Does Food As A Racial Metaphor Have Roots In Fiction?

oreos

Over on the Code Switch blog they are contemplating why food items are so often used as a race metaphor when putting down “white-acting” POC. Black folks get called Oreos, Asian folks get called Twinkies or bananas, Native Americans get called apples. The post asks “Why are foods the stand-ins for all this racial ostracism?”

My theory is that it might have something to do with how food is used as a metaphor for describing a POC’s physical characteristics in fiction. We’ve had this conversation a lot about all the brown girls in fiction with skin the color of various coffee drinks or delicious chocolate, and that’s just mentioning the brown folks.

It’s been pointed out that very often POC skin, hair, and other attributes are described not just in food-based metaphors but specifically commodity-based metaphors. Coffee, chocolate, ivory, porcelain, almonds. It all ties into the idea that the people being described are themselves commodities of a sort. And that’s a degradation, even if unintentional.

Calling a person a Twinkie or an Oreo is also about degradation, even though it’s an epithet hurled by people in the oppressed group instead of from outside of it. Wouldn’t be the first time marginalized folks mimicked the very oppressive structures they suffer under when dealing with people in-group. Where do you think colorism amongst Black folks comes from?

That’s my theory. What’s yours?

Just Say No to One Planet, One Language

One of the things I find a wee bit annoying about this Slate piece on science fictional languages is that it heavily references Star Trek (not even real Trek but that JJ Abrams thing from 2009) yet keeps talking about all science fiction writers like we all do it this way. Granted, there are some literary examples given, but they are very few and not the focus the way Star Trek is.

Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra

Dathon is having none of your linguistic simplicity, no sir.

First, let’s talk about Trek and alien language and culture. The thing all TV and movie iterations of Trek have done is treat each planet like it has one culture and one language. This is why Uhura’s line about three dialects makes some small sense in the world of Trek because Romulus, Star Empire it may be, metaphorically represents one country. A country that is probably small in comparison to Vulcan or Earth since it’s made up of the descendants of refugees.

It’s the same with every Trek culture. Only the ones we see multiple times ever move away from homogeny. How many years and new series had to go by before we saw a non-white Vulcan? There was once an “albino” Klingon, but otherwise they’re generally dark-skinned in TNG-era Trek. They do have different head ridges as time goes on. Did we ever see a Cardassian that didn’t have the very same coloring, bone structure, and facial markings as the first one we saw?

Even the humanoid species that looked exactly human on the outside lacked variation: with few exceptions they were all white people. If we got wild there might be a green person or a blue person with funny horns, but always the same blue or green or whatever.

To go along with the thing where everyone on the planet looks the same (even the same haircut. Do Romulans even have barbers? They would have the most boring jobs ever) the cultures were always the same across the planet. Everyone would talk about how to deal with the Bajoran people or Trills or whatever as if there was only one way to do so. One culture, one society.

The only time I remember TNG-era addressing this was an episode in season 7 when 2/3rds of a planet applied to join the Federation while the other third wanted nothing to do with it. Still though, that’s just two societies on one planet.

I realize that this is part of the utopian vision of Star Trek. That as people of different planets evolved and mass/instant communication became possible, soon they would all become one global society. That’s certainly the way Earth is presented. In the 24th century we’re all one culture: American culture. You can pretend Picard is French all you like, even with his strangely British accent, but you cannot tell me he acts in any way specifically French or even in any way specifically like a man who grew up three centuries from now.

That’s not the point, of course. Because science fiction is about us, right now, and always has been. And I have no beef with that, theoretically.

However, my story in Federations was written specifically in response to TV science fiction ideas about homogeneous alien cultures. I reject them. And I believe a lot of good science fiction novel and short story writers do as well. Because we’re not constrained the way TV writers are.

As much as I’d love more alien cultural diversity in Star Trek, I recognize that it’s mostly metaphor. I also recognize that if we were going to be super realistic, TV episodes would be boring as hell. Can you imagine the tediousness of having to deal with multiple governments and cultures on every single planet? It’s hard enough to deal with just one.

If Star Trek can’t do more than one culture per planet, how do you expect more than three dialects of Romulan? Even if you adhere to the thinking of a planet = a country, most countries have more than three dialects going on. But in every episode we’d be figuring out how to talk to new aliens or even some the Federation has already met because they’re not in the Federation yet. The universal translator takes care of that for us and we can move on to the story.

For the sake of the narrative and simplicity you have to be willing to put up with some handwave.

That doesn’t mean the same applies to science fiction literature. It shouldn’t, at any rate. I wouldn’t assume that it does.

I’m not as up on my space opera as I probably should be, but I know for my own works I try to be careful about falling into planet = one culture thing. Same as I try not to fall into the Planet With A Universal Climate trope. The SF I’ve read using that is also usually more on the metaphorical side and I’m down as long as the author clearly knows what she’s about. It’s when authors get lazy that this becomes a problem.

It seems like an awful lot of work to have to come up with multiple cultures and societies and mention multiple languages and dialects when you write stories dealing with alien worlds or even colonized ones, right? That’s because it is. This is what makes fiction rich and complex. And no, it doesn’t mean having to work out every single detail, it just means not falling back on what’s easy. That’s okay for TV, not so much for literature.

Even though the Slate article is at pains to try and paint the single language thing as scientifically valid, I don’t see that as the way to go. From an alien perspective all of Earth’s languages might seem, at the core, to be all one. And on a certain level that might be right. That doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth, does it? The way different cultures use language has huge effects on how the people in those cultures think, and dealing with those differences has a huge impact on how we Earthlings deal with each other and how we’d deal with alien cultures.

I’m just sayin': leave the one language, one culture, one planet simplicity to TV. Because it’s TV.

Do you subscribe to magazines?

stack of magazines

My io9 weekly fiction roundup continues apace. I decided that at the beginning of every month I would remind people that magazines need subscribers, and subscribing is awesome. Go, team! In searching for all the subscription links I took note of all the ways one can subscribe to the many and various SF zines. Where just a few years ago I complained about the lack of choices, now there are many. This makes me happy.

Side Note: Strange Horizons, what is up! There’s no way to subscribe in eBook format. The people are clamoring :)

I note that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are still not as helpful as they could be with subscriptions. Looks like many small press mags are in their systems, just not as subscribable entities. And certainly not with the fancy layout that the glossy magazines get (not that this is needed).

All this leads me to wonder how many people do subscribe to these zines, why, and what their experience is like. I’m just curious. We’ve moved into a time where tons of people can get content digitally, easily, for not too much money. How do lit mags fit into the stream of information coming at you?

And if you don’t subscribe to the magazines you read online: why?

“Why I Don’t Drink Anymore”

If you’ve been to my website recently you may have noticed that I changed the theme dramatically. Along with that I’ve been cleaning up some of the pages and making this place a more useful calling card for myself.

Right now I’m working on the Fiction page. It’ll probably be done by the time you read this. In the process of checking links I discovered that a story I published long, long ago at Abyss & Apex no longer exists on the website. That’s not a huge surprise. I think the archives got pruned long ago. And none of the editors working there now were working there back then.

I dug the page out of the Wayback Machine to reclaim the story, which I remembered as being rather short. I was right. Here it be:

Why I Don’t Drink Anymore

by not-K Tempest Bradford because I had a different pen name then

I’m sitting at my favorite café drinking absinthe when this guy comes up to me.

You’re a writer, aren’t you? he says.

Yeah, I says. How did you know?

You have that Hemingway thing going on, he says. Sitting around in a café all day. Drinking absinthe. Scribbling in your little notebook.

At this point I’m starting to get offended.

This isn’t Paris, you know, he says. This is Oregon. And you’re drinking in the middle of the day. Do you know what we call you types where I come from? Drunks. Damn drunks.

Then he walks away.

Oh, did I mention that this guy was a big scary eight foot tall monster with six arms? What a loser.

Story Art – Highlights from July’s short fiction illustrations

My first month doing a weekly short fiction roundup at io9 is over and I’m really glad to be back in the groove of reading consistently. As I read more and more I’m newly struck by how many magazines are commissioning original art for stories and how wonderful that art is on the whole. I thought it would be nice to call out the pieces I liked best at the end of each month.

Here are my favorite story arts for July:

Richie Pope illustration for Sleepwalking Now And Then

Richie Pope’s illustration for “Sleepwalking Now And Then” by Richard Bowes.

Pope does a lot of work for Tor.com and has many other great pieces on display at his website.

Depot/Station by Albert Urmanov

Clarkesworld’s July cover art comes from Depot/Station by Albert Urmanov

Urmanov is a German artist who does a lot of amazing SFF illustration. See his other works at Art Station.

Rebecca Huston Grooming

Rebecca Huston’s “Grooming” for “Witch, Beast, Saint: an Erotic Fairy Tale” by C. S. E. Cooney

I couldn’t find a gallery of Huston’s art but did find out she inks tattoos for a living. Can you see getting a picture like that over your whole back?

Wesley Allsbrook illustration for A Short History of the Twentieth Century

Wesley Allsbrook’s illustration for “A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon A Star” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Another frequent Tor.com artist, Allsbrook has a really striking style that gives me the feeling that all the people and objects in his works are threads held together by a very tenuous connection to each other and will fly apart at any second. Check out his gallery.

Selfies With Books and other things I do for my job

In addition to my weekly short fiction recs over at io9 I have some summer reading recs over at xoJane, too. There I did novels and short story collections/anthologies so everyone is covered. And I took selfies with a lot of books. This is becoming a theme in my life: selfies with products.

Selfies with books

The other day I stopped in a hipster electronics store to take a selfie with some headphones since the pair I owned were stolen from me a while back. The poor guy working in the store was really confused because I walked in, asked after some headphones onthe wall, took a bunch of pictures of myself wearing them, then left. As I was going out the door he was all “Uh, can I help you…?”

“Nope!” I said cheerfully as I sailed away. I’m sure he thought I was loopy. But whatever, this is New York City. He should be used to much stranger stuff than this.

Other than headphones and books, what other products should I give the selfie treatment? I don’t look good in hats. Despite the overwhelming number of beads in my house I don’t wear jewelry much. Any suggestions?

My Faves: Time Travel Fiction and Media

Fans of NPR’s Weekend Edition may have caught a familiar voice when listening to the segment on time travel fiction. I had a great time talking to Petra Mayer about time travel, a topic near and dear to my heart. Yes, I am still writing a novel with time traveling twins (same world as my story in Diverse Energies). Now that all of NPR knows about it I guess I should finally finish.

In the mean time you can enjoy my best-loved time travel books, stories, and other media!

“It’s All True” by John Kessel (contained in his collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories)

I mentioned this during the time travel panel at ReaderCon. In this story, a future society has invented time travel and they use it to go to parallel worlds, travel back in time, get famous people from the past, then bring them forward in time back to their own timeline. Thus avoiding changing their future. I swear this makes sense. The story centers around one guy’s attempt to convince Orson Wells to come to the future.

the freedom maze and kindred

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman and Kindred by Octavia Butler

I mention these two together because they share a basic premise (but are very different in sensibility as well as plot). In both, a person from modern times is thrown back into the era of American slavery, ends up with people who are her ancestors, and has to live as a slave for some portion of time. In Kindred the person is a grown woman who is pulled backward in time multiple times. In The Freedom Maze the person is a young girl who is actually white, but because she’s very tan is mistaken for a mulatto. She stays in the past for weeks and it’s unclear whether she’ll ever get back home. Both novels explore modern perspectives on the past in interesting ways.

Past Tense” and “Trials and Tribble-ationsStar Trek: Deep Space Nine

Some people will try to tell you that the best Star Trek episode about time travel is “The City on the Edge of Forever”. I don’t mind telling you that those people are wrong. As with so many things Star Trek, DS9 has the best episodes using this story vehicle. My ultimate favorite is, of course, the tribble one where the crew of DS9 travel back to the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” and have to blend in with the original Enterprise crew. It’s awesome on so many levels from how seamlessly the effects crew blended the footage from TOS with the new footage to moments like this:

However, “Past Tense” has stayed with me all these years for a different reason. DS9 was often very social justice oriented, and this episode was chock full of it. For once, when Star Trek people ended up in the past on Earth it was not in the 20th century. Instead, they land in 2024 (still in San Francisco, though) in a dystopian America that is sadly not that hard to imagine. People who are poor, sick, or just undesirable are cordoned off into ghettos. And not just ghettos in the urban sense, but actual ghettos with walls and fences and an inability to get out where people have to fight over food rations and only get a place to sleep if the local gangs think you’re okay. It’s terrifying and not that far off the mark. This episode aired about 20 years ago. 2024 is 10 years from now. Think Star Trek will prove prescient?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

This series didn’t get a chance to flourish fully and it ends on what could be a cliffhanger or what could seem like a satisfying end given that we sort of know what happens after. The second season dragged in the middle for sure, but overall this is one of the best entries in the Terminator franchise, right up there with T2 and way better than T3 or what weird one with Christian Bale.

The main characters in SCC don’t do much time traveling themselves. What I loved about the time travel elements is that the war between Skynet and the humans takes place not only in the future but across both the relative past, the future, and the present. Several people and Terminator models are sent back in time at different points for specific and long term missions. And each time a person or group of people are sent back, it changes the future. So that woman you knew in the resistance and see again on the street might not be the exact person you knew, but a version of them.

And even when they strike a blow against Skynet, be it by destroying tech that will lead to it or getting rid of a Terminator come to kill someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean Skynet won’t still rise, it’ll just rise at a different date. All these elements are key to the plot, and kudos to the show for making all of this relatively straightforward and understandable. It’s not just some jumbled timey-wimey mess.

I am always looking for more time travel fiction to add to my to-read pile. Rec me some in the comments, if you would!

Reading, Reviewing, and ‘Rithmatic

Reading, Reviewing, and 'Rithmatic

I’ve been bad about updating this blog with new and exciting news about myself. So here’s some news.

Last week my review of the new Octavia E Butler eBook Unexpected Stories went up at NPR Books. I really enjoyed the book and my only sadness is that there aren’t more new stories to read. Go read the review and then go buy the book.

This week I am back on io9 posting roundups of my favorite short stories. Now it’s weekly instead of monthly, so I can talk about more stories I love.

Now that I’m reviewing for NPR and doing the story thing on io9 folks have been asking me about sending review copies and such. I have a policy! I’ll also post this on my About page, but here it is in case you’re curious:

NPR has pretty strict conflict of interest rules, so if we’re friends or I know you well or if you have published me I can’t review your book or an anthology/collection you’re in or you edited. It’s sadface sadness, I know. I can suggest books to my editor who will then pass them on to a reviewer without conflicts and that is okay. If you do not know me, you can certainly ask if I’d like a review copy of your book/anthology/collection. If I’m interested, I’ll pitch it to my editor. I cannot make the final decision on whether I can review something for NPR, so I may have to say no.

The io9 posts are not strictly reviews and I’m not claiming complete objectivity. The stories I mention are the ones I personally like, and that may include stories by people I know. I pick stories from the magazines (and sometimes anthologies) I read and that mostly includes free online ones. But if you have a print mag, or an eBook version of your zine with extra content, or an anthology you’d like me to read in case I like a story enough to mention it, please do let me know! Me agreeing to read does not guarantee you’ll get a mention, just so you know.

All that business aside, I’m very much enjoying reading more again and highlighting excellent fiction where I can. I’m still looking for a place to write about other media, especially when the Fall TV season starts up again.

N. K. Jemisin’s Introduction – WisCon 38

This year my role on the WisCon concom was as Nora’s guest of honor liaison. And one of the perks of that job is that I got first dibs on introducing her at various key moments, such as the night she gave her big speech. However, I wasn’t sure how such introductions go since I couldn’t remember the ones from past years. I asked Debbie Notkin and she suggested I could make it somewhat personal. Like the story of how we met (which was at WisCon). So, that’s what I did.

I never suspected that it would get such a strong reaction. Since a couple of people asked, I’m dropping the intro here for the folks who couldn’t be there.

Earlier this weekend I started to tell the story of how Nora and I first met. I remember it being at WisCon, she contends that it was at ReaderCon. But this is WisCon, and saying it happened at WisCon makes for a better story. So my memory wins.

We met at WisCon when Nora came up to me and, as way of introduction, said: Do you want to take bets on which of us gets mistaken for the other first? And I said: I’m not taking that bet because I’ve already been mistaken for Nalo Hopkinson today.

Back then there were only a handful of POC at WisCon–a generous handful, but the number was small. It was easy for Nora and I to remember each other for the rest of the weekend, and then later at ReaderCon, and then later online when we ended up arguing with the same people about the same stuff. Pretty soon she was blogging with me, then living in the same city as me, and then joining a writing group with me.

And let me tell you guys that I am so lucky to have her as a friend, and as a person I can turn to when I need writing advice or a critique. And I am super lucky that I sometimes get to read her stories and novels before almost anyone else. You’ve seen the announcement about that new book, The Fifth Season, coming out next year? I’ve read that book and it is awesome. Nanni nanni booboo.

Nora’s fiction is important for all the reasons why fiction written by a black woman from America is important. Representation is important. Our voices are important. But let’s not forget: her fiction is also damn good. I can’t tell you how many times I read the climactic chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and every single time it gave me chills. I loved the other two books in the Inheritance trilogy, too. But then I got to The Killing Moon, first in the Dreamblood duology and there were ninja priests of death and it was AMAZING.

There are times when I can’t believe I know someone who writes that well. The worlds she builds and the characters she creates are vibrant and alive and, yes, diverse and full of people who look something like me. But anyone can find something of themselves in the pages of an N. K. Jemisin book. And that is why we’re celebrating her this weekend. Gentlefolk of WisCon38, please welcome to the stage your guest of honor: N. K. Jemisin.

Towards A Database of Workshops

database

My post the other week about writers of color and greater access to workshops generated much discussion both on the post itself and on social media. Out of these discussions came some great ideas and the hazy outline of a plan. A plan I hope to recruit a few of you to in the near future.

Several people pointed out that in additional to local in-person workshops and online classes there are also workshops at conventions. And Claire had some great thoughts on how non-profit organizations can create workshops that are free or low cost. All of this made me realize that the first step is to create a database of existing writing workshops for speculative authors. This would include all kinds of workshops from the boot-camp style 6 week ones ala Clarion to the online ones that happen either via video chat or email and message boards.

The database would include not only basic information about the workshops but also any information about financial aid or slots specifically set aside for writers from certain backgrounds (POC, LGBT, disabled, low-income, etc.). This is not a requirement for being in the database, but it will help people when searching. I spoke to Mary Anne Mohanraj and she agreed to let us host this on the Speculative Literature Foundation’s website. There are some workshops listed there already, though that info isn’t as comprehensive as this database will be and the goal is to keep it updated regularly.

Creating a database like this will take some technical expertise as well as some other volunteer effort. I think there’s a way to use a Google Docs spreadsheet as a queryable database, which would make gathering the information on the workshops easier. Just create an online form for workshop admins or authors or teachers to fill out to populate the database, then make it searchable. Thing is, I don’t know if this is truly possible, so I would love to hear from those who do. Help setting this all up would be amazing.

This project will also need volunteers to help keep the data current and correct and to run the second part I envision: the mailing list. The list will be for keeping people up to date on new workshops, workshop deadlines, and scholarship/financial aid deadlines. To keep it simple, it only need to go out once per month, and it will rely on information from the database and provided by those offering workshops.

Overall, this project will probably take a significant chunk of time to set up and then very little time to maintain once it’s done. I’m able to head up something like this, especially once we get into April. However, I don’t have the time (or spoons) to run it on my own. So I’m officially looking for volunteers. Even if you can only do a small chunk (like helping set up the database or running the mailing list for 3 months) that would be amazing. If we get enough volunteers, then everyone will only have small, manageable tasks.

Once the database is set up and there’s a clear picture of how many workshops are available, where they’re available, and what financial aid is on offer, it’ll be easier to plan the next phase: getting more writers of color to these workshops.

Notebooks, Pens, Longhand, and Cracking Open Creative Floodgates

I love paper by Manuela Hoffmann on Flickr

Still thinking about the concepts I brought up in the Gesture Writing post from last week. One piece of the process I didn’t expand on and now realize I should have is the part where Howard talks about sitting down with a notebook:

I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene…

A key part of this is that she sat down with pen and paper to capture the scene, not her computer. And maybe that’s because she needed to get away from her laptop in order to think differently. Just the fact that she had a ready notebook says something else.

At ReaderCon last year I did a fabulous interview with Andrea Hairston[1] where she talked about how writing with a pen on paper activates the creative parts of the brain in a way typing on keys does not. It’s about the movement of the hand, the connection to the body. It’s no surprise that a drawing class inspired Howard if she’s the type to take up a notebook when attempting to work out a tangled scene.

I keep a paper notebook and I carry around way too many pens because I’m fussy about them[2]. I don’t need them for writing actual fiction longhand; I do need them for thinking about what I’m going to write. I’m convinced that the scene outlining thing only works well for me if I do that outlining in my notebook and not on a computer. Writing it out longhand opens up my head and makes the creative juices flow. I didn’t know this is why scene outlining led to much easier writing days, but after talking to Andrea it all clicked.

I prefer a lined journal. Never did get the habit of keeping my lines straight without a guide. Sounds like Howard’s notebook is a blank one as her method would only be restricted by lines. I know some writers like this–Alaya Dawn Johnson has shown me her writing notebooks in the past and I don’t know if I could handle all that beautifully controlled chaos. It works for her, though! My working things out tends to be more straightforward stream of consciousness writing. I might skip all over the place in my head, on paper the skipping happens one word after the other.

I’m not opposed to trying a more free-form, lineless journaling style. Not many journals give you multiple choices. It’s either lines, grids, or blank. Technology could be the answer here. I’ve written before about tablet and pen solutions and I own a Galaxy Note 8 that I use for work notes. If someone took away my paper and pen forcefully and made me use the Note for everything, I wouldn’t be completely depressed. Don’t know if I would be completely satisfied, either.

Footnotes

  1. Which will be an episode of our podcast and that podcast will happen someday I SWEAR.[]
  2. Check out my fussiness here on the Month of Letters blog[]

Thoughts on Gesture Writing, Scene Outlining, and the Essence of Things

gesture_02 by Patrick Grizzard

On Facebook, someone shared a year-old opinion piece titled “Gesture Writing” from the New York Times that I really love and saved to my Pocket account immediately. In it, author Rachel Howard talks about her early days as an artist model for introductory drawing classes.

“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.”

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

As she struggled to write her novel, the words of these instructors came to her again.

Find the gesture. Don’t worry about the details. What is the essence of that pose?

I left my laptop at my desk and moved to the other side of the room to sit on the floor with my notebook.

Where’s the line of energy? What is the essence of what you see? Quick! I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene, not one line of dialogue connected clunkily to the next action. There was the whole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life.

Realizing that writing is a lot like drawing gives us a deeper approach. Because really, before we put a word or a mark on the page, both writers and artists must first step back and see. …to see deeply enough to capture the vibrancy of life on the page, a writer must move her consciousness out of information organizing mode into an intuitive way of seeing subtle organic connections and capturing them in bold strokes.

This essay reminded me of a post from the SFWA blog someone sent me years ago: the 10,000 words a day post. I know people have a ton of strong opinions about that post. I’ve found the part about scene outlining to be very useful, even if I still can’t write 10K per day.

…instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn’t describe anything, I didn’t do transitions. I wasn’t writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came. It took me about five minutes and three pages of notebook paper to untangle my seemingly unfixable scene, the one that had just eaten three days of my life before I tried this new approach. Better still, after I’d worked everything out in shorthand I was able to dive back into the scene and finish it in record time.

Looking back, it was so simple I feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it. I’m not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. … If the scene you’re sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immediately, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That’s it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was god damn beautiful.

I have some success with this method, and after reading the NYT piece I can now identify why there are times it works better than others. When I sketch the scene in ways that focus on the “gestures” and the essence of the scene. Is it emotion? Or exposition?

A thing I’m actively working on in my writing now is visual description of people, environment, movement. Trying to find that balance between giving my reader enough detail so it’s not a white room but not so much detail that I bog the reader down. Too often I read books and short fiction where the author, in trying to be as descriptive as possible, burdens me with so much visual detail that I can no longer see the thing for myself. It’s like the art students trying so hard to render the fingers exactly when they should focus on what in the body has the most life and get that down on paper.

I’d love to know what techniques you employ to get at the essence of a scene as you write.

Getting More Writers of Color to Workshops: A Modest Proposal

Getting More Writers of Color to Workshops: A Modest Proposal

Taking a break from talking about the Hugos and Jonathan Ross for actual important stuff.

A few days ago I tweeted:

Writers of Color, raise hands if you want to attend writing workshops but can’t afford one financially.

And I got many responses. One of the reasons I asked is because I wanted to point out again why the Writing Excuses Carl Brandon Scholarship was important and encourage people to apply[1]. Then a couple of responses made me realize I needed to do something else as well.

@cafenowhere That’s me. With added complication of being main care giver to a child & living in the Midwest.

@LonAitewalker *raises hand* compound that with being disabled as well – double whammy.

Lack of funds isn’t the only barrier. There’s the inability to miss work for a week or weeks at a time, or not having anyone to leave a child with for that time, or other obligations that make going away to a workshop not possible.

As other responses point out, going to a workshop can be a life-changing experience. Not only do you gain valuable writing instruction, you also get valuable networking done and face time with authors who are generous with their advice and influence. Workshopping is an important element in developing a career. It’s not necessary, it’s just very helpful.

So how can we make workshops more widely available to writers who are more likely to miss out on these opportunities? A few good ideas I’ve seen lately:

One Day Workshops: Clarion West does these occasionally (and lately doing more of them). They usually involve tackling a particular subject, like how to research or how to create more immersive fiction, take place on a weekend day, and cost a fraction of what the 6 week workshop costs. The downside is that they only take place in Seattle for now. I hear that there are discussions to expand into…

Online Classes via Google Hangout: I’ve heard of several writers doing this, but the only class I’m at all familiar with is Mary Robinette Kowal’s. She does two types, a weekend intensive (Friday night to Sunday) and an 8-week course that meets one day a week. Since they take place online you don’t have to travel and it may be easier to structure your time even if you have caregiving obligations. Click here to see explanations for her workshops, which will give you a good idea of how most are run.

Neither of these solutions is absolutely perfect and will work for everyone. They go a long way toward helping, though. More one day workshops in other cities and towns mean more people can attend. Doing things online through Google Hangouts open it up even more–you don’t even need a webcam, just a mic[2]. Then we’re back to cost.

These workshops are far less expensive than the long 6-week ones like Clarion or even retreat-type workshops like Out Of Excuses. That doesn’t mean they’re that much more affordable since the cost is still in the hundreds for many. Scholarships are needed here as well.

I have a request for pro authors giving workshops and organizations coordinating workshops. Would you be willing to set aside one registration per workshop for a writer who cannot afford it but would greatly benefit from attending? Could you perhaps work with an organization willing to help coordinate some of the particulars, like matching writers who want to attend with appropriate workshops?

People involved in organizations and community groups that raise awareness around diversity in the genre, would you help out by doing some of that coordinating? Or even setting up scholarship funds so that the workshop runners still get paid?

This could end up being a major project for some non-profit, but major projects take time to build. As that happens, if that happens, I’d still like to see some smaller efforts to help build momentum. Such as workshops deciding to set aside that one registration. Or writers helping each other raise money individually. A larger project like Con or Bust would be great in the long term. I just don’t want people to think we have to wait for that to come together in order to get started.

So let’s discuss this! Here in the comments, on social media, at cons, wherever. This is just the spark of an idea. Help me grow it.

Oh, and apply for the Writing Excuses Carl Brandon Scholarship! Applications must be in by 3/15. If you can afford the time but can’t afford registration, hotel, and travel, the scholarship covers those things.

Footnotes

  1. BTW – People, apply! Deadline Is 3/15[]
  2. You do need a reliable high-speed connection, and not everyone has that, I know.[]

Writer Fears About Writing The Other: Here’s How To Get Over It

Writer Fears About Writing The Other: Here's How To Get Over It

Here’s one of the great circular conundrums of our time:

We need more characters of color/LGBT characters/characters with disabilities/characters that aren’t the default white, able-bodied cis male in speculative literature.

I, a speculative fiction author, am afraid of writing characters of color/ LGBT characters/characters with disabilities/characters that aren’t like me or from my cultural and social understanding because I might get it wrong, and if I get it wrong people will be angry at me and yell and also ruin my career.

I’ve seen and heard writers (mostly white) express some version of that at least a hundred times since RaceFail 09. They point to that discussion or any number of other public Fails since then and go: SEE?! You see? That’s what happens when we try!

There are a few things about this that need addressing. First, large, public Fails actually happen when authors don’t try. Second, the problem is rarely that the author tried and didn’t get it exactly, 100% right. It’s that they failed and then acted like an ass when someone pointed it out to them. Third, avoiding author Fail isn’t as hard as some people make it out to be.

Most importantly, the consequence of being ruled by that fear is that you aren’t helping with the first problem. And if I may be so bold, I think the issue of representation is far, far more important than individual fears of getting it wrong. I also know that it’s hard to tackle that first issue without also addressing the second. Luckily, I have the solution.

Next summer I’m teaching at the Writing the Other workshop/retreat alongside Nisi Shawl, Cynthia Ward, David Anthony Durham, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Tomorrow, registration for this workshop opens up. If you are the type of author who has been held back from addressing the issue of representation in SF by fear that you’ll get it wrong, this workshop will give you tools to help you get it right. There’s no guarantee that you will always, 100% get it right if you attend this workshop. I am confident that at the end of it you won’t be 100% ruled by fear.

Registration opens tomorrow, October 13th, at 12pm Eastern. The workshop fee is $500 and includes meals but does not include accommodations. Click over to the Eventbrite page to see all the details.

How many of you will I see there?

Inspiration | Resonance: The Art of El Anatsui

Peak (2010) by El Anatsui

A couple of weeks ago I saw an amazing exhibition of works by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum. Anatsui takes found materials like metal and wood — considered trash by most — and turns them into amazingly flowy pieces of art that evoke cloth and drapery and alien landscapes. The intricacy of the works and the amount of time he clearly puts into them brings to mind intricate beadwork and quilt-making. Thinking about the time involved in connecting all those old tin can lids or aluminum bottle caps or metal strips from liquor bottles together by hand almost overwhelms me, but then I remember how I feel when I’m stringing beads together or working on an art project that requires tedious repetition. In the moment I’m not really thinking about that, I’m more focused on the end result. Working on projects as big as Anatsui’s would require getting into a meditative state in order to not drive yourself nuts, but it’s not hard to imagine doing so.

The way the exhibition is set up, the pieces get more and more flowy as you go along. In the last room I found my favorite piece: Peak. I immediately saw this as a post-apocalyptic or alien landscape and spent a good amount of time trying to imagine how it would look from eye-level. A bunch of the pictures I took were from as close to that perspective as I could get.

 I also took this video in an effort to get a sense of how it would be on the inside of this sculpture and also how it would look to someone approaching it at eye-level.