Monday, April 13, 2015

"Fixing" Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy

A couple of months back I was on a panel at a local con titled Diversity in Fiction: What is it, How to do it, and Why. As the panelists (many of whom didn't know who else was on the panel) came in and sat down there was a bit of an awkward moment as we all recognized that the panel was basically white. But we figured we were there to talk about writing diverse characters so we'd roll with it.

But the first question came from a PoC woman in the audience who demanded with some intensity to know how we, a bunch of white folks, intended to fix the diversity problem in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

 First of all, there's a lot of factors that roll into diversity in fiction (across all genres), but there are, in my mind, three main areas of diversity in fiction. Diversity of authors, diversity of characters/setting, and diversity of readers.

On that panel, we were failing any broad representation of diversity as authors. This is not to say that our experiences, stories or voices were identical. The nature of being human means that each of has a unique voice and a story to tell, but it's fair to say we likely had more in common than not. And there was nothing we could do about that. I am a white, straight, cis, abled woman. Barring an unforeseen car accident or unlikely gamma ray mutation, I will always be a white, straight, cis, abled woman.

The only thing I can do is issue an open invitation to those who have different voices than mine to write your own stories and put them out there for the world to see. (This is one of those areas where there are other factors involved. It's not just that there aren't diverse authors; there are issues with getting ones work out there if one is not a white male. But not trying is a sure way to make certain our voices are never heard.)

I first started writing SF/F because I was frustrated that there didn't seem to be enough of the stories I really liked to read. And it wasn't that I read books by white men and thought "Ewww. This just isn't for me." (Although there were a few of those.) It was more that there were certain books that stuck with me longer, that spoke to me, personally, on a much deeper level. Almost without exception they were written or co-written by women and had female protagonists or a fairly equal mix of male and female characters in lead roles. But there were never enough of these books and it seemed like the only way to "fix" that was to write some of my own.

So, to have more diversity in the authorship, those voices who had previously been excluded or ignored must join the conversation because the rest of us cannot and should not be trying to speak in your stead.

But beyond diverse authors, there are also diverse characters and settings. And this is something everyone can participate in. Because diversity is and has been a part of human experience for thousands of years. This doesn't mean that every story has to have a broadly representative cast. It doesn't mean you should write to fill some idea of a diverse quota.

It does mean that characters can be gay or PoC or trans or differently abled and it doesn't matter whether that orientation or color has anything to do with the story. Because strong characters, the ones we remember and love and hate and dream about are the ones who are larger than their function within the story. It does mean the "rules" we tend to think of when we create a story and put together a group of characters are wide open. It does mean we think beyond our normal defaults of character and setting.

Which brings me to the third part of diversity, which is the diversity of readers. I don't know about you, but I have yet to find an author who would rather have fewer readers. But, for a variety of reasons, we have tended to write in such a way that has limited our readership by limiting the type and diversity of characters we present. And there are readers out there that figure if they aren't important enough to be represented in our fiction then clearly they aren't important enough to be a part of our readership and they will take their dollars somewhere they feel welcomed and valued. (And don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we should be interested in diversity only because it gives us the chance to make more money. But just from a practical standpoint, limiting your readership by deliberately restricting your pool of characters is just a dumbass move.)

I would suggest the solution to this call for diversity, to "fix" the problem of homogeneity in SF/F is as follows.
1. Be certain that each of us individually is doing our best to welcome a variety of voices into the genre. (Even the grumpy old white ones and newer liberal ball-busting ones, provided that folks are still being respectful of differences. It is possible, if not always easy, to disagree about certain issues and still respect folks as individuals.)
2. Write outside the box when we sort out our characters and settings. Think a little further afield than Tolkien or Jordan. Question why you might automatically make a character white/straight/male*. Assume that unless there is a specific reason why your characters shouldn't be diverse (i.e. your fictional planet is populated by clones) that they should be more reflective of reality. 
3. Consider whether your stories are excluding portions of your potential readership. Now, I don't ever suggest writing for a specific group of people (partly because I'm bad at that), but you can certainly look to see if you have included elements that you know will be offensive or which might be less inclusive** for no reason other than that's the way it's been done before.
4. Be passionate about what you write, no matter what color or gender or orientation your characters are. Because passion for your stories and your characters is what will appeal to readers. (Not your passion or support for a blanket type of fiction because down that road lies much ickiness.)

Because love for what you do is always going to be more appealing than disgust or hatred for what anyone else does.

*There is nothing wrong with straight-white-male characters. But we've seen a lot of them already, to the point that we tend to assume they are the best protagonist for any story. By reevaluating the instinct to have our protagonists be straight-white-males we give ourselves room for stories that are less formulaic or rehashing old tropes.

**Naturally, you can't include everyone in every story. But there are ways to avoid being exclusive, whether intentionally or unintentionally, if we put a little more thought into our story and character choices rather than chugging down the same old track which has already been chugged down a million times before.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Beginnings and Growth (Update 3.20.15)

While digging through stuff post-move, I ran across my first "novel". It clocked in at a stunning 164 pages and I wrote it when I was in high school. It was fun - a little space opera involving interplanetary intrigue - and also spectacularly awful.

Just for fun, here's the first page. (I don't think I ever titled this anything other than Shasta. Also, note the rip of the planetary name? I was a big Star Wars fan and had a crush on Han Solo and thought it would be totally cool to borrow Corillia (Corellia) for my book too.)

It was the year 6004. One the planet Corillia a new ruler had just come to power. This new ruler was Shasta Coral. She was the only descendant of the late Daren Coral. Kings, queens, princes and lords from the various surrounding planets were coming to pay their respects to the new ruler of Corillia. Many of them had a shock when they first saw Shasta. They had pictured her as being short and gracefully plump, with blue eyes and blonde hair, rosy cheeks, and a dimple in her chin when she smiled. Therefore it was quite startling to find that Shasta Coral was tall and slender, with black hair and green eyes, dark skin, and she had no dimple in her chin because she rarely smiled. 
Many of the visiting rulers were quite shocked about this, but there was a small group that was quite pleased. They could tell at a glance that this princess would make an excellent ruler. She was the type to stand up against anything. 
One man who was very please was a lord by the name of Van der Brecken. Hans Van der Brecken. He was a member of the Corillian Council. He was an extremely tall man. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, and he had a thick sort of accent. He waited until Princess Shasta was alone and then he went over to talk to her. 

So, first of all. I'm a little surprised I still have a copy of this manuscript because I really should have burned it years ago. But it's kind of amusing (in a toe curling way) to see where my roots in novel-writing lie. But there has also been something about the very basic structure of this story that I have always loved.

In 2008 (roughly 16 years after I wrote that first dreadful version) I wrote the following as a test prior to NaNoWriMo. (Although I have written as a hobby for most of my life, in 2008 I was finally starting to think about what I needed to do in order to write as a career. NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect challenge to test the waters, so to speak. But I wasn't sure I would be able to write the required number of daily words so I sat down and rattled off the opening scene of the now-evolved space opera plot as a test.)

This version also has problems. Number one is, the damn thing is unfinished. And those apostrophes. And the formal tone. But there's a lot more complexity to the notes I made on this version and there is a lot of development in the voice and craft (despite the aforementioned what-the-fuckery with names and formality).

So here's the first page or so of the version from 2008.

Incense filled the air, the thick, sweet ceremonial smell of death.

Na'Maru stood for a minute outside the great gates. Four years since she had stood here last and it seemed that nothing had changed. But the banners on the wall were not red in celebration of birth, nor black in the celebration of victory, nor green to welcome a new season but white, the color of mourning. In the distance bells tolled ceaselessly in lament. Not until the body of the king was laid to rest would they fall to silence again.

“My lady?” Gerard asked, a note of concern in his voice.

“It is nothing.” She straightened her shoulders. “Let us go in.”

Arrival through the gates was unnecessary. As the daughter of the heir-first she could have taken a skipper right into the estate. But Na'Maru had always enjoyed the walk from the massive gilt doors to the sprawling stone fortress that was the ancestral home of the family Makentyre. In older days many smaller walls had climbed the hill, protecting the king from encroaching threats.

Those walls were long since gone, their usefulness faded as were the stories of battle and bloodshed. The road had been widened and trees allowed to grow as they would. What had been a defensive feature was now little more than a walking park.

Gerard shook his head in disgust. “They grow lazy here in the central worlds.”

Na'Maru nodded but said nothing. They neared the top of the hill and the road became steps, broad and shallow. As they rose above the tree tops the city became visible, a dark and uneven mass that flattened out near the star-towers and climbed erratically into the mountains to the west.

Na'maru's staff-bearer made a chuckling noise that was not a laugh. “They have no fields,” she said.

“No, Anii'a. The fields are very far from here.”

“But if there is an attack how will they eat?”

“With great difficulty,” Gerard said wryly.
Sometimes it's easy to see where we've grown as writers. (At fifteen I could look back at the stories I wrote at the age of ten and see the improvement.) Other times it's not so simple. I compare the books I wrote last year with the one I'm writing now and wonder - am I getting better? Or just different?

The answer is yes. I write nearly every day and with every word I put down, I'm improving and growing and changing as a writer. That change may be so small that when I look at what I wrote today and compare it what I wrote a month ago, I won't see the difference. But I have to trust that in another year or three, I will. (I also have to recognize that people who aren't me may see the difference far more clearly. I do not, personally, see a lot of change between the current WiP and the last one, but my alpha-reader tells me the current one is much stronger. So, I keep writing and trust that I am doing what I'm supposed to.)

One of these days I'm going to tackle this (still unnamed) space opera and actually write a finished and not-full-of-suckage draft. One of these days.

In the meantime, it's one word at a time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Just Write A Good Story"

There are always a lot of advice-pellets regarding writing.
"Show, don't tell."
"You can't fix what isn't on the page."
"The story starts where the action begins."
"A chapter/book is as long as it needs to be."

We've all heard them. We've probably repeated a few of them or even printed them out and taped them over our writing spaces. (Somewhere online is the certificate that gives each writer permission to write a crap first draft.)

Sometimes those pieces of advice get taken the wrong way or offered as absolutes.
"Never start with a prologue."
"Never start with a character in their everyday life."
"POV/description must move like a camera in a film."

And sometimes a good piece of advice turns into something else altogether.

There are several variations on "Just write a good story." Sometimes it's expressed more in line with "Write it all down and then see what works and what doesn't." Sometimes you hear "Kill your darlings." All different riffs on the idea that every plot point, every character, every scene, and every word should serve the purpose of creating an engaging story and plot points/characters/scenes/words that don't serve the story need to be cut.

This is excellent advice.

But lately I keep seeing the phrase "Just write a good story" paired up with "Stop trying to write a message book." It came up in response to a column suggesting we should look beyond a binary gender presentation in fiction. It's been used as an argument against female protagonists specifically and also female characters in general who are more than a romantic interest or family matron. More recently I've seen it bandied about as the shut-out argument against diversity in fiction and especially in the fantasy genre. And by diversity, I mean including folks who are PoC, QUILTBAG and women as characters who are more than just bit parts. (And also as bit parts because if a world is diverse, the whole damn thing is, not just the protagonist and his/her/ier buddies.)

The assumption in every case is that any of these things that (some)* readers and (some) authors are asking for are somehow exclusive of presenting a good story. That somehow, if you want to have a cast of characters that are not all white and/or all male and/or all straight and/or all cis and/or all abled, that this automatically makes the book a "political message" rather than a good piece of fiction.

There are a number of words I would love to use in response to that idea, but, as much fun as I have with obscenity, in this case it only lends itself to an attitude of outrage which isn't helpful. 

Instead, I will point out two things.

First, the call for diversity in fiction is not a "socio-political message" - it's a call for a reality check. A little research shows that diversity is not only a fact of life now, but it has been for hundreds and thousands of years. (Yes, there are places in the world which were isolated, but they were primarily small, rare and not white. Partly because the majority of the world... isn't white.) Presenting characters who come from culturally diverse background, characters who are not all straight or male or abled, is not a radical statement of how the world should be - it's a reflection of how the world actually is. Giving me a world in which all the heroes are straight, white, cis, abled men is not realistic, it's wishful thinking**. 

Secondly, choosing not to present a diverse world in fiction is just as much a political message as choosing to is. Which is to say, it presents a certain bias - either toward inclusion or exclusion - because we are unable to completely divest ourselves of our personal assumptions about the world. When we choose the elements of our fictional world we are presenting a message. Period.

It might be something simple.
"Love is all you need."
"Love isn't enough."
"In the end we all die."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
"Every man for himself."
"All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."
"Anyone can be a hero."
"Money is the root of all evil."
"There are ghosts in the corners of your mind."

Or even, "Boys are icky, let's throw rocks at them."

Every book has some message to it. That does not mean they are not good stories. Nor does it mean that a good story must be presented within a certain cultural framework. It doesn't even mean that stories with really blatant messages are somehow inferior. (Think of books like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange or Ender's Game or even Hard Times. They are not lesser books or stories simply because they have a visible message.)

So maybe the advice should not be "Forget the message," but rather "Recognize your message." And then write a damn good story.

*I say "some" because there are, clearly, folks who feel differently and like things just the way they are.

** Can there be a good story reason to have this presentation as the norm? Sure. But since that's not what we see in the world around us I consider it to be a speculative element, part of the "what if?" of the story and therefore there needs to be a reason for it.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Persistence (Update 1.31.15)

This week I finished another round of revisions on the newest "little novella that wouldn't quit" and polished the synopses for a potential pitch from "kind of okay" to "OMG! EPIC!". (At least that's how it felt this morning when I finished three cups of coffee and the last half of the synopsis for book three.)

With this project, I succeeded, once again, in setting deadlines I didn't meet and turning a fairly simple plot idea into a complex and emotional little book that makes me *SQUEEE* a little when I read through it. Really, you'd think I'd start to expect this by now, but it still startles me. Probably some phase in the "growing as a writer" process; I continually anticipate I'm writing average genre work and then manage to surprise myself. (I'm less surprised when I remember when I wrote my first (and absolutely average) genre novella 21 years ago when I was fifteen. Given a few starts and stops due to college and work, I haven't stopped working at it since. So, maybe it's about time I start showing some sign of being, you know, good at what I'm doing.)

This week also marked a rather horrible round of self-doubt. The specific details don't really matter. Suffice to say it was because writer reasons*. And because this project has taken significantly more rounds of revision than the last. (The Summer Project aka The Spider Thief Novel, consisted of one rough draft and one polishing round to fill in a few blank spots. And writing the synopses. Then it was done. This one is currently on draft number five. Four of which have been written since November. But still. Five! Why isn't this easier, right?)

The point being, it's easy to get discouraged and forget that every project is different. Easy to forget that this writing thing really is hard. No matter how fun it may seem. Even if you do get to drink whole pots of coffee and sit around in yoga pants all day except for when you have to put on real clothes so you can get more coffee from that fancy grocery store. Easy to forget that with any creative endeavor there is some grain of I-do-this-because-I-love-it buried deep under all the other reasons and motivators.

Approaching writing like work has been a large part of why I've accomplished as much as I have. It's enabled me to remove my "self" from the stories I write. Which in turn has made me more honest in how I write because I don't link dislike or judgement of the work to dislike or judgement of me. It's also enabled me to learn how to set goals and work through rough spots even if I'm not feeling the vodka-addled pinch of my muse**. Because part of this work IS work and the art can always come later.

But, when things get rough I persist because I love writing. Even on the days when I really suck at it. Even on the days when I THINK I really suck at it. Even on the days when a rejection rolls in.

I persist because I love it.
And because coffee.
And love. 
*Writer reasons may include, but are not limited to, the following:
The wind was from the East.
I didn't have enough coffee.
I had too much coffee.
Something on TV made me angry.
I read something that was so good, I wanted to burn everything I'd ever written.
I read something so bad, I wanted to write All The Words just to show that fiction is not a waste of time.
Someone who should be supportive said something unsupportive about my work.
The story I was working on did not flow like water and I thought "I must be doing something wrong."
The story I was working on did flow like water and I thought "I must be doing something wrong."
I remembered thinking I was brilliant in college and wondered why I'm not already well-known and successful.
Thought a sentence my cat typed into my laptop with his ass made more sense than the chapter I'd just spent a week on.
Assorted craziness.
Unavailability of chocolate in the house.

** This should not be interpreted to mean that vodka is my muse.
My muse however, tends to sit in the corner chainsmoking and trying to find his way to the bottom of a bottle of vodka while periodically slurring "Just finish the damn book." And then he passes out.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: Another Year Gone

This past year I accomplished a number of things. Among them:

I found a fantastic literary agent.
I wrote approximately 280k words on various novels/novellas; including heavy revisions to The Steampunk Novel, finishing/revising The Spider Thief and The Assassin King, and finishing/revising The Super-Secret Project. (The rest of the words written were on Old Guard - a space opera, and Thingbreaker - a magicpunk novel. But neither of them have reached a "finished" state yet.)
I attended my first ever convention and met a bunch of really awesome folks.

Acquiring an agent and writing/finishing a new novel were both big milestones for me.
The first is a big step toward finding a publisher for my novels (in all their genre-rich glory) and means I can spend more time writing. (Compared to 2013 which was a pretty slow year for me, I was super-productive. Mostly because I was not wading through the query trenches and could actually spend my time putting words on the page rather than researching potential agents.)
The second was proof that I could move on to the next thing after having spent a lot of time in the previous years working through all the flailing mess that is writing a first novel. (To be fair, I wrote some other stuff during that time too, including the first steaming pile that is now the in-progress draft of Thingbreaker.)

A few things I didn't do this year:
Write/sell more short stories.
Finish a third novel this fall. (That was what I meant to do with Old Guard, but a sudden move + family drama + H1N1 = only part of that book got written.)
Sell one of the novels.

The latter is something I've been wrestling with the past few weeks. The holidays are a difficult time for me anyway and it was a perfect opportunity for doubt to sneak in and tell me I'm not good enough to do this writing thing on a permanent basis. If I were, the agent would have had no trouble finding a home for my novels. If I were, wouldn't I be making more money at it?

And, here's the thing, I would really like to already have book contracts and a nice advance on any of the things I wrote this year. But I have to remember that the life of an author is a marathon, not a sprint. Not only does the business move slowly, but it's a long-distance proposition. One book doesn't make a career, even if it should happen to sell immediately.

Right now I am building a body of work. Unpublished? Yes. But that can (and will) change at any time.
In the meantime, I am writing - which is something I love - and telling stories that scare me in the best possible way. It's not time to give up, it's time to push forward.

So here's to the New Year and the opportunity every day brings.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Short Fiction in 2014

I've not had a lot published this year, but as the SF/F awards season starts to gear up, I thought I would share what I've had published this year.

Vessels for Destruction - Nature Magazine: Futures (Feb 6, 2014)

The Collections Agent - Stupefying Stories (Feb 14, 2014) [Now as an ebook reprint]

The Spider Thief and the Sorcerer - Crowded Magazine (May 15, 2014)

Legacy - Beast Within 4: Gears & Growls (October 31, 2014)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Momentum (11.13.14)

For several years I've been a bit of a NaNoWriMo rebel, taking the month as an added incentive to revise existing projects rather than tackle new ones. It's not because I don't like working on new material, but there are priorities to consider.

Last year I was working on revisions to the Steampunk Novel. This year I started the month finishing up a novella I'd started in September. (Finished on Monday at 34k! Woot!) Now I'm focusing on the first draft of a new novel I'm hoping to finish before Christmas.

I've always found that moving between projects is a little challenging. Usually there's a period of down time in which I try and figure out what to work on next. (Like every other writer under the sun, my list of possible projects is ridiculous. I could write for years just finishing up all the ideas I have today.) There's also a shift in creative energy as I transition between that final dig to finish something up to the wilder and (usually) more optimistic period of figuring out what exactly I'm doing with the new project. And, any time I'm not writing every day it's always harder to pick it back up again (the same as it is with breaking and reestablishing any routine).

This time I knew what I wanted to work on and I was fairly settled into a writing routine; the biggest challenge would be finding the energy to start a new project right on the heels of the last.

But this time, I had a plan. On November 1st, I started working on the new project before I had finished the last one. I didn't write a lot or every day (I had a novella to finish, after all), but I dipped my toes into the new project and let myself start getting a feel for the characters before it was the only thing on my plate.

It was interesting. I've worked multiple projects before, but not with as much... intention, I think is the best way to describe it. This time the goal was to get comfortable with the Space Opera before I finished up the SuperSecretProject. It wasn't to get an arseload of words on the page. My one purpose was to introduce myself to the characters.

Boy, what an introduction. I had a plot in mind and I noodled around sketching out the opening and, as I did, I started to see things about my MC. I started to see things about the way she interacted with the secondary characters and how they interacted with her. And before I knew it I had 12k words and a surprisingly clear vision for the book.

It's still a hot mess, because it's in that stage where every novel is a hot mess. (You know that stage, when the plot still has a few holes and subplots are just a scene or two here and there.) But I do seem to have taken the momentum from the last project (the SuperSecretProject) and transferred it to the new one. Which is kind of amazing considering how different the two are. (Like night and day.)

But there you go. Words on the page, every day. And that's always a good thing.