Writing SFF From The Margins

Welcome to Part 9 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: E.J. Beaton (as moderator), Maiya Ibrahim, Michi Trota, Dr. Eugen Bacon, and Kieron Gillen. The panel description was as follows:

How do marginalised aspects of identity — gender, sexuality, culture, race, health, ability and more  — shape our creative work? How can we empower, express, and explore through writing fantasy and SF?

Politics and Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction as a whole makes it easier to explore the concepts of race, of sexuality, of disability, and — what does it mean to belong? Additionally, by placing it in a speculative setting, you can show the issues zoomed into the individual level, without making it personal — because you’re not talking about yourself directly.

Speculative fiction is all about the world building. Despite its reputation as ‘escapism’, it gives us the space to show potential worlds where people of all races, abilities, gender, and sexual orientations are accepted. It can give voice to ‘the other’, showing stories of diversity and hope. From the very beginning of the genre, it’s been used to tackle very complicated issues and concerns.

Still, there is pushback. People say that stories, that media should be entertainment, not political. So, let’s look closer.

Let’s explore who is featured in these stories and what sort of things happen to the characters? When you look deeper, you can often see a pattern of what society deems acceptable and mainstream. Yet, none of us are the ‘average person’, we all have unique challenges and skills, so reducing our stories to that is erasing the reality of what it means to be human.

When you write and create new worlds with different economies and religions — you’re exploring that. What you chose to write — and what you chose not to write says something.

If you take a look at older books, from the 1980s or the 1950s or the 1920s or the 1800s, the assumptive context presents a world view that says something about the time, the intended audience, and the culture that created that work.

In other words? Telling a story about something seen as ‘different’ is always seen as political, but upholding the status quo is, in and of itself, a political decision.

When we say that someone is ‘writing from the margins’, what does that mean?

Typically, they’re writing about an experience that is not the ‘default’ in the literary or publishing world. They’re writing about race, or gender, or country of origin, or disabilities, or … the list goes on.

But. Why are they still in the margins? Why is it still considered that?

We all know that it’s dangerous to be visible outside the margins — it makes you a target. There are accusations of pandering and forced diversity and undeserved recognition due to quotas. Any success is rationalized away from the creator, turning them into an identity statistic and a publicity stunt.

When writers stories spotlight the issue that makes them marginalized, people often focus on the issue and not their writing. They often end up pigeonholed, talking about why these issues deserve a space on the bookshelf, and what’s it like to be an X writer in the SF community.

What we need is more space for them to talk about what their situation adds to their writing, to celebrate the diversity of human experience.

Struggling with Inclusivity

Many writers who have been marginalized can find themselves even white-washing their own self-inserts, because of the influence of the dominate culture. It can be hard to go against these cultural influences.

If you are sharing your own experience, you get the chance to normalize your way of life! Your experiences! Because it can be normal for the point-of-view character — thanks to the magic of fiction.

Some people struggle when writing stories that are close to their own trauma. One suggestion is to switch from first-person to third-person point-of-view, this can pull it back a little and make the story read and write a little less immediate.

On the flip side? If you want your readers to really understand the trauma of the situation you’re writing, (assuming you can pull it off), you might want to try second-person.

For those out there who aren’t from a marginalized background, it can be hard to know what to do. If you leave out diverse characters, you’re chastised; if you get it wrong, there’s might be a mob calling to cancel your book, or worse.

The best answer I’ve heard is to include the characters. Write the characters either as tertiary, secondary, or even primary characters — but don’t have the story plot be centered around the aspect that marginalizes them. Plus, get a person (or three — they are not a monolith and have different views) from that lived experience to proof the story for you (and be willing to pay for their labor), to make sure that you’re getting them right — that you’re not falling either into stereotypes or whitewashing.

The Complexity of #OwnVoices Stories

The hashtag #ownVoices is used a lot in literary circles these days to represent stories in which the author has lived experiences with some of the struggles presented in the story, based on identity.

Using this identifier can help get past the standard “did not connect” rejection, hopefully making the agent or publisher take a step back and evaluate the reason why they didn’t connect. Is it because it’s so foreign to their own lived experience, and not a problem with the writing or story? When the agent or publisher goes in expecting a different culture and viewpoint, they may be open to a better array of stories.

But, it can be fraught to ask what aspect of the story is #ownVoices, because those are identities that can leave a writer open to attack.

Worse? There are people advertising works as #ownVoices, because they see it as a trend and a way to get ahead — without the story actually being #ownVoices.

A real question we don’t have the answer to: where is the line between gatekeeping and helping people promote their own voices.

Additionally, there’s the feeling from some publishers that if they have “one Asian” story, they don’t need another that year — despite the wide array of cultures and stories that fit under that umbrella. Or? The publisher ends up chasing trends, and showing up late to an oversaturated market.

Any work can find an audience if the publisher is willing to put in the work and the money — and that’s outside of the writer’s control. Which ends up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy (as any writer, #ownvoices or not can attest), the publisher invests no money because they don’t think there’s a huge market, because no one knows about it, and it sells poorly. And with inclusive stories, that makes it less likely the publisher will take a risk on the next inclusive story, not just that one writer.

Self-publishing is helping break down the walls, but most self-published books are fighting for an ever-shrinking margin, and it can be hard to stand out with poorly edited novellas flooding the market and losing the audience’s willingness to take a risk on an unknown author.

Writing inclusive stories is hard. Writing from the margins is often harder.

How can you make a difference? Besides including the true diversity of the human condition in your own stories? The same way you can support any writer.

Read stories by writers in the margins, review them, and tell your friends.

Black Lives Matter

I’ve been saddened. I’ve been outraged. I’ve talked to my friends, my family. I’ve shouted at them. But publically? I’ve been silent.

What could I say? Shouldn’t I be listening to those who were suffering? If I spoke out, would I be speaking over those whose voices we need to hear?

Besides, my blog is about writing, not politics. I told myself this wasn’t the space. It wasn’t my fight, I should stay out of the firing range.

But right now? My silence is tacitly supporting the status quo.

Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. While the Black Lives Matter movement stood up, and I was silent.

Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. John Crawford. Michael Brown.

Vonderitt D. Myers Jr. Akai Gurley. Twelve-Year-Old Tamir Rice was murdered on a playground.

Antonio Martin. Freddie Gray. Sanda Bland. Elisha Walker, Islan Nettles, Kandis Kapri. The Charleston Nine. Philando Castille. Korryn Gaines. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Iyanna Dior. George Floyd. Tony McDade. I can’t breath.

And I was silent.

Freedom Riders rode again.

The Ferguson protests, St. Louis. Baltimore.

No one arrested. Or, at least no one indicted. Or.. all acquitted.

Protests fill the sports games, the internet, the roads. The peaceful ones aren’t even covered. The ones that end up on TV are called out for being ‘the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong way’. And I was silent.

Protesters in my city being tear-gassed with my state delegate in the front row, three miles away I could hear the sirens. And all I asked was for “everyone to stay safe.”

I could fill a book with the names. So many names. So many lives taken. And that’s only looking at the ones the media deigns to mention. The ones in the last 5 years alone. This problem isn’t new. So many places where police have escalated situations when they should have de-escalated. So many killed for the alleged suspicion of a crime whose fine is less than $1,000, in this nation of the free where ALL people are supposed to be created equal.

Where all people are supposed to be valued.

Where Your Very Being Is Politicized

Any life experience outside of the default is seen as ‘political’.

When I talk about the unique issues that women face? Well, “women’s issues” are seen as political.

When black people talk about the unique issues they face? That’s political.

When black women talk about the unique issues they face? Being both black and female? That’s extra-political.

Black lives matter. The black men. The black women. The black trans community. The black LGBTQA+ community. The black children.

All of them.

But. This is a writing blog.

If you look at my past posts, you’ll see me talking about ways to add diversity to your novels. To make sure you’re not stereotyping or parodying the people you want to represent. The people you should be representing.

No matter where or when you go in history, life has never been as homogeneous as the history books try to insinuate. Why should it be?

And? The ruling class has never been equitable with the enforcement of their laws — be they just or not.

Now, genre fiction, science-fiction and fantasy, is a space for exploring the worst possible futures that could lay ahead, if we stay on this path. As like Ebenezer Scrooge, we see the shadows of what might be. And they loom dark.

Genre fiction is also a place to explore the worlds that could have been, if we had been better: more welcoming, more inclusive, more just. It can show the bright future, of what could be if we rise to our better natures. It can show a possible roadmap forward. Genre fiction can show hope.

What Do We Do?

If you’re in the majority culture? In this case, if you’re white. It’s on you to reach out and learn about other cultures, other experiences, the black American experience. Do your research. Don’t assume you can lean on someone of the culture you wish to learn about, your black friends and family, and make them do the heavy lifting for you. They’ve got enough of their shoulders already.

There’s a whole world out there, just as entitled to the idealized versions of the freedom, justice, and liberty we were all promised.

It’s past time to me to speak out, and stand up, and fight for it.

Join me.

“But I’m Not A YA Writer” – Gender Biases in the World of Books

I was raised thinking I was in a post-feminism world. We had the vote, we were out there earning our own money, with our own credit cards, standing equal to any man. But, the older I get, the more I realize that the biases are still out there. They’re just softer, well-intentioned, and far more insidious.

At Balticon 53, I attended “But I’m Not A YA Writer”, with panelists Sherri Cook Woosley, Gwendolyn Clare, and Julayne Hughes, moderated by Laura Nicole “Spence” and we discussed the modern trend of calling speculative fiction books written by women “young adult” (YA).

What’s the Difference?

I have a full set of panel notes on the difference, that I’ll be sharing later, but let me sum up.

Young adult novels typically center on teenage characters, often coming-of-age, and learning how to be independent. Thinking for themselves. YA is often told in first person, and sometimes in present tense. And YA has hope.

Adult novels can have teenage characters and can be coming-of-age stories, but the characters are typically a little older, or a decent portion of the book covers their adulthood as well. The solutions are usually more nuanced and complicated, the world building is often more fleshed out, the politics and economics are more complex, and the violence can be darker. Third person point-of-view is more common and it’s typically told in past-tense.

Now, these are all trends. YA is by no means a lesser skill and certainly can deal with dark themes and violence. When trying to categorize a book, think about a 9th grader, would you recommend it to them? Or not. The line often comes down to the voice.

Who Is Misclassifying Authors’ Books

When you hear about this misclassification, many of us think we know exactly where the problem is. But. It’s not what you might think.

Is it the lack of women in the upper echelon of publishing companies?

Nope. The publishers and editors are properly categorizing them.

Is it the marketing departments?

Not really. Their marketing teams are starting off targeting the right markets…

So where is the problem?

It’s when the book blurbs hit the internet that the real disconnect comes out. The book bloggers and good citizens of GoodReads are where a large percentage of the misclassifications are made.

How is this happening?

Clearly, there are tons of factors that go into this, and no amount of speculation can encapsulate each individual’s decisions.

And? Sometimes the line can be nebulous. But not that often.

Even if one starts off looking at the book blurb, with the proper classification, and comparing it to other books in the appropriate genre during a review, these books are often getting ‘shelved’ with YA.

And the only thing that might even suggest the novel is YA? Is the author’s name, reading as feminine. Or, the author becoming widely known as female.

The 2018 critically acclaimed novel, The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang was marketed as a drug filled, grimdark fantasy take on the war between China and Japan during World War II. The themes were dark, the voice was adult, and the book was marked down as being too violent or graphic for YA. It got tons of 1-star reviews, because the book wasn’t what the readers were expecting.

Which leads us into:

The Consequences of Being Misclassified

  1. You get marked down for not meeting expectations
    • 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads greatly affect your sales
  2. Your audience can’t find you.
    • If the real audience thinks the book is for their kids, they’re not as inclined to read it
    • When a story about a mother gets handed off to teen girls, the voice won’t resonate as strongly as it would with a mom

The LGBTQA community has gotten good at finding allies. At standing up for each other. There’s still push back, but they’re fighting hard to make sure their books are properly classified, not just shoved off into ‘special interest group’ or ‘adult’ sections simply because it contains characters that aren’t cis-gendered and/or heterosexual.

We can learn a lot from them.

So, how do we get around this?

The Call Of The Pseudonym

Publisher and audience biases have had women writing under pseudonyms or initials for centuries – from the Brontë Sisters, to George Eliot, to J.K. Rowling herself — women have used pen names to be more marketable. And? It seems to work.

Studies indicate, even Harry Potter might have had a harder time reaching the right audience if it came from Joanne Rowling.

Women these days, and others that don’t fit into the gender binary still succumb to these pressures. Because that’s how they make the sales to the right audience.

How Do We Fix This?

The sad news is, this isn’t something we can fix overnight. It’s not like we can print a correction in the paper and people will instantly stop. Instead, we have to help make the cultural shift. Here are some ways you can help.

  1. Pay more attention to how the books you read are classified by the publisher
  2. When you see a book improperly listed, think about reaching out to set the record straight
  3. Stop assuming boys won’t read female main characters. Or female authors. Teachers, parents, librarians: If you make it a non-issue? Often, they will too.
  4. Maybe you’re the target audience for books you’re not reading. Look at who you’re reading.
    • If you haven’t read a book recently by a female author, ask the internet (or me, in the comments below) for recommendations, based on your favorite male authors.
    • NOTE: This works for other markets – writers of color, writers of disability, LGBTQA writers, non-american writers. Branch out and see what you’re missing. Great writers can come from anywhere, but they only get the chance to shine if they can prove they have a market.

Any stories about gender bias happening to you? In any direction! Clearly, men writing in certain genres face similar issues. As, obviously, do people of other genders!

Any other suggestions on ways to help people move past their assumptions, and allow books to be enjoyed on their own merits.
With marketed expectation management NOT getting overridden by cultural assumptions?

As always, thanks for tuning in, and join me again next week as I share more writing tips and writerly musings from the over 24 hours of programming I attended at Balticon53.

I attend panels, so you don’t have to.

Writing Diversity

I’m combining notes from “Diversity, What Is It Good For” with panelists Devin Jackson Randall, Ken Schrader, Michelle D. Sonnier, Scott Roche, and Jennifer Povey
“Avoiding the ‘Representing the Entire [X] Trap” with panelists Day Al-Mohamed, K. M. Szpara, Stephanie “Flash” Burke, Ken Schrader, and Christie Meierz

Diversity is a big thing in writing these days, especially in the Young Adult section of genre fiction that I typically hang out in. There are long, on-going conversations that I’ve tried to provide context for in my notes.

Remember, even if you disagree with some of the thoughts below, these people came together to have a conversation in good-faith. They love what they do and are working hard at trying to do BETTER. No one is perfect, we’re all people. If you have criticisms, try to make them constructive.

Why Do We Write Diversity (besides representation)

[Context for people who aren’t familiar with the conversation. The biggest reason people suggest writing diversity is to be representational: to allow people to see themselves in unique characters.]

  •  The world is naturally diverse, this way our worlds reflect creativity. – Scott Roche
  • So we don’t limit ourselves. It’s like using 8 crayons instead of all 64. – Michelle Sonnier
  • Not doing so is doing yourself a disservice. If you aren’t diverse? Do your research and fix your world. – Ken Schrader
  • To learn about other types of peoples through writing and research. – Devin Jackson Randall
  • Some people ask “why include this” and call it pandering. Because we exist! Even the uncomfortable bits! – Stephanie “Flash” Burke

Tips on Doing Diversity Right

  • Remember, it’s a character… who is ALSO a [minority], that’s not their defining feature. – K. M. Szpara
  • One person can’t (and shouldn’t) represent a whole group. – Christie Meierz
  • Acknowledge the differences, and then move on! – Stephanie “Flash” Burke
  • Ignoring it limits your writing. – K. M. Szpara
  • Paying attention to it makes them real people. – Christie Meierz
  • Don’t skip marginalized characters in short stories because of ‘space’ – Day Al-Mohamed
  • Don’t just point out skin/orientation when it’s different than expectations. If you’re going to do it for some characters, do it for all. – K. M. Szpara
  • Don’t slap the audience with the difference in every sentence. – Stephanie “Flash” Burke
    • “Almond eyes, pale skin/chocolate skin… now I’m hungry”
  • Don’t describe other races with food terms. That’s overdone, a definite trope, and turns that character into a fetish.
  • Don’t hand me a book and say ‘you should read this, it’s about queer people.” If the answer is ‘yes’ when I ask, “Oh, do they die?” Kill the straight people instead! – K. M. Szpara


[Context for people who aren’t familiar with this term:

Google defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

In other words, a queer, white, woman with disabilities will have a different experience than a heterosexual, white, woman without any disabilities. And as you layer in other levels of social categorizations, the experiences will continue to diverge.]

  • It’s currently a buzzword, but it’s recognition of pieces we’re mislaying. Paying attention to it makes characters less 2-dimensional. As M. Evan Matyas says, “We want to walk all the way around the character.” Day Al-Mohamed came from a place where everyone looked like her. When she moved to America, she met whites and blacks and learned that blacks have their own culture and they don’t all have the same one. – Day Al-Mohamed
  • Look at it as subtracting monotony from world. – K. M. Szpara

What Are Your Pet Peeves About “Accuracy” Limiting Diversity?

  • There were blacks in medieval Europe. – Jennifer Povey
  • Fantasy as a genre. Your fantasy has no minorities to be realistic, but DRAGONS? – Michelle Sonnier
  • Westerns should have Asians, blacks, and natives. They’re typically FAR too white washed. The man who inspired the Texas Ranger? WAS black – Scott Roche
  • People using a single minority character – Ken Schrader
    • Either their only reason to be in the story is to make it ‘diverse’. They’re not given their own personality, wants, or needs.
    • Or the writer doesn’t do enough research so the character is 2 dimensional
  • Continually stereotyping a minority character – Devin Jackson Randall
    • Thai has a 3rd gender, but in media, the standard is to make the character’s gender the butt of the joke
  • All [minority] have the same political views. (Blacks? Dwarves? People with disabilities?)  They need reasons for their views!

How to Handle It When The Diversity Matters

  • Remember that who you are effects how you approach things. And things effect you differently based on who you are.
  • Point of View is shaped by the character’s history.

Examples of Diversity Done Right and Wrong

  • A fantasy movie about the Great Wall of China was marketed to have white main characters. In reality? The main characters were Chinese.  Pacific Rim, Luke Cage – both good representations of the world they’re supposed to represent. – Scott Roche
  • Star Wars and Star Trek – in every iteration strive to be more inclusive and diverse. – Michelle Sonnier
  • Often done wrong – Only villains (and often) are disfigured and/or injured. Heros are typically neither. – Ken Schrader.
  • (Except Fury Road, she was missing an arm from here *gestures to elbow* down. Well, here up would be hard.) – Scott Roche
  • Firefly was getting it right-er – Ken Schrader
  • ‘Ten Count’ (yaoi), ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ – both try, but often stop at 2-dimensions and don’t make excuses for themselves. ‘Sensai’ is good, but has issues.  – Devin Jackson Randall
  • Lois Bujold, especially her VorKosigan series handles disabilities well. – audience

Diversity used to be dubbed as ‘not marketable’, but that’s changing. – audience

Social media is helping [or hurting, when it doesn’t do its research]  – Devin Jackson Randall

Tricky Things – How To Make A Marginalized Antagonist

[Context for those who aren’t familiar with this trope: Very often, marginalized is used as shorthand for bad-guy. We don’t want to do that! For starters, it’s lazy. Secondly, it’s over done. You can’t say “there’s plenty of Russians in genre fiction” when they’re all drunken, bad-guy soviets.]

  • Backstory. Villains can be teachers. – Stephanie ‘Flash” Burke
  • No one (well, very few people) are villains in their own minds. They usually have very well-loved (if not good) reasons for doing what they do. – Christie Meierz
  • Ask if [marginalized] antagonist needs that [marginalization]. If not, you might be doing the wrong thing, for the right reasons. (ie – adding diversity, but accidentally falling into the stereotyping tropes). – Ken Schrader
  • It’s overdone. In James Bond, nearly all villains are disabled. It’s too cliche. – Day Al-Mohamed

Closing Thoughts

  • Don’t make sacred things casual. – Audience
  • Don’t forget mental illnesses. – Scott Roche
  • Don’t have people just brush off trauma. – Michelle Sonnier
  • Do your due-diligence, but don’t shy away from diversity. – Ken Schrader
  • Support good diversity, so we’ll get more.  – Devin Jackson Randall
  • Do your research. – Jennifer Povey
  • Don’t just observe other types of people, talk to them, if they’re open to it. – audience
    • You can usually ask friends for recommendations or
    • There are online groups for writers with people who volunteer
  • Checkout disabilityinkidlit.com – Day Al-Mohamed
  • If other characters don’t harp on differences, it won’t be a big deal. – Stephanie “Flash” Burke
  • There’s a difference between diversity being a coat of paint on a character, and it being a PART of a character, rather than their defining trait. – Audience
  • I don’t think the future is white. – Christie Meirz

These are just some people’s opinions!

What do you agree with? What do you disagree with?

Any other things writers should keep in mind when creating diverse worlds?