedded in a reader that the reader doesn’t even think about it.

First chapter gives a lot of vocab, but it’s contextual. Find them, get the Ingeniae Corps on it. Observers, monarchs, everything running fine until it all goes to shit. Because when things go bad, that’s how it goes bad. By the 4th paragraph, the text, through Laarens, is starting to explain & define.

He is explicit about the fact that they use this tech, explains some of how it works, that it used to be really scandalous, and now it’s just How Shit Gets Done.

(And using an electronic press allows me to do wizardry that paper wouldn’t. That’s why Rebellion is all electronic. I’m pushing the art form, by using the internal linking to glossaries and illustrations, because I DON’T expect everyone to absorb the language in one go.)

The other thing the first four paragraphs do is establish that this isn’t magic. This is technology that these people consider no different from GPS, Nav-Sat, radio, black box beacons. Laarens gives a command that’s essentially “Get the RADAR running NOW.”

He’s not saying set up incantations or summon spirits. How a culture interacts with their tech is essential to that culture. Galantier is a technological society – they don’t necessarily understand their tech (the ingeniae) but they know it has testable rules & functions.

(Textile workers didn’t understand WHY wool felted, just that it did. It took developing microscopes to see how the scales on the individual fibers would open in the presence of heat, water & agitation, then interlock. Same for coal. We used it long before we understood it.)

Now character: The first few things we learn about Laarens is he’s in command. He’s the Monarch’s nephew, he’s irritated with his uncle, and worried; he’s not the technical adept that his uncle is, and that his lover is an Army peer, and also male, and across the table.

We know Laarens is gay as a daisy on page 2. The key here? All of the characters, and their readers, can expect to be peers. I have no problems with a teenager picking up Rebellion and picking up that Laarens & Paval are lovers. That normalizes their relationship.

But it would be inappropriate for Laarens to have a relationship with the very young Corpsman who delivers the possible sighting. Because 1) Laarens is years older and 2) in a position of authority over that young man. That would be abusive.

It’s only possible for Paval & Laarens to have a relationship because they are in parallel commands, and are effectively equals. (Which isn’t to say there’s no abusive relationships within the Galantieran Army, but I’m establishing that these are our Good Guys. Minimum standards of behavior.)

But Laarens is gay. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t affect his career, his command, his authority. Paval pushes back a little right at the beginning, because they are peers, both professionally and emotionally, but they do establish that balance.

And when Paval is right, Laarens is adult enough to roll with it. (At the end of the chapter.)

What else am I establishing in those first five pages? Time, distance, travel. Nothing is motorized. Distances are all muscle power. Communications are limited to line of sight and the Ingeniae Corps, who are a scarce resource. They use their tech to the limit, but it has limits.

That this is a logical, rational country, even when they’re at war. That they think things through.

Now, this is an early draft of the opening chapter of Rebellion. It was written sometime between 2005 (when the POV switched from 3rd to 1st) and 2008 (which was the last time I altered the file). At that time, the book was still 1 file, though way too big.


This voice is Cedri, and I’ve updated character names to the ones that are in use now; in fact almost everyone had different names at other times.

Note the bolded words, which are con-lang, and how they developed within the text. Again, I was still writing for a not-juvenile audience, though in this version, everyone’s younger. (In the very first draft, Rien was 16, Laarens & Quin 20, and it was ALL TEENAGE ANGST.)

(And Robin Hood. And Disney Princesses. By this version, everyone but Daval was at least 18.) When I was still learning to write in the Galantier sandbox, Rien did tend to be a bit of a Mary Sue. Though the big issue is I wasn’t letting her be damaged. I gave her too much plot armor.

My characters are competent. I’ve never liked reading about dumb people, or those who don’t care about what’s going on around them. Winging it makes me want to reach through the page and throttle the characters. (The later Callahans books at least lampshade their incompetence.)

Because if I’m gonna read about dumb people, I’ve got the NYTimes & WaPo and can go bug the dumbass senator I’m stuck with for another 2 years. I go to my fantasy world for better than this shit. But… I’m still exploring what’s wrong with this shit, within that sandbox.

Because I may not have wasted my time on an MFA, but I did learn about metaphor! And seriously – Ingeniae are just a metaphor for communications technology. (Without spoiling anything, there’s tech that tracks for *almost* everything.)

My PsyD may be better for metaphor, because talking about how human brains operate must be done in the realm of metaphor. There’s no other way to do it, because we can’t take a brain apart & put it back together. (Like Ingeniae.)

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