Thanks, Goku

I am having Actual Feelings about Goku’s appearance in the Macy’s Parade and what it means.

For one, it’s that we now live in a world where Goku can appear in an event of this profile in the US. As a nerd who stereotypically grew up largely isolated among people who disdained anime, I can’t deny there’s an element of vindication in this—but also wonder, that this is now where we are today. It’s not exactly a surprise to me anymore that there are other people who grew up on Dragon Ball Z, but this is a different level of recognition of cultural significance.

But it’s also waking up Thanksgiving morning to all of the reactions (I’m on the west coast) to Goku flying above us. I don’t just mean the many in-jokes, although those are absolutely giving me life today. I mean the unabashed enthusiasm people are publicly expressing, the wonder we’re all sharing, at seeing an actual giant Goku flying through our streets.

Not mockery, but earnest delight. It is, for one, Americans rallying behind a non-white illegal immigrant refugee and alien character literally and figuratively from another world as our hero.

And what’s really getting me in the feelings today is that this is also about who Goku is as a hero specifically: no matter how old he gets, how often he literally has to sacrifice his life, or how often people around him fail, Goku as a hero is not cynical or grizzled.

He always delights in silliness. He is endlessly hopeful. He dares to dream and gather his wishes into reality. He never stops working toward what matters. He never shies away from the impossible but instead takes it as a challenge to make it possible. He enthusiastically welcomes new friends and celebrates their victories, no matter the scale. He always believes in people, and in the power of ordinary people—because to Goku, nothing and no one is ever ordinary.

That’s who we’re celebrating as our hero today, and it’s a reminder I will hold with me. This Thanksgiving, I am 100% Team #ThanksGoku.

And with that, I’m off to prepare enough food for a Saiyan, a tradition I think Goku would heartily approve of.

grateful to these cats who never cede the paw ground

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Criticizing “Tropey” Criticisms

I went off on Twitter the other day about a subject I want to expand on a bit. I’d been looking at reviews for a book and found myself irritated by criticisms that it’s “tropey,” and it’s worth unpacking what people mean when they talk about fiction being tropey.

The short answer is they mean different things, some of which are more problematic than others. The long answer is, well, longer, so let’s get started.

People often misunderstand what tropes are, so let me begin by saying a thing:

Tropes are not inherently good or bad.

Tropes are storytelling devices. They are common elements that give readers a familiar structure to latch onto in a new narrative world. You have read them before, because all stories use tropes.

Once more for the seats in the back:

ALL!

STORIES!

USE!

TROPES!

There is no such thing as a completely original story. A certain trope may be new to you, and stories may certainly help develop new tropes. But trope-less? No.

Some tropes are considered clichés; this does not make all tropes clichés. So why do stories get criticized for being tropey? What’s going on here?

Sexism is one answer. I’m going to spend the least time on this one because I’m just so bored of this deeply uninspired form of sexism, but: a lot of literary criticism of tropey-ness* is just plain sexism.

*(what is the correct noun form here anyway? tropey-ness? tropyness? tropiness? MY GOOGLE-FU FAILS ME, but it’s too late to stop this rant now and I grimly soldier on.)

Sometimes that bias is conscious; sometimes not. Our culture overwhelmingly targets anything teenage girls like with criticism, and if you ever dip a toe into AO3 or Tumblr you will find more tropes and unashamed, enthusiastic embracing of them than you know what to do with.

Tropes themselves can be coded feminine, too: for example, girls love stories about overthrowing the dystopian patriarchy; cue a predictable response of ‘ugh those stories are tired’.

When you criticize a specific trope, consider who it’s popular with. If the answer is teenage girls, perhaps reconsider.

It’s important to note that “tropey” is also applied to work by marginalized authors across intersections as a way to undercut literary merit. Be wary of criticism that amounts to “it’s just x trope but with people of color.” That reader not only isn’t the target audience, they’re unaware of or uninterested in their own biases.

Aside from prejudice, there are two primary reasons for criticisms of tropyness:

  1. They’re tropes the reader personally is tired of.
  2. The tropes are poorly executed.

The first case is not super complicated. People are sometimes remarkably bad at distinguishing “arranged marriage plots fill me with ennui, having read approximately a gazillion of them in my lifetime” from “arranged marriage plots are lazy writing.”

A story that uses tropes you personally don’t like is not necessarily a poorly crafted story.

However, it leads us into the second case, which is more nuanced: what does “poorly executed” even mean? This gets us into tricky territory, because people don’t often like to consider craft as subjective as art, but let’s dig in here anyway.

I, personally, am not a fan of love triangles. This does not mean that all or even most love triangles are bad, nor does it mean I can never like a love triangle in fiction. It depends on execution.

Sometimes a book avoids criticism of tropiness by deliberately subverting a trope. If it’s a trope you’re not fond of, that may make it more likely to work for you!

But again, not all tropes are bad in their original form. Admittedly some extremely are, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Frankly, even a well-executed love triangle sometimes won’t work for me, because I just don’t like the trope (note to self to write a future blog post for you all on why).

But many love triangles I come across in fiction aren’t well-executed, because capturing the essence of a trope can be more complicated than it first appears. How does a particular trope work, and why, and for whom?

And this is where authors run into trouble, in two different ways that both manifest out of a failure to understand the original form of the trope.

Say an author does not live in a box and thus recognizes that Harry Potter is wildly popular. They too identified with Harry’s plight and subsequent introduction into another world, and so they start a book with a boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. It’s fairly obvious that this hypothetical author has failed to capture the meaningful aspects of the story or Harry’s origins, and any reader who is likewise familiar with Harry Potter will look at this and roll their eyes.

However, it less obvious why writing any other portal fantasy magic school won’t do on its own, yet there are plenty of other coming-of-age magic schools before Harry Potter and after. Some of them are fantastic, others are not, that generally has little to do with their commercial success, and alas this is not actually a blog about how magic school tropes work.

The point being, if you want to use a trope well—or to subvert it in an interesting way—you have to understand what makes it work in the first place. If you slap it into a book without that groundwork, it can feel false, pandering, or disappointing to readers who do love that trope.

Sometimes, that is what a criticism of tropeyness means: the author knows a trope is popular and wishes to replicate it but has not fully understood the storytelling device they’re working with.

Which brings us to the second common iteration of poor execution that leads to criticisms of tropeyness, which is the matter of balance.

When there are too many very currently popular tropes out of proportion with new twists the author is bringing to the narrative, it leads to the impression that the story is in service of the tropes rather than that the tropes are in the service of the story.

Importantly, this balance is super subjective and varies greatly depending on what the reader brings to the text. For instance, I found it difficult to get into Eragon in large part because of this over-familiarity at the point in my life I read it. Readers that were new to those tropes, though, inhaled them like tea. (that’s how that simile works right)

Whereas an undertaking like Pride by Ibi Zoboi deliberately adopts the tropes of Pride and Prejudice and retells the story with people of color in modern Brooklyn. So many of the tropes are going to be intentionally familiar, but that twist alone can make everything fresh and new and different.

So, in summary, sometimes “tropeyness” means the author has erred in their craft, but a lot of the time people apply this term out of a lack of self-awareness. Criticism needs context and should be considered as critically as anything else.

All of which is to say I side-eye criticisms of tropeyness because they’re often slapped onto reviews more casually than misapplied tropes.

Anyway, hooray for tropes and stories and the people who write them thoughtfully and passionately, THE END.

well-executed iterations on the “cat in box” trope

Don’t Wait

A short post, because I have a lot going on today.

For one, I’m planning a wedding—mine, specifically, which is a new enough development it still seems bizarre! I’m also putting the final preparations together for my trip to Tibet (!!), which I leave for tomorrow. I’ll be gone two weeks, without internet access, and largely also without access to things like, say, convenience stores, so preparations are taking somewhat more doing than usual. But I’ll be traveling with my friend and fellow writer Nicole Lisa, and we’re planning to use the long train rides to and from Tibet as a mini writing retreat.

It’s all adventure, and stories, and important relationships, and my life is so, so full, in the best way.

So before I head out, the thought I want to leave you all with is this:

Don’t wait.

Don’t wait to use your good ideas—for stories, adventures, moments. Using breeds them. There will be more. I promise.

Don’t wait to be ready. Is your craft not up to writing a particular story yet? You grow from the writing. Do you think you need to do more research? There is always more research that can be done; at some point you have to move regardless.

Don’t wait until you’ve hit a particular career marker, or anything outside of your control, before pursuing what you care about. There will always be uncertainty, and there will always be other goals to reach for.

Don’t hold back on what matters to you. Show important people in your life that you love them. Fly toward your dreams. Plan and work for them as if you can reach them, and you may find more often than you expect that they’re closer than you realized.

I trust you all to take my intended meaning here—there are obviously things in life you can’t control, things you’re not able to reach for external reasons (finances! health! they are legit!). But so often people lament experiences they missed because they never chose to take the steps toward having them.

Don’t wait for life.

Go.

cats snuggling together

These cats are living their best life.

Make Your Process Work for You

I wrote a little bit on Twitter last week about how I’d used my writing process, and more specifically my awareness of it, to troubleshoot a problem with drafting Tea Princess Chronicles, and it occurred to me that might be worth expounding on. So! Here we go.

The most fundamental thing to understand is that your writing process is whatever enables you to meet your writing goals.

For me, my primary goal is completing books. My process is the structure I build into my life to enable me to do that.

Your goal can be pushing your craft limitations, writing consistently, writing at all–whatever you want, provided you have some ability to control it.

(By which I mean, your goal should not be, say, getting published traditionally, or getting fancy movie deals, because notice the passive voice there? Those decisions are reliant on other people; you’re not the agent ultimately in control of them. But setting attainable goals is a blog post for another day.)

If you have a process, yet you’re not meeting your goals? Maybe it’s worked before but isn’t anymore? You can change it. Process isn’t sacred; it evolves with you, your needs, and your stories.

So how do you figure out a process that actually works for you? How do you make it reliable? How do you figure out what’s extraneous?

The summer before I started high school, I decided I was going to actually write a book for the first time. I’d read David and Leigh Eddings’ The Rivan Codex, and I used the process outlined in it for my first attempt. I had a lot of fun but ultimately produced way more world-building documentation than actual story. A learning experience! Happily, the Eddings had the foresight to specify that this was just the process they used and that it should not be taken as gospel, so I didn’t. Instead I started looking up the writers I admired, researching how they worked, and experimenting.

That’s the answer, essentially: experimentation, plus time and work.

The good news is most writers I know are huge process nerds and are happy to share how they work. Their processes almost certainly won’t map 100% to what you need, because writers are different, and books are different. But pieces of their processes can be useful as jumping-off points of what to try, especially if you know whatever you’re doing demonstrably is not getting you closer to your goal.

It may not work! Sometimes you’ll know in advance that something definitely will not work for you–and sometimes you won’t.

Any process that requires me to get up earlier in the morning is definitely never happening, writing out of order is also never happening, and I can explain the reasons for both at length. But outlining, it turns out, is a skill I was able to acquire, though there was a time I couldn’t have imagined that working.

Writing every day seemed like the sort of thing I ought to be able to do, but it turns out that extremely doesn’t work for me–I can only do it for a few days at a time and then I burn out for way longer than I wrote. On the other hand, I’ve learned I don’t have to write every day, because instead I can arrange my schedule such that I can get the same number of words done in a few shifts each week as it takes colleagues consistent daily shifts to accomplish.

Here are some purely logistical questions about writing process to consider:

  • Do you write best with a lot of hours all at once, or do you run out of steam? Do you write best with momentum, a little every day, or in bursts?
  • Can your schedule be shifted at all? Does its structure already mimic your priorities?
  • Is it easiest to start writing if you’ve left off in the middle of a chapter, or if you can start fresh?
  • Do you write better typing or writing longhand with your favorite fountain pen?
  • Do you focus better alone in your room, or at a coffee shop where there’s nothing to do but work?
  • Is drinking tea while you work soothing, or is the excitement caffeine jitters?
  • Do you write best with an outline?
  • Have you tried?

If you don’t know the answer to questions like those and you’re not satisfied with your process (remember, in context this means whether what you’re doing is enabling you to meet your goals), try something different. It doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul, but if you’re not meeting your goals as-is, something has to change.

Process is more than just logistics, of course. But logistics are a concrete thing you can control a lot more easily than other aspects of story creation, so they’re a useful place to start if you’re looking to make a change.

Writing is art, but it is also craft. What I can control I will, and being actively aware and working on my process is one of the most fundamental and simplest (not easy, necessarily, but basic) parts of writing that is within my control. I want to complete books, which means I don’t just wait for a muse to strike with inspiration; I figure out how to make my words and stories happen.

I’ve written eleven books in the last decade. (That’s not counting shorter works or projects I didn’t finish; that’s just novels.) That didn’t happen accidentally or by magic; those manuscripts exist because I took steps to make them. I doubt I’m done learning my process–I’m not sure such a thing is possible, especially as I expect it to change as my life and books do–but being aware of it consciously helps me not just plan my life sustainably but to finish books reliably–which, again, is the goal.

In the case of Tea Princess Chronicles, I was able to figure out there was a story problem because my process wasn’t working. I knew how the story should be coming along–namely, faster and with greater ease–but it wasn’t. The logistics of my process were all in place, but the story wasn’t flowing. That’s how I knew I actually had a craft problem.

Because I know how I work, I knew to go back and check the character fundamentals, since that’s my entry point into stories. (I believe the writing advice “POV fixes everything” is attributed to Emma Bull, and I have found it to be true in my work.) And sure enough, that’s where my problem was. It required a little shifting but ultimately wasn’t difficult to address at that stage. Which is fortunate, because Tea Princess Chronicles posts weekly! There’s not much space to backtrack, which also makes it super important for me to have a reliable process.

It also means that, say, when I have a rush deadline for creative writing, I know what I need to do to meet it. That also happened this year on a different writing project, and I knew what I needed to do with my schedule, and how it was going to affect other deadlines, and made it work. Specifically, I made my process work for me, in the service of my goals.

The important thing is process shouldn’t feel limiting. When it’s working, it should enable you to meet your goals, not something that makes them harder. Process is a means of empowerment, helping you accomplish what matters to you.

So experiment, build the structures you need, and tell your stories.

 

the process of a territory takeover in action:

Empowering Ourselves to Change Worlds

For Part Two of my set about making choices to effect change, I want to talk about the power we already have in our daily lives to empower others. I know more people than ever committing and taking steps to changing the political reality we’re all living in, from organizing protests to donating towards important causes. Which is fantastic.

But there are everyday steps I think it’s important to take in our communities, too. Because when enough individuals change, we can change culture. Small changes can grow.

(Tangentially, this is also why I believe creating art is one of the most important kinds of work a person can do, but that’s a post for another day.)

What this looks like in practice is different for everyone, depending on industry, home situation, etc. Some people have to focus on surviving their environments, and that, too, is resistance. But for those of us for whom it’s safe to do more, I believe it’s important to take up the burden of that work in whatever way we can. I don’t just mean confronting oppression when we witness it, though that’s critical as well. I mean building into our own lives sustainable acts that can go a long way.

In my day job as an indie bookseller, I find there are lots of moments day-to-day where I make small choices that can ripple outwards.

When a man makes a joke about being embarrassed to read romance novels, I can push back on the idea that enjoying a genre devoted to centering women’s desires is something to be ashamed of.

When facing out books on the shelves that will draw customer attention, I can make sure the excellent books we face out are not dominantly by straight white men, and I can choose not to promote books by known misogynist and racist writers.

When organizing book clubs, I can make a point of choosing work by women of color, who systemically enjoy far less support and promotion than other demographics in publishing.

When parents ask for children’s book recommendations, I can recommend books by and about girls—especially girls who aren’t white—not just for the girls who need to see themselves represented on the page in stories, but for the boys who need to see them represented, too.

These are all choices I can make easily and regularly, and many of them don’t take much time.

But they do take awareness and deliberation.

As readers, we can make choices that matter just by looking at the kinds of books we read by default. Because the systems are stacked and often opaque, lots of people are startled to find what percentages of stories they’re reading by straight white men in comparison to the demographics of their lived reality.

We can make the choice to actively seek out work by women, people of color, and queer folk. We can recommend those books to our friends and communities, and we can make a point of including authors that aren’t all straight white men in our best-of lists. (Just in the last weekend I’ve had occasions to talk publicly about Mirage by Somaiya Daud, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, and a diverse list of folklore retellings I put together for Sirens two years ago!)

Boosting those authors and works helps change the publishing industry, and diversifying our reading helps change us.

Empathy is learned. It takes thought to undo societal conditioning. But we can do it if we try, and it doesn’t have to take heroic effort to make choices that matter.

A ripple can grow into a wave.

Let’s start poking our waters.

cats committed to contributing ridiculousness into the world every day

Empowering Fantasy Stories

I’m going to do these next two blog posts as a set (read part two here), because they’re both ultimately about making choices to effect change. Let me start on the craft side of things, because it’s been ages since I wrote a craft post.

For some people, the idea of socially conscious fiction can carry connotation of it not being fun; I emphatically disagree. On a fundamental level, all my work ends up being about, in some capacity, empowering people to exercise agency in their own lives. Fantasy is a great genre for this because it involves creating new rules for worlds, which can give readers both cognitive distance to consider different perspectives and also ways to imagine other ways of being.

When talking about writing empowering fantasy, I like to talk about this on a spectrum from escapism to engaging with injustice. My work tends to be some sort of hybrid, but it’s a useful framework for discussion.

On one end, you have escapism. So women are oppressed in your lived reality, but what if you could get away from that and read about a world where sexism just doesn’t exist? This can be an incredible relief, to get away from all the micro and macro aggressions of daily life. It can also be incredibly satisfying, to have a marginalized protagonist who gets to just exist and be awesome without being dragged down by any of this bullshit.

We don’t have to reproduce sexism, racism, disablism, homophobia, etc. in our fantasy worlds. It can actually be very challenging not to, because systemic oppression is so pervasive it can be hard to imagine reality without them. But that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to try. Another is, if people can imagine a world without oppression, perhaps we’ll become more able to effect it in reality.

On the other end, we have engaging with injustice. Instead of imagining a world without sexism, we instead imagine a world with similarly powerful institutions where women can and do actively topple that systemic oppression. We model ways to overcome the oppression we live with in our world, and the empowerment comes in reading characters successfully triumphing over the systems working to keep them down.

While some people find it immensely satisfying to not have to read about their own oppression, others find not acknowledging its existence dishonest, or like their lived experience is being erased and dismissed. Neither approach is necessarily better or worse. People are different, not every story will work for every person, and at different times people will need different stories.

For instance, in my own reading, I’m generally not interested anymore in the ‘teen girl wants to do the same thing as men and isn’t allowed to’ narritives with the ‘girls can wear pants too’ depth of feminist nuance. For many people, reading these stories is important and wonderful and necessary. Cheers for variety, and may we all find the stories we need!

But I encourage writers to think about the kind of story you’re writing—or editing, if this sort of consideration interferes with your initial creation process—what you’re trying to accomplish, or what you want the readers’ experience to be. That will determine what approach your story needs. The tone and mood of your story, the world-building, the kind of character arc, all of that can tie into the question of what kind of worlds we imagine for our stories. In a memorable case for me, I restructured an entire book after realizing I’d essentially tried to have both extremes in an incompatible way, and I had to choose what that story really needed to be.

We have to choose.

We get to choose.

And what we choose matters—in our fantasies and stories and lives.

cats choosing to overwhelm me with cuteness

Panels for 4th Street Fantasy 2018!

I had the opportunity to assist Scott Lynch in putting together this year’s programming for 4th Street Fantasy, and I can’t wait to see these panels in action. The full list, for the curious, is here.

I’ll also be on two panels this year! They’re “Rebuilding Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic” and “Talking Across Ten Thousand Years.” (Click the panel descriptions to embiggen.)

Rebuilding the Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic

 

Talking Across Ten Thousand Years

 

And on top of that, I’ll be hosting a root beer tasting party with the inimitable Paul Weimer Friday night—we’ll tweet more details on that at the con with the hashtag #4thStreetFantasy.

Looking forward to seeing folks at the con!