Sunday, April 19, 2015

Writing Stories Set in Societies That Aren't Ours

 Writing from the point of view of someone who isn't like oneself. This is an issue faced by most fiction writers, of course. Most of us don't want to write stories with different versions of ourselves over and over and over. But writers of historical and speculative fiction have a special problem: they're writing in settings where the characters are likely to have very different sensibilities from modern readers.

Writers of historical fiction have a more restrictive situation, since they're constrained by what we actually know about a period of history. If your novel is set in ancient Rome, or the antebellum South, you have to have slavery. And attitudes about everything from the role and status of women, treatment of children, treatment of animals, pluralism, class/castes etc. varied greatly with time and place, but they were usually quite different from our modern sensibilities. Fantasy writers have more leeway, as they can construct worlds and societies that are different from history. But it's still unlikely that the attitudes held by characters in a different society are going to mirror ours in all, or even most respects.

This leads to some questions about both world building and characterization. How do you portray your world and character in a way that's plausible, internally consistent and different without alienating modern readers?

The answer is complex.

First of all, one should do meticulous homework. This is vital when writing in a real-world setting, but it's important for writers who creates fictional worlds too. One shouldn't rely on what "everyone" knows about a given time and place. Some conventional wisdom is wrong, and even carefully researched history often ignores the perspectives or contributions of marginalized people unless you really dig for them.

On a lighter note, many modern readers assume that Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter represents an accurate view of 19th century German morality regarding child rearing, but in fact, the stories were very tongue in cheek, and cutting children's thumbs off was no more acceptable then than it is now. Hoffmann was an interesting mix of qualities, in fact, with some attitudes that were very ahead of his time, and some that weren't.

Secondly, people living in a given place and time aren't monolithic. History tends to focus on averages and blur distinctions between groups and individuals. I've often wondered how historians (let alone pop culture) of the future might portray the attitudes and norms of Americans during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I can think of several social issues that are currently very much in contention. Presenting an "average" way everyone thinks about them is impossible, even for modern pollsters. Anyone who has been in a conversation with friends and family (let alone online) about the divisive, or even not-so-divisive, issues of the day knows this.

Results from 2010 Gallup Poll shows how divided modern people are on many issues. The gap between what people say they believe and how they actually behave may be even wider on some of these issues, at least.

 People hold a wide variety of views and these views are even sometimes inconsistent or self-contradictory. Societal baselines change over time, but that doesn't mean no one in the past overlapped with modern views. Imagine a hypothetical future where nearly everyone (except an occasional depraved weirdo) is vegetarian and it's illegal to spank one's kids. Will writers of historical fiction insist that it's unrealistic to portray any early 21st century Americans as being anti-spanking or as vegetarians simply because the average person living in our times eats meat and hits their kids? And even more tellingly, would they insist on presenting everyone who eats meat and practices corporal punishment as having the exact same approach to or attitude about their own behavior?

Thirdly, one must consider who you are writing your story for, or to put it another way, what the purpose of your story is.

--Is it simply to entertain the reader by transporting them to an "exotic," yet still relatable time and place, a setting that's foreign yet fun? This is often referred to as "escapist" fiction. Some readers of historical romance, or fantasy want to enter a fairy tale (and not one that resembles the original darker versions of fairy tales either). Writers of grittier or more "realistic" fiction may poo poo this, but I don't think it's necessarily wrong.

--Is it to indulge a power fantasy that one might have about living in a world where their kind of person has a level of autonomy, acceptance, and control they probably lacked in real history, or might even lack in the world today? Another kind of escapism, I suppose.

--Is it to subtly explore a different perspective or world view in a critical way (or in a way that shines a light on our own)?

--Is it to create a "what if" scenario, an alternative world where history unfolded differently because of the speculative story elements?

--Is it to give the reader a chance to see what it would have been like, possibly, to be an outlier in a historical setting (for instance, to be an abolitionist in the antebellum South or a pioneering feminist during the Early Modern Era)?

--Is it simply there to show the reader how things really were once upon a time (maybe so that they're damned glad they don't live in the story world)?

--Is it to immerse the reader in a different world view or set of sensibilities and do it so seamlessly that they internalize them for the duration of the story?

--Is it to create characters that the reader can like and relate to on a visceral level?

None of these reasons is necessarily wrong, and not all are mutually exclusive, but goals and target audience will determine how a writer approaches a story with characters who have sensibilities that might be repellent to most characters. The thing to keep in mind is that no approach is likely to appeal to all readers. Their own experiences in life, and who they are, will determine what they're comfortable reading.

I have more thoughts on this issue, but I think this is a good stopping place for today.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Nice Change of Pace

Doug and I just got back from a trip to Depoe Bay Oregon. My sister in law Amber organized it to celebrate a milestone birthday for Mike, my father in law. We stayed in a very nice beachfront "cottage" that had an extraordinary view of the ocean.

View from living room window
We actually saw some spouting and breaching whales from time to time. We had fourteen people total, as Doug's father, stepmother Michele, Sisters Angela and Amber (with their husbands Dino and Ian), and our teen-aged nephew Antonio and our three young nieces Ava, Mia, and Kia were all there, along with two old family friends Les and Eileen. The place was set up to sleep up to nineteen, however, and most importantly it had four bathrooms.

Doug and I brought Wiley and Roxy as well, though Flick stayed behind at the WAG hotel (she's what the veterinary behaviorists at the UC Davis vet school call a hyper-vigilant dog, so she does not do well in chaotic conditions with lots of new people running around). Wiley got tons of petting. Roxy did okay, but she was a bit confused at first. She's fifteen and doesn't see or hear so well anymore, so it took her a while to figure out the layout of the place. She still enjoyed walking on the beach, in spite of her arthritis. It's sad, though, seeing how much she's slowed down. She was a big hit with the girls, though, and they seemed to understand the need to treat her gently.

The only less than ideal thing about the place was that it lacked any good tidepooling rocks. We still managed to find some interesting marine life washed up on the beach, most notably some driftwood that was positively crawling with some kind of (I think) wood boring clams or mussels [edit--it turns out to have been Lepus aniterfera, the goose-necked barnacle], and some blue jellies (Velella velella) that have been reportedly washing up all over Pacific coast beaches lately.

Mysterious blue jellies-Velella

Lepas Anitfera, goose-neck barnacles on driftwood

I remember seeing something similar years ago when I was at the beach at the Sonoma Coast State Park in Northern California. Except those jellies were clear and colorless, not blue, and my Father dubbed them "alien condoms." Evidently, the aliens are back and partying on our beaches, and they've decided to add the excitement of color to their experience. I haven't managed to look up the mollusc species, but they were pretty impressive, as they formed writhing masses of tentacle-like things (those would be the muscular foot part of their anatomy).

The water was too cold for swimming, of course, but we got lucky with the weather, and there was a breeze that was ideal for kite flying. My niece Ava got a kite as one of her birthday gifts, so she had fun flying it.

One way I am blessed is that I get along with both sides of my husband's family, and he gets along with mine. Maybe it's because we're all crazy in a similar way or something. All in all it was a wonderful opportunity to break from our usual routine and have a change of scenery for a few days. A lot of driving, but I don't usually get up to Oregon during the Spring, so it was a treat.

Doug, Wiley and Roxy
Oh, and one unusual thing that happened to us on the way up was that Wiley got to meet another kelpie at a rest area outside of Shasta. He was thrilled. He was less thrilled by the gigantic Newfoundland he met on the beach on Saturday. Wiley has a distinct bias towards dogs close to his own size or smaller as playmates.

We're home now and have picked up a very excited Flick from the boarding kennel (where we pay extra to have the trainers work on her with socialization), and we have made up with our cats. I'm looking forward to spending the rest of spring break relaxing and catching up with my grading and work.

Sadly no requests from any agents arrived in my inbox while I was gone (no rejections either). It appears that a couple of agents I queried back in early Feb have skipped me, as (according to Querytracker) they've sent rejections and made requests from more recent submissions. I don't know what to make of this, as they're agents who generally have a high response rate (as opposed to ones where no reply means no) one way or the other. So I have the fun of deciding whether my queries to them were eaten by Spam filters or lost (so maybe I should re-query), or so horrible they didn't dignify a response, or if they're still trying to decide about them (in either of these latter cases, re-querying would be offensive). I don't think my letter and opening pages are horrific, as I got very encouraging early nibbles from a couple of agents. They turned into nos, but I was hopeful I'd get some more requests at least. Since then, though, it's been crickets.

Querying is a harrowing process, and I honestly don't know now if I should rework my query letter and opening pages, and if so, how. I wish I knew of my writing time was best spent on the sequel for UH (so a draft, at least would be ready if someone does want to rep it and it sells), or if I should just write something completely new (and essentially give up on UH and the series I hoped it would become).

Sunday, March 15, 2015

SF and F "Have You Read These Great Books" Lists

A lot of those lists have been circulating lately: the ones that give you a list of great SF and/or fantasy novels and ask you to check off the ones you've read. The higher the number the better your geek credentials. Some are based on an individual's feelings about which novels are best and most important, while others (like this list compiled by npr) are based on surveys. Nothing wrong with these in their place. We all have our preferences, and if we learn about some books we haven't read in our favorite genres then it's all for the good.

But there are a few of things about these lists that could be better.

One is that they nearly always focus on individual novels and not authors. So there may be a handful of very prolific and famous authors (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, LeGuin and others) who end up dominating. If you don't care for Asimov or Heinlein (say), you'll likely perform more poorly than if you're not fond of someone who only has one book on the list.

Another is it can be tricky to know what "counts" as having read a given book. If the entire Foundation series is listed, and you only read the first book (deciding it wasn't for you after), then should you tick it off or not? For that matter, how much of an individual book should you have read before it "counts"?

If more of these were lists of authors' names, rather than lists of famous books or series, some of the ambiguity would go away. I think it would also remedy another problem with these lists: they're not terribly diverse.

This list (from Michael Sullivan's blog) is more inclusive than some and lists a number of authors/books who may be less familiar to some readers.

In contrast, one of the most infamous examples of a poll that ignores a huge chunk of SF and F talent is the Guardian survey, where only 4% of the polled readers' favorite SF and F novels were by women. While the npr survey was better, only 14% of the titles on their list were by women.

Some people claim this is because there are few women actually writing SF and F out there, but this is not true. Approximately 40% of SFWA members are women. 20% of Hugo awards have been won by women since 1968 (the percentage is higher in recent years) and about 39% of Nebulas and about 39% of the Arthur C Clarke Awards. The John W Campbell award for the best new writer is close to 50% female writers. So there doesn't seem to be a dearth of women writing quality SF and F either.

This guest post by Cheryl Morgan (on the SFWA site) sums the issue up very well.

So why aren't people noticing and remembering female speculative fiction authors more often? I don't know, but it's more than a little disheartening to those of us who are female and attempting to break into print in these genre. While being female doesn't seem to make it harder to get published in the genre (though it's hard to know for sure without access to slush pile statistics), or to receive awards, it does seem to make it harder to be noticed or remembered by everyday fans.

I've always disliked lists that separate out women this and female that as a special subcategory (it rings too much of that old, condescending "Lady Authors" or "Lady Scientists" thing), especially in areas where women are not a small minority. But given that female writers of speculative fiction are overlooked or forgotten more often than their male counterparts, then it may be a necessary evil.

So I've compiled a list of (approximately) 100 female authors of SF and F. Some of these women are famous, some have written bestsellers, and many have won one or more of the awards mentioned above. Others are women who were writing back in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Some wrote (or write) under male or neutral sounding pseudonyms. I didn't vet the list according to any standard of literary merit, even my own. I love some of these writers, don't care for others, and have yet to read a number of them. It's also not an exhaustive list. There are a ton of women I didn't include (since I was shooting for just a hundred). There are a few authors on here (like Margaret Atwood) who are not primarily speculative fiction writers, but some of their famous work has crossed that line. Most, however, are firmly within the genre.

I didn't include specific book or story titles here. Most of these writers wrote a number of books, and as stated above, I find surveys that ask readers which authors they've read or are familiar with to be better than ones that ask about specific titles.

So how many of these authors have you read, or at least attempted to read? How many have you never even heard of? And are there any you think should be added to this list?

Margaret Atwood
Kage Baker
Elizabeth Bear
Danielle Bennett
Gertrude Barrow Bennett
Carol Berg
Anne Bishop
Leigh Brackett
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Patricia Briggs
Kristen Britain
Lois McMaster Bujold
Emma Bull
Octavia Butler
Trudi Canavan
Jacqueline Cary
Margaret Cavendish
Suzy McKee Charnas
CJ Cherryh
Deborah Chester
Miriam Allen DeFord
Amanda Downum
Kate Elliot
Lynn Flewelling
Mary Gentle
Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire
Carolyn Ives Gilman
Nicola Griffith
Barbara Hambley
Elizabeth Hand
Norma K Hemming
Robin Hobb
Nalo Hopkinson
Tanya Huff
Kameron Hurley
PD James
NK Jemisin
Susannah Clark Jonathan
Diana Wynne Jones
Gwyneth Jones
Jaida Jones
Kay Kenyon
Katherine Kerr
Francis Knight
Mary Robinette Kowal
Katherine Kurtz
Ellen Kushner
Mercedes Lackey
Glenda Larke
Anne Leckie
Tanith Lee
Madeline L'Engle
Ursula K LeGuin
Doris Lessing
Jane Lindskold
Malinda Lo
Karen Lord
Jane Loudon
Marie Lu
Anne Lyle
Julian May
Anne McCaffrey
Vonda McIntryre
Patricia McKillip
Elizabeth Moon
CL Moore
Pat Murphy
Linda Nagata
Andre Norton
Naomi Novik
Yvonne Nvarro
Nnedi Okorafor
Taomora Pierce
Cat Rambo
Melanie Rawn
Laura Resnick
JK Rowling
Joanna Russ
Mary Doria Russell
Michelle Sagara
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Nisi Shawl
Mary Shelly
Alison Sinclair
Vandana Singh
Kristine Smith
Maria V. Snyder
Margaret St. Claire
Michelle St. Claire
Francis Stevens
Mary Stewart
Tricia Sullivan
Rachel Swirsky
Amy Tan
Sherri Tepper
James Tiptree Junior
Amy Thompson
Jo Walton
Margaret Weiss
Kate Wilheim
Connie Willis

Friday, February 20, 2015

More Stuff On Diversity in Fiction

My friend and critiquing buddy Nick Mena has just interviewed a couple members of our critiquing group, Nyki Blatchley and Daniel Ausema, about diversity in their own work and in general.

Relatedly, Nyki has just included a post on his own blog which discusses one the most profound and important reason for including diversity in one's work: realism.

Coincidentally, author Malinda Lo said something very similar in her own blog today.

We live in a complex world that has a variety of people in it and always has. There's no reason to suppose that this wouldn't be true in a fantasy or SF world as well (unless, perhaps, you're writing a dystopia where everyone is cloned or something). The idea that only one *kind* of person (or culture) has experiences worth writing about is as ludicrous as it is offensive.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Diversity in Fantasy 2015

My friend and critting partner Nick Mena is interviewing some writer friends on his blog Sanocho Pot this month. It's worth checking out.

Here's a link to his interview with me last year about my own novel, which is now being queried.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fly on the Wall Hears Comment From Girl Gamer

Sometimes life hands you these interesting fly on the wall moments. I waiting for my car to be smogged the other day when a middle aged man came into the shop with his seven year old daughter. While they were waiting their turn, the little girl pulled out a tablet and started playing a game of some kind. Her dad asked her if it was a fun game, and here was the exchange, more or less:

Girl: It's fun, even though it's a boy's game.

Dad: What makes it a boy's game?

Girl: They only let you play a boy [name for avatar or character I didn't catch].

Dad: Ahhh.

Girl (still tapping on her screen): It's fun to play a boy sometimes, but I wish they'd let me play a girl.

Sounds like the gaming industry still has some catchup to do. News flash: girls, even very young ones, do play games. And at least some of them wish there were more with female avatars.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

List of Useful Resources For Writers

I've been quiet lately. The holidays came and went very quickly, and now I'm embroiled in a new semester at the college. I've also been starting the time-consuming and terrifying process of querying my novel. For the uninitiated, this means that I had to polish up a query blurb or pitch and come up with a short synopsis and go through yet another polishing pass on my novel.

And of course, there's the process of compiling a list of agents who appear to be interested in representing the kind of novel I've written (a secondary world fantasy that is stand alone but definitely looking to be first of at least three, and at the upper end of the recommended length for first-time authors).

This last is more time-consuming than one might think. Each agent has their own submission guidelines. Some want just a letter, some want a letter and a few pages, some want x number of chapters, some want a synopsis with the query and or pages and so on. So checking and double checking to make sure you know who wants exactly what is very important.

I've sent just one small stack so far. I'm taking the go in small batches approach for several reasons. One, if it turns out I have a bum query letter or that the opening of my novel is not as appealing as I and my beta readers hope, I can reconsider before I've blown through all my preferred choices. Two, January isn't the best time of year for querying, both because of the backlog many agents have after the Holidays, and because November is NaNoWriMo, so I'm guessing many of them get a pile of unpolished, 50,000 word manuscripts during December and January. There's that New Year's Resolution thing too.

So my plan is to wait for whatever feedback (or lack thereof) I get from this round and revise my approach as seems appropriate.

These past few years have gone by quickly. Time flies when you're writing and editing, I guess. I've learned a lot, both from the two online writing communities I participate in, and from the Cascade Writer's Workshops I've attended. I've also amasses a pile of web sites I've consulted over the years. I figured it might be helpful to create a blog entry that places links to these in one place for easy reference. There's an emphasis on fantasy writing, since that's my primary interest, but many of the sites and blogs I've linked are aimed at all writers.

As always, if anyone has any recommendations, let me know, and I'll add them.

Hope everyone's 2015 is prosperous, healthy and happy.

List of Writing Sites I've Found Helpful


Grammar, Punctuation etc.

Point of View, Narration, Dialog, and Voice

Present and Past Tense in Writing

Character Creation

World Building

Process and General Writing Advice

Giving and Receiving Critiques

Online Writing Communities

Cliches and Tropes

Novel Length


Researching Agents and Publishers

Author Blogs

Social Issues in Writing and Fandom

Books I've Found Helpful

Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress
Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood
Description by Monica Wood
On Writing by Stephen King
Plot by Ansen Dibdel
Rivet Your Readers With Deep PoV by Jill Elizabeth Nelson
Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
The 10% Solution by Ken Rand
The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease
Violence, a Writer's Guide by Rory Miller
Writing Fight Scenes by Marie Brennan
Writing the Fight Right by Alan Baxter
Writing the Other, a Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward