Using Unsafe Places To Propel Your Characters Forward

Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.

I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.

What is an Unsafe Place?

Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.

Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.

According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.

Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story

When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.

Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.

It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.

Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.

When The Conflict Is Internal

The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.

When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming

Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.

The Joy Of YA

The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.

What Happens Next?

If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.

Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.

And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.


If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?

If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.

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Gender 401 For The Writer

Next up at World Fantasy Con was “Gender 401”. Having attended 101 and 201 panels in the past, I was ready for the discussion.

NOTE: I recognize that as a cis-gendered female I can listen and do my best to promote understanding and inclusion, but I am by no means an expert. If I’ve misrepresented anything in this panel write-up, don’t hesitate to call me out on it.

Also, I recognize that my notes are aimed more for the cis-audience– in part because I know I’m the wrong person to explain gender identity to anyone who isn’t cis. But, hopefully, the book suggestions are at least helpful for everyone.

[For those who aren’t familiar with Gender 101:

  • A transgendered individual has determined that the gender that they were assigned at birth does NOT match their personal identity.
  • A cisgendered individual has determined that the gender they were assigned at birth DOES match their personal identity.
  • Non-binary (nb or enby) people can run the gamut: [EDITED: I originally stated what the expression was, rather than the identity.]
    • Identify as multiple genders at once
    • Identify as different genders based on how they’re feeling on a particular day (also said to be ‘gender fluid’)
    • Identify as non-gendered
  • An intersex individual is one who was not easily assigned a single gender at birth ]

So, now you’re familiar with the cornucopia of gender identities, let’s get back to writing and figuring out how to use this knowledge to enhance our worlds.

Ways That Genre Fiction Can Improve

  • Remembering that cisgendered people aren’t the only ones out there and including all kinds in our stories.
  • Making sure the existence of transmen isn’t completely ignored when revisiting the overdone “What if men could get pregnant?” trope.
  • Thinking through the world. There are plenty of stories about gendered magic or cities that ignore where transpeople or non-binary people live.
  • Avoiding Scooby-doo style reveals, where the bad guy is transgendered — or just dressed up as the opposite sex to avoid suspicion.

TIP: You can acknowledge, then add a few details about how those cases work. You don’t have to make your story about gender identity, you just have to let people outside the binary exist in your world.

TIP 2: For gendered magic, you have to decide how to handle it. It can be influenced by whether magic is assigned at birth or something that happens when you hit puberty (or some other sort of ritual). And if someone changes their gender identity, does their magic change with them?

So. How do you decide what’s best without playing into stereotypes? And if you’re trapped in the gender-binary, how can you make sure you’re properly portraying these characters?

The best way to figure out how to handle non-cisgendered characters is to read stories by non-cisgendered writers.

Genre Writers Who Have Handled Gender Well

  • Austin Chant
  • JY Yang
  • Akwaeke Emezi
  • Charlie Jane Anders
  • Ursula K LeGuin
  • Octavia Butler

And collections of stories:

  • Transcendent Anthology – Edited by KM Szpara

There was a shout out to LeGuin for first introducing genre fiction to gender exploration.

Another place to explore is the Tiptree Awards. Begun in 1991, it started off just giving credit for having a woman as a character in an sf/f novel. But each year, the bar raises.

According to Ellen Klages, a Motherboard member of the Tiptree Awards for over 20 years, if a bar fight doesn’t break out when the winner is announced, clearly, the novel selected wasn’t cutting edge enough and shouldn’t have won.

What Our Panelists Would Like To See

  • Middle-aged and older women that aren’t witches
  • More stories that start off ‘beyond the pale’, to start to normalize their existence
  • Diversity in representation – not all perfect or all villain. If you have one person outside of the gender binary in your story, how you represent them will be a huge focus. If you have many, in multitudes of roles, it goes a long way toward fighting stereotypes.
  • Writing outside the box

Writing Worlds Outside The Box

If gender is so enigmatic now, how diverse could the real future — or your fantasy worlds be? Why even stick to binary genders in fantasy?

One can find inspiration from the common garden slug for new ways of handling gender identity.

TIP 3: If everything is different, it’s hard for your readers to follow. They’ll need a handhold of familiarity. Just remember that different audiences will need different handholds — what alienates some readers, will allow you to reach others. Decide who your story is really for.

TIP 4: Well. I guess this is more of a warning. These worlds can be very difficult to get the balance right, to bring the reader into a strange new world, without losing them. It takes a lot of skill to do something experimental, successfully.


Hopefully, if you weren’t already exposed to these concepts, you’ve got a better grasp of ways to fill your world with more gender diversity. If you were already familiar with them, I hope you found something of value from this write-up.

Go out and remember to include transgendered and non-binary people when filling your worlds. Plus, join the fight against gendered stereotypes and cis-gendered assumptions.

Writing As Sanctuary

I know it’s been a while, but now that I made it through November, I’m back to sharing my panel notes. For World Fantasy Con, some of the panels turned more into suggested reading lists, but for now, I’m going to go through the other panels, in the order I experienced them.

I attended “Writing As Sanctuary” at World Fantasy Con. I went into this panel expecting to hear stories of authors using their writing as either escapism or as a tool to process stressors in their lives. Escapism either as a distraction from real-world issues, OR as a way to create a new world, with those issues fixed.

The actual discussion was a lot more nuanced, but less focused.

The panelists were Jacob Baugher, JD Blackrose, JL Gribble, and K. Ceres Knight, moderated by Anna La Voie.

The discussion started off exploring the motivations behind people’s writing and the reoccurring themes they explored, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Most wrote for themselves — but with the intent of publication — seeking that external validation. Only a few used their writing to explore alternative choices — either personally or historically.

Themes They Found In Their Writing

Some writers write themes explicitly into their work. Others only recognize it when they begin editing. And sometimes? You only recognize your themes when the same issues keep coming up, novel after novel. Here were some of the themes the panelists found in their writing – intentionally or not.

  • Non-dystopian post-apocalypse
  • The Holocaust
  • Mother-daughter relationships
  • Cyberpunk — in order to have control over their world

Which is better: To Be Writing or To Have Written?

It’s a reality for many of us writers — the process itself can be agony. I found it inspiring to hear how much of a struggle even published writers still find it. And how many also resort to procrasti-cleaning!

  • Some, like Baugher, were shocked to learn people could enjoy writing. He forces words out and is working on trying to change his own mindset.
  • Sometimes, real-world tragedies strike too close to home and you can’t write. Blackrose spoke of knowing when to push through, and when to step back. Then, when it’s time to return to the keyboard, she aims for just 500 words to regain her momentum.
  • Writing a novel is intimidating and that can make it hard to start. But 30,000 sounds a lot more doable. You can approach writing like Blackrose. She just wrote 30,000 words four times, and she had a novel.
  • Gribble uses gamification to get her words in. She wrote her 3rd novel, just using 5-minute sprints. Her best writing day was also the day she washed all of the windows.
  • Many of us, like Knight, love writing — when inspired. But most of her writing is deadline based.
Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.
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Do you find sanctuary in a private journal?

Some writers swear by them. I know many writers who collect journals by the trunkful. But, advice doesn’t always sync up with reality so I was curious how these writers would answer. How useful are they in practice?

  • Some, like Gribble, find them a waste of words. Why journal when you could be writing paying work?
  • Some use it for free writing when the words just won’t flow.
    Baugher uses this process about once a week as a sort of 10-minute warm-up for his novel writing — his is mostly profanity.
  • Blackrose doesn’t journal per se, but she blogs…
  • Major life events can make journaling helpful. Knight only found herself journaling when she going through her divorce.
  • Some use it to manage stress. La Voie only journals sporadically but she finds it helps with her anxiety.

Knight and I agree: no writing is ever a waste. You’re always learning, always practicing.

What works for someone else, won’t necessarily work for you. Journal only if you’re actually getting something out of it.

Do you have your own writing sanctuary?

Now, me? I have a desk in a library alcove off my family room. But ever since I got a laptop, I find myself on my couch for most of my writing, with the occasional restaurant-based write-in. Not that I haven’t snuck words in at work or on my smartphone. There’s a reason I use GoogleDocs — it can auto-sync, you can use it offline, and it’s available for free on all my devices. I might not be the Google fangirl I was before they dropped 8 of the products I’d adopted… but some habits die hard.

But, I always find it fascinating to learn where other writers work.

  • Some, like Knight, can write anywhere that’s relatively quiet.
  • Some, like Gribble have home offices. But?
    • She NEVER uses it to write in.
    • She spends most of her time in Starbucks, on her couch, or the counter in her kitchen.
    • Gribble WILL, however, edit her writing in that perfect home office.
  • Some, like Blackrose, will write anywhere — even at her day job when things are slow.
  • Some libraries, like Blackrose’s, have writing centers you can use
    • On Sundays, she has permission to use the Writer-In-Resident’s office — it makes her feel like a ‘real’ writer!
  • And some have home offices they actually write in!
    • Baugher came home from a convention and found his wife had turned their 2nd bedroom into an office for him.

Do you use writing as an escape from life?

This question could have gone in so many directions, but somehow we got back to procrasti-cleaning again. As a procrasti-cleaner myself, I was happy to be in such good company. 

  • You can use laundry to avoid writing like Blackrose
  • You can use writing sprints as breaks from chores like Gribble
  • Or!
  • You can leave the house to go write, so you can avoid laundry altogether, like Knight.

How much do you reread before you restart your writing?

Personally, I only skip back a paragraph or two and then push on from there. I keep waiting for there to be a right answer to this. But of course, with all things writing related, it’s a matter of preference.

  • Some read just the start of the current scene, like Gribble.
  • Some, like Baugher, like to leave notes or hints for what’s going to happen in the next scene.
  • Some reread it all.
  • Some, like Blackrose, use the first 7,000 to 15,000 words as a sort of giant outline, and then fill in.
  • Some write in layers. First getting the action out and the plot, then coming back and filling in the descriptive narrative, like Knight.

Critiques That Made You Regret Sharing Your Writing

Even if writing isn’t your sanctuary, it can be scary to share your words and thoughts with the world. And sometimes, critics can be harsher than they know.

For Baugher’s first writing workshop, for his first critique ever, another writer told him, “Stop writing now — this sucks!”

One writer’s mother doesn’t do fantasy, and after they opened up and shared their novel, the response was, “how do you think of these things?”… and not in an awed sort of tone.

Gribble once had a critic complain about the orgy. One problem? Her novel contains ZERO orgies…

Knight once watched a teacher lay into a fellow classmate for half-assing the assignment. Which, not only was discouraging for the student in question, but also, I’d imagine, inhibiting the other students from trying new things.

Blackrose once wrote a Seders in Space humor piece, pulling from her own experiences. A non-Jewish friend hated it and felt it mocked the Jewish stereotypes. Her Jewish friends and family loved it.


And the two final questions from the panel? The answers were in unison.

How does marketing interfere with the sanctuary of writing?

A Lot.

and

Do you write as a sanctuary for your readers?

YES.

So, a bit more of an exploration of their lives as writers, but altogether a panel I enjoyed.


Do you use writing as a sanctuary?

Do you use books as a sanctuary? What are some of your favorites?

Top 4 Questions From An Editors & Publishers AMA (Ask Me Anything)

Sunflowers in full bloom against a bright, clear blue sky.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 (Happy Summer Solstice!)

At Balticon52, I had the opportunity to attend an Ask Me Anything panel of Editors and Publishers. Usually in my panel notes, I skim over the panelists to get to the meat, but in this case, I feel their expertise was part of the draw.

The publishers and editors in question were:

  • Walt Boyes – an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor of the Industrial Automation INSIDER, the Grantville Gazette, (the magazine of the 1632 Universe), co-editor of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, and a member of the 1632 Editorial Board.
  • Scott H. Andrews – a writer, musician, and the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He’s a six-time Hugo Award finalist and with his podcast, a five-time Parsec Award finalist. [Fun fact: he always gives personalized rejections!]
    • For non-querying writers, I know that sounds kinda… pathetic. But if you’re in the querying trenches, you know what that’s worth.
  • Neil Clarke – the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld.
  • Ian Randal Strock– a writer, plus the owner and editor-in-chief of Gray Rabbit Publications/Fantastic Books (www.FantasticBooks.biz). Previously, he edited and published Artemis Magazine and SFScope. He also worked on the editorial staffs of Analog, Asimov’s, Science Fiction Chronicle, and many others.
  • (moderated by) Jeff Young – an award-winning author, bookseller, and editor of several anthologies.

So let’s get this rolling. Here are the questions.

1. What is Your Biggest Pet Peeve?

The top three answers were:

  1. Zombie Stories — they’ve been done to past death
  2. Writers who don’t READ THE GUIDELINES
  3. Writers who argue with critiques
    Even if you disagree with the critique or the suggestion, don’t argue with someone who spent their time and energy to give you feedback.
         Give that section of your prose a closer look

    • Is it moving the story along?
    • What is it adding?
    • Could you do it better–not necessarily the way they suggested.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

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2. Should A Writer Use Different Names For Different Genres?

As with all writing advice, it depends on the situation:

  • If you’re doing your own marketing, starting over with a new name doubles the amount of work you have to do to get traction.
  • If you’re with a large publisher, it can be helpful for the marketing.

That said, there are of course caveats:

  • You can end up getting shelved in the library/bookstores alongside whatever genre you first published in.
  • If you’re doing both Children’s books and explicit erotica — it can be helpful to make sure kids don’t end up with a book they probably didn’t mean to get.

Regarding publishing names in general:

When choosing which name to be published under (birth name or pen name), searchability reigns supreme.

You want to be high in the search result, but also easy to spell.

Simplified spelling, middle initials, mining family names, or deciding who you want to be shelved next to are good places to start.


Shelves full of books, in a decently lit library.

3. How Has The Market Changed In The Last Ten Years?

The top 3 ways the market’s changed:

  1. More exploring of the human condition in fantasy, a lot of the exploration is reactionary — which has a shorter shelf life.  Morgan’s side note: It might be more overt, but I’d argue that fantasy has ALWAYS explored the human condition.
  2. The rise in the respectability of online magazines.
  3. Massive growth in international markets.

Wood signpost, with worn red arrow pointing right. Greyed out mountains faintly behind it.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

4. Where Do Querying Writers Lose You?

There was a lot of discussion on this question, so I’ll break it into high-level and specifics.

The top three high-level answers were:

  1. When I quit caring.
  2. If you make it work to follow the narrative.
  3. If they don’t remember it the next day.
    • Note: This editor also said that the bad stories blur together, they don’t typically remember them.

Top 4 things that break their buy-in:

  1. ‘Red line of death’ – Boredom, implausibility, names that don’t fit the setting
  2. Implausibility – where all emotions are explicit rather than undercurrents. Most people don’t spell everything out for each other in real life.
  3. External commentary (even by the narrator) – “If I’d only known then…”
  4. A character doing something stupid or out-of-character (OOC)

A thought bubble drawn in chalk, with a lightbulb resting in the bubble

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I always find getting an insider perspective on the industry enlightening. Hopefully, these answers help you as much as they helped me.

 

Tips For Sustaining Tension In Your Writing

Last week, I talked about giving characters agency, but that’s not all editors and agents request. Another thing they ask for is ‘tension’. If the reader doesn’t have a reason to care what happens next, you’ve lost your tension.

Wait. Before we get any further, I need to clarify:

Why ‘Conflict’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Tension’

You hear a lot about how stories need to start off with ‘conflict’, but that’s not quite true. What your story needs is tension.

A fight or chase scene can provide conflict, but it’s really just an unsubtle way of giving your readers tension they can understand. And you have to be sure it’s actively forwarding the plot!

If you’ve ever seen Matrix 2, think about the opening fight scene–that went on and on and on.

I’m an easy audience– I don’t typically critique while watching, I want to buy into the world and the story, and I’m very invested in even the cheesiest of movies. Plus? I have a well-honed startle reflex.

Before the 10-minute mark, I couldn’t sit on the edge of my seat any longer. I sat back, took a sip of my soda, and waiting for the fighting to finish so we could start the plot.

So, with that caveat, let’s talk about the:

Goats with locked horns.

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Types of Tension

  1. Fights
  2. Arguments
  3. Deadlines
  4. Curiosity (but not true confusion or you’ve lost your reader)
  5. “Disquiet-itude”* – where something is a little off
  6. Unanswered questions
    • Romantic questions! Will they or won’t they?
    • Mystery questions! Who was the real killer?
  7. The list goes on and on…

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

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Ways To Add Tension

Most of these should be familiar, but I’d be remiss if I left them out.

  1. Get into the scene as late as possible, and get out as soon as the scene’s main character has made a decision about the next action.
    • In Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, there’s a scene that showed Daenerys after the council decided against her, raging against them. And the scene ends when Daenerys decides what to do next — before letting the reader/viewer in on the plan.
  2. Fight scenes aren’t tense by themselves – the stakes they’re fighting for are what adds the tension.
  3. Hinting is better than showing – think about horror movies.
  4. The Main Character Wants something
  5. The Main Character is invested in something
    • Emotionally, physically, financially -> it doesn’t matter what combination of these three, but you know it’s the character’s weak point
  6. The Scenery – use word choice to set up the tension
    • Have your metaphors say more than just the comparison
    • Look at your verb choice. Is there something more precise that sets the mood?
  7. The five senses
    • Building on the scenery, have the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches enhance the tension and mood
  8.  Contrast
    • Is everyone else tense, except for one character? What do the rest of the characters know that your one character doesn’t know?
    • Is your character tense when everyone else is relaxed? What does your character know that the rest don’t know?
  9. Have something be obvious to the reader, that the main character doesn’t react to as expected.
  10. Proximity – both time and distance affect tension
  11. Pacing – Shorter chapters. Shorter sentences. More action.

A hammock overlooks the water.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Ways To Lower Tension

Well, other than playing with the things above, (in a reverse way), there are things that writers do that lower tension, either intentionally or not.

  1. Writers often start with setting the scene chapters before the true story starts
  2. Writers fulfill the reader’s expectations, with no twists
  3. Humor – there’s a reason gallows humor exists. If you guessed “breaking the tension” in real life, you’d be right.

Conclusion

Remember, you want to keep the tension in your story to compel the reader onwards, but as with any genre, sustaining high tension is exhausting. You need to give the readers (and characters) time to process the plot.

By playing with the levels and types of tension in your story, you can make a story that your reader just can’t walk away from.


These notes come from the Balticon 52 panel, “Sustaining Tension in Your Writing”, featuring writers/panelists David Walton, Gail Martin, Scott Andrews, and moderated by Mark VanName.

 

* Scott Andrews’s word