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.

Constructed Languages

From Elvish to Esperanto to Dothraki to Belter

Welcome to Part 8 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: David Peterson (as moderator), Lawrence M. Schoen, Ryn Yee, and Jean Bürlesk. The panel description was as follows:

This is not a 1950s movie. The aliens don’t speak English. Fictional societies, whether on distant planets, in the far future, or in secondary fantasy worlds, will have their own languages unlike our own. These constructed languages (conlangs) can be fun–and devilishly difficult–to construct. Language experts and writers (aren’t writers language experts?) will talk about making a conlang, and how they figure into stories, from first contact to diplomacy to bargaining for your life.

How Far Should You Go?

When reading a book — like Lord of the Rings or Embassytown or watching a tv series — like Star Trek or Babylon Five, or even a movie like Arrival, even the casual fan can pick up a word or two in a constructed language (or conlang). But, from the outside-looking-in, it can be hard to determine: did the writers invent a word? Or a full language?

More importantly — if I’m writing a story, how much of this language do I need to invent? Do I need to act like Tolkien?

Well? All languages are comprised of a multitude of layers.

Layers of a Language

  1. Vocabulary — The most readily apparent. The conlang consists of words with meanings. But, let’s think about the ways the vocabulary we use reflects on us.
    • Word choice can demonstrate a particular culture (references to particular gods or rituals, expected life events, etc)
    • Word choice can also demonstrate class (“How y’all doing? versus “How do you do, today?”)
    • Words also have connotations, that may not be familiar to non-native speakers. (“My big sister” versus “my large sister”).
  2. Grammar — Most humans are designed to recognize patterns, if only to make sure they can tell when something seems ‘off’. What is grammar if not patterns of word use?
    • What order do you put your parts of speech — your nouns, verbs, adjectives, and more?
    • Do the verbs/nouns/etc change form based on other factors in the sentence? (i.e. verb conjugation based on tense or subject)
    • Punctuation (I love the Oxford comma!)

Do I Need The Whole Language Before I Can Write?

Short answer? No.

Long answer? It’s up to you. And you can always write your story and then layer the language part in.

Options for Conlangs

Treat language as world building!

  1. Opt out! Use universal translators.
    • But! Think about idioms and how poorly they translate between earth cultures. “Raining cats and dogs”.
    • Think about things that can translate content, but not intent.
  2. A few words here and there, just thrown in.
    • You can spell it either in the way that makes it more pronounceable by the majority of your audience, or stylized to give a sense of culture, (but harder to pronounce).
  3. A few sentences — an idea of the spelling of things, a form of grammar, what letters and vowels are more common in the language.
    • Try to be consistent for certain sounds. For example, pick either “ck” or “k”, and “s” or “c”. Unless there’s a cultural explanation.
  4. Give the created culture verbal ticks (“like”, “um”, etc). Plus, their own accents – both with their own language and yours.
  5. Remember those idioms? Think about what sort of hyperbolic phrases the created people’s culture might use.
  6. Have a creole language! Now, is a creole language — using part alien/ part your language easier? No. All languages have their own grammar and patterns and cultural baggage! Even dialects of your own are internally consistent.
  7. Some languages have a better vocabulary for certain concepts. Show the characters switching languages based on conversation subject matter.
    • This also means you can imply words that are too complex to be said in one (for example) English word.
  8. Next step? Think about the history of the culture. Invaders and conquests, what sort of languages got filtered in.
    • English has “beef” that comes from “cows”. How did these words get to be so different? Because “cow” is from the Germanic, while the conquering Norman (i.e. French) lords used the term “boeuf“, giving ranchers one word, and the people eating the meat another.
  9. More! What font, alphabet, pictograms, logographic, syllabaries, etc would your society use? Could it be translated into the language you’re writing in? Or not?
  10. Okay. You’ll need a glossary by now, and might be time to start thinking about a dictionary. Maybe a grammar book.

In conlang circles, the Darmock (season 5, episode 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation) is infamous. In the episode, while the translators work as usual, the culture uses references to famous (on their world) stories for many concepts.  For example, the expressions “Darmok on the ocean, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Darmok and Jalad on the ocean”, convey a sense of two opposing persons, who arrive separately at an isolated place and, forced to cooperate when faced with a fierce beast, leave together as friends.(1)

Things To Be Wary Of

  1. Science fiction and fantasy has overused the apostrophe in created names and more. Be sure you need it before using one.
  2. Is borrowing from a dying language a good idea?

    I mean, science is known for using Latin for its naming conventions.

    No. Remember those connotations and contexts we mentioned? If you’re not a native speaker, it’s easy to get those wrong. And using one language to represent an imaginary language is kinda the definition of cultural appropriation.
  3. What about using words from a real language?

    Is it because you have characters from that culture? Sure! Just make sure a native speaker reads it and makes sure it both says what you meant for it to say, and that the connotation is what you intended. (‘Big sister’ versus ‘Large sister’). Just make sure the words are there for a reason, not just window dressing.

Are you ready to start creating a language?

Have you created one in the past?

Let me know how it goes/went!

Spirits Abroad and At Home

Welcome to Part 6 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Doctor Z Aung as moderator, Graci Kim, and Momi Mondal. The description for the panel was as follows:

Yōkai, manitou, aswang–these are some non-western spirits. Western SFF has mostly limited itself to European creatures. How do these natives of other lands’ stories compare to the more familiar ones? Can we learn about (and as writers, can we reveal) something about cultures by comparing their spirit tales?

At the panel, we were treated to the panelists comparing and contrasting the views of spirits from their native cultures, with Graci Kim representing Korean beliefs, Momi Mondal, the Bengali beliefs, and Doctor Z’s family’s Myanmar traditions.

While the panelists shared their knowledge based on their families and cultures, beliefs and traditions vary from family to family and from village to village and thus, are not intended to be a definitive statement on what all people from a culture believe or have believed in the past.

House Spirits

Traditionally, Korean house spirits are like deities — contained to a room or object. The Korean spirits are all about people fulfilling their expected role in society. The unmarried virgin ghost or unmarried bachelor. The evil ghost with a featureless face, haunting children, because she was unable to have children in life. These spirits inhibit a house, they don’t follow a family.

But not all spirits are ghosts.

In Burmese (Myanmar) culture, one prays to and gives offerings to house spirits. And there are spirits for houses, villages, and towns. These nature or house spirits are often people who died in service or tragically.

For the Bengali, the word for ghost means “dead humans”. Their only stories about animals are dead people coming back as such. They don’t have spirits that aren’t ghosts, because they have a polytheistic religion.

Originally, they had altars to their ancestors to watch over them, until other religions came in. Eventually, the concept of a heaven and hell were introduced to their stories. Their god stories are very different from their ghost stories, though.

Are The Spirits Positive/Protective?

In Korean tradition, the family watches over you. And dreams themselves can be messages from them. Graci Kim dreamed of her grandmother and gut pain. The dream went away when her granny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

For the Bengali, their gods aren’t necessarily positive or protective, they just are.

In Burmese culture, ancestor worship is regional, rather than gods. Plus, Hindi gods are always good. You familiarize the god to yourself, and the gods are all family, so that shows in how they react. They’re like your family or network.

What Inspires The Darker Tales?

Some are inspired by loss — lost children, lost spouses, people who died before they could fulfil their role in society.

Some are inspired by urbanization — talking to someone in the dark and realizing later, it was a stranger, not who you thought it was. These tales remind you to be polite and welcoming to strangers… so you don’t tick off someone with power.

Others are inspired by tragic events — chinese migrant workers who died were bound tightly and sent home, and looked like they were marching home, inspiring ghost stories.

And others exist to reinforce social roles — Momi shared that she’s from a lower caste Indian background, (what used to be called untouchable), but was so integrated these days, she didn’t know it until later and didn’t really suffer much from discrimination. Yet, in the films and stories, the bad guy was almost always from that lower caste.

Writing Tips for Non-Western Spirits

When writing ‘the other’… no one is stopping you, they just ask that you have a level of respect for the culture it derives from.

The lived cultural experience lends an intimacy that research struggles to duplicate. Before you tell the story, ask yourself: is there someone better suited to write this.

American science-fiction publishers typically are looking for the big stories with the strong cultural influences, not necessarily explorations of internal cultural clashes, not involving Westerners. Small stories work better as short stories, while diaspora tales are a totally different sub-genre.

Recommended Reading

  • Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad
  • Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • F.C. Yee The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
  • NK Jemisin’s The Great Cities series
  • Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen

What do you bring to your writing from your culture?

What cultures do you like exploring in your writing?

World-Building: Economics

Welcome to Part 3 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Future Economics were Jesper Stage, Karl Schroeder, and Katherine Quevedo. While panel descriptions are always an idea of what the panel might be, and not a promise of what it will contain, they’re always a lovely teaser. For ‘Future Economics’, the description was as follows:

Will we ever fully disentangle from the physical? Blockchains, cryptocurrency, differently organic sentience. Will economic concepts of supply, demand, money, resources hold up? Evolve? Or be completely different?  And what might they look like?

Economics is usually seen as a dry topic, full of game theory and calculated systems.

But economic systems do not exist in a vacuum. Here are:

5 Things To Consider When Designing Future (or Fantastical) Economic Systems

  1. Remember when looking at the model, that you must consider the humanity of the situation if you want both more nuanced and more accurate predictions
  2. Most of the labor in this world is not done for money — most labor is caretaking, and is usually done by women
  3. When IP (Intellectual property) is owned by a corporation, it is typically very secure. What about the people who create that IP?
    • Computer translation gets better by analysing translated works that are online, but what about the people who are doing the translations? Where is their compensation for training the automation that will eventually leave them jobless.
    • If Corporations are legally considered people and have a right to free speech, does that make them somehow potentially immortal beings?
  4. Where do the arts get their funding?
    • In this day and age, many get their funding through Patreon or similar entities — and projects get their funding based on popularity — both of the idea and the creator. This leads to success for those who are already successful and oftentimes nothing for those who have not yet had the opportunity for success.
  5. What are the roles for AI (artificial intelligence) and computers in the future?
    • Consider AIs representing natural resources like rivers/mountains/etc, programed to act in the resource’s best interests
    • What if google or facebook or what have you granted you a sort of ‘universal income’ for use of your picture and your data in their algorithms?
      • If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘universal income’, in this day and age where more and more things are becoming automated, more and more jobs are almost more like ‘make-work’ than needed to sustain humanity or civilization. In such a world, it has been suggested that humanity itself makes one worthy of rent and food, with work something done because of a desire to do the job, a wish for purpose, or done for extra luxuries.

A world fantastic doesn’t have to be built on the economic principles that we live with today. Exploring the alternatives, and finding our way to the extrapolations of what that means for humanity can help create a world of nuance, with a core of truth holding it together.


What real world influences do you bring to world-building economics? What theories do you like to explore in your writing?

Accessible Magic

Welcome to Part 2 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were Petrea Mitchell as moderator, Andi C. Buchanan, and Taiyo Fujii.

How does a person with a speech impediment handle magical incantations? Dyslexic sorcery: scrambling runes a hazard? Is the autism spectrum an advantage if spellcasting requires visualizing complex shapes? Let’s mash mastery of magic and differently abled people together and see what we get.

In a lot of fantasy and science-fiction, they wave their hands and make magic or tech the “solution” to all disabilities. Let’s explore ways to use magic for accessibility and ways differently abled people could be better integrated into these stories.

Things That Are Usually Ignored

There are tons of ways accessibility could be impacted by magic or science. Here are a few:

  • potion allergy
  • inability to focus (ADHD), making magic either a challenge, or so hard that you need to veg for a day or two afterwards.
  • for intuitive magic, what about people who struggle with things that others claim are ‘intuitive’, like people with autism

Bad Tropes

There are tons of ways that people get disability in stories wrong. Tropes that are overdone and trite, and minimize the very real impact and communities that form around a shared bond.

  • Magic compensates for the disability… by erasing it. — i.e. Daredevil. The blind superhero with the superpower of… sight.
    • Note: there’s a different, and healthier vibe if the character purposely sacrifices an ability in order to get something else, like Odin and his eye. Assuming that the sacrifice doesn’t malign people who naturally have that disability.
  • No medical consent — they fix everything the way they believe your body ‘should’ work, without telling you about risks or giving you options
  • Having unhealthy work-arounds for a disability
  • The person who sacrificed themselves for the group — was dying anyway
  • The disability is fixed instantly with magic
    • Can be mitigated by showing the learning stage, the strength building, etc

Remember, when things are designed to be more accessible, they’re often more accessible for everyone, not just the group that the design was focused on. For example, curb cuts, where the sidewalk smoothly thins to meet the level of the road, make things easier for strollers (and bikes), not just wheelchair users.

Underutilized Tropes

Adding the concept of accessibility to your stories isn’t just a list of “things to avoid” and “wouldn’t it be nice”. Here are some ways you might explore different types of abilities.

  • Using magic/science as an adaptive technique, rather than a cure-all
  • Having something that isn’t a disability in this world be one in the story
    • Tone-deaf — if magic is music based
    • Color-blindness — if colors of things is important
    • Morning person — in a world that operates at night
  • Having the ability CAUSE a disability
    • In ‘My Hero Academia’, one of the characters is stronger than his bones can withstand… so he has to modify his fighting style
  • Having accessibility tools give more powers
    • Adaptive arms or an exoskeleton that makes magics possible that weren’t before – because of more digits or hands, etc.
  • For people who are more math focused, and less able to ‘visualize magic’, like so many do — More mathlike magic — working more like a computer program, with ‘if this, then that’ sort of branches

Adding people with different types of abilities and making things accessible to more people is a great way to populate your fictional world look more like the real world, and show ways we could do better.

Suggested Reading

The best way to learn about how differently abled people interact with the world is to read the books they populate. It’s also a great idea to read stories by writers with disabilities — even when that’s not the focus — because getting to know other perspectives is a great way to improve your world-building, your characterizations, plus broaden your own horizons.

“Away With The Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine)

The Outside – by Ada Hoffmann

The Disabled People Destroy Fantasy edition of Uncanny Magazine

The Country Of The Blind – by HG Wells

Geometries of Belonging – By R.B. Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Mooncakes – by Suzanne Walker  (Author), Wendy Xu (Illustrator)

First Dates by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers (Translunar Travelers Lounge)


Do you have any thoughts on things I missed? Any pet peeves you’d like to add? Please do so!

Please let me know if you have any story suggestions.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips and writerly musings.