Pokémon Go: An App for the Modern Flâneur

Pokémon Go has created a new class of urban pedestrians, and as I watch them walking to hatch eggs or loitering around lured PokéStops, I have one overwhelming impression: Nineteenth-century Paris.

gerard-de-nerval-walking-pet-lobster-300x260The nineteenth century was a slower-paced time, and if you had the luxury of being in the upper class, you enjoyed long stretches with nothing to do. In Paris, having nothing to do became a virtue in and of itself, and the fashionable solution was to go for a stroll around the city. Getting somewhere wasn’t the point, so the pace of the stroll was slow; for a while, it was fashionable to take your pet tortoise for a walk (or, in the case of poet Gerard de Nerval, your pet lobster). These Parisian amblers soon became an entire subculture, complete with a name: flâneur.

A flâneur was an idle stroller who wandered aimlessly around a city, usually alone. Not himself an object of observation, blending into the crowd with near-invisibility, he walked around looking without a plan or destination, enjoying looking at points of interest and whatever unexpected sights might present themselves. Sound familiar?

The flâneur was the essence of the everyman. Yet, as today, the nineteenth-century French image of an everyman did not apply equally to everyone. For starters, a flâneur had to live in the city. The country lacked the requisite people and points of interest for the flâneur to observe. Naturally, the domain of the flâneur was also restricted to the better parts of the city.

More importantly, the flâneur had to be the right gender, race, and social class. A woman wandering aimlessly around the city by herself sent an entirely different, and far less innocent, message. Even if she really was just out for a walk, she couldn’t fill the role of the unseen observer; she was likely to attract unwanted attention and would find amenities like restaurants closed to her, either by law or by social convention. A nonwhite man couldn’t be a flâneur either; his skin color made him an object of attention rather than an anonymous everyman. And a lower-class man who had the free time to stroll around was a good-for-nothing idler and troublemaker.

imageIn Pokémon Go, we see those age-old cultural assumptions playing out once again. A free app is an everyman’s game, yet not everyone gets to participate in it equally. Both PokéStops and Pokémon are almost exclusively found in urban areas, even though it would make more sense to find Pokémon in wild areas, so rural dwellers effectively can’t play unless they drive long distances to the city.

Other groups of people face obstacles which are cultural, not geographical. Women may not feel safe wandering around a city alone and might feel the need to only play this fundamentally solitary game if they can get a group of people together. People of color, especially black men, don’t benefit from the assumption of innocent motives when they present themselves in public; there are already cases of police stopping them. Compounding the problem, certain Pokémon only come out at night.

Flâneur culture was a charming part of nineteenth-century history. We can benefit from a return to an understanding that we’re a part of the city we occupy, and there are more than just health benefits to going outside and simply experiencing the urban spaces around us. But we need to take steps to ensure that, this time, the flâneur’s experience is open to all.


Images found here and here.

The Measure of an Alien

It’s a curiosity that Star Wars and Star Trek are so often grouped together when they’re so patently different in themes, appearance, and format. The differences can be obvious or subtle. An example of the latter is the design of the two works’ aliens.

Ro_LarenStar Trek is famous for its “rubber forehead” aliens, actors with latex prosthetics on their foreheads, eyebrows, or ears that give them an alien appearance. The modifications are usually minor, like Vulcans’ pointed ears, and leave the actor easily identifiable. More “otherworldly” aliens are rare. The full-CG Species 8472 from Voyager is the exception that proves the rule: in one episode, they take human form so they can be played by human actors. While Trek crews occasionally run into truly ineffable lifeforms like the Crystalline Entity, they virtually never see alien monsters or animals, no matter how many planets they visit. Finally, thanks to the Universal Translator, Star Trek aliens almost always speak English.

Star Wars aliens couldn’t be more different. Prosthetics are rare, much more pronounced, and mostly restricted to sexy aliens like the Twi’lek. Instead, Star Wars’ trademark aliens are Jim Henson’s puppets. These are fully constructed props performed either by puppeteers or by actors completely concealed within the suit. They exhibit a wide amount of variation not seen on Star Trek: Extremely large or small size, varying numbers of limbs, bizarre faces, and so on. They often speak alien languages or communicate only through grunts, clicks, or roars, even when talking to an English-speaking human. And Star Wars’ landscapes are crawling with alien wildlife.

Some of this may be put down to budget, but both franchises have such a purposeful aesthetic that it’s obviously an intentional choice, not merely a budget-enforced limitation. Let’s look at the basic themes of each franchise and how their alien designs fit in.

Jabba's_daisStar Wars is an adventure. The franchise is fundamentally less thematic than experiential: You’re meant to feel as though you’ve been transported to a completely different world and to enjoy all the sights that world has to offer. Therefore, Star Wars’ aliens are supposed to be fundamentally “other.” They don’t look, talk, or behave like us because we’re tourists in the Star Wars world enjoying an escape from our mundane lives and the more unusual the aliens, the better the escape. The variety of alien animals give the whole thing the feel of an off-world safari.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is a metaphor. It’s not just about seeing other cultures, but about getting to know them, learning to communicate, and understanding that we’re fundamentally more alike than different. The aliens look like us and talk like us because they are us. When the crew meets a civilization that ages backwards or speaks only in metaphors, we’re supposed to recognize all the human cultures who do things differently than we do, and when they and the crew inevitably come to an understanding, Star Trek is presenting a model for how people can learn to get along despite our differences.

The different types of aliens portrayed in Star Wars and Star Trek are well-chosen to fit the different types of stories the two franchises are telling. Both demonstrate how strong, thoughtful world-building not only fleshes out a fictional universe, but also makes the message of the work stronger.


Images are from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Return of the Jedi.

Haircuts: A Tale of Katz and Valya

My discussion of fictional haircuts leaves out one possibly pertinent fact: I included a dramatic haircut in my own novel Among the Red Stars. So I’m going to talk about my reasons for making that choice and the message I was trying to convey.

img024The short answer for why my protagonist, Valya, gets her hair cut is because it happened historically. Like most Russian girls at the time, young Valya has long braids, and all the members of Aviation Group 122 were required to get short “boy-style” haircuts (as shown in the early doodle at left). But historicity is an incomplete answer. Of course I could have found a way to keep Valya’s hair long if I’d wanted to. One Night Witch even avoided cutting her hair by hiding it under her hat, and was later held up as an example by a male general who didn’t approve of the other girls’ boyish hairstyles.

Additionally, unlike most of the Night Witches, Valya chooses to keep her hair short. So in her case it’s a real turning point that marks a permanent change. All this is deliberate artistic choice beyond the dictates of historicity.

Picture2To get into the real reason, I have to share a bit of my own history. Like Valya, I had very long hair as a teenager, but never as part of a very cohesive or well-developed visual identity. I took poor care of it and unconsciously tended toward male-coded styles, such as pulling it into low ponytails and not tucking it behind my ears even though that was ubiquitous at the time. An inveterate goofball, I often joked around by doing imitations of Cousin It or Samara from The Ring, in retrospect obvious signs of discomfort with an appearance that didn’t suit me.

No one ever forbade me from cutting my hair, but implicit social pressures are strong. None of the girls I knew had short hair, certainly not the male-coded styles I now like best. I longed to buck conformity, but didn’t feel equipped to do so. Walking into a hair salon and demanding that they cut off all my hair was simply outside my realm of possibilities.

IMG_4590My personal turning point came during my senior year, when hair-donation charity Locks of Love experienced a surge of popularity and a group of my friends all got our hair cut. I lost 16 inches of hair in one go. Once I got past the initial novelty of showering in half the time and not feeling like an Old English sheepdog in the summer, I found a whole new world of self-expression open to me. For the first time in my life, I actually liked my hair and wanted to do something with it other than check the box of minimum social acceptability. I dyed it and put it into liberty spikes and finally did all the things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid.

Valya’s experience parallels my own. We both grew up with socially acceptable haircuts that did not suit us particularly well, but the inertia of social pressures was strong enough that we never really considered other options. It took an outside reason other than self-expression to allow us to embrace an appearance outside the norm.

Of course the choice is gendered. All of society is gendered. Valya doesn’t cut her hair because she needs to “become a man” in order to become a warrior, but the two choices harmonize becoming a warrior is already a male-coded decision in our society, and embracing a minor male-coded choice—a haircut—makes it easier to embrace a larger male-coded choice that reads as real social deviance.

So that’s why Valya cuts her hair short. It’s not a referendum on female self-expression. It’s a personal choice for her, as it was for me, and it happens within the context of a variety of women making different choices: Some keep their hair long, some had short hair to begin with, and some cut it but grow it out again. There are many ways to be female and many ways to perform gender, and I hope Among the Red Stars will help girls see that.

The Significance of Haircuts

For most of us, a haircut is a periodic necessity, but in fiction, haircuts only happen to make a statement. Being an appearance-related story element, the use and connotations of fictional haircuts are fraught with complex gendered implications. A character getting a haircut sends a message, and that message may contain layers of meaning that the author didn’t intend. Let’s have a look.

evey-haircutFictional haircuts come in two varieties: The traumatic and the dramatic. Traumatic haircuts are involuntary, either forcibly inflicted on a character by someone else (Evey in V for Vendetta) or carried out by the character out of necessity in response to an involuntary, traumatic situation (Fantine in Les Miserables). Dramatic haircuts, on the other hand, are carried out voluntarily by the character, often by their own hand, to signal a decision or turning point that they chose themselves. Thus, for instance, having one’s head shaved after being unwillingly drafted is a traumatic haircut, while having one’s head shaved after voluntarily enlisting is a dramatic haircut. There’s some interplay between the categories, but for the most part they’re easily distinguishable.

Traumatic haircuts are a form of violence because they violate bodily autonomy. These scenes are filled with rough physical imagery as the character is physically restrained and their hair roughly shorn with trimmers or hacked off unevenly with a razor blade or other crude instrument. The character usually cries. As a form of “soft” violence that causes no pain or permanent damage, they are sometimes used as a proxy in media where more graphic violence isn’t possible. And aside from Max Rockatansky, they virtually always happen to women.

newThus, traumatic haircuts are a type of gendered violence, with all the attendant implications. It’s easy to suggest that they’re specific to women simply because more female characters have long hair to begin with, but that’s an oversimplication. There’s also the fact that women are the disproportionate victims of all forms of fictional violence. But the most important factor is that long hair carries such strongly female-coded connotations that, culturally, depriving a woman of her hair carries much more weight than doing the same to a man. It may be a punishment for a woman’s sexual behavior (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); in any case it’s a punishment for being feminine. It’s a milder analogue to the fictional serial killer who carves up pretty women’s faces. Add in the lack of pain and there’s an additional implication that women are fragile and shallow for being traumatized by such a superficial act.

Traumatic haircuts tap into a deep vein of gendered violent imagery in fiction. They’re best avoided or used very carefully, with close consideration of the message being sent.

tumblr_n8penrzCbi1sfnn0mo4_r1_500Dramatic haircuts are extremely different. The character is usually alone, cutting their hair by themselves, often with a meaningful instrument (Mulan) or accompanied by some kind of ritual (Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender). The character’s expression tends to be stoic and resolute. This is not a form of violence at all, but rather a change in physical presentation more permanent than a clothing change but less so than a tattoo, either of which may accompany it. The hair need not have been especially long to begin with, and the new haircut need not be any particular style. Neat or messy, conforming or nonconforming—it all depends on what specific turning point the character is experiencing (in Stardust, Tristan even gets a magical haircut that lengthens his hair). Male characters may shave facial hair. Because this type of haircut is not strongly gendered. It happens to men, women, and even children (Ethan in Suburbia).

princess-mononoke-haircut-ashitakaNow, one could do a statistical analysis normalized for the preponderance of male characters and it might turn out that female characters get proportionately more dramatic haircuts, but the point is that they’re a common plot device for both genders. Men often get dramatic haircuts when they enter a new culture with different mores (Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke) or when they disguise themselves to go on the run (Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive). And, of course, everyone gets shorn in boot camp movies. Women’s haircuts might carry more weight or happen for more subjective reasons, but those are shades of difference within the same basic category.

d5cae3676409e03812e8707198b028caA gender difference finally emerges if you isolate haircuts that signify someone becoming a warrior, but not through modern boot camp (Tris in the Divergent series). This is getting down to a pretty small group, but it happens almost exclusively to women (rare male examples, like O’Neil in the Stargate movie, often signal some additional kind of change). Explanations like short hair being more practical are nothing but hand waves. Especially when coupled with a costume change from a dress into more masculine-coded battle gear, this carries the strong and damaging implication that women need to assume male-coded characteristics in order to fight.

But there are a multitude of other factors involved*. Certainly women in male-dominated fields (including warfare) can face pressure to present in male-coded ways in order to show that they belong, such as when Five Iron Frenzy’s sole female member adopted the moniker Jeff so she’d fit in. But some women also go into male-dominated fields because they like male-coded presentation and enjoy being in an environment where that’s acceptable (for instance, during WWII, some gender-nonconforming women enlisted in the army because they liked the idea of wearing a uniform). A fictional character, therefore, might not be getting forced into a form of expression she doesn’t want, but rather embracing a form of expression she wanted to take all along. This works on both an in-story level and a meta level: An author might feel the need to provide a reason why a female character has a short haircut instead of simply giving her one, especially when writing for an audience used to very female-coded presentation.

Because there’s also a pressure in the opposite direction, and it’s far more culturally dominant: The pressure for women to look feminine, especially if they’re in a male-dominated field. Far more than they get pressured into looking or acting male-coded, women who take up male-coded activities, like fighting, face cultural pressure to present in even more female-coded ways to demonstrate that they’re still “real” women and that their violation of gender norms is only an aberration. Thus every female politician who’s had to share a cookie recipe and every puff piece about a prominent woman that details her appearance and family life. And thus the endless parade of female warriors in silk gowns, stilettos, fancy updos, and what have you, whether or not such an outfit makes any logical sense for what they’re doing. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turned this subtext into text with the logline “Bloody Lovely.”)

The Hunger Games: Tribute GuideAnd then there’s the female-coded equivalent of the dramatic haircut: the makeover scene. The gender politics of the makeover could be an article to themselves, but in brief, makeovers are essentially always female and deeply rooted in traditional concepts of gender. When a female character gets a makeover, it signifies that she deserves whatever goal she’s trying to achieve (a boyfriend, the throne, etc) because of her physical attractiveness and ability to perform femaleness. This applies whether or not the goal has anything to do with gender or appearance. In fact, female warriors often get makeovers too (Katniss in The Hunger Games series). This obviously has nothing to do with their fighting skill; the entire purpose is to demonstrate that they’re still “real women” even though they fight.

Female fighters who take on male-coded styles and female fighters who take on female-coded styles are in fact part of the same ecosystem, which is the ecosystem all women live in: a male-centric world where women are an aberration and their simple existence requires justification. Each of us makes a day-to-day choice of how to present ourselves within that system. Do we present the way someone (implicitly male) in our field is expected to present signaling our legitimacy in that field? Or do we present the way women are supposed to present, signaling our legitimacy as women? Whether you put on a leather jacket and combat boots or a sundress and strappy sandals, it’s a choice; one choice is just more socially acceptable and thus easier to make without conscious thought.

So, while it’s true that women who cut their hair to become fighters are reinforcing the idea that fighting is male-coded, it’s a wildly misleading statement because it only tells part of the story and implicitly suggests that gender conformity wouldn’t reinforce that idea. The truth is that every appearance choice is made within a male-centric system and can be used to reinforce that system, none more so than the choice to police another woman for her choices.

a5d732e9415434a919c663d346e2c953To break away from this mindset, our stories need to depict women in a wide variety of both roles and gender presentations without trying to use their appearance as a way to justify their acceptability as warriors or members of any other male-coded group. As individuals, we need to embrace appearance as free choice and not hold specific women, real or fictional, accountable for how their personal style affects the entirety of gender relations. And that means that women can get haircuts—and makeovers—for whatever reason they like.


*The final reason why men are less likely to get dramatic haircuts when they become warriors is that they’re more likely to already be warriors when the story starts (the Pacific Rim principle).

Screencaps are from V for Vendetta, Game of Thrones, Suburbia, Princess Mononoke, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Firefly.

WASPs at Arlington in Historical Context

The war ended 70 years ago, but the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) have only just won their final battle: On Friday, Congress passed a law finally allowing them to be interred at Arlington Cemetery. It’s a triumphant moment for the WASP, whose history is emblematic of the military’s troubling attitude towards women in the service.

71qg4xEc8KL._SY450_The US military, like most militaries, has a long history of using its human resources when it needs them and abandoning them when it doesn’t, and it’s treated few groups as shamefully as the women’s branches. Created during World War II to meet increasing personnel demands, these groups included the Army WACs, the Navy WAVES, the Coast Guard SPARs, and the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (I’ll get to the WASP later). Recruitment campaigns encouraged women to enlist, emphasizing both their patriotic duty and the benefits of a military career. Recruitment videos describe the various interesting jobs available and how they can lead to future civilian careers. Some 350,000 American women served in the military over the course of the war, filling clerical positions and other noncombat roles.

But when the war ended, there was a sudden change of attitude in the military. The personnel shortages over, the women’s branches were no longer needed. What’s more, thanks to the 1944 GI Bill, the government was faced with the prospect of providing generous benefits to 16 million veterans, women included. What had been an asset was now a liability. Meanwhile, the public’s attitude was shifting too. Prewar norms about the roles of men and women returned. While male veterans commanded respect, female veterans faced unflattering stereotypes that they were bossy, masculine, promiscuous, and probably a bunch of lesbians.

All in all, the military found it in their best interest to get rid of the women as efficiently as possible, preferably without honorable discharges. The WACs and WAVES went through a series of anti-lesbian purges in the postwar years, during which thousands of women received undesirable blue discharges. Veterans with blue discharges didn’t receive benefits and faced discrimination in employment and education—and unlike a dishonorable discharge, this classification didn’t require a court-martial.

Needless to say, as male GIs returned and pushed women out of the workforce, the promised civilian-sector jobs didn’t materialize, either.

65908-004-987BE5DE

Jacqeline Cochran

When it came to the WASP, the task was much simpler. It was an auxiliary organization, not technically part of the military. Even those who died in crashes were denied military funerals. Director Jacqueline Cochran’s repeated efforts to militarize the WASP failed. Therefore, when they were disbanded in late 1944, WASPs were not veterans and were entitled to no benefits. After the war, all records of the WASP were classified. For the next 35 years, it was as if they had never existed.

Justice for the WASP had to wait for a cultural shift. In the 1970s, as ideas about the role of women began to change, their story came to light, and in 1977, their records were unsealed and the WASP were finally given full military status. And in 2002, for the first time, they were eligible to be interred at Arlington Cemetery (along with the Merchant Marines, another neglected group). The WASP were finally getting the respect they deserved.

But last year, the WASP received a rude surprise: Army Secretary John McHugh issued a directive once again banning them from interrment at Arlington. This was part of a move toward more stringent eligibility rules for interrment due to Arlington’s rapidly dwindling remaining space. Why a group of just 1000 individuals, few of whom are still living, would create a space problem is a mystery, but it marks another point in a depressing trend: Whenever they become inconvenient, women in the military get the shaft.

A petition by the granddaughters of WASP Elaine Harmon brought this issue to national attention, and for now, at least, WASPs have the rights they earned all those decades ago. But McHugh’s directive is a sobering reminder that even the most hard-fought victories are never permanently won. Regressive cultural forces continually seek to strip women of their rights and diminish their accomplishments. The military still marginalizes women when they become inconvenient: Sexual assault victims are often less than honorably discharged if they complain, sometimes on the grounds of the same “personality disorders” that were once used to discharge gays and lesbians.

The WASP have done their part. It’s our fight now.

Award Arithmetic

Many people in the YA community were less than enthused when the Locus Awards announced their 2016 finalists. The YA finalists were all men, one of whom was nominated twice, and several of whom it’s questionable to classify as YA authors at all. The recommended reading list they were chosen from was itself 55% male, even though YA is vastly female-dominated, again full of authors dubiously classified as YA, and riddled with glaring omissions: No Renee Ahdieh, no Victoria Aveyard, and no Sabaa Tahir to name just a few, even though they’re all bestselling, critically acclaimed authors beloved by the YA community.

Notably, the recommended reading lists are variable length and the YA list had an odd-numbered 19 entries. So the Locus Awards didn’t exclude these and the dozens of other female authors of YA fantasy due to limited space; they simply didn’t think they were worthy of consideration for the award.

And then it came to light that in the award’s 13 years, 9 times the award has gone to a white man (not counting one coauthored book). Only two women and one man of color have ever won. Seven times–more than half–the award went to the same three men (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and China Miéville).

Coming just two weeks after the Hugos fell victim to their second ballot-stuffing debacle in as many years, this time hilariously leading to the nomination of the Chuck Tingles dinosaur erotica story Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the Locus Awards were the last holdout of respectability for SFF awards. Naturally, voices in the sci-fi community were quick to leap on them as an exemplar of how awards should be conducted.

When YA authors, so rarely given a seat at the grown-up’s table in the SFF community, expressed their objections, they were met with a shrug, even from usually sympathetic quarters. Sure, it’s too bad that the award completely excludes women, so the response from Neil Gaiman went, but nobody cheated, so that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

Yes, we have fallen so far that an absence of slate voting is a major plus instead of an assumed baseline.

But let’s look at the middle sentence of Gaiman’s response: “But also award-winning authors who wrote popular books.” In other words, the nominations are fair because all the nominated authors deserved to win, a sentiment I saw echoed by other people as well. Let’s take it as fact for a moment (setting aside the question of whether those authors should have been in the YA category at all, or whether Joe Abercrombie was really twice as deserving as all the snubbed authors put together). This is common logic that gets applied to everything from who gets into college to who wins an Oscar. On the surface, it seems sound. Who can argue with deserving people getting rewarded? But the underlying assumptions are more complex and less innocent than they appear.

The Hugos have overshadowed this fact, but true award snubs, where an obvious shoo-in loses out to an obviously undeserving contender, aren’t terribly common. Most of the time, there are several strong contenders for an award, and while you might maintain that one of the losers should have won, you can’t usually unequivocally say that the winner shouldn’t have. The white male authors who edge out women and minorities for recognition aren’t usually guys like Chuck Tingles; they’re usually people like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, who are good writers and do deserve awards.

Thus, it’s hard to pinpoint bias in any individual case because you’d have to claim that Coraline, for instance, didn’t deserve an award. It’s only when you look at the entire landscape that a pattern develops where the deserving winners are almost always white men, while the equally deserving women and minorities walk away empty-handed time and time again.

Where are the female Gaimans and Pratchetts? The household names whose every release is a major event guaranteed to sweep the awards? There’s no lack of talented women, but without the recognition of power brokers like the ones who created the recommended reading list, they have little chance of achieving that kind of widespread recognition. Sure, there’s two-time Locus winner Catherynne Valente, but as the only solo female winner, she’s a token. She deserves better than to exist as proof that women can technically win the award. (For that matter, Gaiman deserves better than to win awards because he’s the default choice of readers who simply aren’t aware of any of the women who might provide serious competition.) Besides, she can’t be used to excuse this year’s all-male nominees.

The sentiment that it’s fair for white men to win all the awards as long as they’re sufficiently talented sends the message that women and minorities are supposed to sit down and shut up until the white men have gotten all the attention they deserve. And it sends another message, too: That the Locus Awards are just one more way the sci-fi community is out of touch.

The Big News

shahov_1It is my great pleasure to announce that my debut novel, Among the Red Stars, will be released by HarperTeen in fall 2017.

Among the Red Stars tells the story of the Night Witches, the all-female Russian bomber regiment that fought in World War II. It’s my privilege to bring this little-known but fascinating piece of history into the YA canon and I hope you’ll love these courageous women as much as I do.

So many people have helped bring this project to life. When I entered Pitch Wars in 2014, my mentor Fiona McLaren saw potential somewhere in my unpolished manuscript and patiently helped me craft it into presentable shape. My agent, Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, has been working tirelessly on this project and helping me through the labyrinth of the publishing industry. And my new editor at HarperTeen, Emilia Rhodes, is the perfect person to bring Among the Red Stars to the public. And countless wonderful friends, beta readers, and family members have provided the support to get me through.

I can’t wait to share Among the Red Stars with you.

You can see the deal announcement here.

Read the rest of this entry

The Full Story on Inkitt

ETA: Inkitt cofounder Ali Albazaz has been in touch to clarify a couple of points (see below). 

If you’re active in writing on almost any site—Twitter, fanfiction.net, Wattpad, Fictionpress—you’ve probably been contacted, or will be contacted, by a site called Inkitt encouraging you to enter writing contests that can get you a Big Five deal. Here’s the full story.

  • You were contacted by a bot. They didn’t pick you because you caught their attention as an up-and-coming author; they will contact anyone who appears to be a writer. They have a whole army of Twitter spambots. They also apparently have four official Twitter accounts, three of which do nothing but plug their contests.
  • Their front page lists publications like The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, implying that they’ve endorsed Inkitt. Both publications only mention Inkitt briefly in passing while covering the same story about an author.
  • They claim the entries are curated by real writers, but in reality they’ll post anything. Many of the entries are riddled with errors, and your entry will appear side by side with them.
  • When you post your novel on Inkitt, you post it in its entirety. In the publishing world, this counts as publishing your book. You’re using up your all-important first-publication rights just by entering the contest. Few publishers will touch a book that’s been previously posted online.
  • They don’t promote your book aside from occasionally tweeting a link to a top entry. Notice that they always contact you asking you to enter a contest—never promoting another entry. Getting pageviews is entirely up to you. An average entry has maybe 5 likes; top entries have a few hundred. Inkitt is extremely low-traffic compared to reputable sites like Wattpad, and in particular, it has no readership: Everyone on the site is a writer participating in a contest or a friend who was pestered into voting. You can’t build an audience on Inkitt because there is no audience.

    Inkitt vs Wattpad. Remember, a lower rank is better.

    Inkitt vs Wattpad. Remember, a lower rank is better.

  • They are notorious spammers. They email you multiple times every day encouraging you to pester your friends and family to like your entry.
  • Inkitt touts its “artificially intelligent algorithm” as the future of publishing, claiming it can predict future bestsellers that elitist agents and editors would reject. How does this algorithm work? We don’t know exactly, but it “analyses the behaviour of readers” and “measure[s] their engagement.” That sounds suspiciously like simply picking the entry that gets the most page views. But if you’re an indie author with a large platform and a lot of readers, you don’t need a contest in order to get found. An algorithm based on reader behavior can’t find the diamonds in the rough that no one is reading yet—the very books and authors that Inkitt caters to.
  • Inkitt claims “We pitch your book to A-list publishers” (oddly not referred to by their ordinary name, “Big Five publishers”) and strongly implies that you’ll get published by one of them if you win the contest. In reality, Big Five publishers have no relationship with Inkitt and little reason to be interested. Tor picked up a recent contest winner, as confirmed by Publisher’s Marketplace, but . Writer Beware has the full story.
If they can get you a Big Five deal, why is the grand prize "a publishing offer from Inkitt?"

If they can get you a Big Five deal, why is the grand prize “a publishing offer from Inkitt?”

  • If you do get a Big Five deal, Inkitt takes 15% of all the book’s earnings. That’s the same as an agent’s cut, but while an agent fosters a career-long relationship with an author that involves putting in an enormous amount of work pitching, negotiating, and promoting the book, Inkitt demands that fee for once putting your book on their website. Reputable writing contests will never take a cut of your earnings.
  • If you don’t get picked up by a major publisher, Inkitt claims they will publish your book themselves. The details of an Inkitt publishing deal are extremely sketchy and I can find no evidence that any Inkitt contest winner has ever been published, or will ever be published, on any platform. They offer no advance. They don’t say whether the book will be published as an ebook or print book or what platforms it will be available on. They claim they will “run a marketing campaign to sell as many books as possible,” but have you ever seen a marketing campaign for an Inkitt book? Yeah, neither have I. The pages for previous contests don’t even list a winner, and there are no buy links on the Inkitt website. I found the top entry for one contest on Amazon, but only because it had been previously self-published. If those winners were published at all, it was a vanity publication that isn’t publicly for sale anywhere.
  • Rules vary wildly from one contest to the next. Prizes vary from publishing deals to gift cards, Inkitt branded merchandise, or nothing but a badge on your profile. In each case, you’re still sacrificing your first publication rights.

Inkitt claims to be the future of publishing that will revolutionize the industry and create a new path for overlooked authors. In reality, it’s a predatory company that preys on inexperienced writers, luring them in with the promise of unlikely book deals while driving traffic for their site only by recruiting more and more writers. Give Inkitt a hard no and only submit your book to vetted contests that have a track record of success within the industry.

Some reputable pitch contests to consider are listed after the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

Reconsidering Badass Historical Women

As it does every year, International Women’s Month brought a flurry of posts and tweets about people’s favorite historical women, and as always, one appellation appeared more than any other: badass. There is no crowd pleaser quite like a tough, cool woman who fights, beats the boys at their own game, accomplishes things no woman has ever done before, and (of course) doesn’t need no man. I’m not going to link to any specific examples because I don’t want anyone to feel singled out in what’s really a broad cultural trend, but you’ve seen them. And I completely understand. I like those women too.

But it’s time to rethink our priorities.

queen-boudica

Boudica

Historical figures necessarily undergo interpretation when they’re presented to modern audiences. We choose who we talk about, what facts we present about them, and what gloss we put on those facts. The wave of interest in historical women is a positive change in a field that has long been dominated by male historians telling male-centered stories. But the framing of “Hey, did you know that a woman did a thing?” can only last so long before it stops being empowering and starts becoming yet another way of diminishing women’s accomplishments. The implicit assumption that we haven’t heard of these people and should be surprised by the existence of accomplished women feels belittling in an era where, yes, we know that Marie Curie discovered radium, Ada Lovelace invented computer programming, and Boudica led an uprising against the Romans*. (The fact that the same women always seem to pop up on these lists doesn’t help.)

We need to move past the idea that the very existence of interesting historical women is such a novelty. Instead, let’s work from the baseline assumption that women were everywhere, were a part of everything, and should feature in virtually every historical narrative. Then we can move on to telling women’s stories because of their importance as individuals rather than as proof that women can be badass. And instead of accepting that every blog post about a badass historical woman is progressive and feminist, we can look critically at the connotations and consider whether the message it’s sending is really as positive as it appears.

I have two main objections to the way badass historical women are usually framed. The first is with the word “badass” itself, as exemplified in the archetype described at the beginning. If this sounds more like a movie character type than a real person, you’re right: It’s the old Strong Female Character transplanted more or less directly from film into history. Sophia McDougall insightfully criticized the Strong Female Character; many of the same criticisms apply here.

AnnieOakley

Annie Oakley

If you’re about to say “But they’re real people who actually did those things,” that’s why interpretation is so key. The people who get profiled as badass historical women are a specific subset of the population: women who did traditionally male-coded things. Most often they’re some kind of fighter, but they may also be scientists, athletes, inventors, or the like. Annie Oakley shows up on these lists. Florence Nightingale does not. And which facts about these people get mentioned further reinforce the Strong Female Character archetype. It’s good that we’ve moved past the time when who she married and how many kids she had were the first facts you learned about any historical woman, but only talking about what she did that was badass is, in its own way, equally shallow and reductive.

For one thing, instead of forcing women into a box of acceptable femininity, it forces them into a box of acceptable masculinity. It doesn’t question the base assumption that only male-coded traits like violence are valuable or worthy of recognition; for historical women to get their accolades, they have to embrace the patriarchal social order and become “cool girls” who do whatever the boys do.

Of course, many historical women did do male-coded things, overcoming enormous barriers in the process, and we should talk about them. But accepting the cultural assumption that only male-coded pursuits are important leaves out all kinds of women and distorts the rest as they’re measured against a metric that, for most people, is just nonsense. (Some people try to solve this problem by expanding “badass” to encompass any kind of cool, impressive, or interesting behavior, but surely it’s better to just say “interesting” or “impressive,” or to simply say “historical women” with the assumption that women are inherently interesting.)

The Alcove by Leonor Fini (Carrington is on the left)

The Alcove by Leonor Fini (Carrington is on the left)

Consider my favorite artist, Leonora Carrington. Was she a badass? Well, she ran away from her oppressive aristocratic British upbringing, told off Joan Miró for asking her to buy him cigarettes, and wears a breastplate in a portrait by colleague Leonor Fini. She was also infatuated with a married man twice her age, wrote mopey stories vilifying her romantic rivals when her love life was going badly, and had a mental breakdown when they were separated that ended with her interred in an asylum. (And that’s only the first act of her story.) Badass? Maybe you could use that word, but it’s a weak descriptor that fails to capture the breadth of her character. She was, at various times, vibrant, accomplished, joyful, troubled, jealous, innocent, wise, fallible, and deeply human.

Then there’s how we judge the actions. Historians have a track record of being moral scolds to women, but the badass historical women narrative goes the other direction and divorces them completely from any judgment of whether their actions were right or wrong as long as they were sufficiently awesome. Wu Zetian, a perennial favorite, murdered a long string of people in order to gain and hold power, including smothering her own baby. Now, whether historical accounts have been fair to Wu Zetian is a reasonable question, but the badass-woman articles don’t tend to argue that she didn’t do those things or that the good outweighed the bad. Instead, it’s those very acts, presented in their most lurid forms, that make her a badass. According to this metric, the only virtues are audacity, violence, and willingness to flout social norms.

Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian

Sometimes this is simple romanticizing (will we ever get over our collective love of pirates?), but sometimes it’s a double standard. Actions that would make a man dangerous and malevolent can be reinterpreted as lovable feistiness in a woman, the implication being that women are so harmless that even actual murder is nothing more than a cute personality quirk.

And “badass” is simply a very shallow way to look at anyone, regardless of gender. People are more than collections of actions that make other people go “awesome,” and focusing on those moments (as in any list of “cool things you should know about this person”) risks painting over their subtler traits, their importance within a historical context, and the whole general thrust of what they were about. We owe it to the women of history to consider them as complex, multifaceted human beings who both influenced and were influenced by the direction of history.

Manduhai_Poststamp

Manduhai

Manduhai the Wise was a queen who reunited the Mongol tribes 300 years after Genghis Khan’s death. She did her requisite share of badass things, like going into battle while pregnant with twins and throwing hot tea in the face of an advisor who wanted her to get married, but those incidents aren’t of any great historical importance. Her statecraft, her battlefield strategy, her attitude towards Genghis Khan’s legacy, her bizarre yet successful adoptive mother/wife relationship with the feeble boy-khan: These are the aspects of her character that actually changed history. Yet in the badass-woman framework, these things are only important insofar as they explain why she was throwing tea.

That’s my objection (or rather my slate of objections) to labeling historical women as “badass.” But there’s another problem with the way we talk about badass historical women, and its repercussions are potentially even worse.

Badass women are always exceptional. They’re defined by standing out from the pack, by accomplishing vastly more than anyone else—more than their male peers, but also more than other women. They’re almost always unique women with no comparable female peers, or at least treated as such, and they’re often the first, or preferably only, woman to accomplish something. Wu Zetian was the only female ruler of China in 4000 years, and so on. Very often they’re rulers (especially, of course, princesses).

Partly this is the nature of history, with its constant tendency to revert back to talking only about the most powerful strata of society. But women’s historians shouldn’t fall prey to this mistake because we should recognize it as another facet of the attitude that kept women out of history books for so long. Women shouldn’t need to be born to privilege in order for their stories to be worth telling.

And by treating these women as so exceptional and focusing on how they did things that no other woman was able to accomplish, these articles paradoxically reinforce the perception of ordinary women’s lack of ability. If the only woman who could compete in a male-dominated field was an outstanding genius, it’s easy to give the impression that women in general actually aren’t cut out for the field and that one woman was a fluke who transcended her gender and became “one of the guys.” This framework doesn’t make anyone rethink their assumptions, doesn’t make them wonder whether their Silicon Valley startup is missing out by not hiring any women except the secretary. Why would it be? Ada Lovelace was unique.

The focus on women who are powerful heads of state, exceptionally talented geniuses, or other larger-than-life figures just gives the impression that women need to accomplish something spectacular in order to be worth talking about. Essentially, they gain the right to be known by making themselves impossible to ignore. Conversely, the sheer number of men in history books demonstrates that historical men don’t need to be exceptional; they can be mediocre or outright failures, or simply quiet people with modest goals, and still get recognition if they were at the right place and time in history.

There are many interesting historical women who fall by the wayside because they don’t fit within the bounds of the badass-women archetype. They weren’t princesses or other heads of state; they didn’t become the first woman to accomplish this or that; they didn’t fight in wars or go into male-coded pursuits; they didn’t beat the men at their own game or necessarily beat anybody at any game. Their personalities and accomplishments are not easily reduced to sound bites that make you say “Awesome!” They were neither shining heroes nor nefarious villains, but humans with a mixture of positive and negative traits.

677c8fa926600f02395f2acaa8bec486

Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Describing Annemarie Schwarzenbach as a globetrotting crossdressing lesbian morphine addict certainly makes her sound like she belongs on a list of badass historical women. But the closer you look, the less she fits. There is a subtlety to her story that doesn’t translate well into superlatives. There aren’t a lot of over-the-top anecdotes about her, unless you count dying after hitting her head doing a bike trick. The inevitable string of love affairs and (more often) unrequited loves isn’t especially sensational, and many of the more badass aspects of her life, like driving sports cars and getting involved in the wild Weimar Berlin nightlife, were closely tied to the depression and addiction that would plague her for her whole life. There’s a vulnerability behind those haunted, sunken eyes that belies her go-everywhere, do-everything attitude. She was cool by any definition, but limiting her to nothing but coolness would mean completely missing who she was as a person.

The question is how should we talk about historical women in order to move the conversation forward, neither relegating them back to irrelevant set dressing nor stagnating at the point of treating them like Strong Female Characters. There are several important steps we need to take. And don’t worry: You don’t have to stop talking about Annie Oakley. You don’t even have to stop using the word “badass.”

katherine-cheung

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung

First, to dispel the impression that these badass women were unusual exceptions, let’s talk about them in the context of other women. If you’re discussing Amelia Earhart, for instance, talk about the 99s, the women’s flying club she cofounded specifically because she was tired of being treated differently because of her gender. To understand her place in aviation history, consider her in relation to her predecessors (Therese Peltier, Blanche Stuart Scott), her contemporaries (Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, Sabiha Gökçen, Pancho Barnes), and her successors (from Jacqueline Cochran to Mariam Al Mansouri). The ease with which we can create a list of other interesting, accomplished women in the same field is a sign of how much we lose by treating historical women like exceptions.

Second, instead of reducing historical women to “Did you know…?” sound bites, we need to have longer conversations. We need to look at these women’s entire lives, not just their wildest anecdotes or most famous accomplishments, and to really absorb their personalities, feelings, relationships, all the subtleties that made them three-dimensional individuals instead of copies of the same archetype. We need to find out how they felt about their own accomplishments. We need to open their letters and writings so that their own words are front and center, something I see surprisingly rarely.

Finally, we just need to expand how we view historical women beyond the dichotomy of “badass, therefore worth knowing about” and “not badass, therefore not worth knowing about.” Feminist Frequency’s new web series, Ordinary Women, covers a typical slate of historical women, but the title reframes them in a positive way by implying that these women weren’t wild exceptions but regular people and that any woman could aspire to similar accomplishments. We need to truly believe that all women are important and all their stories are worth telling, not just the rulers, the warriors, and the women who did male-coded things better than the men. Sure, most of us would say we believe that. But do we act on it? Do we actually give the Depression-era mother of six as much respect as we give the princess who made her suitors wrestle her for her hand and defeated them all? Do we treat women’s choices as valid whether they take up a male-coded pursuit or a female-coded one, whether they flouted their cultural mores or accepted them? Do we give women room to fail?

We should take care. After all, we’re setting the groundwork for how people of the future will judge us.


*Audience needs to be taken into account here. Those badass-women articles attract a predictable crowd of misogynists insisting that women really haven’t ever done anything in all of human history, facts be damned. But these people aren’t the audience for the articles and they don’t stand to be convinced by them. Generally, although with the obvious selection bias, I see these articles aimed at the sorts of people who least need to be won over.

Image sources: Boudica, Annie Oakley, The Alcove, Wu Zetian, Manduhai, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung.

Common Mistakes: Behavior

The goal of this post is to help beginning writers by pointing out some of the common mistakes I see in first novels. Not the obvious stuff you know to avoid, like info dumps and cliches, but the subtle stuff that seems perfectly natural and you might not realize was a mistake or even notice you’re doing. Many of these you might pick up from movies, video games, and RPGs, which have different genre conventions. I’ll be focusing on mistakes relating to behavior: Things it’s really easy to make your characters do but which are actually weird behaviors that no one would do in real life.

Enjoying the Action Scenes

This is a really easy mistake to make: You want your readers to enjoy the action scenes, so you make your characters enjoy themselves, too. After all, action movie stars laugh and quip during fight scenes all the time.

Sometimes $50 million of contractual immortality.

Sometimes $50 million of contractual immortality.

But in real life, being in mortal peril is not fun, not even if you’re a devil-may-care rogue or a dashing pilot. A real person will respond to an action scene like they’d respond to any other kind of trauma: Fear, crying, a fight-or-flight response, and so on. When characters have the complete opposite response, the impression is that they know they’re in a story and aren’t in any real danger due to contractual immortality. This undermines reader investment and actually makes the reader enjoy the scene less.

A character may laugh in the face of danger, sure. But laughter is not the same as enjoyment. Are they laughing to cover their fear? Is it the dark, ironic laughter of someone who knows their life is being squandered for no good reason? Is the need to accomplish a goal suppressing their self-preservation instinct? Any of these is an understandable, human response. Enjoyment is not.

If you write a lot of action and peril scenes, it’s worth checking out a book of war memoirs to get a sense of what people actually think and feel when they’re in life-threatening situations.

Being a Dick to the NPCs

spades-casino-crop

Anyone in a blue shirt is fair game.

In role-playing games, a PC is a player character, while an NPC is a non-player character controlled by the computer or gamemaster. Since the NPCs aren’t “real people,” it’s common for players to not show the NPCs much respect. This can range from being rude to outright killing people who annoy the player or get in their way, especially in computer games, where there may not be any consequences.

Nobody in books does anything that extreme, but I do often see protagonists who seem to understand that the named main characters of the story matter, but all the random unnamed people they encounter on a daily basis don’t. (This can’t be explained away by them leading an insular life: The unimportant people may include anyone from their own family to the king, as long as those people aren’t major characters in the story.) Sometimes this is direct. A character steals something they need from a shop, but this isn’t portrayed as a morally questionable act, because the shopkeeper isn’t a character and doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it’s indirect. Say the free-spirited princess secretly sneaks out of the castle to go on an adventure. That’s fun for the princess, but for the people of the kingdom, the unexplained disappearance of a member of the royal family would be a crisis on par with Princess Diana’s death combined with a terrorist attack. Now, the princess can sneak out, but it can’t simply be written off as harmless hijinks. It needs to be portrayed as a thoughtless act and the princess needs to grow to understand how much distress she caused, as in Roman Holiday, for example.

This doesn’t mean that every character needs to be nice to everyone. But how nice they are should be governed by their relationships, personality, values, and so on, not by the understanding that some people aren’t real characters in the story and therefore don’t need to be treated like human beings.

Cursory Behavior

This one is really hard to pinpoint, but often when you’re left with the vague sense that a scene doesn’t work, this is why. Imagine that a character is supposed to be jealously guarding a secret, but the protagonist figures it out in the next scene with no difficulty. Or two characters who are supposed to be sworn enemies are forced to work together, but they just snipe at each other a couple of times and then become best friends. Or the protagonist is trying to warn law enforcement about some imminent threat, but when law enforcement initially dismisses them, they immediately give up and go off to confront the threat alone.

In all these cases, the problem is that the characters aren’t really invested in their own actions. They’re not acting like they want to accomplish a goal, but like they want to seem like they’re trying to accomplish a goal so they can check that box and move on with the story. In the third example, the protagonist is acting like they know they’re supposed to confront the threat alone and are only talking to law enforcement to head off the inevitable question “Why didn’t you go to the police?”

"You seem like a trustworthy fellow."

“You seem like a trustworthy fellow.”

This one shows up a lot in RPGs, where player usually have a good idea where the story is supposed to go (or where they’re trying to make it go) and actions to the contrary are done to add a veneer of realism, not because that’s what the players really want to do. For instance, when a new PC joins the group, everyone knows they’re a good guy who has to become part of the group as quickly as possible so the story can move along, so any objections  are quickly put aside. (Same goes for when a player leaves a group and no one tries too hard to convince their character to stay.)

Always make your characters fully invested in their actions. They can be uncertain, but if they really think they should do something, they must really attempt to accomplish it to the best of their ability, rather than just trying to get it out of the way so they can get on with the story.

Plot Prescience

Building on the previous point, many characters show an uncanny knowledge of the plot. This can include anything from setting off in the right direction on a quest when they had no way of knowing which way to go, to figuring out correctly that a situation is or isn’t dangerous when there isn’t actually enough information to determine that.

This is closely related to the plot contrivance, a minor sin of which all authors are guilty at one time or another, but the key difference is the character’s motivation. If the character goes out for a walk and happens to stumble across the thing they were looking for, that’s a plot contrivance. If the character goes out specifically looking for that thing—without any clues about where to find it—and stumbles across it, that’s plot prescience.

And Aragorn knew to be carrying four hobbit-sized swords.

And Aragorn knew to bring four extra swords.

Movies, especially adaptations, must often make use of this device because they don’t have time to establish the how and why. In the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo and Sam randomly run into Merry and Pippin, that’s a plot contrivance. When Merry and Pippin then accompany Frodo and Sam all the way to Rivendell without even asking what they’re doing or why, that’s plot prescience. (Yes, Frodo is being chased by Nazgul, but that’s hardly a reason why a couple of random extra people with no useful skills should stay with him.)

This is a hard mistake to avoid, since it ties into plotting. Ideally, every plot beat is a logical lead-in to the next. But if that isn’t possible, remember that contrivance is allowable. Prescience isn’t. It’s better to allow your protagonist to run into the next plot beat by coincidence than to have them head directly for it without any way of knowing that’s what they’re supposed to do.

All these mistakes stem from the core problem of letting external factors your characters shouldn’t be aware of drive their behavior. The characters don’t know the fight scene is supposed to be exciting, or that some people they meet are characters in the story while others aren’t. Often this is so subtle you don’t even notice it’s happening, because from your perspective outside the story, their actions seem fairly normal. It’s only from within the story that you would notice how bizarre they are.

The solution is, unfortunately, not quite as simple as “always have your characters’ actions proceed purely from their in-world personality and motivations,” because strong plotting is also important and it doesn’t intrinsically follow from characterization (regardless of what you’ve heard). Instead, develop the plot and the characterization side by side so that they seamlessly feed into each other and the action the plot requires is also the natural thing to do from the character’s perspective.

Easier said than done, I know. But you owe it to your readers—and your characters—to craft a story where everyone’s behavior is human and understandable from within the context of the story.


Images are from The Avengers, Wasteland, The Gamers, and The Fellowship of the Ring.

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