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.

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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.

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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.

The Gendered Roots of the “Hillary Is Untrustworthy” Meme

If you ask average people on the street about Hillary Clinton, odds are you’ll get one overwhelmingly common opinion: She’s untrustworthy. This idea is extremely culturally pervasive, and unusually for a simple smear, it crosses party lines: Many self-identified democrats and progressives will also happily repeat the uncritically accepted fact that you can’t trust Clinton.

This idea is also a carefully constructed narrative.

Hillary-Bored-at-Benghazi-VictimsWhichever outrage du jour is being trotted out to prove her untrustworthiness is immaterial; the narrative (over 20 years old) preceded all the evidence given to support it, and the only reason anyone has any evidence that Clinton is untrustworthy is because there have been decades of witch hunts trawling her record for any detail that could be used to support that narrative. It’s a kind of aggressive scrutiny rarely, if ever, leveled against a male politician, and utterly out of proportion with her actual track record.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s a gendered element here. There’s a faction who vehemently hates the presence of a woman in politics and will do anything possible to discredit her—and there’s a much larger faction who are quite convinced there’s no gender bias to their thinking, but who will happily and uncritically believe any negative rumor they hear about Clinton. This article is mainly for the latter.

To be clear, this isn’t to say that Clinton has never done anything untrustworthy or that there are no factors that influence how people view Clinton other than the gendered media narrative. Every narrative has true facts that are used as evidence for it. But those are post-hoc justifications; the narrative exists separate from her actions and it would exist whether she had actually done anything that might support it or not.

Nor is it to suggest that you’re not allowed to personally think she’s untrustworthy or that everyone who thinks so is just uncritically swallowing the media narrative. It might be possible to independently come to the conclusion that Clinton is untrustworthy. But, given the long, adamant campaign to convince American voters to think that, it’s about as likely as independently coming to the conclusion that Miller Lite tastes great and is less filling. When someone puts this much effort into trying to make you believe an idea, it’s smart to look very hard at why.

There are many ways Clinton has been singled out and treated differently than other politicians, and specifically treated as particularly deceptive or untrustworthy regardless of the actual facts. Many people will attempt to argue away every example given below as completely explicable due to other factors and therefore unrelated to gender and not an example of Clinton being treated differently, just as many people will staunchly insist that all kinds of unfair treatment women have nothing to do with gender. Indeed, a lot of people who readily acknowledge the pervasive effects of sexism on the rest of society nevertheless believe it doesn’t apply to Clinton. But to anyone who’s serious about gender analysis, the evidence is compelling:

  • There’s a pervasive assumption that Clinton is just in it for money and power, as if other politicians weren’t in it for money and power. Note particularly how other politicians can defend themselves against this charge through words and actions, but anything Clinton says or does to the contrary just shows she’s not being honest about her motives and becomes further evidence of her deceptiveness. This paradigm therefore makes it literally impossible for Clinton to disprove the narrative.
  • Like Clinton, John Kerry held complex foreign-policy views that he changed as new information became available. But Kerry was labeled a “flip-flopper,” a fairly harmless epithet that suggests nothing worse than an inability to make up his mind. Clinton, on the other hand, is treated as though every policy change is a cynically calculated move by someone who knew everything all along. Also, many Democrats noted that Kerry’s flip-flopping is actually a beneficial trait (the ability to revise one’s views based on new information), whereas Clinton is not extended this same courtesy.
  • George W. Bush was an incredibly untrustworthy person, but even his enemies generally only labeled him stupid and incompetent, not willfully deceptive. He was given the benefit of the doubt and even people who hated him were usually willing to extend him the courtesy that he’d made bad decisions due to ignorance or incompetence rather than malice. But even people with far less cause to dislike Clinton happily label her as malicious.
  • The Benghazi hearings, an obvious witch hunt by Republicans with the stated intent of jeopardizing her political campaign, are a perfect example of how little Clinton’s actual behavior affects the narrative: They were convened on the assumption of wrongdoing, they found no wrongdoing, and now they’re used as evidence of wrongdoing. Notice that there was no similar witch hunt against George W. Bush (or Colin Powell) after 9/11, for instance, despite it being a much larger disaster in which there was at least as much evidence of misconduct.
  • Clinton’s email scandal should have been obvious proof of how watertight her campaign actually is, since it’s clearly a trivial issue of the sort that all politicians probably have in the closet, with no actual bearing on the country. But it was blown into a huge issue that many progressives also latched onto as evidence of her untrustworthiness. Meanwhile, other minor, dubious actions, such as Sanders inappropriately accessing campaign data or the odd case where his staffers impersonated union members, are treated as the trivialities they are and not turned into scandal material.
  • Democrats have allowed the Sanders campaign to define the Democratic primary as a purity test specifically along the axes he promotes most strongly, casting him as an ironclad progressive and Clinton as inherently questionable and needing to prove herself. Issues where Clinton leans right (foreign policy) are taken as proof that she’s not a real progressive, while issues where she’s left of Sanders (women’s rights) are ignored; meanwhile, issues where Sanders leans left (economic policy) are taken as proof positive of his progressive credentials while issues where he is right of Clinton (gun control) are ignored. Indeed, progressivism is increasingly defined as strictly dem
  • Clinton’s associations are taken as reflections on her character and agenda more than other politicians’. Clinton ally Deborah Wasserman Schultz’s attacks on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are taken as proof positive that Clinton will attempt to destroy the CFPB; Clinton’s own statements in support of the CFPB then become proof of her untrustworthiness. But, for instance, when Obama employed the relentlessly skeevy Rahm Emanuel, that wasn’t taken as proof of Obama’s “real” agenda.* And sketchy Sanders associates like Jeff Weaver actually exonerate Sanders, because anything negative that comes out of his campaign can be attributed to them rather than him.
  • hillary-clinton-cartoonThe typical attacks on her personality as cold, bitchy, conniving, or even (paradoxically) overemotional feed into the interpretation of her as a person you wouldn’t trust if you knew her. Male candidates, on the other hand, are much more commonly seen as affable and trustworthy. But if anyone who has met Clinton says she’s friendly and affable (or, conversely, that Sanders is unpleasant), the narrative instantly flips and friendliness becomes evidence of cynical charisma she uses to manipulate people.
  • Clinton is still blamed for her husband’s actions in office and even for his infidelity. When her policies differ from the 1992-2000 Clinton administration, it’s taken as proof of her inconsistency (again, always assumed to be a cynical political move and not simply an evolving opinion). Male candidates are never judged against their wives’ actions.
  • Serious problems and mismanagement during the Arizona Democratic primary have been labeled as Clinton-masterminded electoral fraud, even though Arizona is helmed by anti-Clinton Republicans and key Clinton demographics like seniors and minorities suffer the most from electoral fraud. Meanwhile, similar problems in Sanders-supporting states like Utah have gone unmentioned (as has the increasing ubiquity of these problems in all elections)…as, for the most part, has Sanders’ attempt to actually steal Nevada, which Clinton won by five points.

And these are only the biggest and most quantifiable examples. There are a host of smaller microaggressions that, just like the microaggressions ordinary women face every day, can’t be provably linked to gender but add up to a distinct pattern. Campaign finance is always a big deal, but the scrutiny Clinton has undergone, especially for her speaking fees, has a distinct undertone that a woman doesn’t deserve so much money. And then there’s the vague feeling that you just don’t like her, don’t trust her, get a better vibe from the other guy. Sure, you could react to any candidate that way, but it’s the woman–and the blowback extends down-ballot to other invariably female politicians, like Barbara Boxer, Kamala Harris, and even Elizabeth Warren. And the people who distrust Clinton are vastly more male than female.

Across the board, Clinton’s every action has been interpreted as proof that she’s a cynical mastermind manipulating everything for her own gain, and the burden of proof has been on her and her supporters to disprove that assumption again and again for each individual claim, whereas male candidates have been given the benefit of the doubt even when evidence points to actual wrongdoing. Obviously there’s a strong gender bias at work. But what are the narratives underlying it?

Don’t Bother Your Pretty Little Head

why-girls-act-dumb-1413460257446-crop_desktopThe first sexist narrative casting women as untrustworthy is that women are silly, flighty creatures who can’t be trusted to make decisions because they’re not rational enough to use their brains rather than their feelings. This is the narrative of benevolent sexism, which seeks to cast decision-making as a process much too difficult for women, and is one of the key reasons women were denied access to politics in the first place. The idea that women will vote (or hire, promote, etc) based on a candidate’s attractiveness or other “irrational” reasons comes from this narrative (the male tendency to vote for the candidate they’d like to have a beer with never counts against their rationality, for some reason). It’s also the narrative of Sarah Palin, Megyn Kelly, and other influential women who deliberately present themselves as unintelligent in order to appear non-threatening and acceptable to men.

But this narrative has relatively little to do with Hillary Clinton. Men certainly resent her for not being an airhead and many of the demeaning attacks about her femininity have a lot to do with that, but I doubt many people think Clinton is untrustworthy because she’s just a silly woman.

The Femme Fatale

rita1Another common sexist narrative about women is the seductress. She occupies the other side of the madonna/whore dichotomy from the silly woman: She’s shrewd and capable, and she uses her wits—and her body—to manipulate men to get her way. The basic idea is that a woman taking charge of her life, especially her sex life, is a deliberately aggressive act against men. Aside from being a common Hollywood plot, this is the narrative of every harasser, stalker, and rapist who insists the victim was “leading him on” or “asking for it.” It’s the narrative of every man who rants about his crazy ex-girlfriend (sometimes how every girlfriend he ever had was, against all odds, crazy) and who paradoxically calls a woman a slut for rejecting him. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the woman was actually having sex or not: Refusing sex can equally well be interpreted as a way to manipulate men.

In politics, this narrative most often comes up when sex is involved, and it’s always personal. Women who discuss contraception get called sluts. For Clinton, it’s usually about her husband. She’s the cold career woman who drove her husband to cheat and her choice to stay with him was a cynical act of political manipulation.

Still, this has little to do with her current political career; her relentlessly professional image meant that she was rarely, if ever, interpreted as a seductive figure at any point, certainly not now that she’s pushing 70. That said, the ambient sense that women in general are always manipulating men hasn’t done her any favors.

The Old Boys’ Club

movietalk-12angrymen-jpg_200809The answer, it turns out, has nothing to do with Clinton herself.

The third sexist narrative at work here doesn’t directly cast women as untrustworthy. Instead, it casts men as particularly trustworthy. The narrative is that men obviously belong in traditionally-male spheres and have no need to justify themselves, but women don’t belong and their presence is inherently suspect. People are used to seeing men in certain contexts,  so a man’s presence—say, a male doctor or a male pilot—relaxes them. A woman’s presence, on the other hand, confuses them and makes them uncomfortable, and they rush to construct narratives to explain her incongruous presence. This is the narrative of every grandpa who just feels like that male mechanic will do a better job fixing his car, every Silicon Valley company that decides that every woman who ever applies just doesn’t fit in with their culture, every professor who assumes the boys in the pre-law program will become lawyers but the girls are probably just there to meet boys.

And that’s just the baseline. When you add in real-life experiences, they don’t disprove this narrative, they actually reinforce it. Since men have huge majorities in male-coded spheres, they can network and build relationships and personal credibility. For ordinary people, Joe’s dad always used to fix my car, so I know I can trust him. For political elites, Joe was in Skull and Bones with me, so I know I can trust him. Without the benefit of those long-standing connections, any woman who enters a male sphere is inherently suspect. Why is she there? What does she want? How do we know she’s trustworthy if she didn’t go through the sanctioned male-specific channels?

Notice how little this has to do with the woman herself or any trait within her control. She must prove her right to be in that sphere, while a man is assumed to belong unless he proves otherwise. In this air of suspicion, even a woman’s qualifications may be taken as evidence against her. Impressive credentials may raise the question of why she isn’t in a higher position and whether she has dirt in her past. Strong connections are evidence that she only got the job because of Daddy or that she slept her way to the top. Even plain friendliness may be taken as an act and evidence of an agenda, whereas a friendly man is simply being friendly.**

This, then, is the main narrative behind the idea that Clinton is untrustworthy. She’s present in a field where she isn’t supposed to be, and that makes whatever she does suspect. Things that would normally be assets, like political experience, become liabilities. Each of her actions is attributed to the worst possible motivation, while male candidates are given the benefit of the doubt. The witch hunts begin, scrutinizing her record for the big scandal that must be there somewhere, because she can’t simply be a competent, qualified female politician, and if she appears to be, that’s only proof of how deceptive she is and how well she’s suppressing her dirty secrets (despite the relentless negative press about her).

 


*Like most of the notable differences in attitudes towards Obama and Clinton, this one cuts strictly along race/gender perception lines. Obama was closely scrutinized for his personal associations and what they said about his character, the implication being that he was un-American and “other.” Clinton is closely scrutinized for her political associations and what they say about her agenda, the implication being that she’s untrustworthy and “up to something.”

**Since this narrative is about the in group versus the out group, it also works intersectionally. Obama’s presence in politics was initially so suspicious that it spawned the birther movement. He also faced the same paradox where traits that were seen as positive in white male politicians were seen as liabilities for him. For instance, Obama’s short political career meant that he was inexperienced, while the white male candidates were more seasoned and thus better choices. So did Sarah Palin’s. Now, Clinton’s long political career means that she’s an establishment candidate, while the white male candidates are outsiders and thus better choices, and the fact that Rubio had the same small amount of experience as Obama was practically never mentioned.

Images found here, here, here, here, and here.

Anachronistic Attitudes

You’ve seen her in every historical adventure or fantasy film you’ve ever watched: The plucky female character who wears pants, refuses to get married, and shares her outspoken opinions about suffrage, slavery, and so on with anyone who will listen. She is the anachronistic character.

Sherlock-Holmes-Movie-sherlock-holmes-and-irene-adler-12073171-1920-1080An anachronistic character is someone in a historical-inspired work whose attitudes and opinions would be wildly out of place within the setting, but would fit right in today. Women from the Victorian era or the middle ages who have modern feminist opinions are the most common example, but it can also include progressive attitudes about race, politics, and social structure (for instance, a character in a feudal culture advocating capitalist democracy). Beginning writers often write anachronistic characters because they’re worried that readers will mistake their characters’ attitudes for their own; for instance, not wanting to make a character in early 20th century America racist for fear of seeming racist themselves.

Now, not every character who disagrees with social norms is anachronistic, nor is every character whose attitudes would fit in today. Every era has had its reformers and dissidents; American abolitionism, for instance, are as old as American slavery itself. And sometimes attitudes only seem anachronistic because of modern misconceptions, like the idea that every premodern culture was as prudish about sex as the Victorians.

movies_20_memorable_movie_queens_15The key point is not just that the character’s attitudes are unusual for the day and age, but that they’re specifically chosen to appeal to modern sensibilities. For instance, a lot of female characters decide to defy conventions and wear pants, whereas male characters never defy conventions and wear dresses, even in settings where both would be considered equally deviant.

Another important aspect is the scope and connotations of the opinions. Anachronistic characters act with the aggressive confidence of someone who knows for a fact that their opinions will be validated in the future. They happily reject values and principles that would have been considered foundational in their culture and instead use modern reasoning to support their positions. Sometimes they end up sparking full-fledged social movements and changing the whole culture. Needless to say, these movements always succeed.

In real life, there have always been people who didn’t fit well into their prescribed social roles, both in real life and in fiction, from Jo March to Scout. But these characters are also products of their culture and they interpret their experiences in that light. They know full well when something is unfair, but they don’t necessarily conclude that their whole culture is at fault, and they usually respond within culturally acceptable bounds. This doesn’t make them weak or oppressed by their culture; people today obey similar social boundaries. That’s why not many men wear dresses.

p15The solution to the anachronistic character, then, is not simply to go the other direction and make every character in the story unthinkingly accepting of the status quo. This is unrealistic in its own way, and things like racism were wrong and ugly even in contexts where they were widely accepted. Your characters can and should be critical of their culture at times, but they must do so from within that same cultural context, taking into account all the attitudes and beliefs that inform it, and with a realistic understanding of what they can accomplish. Don’t just make them sound like time travelers from 2016.


First image is from Sherlock Holmes (2009). Second image is from King Arthur (2004). Third image is from Mulan 2.

Comp Titles

IMG_2223Comp titles: Agents love them; writers agonize about them. Comp titles are one of the most consistently misused aspects of querying, and it’s no wonder so many authors would rather dispense with them entirely. But a good comp title is a great selling point for any book. It’s well worth learning how to choose an effective comp title to use in a query.

In this post, I aggregated 12 blog posts from industry professionals (list is after the cut) and noted what advice they mentioned most often.

Don’t use extreme bestsellers as comps: 7
The most common advice was not to use extremely popular books as comp titles. Authors constantly claim their book will be the next Harry Potter, but doing so only demonstrates two things: That you’re not realistic about your goals and that you probably haven’t read very widely.

Comps should be recent: 6
This was the second most common advice. Using really old comp titles, like The Lord of the Rings, is not helpful because it doesn’t demonstrate that there’s a market for your book today. (This is true even if the book still sells well today, because it doesn’t doesn’t show that there’s a market for a new book  Agents listed cutoffs anywhere from 3-20 years, but the more recent, the better.

Comps demonstrate the market for a book: 4
The most common misconception about comp titles is that their purpose is to demonstrate what your book is like. It isn’t. Their purpose is to demonstrate that there’s a market for your book: That there are readers who bought similar books and will probably buy your book, too. That’s why it’s so important that comps be the same genre and age category, and above all, recent.

Don’t use overly obscure books: 4
The flip side of not using overly popular books is not to use overly unpopular books. A comp title is no use if the agent hasn’t read it, and if the comp title didn’t sell well, it’s not a good way to demonstrate that your book will. On which note, you also shouldn’t usually comp self-published books, since you’re trying to show that your book can compete in the world of traditional publishing.

Comps should be in the same genre and age category: 4
I lumped these two together, as did most agents who mentioned them. This is self-explanatory: If your book is kidlit, the comps should be kidlit. If it’s fantasy, the comps should be fantasy. Don’t use a book from another genre even if it’s really similar thematically or otherwise.

Comps are important: 3
Three people specifically mentioned that it’s important to include comps. However, one person specifically mentioned that you don’t need to include comps (see below). But no one said that they hate comps and never consider them.

Comps should be in the same format: 3
This is getting into the more technical publisher side of things, rather than the agent side, but if you plan to release a print book, don’t comp an ebook. If you want a hardcover run, don’t comp a trade paperback. Also, your comp titles should be, you know, books.

Comps should be from the same publishing season: 2
I’d never heard of this, but two different people mentioned that comps should be released at the same time of year as you plan to release your book. Again, this is mainly publisher stuff.

Finally, the following tips were each mentioned once. These are individual opinions and may not be representative of the industry as a whole.

-Comps should share your book’s themes
-Don’t use more than two comps
-Comps are not essential
-Movies and TV shows make good comps
-Tone is more important than plot
-You should be able to explain why the titles are comparable
-Comps demonstrate that you read your own genre

Conclusions
Two types of advice stood out as the most common. First, comp titles should be in the right range of popularity: Modest enough to be realistic, but popular enough to demonstrate your book’s potential. (My suggestion: Use titles that are very popular within your narrow genre or subgenre. For instance, I use some of the most popular YA historicals. They aren’t mega-blockbusters, but any agent or editor with the skill set to take on my book will know them.)

Second, comp titles should share as many technical features with your book as possible: Genre, age category, format, publishing season, and of course a recent release date. Conversely, few people mentioned more subjective elements like plot and themes. I conclude that finding reasonably popular comp titles that closely match your book in these respects, even if the plot or general feel of the book is very different, is a much better strategy than using more loosely-related books, even if they capture the subjective feel of your book very well.

The sources I used are after the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

The Secret

img002It was the days shortly before the Lord of the Rings movies were released and my sister and I were patiently trying to coax our mother into the world of Tolkien by means of the beautiful BBC radio dramatization. Mainly, of course, this was self-serving. Our mother required a constant stream of chatter to amuse her while she drove us to school, and if we were unobliging, she’d force us to listen to NPR, so the epic 26-episode series provided a full thirteen hours of sound we actually wanted to listen to. We knew she wouldn’t go for it, and she didn’t. Somewhere in the middle of The Return of the King, she announced, “All these names mean nothing to me! ‘Aragorn met Saruman at Minas Tirith:’ It’s just gibberish!”

I privately thought that, if I absolutely couldn’t get my mind around something, I wouldn’t announce it with so much pride.

img002 (3)It was the days shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies had been released and New Line was trying, unsuccessfully, to recapture that success with The Golden Compass. My father was a little more amenable than my mother had been to The Lord of the Rings, but he kept calling the Gyptians “Egyptians,” with no apparent awareness that this was a mistake. I was in college by then, and beginning to notice a pattern.

I had been aware of adults’ disdain for fantasy, and indeed for anything creative, for a long time. The more “official” the adults in question, the more marked it was. It showed up in schoolwork: No room for dragons between A Separate Peace and The Old Man and the Sea. It showed up in the ubiquitous persuasive essays (as a contrarian twelve-year-old, I delivered a persuasive speech against persuasive speeches, based on the iron-clad thesis that no one wants to listen to them) and in the ostensibly “creative writing” assignments that were just anecdotes about our own lives. I wracked my brain for anything that had happened to a middle-class suburban good girl that was worth telling. I learned to recycle assignments, not out of duplicity, but for the sake of sheer survival. A decade later, creative writing is my job and persuasive writing is only a hobby. Draw your own conclusions.

img002 (2)In art class, my portfolios overflowed with extracurricular doodles and drawings of mythical creatures, drawn in the spare moments between the still lifes, contour drawings, and abstracts that made up the actual curriculum. I knew that real artists either drew from life or they drew abstracts. They didn’t draw from their imagination, and they certainly didn’t draw illustrations of fantasy stories they made up themselves. I was lucky enough not to have many authority figures outright condemn my creativity, but there was always that quiet, firm pressure to move in a different direction.

As a kid, I unquestioningly accepted that the kinds of books and art I was pushed toward by school curriculum, by reading lists, by museums, by the dreary Newbery award, were superior to the kinds I chose on my own. I could read The Lord of the Rings if I liked, but it would be better to read some nice realistic fiction. Why would the critics like it so much if it weren’t better?

img002 (4)I was wrong. I’ll tell you a secret: Critics, teachers, and other “serious” people don’t dislike fantasy and other forms of imaginative self-expression because they’re bad. They dislike these things because they don’t get them.

My mother didn’t dismiss The Lord of the Rings on the grounds that it was sophomoric wish-fulfillment; she dismissed it because she couldn’t keep track of all the names and places, and it was easier to write the whole work off as nonsense than to accept that it was maybe written for people sharper than her. My father substituted the name of a real group of people for the name of a pretend group of people because he couldn’t make sense of them unless he related them to something he was already familiar with. And so it goes. Scratch a snobbish fantasy-hating critic and you’ll find someone who is hopelessly out of their depth and desperately doesn’t want to admit it.

img003What about those autobiographical “creative-writing” assignments? There’s a whole class of people who simply can’t comprehend writing about something other than themselves. For them, writing a story they didn’t directly experience is a challenge, one that didn’t really happen is an impossibility, and one that not only didn’t but couldn’t happen is not even to be dwelt upon. That English teacher kept assigning us essays about ourselves because he literally couldn’t think of any other possible topic.

Bird ManThe same bias shows up in art. One of my beginning drawing books described drawing from imagination as “difficult, but exciting.” But if I began doodling a curvy line, it would sprout wings, legs, and a monstrous face. Drawing from imagination is not, ipso facto, difficult; that author was just bad at it. (Conversely, I find it difficult to draw abstract geometric patterns without turning them into something representational. Fantasy is not a superior or more advanced art form; all art forms require skill sets that some people have and others don’t.)

So the next time someone tells you that serious writers and artists don’t waste their talents on fantasy, remember: What they really mean is that they just don’t get it.

Maz Kanata

(The following post is based on this Twitter discussion. It contains minor spoilers.)

Maz-Kanata-Star-WarsFor such a major release, the reception of The Force Awakens has a surprising lack of contention. There are parts we all agreed were great (Finn, Rey, Poe, BB-8, General Organa, basically the whole movie) and parts we all agreed were weak (the derivative parts of the plot, Captain Phasma’s squandered role). But the only major point of contention I’ve seen is over the character Maz Kanata, a CG alien played by Lupita Nyong’o. In the interest of not setting myself up as the arbiter of women of color, I won’t draw a conclusion, but merely present the sides of the discussion.

Maz shows up in the middle of the film to dispense wisdom and give the protagonists Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. Her character bears more than a hint of Magical Negro, which is one criticism she’s received, but I’m most interested in the discussion surrounding the casting of Nyong’o as a CG character.

Now, partly people were just disappointed not to see Nyong’o onscreen because she’s awesome, a grievance I totally understand, but the bigger issue is the feeling that the filmmakers deliberately hid her behind CGI because they didn’t want to put a black woman onscreen. And when you look at the whole franchise, a lot of evidence points that way. For one thing, she’s the only woman of color to appear in a Star Wars film…ever, meaning that out of seven films, a woman of color has still never appeared in the flesh.

Then there’s the franchise’s history of using voice actors of color but not letting them appear onscreen. The original trilogy uses James Earl Jones to contribute the momentous voice of Darth Vader, but when his helmet comes off, he’s played by a white guy. Clearly Star Wars has no compunctions about shortchanging people of color.

But there’s another side to the conversation. Special-effects characters (that is, characters created using mocap, puppets, and other techniques instead of being played by onscreen actors) also have a long history of being dominated by white men. Nowadays Andy Serkis plays everyone. Back in the practical-effects era, representation was even worse. The puppets of the original trilogy came from Jim Henson’s workshop, where the puppeteers were virtually all male. A nasty feedback loop formed where the lack of female puppeteers lead to a dearth of female characters, which led to a lack of roles for female puppeteers. It’s still standard practice for men to voice the few female puppets. Puppeteers of color weren’t common either.

So puppetry and its descendant, mocap, are another field desperately in need of greater diversity. Nearly all the special-effects characters in Star Wars, from Yoda to Sebulba, are coded and voiced male. (I don’t know how many were voiced by actors of color, but I’d be interested in finding out.) Since race and gender aren’t key parts of these characters’ identities, it’s easy for white male creators to default to giving them to white male actors and puppeteers. So Nyong’o’s role as Maz is its own kind of breakthrough; I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the first woman of color to perform a special-effects character in a Star Wars film.

Of course that’s little consolation to people who want to actually see her. As the lone woman of color in an entire film franchise, Nyong’o can’t singlehandedly correct every imbalance. Hopefully we’ll see more women of color in the upcoming films, both onscreen and off.

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