TFOB Part I – Writing Heroes of Diversity

So….

I finished the Tucson Festival of Books.  Whirlwind experience, so much to see and take in. From the pavilions, to the big name authors present, to the “Cowboy For Bernie” walking among the throng, it was something to see.

Sadly, some things didn’t happen.  I never managed to get face-to-face with Chuck Wendig and thank him for his insane-yet-insanely-helpful ramblings on his blog.  Also, I wanted to ask authors residing in the state if they had considered a “spec fiction writers of AZ” association, or even one for the southwest.  Outside one brief discussion, the opportunity didn’t materialize.

(Muse:  They probably have one and just don’t want you in it.)

That would be safest for everyone!

I got to sit on some great spec-fiction panels.  The first one on the first day was titled, “Writing Heroes of Diversity.”  The panelists were Austin Aslan (The Islands at the End of the World), Beth Cato (Clockwork Dagger) and Jon Proudstar (Tribal Force)–hereafter referred to as AA, BC, and JP, because I just spent a day on the road and am feeling even lazier than normal.

It was interesting.  As I suspected, a lot of the discussion centered on the idea of writing from a cultural or gender perspective other than one’s own, and cultural appropriation.  The central question: can you do the first and avoid the second?  I found this topic timely, considering J.K. Rowling being under fire just last week for this very topic.

All three kind of hedged their answers, saying you could, if done with care.  I got the impression they wanted to say, “No,” but as they all had done so, they really couldn’t.  AA said the best way to approach it was with humility, to do your research and talk to people living those perspectives.  BC and JP basically agreed, the later saying,  a good writer “spills their own blood and will give to get.”  Or in other words, nothing comes to those who sit on their ass.  Sweat equity in your research will reap rewards in terms of authentic representation.

JP made an interesting observation.  He said that while writing Tribal Force, he found himself writing about characters that all looked like him, omitting the pale people, and that he didn’t want to go down the same road so many authors did.  I thought that notion kind of profound.

A question from the audience came on avoiding stereotyping.  BC recommended seeking critique readers from various backgrounds.  AA simply said the best hedge against that was that all characters–good, bad, and ugly–should be three-dimensional, and not flat representations.

So all this got me to thinking: how diverse is my writing?

I write a lot of second-world fiction but the ones I set in our world, I usually don’t mention race at all.  Often, I don’t even describe the physical appearance of the characters, aside from genders.  Is that worse?  Better?  I’ve heard both opinions.

And on gender, I looked at the last dozen short stories I wrote.  Exactly half featured a female protagonist.  Pilgrimage to Skara has a male protagonist but features strong female movers and shakers.  Princess of the North has dual female leads. One is Andoyan (essentially Scandinavian), the other half-Andoyan and half-Darzish (essentially Arabic).

I guess I have yet to write a gay or trans protagonist.  No reason, other than it has never come up.  No, I lied, I wrote a horrible story with a gay protagonist a few years ago.  It was execrable and I have never let it see the light of day.  Not because of the lead character but because the plot sounded much better in my head than it came out on the page.  And yes, that character’s orientation was essential to the plot.  When that’s the case, I make note of these things.  The rest of the time, I usually don’t bother and let the reader draw the characters in their own head.

Do I need to do more?  Austin said-

(Muse:  You said you were going to use initials.)

Shut up before I stuff you back in your hole.  Austin said, “Beware of writing diversity for the sake of diversity.”  That’s what I thought I was doing, or not doing.  Now I wonder if was working with big ole fat blinders on.

So now I am really confused.  Should I write more diverse characters or shouldn’t I?  Or…should I just write what I write and worry less about this topic, and let it sort itself out?

Anyway, it was a good panel and I am glad I chose to attend it instead of the other one in that same time slot that had caught my eye.

(Muse:  It was a good panel because it left you with more questions than answers?)

Sometimes, just having something to ponder is enough to keep you searching for the answers.  And that’s life’s great journey, isn’t it?

Advertisements

Daily Update #35

Well, well, well….  Here we are in 2016.  Another year in the books, another year of writing under my belt.

(Muse:  Another year where you failed to sell a book, chump.)

Love and kisses to you too, sunshine.  Since it is a new year, just a few tidbits to start things off.

#

– Way back in this post, I made some goals for 2015:

  • Get Pilgrimage to Skara published
  • Make three short story sales.
  • Finish Princess of the North.

Sadly, I didn’t quite make any of these goals.  On the first, self-doubt, that boogeyman that affects so many of us, started rearing its beady-eyed little head.  Some things I read about self-publishing really made me doubt myself and as a result, I chickened out.  I did get two sales this year, so that was good.  And I logged 60K words into Princess.  Again, good, but bad that I didn’t finish.

– I am going to forgo setting goals this year.  Don’t worry, I will keep plugging away but we have a lot going on the home front, with some projects I am working with Mrs. Axe.  So it will be a more fluid year.

– The other day, I read some discussion on the true definition of steampunk.  To me, what’s not remarkable is that so many people have diametrically opposed views on which elements constitute a fiction sub-genre.  What is remarkable is the vigor with which people dismiss opposing viewpoints and cleave to the notion that only people that agree with them hold the one true view.  Writers are supposed to be more open-minded.  Who knew?

(Muse:  Sarcasm much?)

Always.

– I see that Tor.com is closing to short story submissions – as of tomorrow (7 Jan), in fact.  I understand their position:  too much good fiction coming in from known sources to wade through the slush pile of the great unwashed.  Understood, but still disappointing.

– It looks like I am going to have some networking opportunities with a published author here in the near future.  Different genre than my normal spec fiction but a) it never hurts to know people and b) I might learn something or get some feedback.  Pending the author’s approval, maybe I will blog about it later this month.

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in mid-March.  I am going to set myself up now and I say I will try to live tweet the event.  I will have a blog post on this when we get closer.

#

Before I call it quits here, I have an anecdote that is a few months old but is still illustrative.  I got a call from a good friend, who is a bibliophile and reads some of my stories from time to time.  I sent him one that I didn’t think much of; it felt rushed and incomplete to me.  He enjoyed the tale so much that he was felt compelled to actually call (versus email or text) and tell me how much he liked it.  And I thought it sucked.

Further proof (as if we needed it) that you just never know what’s going to pique someone’s interest.

All for now, friends.  Keep on going and be well!

Tides of Christmas

So….

Once again, life conspired to get in my way.  Well, sort of.  In the real world, I entered into a little venture to cut my own firewood.  After a few days of ascending to 11,000 feet (or about 3350 meters) to cut down fire-charred fir trees for wood, I have a hefty appreciation of what our ancestors must have gone through.  And they didn’t have chainsaws or trailers to haul it in.

And then there was that NaNoWriMo thing.  I did it, successfully, which makes me three for three in NaNoWriMo attempts.  Rather than start something new, I tacked 51K words onto Princess of the North.

(Muse:  Yeah good of you to not start something *else* new and leave it unfinished.)

Quiet, you.  That puts me closer to my goal of finishing the first draft by the end of the year.

That rolls us right into the holiday season (for us Western-civ types).  I personally love Thanksgiving; what can be wrong with a holiday where the whole point is to enjoy family and eat yourself into a food coma?  I am less keen on Christmas.  Take your pick:  over-commercialized, pressure of buying stuff, hassle of decorating, I think the Grinch was the victim of brainwashing in his story, etc.

But it does bring up an important subject to consider in our writing and that is of holidays.  I think they are pretty universal in human culture and civilization – if not for the same reasons across culture, then by presence.  Longest days of summer, first day of winter, anniversary of an important event….  These are all big events for a culture and as such, should be celebrated.

I see a lot of proxy holidays in spec fiction, such as birthdays being referred to as “Life Days,” or “Day of Birth” celebrations.  I would like to see some more examples of non-Earth equivalent holidays in writing or to have them celebrated in such a way that we don’t expect.  Perhaps on a given world, on the character’s birthday, they perform small acts of kindness or give gifts to all the important people in their life, rather than vice versa.  Perhaps on that world, the character shows their appreciation and thanks on the anniversary of their birth rather than being showered in presents.

Perhaps on the anniversary of the ending of a grueling war, the citizens all stay home and make whoopie, to celebrate the surge of birthing that occurred after the war.  Or maybe in celebration of a monarch assuming the throne, that monarch rides through the streets handing out coins and presides over games as a way to thank his citizens for upholding his/her rulership.  Or on the first day of summer just as the sun descends over a far mountain peak, the locals all go into the field together with onions tied on their belts and sing off-key until their deity descends and grants them a good harvest.

The side-effect of having a different set of holidays for your milieu – and I know I beat this drum a lot – is adding a touch of unique flavor to the background of your world.  Among spec fiction, fantasy is especially about escape.  So why not actually escape to a world we don’t know?  Of course, being who I am, I read the examples I laid out above and my brain starts plotting all the bad things that could befall my characters during those events.  But I digress.

Endless possibilities here and some that could be more entertaining than the traditional birthday/yule/new-year’s stand-ins I see so often.  I know, I am as guilty as anyone but here’s to being more aware for my own part.

Daily Update #34

So ….

What did Ferris Bueller say?   “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  I feel like that sometimes when if comes to writing, especially when I look at my blog and guiltily notice is has been almost two weeks since I posted.  Yes, I accept any and all beatings.  Anyway….

– I still have some submissions out.  I did nine through the first quarter, so on track for 36 for the year.  Not bad.  No acceptances yet and I did get a rejection just yesterday on a piece I really thought was going to make it.  I am still confused as to what the publishing world wants.  I recently read a professionally published piece that was beautifully written – lyrical, really.  Better than anything I’ve written.  But there was no story there.  It was description only.  I had to scratch my head at that.

Pilgrimage to Skara….  Well, I have been trying to agent it for over a year, so now I am going to proceed on my own.  It will take some time, but I am assembling my marketing strategy, getting a cover made, etc.  We’ll see what happens.  Work on Princess of the North proceeds, though slowly.  I still expect to finish before the year is over.

– I am the king of underperforming when it comes to word counts but last month, I went the other way.  I wrote a story about an old man and a young girl forming a father-daughter relationship which, at 5700 words, felt like it could have gone another 1500 or so.  Long story and one I will probably never place but it was fun to write.

– I finally started a Twitter account (feed on the right side here).  Social media is hard for us old guys to grasp.  But I picked up some followers I did not recognize right away.  Networking isn’t just about shaking hands anymore, is it?

– I watched the premiere season of Daredevil on Netflix this weekend.  It was pretty good; if a viewer liked Arrow on the CW, they’d probably like this.  It’s similar but bloodier.   You know, the major networks better pay attention.  Other TV show sources, like Netflix, AMC, CW, and FX are putting out a lot of high-quality programming.  ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox are not going to be able survive on the triad of reality TV, sitcoms, and cop/lawyer/hospital shows forever.  The demographic that watches that is going to die off or get bored.

– On that note, Avengers: Age of Utron is only a few weeks out.  If I were a fangirl, I would squeal with joy.  Okay, I’ll squeal anyway.

Anyway, that’s about all for my random ruminations today.  Be good, dear friends.

2014 – Year in Review and Where I Messed Up

Have you ever experienced that moment of trepidation, when a new fragment of information enters your perception, an you realize that no matter how excellent you thought you were doing, you are, in reality, fucking up quite badly?

(Muse:  Could you have worked any more commas in there?)

Maybe.  Don’t bother me.

I spent the better part of this morning reflecting on what I accomplished this year, writing-wise.  Not much, it seems.  Sure, I retired from the only career I’d had for twenty years, moved 1200 miles, dealt with a house burning down and a death in the family but that is just making excuses.  I didn’t get as much done as I wanted.  Let’s see:

– I wrote (I think) five short stories this year.  One was selected on Fantasy-Writers.org as the top entry in their monthly contest (October), and three others were well-received even though they did not win during their respective months.  Not bad but my volume needs to be higher.
– I submitted eighteen times.  With that, came one acceptance.  That’s around 5% success rate.  It’s better than zero, but still …. ouch.
– I put between 10 and 20K words into Princess of the North.  The story is shaping up nicely and I think will be a good lead-in for the series.  Still, if I am not going to write short stories, I need to get a move on with this.
– I blogged a little but not as much as I could have.

Lastly, I had my agent queries, the subject of which ties back to my opening statement.  I submitted seventeen queries to agents for Pilgrimage to Skara in 2014, from 1 Mar to the end of October.  Fourteen were rejections, with three still pending.  Of those fourteen, the last four are assumed rejections due to non-responses.

But here’s the problem.  Like any diligent writer, I toyed with my query letter again and again.  I mean, I went through countless iterations.  I scaled it down.  I added stuff back in.  I wrote a lengthy bio and took it back out.  I adopted a playful tone then straightened up.  Round and round and round, back and forth and back again.  Finally, after torturing that short letter until I thought my typing fingers would revolt, I thought I had it right.  I ran with it.

Well, the more I read, the more I realize I may not have gotten any of it correct, past spelling my name right.  I spent some time this morning reading Chuck Sambuchino’s series over on Writer’s Digest, on successful query letters.  Oy.  I think I was way off the mark.  I want to be more bothered by the advice given, as a lot of what I see the agents highlighting as “success” points are things that either wouldn’t have impacted me as a reader either way, or items I would have looked at as negatives.  (I wanted to give examples but I don’t want to call out specific authors or agents from the site.  Maybe if I can think of a generic example….)

(Muse:  Well, maybe that’s why they are agents and you aren’t.)

No doubt.  Besides, it would be the height of arrogance to discard the advice given in good faith by the agents.  After all, they are saying what influences them and makes them key in on a particular submission.  While I may not understand or agree with these choices, that’s besides the point.  If I want them to represent my work, the least I can do is pay attention to what they are telling me.  An obvious point, but someone as obtuse as me sometimes takes a while to get it.

Even with all that, this is a crushing realization, which leads to further self-questioning.  Of those fourteen agents I queried, how many might have been enthralled by my novel if I could have gotten them past that simple letter?  That question will probably haunt me for a long time, and I am sure I am only joining a host of writers with the same self-doubts.  If nothing else, this musing merely confirms to me that I have mountains to climb as a writer.  I can use the humbling.

The good news is that tomorrow starts a new year and the symbolic opportunity for a fresh start.  So … this first week of the new year, I’ll upload my plan and goals for 2015.

Daily Update #33

I haven't done one of these for a while, so I figured it was time.

– Regardless of some rumors to the contrary, I am still writing and still working on projects.  The other day, I spun out 2500 words on Princess of the North in just a few hours, and really without much trouble.  That just makes me want to work on it a little more.  I also wrote a 1400 words story on a mother waiting for some terrible news about her child and her mind goes into really dark places.  This has been a theme the last few years with me:  writing some really dark stuff involving parents and their children.  Guess it's just a phase.

– I still have Pilgrimage out with agents for query.  I have not given up – not even close – but so far, I have still have gotten nothing back but form rejections and non-responses.  I am going to give it a bit longer.

– This has been an up and down year for short story rejections.  On the one hand, with the major life events (house fire, leaving the military, etc.) I have still gotten 16 submissions out, with the first one not going out until 31 May.  So far, I haven't sold one.  This is a little disconcerting; since I started submitting my work way back in 2007, I was able to sell at least one piece a year, even if just for a pittance.  I might be breaking that trend this year.  Ouch.

– It is sometimes amazing just how much time one can spend in front of a computer.  I recently took a hiatus from a message board (unrelated to writing) that I frequented.  I suddenly have a lot more time on my hands, to do other things.  As I said, amazing.

– Have you been watching this season of The Walking Dead?  Just when I thought that show could not get any more grim, they found a way ….

Not a terrible much of an update.  I'll find something interesting to say next time.

Biiiiiig Changes

So….

Life has an equal amount of humor and tragedy, kind of like when a clown is set on fire.  As I sit here at my desk and spin words into the void, I realize that I haven’t visited my old blog for a month.

Big changes coming up in the next few months.  I’ll be retiring from military service.  I am relocating from my temporary midwest locale to my home in the bucolic mountains of northern Arizona.

(Muse:  The one that almost burned down?)

Yeah, and there’s that to cope with.  Issues with family, and what not.  Bank snarls and trouble there.  It is all becoming one rich tapestry of stress and confusion.

Through it all, still finding some time to write.  I shelved Shattered Colossus.  Even though I have the four-book series pretty-well outlined, I just wasn’t feeling it.  I can always re-visit later, though I’ve said the same about any number of stories I left in limbo.  I wrote a few short stories, one of which I am using as the basis to start a new book series.  I tentatively titled the first book Princess of the North.  It’s my initial experiment in writing a novel-length story in first-person, so we’ll see what we see.

Some good news.  I did get some writing done, and I keep kicking Pilgrimage out the door to agents.  Mrs. Axe has been doing some new artwork and is coming along nicely in expanding her repertoire.  She’ll be here in a little over  a week to escort me home and I certainly cannot complain about that.

I will make a good faith effort to keep up with things here as I go.  Feel free to message me and give me a kick in the butt as a I fall behind.