Sex, Sexuality, and Worldbuilding

My last post was on asexual representation. Literally. Today, I bring you the flip side. I mostly write younger stuff or fade-to-black scenes to avoid any explicitness of this issue, but a lot of you out there are writing it as the forefront of your novel.

At the titular panel, moderated by Jennifer Povey: D’Amanda Martini, Nobilis Reed, Mark L. Van Name, and Lisa Hawkridge managed to keep on topic WHILE keeping it all about books and writing. I was VERY impressed.

Relationships: Marriage and Divorce

For much of history, sex and sexuality revolved around marriages — on either side of the covers. When writing a story, you don’t have to be bound by your cultural assumptions. Your characters should be bound by the cultural assumptions of the time and place they’re in. In historical or contemporary settings — do your research. In science-fiction or fantasy? You can make relationships look like whatever you decide.

Here are some things to consider when worldbuilding.

  1. How are relationships made official?
    1. Does your world have a body (church/government/etc) recognizing and validating relationships?
    2. Or are relationships self-declared? To oneselves? Or to the gods?
  2. What are the societal expectations that go with a committed relationship?
  3. Who is allowed to have an official relationship? And to whom?
  4. Are marriages for life? Or do they have an expiration date?
  5. How does inheritance work? Blood lines matter more when something’s at stake.
  6. One can look to the animal kingdom for relationship styles beyond the cis-hetero-marriage for life default-assumption of most of the Western world.
  7. Is pregnancy preventable? If so, a lot of options open up for women.

Taboos

All societies have taboos around sex. About who you can and can’t be intimate with. When and where it is most acceptable. When world building, you can use traditional taboos as well as your own.

  1. Depending on your world, there can be all sorts of speciesist taboos:
    • Those who hook up with [the tentacle monster/fae/etc] are bad
    • Only elite/etc hook up with [tentacle monsters/fae/etc]
    • Those who don’t hook up with [tentacle monsters/fae/etc] are bad
  2. Powerful people have different limitations
    • Cersei and Jaime thought they were elite enough to follow the Targaryen rules.
    • Sometimes, the elite have tighter restrictions
  3. Taboos might exist in some places in your world, but not others. Remember that enlightenment isn’t universal, or even uniform.
  4. Upsetting gender role expectations during intimacy. Who does what to whom.
  5. If nothing is taboo, people will make something taboo.

Tips for Writing Erotic Scenes

These come from the panelists. I don’t really have much experience with this, but maybe I’ll eventually give it a try.

  1. Check your own assumptions
  2. Find inspiration – preferably legal with consenting adults
    • Your own experiences
    • Fanfic
    • Film
    • Livestreams
  3. To get past discomfort
    • Just write it.
    • Write something so over the top and ridiculous, that you can hopefully get past your inhibitions
    • Remember that no one has to ever read it.
    • Take suggestions of what to write, so your brain doesn’t get in the way
    • Check in about what is making you uncomfortable, is it something you have a reason to care about? Or is it social pressures/my mom might read this (hi mom!)

For another approach — the natural progression for intimacy has been reduced to a formula that you can put into good effect in your own writing! Here’s a great link.

Writers Who Explored Sexuality

People have been exploring sexuality and relationship structures forever. There’s a long history writers – in novels, tv, and film exploring different concepts within their writing and beyond.

Clearly, this list is incomplete, but the panelists gave us a good start.

  1. Asimov keeps sex short. He wrote one where spores were sex.
  2. Heinlein’s line marriage in Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  3. Le Guin
  4. A Land Fit For Heroes (“darker, gayer, Game of Thrones”)
    • By Richard K Morgan (of Altered Carbon)
  5. Brokeback Mountain
  6. Discovery – Star Trek finally having an onscreen gay couple

What tips do you have for adding sensuality to your writing?

What authors would you recommend?

(Note: Please avoid explicit material in my comment section. It will be removed. Let’s keep this education, folks.)

Making the Asexual Textual

Some people are sexually attracted to the opposite gender, some are attracted to the same gender, while others are attracted to more than one gender, and yet others are only sexually attracted under specific circumstances?

But, not all people are sexually attracted to someone. Those people? Identify as asexual.

Especially in Western culture, so many of our stories — be they folktales of yore, current tv shows, books, or movies — center around the main character’s relationship. Even if it’s not the main plot point.

For asexual people, they’ve had to read-between-the-lines to look for characters that represent them.

Is this character asexual? Or did the story just not cover a period of their life where they were in a relationship.

Is that character sexual? Or are they in a consensual sex-free romantic relationship?

At the titular panel, at WorldCon 77, Wendy Metcalfe, Darcie Little Badger, Dr. Edmund Schleussel, and Jasmine Gower discussed ways to make the asexual textual, without making it feel forced.

3 Reasons Not Making the Asexual Textual is a Problem

  1. There is already a sparsity of asexual representation
  2. Readers will project on the asexual characters and make assumptions
  3. Many readers enjoy ‘shipping characters, and will mentally pair them up, or insist that there’s subtext
    • Shipping characters – Shipping is short for ‘relationship”, it’s when readers (and/or fanfic writers) decide they think two (or more characters) should be in a relationship.

      Fanfic – is fiction written by fans about the characters from tv/movies/books that they want to see. Unofficial spin-offs. Like Paradise Lost is Biblical fanfic.

      In fanfiction circles, “slash fiction” originated as stories pairing character A – slash – character B. A lot of the derivative stories have been traditionally homosexual pairings, but not always. And some of them, explicit erotica.

4 Approaches Making Asexual Characters Textual

  1. Avoid the terms, but make it obvious in the plot
  2. Make up terms in your story to represent asexual — or the reverse. Why not make a story where asexual is the default, and everything else must be defined?
  3. Slip in the term
    • Worries it will feel dated
  4. Have it as a small detail in a larger descriptive sentence

4 Overdone Asexual Tropes To Avoid

  1. Having them focus on how their asexuality makes them weird or different. Asexual people typically don’t dwell on their lack of sexuality during their normal day-to-day lives.
    • Morgan question: What about thinking about how sexuality makes everyone ELSE weird?
  2. Naivety – not understanding what sex is
  3. Being repulsed by sex
  4. Making the asexual character alien, or a robot, or inhumane in some way (very often Death itself).
  5. Non-heterosexual characters being used as code for a ‘bad person’

How Being Asexual Affects A Person’s Life

  1. No co-dependencies. Living alone is expensive and is easier with a profession.
  2. Seen as naive or “just haven’t met the right person”
  3. People trying to pair you up.
  4. Seen as ‘frigid’ or ‘sexually dysfunctional’

Asexual people are normal people. They’ve always been out there.

For those looking for asexual stories:

  • Anything from the LessThan3Press (recently defunct)
  • Lesbian Reviews
  • Ancillary Justice (Anne Leckie)
  • Star Maker (Olaf Stapledon)

I’m not asexual. Let me know if I got anything wrong. Let me know if you have any suggestions for others trying to include asexual characters in their worlds.

Thank you for reading.

Improving Your Readings

From authors who are asked to read their own work at signings, to audiobook narrators, to podcasters, there are a lot of us out there who want — or need — to get better at readings.

At the titular panel, at Balticon 53, Tee Morris, Jean L Cooper, and Mike Luona shared their best tips.

6 Steps Toward Creating Character Voices

  1. Keep the character’s background in mind
  2. Use a key phrase to get into the character’s voice, to help with consistency
  3. Use your ‘normal voice’, (or something close to it), for the narrator and/or main character
  4. For opposite gendered characters, you can pitch up or down a touch, but don’t fake it
    • For some female characters, a breathier tone works, even if you don’t change the pitch
  5. Listen to how other actors present their different characters
    • For a fantasy accent — try combining 2 real world accents badly
  6. Avoid stereotypes!
    • For accents, if you can’t skip it — try acting classes or online videos but do these with a light touch

5 Tips For All Readings

  1. Practice cold-reading
    • Pick up a book at random and just reading a few pages!
  2. Hit the narration just as hard as the dialogue
    • Paint a mental picture with your voice
  3. Know when to pause
  4. When a phrase becomes a stumbling block, slow wayyy down.
    • If in practice — go over it very slowly, mouth it carefully, repeat it a few times, get that muscle memory in thereIf live — pause, mouth it to yourself, then try again
  5. Don’t be afraid to be dramatic – the audience builds off the energy you bring to the table. Feeling a little over the top is probably just right for most of us.

And one bonus tip, specifically for audio books:

  • If you can, read the book to yourself once ahead of time, marking all proper nouns, unfamiliar words/terms, and confirm pronunciation before beginning.

Any tips the panelists ran out of time to mention? Anything I got wrong?

What do you do to practice? Any toastmasters out there?


Introduction to Hopepunk

In a grimdark world, filled with truth, lies, and politics many of us have been longing for a literary escape that can give us some hope. For this generation, Hopepunk is our solution.

At WorldCon 77 Dublin, Jo Walton, Lettie Prell, and the creator of the term, herself, Alexandra Rowland, on a panel moderated by the marvelous Sam Hawke discussed the true meaning of Hopepunk.

What Is Hopepunk?

After the term hit NPR and Vox, it started to shift from what was originally intended to something lighter and shinier.

Luckily for all of us, we had the coiner of the term there to set the record straight, aided by the creator of the SFWA bulletin, formally acknowledging the genre. (SFWA stands for Science fiction Writers of America)

  1. It’s the counter to grimdark
  2. Stories to support people
  3. The emphasis should be on the punk, with a core strength of hope
    • Punk in its need to “fight the man”
    • Hope in its goal that “we deserve a better world”
  4. It’s contemporary fantasy or near-future
  5. It’s characters don’t give up — they stand up, resist, and fight back
  6. It’s characters are ordinary people who care
  7. The characters don’t have to win, but they do have to make a difference, and offer hope for a better future.

Some might wonder why we need a term for this. Why we even need subgenres at all.

3 Reasons Why We Need Subgenres

  1. Naming something help defines it and the beliefs or story expectations that go with it
  2. Naming a genre lets people find other stories like it
  3. Plus. Marketing.

Writers That Invoke Hopepunk Philosophies

  1. Ruthanne Emyrs
  2. Marissa K. Lingen
  3. Ada Palmer
  4. Alexandra Rowland
  5. Lettie Prell (“Crossing LaSalle”)
  6. David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) – note: he writes plenty that isn’t hopepunk
  7. NK Jemisin (Broken Earth trilogy)
  8. Usman T. Malik (“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”)
  9. William Alexander (“The House on the Moon”)
  10. Kim Stanley Robinson (40 Signs of Rain, New York 2140)
  11. Ursula Le Guin (“The Ones That Walk Away From Omelas”)

Why Hopepunk Now?

Hopepunk is a reaction to the current political, cultural, and physical environment. During times of prosperity and progress, grimdark reminds us to fight complacency. During times of stagnation and fear, Hopepunk is reminding us that we’re not powerless.

We were reminded of that quote:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

G.K. Chesterton

In Western culture, so often we consider literature more serious, more worthy when it is cynical, ironic, and distant.

Western culture finds the upbeat, shiny stories found in 1950’s sci-fi to be trite and naive. Then, extends that opinion to anything that isn’t full of cynicism. Which leads to interesting circumstances, like award winning novels failing to warrant academic acclaim.

We need to remember that human acts of kindness are common and real and normal.


Do you think Hopepunk is right for you? Ordinary people fighting back, and making a difference — even if they can’t win the day?

Do you know any stories you think would be a good fit for this genre?


P.S. After this post went up, I got a few questions on Hopepunk’s relationship to Solarpunk. Here’s what I came up with as the answer to:

What’s the difference between Hopepunk and Solarpunk?

I’m less familiar with Solarpunk, but according to google:

“Solarpunk is a genre of Speculative Fiction that focuses on craftsmanship, community, and technology powered by renewable energy, wrapped up in a coating of Art Nouveau blended with African and Asian aesthetics.”

So. I’m gonna say the difference lies in the emphasis of ‘punk’ — ie “Fighting against the man”, with less of a focus on renewable energy, and a less defined aesthetic.

They are clearly related genres and there could easily be overlap between the two.

“Coming of Age” versus YA

Now that YA (young adult) novels are such a large part of the book landscape, it can be a challenge to know where a novel fits. Coming of age stories have always been a large part of the fantasy genre in particular, but now, it can be hard to know where to draw the line between YA and Adult novels.

On the titular panel at Balticon 53, Lisa Padol, Leah Cypess, Jean Marie Ward, Ken Altabef, and RR Angell discussed ways to sort out the confusion.

In days of yore, there wasn’t this issue. There was the children’s section — divvied up by reading level, and the adult section — divvied up by genre. But, with the emergence of the YA market, most famously heralded by JK Rowling, the distinction got a lot fuzzier.

What Is A Coming Of Age Story?

Before we can decide if a coming of age story is Adult or YA, we need to define what a coming of age story is.

It’s a character on the cusp of becoming.

The character has to grow, to change, and to find a life that suits their new self. Be it a high schooler graduating, an apprentice slaying that dragon, or a teacher retiring, a story focusing on the transition to the next stage of one’s life is almost always a coming of age story.

6 Ways To Tell If Your Coming Of Age Novel Is YA or Adult

There are a few key things that help determine if your coming-of-age novel should be in the adult section or will find a better home in the YA section.

  1. The length
    • adult should be over 70,000 words
  2. The voice
    • YA should have a genuine teen voice — not necessarily snarky!
    • YA is more often 1st person POV (point of view)
    • YA has faster pacing
  3. The story’s focus
    • Adult novels handle more adult issues
      • aging parents
      • kids
      • jobs
      • etc
    • YA novels typically focus on a single week/month/year. Adult novels are typically more open to a longer time frame. (added thanks to Dal Cecil Runo‘s insightful comment on my vlog version of this post.)
  4. The character’s relationship with authority
    • YA typically has teens breaking away from what was once their authority figures (parents/etc)
  5. Sentence structure
    • Adult tends to dwell more on detail
    • Adult tends to have a higher reading level
      • Reading level is calculated based on some formula including syllables per average word and sentence length.
  6. Where does the marketing department think it’ll do better?

YA Without “Coming Of Age”

YA isn’t just coming of age novels!

  1. The main character learning the truth about their world — or their self
  2. There’s a partial coming-of-age, but the character doesn’t fully come into their own
    • Instead of ‘happily ever after’, there’s a ‘happy for now’ feel
  3. In series novels, especially mysteries, the main character doesn’t usually change. Instead, they follow the genre story template.

Hopefully, these tips can help guide you down the narrow line betwixt and between the two.

One final thought – as a warning for those of us who are writing what we think is YA as adults: teens are SICK of ‘adults in kid-suits’ thinking things teens wouldn’t and the whiny/emo teen is overdone.

We need to represent teens more authentically, or leave it to those who are teens or still close to their teens.


What are YOUR favorite coming of age novels?
Let me know if they’re YA or Adult — and why!

Are there any differentiators I missed or the panel didn’t have time to address?

Image of all the panelists sitting in a row at a table.