Tag Archives: writing

NK Jemisin – Building a World

Ezra Klein invited NK Jemisin on his podcast and she walked him through the world building exercise she does with students. I have transcribed the portion of the podcast where they go through the exercise. There was some banter at the beginning I did not include, nor did I include the last 20 minutes or so, where they went on to talk about other things a writer might think about when creating their world – like roles and scripts and how those play out in interactions. I encourage you to listen to the entire episode, which you can find here: Ezra Klein Show:
I build a world with fantasy master N.K. Jemisin

EK = Ezra Klein
NKJ = NK Jemisin

[Several minutes of chatter before they start into the world building exercise]

world book

beginning of transcript

EK: How do you imagine a world so fully? What does it take to generate the rules of a universe that your characters and readers will live in for thousands of pages, and make all of that feel real? This is an unusual podcast: it’s not a conversation, it’s a demonstration. Nora shows us how she builds worlds, rather than just telling us. She does it live, here. And it’s amazing to experience in real time! You realize that building new worlds is about thinking more clearly about our world, so you can imagine what would happen if you began changing parts of it.

There’s a post-script. Between when I recorded this a few weeks ago and now, Jemisin became the first writer to win three Hugo awards for best novel in a row. And to have every book in a single series win that award. It’s an amazing achievement and I’m so proud to present this conversation.

EK: Nora Jemisin, welcome to the podcast.
NKJ: Thank you for welcoming me.
EK: We are going to do something today that I’m incredibly excited about, because I have never done it before. We’re going to build a world. What is world building, in the science fiction/fantasy sense, because it seems to have a specific meaning that those who aren’t familiar with it may just not know.
NKJ: It does. It’s one of the things that makes SFF unique among literary forms, just because you’re not doing a story in the first world, which is what we call our world/this world. We’re often using secondary worlds, i.e. worlds that aren’t earth. Could be another planet, another reality, could be another universe! It’s somewhere where the laws of physics don’t work the same way. there may be magic, there might be creatures or beings that don’t exist in our world. Could be strange environmental circumstances, but who knows. It’s a staple of science fiction and fantasy writing.
EK: what’s the difference between world building and writing a story in a different world?
NKJ: I mean .. it’s not! There is no difference. World building is the process that you use that you then write the story in. World building is not a substitute for writing a story. There are some examples of books that have been published that are nothing but world, like Tolkien’s The Silmarillion – I’m mangling the name, I always do. So that’s basically a book of almost nothing but world building, because it’s the history of The Lord of the Rings. But for the most part, people aren’t able to publish their books of world building. World building is just an exercise that you do to prepare for writing. And then you don’t, in order to make sure you are writing well, you don’t drown your audience in all of the world building that you do. You use it to provide flavor and environment and effect – in some cases it provides allegories for the problems the people are dealing with that are very much like our own problems, but just at one remove.
EK: so when I’m reading SFF books, there is much more world built than I see.
NKJ: yep. We usually kind of suggest. There’s not a convention on how to do it. There’s a running adage in the science fiction and fantasy writing community of – make sure that you aren’t inflicting “I’ve suffered for my art and now so will you” on your audience (laughter). So I usually tell people treat it like an iceberg: you’ve got 90% of it that you aren’t going to see, and 10% that’s above the water.
EK: So you do these world building workshops, because you are a master of the craft.
NKJ: Thank you.
EK: You have so generously offered to do this live. We’re gonna build —
NKJ: We’ll see how this works out. Ok.
EK: So, where do we start? How do we build a world?
NKJ: well, you can start with the laws of physics. You can start with the universal level. I usually depict this as a kind of inverted pyramid, where we’re starting with the macro scale and working down to the micro. You can start as high as the level as how your universe is built, but then that requires you to understand things like how physics works. I don’t necessarily want to get too deep into that. I usually start with the planetary —
EK: given how I did in physics, I appreciate that.
(laughter)
NKJ: Yeah, I never took physics so all right! I usually start at the planetary level, and for the sake of doing the workshop, when I usually present it to writing students at writing workshops or MFA programs, the way that I usually do it – we start with the assumption of a world that is like Earth. A rocky planet, terrestrial world, not a gas giant, for example. You can do a gas giant, it’s just that you need to know something about gas giants before you’re going to go too far into that. We are usually going to assume we are going to be working with people who are like us. You can run with completely different species if you want. I ended up doing a workshop where we had a whole bunch of people that were sentient cats (laughter). We decided the calicos ruled the world and there was a bunch of stuff about catnip drug trade. Anyway … you start at the planetary level, and we’re gonna assume an earth-like planet. Let’s start by letting you, since you’re going to be my only guinea pig for this particular experiment, letting you pick how many continents you’re gonna work with.
EK: Well I’ve always missed Pangea.
NKJ: Oh, so you want to go with one.
EK: I’m going to stay straight forward. I just took a trans-Atlantic flight and I found that to be too long. (laughter)
NKJ: You’d still have to travel the same distance, it would just be over land!
EK: But that wouldn’t be true, would it?
NKJ: You’re still dealing with the same amount of landmass, it’s just that you aren’t dealing with it spread out, so I mean—
EK: Yes, my flight would have been shorter
NKJ: Maybe.
EK: I’m very bad with questions of geography, so I might just be getting this wrong. But wait, I want to ask one meta question on the way, before we jump in. One of the things I’m hearing from you is that the purpose of the world building project – you need enough knowledge of the world to make the world feel realistic.
NKJ: Yes
EK: So the further you get – if you’re trying to work off a gas giant, what you need is to understand gas giants so well that when you are writing about them you can explain them clearly and it will feel natural, authentic to the reader. That’s the trick of it, I would imagine.
NKJ: yeah. We understand the world we live in innately, because we live in it. But what that means is that every one of us is an expert in surviving on a terrestrial world with a nitrogen-based atmosphere (laughter) and a carbon-based organic system. So we all understand this because we live it. We aren’t standing around having conversations with each other about “Hey, the nitrogen’s pretty good today.” We do understand it. So the characters who are going to inhabit this world also need to understand it, which means that we do. So we’ve got to speak and think as the characters do. We’re not going to be able to get that level of understanding, but we need to think like the locals do and speak like the locals do, in order to make it feel real.
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EK: Alright, so Pangea.
NKJ: So we’re going to go with Pangea. And one of the things I think people didn’t understand about the various Pangeas in our world, because there have been more than one –
EK: well see, I’m learning things already!
NKJ: yeah we’ve had multiple supercontinents over time, plate tectonics never really stops. So one of the things people didn’t understand in our world is that it’s gigantic. When the Pangea exists, the interior tends to be fairly arid, because prevailing winds carrying water often can’t reach over into the middle of the continent. I’m just going to preface that. But then – pick a spot somewhere in there where our culture that we’re going to be dealing with – our people and their culture are going to develop.
EK: so when you say pick a spot, what does that mean?
NKJ: middle, coast, by a river. Give me an idea of where you want to put this.
EK: certainly not on the coast
NKJ: not on coast? Ok.
EK: Far enough that resourcing and water and so on are not impossible but are not naturally advantageous. I don’t want to be too deep in the interior, from what you said about the aridness there, you just might not want to be in the interior.
NKJ: Well, think about Australia.
EK: Yeah, I would not want to be in Australia (laughter)
NKJ: Yeah the Outback (laughter)
EK: Sorry to my Australian listeners!
NKJ: I’ve always wanted to visit. I’m not sure I necessarily want to live there. You have to understand that your audience is bringing to the table its knowledge of one world – this world. And they are going to relate pretty much everything they know about this world to whatever world you’re creating. So if you’re going to create a big continent with an interior that’s not well watered with rivers and things like that, and probably wouldn’t be because that far inland, like I said, there’s no way for the water to get there, you’re going to end up with a giant Outback in the middle of this continent.
EK: So if we were thinking about this Pangea like the US, let’s say Nevada is where we’re going … Not the coast of California —
NKJ: Well the coast of California is pretty arid, depending on where you are.
EK: Fair enough
NKJ: Baja California, all of that
EK: that’s true
NKJ: It’s really a question of where it’s located, close to the equator or far away. So is it in a temperate zone or intense sunlight zone? Give me an idea of where – this is the difficulty of not doing this in person – give me an idea of where near the equator your spot is.
EK: We’ve so quickly gotten into places where I’m going to betray how poor my understanding of how the earth works is. Let’s say we’re working with a desert. I have a familiarity with the Nevada desert, for various reasons related to my own life. So let’s say a desert, pretty arid region.
NKJ: okay why don’t we go with the edge of the giant outback-like area.
EK: great
NKJ: So still temperate, still maybe a little bit of rain, but it’s just occasional and sparse, a light spritz. I’m not familiar with Nevada and desert-like regions. You’re going to have to supply that information. I would have to do research to completely create this world. Imagine that climate then. Once we’ve picked a spot – once we understand what the climate is like – why don’t you describe that to me, since I don’t fully understand Nevada? I’ve never lived there.
EK: The world is about to learn that I have gone to Burning Man a couple of times —
NKJ: (laughter)
EK: — and we’re talking in early August, so it’s on my mind. So we’re about to get a description of Black Rock Desert, which would be a very bad place to set up a society in general, that’s the whole point. But it’s one of the only places where I’ve seen an unusual world built. Which is why it came to mind – out of nothing, a world emerges. So [it’s] dusty; a very fine, alkaline dust. The ground is cracked; the more you walk on it, the softer the ground gets. Over the course of people inhabiting it, it becomes more and more difficult for people to get around. There are frequent dust storms. I’m a little concerned about building a world here, so we might want to move it, because I don’t think you can grow anything there, or not anything significant.
NKJ: Is it like that only in August, or all year long?
EK: It gets more rain at times, but my understanding is that this particular area is – and again I could be wrong – but it’s not usable in that way. It’s always pretty bare.
NKJ: And when you say alkaline, that also makes me suspect that’s why things don’t grow there. Alright, let’s move maybe a little further south. (laughter) South of our proto-Burning Man zone to a place that’s maybe a little bit more like the Sonoran desert.
EK: Perfect.
NKJ: Which I did visit once. There’s not much rain, it’s pretty arid, but there’s a lot of arid-adapted plants there. Even some of it is typical stuff like tumbleweeds and so forth but … lots of beautiful rock formations. There was at one point in the past an inland sea there, so there are a lot of fossils in the area. You can find evidence of old forests that no longer exist. This Pangea was not always a Pangea. It came together and at some point when that happened it killed everything that was living in that spot. Let’s assume that our people – and we’re going to go with human beings for the sake of the exercise – but you don’t necessarily have to – like I said, sentient cats.
EK: can we add a prehensile tail?
NKJ: (laughter) sure! Human beings actually do have an adaptation for prehensile tails —
EK: human beings just plus a prehensile tail —
NKJ: yeah sometimes humans are actually born with tails. I don’t know that they’re prehensile, now that I think about it.
EK: I believe they’re not, which has always been a disappointment to me.
NKJ: oh yeah that is kind of sad
EK: I watched a fair amount of Thundercats when I was young —
NKJ: oh my god that’s funny —
EK: I have
NKJ: they don’t have tails though do they?
EK: Am I wrong? At least some of them —
NKJ: No I don’t think—
EK: Am I just mixing up different like Tyrgas and Thunderas?
NKJ: You’re calling me back to my ‘80s childhood and I don’t remember and I’ve just outed myself in front of a whole bunch of nerds as not knowing Thundercats well enough. It’s terrible.
EK: It’s possible I have, actually.
NKJ: Okay
EK: I’m going to call this up on my phone while we’re talking.
NKJ: yeah I don’t think Thundercats have tails.
EK: Oh no, I’m sorry, I’ve totally nailed this. They definitely have tails. I did search “Thundercats tails”
NKJ: oh interesting
EK: so either I’m seeing fan art of them with tails — or they had tails.
NKJ: okay, I’ll go with what you decide. If you want to give them tails, they’ve got tails.
EK: They’ve got tails.
NKJ: so they’re people but with tails —
EK: nah nah I think you’re right —
NKJ: alright —
EK: but people with tails
NKJ: Ok. So we’ve got people with tails. Now that we’ve picked an environment and people with whatever adaptation they have that makes them unique, usually somewhere in this process of world building we insert something I jokingly call “Element X.” “Element X” is usually the point of utter weirdness at which, you know, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Granted, since this world is so different from our own, that IS the Element X. But you just stuck tails on human beings, so I guess that’s also our Element X —
EK: but to talk about this in a meta way, in Black Panther, vibranium is your Element X.
NKJ: yeah, that’s a great way to think about it.
EK: It’s like you twist something and the world begins to evolve in a different way.
NKJ: Yeah, the biggest point of divergence from our world, because in this case pretty much everything is a divergence. Were you going to say something?
EK: No, I was just thinking what possible Element X’s could be. What are some interesting Element Xs in sci-fi? So as we’re doing this, people also get a sense of how this has played out in things they’ve loved before.
NKJ: In Dune, I’m thinking of that classic that a lot of folks have read. First off, it takes place 10,000 years in the future, so that in and of itself is kind of an Element X.
EK: So a setting can be an Element X?
NKJ: Setting can be, time can be, the fact that human beings have effectively evolved a group of people who are capable of transiting space-time, that’s the Spacers’ Guild. Granted that’s with the use of extremely psychedelic drugs but they’re able to do it. There are people who are able to use various mental powers. That’s also an Element X. Psionics is what it’s always been called in sort of classic science fiction.
EK: Got it. So X-Men mutations would be an Element X.
NKJ: Yeah. So psychic abilities, super strength, or just people who have unique abilities. In The Incredibles, the fact that there are Supers is the Element X. That’s an example. As I’ve done this exercise before, I’ve actually — the people that’ve done the workshop have come up with some of the most bizarre Element Xs. Let’s see. In one exercise, we ended up with a sentient Gulf Stream that eats people. So there was an ocean current – like the rest of the ocean was perfectly normal, but that was this one ocean current that was alive and hated you and would eat your ships. So people did not spread over this planet quite as easily as they did on ours, because they kept getting eaten. And they also developed a culture and a mythology around the evil current. So there was that.
Another time I did this exercise I presented it to a bunch of teenagers right before lunch, and the student that I asked to draw the continents drew them in the shape of 12 identical wedges, just like a pizza. (laughter) So … because they were hungry, we ended up with Pizza World —
EK: This is why you don’t write sci-fi before lunch.
NKJ: yeah. Well no! I mean, we ran with it!
EK: Or maybe why you do I guess!
NKJ: yeah yeah what it meant was that the people who evolved on this world, once they developed science, knew that their world could not have naturally developed like this.
EK: One of the things you’re bringing to mind for me – I was a fan when I was younger of the Harry Turtledove alternative fiction series. In the ones where – there’s a great – I haven’t read it in so long I don’t know if it’s great but it was when I read it (laughter) – there’s a series where aliens invade Earth during WWII.
NKJ: Oh interesting.
EK: so the intervention – what’s so interesting about it, thinking about it in your framework is that obliviously, in terms of Earth, the Element X is aliens coming. But for aliens, the way he does it, ginger turns out to be a cocaine-like substance for them.
NKJ: (laughter)
EK: So Earth includes – for this alien race – an addictive drug that begins wreaking havoc and becomes a key plot point.
NKJ: So what happens? Do the Allies start lobbing ginger ale at them or what?
EK: I don’t remember exactly, but it becomes a lot of trading. It becomes ways that dissension under this – as I remember, again, it’s been a very long time – that this very well-oiled invasion machine begins to break down. Where initially human beings have no chance, one of the things that happens – the interactions with Earth and ginger, particularly, becomes a way that the alien force itself changes which in turn creates possibilities for humans to mount – not just a counter-strike, but to create alliances to create mead(?) that the aliens have on them. I remember it being very interesting, but it’s interesting the idea of having an Element X going in both directions.
NKJ: yeah, that is. And that’s one of the things that’s fun about first contact stories. If they’re well rendered, then yeah, you do end up having two Element Xs, or two civilizations reacting to the sudden imposition of Element X.
For the sake of this world exercise, usually we’re dealing with an Element X that’s not a sudden intrusion. Usually we’re dealing with something that’s built into the world and it changes the way people function in their world versus in our world. So past a certain point, it’s no a longer an exercise where we’re building a people but we just start talking about how cultures in our world develop. But one of the things I try and focus on is the cultural elements that form the basis of this culture, and they usually derive from environment or something about this world. For example, when I’m talking about sociological or cultural elements, I’m talking about how does their language develop? What is their religion like? What is it about their sexuality that is unique compared to ours? As part of the exercise, I have the students or people involved in the workshop select 1-3 different elements that we’re going to delve deep in to. Why don’t we go with one, for the sake of this talk? So pick a sociological element you want to dig deep on, and we can kind of figure out how it’s going to shape this culture.
EK: So a thing that I would imagine in a world like this is the coasts will naturally become the seats of power.
NKJ: Possibly.
EK: On the one hand they have more protection. They are only threatened on one side, in the way that others are – it’s sort of a war of all against all.
NKJ: More protection against other cultures?
EK: Protection against other cultures, against invasion; they can escape more easily. They can travel more easily because they can board boats and go up and down. I can imagine ways it wouldn’t have evolved that way, but if I’m picking a way this one did evolve — I imagined power radiates out of coastal capitols.
NKJ: Possibly. Remember that in our world, land and ocean, neither of those are barriers to the spread of a culture. Human beings all over, all cultures, have come up with boats. It’s possible the people living on coasts are so harried by pirates or something, they haven’t been able to develop because they are constantly attacked and their culture gets knocked down again and again and again. That’s happened in certain parts of our world. If you want to run with that, we can do that.
EK: I’m happy to run with a better one!
NKJ: We’re focusing on the folks who live in this desert-like area, so if that’s the one you want to run with, there’s no such thing as a better one in this case. Any cultural element that is different from our own world is going to make an exponential difference in how this world develops versus our own.
EK: So if you were thinking about how to twist something on these desert dwellers, how would you do it?
NKJ: I’m thinking they have tails, but prehensile tails develop in species on our planet that do climbing. You need them for climbing purposes. In a desert there aren’t trees. There are, however, rocks. I wonder if they live in cliffs, just offhand, and maybe they’ve built a culture where they’ve built cities in these giant rock formations. Just off the top of my head.
EK: Would that count as something different enough, because we have cultures like that.
NKJ: Different from the culture that is probably going to be reading the book. We have cliff-dwelling cultures now, who may be reading sci-fi in English coming out of an American publisher (laughter). It’s entirely possible thanks to colonization that all of these books are available and the internet. But for now, but it’s fairly different from the way our world works. I was just thinking of that off the top of my head. They are probably a poor culture compared to the coasts, if you want to run with the idea that the coasts are wealthy, and are more powerful and big cities. The people who live in the desert, are poorer, they are sparse, there are fewer of them, but they have incredibly beautiful cities occupying the giant rock formations.
EK: I love it! Let’s go with that.
NKJ: Okay, let’s run with it. Once we’re into how the culture starts to develop, then we start to talk about the ways that culture is sociologically different from our own. We start talking about syncretism, differentiation, cosmogony and economy. How did that culture get to be the way that it is?
EK: Do you want to define a few of those terms?
NKJ: Sure. Syncretism is basically cultures building on what has come before. So the fact that this culture has tails, means probably somewhere in their distant ancestral past, they were used to living in a world with trees, or a world with things that tails were useful to climb. Maybe their culture, even though they’re now living in cliffs, still venerates trees. Maybe it’s built around the idea of what life in the forest is like. They’ve adapted [to the cliffs], but their culture is still going to have elements that are deprecated from the time they lived in forest. Maybe they venerate walking quietly, even though in the desert it kind of doesn’t matter, but in a forest it would. So they’re just incredibly quiet people. Maybe we found our name for them. They are The Quiet People. I don’t know.

Differentiation is one of the ways cultures develop, kind of in rivalry or interactions with other cultures; they want to be different from those people over there next door. This is why, in a lot of cases, cultures that develop in the same environment next door to each other are so drastically different. They get their identity from “we ain’t like those people.” In some cases, that does lead to warfare, among very similar people. There’s a bunch of different examples I could throw out where.

Cosmogony: where do we come from? How their ideas about where we come from may have developed. Different cultures in our world looked up at the sky and were able to cobble together how the planets worked and figure out basic astronomy. A lot of them used that to develop different mythologies. Greeks came up with the gods living in constellations. Or constellations telling stories that were rooted in their own mythology.

Economy is exactly what it is in our world: how do they get and distribute resources? We might want to dig deeper into that one. People in a desert who were formerly forest dwellers, who are living in a world where they are the poorer cousins of big city folks – how do they make their money? How do they survive?
EK: I think the question is, do we want to make them traders or raiders?
NKJ: my guess is they wouldn’t last long as raiders. If city people have more resources, they can rapidly develop defenses or abilities against any raiders. Eventually they can fight them off and eventually track them into the desert and wipe them out.
EK: so traders it is!
NKJ: Yeah, raiding doesn’t work too well once you’ve got an economic disparity between the groups. One group usually just takes over the other at that point. Let’s say traders. What are they getting out of the desert that people in the city would pay top dollar for? Do you have any thoughts on that?
EK: Let me think about this for a minute.
NKJ: Or at least pay enough that the people living in the desert could survive and make a living?
(Silence then laughter)
EK: Well this is where the problem that I just pulled this out of … holes in my mind immediately comes up —
NKJ: Well, let’s go back to Burning Man though.
EK: You have a crew of people living in unusually high dwellings, who have adapted to a super rough environment. Let’s say, compared to other cultures, have an unusually communal culture. Compared to more individualistic cultures that have developed, cultures that are a little more internally-trading based if we’re going to use the Burning Man build here. They do less trading with themselves, trying to build things communally, in order to survive in extreme conditions, has an almost kibbutz-like way of erecting society, raising children, communicating with one another. Let’s say they are builders. I don’t know where they get the resources to build, but what they are trading is their expertise at creating dwellings that are unusually well designed, to be transported and to withstand harsh climates.
NKJ: That makes me think building into cliffs does require some really complex and advanced architecture. For one of my books, I ended up going to – I’m mutilating the name – Canyon de Chelly. [explanation of how to spell and pronounce]. It’s a little a valley/canyon in Arizona in the Najavo nation. If you go down into it, you can see where the ancient Anasazi had built cliffs a thousand feet off the ground. Whole villages were built up there. You saw the architectural techniques they were using to do this, supports and struts and tackles and pulleys, used at a time when we didn’t think civilizations were doing a lot of this advanced architecture and construction-type stuff. So that makes sense. It follows that the people who come from this culture know some unique building design techniques, and would farm that out to people in the cities who were like, “hey! We don’t know what we’re doing! We’re still living on huts in stilts because of floods. Maybe you can offer us some different suggestions, or maybe you can help us build skyscrapers.
EK: That would be one. The other thing you made me think of, I’ve been doing some other work on a journalism project … about global water crises. Which is that a desert culture would be adapted to less water. If you imagine, as has happened in some of your books that I love, that you’re going through a time of geographic stress, of climatological stress, and so you’re going through a drought. You’re dealing with a poor culture, that has traditionally been poor and a little water deprived, and has managed to survive amidst that. Now the rest of the world is having to deal with similar things. So some of the techniques they’ve developed are all of sudden in demand.
NKJ: Like water reclamation
EK: Water reclamation, yep
NKJ: That works.
EK: So there is knowledge they have. They’re at a moment, perhaps, past poverty, and ways of life that were previously looked down on have some value.
NKJ: That requires us to do some world building about the people on the coasts. Are they the kind of culture who would be willing to listen, to people that they once scorned. We have seen from human history that that does not happen.
EK: That’s a fair point.
NKJ: I’m reminded off the top of my head – there was a period of time where Vikings and Inuit cohabited the same environment. I want to say Greenland, it might be Iceland, I always get them mixed up. It’s horrible. Where they were cohabiting, on the same land, the Inuit had learned to hunt and eat seal, because that was one way to keep their nutrient level high. You couldn’t grow much in that environment. The Vikings would not eat seal. According to them, the seal tasted bad. I don’t blame for being like, ew, gross! Because they wouldn’t adapt, the Vikings did not last very long in this environment. The Inuits did; they’re still there now. Of course, in modern times, everybody’s there.
This is an example in our own world. You see people who could listen to the locals/indigenous people on how to live and survive in their land, and don’t. We haven’t seen a whole lot of that evidence in our society, in our world.

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EK: One thing you do here, and it makes sense having read your work, is that I’ll often suggest something straightforward: maybe the coasts have a lot of power, or these people don’t have much water – and it has often seemed to me in your work that there is a darker view of human nature and the way human societies interact. Seems the work often deals with the question of do the societies become so injust they can’t be redeemed. One question that raises – which is probably a more realistic way of thinking about how societies evolve, is, it often seems when you are thinking about how a society would design or run itself, that things would run straightforwardly as if it was being designed by an engineer. But the question of how worlds actually build themselves is cultural and based around .. differentiation. The organizing principle is around how the cultures thought about themselves, and that creates a different set of downstream adaptations or lack of adaptations, to your point about the Vikings.
NKJ: the thing you have to do, in order to world build well, is understand how our world works. I don’t think it’s a dark view of human nature. I think it’s a view of human nature that’s informed by history. The sad and honest truth is that our history is full of people being awful to each other; also, our history is full of people being great to each other. So I try to depict both. But when you’re talking societies and how they develop, you have to understand they aren’t logical. (laughter)
EK: But that seems like such a big point!
NKJ: Yes! You have to understand that the dynamics that dictate how we do things are not as simple as “hey those people over there have a great idea, why don’t we borrow it or talk to them and get their expertise.” You’re dealing with power dynamics. You’re dealing with egos. You’re doing dealing with psychology and sociology and all the aspects of human nature. It’s important to understand the sciences when you’re doing world building. Both the physical sciences of how our world work and the social sciences of how people work. The world that your readers know best is OUR WORLD, so you’ve got fantastic research available to you, if you want to explore it, on how people have done in our world these exact same things. There’s no reason to make assumptions or pull things out of whole cloth. We’ve got the whole of human history to draw from for examples of how people react when they see another culture doing something that might be a good idea. And frequently they dig in their heels and decide we’re not going to do it because it’s coming from those people over there and they don’t know anything and they’re stupid and that kind of thing.
EK: the other possibility that seems more evident is that, what I said was their status would raise and their prospects would raise, by having something other people wanted. Probably more realistically, their threat would raise, by having something people wanted. And they would be in more danger.
NKJ: Yeah … and they would be in more danger. I briefly thought of that, but then I wanted to keep it brief. So one of the elements I usually cover, once we get into the culture, we are getting micro world building – i.e. the way that the people or culture develops in which the story takes place. One of the things you have to figure out is what the power dynamics are going to be like. So … when we’re talking about power in the sociological sense, we’re talking about the ability to control other people. That’s what that means. Sometimes in subtle ways. The power to coerce or force other people to do things, but with impunity on your part. You can hurt those people and you won’t get punished by your government for doing so. You start to think about – in our world, who is the default? Who is considered normal? Who is treated as marginalized or abnormal?
We also spend time in the workshop talking about who has power over time – like talk time. There have been a number of studies that have come to light in the past few years. We have this common wisdom in our society that women talk too much. Women will talk your ear off. But when actual studies of who dominates conversations have been reviewed, it’s clear that men are the ones who are doing 2/3 of the talking. And that women are perceived as talking too much when they’re actually only talking 25-30% of the time. And that’s just our particular cultural dynamics. We are a patriarchal society. We react badly – men and women – all genders – when women talk versus when men talk. It changes our perception of reality. We literally don’t realize that people who are speaking less than 50% of the time aren’t dominating the conversation.
We have to be aware of how power works in our society and depict these power dynamics – or how power dynamics work in our created society as well.
EK: I really like the way you put all that. One thing I think about in your books – you portray societies where people who have power are subjugated.
NKJ: Well what do you mean power?
EK: People who have the ability to summon physical force – orogonies – people who can cause massive geological fluctuations or in The Inheritance Trilogy, gods, who are in different ways held captive. So, you’re right, they don’t have power, power is the one thing they don’t have, even though they have a potentiality within them. In a less subtle rendering of the world, you would say these are people or creatures on top.
NKJ: remember we are talking about sociological power versus …force? So sociological power can level or imbalance the ground between groups that have physical power. This is not a thing that is unusual or surprising. We’ve got the whole of human history to look at. We’ve got societies that have been dominated by a minority before.
EK: And still do.
NKJ: And still do. We’ve seen how this mechanism works in our own world, where you’ve got a vast population of people who if they just threw themselves at their oppressors enough, they would be free. But the sociological mechanisms can level that ground, can make up for the sheer numbers of people. It’s not necessarily a good thing. I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing. I think it’s a bad thing in our own world, but it’s how power works. It’s how power defends itself. How we set up a society in which you’ve got self-perpetuating systems of people who are being oppressed, are told again and again they are supposed to be oppressed, it’s a good thing they are being oppressed – they internalize that. And they eventually start to reinforce that same system within themselves. We’ve seen this happen again and again in our own world. And we have to understand how our own world works if we’re going to be rending this in another world.
So yeah, in the Broken Earth trilogy, you’ve got people with the ability to literally move mountains, but there aren’t very many of them. One of the things the other people, the ones who don’t have the ability to move mountains have figured out to do, is to grab these folks when they’re young. Kill them if they’re found when they’re older, but when you find them young, take them to a place where they can be indoctrinated with the idea that their role is to serve. They are living on the sufferance of their betters. That they are inherently harmful, evil, flawed, bad people and that only by the sufferance of their betters should they be allowed to function, because otherwise they are a threat to all that exists.
When you tell people stuff like this, especially from a young age, when you tell them this again and again again, it’s brainwashing. Same technique works with marketing, just less overtly harmful. Human minds are susceptible to manipulation; human societies are susceptible to manipulation on this level. This is one of the things I try to get across.
EK: How would you think about displaying power in this society we’re creating?
NKJ: If the people in the cities are starting to have a water crisis, this is off the top of my head, and they have nothing but contempt for the desert dwellers who know how to survive with water, the people in the cities would become more profligate in their abuse of water. They will form a culture around flouting how much water they’ve got, even if it’s not much, even if it’s dwindling. And they will waste it more, on purpose, just to stick it to those people in the desert. Or to remind themselves they are more powerful, they are better people. They’re awesome, so … we can do this. We can use up this water. Oh well, sucks to be you. We don’t believe we will run out of water. They will probably tell themselves that. Just like in our world – people tell themselves there’s no need to do anything about climate change. You know, God is going to save us from climate change. God sent us scientists, so I don’t know why … that’s a whole other conversation.
EK: There’s another thing you make me think of. I’m Californian. Recently we’ve gone through some terrible droughts. One of the ways I noticed that the – I don’t think managed is the correct word, but “messaged” is the correct word – is that a lot of usages of water that people broadly had to do, and particularly that were spread across society, pushed on – so getting free water at restaurants. Which is certainly more important if you’re low income than high income – but that became something that – I don’t want to say became frowned upon, but it became questioned. How long should your showers be?
But that’s the not the thing … we have massive agricultural use, which is very wasteful. We have lawns, we have golf courses, we have pools, we have fountains. It seems to me, watching the way people talked about it, there was a constant effort to stigmatize uses of water that were very common and not that big of a deal. And there was also a very big effort among businesses, to try to make people pay for water that they were using in small ways. You saw it in hotels, you saw it in restaurants, you saw it when you were washing your hands. Doing things humans need to do. Meanwhile the questions of industrial use, the things that made people rich off water, those were protected and not questioned. So I do wonder in a world like this if you wouldn’t begin to see a backlash or just lash, towards usages of water that were more essential, as people tried to protect the usages of water that were the things that gave them power.
NKJ: My guess is the people in the city would start blaming the desert dwellers for the dwindling water resources. Yeah, that is how our power dynamics tend to work. People with power immediately want to deflect or project their own misuses onto other people, so they can continue to live the way they want, without making changes. Even if they are the people who are at the core of the problem. But they’ve got the power to deflect, and they do. This is a thing that we see over and over again in our world. If you depict it in this fictional world, your audience will understand exactly why it happens, because they are used to it, because they see it. Because they get that that is how societies work.
EK: So perhaps the idea of living in the desert at all, having society in the desert, becomes stigmatized, becomes something people turn ire on.
NKJ: In that case, you are potentially facing the displacement of this group of people—
EK: Right.
NKJ: Possibly forceable displacement of this group of people, even though these people are capable of surviving in the desert just fine. The society’s wrath would focus on that. I think you’re completely right.
EK: So that’s a power dynamic we’re beginning to see in this world?
NKJ: Yeah. I usually with the workshop – now that we’ve figured out the power dynamics, we then start focusing more on – again assuming we are going to be focusing on the desert society, how that society is structured. We focus on their roles within society, like family roles, gender roles, how their socio-economic system works, what their careers are like. We focus on how their power dynamics manifest within the society. So, as you mentioned, they probably have a more collective, communal way of doing things. We’d need to work out how that functions. We’d need to work out, for example, what are their standards of beauty? If they don’t wash with water, let’s say they do dust washing, which is a perfectly valid thing, it’s perfectly clean and healthy, it’s what a lot of desert societies do. Let’s say they do dust washing. So looking like you’ve got wet, supple skin is not a thing in their society. Maybe having leathery, sun damaged skin feels normal for them.
We would have talked already about how they developed what their skin color is. We’ve noticed in our world that people with darker skin tend to be more resistant to UV radiation, therefore they don’t develop wrinkles as easily, that kind of thing. As we call it, “black don’t crack” in our world. Maybe their standard of beauty is built around: how well does your face resist sunlight? (laughter)
We would talk about what lower-status people in the society do. What are their lives like? We would talk about what it looks like to defy your status in your society. We’ve got people in our world who will attempt to defy the social order by doing the very same thing higher status people can get away with but normally lower status people can’t. I was thinking off the top of my head of manspreading! Which is a thing here in NY.
You’ll see – guys will come on the subway – man spreading, for people who don’t know, is usually men will come down on the subway. [They] will sit down with their legs splayed really widely and take up as much space on the seat as possible, which makes it difficult for other people to sit down. We’ve started seeing the phenomenon of woman spreading, and it’s basically a defiance of our patriarchal society. We see women come in, flop down next to a guy, and immediately start having leg war with him. Where he starts to spread, she spreads right back, and so that is a defiance. It’s a minor defiance, but it’s a little example of how people do things.
EK: As Gandhi says, a spread for a spread leaves the whole subway full. Leaves people unable to sit down.
(laughter)
NKJ: Yeah, that’s true, and nobody’s happy then! That never ends well :). On the other hand, you can’t let them get away with it, so you have to do something.
Once you’ve figured out the roles and how the power dynamics work, then you can start getting into the characterization of the person you are going to focus on in the society and what it is they’re dealing with, and then you can come up with a plot and all that.
The world building exercise is NOT writing; it’s what you do before you write. So once you’ve got these basics in place, then you can proceed.
That’s basically how I do it!

[commercial]
[Ezra and Nora have a discussion about world building, frameworks, understanding models and scripts. I recommend going and listening to the discussion. At the end, he asks her to recommend three books.]
EK: what 3 books would you recommend to our listeners?
NKJ: I’m terrible at recommending books.
Martha Wells Murderbot series
Just finished reading Octavia Butler’s Unexpected Stories – 2 stories that were found posthumously.
I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head! Only two of three.

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Interview with Ada Hoffmann

I know Ada Hoffmann through a group of spec fic writers. I don’t know Ada super well, so I thought this could be an opportunity to get know her better AND introduce her to many of you.

1 – Will you introduce yourself to us? What do you think we should know about you?

Hi! I’m Ada Hoffmann. I’m a writer of speculative fiction and poetry. My first collection, MONSTERS IN MY MIND, came out late last year from NeuroQueer books. I’m Canadian, queer, and autistic, and I like to review books with autistic characters or authors. In real life, I’m a graduate student, and I’m teaching computers to write their own poems.

Monsters In My Mind

2 – How do you feel your identities influence your writing?

That’s a complicated question. I feel like some of it is obvious, and some of it is so subtle that I might not even be aware of it myself.

The obvious part is that I write characters I can relate to. I write a lot of female protagonists, because I was assigned female at birth and I usually find women more relatable. I write a fair number of queer characters, especially lesbian characters, which is basically a sort of wish fulfillment, because I find women more attractive than men on average but in real life I seem to keep mostly dating men somehow. I often try to write autistic characters, which was actually the hardest one to figure out how to do, and I still struggle with aspects of it, but after all the reviewing I’ve done, I also know exactly why it’s so important. Of course, then I run off and write stories about sentient squid or centipede-people or women who are shacked up with anthropomorphic wolves, because whatever.

That brings us to the subtle part, which is that growing up with different experiences can make us interested in different emotional and social experiences in our writing. I often write characters who are different from most of the people around them. That’s the theme of MONSTERS IN MY MIND, and I doubt it’s a theme I’d be as attached to if not for my disability and my sexuality and who knows how many other things. It’s hard to say how I’d feel about almost any theme, in any story, if my identities were different; identity and privilege are so pervasive, and influence everything, whether you realize it or not.

3 – I know that you participate in LARP (live-action role playing). Can you tell us how you got started and how LARPing influences what you write?

I got dragged into LARPing by a former dating partner and then fell in love with it. I’m very shy, so I wasn’t sure how I would take to a hobby that involves a lot of interaction face to face in a big group. The social aspect – and the sheer exhaustion of keeping it up for a whole weekend – still presents challenges. But I love LARPing. I love how it’s basically a grown-up version of the pretend games we played as children. I love that it’s structured and based on rules. I love the costumes. I love the combination of social roleplay and very visceral, physical challenges (I get to hit people with fake foam swords!) Most of all, I love how everyone there, in one way or another, is about as weird as I am.

I’m not sure if LARPing influences my writing very much. I keep trying to think of a really good crossover (a story about LARPers! A thinly disguised story about someone’s LARP character! A story about post-apocalyptic LARPers who have turned their LARP into an entire functioning commune!!) but it never seems to work right. Mainly, I’m afraid that LARPing functions as a distraction from writing. But it’s a distraction that gives me a social support network and gets me out of the house, both of which are incredibly important for my mental health, so I’ll take it!

4 – In October I went to Sirens, and V.E. Schwab told us about her literary ancestry. Who are the people who influenced you and who do you find reaching for as you write?

I mean, I’ve been writing since I was five, and telling stories for longer than that. The earliest things I can remember writing were imitations of the children’s stories that I read and watched at the time. “Star Wars” and “The Lion King,” in particular, are childhood loves that remain etched on my psyche today. And for all its faults, I learned what plots were from a “Land Before Time” sequel. (I vividly remember acting out a part of the movie to myself, at the age of seven or eight, and then stopping in the middle of the hall, and thinking, “Wait – if they hadn’t done X then Y wouldn’t have happened, and without Y, Z wouldn’t have… It’s all connected!”)

In high school, I was consuming a lot of Terry Pratchett and Joss Whedon, which meant that most of what I wrote was very dryly silly and then I would horrifically kill everybody. I was also getting into tabletop roleplaying and wrote lengthy fanfiction about all my friends’ characters, much of which was never finished. That wasn’t wasted time: it taught me how to structure longer work and get deeply into characters’ minds, which I’d always struggled with. The decision to write for publication, in college, wasn’t inspired by a single influence, but was something that came organically out of my growing confidence at these silly roleplaying stories, and my growing sense that they were doing something wildly important for me.

These days, as I said in another interview recently, I would love to build worlds like China Miéville, develop characters like Lois McMaster Bujold, build up a sense of scale like Robert Charles Wilson, and tap into the depths of my id like Tanith Lee. I’m also inspired and challenged by other autistic writers, including friends of mine (particularly Rose Lemberg and A. Merc Rustad) and people I’ve never met except through their writing (Meda Kahn’s story “Difference of Opinion” completely blew my mind).

5 – In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Learning to look at personal situations carefully and make judgments about them by considering the available evidence. No one ever knows 100% of the things about everything, and it is possible my judgment could be revised if new evidence comes in – and that that’s okay. I am still allowed to analyze and act on the situation based on my current understanding.

That sounds very dry and scientific, but it’s been important to me. For a long time I would panic whenever anything seemed bad, and either push it away temporarily without any understanding of why I was doing so, or force myself to ignore the panic, tell myself it was just crazy brain stuff, stay happy, and do what was expected. This meant I stayed in bad situations because I couldn’t stay calm long enough to process what was bad about them and why. Working hard on this cognitive skill allowed me to sort out a lot of crap relatively fast. It’s related to the mindfulness skill where you work to view things as things that are, rather than leaping to judge them as good or bad.

6 – When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

First, I temporarily remove myself from the situation so I can calm down. If I’m very overwhelmed, this might involve needing to sit in a quiet place for a while with something safe and distracting, and maybe eat a snack. (Yes, I comfort eat. I never said this was going to be GOOD advice.)

When I’m good and calm, I try to assess where the problem came from. Sometimes it was a momentary thing and I can sail back in. Sometimes a task in my life just seems too big, in which case I can break it down into subtasks that are as small as possible. Sometimes I can ask for help. Occasionally, especially if I woke up with low spoons, none of this stuff helps and I am just done for the day. In that case, as annoying as it is, I try to listen to my body and rest up so I can try again tomorrow.

7 – What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

You know the thing where you’re talking to a dude? And he seems intelligent, well-read, funny, he’s into the same things you are. It’s going well. Then you ask about his favorite SFF authors, and he comes out with a list that’s 100% old white dudes.

When this happens, I don’t get mad. I just quietly hand them a copy of “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. For some reason, I’ve found this book works well as a gateway drug to contemporary women’s and feminist SF. It’s a rollicking space opera with cool technology and it questions gender stereotypes very gently, but in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

For non-fiction, I’ve had good results lending out “Aspergirls” by Rudy Simone. It’s not a perfect book, but it packs a lot of useful information into a small space, especially for people who are newly questioning their neurotype or who don’t know anything about autism apart from the stereotypes. It’s accessible for a general audience and not too academic or technical, and it’s also not too political, which is good for beginners. You need to know what a thing IS before you can really engage with the politics around it, I figure.

8 – Finally, in the style of Cameron Esposito, at the end of her Queery podcast, she asks people to tell her a queero. Do you have a writing hero? Someone who you feel showed you it was possible for you to write?

For fiction, I never needed to be shown it was possible for me to write. I was already doing it long before I understood I was disabled or queer.

For poetry, though, I have one big queero. I had dabbled in poetry and song lyrics before reading Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects,” but that collection turned a light on in me that I hadn’t known was there. I put it down and said “I want to learn to do THIS, dammit.” I’ve discovered more speculative poets since then, but Valente still is one of my faves.

Ada, thanks for answering all my questions so thoughtfully. I really appreciate the time and care you gave in your responses.

Go check out Ada’s book, Monsters in My Mind:

Parallel universes, fantasy quests, leather-clad mantises, velociraptors, merfolk, and the occasional cephalopod: Ada Hoffmann’s literary anthology collects the author’s best works from 2010 to 2017, including ten never-before-seen pieces of fiction and poetry. This richly-textured speculative fiction collection explores deeply human experiences like loss, grief, love, and courage within multitudinous universes, making it essential reading for anyone with a love of weird literature, queer theory, or monster studies.

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Literary Ancestry

world book

Last October I attended Sirens, a conference about women in fantasy (and science fiction). Each day a different author talked to us. V.E. Schwab talked about her literary ancestry and it was something that resonated for me, so I thought I would share those who have influenced me.

Going back to my wee days, the stories I remember first have to be Beverly Cleary – especially her wild child, Ramona. I haven’t read any Ramona books in decades, but my memory of her is a very unruly child. No, not just child, GIRL. She was willful. She was smart. She was brave. From Ramona the Brave to Ramona the Pest, she was always moving forward and tackling what she wanted.

Next came Judy Blume – from Starring Sally J Friedman as Herself to Then Again Maybe I Won’t to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – all the messy girls who were smart and worried because they weren’t cool, they didn’t fit in, they were different in some way that set them apart, and they made ME feel less alone.

In between Cleary and Blume was Madeleine L’Engle, whose Time books shattered my worldview in the best possible way. I am BEYOND thrilled and can’t wait to see what Ava Duvernay is going to do with A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle was the first science fiction I read and it blew my little mind. It was so different from the fairy tales. Not to mention Meg, a smart, capable girl. I would read and re-read her books every few years, each time finding something I had forgotten or not noticed in the previous reading. As an adult, what really stands out is how she writes about family, loving families – parents and children who all love each other.

In my teens I read a lot of science fiction, but mostly what I remember is Anne McCaffrey’s dragon riders. She, like L’Engle, turned fantasy into something that felt rooted in reality (the distinction between fantasy and science fiction is for another time).

I don’t remember reading any queer characters until I got to Rubyfruit Jungle. So thank you, Rita Mae Brown, for sharing your happy gay ladies. It wasn’t until I discovered Nicola Griffith that I found queer women whose sexuality wasn’t driving the plot. (Aside: I discovered it on the shelf at my public library. THANK YOU PUBLIC LIBRARIES.) I have written about writing queer characters, so I’m not going to go into it here. Needless to say, Nicola turned my world upside down, much like L’Engle had two decades earlier. The idea that a queer character could BE without having their sexuality commented on in the text was revolutionary.

Where does that bring us? To me, currently flailing around and thwacking things as I try to wrap my mind around this system called story. I hold these girls and women tightly in my memory, and they help one another break down structures that no longer serve. They work to build more inclusive spaces. They go on adventures. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they try and fall down and get back up, or they fall down and ask for help, and they get help or they don’t get the help they think they need but they learn something. They fail. They hurt people. They learn and grow or they don’t. They are flawed like we are all flawed. We try and fail. We make mistakes. We learn and apologize (hopefully).

I don’t know how to write the stories I want to write, YET. I am learning and trying and stumbling around. In the meantime, I keep these characters and authors in my back pocket and in my heart. I am descended from them and hope to honor them as best I can.

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Collaboration

For the past several years I’ve chosen a word to be my focus for the year. They’ve all been variations on trying. Last year was iterate.

Riot of pink

This year I want to try something different. I find working on my own to be incredibly difficult. In some ways, all art is collaboration. There is a conversation that is happening, between the artist and the world. I am constantly having conversations in my mind, and when I can engage with someone else, there is a synergy that catalyzes the process. Collaboration gives me the structure I’m constantly seeking, something to push against and respond to.

In the spirit of this intent, I was also given the word LOUD by my friend Andrea. So I am considering what that means for me, and the irony that I don’t have much to say on it right now is not lost on me.

So in 2018, my challenge to myself and invitation to you is to collaborate with other artists. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please let me know. Likewise, I will challenge myself to reach out to artists I want to collaborate with!

What are your intentions for 2018?

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Writing and Fear

A week or so ago a twitter pal asked me how my writing was going. I had a hard time responding, given the limited space on Twitter. I promised I would give a longer answer when I had more time. I haven’t written a blog post for probably the same reason that I’m challenged in my writing.
selfie with dots and stripes

My quick answer was: fear. What fears surround me when I sit down to write?

My writer pals talk about brain weasels, or doubtroaches, depending on how strong these fears are. These critters roam around and collect loose worries. They bounce around and amplify them until they take up all the space in my head. It makes thinking about anything else hard. It’s hard not to take them seriously or believe them, but they aren’t solid, despite their volume. They don’t mean anything, unless I choose to give them weight.

A few choice weasels say things like: you don’t matter. Your voice doesn’t matter. No one cares about what you have to say. My worst fears are about being invisible, forgotten, unloved.

Once I can set aside those fears, put them in the corner in a rocking chair with a warm blanket and a cup of tea, there is another wall. This is the work of finding my voice, after so many years of suppressing it.

Learning how to carve out space for myself, giving myself permission to take up room, has been far harder. I sit down and look for the words. I feel the urge to tell a story, but it’s like I have to excavate layers of socialized shit to find what is mine. It’s the opposite of the oyster creating the pearl. It’s not even an archeological dig. It’s trying to undo almost five decades of programming. It’s pernicious.

Have you ever done that thing where you try to write using your left hand, but also only paying attention to the image in a mirror? So you literally have to force your hand to do everything upside down and in reverse? It feels like that.

I love the power of language. I love reading. I love exchanging ideas. There is nothing quite like putting down words where there was nothing before. I know how to quiet the weasels, but once they are taken care of, there is still the work. And every writer has to find her own way, because there is no one right way, no singular path.

Yesterday I was asked if I write for a specific audience. I literally laughed. Audience? Ha! What audience? IS there even an audience for anything I want to write? But seriously, the successful authors I know have said they either write for themselves, or they write with one specific person in mind. I have been trying this approach, because the idea of markets and audiences change.

When you don’t see yourself reflected in the world, it’s hard to believe in your own existence. Am I real? Am I a ghost? Maybe I’m a monster. We have stories about people who aren’t people. I want to flip that, and tell the stories of the people who have been told we aren’t people.

I feel the urge to apologize, to diminish, even in this post, and I will not do it.

In a world that feels extra determined to squash the voices of those who aren’t the “default” – straight, white, Christian, able-bodied, and cisgendered (not to mention male), I am reminded again and again that existence is resistance. I want to survive, but I want to do more than survive, I want to thrive. Part of that is finding my way through this thicket to the stories I need to tell, even if I am the only audience who needs them.

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Invisible Fences

I want to talk a little bit about going to SFF conventions and workshops. The first workshop I ever went to, my dear friend Camille told me, “There are a lot of people here who’ve known each other for a long time. They are excited to see each other and hang out. They aren’t exclusive, but it doesn’t occur to them to actively include or invite new people in. But if you go up to people and introduce yourself, they will welcome you.”

That is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

autumn leaves swirly fence

When I first started exploring the SFF communities, I knew no one. I felt like no one. I thought everyone knew each other and didn’t want to know me. It turned out I was wrong. I started by going to small, one-day writing workshops, where I connected with one or two people. Over time, they introduced me to more people. I got braver. I started to feel like MAYBE I belonged. I listened to the advice not to self-reject. I kept working on my writing, I kept applying to workshops, and then last year I got accepted to Viable Paradise.

Last weekend I was at a small convention in Minneapolis. The main draw for me was to reconnect with the friends I’d made last fall. Suddenly I had switched sides of the invisible fence. I didn’t realize it, until it was pointed out. There were people who were new to the community, new to going to conventions, and they were feeling like I used to feel.

I try to remember Camille’s advice, especially since I’m on the other side. I look for people hanging on the edges and try to invite them in. If you are new to cons, most people are there because they want to connect. If they don’t want to connect, they won’t be in public spaces.

Now that I’m further inside/know more people, I try to remember what it felt like to be new. I don’t feel like I have more wisdom or knowledge, even though on some level I do. I understand that the more visible a person is, the more they attract new people who are hungry to know how they got there.

So here’s my advice:

  • Feel free to approach people in public spaces
  • Listen and get a feel for the people or person
  • Do not chase them if they get up to leave. They probably have a reason. I know an editor who had a writer pass her a manuscript under a bathroom stall.
  • If you know people, and there are new folks, try to invite them to join you. Or introduce one new person to someone you know. Or introduce yourself to a new person.
  • I am an extrovert. I don’t have social anxiety. Even for me, it can be scary and intimidating to talk to someone new. I often feel awkward and am certain everyone can see my tentacles quivering. I think most people feel this way. Or at least, I tell myself that.
  • If you don’t have anything to say, THAT IS OKAY. Don’t feel like you have to talk if you aren’t ready.
  • The first workshop I went to, I made a goal to talk to ONE PERSON. Over a three-day period. I did it. Courage is rewarded.
  • If you don’t find the people you are looking for in one place, KEEP TRYING. It took me years to build the community I have now. I didn’t find them all in one place. I had to look in many places, and not the places I expected to.
  • You will get many chances. It’s not a one-and-done. If you are feeling discouraged, try again.
  • One thing that has helped me is finding other writers on Twitter. When I know someone I’ve met on Twitter is going to be somewhere in real life, I like to ask if I can say hi and chat with them in person.
  • There are lots of ways to do something, and you ultimately have to figure out the way that is best for you. If it’s a buddy system, do that! There are people you will find something in common with, and there are people who you won’t connect with.
  • If you are an old hat, or know more than three people at a con, try to remember what it felt like when you first started going.

What strategies have worked for you? What would you wish there was more of?

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On Paradise, Viable and Otherwise

Several friends have asked me about my experience at Viable Paradise. I wanted to write up something while the experience was still fresh.

Martha's Vineyard

I first found out about VP from my friend Camille Griep. I had been looking for my writing people for a long time when I finally found Camille. She told me about the workshop, and then over the next few years I met more people who had also attended Viable Paradise. All of them, to a person, were kind and supportive and encouraging. If they had egos, I couldn’t tell. This, more than anything, was a huge selling point for me. I have been working very hard to cultivate people who are focused on their own passions and who support and encourage others to do so. That is the sign of a healthy community in my book.

I sent in my application two days before the deadline and found out I got in two weeks later. I was so used to rejections I made my girlfriend read the email out loud. Maybe something about writing could be easy.

Thanks to the magic that is The Internet, I got to connect with several of my fellow workshop participants before I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, not to mention meeting two in person, one who also lives in Seattle.

I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard the day before the workshop was scheduled. The weather was delightful and my roommate turned out to be amazing. We got to explore the tiny Victorian houses and get to know one another, learning among other things that despite our two-decade age difference, we both love They Might Be Giants and Queen. Even if everyone at the workshop wasn’t my people, I had at least added another one to my network of support.

Victorian panorama

The structure of the workshop is fairly straightforward. Participants spend the first three days critiquing works they submitted for their application and receiving feedback. There are lectures and other activities to supplement the learning. The students spanned four decades in age and came from as close as Martha’s Vineyard and as far as Hawaii. Other years have seen international students.

And to my relief and gratitude, the experience I had at Viable Paradise exceeded my expectations. Everyone – staff, instructors, and fellow participants – were kind and generous. I was impressed by the level of self-awareness people had, how much work everyone did, and how we all cheered for one another. If someone needed to be alone, they could do so. When I wanted company, likewise, I could easily find someone to hang out with.

One thing that was really impressive to me was the harassment policy. Several times I saw staff say they felt uncomfortable and the person crossing the line reeled it back. I think I’m so used to just feeling uncomfortable at times that it hadn’t even occurred to me I could say something. This created an environment that felt incredibly supportive to me. No one had to guess when they were crossing the line, but at the same time, people did make an attempt to be respectful.

fall color: reflection

Each person I talked to, I found an affinity with – whether it was tea, octopi, librarianship, or a story someone had been looking for for years (hi Val!), we had so many intersections and overlaps I found myself agog. And thanks to the internet, we get to continue our connection as we go forward.

Aside from the community, I got very helpful feedback on my work, and as soon as I figure out how to revise my story to incorporate the feedback, I will be sending it back out for another round before I start sending it out to paying markets.

In conclusion, I crossed over water and spent a week on an island where I simmered in liminal time. When crossed back over, I felt a subtle shift. I have been told there are things I learned in that week that won’t make sense for years. I believe it. In the meantime, I will continue to apply myself to my writing. And if you have been looking for a workshop, I encourage you to apply to Viable Paradise. What do you have to lose?

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Writing Queer Characters

There have been a lot of conversations in the last few years about diversity, inclusion, and representation in fiction. I have followed along with a lot of interest, in part because I want to see pieces of myself reflected in stories – whether queer, Jewish, female, identical twin, femme, tea drinker, you get the idea, etc.

For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to focus on representing sexuality that is non-heteronormative. If nothing is explicitly stated or said in the text, the reader will assume the characters are straight. (And white. And cisgendered.) The question for many writers who want to represent these characters, then, is how to describe or show their characters are queer without it feeling artificial to the reader.

There are two points I want to make here:

1. How to show a character is LGBT
2. How their sexuality relates to the plot

glowing dahlia

Showing the character is LGBT

You might be tempted to just state it directly. A friend allowed me to use this example from their WIP. Your protagonist enters a room and catalogs the people. They see your gay character, who they also know is gay. They say, “Clearly, Juan and Bob are in a relationship,” without giving any additional information. It’s clear to that character, but it’s not clear to the reader. What is it about any couple that indicates they are in a relationship? How do you show that to the reader? What if they were in an opposite-sex relationship? Without having the characters engage in sex, here are a couple of ways I could think off the top of my head: they wear matching wedding bands, they are holding hands, they mention how they met/their first date/their anniversary/their wedding in conversation.

Also, where they stand in relation to one another will tell the reader a lot about their relationship and/or personalities – are they close in private but won’t stand within five feet in public? Are there societal things that make that kind of behavior normal, or is that just the personality of the characters (could be both).

Finally, the attitudes towards the queer characters will tell the reader a lot about the society in your book. Are all forms of sexual orientation equally valued? Are some accepted and others not? This will inform how your characters behave in public versus private, and an individual character’s opinion and judgment about those characters will tell the reader a lot about them.
Last weekend I went to a restaurant for lunch. It had a very long bar. I noticed two women sitting next to each other. The one to the right had her arms stretched out on either side of her, resting on the seatbacks of the chairs. It was a very possessive posture, and it let me know that the two women were a couple.

Here’s an exercise: go to a restaurant in your area. Watch the people and how they interact with each other. See if you can figure out who is in an intimate relationship. What are the cues they are giving? Is it different for same-sex couples than opposite-sex couples? Are there cues that a single person is sending that tells you what their sexuality might be?

Sexuality as a plot point

I have been having this conversation a lot, so I figured I would write it up. It’s very common to read a story or see a movie where the character’s sexuality moves the plot along. The one most people are probably familiar with is the coming out story, where the moment of reveal is the climax, and then the character is punished because of their sexuality.

The movie Carol defies this trope this incredibly well. It’s set in the ‘50s, when American society was less accepting and there were laws against being gay. The titular character, Carol, is married to a man, but has affairs with women. She meets a young woman and tries to run away with her, but her husband sends someone after her. She has a young daughter and is sued for divorce. There are consequences for her due to the cultural context, but the character herself isn’t punished for being queer. She doesn’t feel ashamed or sorry for her sexuality. It is an immutable fact of who she is, just as being blonde or 5’6” tall. This is not to say that everyone’s sexuality is fixed, just that it is for this character.

What I’m trying to get around to is this: your characters will be informed by their sexuality and their social/cultural contexts, but it shouldn’t define them.

I will try to see what resources I can pull together, including a recommended reading list of queer fiction, but that will be in a future post. In the meantime, check out these resources for finding and working with sensitivity readers: Write in the Margins, Writing the Other, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s advice on working with sensitivity readers.

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The Long Con

I’ve been thinking about seduction, falling in love, and the creative process. I keep thinking there are multiple strands I have to weave together, threads to embroider, knots to untangle, but it turns out there aren’t.

I’ve written about distractions before, so I’m not going to spend time on that. I’m just going to say it’s easy to get pulled away from the things I want to focus on – to a point. And that is what I want to talk about.

Heart birds

For the last several months I’ve been tweeting a good night/morning message. Last night it was: “good night existentialists. Good morning absurdists.” I do this because it amuses me. There’s no reward. Sometimes one or two people will respond. Mostly I feel like it just gets lobbed into cyberspace. It’s enough for me that a couple of people here and there seem to like it. I probably ignore a ton of stuff or don’t let the creator know necessarily that I liked something they did. I don’t take it personally that I don’t get much feedback.

It’s easy to get discouraged, to think no one cares, but it matters less and less to me as I let myself fall in love with the work. I feel the pull of the creative process and I’m resisting it less.

This is to say that a slow, steady, persistent effort turns into something else. Recently I had a few friends tell me how much they like these tweets. Individually they don’t stand up to scrutiny, but together, they’ve turned into something else. A little ritual. It’s something I love doing. And even though it might seem like no one else is noticing the effort, it turns out when I raise my head up out of the sand, they are.

There is a second part to this immersion: valuing what you love. I think it’s easy to get distracted when I don’t think what I want to spend my time on is worthy. Over the course of a year there was construction going on across the street from the yoga studio where I practice. I went to a morning yoga class, three times a week. The construction noise was constant. At the beginning of class, I would notice all the banging and clanging, but by the end, I had become so absorbed in my effort that all the noise faded away. It didn’t even bother me in savasana.

Having had this experience, I know I can create the same kind of focused effort in other areas, in areas that I care about. I just want to make a note that I’m not discussing the financial component of making art in this post. I will probably get there one day, but I’m not to that point right now.

Part of my effort this year is enjoying the seduction, and not just in the passive “oh look you brought me flowers and chocolates and wine” way, but bringing myself as an active participant in the process. So I’m doing what I love, and not worrying if anyone else will love it or not. Because just like the tweets, the truth is, there probably are people out there who will.

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Submit

A couple of years ago I started selecting a word as my theme for the year, rather than doing resolutions (which are fraught for many reasons that most of you know). I like to choose verbs, because they remind me to take action. I like to treat the word like a mantra or meditation focus. It’s something I can return to, again and again, without labeling myself as a failure. Our attention wanders. It’s natural.

century plant with bloom

For 2014 the word was return. For 2015, it was try.

I was thinking last week what I wanted it to be for 2016. I was listening to The Moth podcast, and Dan Kennedy shared some resolutions that listeners felt were particularly potent. One was, “fail more.” Given how much time I’ve spend pondering failure on this blog, I thought I would focus on that.

So for 2016, the word is submit. I particularly like Merriam-Webster’s definition.

: to give (a document, proposal, piece of writing, etc.) to someone so that it can be considered or approved

: to stop trying to fight or resist something : to agree to do or accept something that you have been resisting or opposing

I like that there are multiple meanings. Amongst my writer friends, the first meaning will probably the one that comes to mind. And I like the second meaning: to stop resisting and give in. In this case, even though I know I want to write and be published, I resist it. In addition, I can bring the words from the last two years along. Return. Try. Submit.

2016 is going to be about giving in even further to what I want. What do you want for 2016?

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