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

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Links to sites about women that might be of use to writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy

 Since Ursula K LeGuin won both awards for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970, women have won approximately 1/3 of the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel (and have done even better in the past two decades). And even before the 1960s, there were a number of women who wrote SF and F, including Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Judith Merrill, Naomi Mitchison. And Frankenstein, sometimes referred to as the first true SF novel, was written by Mary Shelly.

Frustratingly, many people think that female writers of speculative fiction are almost as exceptional today as they were back in the early 20th century. In fact, women are writing close to half of all fantasy and SF (numbers are greater to parity in the US than in the UK for some reason), and in the time period between 2010-2014, there were 13 debut SFF authors published (according to publishers marketplace), six of whom were women. However, female authors tend to be reviewed less often than male authors.

There is also a widespread idea that women don't read SF and F nearly as much as men do. It's hard to get exact numbers. The SFWA had an article a while back on the gender break down of SF readers specifically, and stated that fifty seven percent of SF readers are male, but it didn't examine fantasy. Approximately forty percent of comics fans are women. Conventional wisdom has it that women are more likely to read fantasy than SF, and are more likely to read urban contemporary fantasy than epic or secondary world fantasy, but my Google fu has not been coming up with any statistics to back these assumptions up. If anyone can direct me to any resources that shed light on this, I'd be very grateful.

I've been collecting links and information about gender equality and gender representation in speculative fiction since the SFWA "kerfuffle" during the summer of 2013. Rather than spend a lot of time discussing each and every issue that's relevant, I thought I'd sort through these links by category (as best I could, as some really could fit into more than one) and list them here. I know that having sites that are relevant to these things (somewhat) organized and handy is helpful to me, and I hope it might be of use o some other SF and F writers and fans too. And if you know of any good articles or data I haven't linked, please let me know. I'd be especially interested in any that focus on issues relevant to women of color in speculative fiction.

Equality in SF&F and elsewhere: As mentioned above, people tend to underestimate the number of women who are writing SF and F, and fans of both genders tend to name fewer female authors when asked to list their favorites. There are also some links on the more general issue of that very delicate topic that is known as "privilege" in society, more from the perspective of trying to explain what the term means in this context. Some links related to the 2013 SFWA "kerfuffle" are also included.

The Strange Horizons Count for 2013 This shows the proportion of SFF books by women and PoC received by Locus compared to the percentage reviewed.

Fandom and Gender: I've had a heck of a time getting any hard data on the percentages of fantasy readers who are women. If anyone knows of any surveys or data on this, please let me know.

Female writers of SF and F: Names of female SF and F writers and some statistics about the gender breakdown of writers.

Gender identity and sexual orientation in writing SFF: Though the issues facing people who are LGBTQ are not the same as those facing women, both as writers and readers, there is some overlap. I included some sites that may be handy for writers who are interested in including more diversity in their work but are afraid of perpetuating stereotypes.

Queer 101: Rooster Tales Comics.

Reaching Into the Quiltbag: The Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction, by Julia Rios

History and sociology: Historical accuracy is often used as an excuse for excluding women from fantasy (more than SF) or from limiting women to supporting roles in stories. There are a huge numbers of misconceptions about the roles women have played in history. And of course, one of the largest is that fantasy is usually taking place in a real historic setting to begin with.

History of the cesarean section part 1 and part 2

Inspiration: Sites that might be a source of ideas for characters, cultures, or stories: Some women from history and legend. Truth really is is often stranger than fiction.

Science, Sociology and Gender Differences: Some links to make you rethink everything you always thought you knew about gender differences. No one is saying men and women don't differ, or experience many things differently, for both biological and sociological reasons. But the variation within one gender is generally greater than the average differences between the genders.

Stereotypes and Tired Female Tropes in Fiction: Some of these are amusing, some are eye rolling. It's not so much that stereotypes are always wrong, or that any one use of these tropes is a problem in of itself. It's the rarity of stories and characters that don't embrace them that is the problem.

Writing as a Woman: Some reflections on issues facing women writers at a more personal level.

Writing female characters: Some more resources to help writers of either gender who wish to include more women in their stories and to make them better-rounded characters.

Fun stuff Related to Gender in SF and F: Some things that are worth a chuckle, and also some thought.

Blogs by SFF Authors Who Often Write About Gender-Related Issues.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 3

 This is the third installment of my take on questions that pop up frequently on online writing sites. The previous two can be found here:

Scene breaks: What are they, and how do I designate them?

These represent breaks in time or place (for instance, when you don't want to include a description of traveling from point A to point B). They're also used when you switch point of view character within a given chapter. In published novels, they're usually indicated by a blank line or a fancy little symbol, but in standard manuscript format, you simply type a # and center it.

Should I outline before writing or "pants it"?

This is really a matter of personal preference. Some people can't write a thing without a solid outline, some are inveterate pantsers, and many are somewhere in between. I tend to need to pants my first draft, but after, I'll outline in order to organize my thinking about what needs to be revised and rewritten. Some people pants some projects and outline others. Whatever works for getting a finished draft on the page. Finished drafts can be rewritten, revised, and polished.

Should I practice with short stories before trying a novel?

There's a lot to be said for this approach. Short stories are less intimidating and faster to write, and they can help you practice your writing chops. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have some writing credits when you're trying to sell your first novel. But if the novel isn't what an agent or editor wants, then all the publications and awards in the world probably won't help. And if you don't enjoy writing short fiction, then trying to force yourself to write it can be like hitting yourself with a hammer.

For a little perspective, there are plenty of successful novelists who never sold any short fiction prior to selling their first novel, and there are successful short fiction writers who have never published a novel. Short fiction and novel length are very different in some ways, and the skill sets don't always overlap perfectly.

Do what works best for you.

Should I try something bold and experimental for my first novel?

Most people will tell you no because you have to crawl before you walk (and there is plenty of disagreement about what actually is bold and experimental anyway). But if this advice means you're not writing that story that's been burning to get out for years and are trying to force something simpler that doesn't grab you, then it's not much good. The question is, how tolerant are you of frustration? How willing are you to rewrite, maybe even re-conceive a project if it doesn't turn out the way you planned or if your critiquers all tell you it gave them whiplash to try and read it?

Another thing to consider is what style of novel have you read the most of. If you have a penchant for literary fiction, then writing a fantasy novel that incorporates techniques that are more common in literary fiction might come very naturally to you.

Should I finish a first novel draft before revising or revise as I go?

Another personal taste thing. There are some revision writers, but consider that a lot of novels never get finished because the writer gets hung up rewriting and polishing the opening chapters. A crappy first draft is revisable, whereas a story that exists only in your head is never going to be perfected.

Showing versus telling. What does it mean?

It's the difference between writing a narrative summary of an event or emotion, and actually immersing your reader in it. And while we're often reminded of the importance of immersion, a novel that shows everything that happens in lavish detail would be excessively long and very slowly paced. There's a place for telling or summarizing, and there's a place for showing.

Example of telling:

I rushed across town but was late to the play. The usher wouldn't let me in until intermission. This made me sad because my date would think I'd stood him up.

Example of showing:

I dashed through the streets, dodging holiday shoppers and ducking though every alley. But when I arrived at the theater, the usher shook his head and pointed to one of the seats in the lobby. "Sorry, ma'am. Play's started. I can't let you in until intermission."

Tears pricked at my eyelids. Tom was probably sitting in there next to an empty seat, wondering why I'd stood him up. "Damn."

Notice that showing and telling exist on a continuum, and if you want to be ultra nit picking, everything we do in writing is really telling (since we are using words and not using a camera). But some word choices will depict a scene or immerse the reader more fully in the emotions and experiences of your character than others will. Telling/summarizing isn't always bad, either. Sometimes we should skim over things that are needed to connect the dots between the important stuff in a story. The thing you should really ask yourself is whether or not you want to present a series of events, words, thoughts, or emotions as if they are happening in the story's here and now, or do you want to summarize them for the reader.

Swear words in secondary-world fantasy. Are they okay? Are they required?

Yes, but they're not mandatory. There's an entire spectrum of approaches that work here, from Tolkien, who used none, to Jordan who made up his own swear words, to Scott Lynch, whose characters drop plenty of F and S

bombs. Many modern fantasy writers have characters with more contemporary, and often profane, voices, but not all do.

This article is an amusing dissection of the topic.

What is a query letter?

This is essentially a professional communication that is intended to convince an agent or editor that you've written a novel that's well-written and interesting enough to be marketable. The point is to get them to want to read the opening chapter and (hopefully) get sucked in.

Generally, queries consist of 1-4 short paragraphs, and are 250 words or less (shorter is better). They should be written in third person, present tense, and are not attempts to summarize the entire plot, but they should address a few basic questions.

1. Who is your protagonist?
2. What does he or she want?
3. What major obstacle must be overcome to get this?
4. What happens if he or she fails (the stakes)?

Janet Reid's website Query Shark is an invaluable resource for writers who are trying to hash out a query, as is the Absolute Write's Water Cooler's Query Letter Hell subforum (which is pw protected, so I can't link it here directly).

What is a plot synopsis?

This is a longer (usually one page to ten pages, depending on an agent or editor's stipulations) summary of your story's main arc. Like the query letter, it should be written in present tense and third person, but it is supposed to
reveal the main crisis and resolution, and the ending of the story, not just set up the major breaking point.

Here's a decent rundown of what a plot synopsis is.

Why don't my friends/loved ones all want to read or provide feedback on my stories?

This is a common question newer writers have. Think about the strain it might place on a relationship you cherish if someone asked you to provide an unbiased review of something they'd poured their heart into, and you didn't like it. Then there's the fact that reading and critting a story, let alone an entire novel, represents a huge investment in time and energy, and most people who don't write themselves won't know how to give useful feedback anyway. Better to join an online or offline writer's group or critting circle.

There' also simply the chance that your friends and relatives aren't big on reading, or don't care for the kind of story you're writing. Do you really want your fantasy-hating brother to tell you whether or not you've written a good fantasy novel (unless, perhaps, your goal is to write fantasy for people who hate fantasy)?

A great site for people who write fantasy to discuss writing-related issues and to give and receive critiques is

If I dislike reading fiction, can I still write it?

This one puzzles me more than the others, I have to admit. First of all, why would you want to create something you dislike? I want to write, because ever since I've been tiny, written stories have been a source of delight to me. But that's me, and I suppose everyone is different.

To answer the question, though, of course you can write fiction if you don't read it. No one's going to stop you. But I think an enjoyment of reading (and doing a lot of it) is pretty darned important if you want to read fiction that very many other people will want to read.
One of the more puzzling attitudes I've encountered among would-be writers

The basics of storytelling, the rhythm and flow of language, and the fundamentals of grammar are things people have varying knacks for. And of course we can all improve greatly on our basic talents by studying craft and practicing it. But a lot of what feels intuitive to me as a writer, a lot of the things I feel (and have been told) I do fairly well are things I've picked up from reading a ton of fiction and non fiction both.

I suppose there may be a very occasional literary prodigy out there. But I suspect that the overwhelming majority of skilled (let alone successful) writers are also voracious and enthusiastic readers.

So this is it for now. Does anyone have any other questions or thoughts on the answers to such? 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 2

 My last entry addressed some questions that come up with unfailing regularity on the writing sites I frequent. today, I will continue with these questions. Again, these answers are my own opinions, though they're based on the consensus that generally emerges from discussion threads on these topics and from my own research.

Can a book have the same title as another book (or are titles trademarked)?

No, individual book titles are not copyrighted or trademarked. However, titles associated with franchises (like, say, Star Trek), or titles for a series of books (for instance, the famous Harry Potter series) often are. But if you're worried about the title for your individual book duplicating the title of another individual book that does not incorporate the name of a franchise or series, it's most likely not an issue.
An example of two contemporary novels with duplicate titles
In fact, a quick search for a book of a given title on Amazon reveals that it's exceedingly common for books by different authors to have the same titles.

Whether it's a good idea or not is another question. It's probably not great to have the same title as a classic work, or as a well-known work in the same genre. Publishing another fantasy novel called A Game of Thrones (even if the title hadn't been incorporated into that of a successful television franchise) is a bad idea, for instance, and you could get in trouble if it looks like you're actually trying to capitalize on George RR Martin's success by "passing off" your own work as his.

But some names are more generic than others, even so. A search of the title The Stranger, for instance, finds (in addition to the English translation of Camus's classic), a number of more recent novels.

Another thing to be aware of, if you're pursuing trade publishing (the route by which you submit manuscripts to agents and/or publishing houses), there's a very real chance your "working title" will be changed prior to publication. Editors often have a better idea than writers do what is potentially attention grabbing.

Is it bad to write in present tense?

Nope. The approach is fairly popular in YA fantasy (Wendig's Under the Empyrean Sky uses a deep, limited third pov in present tense), but there are plenty of examples in adult fiction too. Like with anything else, think about the effect you're trying to produce and strive to do it well.

Juliette Wade has a nice blog piece about writing in present tense.

Italics for a character's internal thoughts: Is it okay to do this?

This is a question that can probably be answered by grabbing some books down from your own shelves. Some writers use this technique, some don't. It's a function of voice and style. Some use it for some character povs and not others. In his First Law trilogy, for instance, Joe Abercrombie made heavy use of italicized thoughts for Glokta's pov, but not for his other pov characters. A few stipulations, of course. They're usually used to show first person and/or present tense thoughts in an otherwise third-person, past-tense narrative. And of course, you wouldn't show the thoughts of a character in this way unless you're writing in omni or limited third (and for the latter, only for the pov character).

Italics for telepathy: also okay?

Some authors do this. Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lacky come to mind. If you're also using italics for directly worded thoughts, be sure your context and tagging make it clear whether something's being thought or said.

How about for flashbacks?

I've seen published novels that do this, but many people claim they dislike reading long passages that are italicized. My personal belief is that if you are writing a long flashback sequence, one that represents a genuine scene break, you should write it as a properly framed scene and not rely on font style to cue the reader. But this is also something that one's editor or publisher will weigh on heavily on.

Novel length: How long is a novel supposed to be?

Technically, for adult fiction, anything longer than novella length (40,000 words) is a novel, but this doesn't mean that a 45,000 word novel is long enough to be terribly marketable in most adult fiction markets. It also doesn't mean your 200,000 word opus will be an easy sell, even if it is epic fantasy.

This site is often sited as a good summary of average word count ranges for different genres, in the US at least. Does this mean something longer or shorter won't sell if it's really good? Of course not, but it means that agents might be more leery, as there will be fewer places for them to submit it.

Another way to get an idea about normal word counts in a given genre or subgenre is look at the submissions guidelines for publishers who take your genre and see what they stipulate for word count. There can be quite a lot of variety, even among Big Five subsidiaries. I blogged about word counts in debut secondary world fantasy novels a while back, and in fact, there are a number of longer ones that have been published in recent years. This is a small number of titles that probably do not resemble a random assortment of what's been published in recent years, and it does not mean that longer novels are easier to sell overall.

What is point of view?

Point of view (or narrative viewpoint) is the "eyes" through which your story is told. A writer has many options, including:

1. First person (narrator is in the story and uses terms "I" or "me" to refer to him or herself).
2.  Second person (narrator uses "you," as if addressing the protagonist, or as if the reader were the protagonist).
3.  Third Person (objective third, omniscient third, limited third). All characters referred to by name or as he/she etc.
There are different approaches, narrative depths and voices within each of these as well.
This site has a good overview of the different points of view.

What is deep point of view?

This is an approach or style that can be used in first person or limited third person where the voice and perceptions of the point of view character are presented in a very intense and immediate way. The purpose is to make the reader feel very close to the action, as if he or she is seeing and feeling the story through the protagonist's eyes as it unfolds, rather than being told it from a greater narrative distance.

Here are a couple links that discuss how to write deep point of view.

What is close third point of view?

I'm not sure. People mention it sometimes in writer's forums, but it's not in any of my craft books, and googling it comes up with nothing. I suspect it's a misnomer for "deep" point of view, or possibly just limited third.

If there's such a thing as "deep" point of view, what is "shallow" pov?

If the world really were arranged into binary pairs, then there would logically need to be a shallow pov to offset deep. Some writers say they resent the implication that anything that isn't "deep pov" must be shallow writing. But few things in life are all-or-nothing, and viewpoint is another example of this. While deep pov proponents can sound a bit like they're preaching about the One True Literary Way sometimes, pov exists of a continuum, and stories written at a greater narrative distance can be just as "deep" or compelling as stories written in deep third or first. In fact, some readers find continuous immersion in deep third to be exhausting and want or expect the narrative camera to be drawn back sometimes. The challenge lies in knowing when and how to do this effectively.

Omniscient versus Head Hopping

What's the difference between omniscient point of view and head hopping? Omniscient point of view is telling the story through the eyes of an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator who is usually not a character in the story (unless they are a first-person pov narraotr who has supernatural or transcendent prescience for some reason, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos). This narrator can relate the thoughts and perceptions of different characters in the story, and he/she can share things that none of the characters in the story know. But the narrator does this from the outside. This creates more narrative distance than limited third, but it allows the author more narrative freedom.

Head hopping happens when someone dives deeply into the pov of more than one character within a scene. It can result from a misunderstanding of what an omniscient narrator is supposed to be, or is can result from someone trying to write in limited third without properly cued pov changes.

This blog does a good job of explaining what head hopping is and how it differs from the skilled use of omniscient.

Multiple point of view characters. Is there a rule about how many I can have?

No. First-person novels most often have just one, but it's becoming increasingly common for there to be multiple first-person narrators. Jaida Jones and Daniel Bennet use this approach in their fantasy novels, and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible does it masterfully. The main thing to consider is how you're going to let the reader know you're in a new pov (named scene or chapter breaks are common) and how you're going to establish very clear and distinct first-person voices for each character.

It's far more common to have multiple limited third person pov characters. Many modern epic fantasy novels are written this way. An example I've read recently is Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. He writes in a fairly deep pov, and the voices of each of his characters are very distinct and permeates the narrative as well as their dialog. Not all authors do this to the same extent as he does, but it can work very well. One thing to consider if you don't want your tale to swell into a 200k or more word epic is whether you need as many characters as George RR Martin uses in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. The ideal number of viewpoint characters is the number needed to tell your story.

Prologues. Are they loved? Are they reviled? Are they ever necessary?

A prologue is an introductory chapter that contains information that's not part of the main story but it is required to set it up. There are different kinds of prologues, and some of these have become more or less fashionable in fantasy over the years. Prologues are something that many readers (and editors and agents) say they hate these days, but they still seem to be pretty common in published novels.

One piece of advice I've seen is to write your novel, starting with chapter 1, and try to weave your back story and essential world building into the main narrative in intriguing little dribbles. If you (and your beta readers) still think something's missing that's vital to the story, go back and add your prologue. What you should probably think long and hard about are those "in the beginning" kinds of history lessons, or a scene that shows your protagonist being born, or something like that. I've heard that these have become somewhat clich├ęd in fantasy in recent years. This is my personal opinion, but prologues that aren't constructed as scenes, where something is shown in real time, and where a character isn't at the center, are less likely to draw the modern reader in (modern readers have, after all, many things competing for their attention besides your novel).

Here are a couple of pieces on prologues.

This is a good stopping point for now. The next entry will cover a third cluster of common questions.