The best part of The Americans is family dynamics

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Yes, yes, I know it’s a spy show. I know there’s guns, conspiracy, murder and more. Yet, somehow, I’ve stuck the words “family dynamics” up there in the title of this post where, presumably, it wouldn’t be without some reason. I shall, in the method of blogs, explain.

 

Spy thrillers make a habit of focusing on the spying – foiling the plot, getting the evidence the government needs (or the government doesn’t want them to have), and so on. The Americans has plenty of that, but it’s not all that different from the dozens of movies and TV series covering similar material. Well-produced and from a different viewpoint, but for most of the episodes, you can more or less forget the main characters are operating on behalf of the Soviet Union and watch them conduct their spycraft as you would James Bond or Jason Bourne.

Where I find myself drawn, and what keeps me coming back, is the focus on the couple and their two children. Specifically, the time spent to seemingly innocuous activities like family dinners or teacher’s conferences. On the changes every family experiences when their kids crash into their teenage years. The difference here being that the parents, you know, are stone-cold killers and, on any given night, might disappear after serving mac & cheese to seduce a government employee. This brings a great tension to just about every scene, with me wondering if this is going to be the time the parents collapse and spill out all the terrible details because, you know, Henry needs help with the homework but Dad’s gotta go pop three rounds in a politician and he just can’t hack it anymore.

What boosts these scenes into truly memorable television is the fact that all of the characters continue to grow over the seasons. You’d expect that from the parents, seeing as they’re the stars, but The Americans doesn’t let the kids languish in side-character purgatory. These are roles that could’ve been left aside, or replaced with other adult characters/more spy sequences, but instead we have long sessions with the daughter struggling with growing up, where the son looks for someone to hang out with and, finding neither of his parents ever home, reacts in strange, yet believable, ways.

Think about how many times you’ve seen Tom Cruise blast away some miserable sap of a villain. How many times you’ve seen someone plan an elaborate heist to get something. Now consider how many times you’ve seen the impacts of that life on a realistic family.

The Americans takes a risk, and they’ve created a family that’s more interesting to watch than most guns-a-blazin’ spies ever have been.

If you’re curious, The Americans is available on Amazon Prime’s video, and the final season is airing now on FX.

A couple things:

1. Shoveled snow today. In April. Some years Winter just doesn’t want to say goodbye. Admittedly, the snow is more palatable when you know it’s going to melt in a couple of days…

2. I’m finding that going for longer continuous dictating (30 minutes +) makes it easier to stay in scenes and character. Before, I tended to pause when scenes ended, but I’m trying to just keep going. Transition into the next bit and keep on talking. Thus far, it’s made things flow together more naturally, and I’m getting more done with less time.

Meddling Kids and Reimagining Classics

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Scooby-Doo, that classic mystery cartoon involving a dog and his sleuthing pals, makes for a tempting adaption target. There’s a genre, mystery, baked into the premise, a cast of interesting characters, and even an animal with a personality – there’s a reason the animated series has been around in some form or another since 1969. The shows generally draw from the crime-a-week mold, which makes them great fodder for a novelization or serialization into written work – pick a set of episodes you like and just write them into prose. Easy!

Two problems with that, of course:

  1. Scooby-Doo and anything using those characters is going to be copyrighted for the foreseeable future, so if you want the talking great dane to feature in your masterwork, you’re going to have to secure the rights to do that. Which, well, let’s just say there’s easier ways of achieving your writing dreams than barging into corporate offices and demanding they lease you their property so you can put together that long-awaited Scooby/James Bond crossover, where the dog and spy prevent world annihilation at the hands of a cult of people all wearing lobster costumes.
  2. Even if you do get the direct rights, or just pray the lawyers won’t find you, every single one of those characters is going to carry immense baggage with your audience. The people picking up the book, reading the story, are going to have their own opinions about Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby. You try to do something twisty and original with those characters, and you’re going to get discontent from everyone who can’t believe that Fred is really a 45 year-old man on the run from the law masquerading as a teenager to throw off pursuit while steadily racking up criminals in order to bargain for a suspended sentence from his original crime: running an illegal ascot import business.

So how do you avoid that?

As seen in the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies series, you can go for obvious parody. Your audience is going to know right off that this is not the story they’re familiar with, and these characters shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. The rightsholders and die-hard fans won’t care because the scenario you’ve created is so far from the story they love that nobody’s going to be offended. Scooby-Doo Meets the Mob, in which the dog and the gang team up with Tony Soprano to run drugs through New Jersey? It’s so far from the show and so patently ridiculous that you’re probably not going to get complaints (you also won’t get the rights, but it’s fun to imagine).

The other way, and what Meddling Kids does well, is to play off of a familiar cultural icon just enough to make the references clear and then swing it your own way. Edgar Cantero’s supernatural mystery uses an older cast whose characters have some relation to their cartoon alter-egos, but are more fully-realized. They’re older, they’ve seen some things, and they’re not scared of a man in a mask. The dog doesn’t really talk (and isn’t a great dane either). Yet there are enough similarities – the story picks up on a gang of teenage sleuths years after they’ve split apart – that it’s easy to fall in with the characters. Like friends that you’ve not seen for a while, there’s plenty to recognize.

Cantero also uses the setup to drive a more complex, more wild story than most of the cartoons ever did. These characters are deeper, have more complex motivations and histories – which is, partly, a function of a novel over a 23-minute cartoon for kids, which this book definitely is not – and come across, mostly, as actual people. As such, we’re able to use our familiarity with Scooby-Doo to get us in the door, but the place we’ve walked into is very different from what we know, which makes it fun to explore. If you’re a fan of mysteries, especially supernatural and somewhat comedic ones, this is a rollicking journey from start to finish. You’re not getting hard-boiled detectives or gritty realism, but characters that you’ll both recognize and be excited to ride along with as the story burns towards a nuts conclusion.

A couple things:

  1. One thing Cantero does that I wasn’t fond of, which is definitely a matter of personal reader taste, is use descriptions and narrative asides that are very over-the-top or that seem interjected by the author’s hand. These might be funny to some, and most were clever, or at least produced amusing images, but they often jerked me out of the story. Made me notice the writing, say, rather than the scene, and getting pulled out of the story is not what I want to do. I’m going to keep an eye out for this in my own work too.
  2. Carpet cleaning – it basically makes your entire house damp for a day. I kept forgetting this, soaking my socks. So my advice to those considering cleaning their carpets: get some sandals or slippers, lest your interior become a strange version of the lava game you may have played when you were a kid, except instead of “dying”, what you get instead is minor annoyance. Terrible, I know. On the other hand, the cats seemed to love it, and as everything I do these days is in service to my feline overlords, their happiness made the whole thing worth it.

Ray Bradbury’s Gabriel’s Horn and the other side of Sci-Fi

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It’s common in the ol’ realm of science fiction to have spaceships. To have lasers and stars and monstrous alien creatures battling hordes of space marines in galaxy-spanning wars. Technology is often at the core, and devices that would seem like magic to us are used like we use our phones now. The story starts well past the point of familiarity with these wondrous things, and is more about the characters and setting than it is with the technical wizardry on offer. In Star Wars, the idea of jumping to lightspeed or death by a thousand lasers is treated with as much surprise as waking up to a refrigerator in your kitchen. In Ready Player One, the idea of the Oasis is already cemented in the minds of the characters when we meet them – its purpose is clear, and the knowledge of how to use it is well-ingrained in society.

Gabriel’s Horn, a Bradybury short story, illustrates the other side of sci-fi, where new technology and ideas are introduced to a society with strange, unusual effects. In this case, the “technology” isn’t even all that wondrous – a tribesman finds a trumpet, something he believes is a great weapon, albeit one he cannot understand. It fails, after all, to kill deer on a hunt. Fails to protect him and his tribe when blown. We, the audience, know that a trumpet isn’t going to ever kill anything, but if you saw a rounded metal object that looked similar to the guns your enemies used to hunt your friends, you too might believe a trumpet capable of grievous harm.

It would be easy to turn the story into a comedy – a play on how dumb these people must be if they can’t figure out the purpose of a trumpet. Instead, Bradbury takes pains to show that his characters are as clever as they are desperate. Willing to try anything to save themselves from mysterious invaders, who come periodically to hunt their defenseless prey. Gab, the primary protagonist, observes the invaders, puts together plans to outwit them, and demonstrates more than enough intelligence to get the gist of what a trumpet might be used for… which is when you grasp the real sci-fi element of the story: a civilization exposed to something of which they have no conception.

Gad does not understand the concept of music, so he cannot know the trumpet’s true purpose.

And so we see, instead, what other uses might be made of something so far away from its intended place. It’s fun, it’s clever, and Gabriel’s Horn is a reminder that sci-fi can work just as well with the characters learning about their world, rather than already enmeshed within it.

A couple things:

1. March in Wisconsin is a strange time when you rediscover your lawn is a half-frozen mess of yellowed, dead grass. As if to spare you the horror, nature will hide it with snow from time to time throughout the month, giving you time to adjust to the ugly view outside your windows until, in April, rains come to turn it into a muddy soup. Knowing that you’ll be disheartened by these events, the temps play around the 40-50 degree mark during the day, tempting you to step outside without a heavy jacket, breath fresh air for a few moments, and remember that there is, in fact, a world outside your own house.

2. I remain convinced that Peanut Butter Patties are the optimal Girl Scout cookie. I also remain confident in, and nauseated by, my ability to eat a box of them in a day.

 

Tomb Raider and character through action

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We’ve seen so many of them – the fast-moving sequence where a character dashes, dodges, darts and dives through one stunt after another, with maybe a pinch of violence thrown in there to spice things up. It’s hard to find an original action sequence these days, and harder still to find one that helps build up character in the process.

Films and stories often do this through dialogue peppered in the action – accusations, questions, and flat exposition while two people slug the crap out of each other. It’s more fun, though, to learn about a character by what they do.

In Tomb Raider, there’s a sequence early on where our protagonist, Lara, is riding a bike as part of a contest, pursued by other bikers. At a certain point, desperate to evade capture, Lara lifts her bike into the back of a moving truck and hides with it. This, while perhaps not strictly against the rules, is definitely against their spirit. We learn, in that moment, that Lara isn’t above doing a bit of cheating to get what she wants.

This might not seem like a big deal, but the move reinforces Lara’s prior actions and shows she’s not afraid of the consequences of being caught. She’s wild, she’s free, and she’s willing to risk her reward entirely for a better chance to win. Those traits come back again and again throughout the movie, and we’re not confused or put off when Lara tries similar gambits in much greater danger, because the story has set us up to believe that’s who she is.

What I really like, though, is the extra thought that goes into how Lara would act in a certain situation. It’s easy to put together an action scene in your head, to plug the characters into their positions and let the movement run. What’s harder, and far more rewarding, is taking that same situation and viewing it through the lens of your character’s eyes. How would they see what’s happening in front of them? How would they, with their worldview and life experience, react?

It’s a challenge. One that, when successful, allows your audience to believe in a character’s actions even when they’re in a setting so far outside the realm of everyday life.

Like, say, an island full of maniacal madmen and mysterious tombs.

A couple things:

  1. Starshot, my next book, is almost done with the editing process (and it’s sequel is closing in on first draft completion). I’m trying a slightly different method with these – namely, writing the first few before releasing any, because it’ll be more fun for readers if the sequel is days away instead of months or years. Either way, I’m having a grand time exploring this strange universe.
  2. Now that it’s warm outside, our cats are clambering to go outside again. We’re not a fan of decimating local bird populations, so we leash them to a stake that lets the two kitties prowl around our little garden and firepit, where they can sunbathe but are otherwise mostly harmless to wildlife. What it really means for me, though, is that every breakfast for the next six to seven months will be eaten to the melodious song of desperate meows from a pair of cats that want nothing more than to sniff their way through grass. It’s a true delight.

Black Panther and the well-drawn side character

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There are numerous reasons to like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, but if I have to pick one, and given the standard size of these posts, I do – then it’s the full, dynamic characters the movie constructs.

This goes beyond the titular Black Panther himself and Killmonger, the villain. Most stories are going to invest a lot of time in their leads, and this one isn’t much different. Where Black Panther really builds its own quality, though, is through its supporting cast. The players movies bring in for a scene or three to propel the protagonist to the next objective, the ones that often have all the depth of cardboard.

By my improvised count, Black Panther has nine substantial side characters, of which 7 or so have real arcs and motivations. The question here, though, is not what those arcs are, but rather how we can find ways to incorporate similar arcs and depth into our own fiction.

Weirdly, I think the best place to define these arcs is outside of the story you are writing. Instead, take the character into the proverbial void of your notebook paper and sketch them out as if they were the star of their own lives. Put together a quick list of what they want, where they came from, and, maybe, some of their interests. It’s not reams of paper, and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

And guess what? You won’t use most of this in what you’re writing. You shouldn’t.

Black Panther certainly doesn’t. What it does, and what you should do, is use pieces from that list to flesh out the scenes in which these characters do appear. This is a minor spoiler from the movie, but one of the side characters remarks, in a scene, that she dislikes having hair. Later, she remarks that “guns are primitive”.

Neither of these remarks are necessary, neither help Black Panther stop the villains, but they add color and dimension to her character. They help us, the audience, form an idea of her world-view, which helps us make sense of her actions down the line. What we don’t get is some elaborate history of why she holds these opinions, or a drawn-out conversation about the lines. The creators may have those in their back pockets, but we don’t need those, because this is still a side character we’re talking about. We’re not that interested, but we should believe in their authenticity.

So now that we’ve scattered bits and pieces of our characters on a page, we can look at developing an arc for them. In simple terms, an arc is something that begins at one point and ends at another – in a story, that journey generally results in a change of perspective. In Black Panther, the arcs that characters go through are numerous and varied, though they’re not all complex, and most fit in with the progress of the story.

This last bit is important – you want your characters to develop as the plot moves along, and ideally all of them wind up somewhere different than where they started (otherwise, what’s the point?). But, especially for small characters, you don’t want to derail the narrative with low-stakes side stories just to check that arc box. Rather, try to define their own arcs to fit their role in the larger story.

In Black Panther, one of the characters firmly believes she can do more good by operating on her own than by being part of the established Wakanda government. She wants independence, and to do things her own way. Over the course of the story, in which she finds that her skills are needed in Wakanda to keep the things she loves, well, alive, she changes her mind.

She learns this not by embarking on some random solo journey that sees her absent at a time of great need, but rather by actually being present in Wakanda, where the main action is, and realizing how badly her home needs her there. The main story flows along, we never really leave the protagonist/antagonist, but she completes her arc nonetheless.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough – Black Panther has great characters, most of whom are more than one-scene jokes or plot devices, most of whom feel like real people, which is what makes it a great movie.

Check it out.

What “Last Week Tonight” teaches me about Exposition

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Wait, I hear you saying: this here is a nonfiction show! It’s got comedy, sure, but the crux of what Oliver’s doing is spreading facts!

Guess what, folks: Novels, short stories, and comics are in the same business. The sole difference is the world to which those facts apply.

For folks who don’t know, Last Week Tonight (which I’m shortening to LWT for the rest of this post) is essentially a weekly adaptation of The Daily Shows’ comedic news format, though I’d argue that LWT is more serious its predecessor really was. A big portion of this comes from the show’s format, in which half or more of its running time in a given week is often devoted to a single story. We’re often talking 15 minutes or more on one subject, and often these aren’t headliners – a week ago, LWT spent a long time going over the Italian election, which is undoubtedly important to the world, but doesn’t quite have the attention-grabbing focus (in the US, anyway) of, say, gun control or North Korea.

In a graceless pivot, these segments parallel what most authors and screenwriters have to do to immerse audiences in the worlds they’re creating. In the stories they’re telling. You, as the creator, need the audience to sit there and absorb information about your piece, especially at the beginning, and be entertained at the same time. This challenge increases the farther away from ‘reality’ your work gets – consider, say, the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas effectively shoves paragraphs of floating space text at you to give just enough context, and, thanks to a rousing score, you manage to stay awake long enough for the spaceships to start shooting. Harry Potter opens with a tease about normalcy, which, since the cover talks about a magical stone and shows a wizard, you’re not really buying, and its at the start of the 3rd ‘graph where it drops the word secret. Now you’re intrigued – what secret is so terrible that these ordinary folk can’t bear? That holds you long enough to find out about the boy, and then we’re off.

Learning is hard. Gathering new information and making sense of it all is hard. Constructing a new reality on the fly to match the needs of a work of fiction is, well, work.

LWT makes this process easier by interjecting comedy. It leverages jokes, intercut breaks, and sometimes-random segues to keep you engaged. If you’re chuckling every couple of minutes because an expose on a mining CEO is being delivered by someone in a squirrel costume, you’re going to pay attention when the real points get delivered. If you know, at the end of Oliver’s next spiel, there’s going to be something funny, you’re more likely to listen so that you’re in on it when the joke eventually drops. In that way, LWT keeps you engaged even while delivering a straight shot of information to your mind.

The challenge, in fiction, is to keep that same loop of information and entertainment going. You want your audience to know what the Shire is, and how hobbits work, but if they’re going to bother learning about that, you have to tease them with a magical ring and a distant dark lord first. If you’re going to introduce a vast world of warring families, kingdoms and power struggles, maybe in the middle of that you have a boy catch some brother-sister loving and get shoved out a window. Keeps the audience invested.

So next time you’re looking at how to get an audience engaged in your world, take a cue from LWT and interject some action, comedy, or dialogue that doesn’t require knowledge of your universe to understand. It’ll help relax your readers, and buy you time to pass along the crucial, need-to-know details of how your world works.

Squirrel costumes are a bonus.

A couple things:

  • I’ve found it slightly ironic that I selected paperless for some tax documents, only to have the CPA require them in paper form, so now I’m printing them off (using the paper, and paying for my own ink) just to put them all together in an envelope and send. I cannot wait until everything is just done through secure electronic submission. Please oh please.
  • I read this review of a new Chrysler minivan and immediately went back to my childhood, thinking about how awesome it would have been with one of these. As a childless adult, I’m not ashamed to say the tech in minivans these days is pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t use a built-in vacuum?

Lester Dent and Formula

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Productivity and creativity are two concepts often placed at odds with one another – the idea being that good art takes time. This isn’t really borne out by evidence, and a statement I rather prefer is this one: The art takes the time the artist requires.

Lester Dent, a pulphouse author from the late 20’s and 30’s, is a grand example of this – the man churned out story after story for monthly magazines at an astounding rate of speed (especially when you consider the pen-and-paper/typewriter equipment he was working with). He wrote well over 150 novels in a 30 year career, plus many, many short stories. These weren’t Epic-Fantasy tomes, but Dent wrote over 200,000 words a month, as this piece states and which seems in the realm of possibility, considering his output, that means an average of 6000 words per day. An average paperback page contains 250 words or so, meaning Dent cranked out 24 pages every day of fiction. Equate this to an artist like, say, Bob Ross who could put together a complete landscape painting in a single 30-minute show.

Dent and Ross don’t get their productivity through some magical incantation. They didn’t, to my knowledge, perform some ritual sacrifice or discover a fallen meteorite that granted them superhuman abilities. Rather, they used formula. They kept their work, mostly, in line with a template that worked for them. Knowing when certain things had to happen for his characters let Dent focus on setting and dialogue. He could merrily type away, note when he’d reached a certain part of his story, and then kick the next section off without pausing to ask “what happens now?”.

The point I’m taking away from this isn’t that, to be productive, we all need to follow what Dent and Ross did. Instead, we might look to them for inspiration, for the drive to find a formula that works for us, whether we’re writing fiction, making movies, or even just knocking out a day’s worth of tasks. There’s value in making templates, even if you don’t think one could apply to your situation/goal. Give it a shot. See what you can come up with.

I mean, if I could come up with a formula for wrangling my cats consistently every day so they didn’t destroy my house, that’d save me so much time. And furniture.

A couple other things:

  • Dent also managed to snag a pilot’s license, climbed mountains, and passed electrician/plumbing exams, at least partly because of the time he saved by adhering to his process. I’m sure, with that extra time, I could play more with my overlords; the cats.
  • I’m late to the game, but the current workout show of choice is The Americans, which is proving to be a fascinating, fun dive into an early 80’s thriller. I love that their ‘day jobs’ are as travel agents – something that gives plausible excuses for being active at all hours and often away from the office. Wonder what current-day spies prefer to have as their undercover gig of choice – remote software developer? Uber driver?

Wyoming is Cold

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You rarely see temperate desolation. It’s either scorching desert, or, as in Wind River‘s case, an expanse of Wyoming wilderness where, as Jeremy Renner’s wildlife ranger states, “It’s too cold to snow.”

The movie, which is available on US Netflix now, is a taut, interesting thriller that uses a familiar combination of young, naive hero out of her element and an older, experienced mentor to guide her. The difference, to me, is that Wind River spends far less time with the rookie than with the Renner’s weathered hero.

This turn could backfire – it’s harder, obviously, to convey the history that has made a person who they are than to start with a blank slate. Wind River does this with a mix of show-and-tell, with numerous physical cues in Renner’s appearance, the setup of his house (pictures of unexpected loved ones), and, most interesting, an opening conversation with his ex-wife that immediately sets Renner’s character up as one who both knows the costs of his decisions and accepts them anyway to live the life he wants.

Anyway, it’s worth a look if you want a murder mystery with more character depth than clues to solve. Also, hard to get enough of the shots of Wyoming wilderness. Having been out that way before, it’s definitely gorgeous and worth a visit. Bring your skis and snowmobile.

A couple things:

  • Continuing to love the voice recorder over my phone. Holds a lot more dialogue, and it’s easy to plug into the laptop and transcribe. If you’re serious about dictation, look at getting one of these. I use one by Sony that’s relatively cheap and superb.
  • Starting Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero, which is something like an alternate, real-world version of Scooby Doo where the kids are adults. Giving me IT vibes, but with more comedy.

A Snowy Morning

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There’s a thing with March in Wisconsin (and, I imagine, with anywhere in the chillier parts of the world) where the ground can go from muddy grass to covered with a half-foot of snow in an evening. It remains beautiful for a few days before descending back to its brown sludgy awfulness.

It’s still gorgeous now, and it’s still snowing.

My back is already dreading the shoveling to come.

Couple other things:

  1. Like that Shape of Water picked up Best Picture and Del Toro Best Director. Both are risk-takers, and both explore themes and characters too often left aside in favor of more standard, safer things. Cool.
  2. Finished N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth trilogy. Generally enjoyed it, and the last book, and overall structure, is a great example of making the past relevant to a current story without dragging the reader through onerous flashbacks.
  3. Editing through book one in the new series, which is a return to space-action science fiction, but with an alien twist. Working on completing the first three books or so before number one comes out, which is why this is taking longer, but it’s a cool new universe to explore. Archivos has been instrumental in helping keep track of everything, so make sure to look at that if you’ve a need for a world-building toolkit.

Phraseology

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There are interesting phrases that come up in NK Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy (and this happens in virtually all Sci fi and Fantasy novels) which have, from time to time, broken immersion for me. Concepts that are so layered in the current “Earth” history that to present them as things characters would know or use in other worlds is a cheat that, for the most part, is easy to overlook.

Take, for example, the concept of measurement. It’s useful to say how far away something is when you’re describing it. Or how high a character stands. However, saying a character is six feet tall is a strange thing in a fantasy world – unless you assume that they, too, would decide to make the basis of their measurements the “length of an average man’s foot” and, for the yard, the length of a man’s nose to the end of his arm. If your world is dominated by alien species and dragons, such measurements seem especially arbitrary.

Or the verbal cues used by characters – phrases that clearly come from the author’s cultural experience or background. Even in narration, these idioms and other turns of phrase would seem natural to someone talking today, but assuming they would develop independently in a world so unlike our own seems like a stretch.

But what is the solution? To scrub a manuscript of anything remotely resembling current-day English?

No. While I don’t think relying on quips and sayings common now (because they may not be common tomorrow) is a great plan, using general concepts at the expense of teeny bits of logic is worth it. Your reader, after all, is the primary audience. If they can’t understand what’s going on because you’ve developed your own metric system and speak entirely in self-developed turns of phrase, well, they’re going to hate you a lot more than if your reptilian worm monster refers to its height in yards.

But I do think, as authors and creators of anything, it’s important not to hedge on key things. It’s important that your characters are authentic to their setting. That they talk and act like someone in your world would, and not like someone in, say, your local mall.

Do that, and readers will happily let you fudge the little things. After all, I keep coming back to Jemisin’s trilogy, which is excellent, inches and all.