There was an inauguration yesterday. The United States of America swore in a new president.
But. This is a writing blog, so let’s talk about writing.
I may have complained some about how my space fantasy story that I started during NaNoWriMo went off the rails and I wasn’t sure where it was going. I might have been getting words in, but I have been struggling to advance the plot.
This weekend, I took a drive, thought about my story, and realized the problem.
When a story is fighting you, the problem just might be that you’re going the wrong direction. Sometimes, you’re writing the wrong story.
Types of Stories
We’re all familiar with the different types of stories, even if we don’t have the lists memorized. While different people split them up differently, let’s go with this subset of six categories of stories.
“Human versus human” – Someone is standing in your way, blocking you from achieving your goals.
“Human versus nature” – A survival tale.
“Human versus machine” – Technology, at whatever level, might be your undoing.
“Human versus fate” – Can you fight the gods and/or destiny?
“Human versus society” – Where you’re fighting ‘the man’, the system, the government, the corporation…
“Human versus self” – When you really are your own worst enemy
What Was Wrong In Morgan’s Story
For me, I typically write “human versus society”, where the problem is social expectations, or a corrupt government, that sort of thing. That’s my – for lack of a better term – comfort zone.
Which is a bit silly, because in my personal life, I’m the sort that is comfortable being a cog in the wheel. I can rationalize a lot, and I typically go along with authority unless I have a clear reason to fight back. Which doesn’t happen often.
With my space fantasy, I was trying to base the story structure on classic fairy tales… while still having the enemy be a nebulous corporation — or at least a debt to them.
But fairytales thrive on conflict. Well, all stories do. But fairytales thrive specifically on interpersonal conflict.
I was driving down that tree-lined highway in the mountains, thinking about my story and how to get it from where it was to the ending I needed, when the solution dawned on me.
I need an enemy, one close at hand, with motivations and reasons all their own. And I knew exactly who it was, who I’d been trying to reform since the very beginning. That was my mistake.
Not all antagonists can be swayed to the side of the main character. Some are just in it for themselves.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Proving you belong on an impostor syndrome panel (am I an imposter at being an imposter)
Sharing your work with others. (they could judge it)
External validation from people you know. (they’re just being kind)
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
Starting to write a new book (what if last time was a fluke? What if you’ve lost the touch.)
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.
Meeting and interacting with the people you’re comparing yourself to
You find out they’re real people, with their own foils and foibles
Remind yourself why you’re in their company and what your qualifications are
Ask yourself, who taught you that you weren’t as good as the others? Are they someone whose judgement you trust?
As an author, 95% of the authors around you are there, or have been there, and are sweet and friendly and helpful and welcoming.
While we all think we’re nobody next to somebody, we’re all somebody to someone.
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…)
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.
Play to your own strengths, don’t chase someone else’s success.
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?
When all else fails? Power poses! Literally. They can stimulate your brain in helpful ways.
Try finding a song that resets or recenters your brain, not necessarily ones that peps you up.
Dress in a way that makes you look confident: snazzy bow ties, bright hair, business geek.
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.
Remember to separate who you are from what you do. Just being you makes you worthwhile… without accolades.
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.
When you step out of your comfort zone, acknowledge it and give yourself credit for trying.
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!
You can opt to the pressure to make your hobby a hustle! Write for yourself and enjoy the hobby. Share it as you like.
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.
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…
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.
If all else fails? Own it!Pretend to be the person they think you are, or fake it ’til you make it!
“I am worthy. I am worthy. I am worthy.”
“Ground yourself in things that fill you up.”
“You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” (Hamilton)
“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.
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.