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?

Stranger in a Strange Head: Imposter Syndrome

Welcome to Part 5 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Cassie Hart as moderator, Curtis Chen, Ash Charlton, Margot Atwell, and Grant Stone.

I know, I know, I’ve dealt with impostor syndrome before, I’ve even hit panels on imposter syndrome before, but every con I go to is full of amateurs and professionals suffering. (Google just reassured me that I can end imposter with an -er or an -or and be correct. But never -ure.)

This panel didn’t have a description, but the title pretty much says it all.

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Before we get started, we should make sure we’re all working off the same definition.

Impostor syndrome, according to wikipedia, (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

I.E. Me. Right now.

In other words? The feeling that people think you’re better than you know you are. That you don’t deserve to be where you are.

In the writing world, no matter which path you take, you can always feel not-good-enough.

For the writer-wanna-be, just finishing your first manuscript can seem like that step that will make you feel like a ‘real writer’. For the querying writer, getting that agent. For the writer out on submission, getting that publisher to sign. For the writer publishing either way (traditional or indie), holding that first copy where the book is real. Then getting that first sale, then getting the next sale, then earning those big bucks. Then winning that award!

There’s always something bigger to strive for, before you feel you can call yourself a ‘real’ writer, or a successful author.

Things That Can Trigger Imposter Syndrome

Confession, the start of this panel was kinda… hilarious. When you attend a panel, the first thing the panelists do is introduce themselves and discuss their credentials to be on the panel.

How does one list one’s accomplishments to prove they do belong there, without disproving their own imposter status? It proved for many of them a rather strong cognitive dissonance – holding two opposing beliefs in your head is hard.

  1. Proving you belong on an impostor syndrome panel (am I an imposter at being an imposter)
  2. Sharing your work with others. (they could judge it)
  3. External validation from people you know. (they’re just being kind)
  4. One panelist used to feel like an imposter because he is gay, now he feels like an imposter because he’s a cis, white, man
  5. Starting to write a new book (what if last time was a fluke? What if you’ve lost the touch.)
  6. Comparing oneself to others in the room

That last one can be the most insidious, especially in this day-and-age of social media. One of the things it is best to remember is that most people share their wins, their successes, and even their struggles are sanitized or framed in a “look-what-I-overcame” sort of way.

You’re comparing your real life, your real self, with alls it’s ups and downs and playing phone games ’til 5 in the morning, comparing that you, to others on their best day — when they’re all ready for it, with their best dress on, and face all made up.

So many of those ‘overnight successes’ have been working hard, hustling, and practicing their craft for a decade or more.

Ways To Mitigate Imposter Syndrome

When applying for jobs, studies have found that men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the listed skills, women when they meet 100%. The best way to reach the moon is to shoot for the stars and miss.

This list is long, so hopefully something in here will resonate for you.

  1. Meeting and interacting with the people you’re comparing yourself to
    • You find out they’re real people, with their own foils and foibles
  2. Remind yourself why you’re in their company and what your qualifications are
  3. Ask yourself, who taught you that you weren’t as good as the others? Are they someone whose judgement you trust?
  4. As an author, 95% of the authors around you are there, or have been there, and are sweet and friendly and helpful and welcoming.
  5. While we all think we’re nobody next to somebody, we’re all somebody to someone.
  6. Remember: the way you see yourself is not how people see you, (and in this day and age, remember that text communication isn’t the same as video, isn’t the same as in person. Someone who seems terse and judgey just might stink at texting, or have bad bandwidth, or screaming neighbors…)
  7. There’s always someone ahead of you… but there’s always someone behind you. You need to consider which axis you’re judging and remember that your path to success isn’t necessarily linear. A writer-career bingo is better than a line, because no two paths are the same.
  8. Play to your own strengths, don’t chase someone else’s success.
  9. While external validation can help… it’s very unhealthy and co-dependent. Finding joy in your work helps. What lights you up and makes you want to do it?
  10. When all else fails? Power poses! Literally. They can stimulate your brain in helpful ways.
  11. Try finding a song that resets or recenters your brain, not necessarily ones that peps you up.
  12. Dress in a way that makes you look confident: snazzy bow ties, bright hair, business geek.
  13. If you use a pen name, channel that alter ego and make it all the best parts of yourself — still you, but just the aspects that you want the world to see.
  14. Remember to separate who you are from what you do. Just being you makes you worthwhile… without accolades.
  15. Think about the expectations and next steps or goals, and see if they’re actually things you want — or just what seemed like the next step. If you want them? If you want something else entirely? Figure out the steps to get you there and take them.
  16. When you step out of your comfort zone, acknowledge it and give yourself credit for trying.
  17. Have friends and family who encourage and support you, and push you to grow. If you don’t have anyone that supportive, find better friends!
  18. You can opt to the pressure to make your hobby a hustle! Write for yourself and enjoy the hobby. Share it as you like.
  19. In the day-job world, there’s a spot, usually about 3-months into a job, where many people know exactly how much they don’t know and they’re struggling. Pushing past it, you often find that you’re good at the job. With writing, you keep promoting yourself and you’re going to struggle every time you advance. Be patient and work through it.
  20. Be your own friend. (This one gets a little recursive) Tons of people are far more empathetic with others than they are with themselves. And be empathetic with yourself if you’re not good at this at first. It takes practice, and you wouldn’t write off a friend for being bad at this…
  21. Set your goals as things you can control, not things reliant on someone else: how much you work rather than whether or not you get rejections.
  22. If all else fails? Own it! Pretend to be the person they think you are, or fake it ’til you make it!

Supportive Quotes/Mantras

  1. “I am worthy. I am worthy. I am worthy.”
  2. “Ground yourself in things that fill you up.”
  3. “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” (Hamilton)
  4. “F*ck you honey, you’re lucky to have me here.”

If you’re going to put yourself out there, you have to be ready for feedback — and rejection is a form of feedback… but it’s also a form of progress.

You’ve had the idea and you’ve put it on paper.

Maybe you’ve finished the piece and sent it out? When you get that rejection, you can be ready to send it again, (to someone else). They’re not always saying ‘no’. Often, they’re saying ‘not right, now. But keep going.”

Don’t self reject. If you work hard and keep at it, you’re going to keep getting better, and keep getting closer to that next stage in your career, however you define it.


If you’ve fought with impostor syndrome, share how you’ve overcome it. Or at least fought it back.

Novel, Novella or Short Story?

Welcome to Part 11 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup. This is my final post from my notes.

The panel description was as follows: What is the right length for your story idea? How does outlining, submitting, revising, and other aspects of the writing craft change with story length? How do you go about rewriting a story for a drastically different word count? Panelists will discuss various techniques they have used and the pros and cons of each.

The panelists were: Don Sakers (as moderator), Monica Louzon, Karen Osborne, Sarah Pinsker, and Margaret Riley.

The size of a story is often dictated by the scope of the idea that spawned it. While some experienced writers can tell from the shape of the concept how long their story will be, it’s often a case of trial and error and years.

Why Write Short Stories?

Writing short stories is the art of writing less. It lets you have fun and explore new ideas. Novels are a commitment, you have to be sure you’re in it for the long haul.

Typically, your short story is going to follow one major thread or concept, within a short period of time, and with minimal characters. Short stories are very zoomed in.

In short stories, you don’t put in huge bits of backstory, although, as always, you can write it for yourself and cut it.

If you keep getting your short stories rejected — it may be time to follow panelist Monica Louzon’s lead and do some research. Look at the anthologies in your genre that are currently selling, then read until you find something that resonates. Then, reread and study those stories — examine where they start, where they end, and their pacing. Or contemplate how you would change things.

Why Write Novellas?

Novellas can zoom out a little, cover more story, more ground. You can concentrate on 1-2 relationships in a novella.

Novellas can cover two or three plot threads, an additional character or two, and a longer time period than the typical short story. But, their scope isn’t quite enough for a full novel. This doesn’t make them lesser in any way. Readers can tell if you’ve padded out your novel for word count, and cutting a true novella down to a short story robs it of much of its plot and heart.

While some people use novellas to write serials, you have to be sure you won’t want to edit earlier episodes to set up later episodes better. It depends on your level of planning and how you deal with plot holes.

If you do write serials — you’ll need spreadsheets and records for every character.

If you find yourself writing too much about a minor character, they might should be the main character. Try switching them.

Why Write Novels?

Novels are more forgiving for description with far more room for character growth and world-building. Novels can carry complex plots, concepts, and time periods that could barely be touched in a novella or short story.

Although, many writers do try to pace their chapters like a series of connected short stories — this works for many writing styles.

Which Do I Have?

If you’re not sure which you have, you can try outlining your story and plot and see how far you get. Under 10 scenes? You’re looking at a short story. Under 20 scenes? Probably a novella. More than 30? We’re looking at novel territory, if these scenes are more than a paragraph or two.

If you’re against planning though? The only way to find out is to write it.


What do you prefer to write?

Is that the story length you prefer to read?

Have you ever been wrong about a story length and had to fix it?

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

Choosing Your Perspective

Welcome to Part 10 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The panel description was as follows: What options does a writer have in choosing the point of view for their narrative? What kinds of stories are best suited by first-, third-, and even second-person narration? What are some ways that you can combine them, and when should you?

The panelists were: Ada Palmer (as moderator), Meriah Crawford, Jo Walton, and L. Marie Wood.

All stories have a voice and a point-of-view — or POV.

Voice

Voice sets the tone and the attitude, often alluding to a certain social class, a time period, and location.

While describing a room or a fight scene, some writers are lyrical and highly descriptive, while others are short and terse. In this bit of the narration, that’s neither character thoughts, nor dialogue, the level of voice can vary tremendously. Some are neutral, but descriptive, some are judgemental, and some are mocking. Descriptors and creative analogies can go a long way toward creating completely different tones.

Point of View

For the point-of-view, you can have first person — “I ate the cookies”, second-person — “you ate the cookies”, or third person — “She ate the cookies.”

The point-of-view character is who the story’s narrative is following. Plenty of writers switch between characters. It is up to the writer to decide how far into the character’s thoughts they wish to delve.

First Person

First person point of view is intimate, but that doesn’t require the writer to delve into the characters minds, they can choose to simply share the character’s actions and sensory inputs. It’s often used in YA, memoirs, literary fiction, and romances.

Second Person

Second person point-of-view is often seen as gimmicky. If the ‘you’ in the story reacts in a way unnatural to you, it can easily throw ‘you’, as the reader, out of the story. Now, news stories and discussions of trauma are often told this way, and it often feels natural to many people when writing reflective pieces.

Plus, of course, you’ll find second person used in those choose your own adventure stories and games.

In a mix of first and second person point of view are stories told to a specific person, “oh, daughter, when I was your age” or “dear reader, you may think… .” The panelists decided we’d call these “addressee second person.”

Third Person

Third person point-of-view has a huge amount of variety and thus is often the default POV. You can be as intimate and as zoomed in as first person, or you can have an omnipotent narrator, who knows all — past, present, and future. If you play video games, it’s the difference from a view right behind the character you’re controlling/following the plot of, and looking at the full map as everything plays out.

Warnings

Cultural norms change. Twist reveals of “he was secretly gay” or “the main character was a woman” aren’t so surprising or novel.

Head-hopping or switching POV characters mid-chapter is challenging to do smoothly.

Ways To Use Points of View In Your Story

As with switching between point-of-view characters, some writers switch between points-of-view entirely, such as using first person with a main character and third person with a secondary character. Often used in thrillers, to hide the identity of the killer. Switching between POVs can also make a section stand out, so if you want to switch tones, that can help. To either make it more intimate, or to back up a little, so the reader can rest and absorb before the plot picks back up again.

While the story is carrying us along, there’s always the choice to create an unreliable narrator in any voice. There’s a huge difference, though, between a character who doesn’t know the truth, and one who is lying to the audience. If you want an unreliable narrator, it’s best to have a good reason.

On the flip side, you can always have the narration, or use a secondary point-of-view character give the readers information that the main point-of-view character doesn’t know.

Some good examples of this are: Haircut by Ring Lardner Jr., Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, or The Strange Case Of Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Now, there are other points-of-view writers have used, typically as an exploration of a concept — first person plural — “We are going to the store”.

Plus, there’s always the use of epistolary text — traditionally, a story told through letters, now used with articles, chat logs, and faux-book excerpts. This faux-documentation is also a great way to add world building and introduce new information, without needing to introduce a new point of view character.

There are a variety of ways one can combine both voice and point-of-view to create a story that resonates.


What is your favorite point-of-view?

Do you like to write something different than what you prefer to read?

Any tips I missed?


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

How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft

Welcome to Part 9 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The painful panel description was as follows: Panelists will discuss they’re favorite techniques four editing when they don’t have outside reader, or editor too help.

The panelists were: Mark Van Name (as moderator), Julayne Hughes, Margaret Riley, Beth Tanner, and James Stratton.

(I know, I just did Making Painful Edits, but I was in the editing stage when I hit this convention, so I hit more than one panel with the same theme.)

Different Approaches To The Writing Process

Before you can self-edit, you’ve got to have a draft to work with. There are several different methods people use — and just because one worked for you last time, doesn’t mean you’re stuck using the same method every time.

First drafts stink. That’s just the rule. Sure, there are exceptions, but you’re probably not it. But, it’s okay. It’s all part of the process. Ninety-nine percent of all writers are gonna have to edit their lousy first-drafts.

  • Pantsers – Draft it out and see what happens — easier for short stories, writing “by the seat of their pants.
  • Planners – Outline first, then write
  • Plantsers – Create a light outline, but sort out the details as they go, letting the story deviate organically
  • Immediately share chapters as they come out
  • Wait until it’s done before sharing
  • Wait until it’s revised to share

Things To Do To A Rough Draft

Now that you’ve got that rough draft, you’re gonna want to edit it. No, really.

  • Let it age, so you can look at it with fresh eyes. 2-3 months is usually good.
  • Or? Dive back in while the world is still fresh and vivid.
  • Run spellcheck and grammar check. Use Grammarly or EditMinion or the HemingwayApp
  • Change the font and/or print it out so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Or have your device read it aloud to you.
  • Read through and clean up the sentences
  • Outline the draft AFTER you write it, check for pacing and seeing what themes emerge that you can build on
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter
    • Don’t say something 6 times in 6 different ways. Keep the best version and cut the rest
    • Remove the filler words that exist to hedge: “just”, “so”, “well”, “a bit” “feel”
  • Kill your babies, your darlings.
    • We hear this a lot, but what does it really mean?
      These are the pearls of wisdom or great moving drama. It’s not gonna be everyone’s taste. Structurally, look for descriptors — most people have fairly good imaginations. You don’t have to spell out everything about the horse the rider hopped onto. Give them as little as you can at the beginning, move up the details as you move along.
  • Don’t write like a computer programmer or a stage director, you shouldn’t be dictating every move of your character.
  • Draw out your story arches — one for the plot, one for the POV characters. See where each peaks and ebbs and make sure they complement each other. See where you can cut or combine characters, or scenes, or chapters.
  • Don’t let your reader suffer for your research. Just because you spent five hours researching canning techniques, doesn’t mean you need to spend more than one sentence talking about your characters canning fruit.

Tools used for structural work

Maybe the part of the story you’re most worried about is the pacing or plot coherency. In that case, you’re probably going to want to use some tools to inspect your story’s structure.

  • Scrivener corkboard view. Or 3×5 cards on the table.
  • To organize the changes: watch where POV shifts. Color coded by POV or type of scene, etc.
  • Murder maps can be fun if your story has conspiracies.
  • Spreadsheets to track things:
    • When do we see each person
    • Travel distance
    • POV switches.
    • Character info
  • Create your own wikipedia (archivist.com will allow this)
  • Create a sort of D&D character sheet for each character

Editorial Pet Peeves

When editing your own manuscript, you should probably keep in mind the things that professional editors see as pet peeves. They’ve seen a lot more manuscripts than just yours, and I’m sure you don’t want your writing to come across as trite or overdone.

  • “letting go of a breath that he didn’t know he was holding”
  • “walking and walking” Or whatever word you’re reusing.
  • “Continued”
  • Words with the right meaning but wrong connotation
  • Fillers like: suddenly, just, that, of
  • Having every other sentence as a fragment
  • Not using conjunctions to seem more literary
  • Going out of your way to avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag
  • Bouncing POV, without a clear break
  • Bad grammar — for no reason
  • Reusing and overusing words

When to bring in the beta

At some point, though, you’re going to reach the limits of what you can fix on your own. You’re only one person, and you know the characters and the story too well to see what might be missing.

While it’s up to you, you really should bring in outside readers at some point. Some people share a few chapters to see if they’re on the right path. Others wait until the story is polished, then share. If you’re struggling with your story, you may want to reach out sooner.

Beta-readers are usually readers of your genre, but not necessarily writers themselves. They bring a different perspective to your story.

However, a critique partner/fellow writer is going to be more useful with story issues. Be selective who you’re sharing your manuscript with.

As always, you don’t have to agree with the edits, but even if you don’t like a proposed fix, you may want to look into clarifying the scene your beta tried to edit, to make sure it was properly set up.

And? As Margaret said, “you don’t come with the book. If I have to ask you questions, you’ve left something out.” The book needs to stand on its own without explanation.

Once beta-readers have taken you as far as you can go, there’s always one more option. If you’re querying for traditional publishing, you might be able to skip this, but if you’re self-publishing, you definitely want a professional editor, to make sure your book has that professional quality you want associated with your name.

You’ll want to make your manuscript as clean as possible before you hire an editor. You can’t afford not to. You don’t want them wasting time fixing things that Word could have told you, you want them to be able to see the bigger issues.

Make sure you’re hiring the right sort of editor — or get one who can do it all.

Types of Editors: Copy vs Clarity

Content editors are concerned with the plot and characters.

Proofreaders come in after edits and check for typos.

Copy-editors watch for repetitive/missing words, bad phrasing, bad logistics [missing arms, where’d the sword come from], etc.


There are a lot of stages of editing, and I know I’ve covered this topic before in different ways, but it’s always good to get fresh advice from more writers. Especially when they agree.

Any tips or tricks you’d like to add?

Let me know and thanks, as always, for reading.


Shameless Plug: If you’re already attending WorldCon – CoNZealand July 29-Aug 2 (July 28-Aug 1st here in the states), come check me out day one on What to Expect When You’re Ready to Query and Establishing a Social Media Presence.