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Worldbuilding in a Nutshell: Martin & Dozois’s Rogues Anthology

Sipani, and most especially its moist and fragrant Old Quarter, was full of thieves. They were a constant annoyance, like midges in summer. Also muggers, robbers, burglars, cutpurses, cutthroats, thugs, murderers, strong-arm men, spivs, swindlers, gamblers, bookies, moneylenders, rakes, beggars, tricksters, pimps, pawnshop owners, crooked merchants, not to mention accountants and lawyers. Lawyers were the worst of the crowd, as far as Friendly was concerned. Sometimes it seemed that no one in Sipani made anything, exactly. They all seemed to be working their hardest to rip it from someone else. — From “Tough Times All Over,” by Joe Abercrombie, appearing in Rogues

Like many Internet-dwelling Song of Ice and Fire fans, I have at least a passing familiarity with George RR Martin’s blog, so I saw the many announcements about the release of his and Gardner Dozois’s new 2014 anthology Rogues. Although big multivolume epic novels are usually my format of choice, I sought out a copy of this anthology both because of the number of my favorite authors whose worlds made cameo appearances (most notably Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman and Martin himself), and because I’ve had a soft spot for rogues ever since building my first D&D character (3rd edition, 2001, a half-elven woman who stole 50 gold pieces from another PC in her first session. My geek roots run past sociology and novel-writing).

I’ll confess up front, I didn’t read every story in this anthology: if a story didn’t grab me in the first five pages, I was apt to skim it or skip it altogether. But even using that cherry-picking method (I probably read about half of the 21 tales), I found several stories here that impressed me, and not just those from authors whose names I recognized. I’ll be looking to read more from Joe Abercrombie, Gillian Flynn, Scott Lynch and Daniel Abraham based on the stories they contributed to this anthology. And by the time I got to the end of the book and GRRM’s 35-page historical account of Targaryen history (which I, as a history geek and amateur genealogist, thoroughly enjoyed), I’d noticed a common element to the secondary-world offerings that I liked: they all did a very good job of presenting a complete setting in a comparatively small space.

For me, Gaiman’s story was an example of how not to do this. He wrote in an existing universe (the underground world of London Below from Neverwhere) and although I’ve read the novel, it was too distant in my memory to allow me to link the faint bells the story was ringing with the larger context of the world. Rothfuss’s story, on the other hand, largely avoided attempted tie-ins to the larger world it was drawn from and kept its focus on a few characters and a self-contained plot.

The stories that particularly impressed me in this regard, though (even more than Abercrombie’s, despite the quote that starts this post) were Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” and Abraham’s “The Meaning of Love.” I felt that each author did a very good job of establishing a unique and interesting setting, and that Lynch was particularly skilled at doing this while also introducing us to some compelling characters. After rereading both stories with an eye to how they did it, I’ve come to the following conclusions for those who want to world-build on a limited scale:

  1. Keep it small. Both Lynch and Abraham tell stories set in a single metropolitan location, and for the most part in one or two spots within that location. There are allusions to the larger world in which the city sits, hints enough to make us believe that the authors could tell us more if we asked. I was particularly fond of this quote from Lynch’s story, where the roguish protagonist is laying out her credentials: “I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE!” (p.248). I suspect Lynch could probably tell us more about these deeds, just like he could about the backstories of the rest of his crew of ex-thieves, but he chooses not to. In this anthology, he tells a story about a thieving crew in retirement, and about Theradane. Which brings me to my second point.
  2. Make your setting a protagonist. Both stories do this in spades. Abraham’s setting, the unincorporated Sovereign North Bank (with a relationship to the larger city around it a bit like Vatican City’s relationship to Rome, if Vatican City were a wretched hive of scum and villainy), gets the first two pages of a 30-page story all to itself; we don’t meet the human protagonist, Asa, until the top of Page 3, and further city description takes the first paragraph of almost every new scene. Even more important, both Abraham and Lynch tie the characters’ goals in with the aspects of the setting that they want readers to remember. In Abraham’s story, Asa’s goal is to free a young woman from being sold into a life of slavery; both her status as chattel and his freedom to use any methods available to hand come from the fact that the Sovereign North Bank is “an autonomous zone where the law protected and enforced lawlessness” (370). Lynch’s city, Theradane, is ruled by a loosely aligned wizard parliament and offers a unique sanctuary/citizen program for lawbreakers: “Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.” (253) Unsurprisingly, the first thing we learn about Lynch’s heroes is that they’re retired criminals; the first thing to happen to them in the story forces them out of retirement. Thus, my third point.
  3. Hook us quickly. This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. In a novel, especially a fat novel like the ones I typically read, I’m often willing to read for 50 pages before putting the book down. I usually give a short story 2 pages, maybe 3. In Theradane, the first thing we see is the main character pausing before the soul-bound statues of those who crossed the wizards’ parliament and weren’t able to gain sanctuary, paying her respects to an old comrade and possible love interest. In Sovereign North Bank, the first thing we learn about Asa is that he’s secretly in love with the fugitive prince who’s sharing his tiny room. These are characters with things to gain and things to lose, and I was eager to read on in both cases.

So, that’s what I learned from my sampling of the Rogues anthology. I’ll definitely keep these thoughts in mind as I return to the age-old question of Whether I Should Attempt to Write Short Stories In My Setting. I’d recommend the book, too, and particularly the stories above. With 21 stories, there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.

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Book Review: Ash, by Malinda Lo

[Ash] had just begun washing the dishes that were stacked in the sink when there was a knock on the back door… Once again, there was a satchel sitting on the doorstep. This time, it was made of blue velvet tied shut with a fine silver chain; on the ends of the chain dangled sapphire baubles. She picked it up and brought it into her room, where she poured the contents out onto her bed. An ice-blue silk dress flooded out over her patchwork coverlet like a rush of cool water. The bodice was embroidered with hundreds of tiny crystal beads in a complex pattern of flowers, and in the dusky light that came through the window, the bodice shimmered like the scales of a fish. — p. 208

When I heard about Aarti’s Diversiverse Challenge (to read and review a book by an author of color between 9/14 and 9/27), my first thought was “oh, this should be easy. Sure, I’ve read everything that NK Jemisin has put out recently, but I can read something by Nalo Hopkinson, or Nnedi Okorafor, or — didn’t they just put out that new pair of Octavia Butler stories? I’m really anxious to read that!” At that point, I realized that every author who’d sprung to my mind was a black woman, and I decided that for my second review (see my review of Hopkinson’s Sister Mine here), I wanted to challenge myself to read 1) an author from another different ethnic background 2) whose work I was completely unfamiliar with. And so, after nosing around a bit on the We Need Diverse Books Tumblr, I ran across Malinda Lo.

Lo writes young adult fiction, and the “buzz” I could find around her work, both supportive and critical, seemed to center on its positive depiction of lesbian relationships. Ash is framed as “a queer reframing of Cinderella,” and I would agree with that assessment, but I also think that leaving it there sells the book short by a not-insignificant amount.

We meet the title character (Ash is short for Aislinn) at her mother’s graveside. Fairly quickly thereafter, Ash’s father remarries and then dies, and Ash is spirited away to the big city and forced to work as a servant to her stepmother and two stepsisters. There are balls and dresses spun from magic, a fairy benefactor and a highborn love. But this story’s so much more than that, and it’s apparent from the first pages where Ash is watching the local greenwitch do the rites to keep the Fairy Hunt away on her mother’s vulnerable first night in the ground.

Lo does a superb job in this book of weaving the elements of Cinderella into the broader European fairy mythology. From the beginning, we’re immersed in a world of fairy stories, tales of changelings and the dancers who spirit mortals away into the night. There’s also tension between the “country” beliefs of fairies and magic and the “modern” beliefs of the city-dwellers, which include things like bloodletting and other aspects of European medieval science. Ash is caught between the two in a very concrete way, as she finds herself drawn to both the handsome, mysterious fairy Sidhean and the capable King’s Huntress, Kaisa. As the plot winds along and Ash’s life with her stepmother and stepsisters becomes more miserable, she needs to decide where her loyalties should lie.

I liked many things about this book. Lo doesn’t problematize same-sex desires or relationships; it’s taken as a matter of course that Ash is in love with the Huntress, just as her stepsister wants to marry the prince. I found this refreshing, especially in a quasi-medieval-European setting. The fact that the leader of the King’s Hunt is a woman also isn’t a plot point, and although many of the female characters are preoccupied with marrying well so that they won’t have to worry about money, there are also many women who are independent and self-supporting.

I was embarrassed to catch myself feeling surprised that Lo, as a Chinese-American author, had chosen to adapt a European fairy tale and keep it in a basically-European setting; it goes to show that even when I’m making a conscious effort to read more diversely I still have to work to get out from under my own preconceptions about what different types of authors write. Lo does a beautiful job laying out the setting in the early chapters, and it feels very well-developed; I particularly enjoyed the many fairy tales threaded through the narrative, some of which seem based on traditional tales I was familiar with while others seemed likely to have been invented for the story.

I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, and this book did include some of the elements that tend to make me shy away from the genre (characters’ motivations being telegraphed from very early on, for instance), but the supporting characters in particular are more complex than I’ve seen in other YA books. Other reviewers seemed to approach this book with expectations that there’d be more romantic/sexual interactions between characters appearing on the page, but I thought the level we saw (a few chaste kisses, some descriptions of Ash’s physical reactions and then a cutaway) worked well and fit with the style of the writing. I was also a little surprised when reading other reviews to see that many readers didn’t know that Ash and Kaisa were supposed to be love interests until the very end of the book: to me, this was clear from early on, but I also went in with the framing of the book as “a lesbian Cinderella story.” I can’t say how I would have read the relationship without that information.

I found this book a very quick read — I literally read it in about an evening. I would recommend it to fans of YA, fairy tale adaptations and romance.

Book Review: Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

The exterior paint job [of the apartment building] was something else, in a weird wacky way that I loved. Probably years before, somebody had slopped teal green paint onto the raw brick. They’d used a dark, muddle purple for the exterior window rims and sills and the edging around the roof. Then, for good measure, they’d lined the inner surfaces of the windows’ rims with dark yellow, kind of a mango colour. Made the windows look like the insides of baby birds’ beaks when they gaped them wide and demanded food from their exhausted parents. — from Chapter 1 of Sister Mine

Nalo Hopkinson is a new author to me, and this book is (I hope) the first of two I will review in the next two weeks as part of Aarti’s Diversiverse challenge (also the reason for my out-of-character back-to-back weekend posts).

The book is definitely a bit outside my usual fantasy comfort zone, primarily because it’s set firmly in an alternate version of the real world rather than the epic-fantasy secondary worlds that tend to draw my eye. The main characters are first-person narrator Makeda and her twin sister Abby, who were born conjoined. The surgery that separated them left Abby with limited use of one of her legs, but as the book jacket puts it, “[it also] left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo.” Abby and Makeda are the half-human children of a wilderness demigod and one of the servants from the human family who have long served the demigod capital-F-Family. Their other relatives include Uncle Jack (the god of life and death) and Granny Ocean (the goddess of guess-what), along with gender-ambiguous twins Beji and Beji. Because I know that Hopkinson is Caribbean-Canadian by background, I found myself looking for parallels between the divine system she sets up here and the Yoruba-influenced Caribbean orisha traditions, but was quickly forced to admit that I don’t know nearly enough about the religion to recognize possible homages to it here.

The central conflict of the book is the relationship between the two sisters. Abby has a touch of her divine family’s mojo (magic), a spectacular singing voice; Makeda has no mojo, and struggles with feeling left out of the only family she’s ever really had (the girls’ mother was punished by the divine Family for her relationship with their father and hasn’t been a part of their lives since their birth). I enjoyed the family dynamics in this book a whole lot: I think Hopkinson does a phenomenal job of demonstrating that a big, raucous divine family really has quite a bit in common with a big, raucous mundane family (speaking as someone who grew up in possession of one of the latter). I was also a big fan of Hopkinson’s prose; as the paragraph at the top of my review suggests, she has a real gift for description. The interactions between the divine and mundane worlds reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but unlike Gaiman’s Shadow, Hopkinson’s protagonists inhabit both worlds fully (like any code-switching young woman might be expected to) and struggle to find a place in each.

All in all, there were many things I liked about this book. The language and world-building are beautifully done, and give the setting a very distinctive feel. Mundane humans are “claypickens”; magic is “mojo” or “shine”; one of the supporting characters is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in human form.

For all that, I didn’t get drawn into the book as deeply as I expected to. Other reviewers have suggested, and I agree, that the text feels in places like Hopkinson’s trying to weave together too many subplots — what’s going on in Makeda’s new apartment building? what will happen to Makeda and Abby’s father now that his mortal body is failing? how could Makeda have made such a fabulous piece of art with no mojo? — and losing track of her central thread. I also felt as though the book could have done with maybe one less reversal of its central storyline: the question of what really happened when the twins were born and whose mojo is really where gets turned on its head at least three times in the course of three hundred pages.

I would recommend the book on the strength of its worldbuilding and characters, but I would say that it’s not a book for those (like me) who like their plot neatly tied together. I’ve seen several other reviewers note that Hopkinson’s books generally tend to be more tightly plotted, and so I am planning to try another to get a chance to enjoy her worldbuilding and prose against a more unified backdrop.

Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

The Brat was eight years old the first time she rode over the covered bridge that crossed the distance between Lost and Found. — from Chapter 2 of NOS4A2

This book has been on my radar for a long time. I finally purchased it a few weeks ago (something I rarely do anymore with authors whose work I’m not already pretty familiar with) and I’m glad I did. I think I may be reading it again.

I first encountered Joe Hill in Peter Straub’s anthology, American Fantastic Tales. and was excited to read his story sight-unseen, but I’ll confess that initially it wasn’t because of anything to do with the story or its premise. All I knew about Hill was that his birth name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and that his father is Stephen King. Since I’ve been a fan of King’s books for 15 years now, I looked for traces of the father’s writing in the son’s story. I didn’t find anything obvious: the story’s an example of quintessential magical realism, where we’re walked through the extension of an absurd premise (in this case, the narrator’s best friend being an inflatable person) with methodical care. As I’ve written here before, I often find myself feeling disenchanted with the short story format, but I liked Hill’s story a lot. It made me want to read more of his work, and not because of who his father is.

I also like vampires: they were my favorite of the classic monsters long before Twilight, ever since I bought Barnes & Noble’s 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories when I was about 12. So when I first saw NOS4A2 (in the book, it’s a license plate; a play on Nosferatu) on the rack in my local bookstore, I was immediately interested. When I finally got my hands on a copy of the book, I got a happy surprise. In this book, Hill sets his hand to some of his father’s most reliable themes — and gives readers a tale that feels simultaneously like a cousin to King’s stories and something very original.

There are two main threads to this book. One concerns “the Brat,” a woman named Vic McQueen who spent her childhood finding lost things with the help of her old bicycle and a covered bridge that only appeared when she needed it. The other is the story of Charles Talent Manx, a man who takes children to a magical place named Christmasland where they stay young and happy forever (incidentally, so does he; also-incidentally, the children develop sharp teeth and a taste for violence in the process). One day, when Vic was a teenager, her path crossed with Mr. Manx’s, and she got away. As you might guess, he didn’t like it.

As I read this novel, I thought more than once of King’s 2013 book Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining: there are some obvious similarities in the themes, malevolent forces abducting children for their life force and an adult who had traumatic supernatural experiences as a child. There are also bits of It here, where children can touch the supernatural more easily and naturally than adults. And yet, Hill takes those themes and twists them in a new and compelling way. His supernatural gifts have costs in the physical world (even for children), and his child characters aren’t as resistant to the supernatural’s darker sides as are King’s.

Hill also has unique ways of making his villains creepy and his heroes relatable. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that actually made me uneasy, but this book managed it. When Mr. Manx abducts a child, his assistant deals with the child’s parents (almost always the mother) in a unique way that really made my skin crawl. As for the heroes, well, in the present (when Vic is an adult), they include her partner, Lou, a morbidly obese comic book nerd who named their son Bruce Wayne Carmody, and her friend Maggie, a woman with special gifts like Vic’s, who maintains her sanity and keeps her contact with the Great Beyond through drugs and self-harm. Neither one is exactly your typical heroic figure. Both are genuine, likeable characters who you root for without hesitation.

This book got under my skin: the paperback is almost 700 pages and I read it in 3 days. It’s deeply creepy, very original, has strong characters and well-crafted prose (Hill has a particularly good hand with dialogue). I’d recommend it. Just be aware that once you’ve read it, you’ll never think about out-of-season Christmas music quite the same way again.

The God of Old Men: Religion, Age, and Throne of the Crescent Moon

Over the last few months, I’ve written a series of posts exploring genre fiction’s representation of the different identity valences discussed in Shawl & Ward’s Writing the Other. The posts for four of these six categories (race, orientation, sex/gender, and ability/disability) came relatively easily to me, but I’ve been at a loss about how to tackle the final two: religion and age. These are both extremely important identities for us to consider as authors and readers, but for me, the entry points seemed less obvious.

Then I read Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and realized I could talk a bit about both topics in one post.

Ahmed’s book has received a lot of buzz in the SF/F community. It was nominated for (among other things) the Hugo and Nebula, and won the 2013 Locus Award for best first novel. It got a glowing review on io9, where Annalee Newitz described it as “the best fantasy swashbuckler of the year.” So I may be late to the party on this one, but I’m still going to add my voice to the chorus saying this book is both well-written and important.

Its main characters share some recognizable elements with classic fantasy archetypes: there’s the sage white-bearded wizard, the wild shapeshifter, the puritanical monk. And the story has all the elements of a classic adventure tale: romance! adventure! a world in peril! But these characters are also deeply embedded in a culture that’s very unlike the traditional fantasy world. Ahmed’s story takes place in the city of Dhamsawaat, in a culture whose inspiration comes not only from the magic of the Arabian Nights (there’s lots of talk of jinn, and the main monster-threat in the setting are ghuls) but from Muslim ritual and tradition.

The heroes of this book are religious one and all. The common belief is that their magic is a gift from God, and that the monsters they fight are created by those who draw power from “the Traitorous Angel.” The central character, the ghul hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, works his magic with a combination of blessed herbs and foci and recitations of the sacred Names of God. The religion on display here clearly shares elements with Islam, just as the larger culture does with medieval Arabia. Since Ahmed himself is Arab-American and Muslim, some readers might say that “of course” these are elements he’d choose to incorporate into his storytelling, but it seems to me that most genre authors, regardless of background, don’t make a particular effort to incorporate religion into their stories in a positive way.

When Christianity analogues show up in fantasy realms, they tend to be portrayed as puritanical and/or authoritarian and almost-inevitably violent (think of the Children of the Light in Wheel of Time, or R’hllor in ASOIAF). Gods themselves tend to get slightly better treatment, when they actually put in an appearance on the page (NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy springs to mind here, as do Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books). And polytheists generally come off better than monotheists (there’s the Seven Gods in Westeros, of course, and the numerous gods and goddesses capering through Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch books), maybe because for authors situated in the monotheism-heavy Western world, coming up with pantheons of deities feels freer than trying to invent a single overarching G/god. But regardless of where religion fits into the world, religious people tend to be firmly on the sidelines in genre fiction, and when they interact with the heroes it seems to be most often to get in their way. I suspect this reflects a perceived distinction between “religious people” and “consumers of genre fiction,” which, given the commotion from some evangelical Christians a few years back about Harry Potter, might be an easy mistake to make. But just as with other aspects of diversity in storytelling, I think religious characters are an important group to include in fiction. Whether the gods are “real” actors in the story or not, it’s worth considering that throughout most of human history, most people in most places have believed deeply in something bigger than themselves — and, of course, developing a religion (or religions) for your setting gives you an extra dimension for worldbuilding to seep into.

Throne of the Crescent Moon has gotten a lot of press for these aspects of its storytelling, and deservedly so. But what seems to be less widely discussed about the book — the part that I didn’t know before reading it — was that the protagonist, Adoulla, is over sixty years old. In his introductory scene, Adoulla enjoys a rare quiet morning drinking tea with a friend, reflecting on how he’s getting too old for the active, dangerous life of a ghul hunter.

“Adventure, you say? A fortnight ago I was face-to-face with a living bronze statue that was trying to kill me with an axe. An axe, Yehyeh!” He shook his head at his own wavering tea-reflection. “Threescore years, and still I’m getting involved in such madness. Why?” he asked, looking up.

Yehyeh shrugged. “Because God the All-Knowing made it so. You’ve faced such threats and worse before, my friend. You may look like the son of the bear who screwed the buzzard, but you’re the only real ghul hunter left in this whole damned-by-God city, O Great and Virtuous Doctor.”

There are certainly middle-aged and elderly people in genre stories, and not all of them play the role of the doddering mentor sitting quietly on the sidelines. There’s Gandalf, of course, and his spiritual descendant Albus Dumbledore; there are also characters like Colonel Tigh and Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica (whose actors were 54 and 56 when the series began), who were allowed to participate in action scenes, perform physical heroics and even (gasp!) form romantic and sexual relationships with NEW partners during the course of the show. And yet, none of these characters is the protagonist of his story (and these characters are all “he,” aren’t they?) in the way that Adoulla is. Adoulla is the first of the main characters we meet, and the one whose viewpoint closes the book. His body has an old man’s weaknesses, yet he also is a character with a lot left to give the world, including romantic love (with, wonder of wonders, a desirable woman close to his own age!)

Ahmed gives us five primary viewpoint characters in Throne of the Crescent Moon (each of the “band of heroes” gets at least a few chapters), and three of those are past the age of forty. I don’t remember the last book I’ve read that focused its narrative that way, particularly a book written by an author who hasn’t yet reached that age himself. I suspect that’s one of the reasons older characters are rare protagonists in genre fiction; if fantasy and science fiction are supposed to be escapist, the likely perception goes, relatively few people seek to “escape” into the rickety body of an elderly narrator. And yet, as we’ve discussed before, portraying the range of human experience in this dimension is important, too. Ahmed himself, in an interview quoted in the LA Times, put it this way: “My hero is 60-plus years old… That comes from the focus on age, and the wisdom that comes with age, in Arab culture. Maybe a 15-year-old is not who we need to follow around the whole time.”

His book demonstrates the truth of the statement. Throne of the Crescent Moon takes us on a comfortably familiar journey of magic and monsters, while overturning several core fantasy assumptions about where those stories live and who our guides through them can be. I’d recommend it, and I think we need more books like it from all quarters.

This Artist’s Way

Last summer, while out to dinner with some East Coast friends, I was introduced to Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. My friends explained that it was a book designed to “help you become more creative,” and that during its 12-week program you had to commit to writing 3 pages of longhand every morning, and to taking yourself on a solo “date” to do something creative every week. I was intrigued; when we got back to their apartment that night, I pulled the book off their shelf and flipped through it. The exercises I saw included things like “Quickly list five favorite films, and look for the common elements in them”; “What habit do you have that gets in the way of your creativity?” and “Describe five traits you like in yourself as a child.” I was hooked. When I got home, I ordered myself a copy.

I haven’t looked back.

Here is a partial list of the creative things I’ve done since I started working with Cameron’s books:

  • taken a knitting class
  • started occasionally burning incense at home, and ordered 2 god/dess statues (Ganesh and Brigit, if you’re curious :))
  • filled my “writing wall” with beautiful quotes and pictures
  • bought an awesome coloring book I use to keep myself busy during downtime in my Wednesday RPG
  • drawn icons of the four classical elements for the walls of my office, and started a set of Sabbat icons for our family altar
  • bought modeling clay and used it to work out heraldry for the major sects in the world of my novel
  • learned not to be (as) frustrated by writer’s block

Cameron’s overarching thesis is basically threefold: 1) everyone has the potential to be creative. 2) creativity comes out of play. 3) to be creative, you must give yourself space to play in your own head, without worrying what anyone else will think of what comes out of that space.

As my friends explained, the two elements common to all of Cameron’s creativity-workshop books (of which I now own four; Wikipedia lists her nonfiction bibliography at more than 25) are what she calls the “morning pages” and the “artist date.” Morning pages are supposed to be done every morning as soon as you wake up, and they’re designed as a forced 15- to 30-minute brain dump. I do mine in 5×7 lined journals (I like these), usually before Husband wakes up in the morning, and I’ve found myself scribbling about everything from attempting to solve my most recent writer’s block to that day’s frustration with a friend to what I’d like my life to look like in 10 years. Cameron calls it “meditation for busy Westerners,” and it seems to be working well for me.

The artist date is a little more tricky, but also more fun. One of Cameron’s central ideas is that an individual’s creative spirit is an “artist child,” and to keep that child happy requires regular small indulgences: thus, the idea of taking a special excursion every week, by yourself, to do something fun. My recent ones have included buying a bottle of “bubble stuff” and taking it to a grassy spot in downtown Berkeley; driving to the Pacific East Mall in Richmond and wandering through a bookstore where I couldn’t read a single word; and (coming up this week) checking out a tiny store in El Cerrito that sells nothing but buttons.

Of course, each book also comes with more in-depth exercises in theory designed to help participants tap into their own creativity. The first book, The Artist’s Way, focuses mainly on learning to give yourself permission to “waste time doing artsy stuff” (an important step for me, I’ll admit), with chapter titles like “Recovering a Sense of Safety” and “Recovering a Sense of Possibility.” The one I’m working through right now, The Vein of Gold, is intended to help readers explore different aspects of their creative selves; there’s a chapter on “story,” a chapter on “sight,” a chapter on “sound” (that’s the one I just started; this week and next, this logophile will be exploring non-verbal music, which I expect will be interesting). Most of the exercises are fun, and almost all of them are enlightening. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come out of my office telling Husband “you ought to try this sometime!”

Cameron’s system isn’t flawless. The 12-week Artist’s Way system is at-least-loosely based on AA, and there’s some of that feel to some of the exercises. Her rhetoric has a little more “trusting the higher power” in it than I’m sometimes comfortable with, and I agree with the criticisms I’ve seen elsewhere that adhering too closely to some of her principles could lead you down a road that feels spoiled and selfish. I’ll fully confess that I’m approaching these books with the philosophy of “take what seems to work and leave the rest,” and that when I’m having a busy week her carefully laid out timetable for when exercises should be completed tends to fall by the wayside. But I’m still reading them. I think there’s something here that would be useful to a lot of creative folks, especially in the basic tools.

So if you’re a creative type who’s looking to expand your horizons a little, pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way and flip through it. You might surprise yourself with what you find.

Nonbinary Devices: When Playing With Gender Works

At the end of the day I have many answers for it. It has to do with my mom, who was an extraordinary woman, and a great feminist. It has to do with the people in my life. It has to do with a lot of different things, but — I don’t know! Because I’m not just writing the female characters for other people. I have a desire to see them in our culture — that was not met for most of my childhood. Except occasionally by James Cameron. — Joss Whedon, San Diego Comic-Con 2011, in response to a question about why he writes strong female characters.

Gender is a problem in pop culture.

If you follow any critical discussions around these issues, you probably know this already. A 2012 study found that women made up about 39% of characters on primetime TV, 30% of characters in children’s TV, and 28% of characters in “family films.” Sure, there’s The Hunger Games, where the leads are a woman who hunts and a man who bakes (link goes to Sarah Seltzer’s discussion of critics of the first two movies) but there’s also Harry Potter, where Hermione Granger falls into what more than one blogger has identified as the role of “overqualified sidekick” (link goes to Kit Steinkellner at HelloGiggles.com). There are more women in genre TV and movies than there used to be, but many of them are still falling to what Tasha Robinson calls “Trinity Syndrome.”

As with the other categories I’ve talked about in the last few weeks, race and sexuality, gender in genre fiction is very much a work in progress. For every Joss Whedon show with its strong women (and the fabulous-quote-I-can’t-find-after-much-searching about how Joss Whedon’s vein of gold is “men creating strong women that they can’t control.” See: Buffy, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, Alien:Resurrection…), there’s a conversation about how there can’t be a standalone Wonder Woman movie.

Just like with other identities, genre fiction makes some effort to reimagine or revise traditional gender roles. In SF societies, men and women are often seen as unremarked equals. Fantasy makes some efforts with this, too, although more often than not it’s a straightforward reversal of traditional Western roles, where women are the warriors and men stay home and rear children (Melanie Rawn’s Ruins of Ambrai series is the most obvious example of this, although there’s some of it in NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, too).

And just as with the other categories, anything that tries to step out of the binary — trans folk, or non-gendered folk — gets rapidly and massively more complicated.Let’s talk, for a moment, about genre books written to explore the concept of nonbinary gender. Let’s start with The Left Hand of Darkness.

This book, written in 1969 by the great Ursula LeGuin, is the one everyone starts with when they want to talk about “feminist science fiction.” For those who don’t know, the primary culture of the novel are the Gethenians, a race of humans who manifest biological sex only a few days a month when they enter the fertile period of “kemmer.” Every individual can theoretically experience kemmer as male-bodied or female-bodied; many produce children (at different times) as both the gestational and sperm-producing parent, and have different social relationships with the two groups; and Gethenians find the culturally-gendered societies of other planets bizarre to say the least. In the original text, all Gethenians are referred to with male pronouns; a short story set in the same universe has been published in two different collections with two different sets of pronouns.

This book explores ideas of gender. It also explores ideas around first contact and cross-cultural trust; has some great descriptions of what life would be like on a world in perpetual ice age; and demonstrates how people from very different cultures can become friends without any sex involved. In my mind, this is the way to do a book “about gender.” There are two books that have crossed my desk in the last month that both look at nonbinary notions of gender. One of them has won multiple awards this year;  the other is a book with 28 reviews on Goodreads. They’re Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, and I didn’t like the one that everyone else did.

Ancillary Justice won basically all the awards this year. It got the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Nebula for Best Novel and the Locus for Best First Novel. Its narrator is a starship trapped in a human body, and it’s gotten a lot of press for the fact that every character, regardless of self-identified sex or gender, is referred to with female pronouns:

 

 

I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She outbulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn’t realize what she was playing with. She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak — my own first language — doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me. (p. 3)

I wanted to like this book. I gave it what I generally consider a good-faith try (about 100 pages). But after that point, I gave up. I didn’t have a good sense of what the book was about it, or what its central conflict was. I’m willing to wait for Big Plot to unfold, but I need to like what’s going on in the meantime… and I need to like the characters. Other reviewers (mainly on Goodreads) have had the same complaint about this book, that its protagonist, Breq, is difficult to relate to and not very likeable. I suppose the apologist explanation for that would be that she’s a starship and thus sees things very differently from people, but to this reader, the book felt like it was all gimmick.

The other book, Necessary Ill, takes a different tack in its approach to gender. Its central premise is that in a dystopic future, a genetic mutation in the ridiculously-overpopulated human species has begun to produce “neuts,” people who are both sexless and genderless. Neuts think differently than “gens” (sexed/gendered people); because their brains aren’t affected by sex hormones, the story goes, they are more dispassionate and more logical. Taber posits a world where neuts are basically isolated from gens by choice, living in massive underground communes — and that their primary goal is to find ways to preserve the human race, even at the cost of individual humans. The neut protagonist, Jin, is a “spreader”; it crafts plagues designed to target specific portions of the population and then takes them out into the world. And yes, neuts are labeled with the pronoun “it.” That took me a little while to get used to, but by the middle of the book it felt natural.

This book had its problems. There were places where the dialogue felt a little hokey, and the ending seemed a little pat. But the story was interesting; there were philosophical questions raised beyond just the thought experiment of what it’d be like to have genderless humans. There was more going on than the gimmick. Most importantly, I liked the characters, both neut and gen; they were distinctive and interesting, and their interactions were unlike stuff I’d seen in other books.

I think that the lesson reinforced from these 2 books, for me, is that whatever else your book is doing — and I’m a firm believer that books should do many things — the story has to come first. Your characters should be diverse; you should think about representation and about pushing the boundaries of what’s customary in genre fiction. But it can’t end there. Because no matter how many awards a book wins, if I don’t finish it, I’m not going to recommend it. Representation shouldn’t be an either/or situation.

Race in Fantasy Fiction: What Do Multiracial Protagonists Look Like?

This is the first in what I anticipate will be a series of posts over the next month or so, in which I unpack my various thoughts about genre fiction’s handling of the identities Shawl & Ward talk about in their awesome book Writing the Other (reviewed here): race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and religion. For a while, I was debating which identity I wanted to tackle first, but given the last two novels I’ve read, I decided there was really only one obvious place to start. That’s because both books, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, feature multiracial protagonists in fantasy settings.

Of course, as any D&D player can tell you, “race” in fantasy (and SF, for that matter) most often means something qualitatively different from the way it’s used in the real world. Fantasy “races” are most often divided into groups like human, elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, goblin. I suspect the labeling convention probably sprung up in the days when the phrase “the races of man” was used to imply major substantive differences between humans from different parts of the world: this is the same baggage that leads to many of my Intro to Sociology students making the argument that we shouldn’t use the word “race” for humans at all, before I explain that even socially constructed concepts can continue to have weight in the real world. In everyday life, being a multiracial human (or anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into a social box) can lead to unique social situations like being asked by strangers to identify “what you really are,” or being told that “you have to pick one.” As with other aspects of the real world transposed into genre fiction, being multiracial in a fantasy novel ups the ante pretty quickly, changing the meaning from “a range of human geographical origins in your recent ancestry” to “a wide range of species in your recent ancestry.” In Addison’s Goblin Emperor, the two races in play are elf and goblin; in Hartman’s Seraphina, they’re human and dragon.

The two books take very different approaches to the concept, primarily I think because of their different intended audiences. Seraphina is intended as young adult fiction, and in large part, it’s a book about the struggles of being a kid who doesn’t fit in: specifically, being multiracial in a society where neither of the cultures you’re connected to fully accepts the other. When the book begins, the title character is living in human society (which means that she labels herself “half-dragon”: a fine example of how the dominant population gets to decide who’s called what) and passing for human. She has only a few markers of her dragon heritage, easily hidden under clothing — which is good, because marriage between humans and dragons is illegal, and dragons are very definitely second-class citizens in human society. Seraphina spends the book in constant terror of being discovered, particularly by her handsome young love interest. The book also spends a lot of time laying out the differences between humans and dragons, and features some really fantastic worldbuilding around the concept of what it would be like if house-sized lizards were able to take human form and live in human society. One aspect I particularly liked was the idea that since dragons aren’t as social as humans, social emotions like love are inherently foreign to them (and manifest in confusing ways when they take on human bodies). We have a very keen sense by the end of the book of the challenges of being caught between two cultures (and two biologies): holding aspects of both but not able to fully belong to either. There are definitely other themes at play here, too, most notably the importance of family (Seraphina has both human and dragon relatives who she loves dearly), but at its heart, this book is about the experience of a multiracial teenager coming to terms with her complex identity.

The Goblin Emperor is a very different kind of tale. As near as I can tell, it’s written as general-interest adult genre fiction, and so the odds that its target readers will be struggling to define their own identities are somewhat less. The title character, Maia, is a teenaged half-elf/half-goblin (first things first: I loved the fact that “human” — and too often defaulting to “white human” — was not one of his identities), unexpectedly thrust into the rulership of the elven kingdom of Ethuveraz when an airship crash kills his father and three older brothers. His multiracial identity plays a significant role in shaping the events of the story: because his parents’ marriage was arranged to seal a political alliance and his father was never happy with his mother, Maia has spent his childhood away from court and spends most of the book trying to figure out the rules of the enormously complex political world he’s been thrown into. Because he’s not of full elven blood, there are contingents within the court who think he’s unfit to rule and who take it as a matter of course that the realm will agree. But unlike Seraphina, this book doesn’t make Maia’s multiracial identity the single pole around which everything else revolves. Most of his problems come from his low self-esteem and country bumpkin-ness, not from the fact that he has goblin-gray skin.

A (brief) digression about the aspect of Goblin Emperor that impressed me most: the book has some very deep worldbuilding, particularly around language. Addison took some risks I’ve been hesitant to do in my own work around proper names and specialized terms, assuming that readers are able to keep track of foreign words (the emperor’s bodyguards, for instance, are “nohecharei”), titles (men, unmarried women, and married women each have three distinct forms of address depending on their social standing), and a long list of very similar names that aren’t always used consistently (and don’t match up with English-speaking readers’ sense of what male and female names should sound like, the young emperor Maia’s name being a prime example). It also hinted that the characters’ language used a different pronoun system than English, while using English to do so. All that goes to say that there was more going on in this book than just discussions of race, which sat well with me. I don’t know that I’d recommend Seraphina to adult friends; to those willing and able to keep a lexicon in their heads, I would recommend The Goblin Emperor in a moment.

I think the difference I felt between the two books is one I’ve talked about elsewhere here: the difference between writing a book that Addresses An Issue and writing a book About An Issue. Both books deal with the intricacies of having an identity that doesn’t fit into the prevailing system, but only Seraphina makes it the heart of the plot. I think I like it better when identity issues are only one of the things happening in a story or occupying a protagonist’s attention. As Nisi Shawl writes in Writing the Other, “[b]lack people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics.” (83)

That said, these books made me happy. Seeing multiracial characters who had relationships with both sides of their family (as opposed to Tanis Half-Elven from Dragonlance, whose story I lost interest in when I realized the authors had assumed the only way an elf and a human could possibly have a child together was through rape) gave me a feeling of progress, and made me feel like authors are thinking about the ways that worlds with different humanoid populations would interact in a more realistic sense (as I said to a friend when we were discussing worldbuilding a few months back, if you get groups of humans sharing space, the only two things you can pretty much guarantee will take place are violence and baby-making). I do think that in settings where “race” refers to species rather than phenotype or cultural background, authors need to be careful to avoid making all the humans white and having the other species stand in for people from other places (as I’ve said here before, the argument “but my setting’s based on medieval Europe” doesn’t hold water so well with readers anymore. Also, there were brown people in medieval Europe too).

I hope that more books like these come out in the next few years. I think that race is definitely one of the more visible points of critique for genre fiction, and one where we’re seeing slow and steady improvement in diversification both of people getting acclaim for their work and of protagonists. But there’s still work to do. There’s what one friend of mine called the “holy white savior” moment at the end of Game of Thrones Season 3; there’s the fact that black Spiderman isn’t going to get a movie; and let’s not even talk about Shyamalan’s Avatar: the Last Airbender. It seems to me the most important element here is to not let aliens and magical creatures stand in for having humans from different cultural and/or geographic backgrounds appear in your world. As Shawl puts it, what we want to avoid is “sf’s monochrome futures… where some nameless and never discussed plague has mysteriously killed off everyone with more than a hint of melanin in their skin.” (Writing the Other p. 76)

We’re on the right track. Let’s keep going.

Book Review: My Real Children, by Jo Walton

“She wasn’t famous then,” Pat said. “Nobody is. You never know until too late. They’re just people like everyone else. Anyone you know might become famous. Or not. You don’t know which ones will make a difference or if any of them will. You might become famous yourself. You might change the world.” — Jo Walton’s My Real Children, pp. 12-13

I’ve been hearing buzz about Jo Walton‘s new book for several months now; it got a favorable review in the May edition of Locus, on i09 and in other places where I go to see which genre books I ought to add to my ever-growing reading list. Walton’s last novel, Among Others, won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novel in 2012, and though it did pass through my hands in 2011 I can’t honestly say I’ve read it in the sense of having any memory of the fact (saying 2011 was a frenetic year for me is putting it mildly). My Real Children appealed to me in part because it offered a protagonist unlike those I’d seen in recent fiction, and also because it seems to be picking up on a theme from several other “light SF” books I’ve read and enjoyed.

Like Atkinson‘s Life After Life (reviewed here), My Real Children falls into a category I could shorthand as “alternate-history biography.” Like Niffenegger‘s Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s told by two different narrators whose stories don’t perfectly overlap. Where Walton’s book diverges from these others is that 1) its protagonists only get one life apiece, without redos; and 2) its two narrators are technically the same person.

At the beginning of the book, we’re introduced to Patricia Cowan, an elderly woman with dementia. Patricia knows that she’s confused and forgetful. She also knows that when she does remember things, they seem to be coming from two different lives. In one life, “Tricia” has four children with a husband she doesn’t love, gets divorced, becomes political and never leaves England; in the other, “Pat” has three children with a wife she loves dearly, spends half her year in Italy and is a successful guidebook writer. Oh, and by the way, in the first life President Kennedy was never assassinated and gay marriage was legalized in Britain in the ’80s; in the second one, the United States and Russia had a nuclear exchange in the mid-1960s that led to massive cancer outbreaks and other terrible things in the ’80s and ’90s.

I basically read this book in a day: I took it with me on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Although both of Patricia’s lives have sad and traumatic parts, there are also many parts in both sections of the book (Pat and Tricia alternate chapters, usually encompassing roughly the same period in time) that are really enjoyable to read. Pat’s life with her wife Bee, in particular, seems tailor-made to appeal to artistic types like your humble reviewer. The descriptions of everyday life are beautiful and the prose is well-crafted. The characters did seem a little one-dimensional in places, probably a necessary shortcut coming from the compression of time. Pat’s wife Bee in particular seems too perfect; even when bad things happen to them, the only portions of their life that appear on the page are the ones that end up with everyone happy at the end (on the other hand, Tricia’s husband, Mark, is almost too ugly). All that said, I enjoyed every page of this book: it also didn’t feel much like genre fiction to me.

I’d agree with the Locus reviewer, Gary K. Wolfe, who had this to say about the alternate history part of Walton’s book:

Walton… has to present two alternative versions of a history that stretches over nearly 60 years in 34 relatively short chapters. As a result, we’re in for some fairly quick historical summaries interspersed with individual dramatic scenes that focus on Trish and Pat and their various relationships, professional lives, children, and grandchildren. It’s rare for me to think that any novel might have been a bit longer, but Walton’s two worlds are so tantalizingly familiar yet estranged that I sometimes felt I needed a little more context for the various radical historical changes that occur mostly in the background or crammed into chapter-opening paragraphs.

The world where Pat lives with Bee is obviously troubled, with nuclear fallout causing the cancer deaths of several beloved characters and Britain clamping down on the rights of same-sex couples in a way that (I gather) is much harsher than what GLBT families would experience in real-life Europe today. On the other hand, the world where Tricia/Trish lives feels more like ours — while reading, I would periodically forget that it wasn’t — except that oh, yeah, there’s a colony on the moon where Tricia’s youngest son goes to work for the better part of two years. The alternate-history backdrop is there, but it definitely takes a back seat to the emotional story of the characters. And while I didn’t miss the historical backdrop while I was reading, when I stepped back and looked at the larger point it felt like Walton was trying to make with the book, I realized that the focus on the personal might have weakened the overall plot arc.

As the quote at the top of this review suggests, the big-picture question of the book is whether one seemingly-unremarkable person can make a difference in the fate of the world. For instance, we’re supposed to speculate on whether the fact that Tricia’s comparatively peaceful world comes from the fact that Patricia married her college sweetheart and became a peace activist as an escape from her unhappy marriage, as opposed to living a happy and apolitical life with Bee where they wonder, idly, if they should have gotten involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when they were younger. At the end of the book, Patricia wonders not about which was the real life, but which was the better one; whether personal happiness in a broken world is better than unhappiness in a more peaceful world, or vice versa. The answer’s purposely left up to the readers to decide, but if it’s supposed to be what the story’s about I felt like the contexts needed to be more foregrounded.

Part of this might come from my limitations as an American reader; although I obviously know that there’s no settlement on the moon, my familiarity with LGBT politics in the UK isn’t good enough to allow me to parse that aspect’s differences from reality when I was reading in the Internet-free island of my hotel room. I also find that this is a hazard of alternate history as a broader genre, that unless you’re very familiar with the eras the authors are changing, a lot of it tends to go over your head. Even if you miss some of the nuance of the alternate history, though, I’d say this story is strong enough to stand on its own anyhow.

This book’s prompted me to seek out Among Others again. If you like your genre fiction heavy on personal narrative and comparatively light on genre, I’d recommend giving Walton’s My Real Children a read.

Book Review (Part I): Writing the Other — A Practical Approach

How comfortable are you writing about characters who don’t share your gender? How about your race?

What about characters who are different from you in terms of ability/disability status, sexual orientation, age or religion?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that for most readers, if your identity in one of the above categories is NOT a dominant one (cisgendered man, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, under 40 and either nonreligious or vaguely Christian), the idea of putting characters in your stories who don’t share your identity isn’t strange to you, as long as the identity they have instead is the dominant one. Because if you grew up in the West and/or consume primarily American media, the characters you see in other people’s stories will statistically be mainly cisgendered white able-bodied vaguely-Christian straight men under 40. This is changing, but it’s still a big problem with the stories told in our culture. That’s why when I ran across the book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, I went ahead and ordered it without seeing much in the way of preview material. Like I’ve said here before, I strongly believe that thinking about the kinds of characters we put in our fiction is important, and if 7 years of graduate school taught me nothing else, it’s that even if I’m pretty sure I understand a topic, I can usually benefit from hearing one more opinion on it.

If you’re someone who thinks about this issues, I’d recommend shelling out the $9 for this book. It’s short — barely 100 pages — but it has some interesting exercises and really useful ways of thinking about the problem of increasing representation in your storytelling. I’ll put my own thoughts about how writers can work with the different categories they choose to focus on in a different post — here, I’m just going to gush for a moment about how great this book is.

Shawl and Ward start out by acknowledging a fact that tends to make educated liberals (and college students) uncomfortable: we all have biases, what the book calls “lizard-brain” thought patterns developed in response to messages from our culture and environment. It’s these automatic responses that cause many self-identified “open-minded white liberals” to get nervous when they’re the only white person in a crowd, or that made one of my first beta readers assume that a major supporting character in my series, a highly-respected warrior and military commander,  “must look like Liam Neeson, right? Tall and dashing?” (Not-quite-spoiler alert: he doesn’t look like Liam Neeson. In fact, one of his major distinguishing traits makes him not look or sound much like the stereotypical Big Damn Hero at all). These responses are powerful, but as the authors point out, they’re also bypassable. We as creators can have the reaction, examine it and then set it aside.

Some other things I particularly liked about this book:

  • The authors talk about how to create well-rounded secondary characters as well as well-rounded protagonists. This is a problem I’ve had in my own work; I’ll spend all kinds of time on the main cast, making sure that they’re not flat or stereotypical, and then I’ll need an extra character for a crowd scene and find myself describing  a blond guy, about 20, with all his limbs and a pretty girl on his arm. Even if you decide to bring in a “minority” character, you need to be careful not to incorporate the stereotype wholesale. As Shawl & Ward put it:

Generally, a secondary character has one main character trait. However, a secondary character shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively… For example, don’t make a secondary character’s main trait be his gayness and then portray him as a bitchy, effeminate San Francisco florist with a great collection of disco-diva CDs… How about a secondary character who’s a bitchy, straight florist who has a pet house rabbit and thinks rap music has gone way downhill since Public Enemy’s third CD? (p. 43-44)

  • They also give a list (probably at least in part familiar to TV-Tropes aficionados) of things not to do if you’re trying to be a thoughtful writer of characters who don’t share your identities. These include avoiding scenarios like “Sidekicks-R-Us” (i.e., the heroine’s black best friend who gets no character development and has nothing to do other than be the black best friend; Tasha Robinson has a great article on “strong female characters” and “Trinity Syndrome” that’s been making the rounds this past week) or “The dark hordes attacked!” (Yes, Tolkien wrote in a different time. No, a modern writer probably could not get away with this kind of generalizing).
  • And the suggestion I liked most of all — maybe because I gave this advice over and over again in a course I taught on the sociology of identity — is that if you want to write about people who are different than you, you should be prepared to do some research. Read nonfiction about the history of the group you’re interested in incorporating into your story. Read memoirs; go to museums; and TALK TO PEOPLE from the group. They give some good suggestions about how to pose respectful questions; they note that not all people who identify as owning the same label are going to feel the same way about ANYTHING related to that identity; and they even suggest ethnographic observation, going to a setting where people who share the identity you’re interested in will be the majority and you the writer may be in the minority.

And there’s more. So, in short, this book is awesome. I’d strongly recommend all you writers go check it out.