When Writing: How Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity Combine To Expose Humanity

Humanity is a complex thing.

We can be cruel, harsh, and close-minded. We can live in fear for that which is different — people, places, and technology. There is much that is dark and depressing about humanity.

But.

That is not all we are.

And as writers? We do our best work when we explore the darkness that lies within and expose it to the light. When we seek out the good, the bright, and the very hope that we are all born to hold within ourselves.

Honoring the Mars rover, Opportunity

Fifteen years ago, in July of 2003, we sent two small rovers 127 million miles from home to explore Mars for us.

Their names? Spirit and Opportunity.

Intended for a 90-day mission that we hoped would go longer, Spirit lasted over 6 years before a sand trap took them from us.

Carrying on with sampling, photographing, and collecting data without its twin for a total of nearly 15 YEARS, was Opportunity. We lost contact with them in June 2018 during a massive dust storm that covered the entire planet for a month longer than any previous storm Opportunity had yet weathered.

Its final message?

“My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.”

Opportunity (Mars rover)

We’ve been trying for months to reestablish contact, hoping the winds would clear the dust deposited by the storm from its solar arrays, afraid even the hibernation power was too much and the battery was drained too far to come back.

On February 13, 2019, NASA declared Opportunity‘s mission at an end.

On one hand, I feel incredible sadness. Leaving a robot — hungry, alone, in the dark, so far from home?

On the other? Opportunity is a testament to humanity. Like their twin, called Spirit, and younger sibling, Curiosity, they were named for the greater parts of us. Spirit, Curiosity, and the willingness to seize an Opportunity.

We might have hoped for 9 months, but Opportunity traveled further than a marathon runner on their own little wheels, crossing Mars’s surface for us.

The Little Rover That Could.


Faith In Humanity – Tumblr Edition

I don’t think I’ve ever quoted Tumblr on this blog, before, but Opportunity and their siblings are worth it.

These two quotes from Tumblr brought me the comfort I never imagined I would need, after the loss of Opportunity.

No guys you don't understand.

The soil testing equipment on Curiosity makes a buzzing noise, and the pitch of the noise changes depending on what part of an experiment Curiosity is performing, this is the way Curiosity sings to itself.

Some of the finest minds currently alive decided to take incredibly expensive scientific equipment and mess with it until they figured out how to move in just the right way to sing Happy Birthday, then someone made a cake on Curiosity’s Birthday and took it into Mission Control so that a room full of brilliant scientists and engineers could throw a birthday party for a non-autonomous robot 225 million kilometers away and listen to it sing the first song ever sung on Mars, which was Happy Birthday.

This isn't a sad story, this is a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things.  We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the stars to go and explore places we can't get to because it's name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That's not sad, that's awesome.

No guys you don’t understand.

“…This isn’t a sad story, this is a happy story about the ridiculousness of humans and the way we love things.  We built a little robot and called it Curiosity and flung it into the stars to go and explore places we can’t get to because it’s name is in our nature and then just because we could, we taught it how to sing.

That’s not sad, that’s awesome.

And

swanjolras Deactivated gosh but like we spent hundreds of years looking up at the stars and wondering “is there anybody out there” and hoping and guessing and imagining because we as a species were so lonely and we wanted friends so bad, we wanted to meet other species and we wanted to talk to them and we wanted to learn from them and to stop being the only people in the universe and we started realizing that things were maybe not going so good for us— we got scared that we were going to blow each other up, we got scared that we were going to break our planet permanently, we got scared that in a hundred years we were all going to be dead and gone and even if there were other people out there, we’d never get to meet them and then we built robots? and we gave them names and we gave them brains made out of silicon and we pretended they were people and we told them hey you wanna go exploring, and of course they did, because we had made them in our own image and maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more, maybe yeah the planet will be a mess and we’ll all be dead, and if other people come from the stars we won’t be around to meet them and say hi! how are you! we’re people, too! you’re not alone any more!, maybe we’ll be gone but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like? the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important. and they told us to tell you hello. Source:swanjolras-archive #I'm not crying #your mom is crying #science goddammit #people being people

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“… maybe in a hundred years we won’t be around any more … but we built robots, who have beat-up hulls and metal brains, and who have names; and if the other people come and say, who were these people? what were they like?

the robots can say, when they made us, they called us discovery; they called us curiosity; they called us explorer; they called us spirit. they must have thought that was important.

and they told us to tell you hello.”

Source: DEACTIVATED: swanjolras-archive#I’m not crying#your mom is crying#science goddammit#people being people

Imbuing Your Writing With The Best Of Humanity

Curiosity is the ability for a writer (or their characters) to wonder. To think, what-if? Curiosity makes them want to explore. Makes them wonder why things are the way they are and if there’s a way to change them. Curiosity makes them want to know how things work.

Spirit is the energy and motivation to find out. You can wonder all you want, but without spirit, the questions will remain unanswered in your head.

And opportunity? That’s when spirit, curiosity, and timing match up. You can have all the spirit and curiosity about the stars above, but without access to telescopes and science, it’s hard to learn more about them. You can wonder all you want about the fairy world, but unless you find a door, you’ll never get the opportunity to explore.

Opportunity and spirit can take your characters, (and the rest of us), far beyond their abilities and their plans, to a point where they can achieve so much more than they ever dreamed possible.


How do you incorporate humanity in your writing?

Do you focus on the negatives?

Or do you allow the best of us to peek through the darkness and shine a beacon of hope?

If you’re a reader, which part speaks strongest to you?

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Strength Isn’t Just For The Strong

At WorldFantasyCon, I attended a panel by this same name. Going into the panel, I expected a discussion of different types of strengths being compared to the default of physical strength. Instead, the panel veered into magical strength and stayed there.

Defining Strength

Of course, we addressed the titular topic, but the conversation just kept swaying magical.

Strength can be just an overwhelming level of power. But, to use one’s strength to accomplish one’s goals of any type is a form of competence. Be it physical, mental, mystical, or magical, without competence you end up with more of a firestorm than a laser.

Things Magic Can Represent

Magic can just be the extraordinary, but often in fantasy, it’s a way of discussing real-world issues without bringing all the baggage that its real-world counterpart has accumulated.

  1. The hubris of the human spirit
  2. It’s often an allegory for privilege or power
    1. In worlds where magic is bad – the main character is often non-magical
    2. In worlds where magic is good – the main character is often magical

Ways Magic Can Influence A Society

When certain people have power that others don’t have access to, that’s going to disrupt the social order. Just like any other sort of wealth or power.

  1. Innate magic leads to a more stringent class hierarchy
  2. Gained or earned magic tends to be in worlds with greater social mobility
  3. Availability of magic determines if it’s rare or commonplace — expensive or cheap.
  4. If magic is inherent in a place or object, that gives power to those who possess that place/object (ley lines/hubs, Dune’s dust…)

Tropes For Different Strengths

There are a lot of tropes when it comes to giving characters strengths and powers. Some are more overdone than others.

  1. Magic users are seen as more intelligent
  2. Magic types as innately light or dark
  3. Magic as a tool
  4. Magic based societies not developing more mechanical technology alongside it
  5. Using an outsider or non-magical person to introduce us to the magical world
  6. Using magic to solve everything
  7. Giving poor characters fewer skills, rather than different ones
    1. Try having a farmboy where his farming skills come in handy
  8. ‘Leveling’ the main character up everytime there’s a new boss

Types of Strengths For Villains

Heroes aren’t the only ones with strengths. Any respectable foe needs to have some strengths of their own.

  1. Some villains share the main character’s strengths… but let their moral convictions prevent them from doing the right thing or rationalize their way into the wrong thing.
  2. Some villains have good — or at least understandable motives — but their methods and the lengths they go, using their strengths to achieve their objective cross the line into monstrous.
  3. Some villains are the protagonist of their own story. The strength of their moral convictions — like Magneto in the X-Men. He might be on the wrong side, but I can’t say he’s wrong.

What sort of strengths do you have? Your core competencies?
What about your main characters and your villains?
Do they balance each other?


The panelists were Fonda Lee, Carol Cummings, Marissa Lingen, and Rhiannon Held.

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.

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.
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

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?