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

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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!

 

Measuring Writing Progress: Beyond NaNo

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, and its offshoots are wonderful. Many novelists have gotten their starts with NaNo or have made use of it to great effect later in their development, and it’s that second part I want to talk a little more about.

NaNo is designed to target one particular writing problem that afflicts a huge percentage of people, particularly beginning writers, and it targets it very effectively: that challenge is actually writing.

NaNo is built with tools to give you access to a community of fellow writers to help you through or keep you on track. It gives pep talks to keep you going. It gives you a deadline that isn’t fungible. What it’s especially known for is keeping track of your word count, how many words you’ve written that day, how many you have left, and how many you need to write each day on average to hit that mark.

In essence, it provides a support system to teach people how to write novels in the sense of literally sitting down and producing words.

Here’s an incomplete list of what NaNo doesn’t teach:

  • Writing craft.
  • Finishing.
  • Editing.
  • Pacing (yourself, as a writer).
  • Adaptability.

This is not a flaw with NaNo–it’s not trying to teach these things, and targeting a particular and wide audience is smart! But it’s worth noting that the tools it teaches for writers who need help just finally getting the story in their heads out are not always still useful to that same writer as they evolve.

Which is to say, if you’re serious about writing, NaNo’s tools probably will not continue working for you forever, at least not without some changes. This is good–it means you’re growing. So if you’re not meeting a NaNo goal, or if you’re struggling to meet it, don’t beat yourself up about it. The set of tools it’s teaching may not be what you need to learn, and you’re the only one who can judge that.

Let me give some specifics, because one of the things NaNo has been great at is undercutting all the excuses people make for all the reasons they can’t write a novel. (In particular, being busy. Everyone is busy. But I digress.)

Traditional NaNo sets the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Plenty of people can figure out how to manage this for one month by putting a lot of other life to the side. Learning how to prioritize writing is useful, but if the things you’re putting aside are your share of chores, doctor’s appointments, or things you do for fun and your emotional well-being? They can’t be put off indefinitely. Ultimately that hurts the writing by hurting the writer. So people who want to make writing a consistent part of their lives often benefit by not setting a goal this high–not because it’s unattainable, but because it’s unsustainable.

Camp NaNo is an iteration of traditional NaNoWriMo in spring and summer that has more flexibility. You can set whatever word count goal you like, or you can set a goal in terms of hours worked on the project, the latter of which is very useful if you’re primarily editing.

(Because editing typically does not produce consistent increases in word count, it can be harder to measure and track productivity. This isn’t how I personally measure editing progress, but it’s a great adaptation for NaNo.)

Unfortunately, you can’t select both hours and words, so this doesn’t work well if you’re writing one project and editing another. This April I’d set a writing goal, but even knowing I’d been editing for a week, looking at the flat section of the bar graph made me feel like I hadn’t been working.

NaNo also doesn’t teach writers how to manage multiple deadlines. If you have more than one ongoing project, and one becomes a rush job, everything else in your schedule has to shift to accommodate. I had to change my word count goal in April for a similar reason, and it was hard not to feel like that wasn’t a kind of failure. Not because NaNo’s word count tracking system didn’t allow me to change my ultimate goal, but because it couldn’t account for the context involved.

The same is true if you’re collaborating, or an editor’s schedule changes, or you have publicity commitments. It’s not just life that affects your writing schedule: it’s other realities of writing.

And, like with editing, often writers aren’t trying to get just any words on the page. They’re trying to get the right ones. NaNo teaches people to produce, and that is very useful, but only to a point. People who are serious about writing will at some point need to move beyond this one way of measuring progress, because it’s designed to measure a particular kind of progress. I already know I can produce lots of words quickly, so a system designed to encourage that locks me into a pattern that makes me feel like I’m making progress rather than helping me grow in different ways.

Exactly when you need to learn other tools to keep yourself on track, and what tools those should be, varies for every individual person and sometimes for different projects. I still use elements of NaNo word count tracking in my own projects, because it’s a great jumping-off point–deadline motivation works particularly well for me. But it’s elements, adapted to my needs. NaNo is a great template for a starter system; it’s not the be all and end all.

If you’ve found NaNo restrictive or unhelpful–or even easy–consider what you’re trying to use it for, and consider if it’s serving your interests. It’s great for specific uses–namely, again, actually writing–but context matters. If you already know how to reliably get words written, NaNo metrics alone probably aren’t what you need. Don’t set yourself up to fail by forcing yourself to use a system designed to solve problems that aren’t your primary concern.

It’s not failure if you can’t reach a system’s goals when the system isn’t designed to work for you. As with any writing advice: take what helps you and discard the rest. And know that as you evolve as a writer, your process will too.

The greatest challenge to my writing process is these two cats being unreasonably adorable in my office.

Dealing with Setbacks

Here’s a thing writers don’t like talking publicly about—for good reason, because it’s not the sort of thing you want publicity to focus on—but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s important.

I experienced a writing career setback a couple months back. I’m not going into details here; they’re not relevant to this post. The point is it was a lot of investment in work that didn’t pan out when I had reason to hope it would.

This is the reality of publishing, and it’s also life. Sometimes you do your very best, you pour your heart and time into your work, and it just. doesn’t. matter.

At times like these, social media is sort of the worst. Social media is a highlight reel, and you know that, but that doesn’t change the fact that as a pro in this industry, when you experience a setback, half a dozen of your colleagues, many of them friends, are filling your feed with their successes. It doesn’t mean you’re not happy for them, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t experience setbacks, too, but it can still feel like a kick in the teeth.

It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you have failed, especially when everyone you see appears to be succeeding.

Pros often recommend keeping your “eyes on your own paper.” This is… good advice, but hard to practice when also trying to keep up with your industry. You either withdraw from social media, or you have to be able to deal with knowing your own career has had setbacks that aren’t your fault—and often aren’t anyone else’s either—while others thrived.

Or you stop. But despite my feelings about this setback, one thing I know is I’m not going to stop.

The setbacks certainly won’t. There’s not a writer in the world who doesn’t experience them, no matter how successful they appear.

So the question then becomes: how do you keep moving?

At Viable Paradise, we talked about our goals for ourselves as writers. Steve Gould broke them all down and explained the danger of tying personal and professional satisfaction to goals outside your control, because that is a surefire way to set yourself up for disappointment and worse.

A lot of traditional publishing is not within your control. It just isn’t. If you have an agent, editor, publisher, publicist, or mentor, it’s often not in their control, either. You can do a lot to maximize your chances—of getting specific career opportunities, of getting the word out about your book—but there’s still a lot of chance involved in publishing.

Ultimately, the only part of the process you control is your work.

Hitting the NYT Best Sellers list? Not in your control. Getting a movie deal, earning out your advance? Also not.

Writing a story you care about? Putting in the time? Doing good work? Those are yours.

I learned a lot from all my work, even if that particular project never goes where I hope. I’m a better writer for it, and that is mine.

I’ve stepped back a little to reassess my goals and my praxis, making sure how I’m spending my resources (time, energy, money) reflects what matters to me, the kind of writer—and person—I want to be and the kind of work I want to do.

And I am doing that work. Because the thing about setbacks is they’re not permanent unless you let them be. But I’m not going anywhere.

Except forward.

That means I’m taking more care to tend to myself, and what I need as a human being. That should be feeding my writing, not being replaced by it. My writing in some sense reflects and distills who I am, but there is more to me than writing, too.

And at the same time, it also means I’m starting a new project (not the serial) that I’m incredibly excited about and that is going to be more challenging than anything I’ve written before—and, I hope, a great deal of fun.

I’m looking forward to the next adventure. But I’m going to work on savoring the one I’m experiencing now, too.

The cats are relaxing hard.

Website Update

Hi friends,

I’ve been updating the website this morning, mainly because the theme was looking outdated. Most of the changes are cosmetic, but there are a few structural ones. If you notice that I’ve broken something, please let me know!

Best,

Casey

Sirens and Voice

The other night Sirens Conference co-founder Amy Tenbrink called me out on Twitter (my weakness is dance music playlists, the trashier the better, now you all know), and obviously I picked up that gauntlet because of course I did.

For every $50 donated to the Sirens scholarship fund that night, I gave one suggestion for a panel not solely consisting of writers as the panelists (aka interdisciplinary panels), because this is important to me.

One of my favorite parts about Sirens is that any attendee can propose programming, and they have no better shot at getting in than anyone else. The vetting board is independent of the conference staff, and all they care about is your proposal.

(Really. I promise. I did my first programming back in 2011 without a credential to my name, and the first time I wanted to do a panel the programming staff helped me figure it out. If you want to participate in Sirens programming but need some backup, EMAIL THEM.)

And that matters. It matters that there is no box anyone has to check to be allowed a platform to speak and share their thoughts.

Because one of my other favorite parts of Sirens is that it’s not a writers conference.

Once more, because it’s super important: SIRENS IS NOT A WRITERS CONFERENCE.

Yes, there are writers there, and that’s great. But what’s also great is that there are readers, academics, publicists, librarians, editors, booksellers, and, oh, did I mention readers? Because the one thing we ALL have in common is that we read fantasy, and we’re passionate about the remarkable work of women in the genre.

One of the ways Sirens demonstrates its commitment to lifting up everyone’s voices, to making sure Sirens is a place where anyone can participate in practice and not just in theory, is by offering several scholarships. Right now, they’re down to the wire to finish meeting this year’s goal.

I think somehow people have gotten the sense that only writers can be on panels, and nothing could be further from the truth. But to have non-writers on panels, attendees need to submit proposals for those panels–and they need to be able to attend.

If you can donate to the scholarship fund, I hope you’ll consider it.

And if you’re going to Sirens this year, I hope you’ll consider submitting programming, which opens soon. To help get you going, here are my panel suggestions from the other night, and all of them are free for the taking.

(Sorry friends I am The Worst at snappy titles.)

 

  1. The Role of Reviews

What are reviews for? What are readers looking for in a review–help choosing a book, or critique to consider it more thoughtfully? How can reviews help or hurt marginalized communities? How does the publishing side use reviews? Are there right/wrong approaches?

I think the Sirens community could have a field day unpacking the challenges/opportunities of reviews. A panel like this could easily include readers, reviewers, librarians/booksellers, publicists, editors, writers, etc.

 

  1. Female Friendships in Fantasy

Let’s talk not just about our favorite female friendships, but what makes them work, and why women having non-toxic and complex relationships on the page, being excellent separate from men, is important.

Why does it matter to see female friendships in fantasy–for readers in today’s world, and in the context of the fantasy genre? What kinds of friendships do you want to see, and have there been shifts? What are common pitfalls? WHERE ARE THE GIRL GANGS. Come on, Sirens! =D

 

  1. Women’s Clothing in Fantasy

First off, there had BETTER be cosplayers on this panel, and also historians, AND I KNOW SIRENS HAS A PLETHORA OF BOTH AMONG ITS ATTENDEES I SEE YOU.

How is clothing in fantasy used to restrain or free female characters? Are dresses and corsets really swordplay prevention (SPOILERS THEY ARE NOT–so what else does fantasy commonly miss?). How does it reinforce values of femininity or its rejection (can we talk about transformation sequences?!)?

 

  1. Plot-bearing women over the age of 30 in fantasy novels: where are they?

And by that I mean, not just side characters, but women well into adulthood who actually shape the course of the story.

Where are the mothers? Where the successful career women? The badass old ladies who aren’t just generic stock crones (though I do love a cantankerous witch)? (None of these are mutually exclusive!) Why is it so important to have them on the page (and not just as villains!)?

And I’d LOVE to see some of our older readers at Sirens on this one. I want to hear their perspectives on these characters–what’s done well, what’s missing–as well as on how the fantasy genre has evolved on this point, if at all.

 

  1. Women’s Work in Fantasy

I want to see historians on this panel, but also knitters and bakers and seamstresses, programmers and chemists and engineers.

How does fantasy privilege traditionally masculine-coded disciplines (like physical combat) over feminine-coded ones (homemaking, textile work, gardening, etc.), and why does this matter? What stories are we missing? How can this work tie into magic, tech, economics, intrigue?

 

Let’s do this, Sirens. ❤