community

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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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. ❤

The Choice to Fly

I love flying. And this year, I went paragliding.

 

photo by Drew McNabb from Acroparagliding

Starting my annual birthday flying adventures is the best tradition I’ve established for myself. It’s a chance for me to step outside my day-to-day, to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and who I want to be and whether I’m on that path.

This year was hard, for a lot of reasons, and I have been pushing hard. On the writing front, I wrote another book’s worth of words in the course of revisions, and I have revised more–both in thoroughness and in quantity of time spent–this year than I’ve revised in my life. And amidst everything else, I wrote a new book (which you can read for free!), which was a new kind of challenge and adventure. But I’ve gotten so caught up in the minutiae of that daily work that I was desperately ready to fly.

For my birthday flying adventures, I’ve been skydiving, flown on trapezes, sped through the air on ziplines. There are spectacular views to be seen this way, but it’s ultimately not the external perspective I value. It’s the act of flying itself that I love, that I can never get enough of.

When I’m in the air, I don’t feel adrenaline rushes from fear or even thrill. It’s a quieter feeling, but it centers me: flying, I know who I am. I know what I can do, and what I will do.

Every time, I wonder if it will be hard to jump. This year, I wondered if I’d feel nervous running off the hill with so much air below me. I’m familiar with that feeling, standing at the edge of a cliff and making myself jump, and I was prepared to do it, to prove to myself that I could. But there was no doubt, no fear; just launching into the sky.

This year, though, something else struck me. Throughout the trip–doing the paperwork, riding the van up the mountain, strapping in amidst endless jokes to test whether I was going to panic (they, clearly, had not met me)–people kept asking, with some confusion, some disbelief, “you’re here alone?”

Like it was so rare not to need people to come along for moral support, or to witness me. Like I really was there just to fly.

And when I responded affirmatively, they just said, “Good for you.”

Good for me, for taking steps to pursue my own path. Good for me, for knowing when I am enough, for being enough, by myself.

But even though I came alone, I came to a community. People who joked, knew each other’s hopes and struggles, looked out for each other, expected the best. A community of people who have learned to carve a regular space for adventure into their everyday lives, as though flying above mountains is a normal part of everyday lives.

Because it can be.

And the other consistent refrain throughout the trip was when people asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer, and they all marveled.

At first I thought they were impressed by my ability to make ends meet as a writer, but after a couple interactions I realized they hadn’t considered that the challenging part. It was the fact that I write, and I write novels, and multiple, and fantasy, facts I always take as a matter of course, that was what wowed them.

Writing has become such an integral part of my everyday that I sometimes forget what an adventure it is, to pour my time and energy and thoughts and passion into creating stories with words, to throw myself off the cliff over and over and trust that I will fly.

When I fly, I remember I’m an adventurer.

photo by Jenny Scott

Critique and Target Audiences

I spent last weekend at Cascade Writers Workshop and had a blast. Thank you again to my critique group for being awesome and insightful. I have a solid idea of where to start editing not just in this section, but the broad strokes to keep in mind all through the novel and in other projects.

I love critiquing and reviewing, though the one should not be confused with the other. In critiquing, my goal is to help the author identify how they can edit to match their writing with the story they want to tell. Note, that is not the same as telling the author what they should or must do, nor is it fixing the story for them, nor is it recommending ways to change the story to one that I would like better.

In reviewing, my goal (and this differs greatly among reviewers) is to help readers find books they will like by promoting the novels, the particular aspects that worked for me or didn’t, and why. This is also not the same as writing what I think the author should have done or be doing with their story: it’s what works for me, and why.

That why is the critical bit. That’s what tells me what needs to change and how, if at all. For instance, if you don’t like the protagonist because they’re clearly a bad person, well, if that’s what the story needs I’m not going to change it. If you don’t like the protagonist because you don’t understand their motivations or stakes and thus don’t care about their character arc, that’s something I need to address.

In receiving feedback, it’s important for me to get multiple points of view, because often two people will totally disagree with each other’s assessments. If multiple people are pointing out problems in the same area, even if their “why”s are different, I know where to look for the bit that isn’t working properly.

For me, the very best kind of critique is when the reader is able to understand what I’m trying to do (without any direction from me outside of the text) and can tell me whether it worked. If they say, I see what you’re going for, but it’s not quite there, because of x reason, that is THE MOST HELPFUL THING. This is why I usually request feedback from fellow writers, to help me identify the “why”s when something is off with the craft.

My second-favorite kind of critique is from people who are not my target audience.

I get the impression that’s not common? And I understand that there are some forms of feedback that I’ll take with grains of salt from, for instance, non-genre readers, because it may be a trope or tone issue throwing them out that’s totally fine. But it might also be something that I haven’t explained sufficiently. It might be a world-building issue or plot hole that a genre reader will gloss over but that causes the non-genre reader to cease suspension of disbelief.

Target audience, though, can be complicated, because it goes beyond subgenre. In fact, writing with a group of other reviewers at Fantasy Book Critic has been an object lesson in target audiences for me. My reading tastes overlap with several of our reviewers: a few of us will often read the same epic and high fantasy, or the same urban fantasy, or the same YA books, even if our thoughts aren’t all posted on the site.

And yet the three of us can read the same book, write a joint review, and have COMPLETELY different opinions on why it worked or didn’t.

(This has actually come to be a recommendation marker for me: if two of us actually agree on a book, I tend to trust that assessment, because it’s very much not the default. Mihir and Liviu’s joint review got me to pick up The Thousand Names, for instance.)

Just because we’re readers of the same subgenre doesn’t mean we’re looking for the same things in our stories. Target audience is more complicated than whether someone wants or hates vampires in their stories. It’s about the kind of story and how it’s told.

It’s also why I think it’s important in reviewing to isolate that I’m talking about “why”s, because even within the genre reader tastes vary. Huge amounts of expository detail, for instance, are not my thing. There are only so many trees and hills you can describe before my eyes glaze over (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

Some readers LIVE for that sort of detail, and that’s fabulous for them! But when I write my review, I will mention that for me it slowed pacing down, but I won’t call it a bad book, or say that the author doesn’t know how to write exposition. I don’t think my role is to judge; it’s to analyze and isolate parts that will help readers decide whether a book is a good fit.

And in critique, I will point out concerns, issues to consider, places that don’t work for me, and why, so the author can judge for themselves how much weight to assign to any piece of feedback. Awareness, for me, is the key. Maybe the author is dead, but their stories are alive in the hearts and minds of readers.

They’re different animals, reviewing and critiquing, but I love them both and I hope people find my feedback helpful. It makes me appreciate even more when people are willing to take the time to consider artistic work carefully and thoroughly, because I think it helps us all as a community to push ourselves to be better, to expect better. And especially, thank you again to all who have critiqued or given me beta feedback. You’re the best =).

The Rising Wall

I mentioned this project called The Rising Wall briefly a month or so ago, and it’s finally kicked off. This is one of those projects that makes me love fan community and the possibilities opened by current technology.

If you are familiar with Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, you’re aware of the Wall. I wasn’t — this series is still on my to-read list — so for those of you who aren’t: in this series, the zombie apocalypse happens in the summer of 2014 (now) and is known afterwards as the Rising. People don’t know or believe what’s happening, and traditional news media outlets utterly fail at reporting the truth; it’s bloggers that step up and start sharing information on what’s going on and how to survive. The survivors later collect the names of those bloggers to commemorate them on the Wall: these are the people that risked themselves to help them survive.

With the author’s blessing, fans and friends in the community are creating a fictional Wall as a “collaborative transmedia fan project.” There are tweets, music compositions, blog posts, all kinds of things. It’s such a cool idea, and I love it.

Katie Hoffman, the mastermind behind this project, has a great Zombies 101 summary for anyone who wants to play but isn’t familiar with the canon. Even if you’re not into the series, I’d highly recommend checking the Tumblr out just to see what people are doing with this kind of project.

I had a lot of fun writing a four-part blog series from the POV of a college student abroad in Japan when the Rising starts. Panic and betrayal, flamethrowers and cosplay, good times. All four parts are posted if you want to check it out!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

 

4th Street Fantasy

4th Street Fantasy is a small con in Minneapolis, a little over 100 people attending this year. Unlike most SFF cons I’m familiar with, it is much less business-focused but very interested in craft. Most con panels I can take or leave, it’s mostly things I’ve heard before, but at 4th Street the panels are fascinating, riveting. Even better, the whole weekend is like an extended conversation, and everyone is delighted to launch into further explorations of the topics over meals. One of the ways it accomplishes that is with one-track programming, so everyone has a shared vocabulary of how to talk about the subjects outside, and also by keeping it small.

If you go to cons only to make connections with editors and agents, this con isn’t for you. If you want to improve your craft and think about the hows and whys of story writing, then it absolutely is.

Last year, I was mostly silent in the corner, listening and absorbing. Not so this year. Partially because I’ve relearned how to interact with people in group settings, but more because I understood what kind of con this was.

By which I mean, it’s the kind of con where I can get into the nerdiest of arguments. Argument is the easiest way for me to learn about my own thoughts and others’ ideas, and I found people at 4th Street happy to oblige me. I’ll expound on something we came up with over dinner in a few days, when my brain has recovered from con.

So anyone who knows me well is going, “No wonder Casey had a good time if she got to argue with people and nerd out!” Seriously, best. Everything from story structure, to investment in relation to suspension of disbelief, to voice as charisma in characterization, to the relative merits and definitions of genre distinctions, no subject was too sacred.

4th Street is not just about improving fantasy, though; it’s also about building community. Minneapolis hosts an active fandom, but this con (by which I mean Elizabeth Bear and Steve Brust’s powers of word-of-mouth) draws fabulous people from all over. Favorite authors and Twitter friends descended, and multiple Viable Paradise classes invaded this year. For me, that meant a mini-reunion with VP classmates, who are equally ready to fence about storytelling into the wee hours of the night or to collectively retreat to make words together. Even better than the discussions is reveling in the feeling of Tribe.

Arun Jiwa, Nicole Lisa, me, Aliza Greenblatt

VP 16 Mini-Reunion: Arun Jiwa, Nicole Lisa, me, Aliza Greenblatt

I ran out of braining capacity Sunday afternoon, but I had a good run until then. Best people, best conversations. Wonderful con.

Now to sleep the sleep of the just.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Writer Blair MacGregor thoughtfully tagged me to take part in the Writer’s Blog tour, so here we go! Blair’s answers are really insightful, so you should definitely check hers out first.

 

WHAT AM I WORKING ON?

I’m working on two projects at the moment: I’m editing a high fantasy novel in which a sorcerer-prince and a ninja have to work together to figure out what’s causing a magical plague of monsters and defeat it. And, because a different book I finally finished drafting went monstrous on me, I’m switching gears completely with a YA SF novel in the style of a romantic comedy JDrama, and so far it is coming along as hilariously as I hoped.

 

HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN THE GENRE?

First, I absolutely agree with what Blair wrote about novelty. That said, there are some trends in my work: critique partners have observed that I’m prone to writing badass female characters who snark, and this is not incorrect ;).

I write characters who are outsiders and monsters and heroes, who are smart and competent. I write strong female characters, strong in the sense of strong characters who are women, not in the sense of physical or killing abilities. I love taking characters who have been overlooked or who consider themselves failures and dismantling their assumptions. Agency, individuality, choice, and freedom are always central.

 

WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

Because no one else can write my stories, and because I have to write them so I can read them.

Because by its very nature, a fantasy work must create a world, and the creation of a new world in turn creates opportunities to challenge readers’ expectations of how their own world must work. The (spatial, temporal, etc.) distance fantasy establishes enables readers to consider ideas presented with greater objectivity.

My favorite stories are ones that force me to think and are also overwhelmingly awesome and fun. So that’s what I do my best to write.

 

HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

It’s different for every book.

I have outlined and discovery written and iterations in-between. In discovery writing there’s always a point where I reach a wall and have to outline myself out of it. With outlining there are always points where as I’m writing characters do or say things that force me to scrap sections of my outline. I can’t write out of order, because as I write characters make choices that change their relationships and the plot that I don’t know about before my fingers are on the keyboard.

Lately I’ve been starting with a general idea of plot and character arc with a few points I know to write towards and then I fill in (both the outline and the novel) as I go. If I leave myself notes the previous session and then brainstorm a scene right before I write it, the writing goes much more easily.

I write all the way through, only going back for minor edits, and then before I send a draft to readers go back and do a full editing pass during which I flesh out the draft. I switch between writing platforms (Word, NEO, Scrivener, notebooks…) and spaces (within my apartment or coffee shops) when I get stuck, though I format everything into manuscript format before I’m done for the day to keep everything consolidated, and then I back up daily because I’m paranoid. I track word count statistics so I can prove to myself that I’m actually being useful and pressing along. I draft sparingly and then add in descriptions and whatnot where necessary in the full editing pass, which helps keep me out of the trap of too much world-building exposition.

I sometimes put in headphones and turn of the internet to help myself focus; I always drink tea.

 

And that’s it for me =). Next up, I’ve tagged four fellow and fabulous Viable Paradise alumni: Aliza Greenblatt, Arun Jiwa, Alex Haist, and Nicole Lisa!