diversity in fiction

There’s been an ongoing discussion about diversity in fiction for years. I’ve been following along, taking notes like a good little researcher. I’m invested in the SFF field in particular, but I catch ripples through the blogosphere when something blows up in realistic fiction, which is frequent.

I saw one going around this week about a blogger who (very politely but very stubbornly) insisted that diversity is cool and all, but it’s not cool to ask writers to diversify their casts if they don’t want to, because they should write whatever they want and it’s better to leave people out than write them poorly (oh and also if anybody tried to debate her she’d auto-block them). This kind of statement crops up a lot, and I think I even had a knee-jerk reaction like that when I was a teenager and first tip-toeing into writing discussion boards (“but what if I do it wrong!!”)

But then I read more about it. And also I grew up.

Fiction writing is a weird profession. Unless you are writing solely for yourself with no intention of publication, there is always a second party invested in your work: the audience. So as a writer you’ve got to be totally passionate and put your heart and soul into your work… AND you’ve got to be willing to let it go afterwards, to calmly assess criticism, and, if you want to appeal to your target audience, to listen to what they want.

I see some writers getting up-in-arms defensive about the lack of diversity in their work, but if you took away the political climate surrounding race (you shouldn’t, it’s important, but if you did), then what makes this different than any other constructive criticism? Are you opposed to all writing advice, or only writing advice about character-building? It’s a very odd blind spot, to me.

Consider this way of couching the same critique: “All of your characters are very similar and it makes for a bland read.” This should concern you. It is very lazy writing. Everybody in your book shouldn’t sound the same and have the same background. If you’re intent on improving your craft, one of the vital areas is characterization.

This applies to both realistic and fantastic literature. Your book takes place in New York City, but everyone is white? Um, unlikely. Your book takes place in Georgia and everyone is white? Come on now! If you can research the geography and the food and the history and the sights, you can spend some time researching who lives there. I guarantee it’ll result in a more engaging, authentic environment.

As for fantasy, you can make up whatever you want! You aren’t even in the situation of respectfully portraying a real culture, so all you’ve got to do is have basic awareness of the tropes surrounding color and then be a good creative writer and use your imagination to come up with something else. “Be creative” is basically the job title, after all. You actively choose every element to include or exclude.

And if you understand all of this, and you go out of your way to set your story in a very specific time and place that has an isolated white population that never interacts with anybody else–well, okay, that is definitely your prerogative. But maybe ask yourself why you’re going to so much effort to set up a situation in which, oops, it would be “unrealistic” to include anyone else.

This is how representation begets representation. I’ve never heard a female author whine that she doesn’t like to write male characters because she isn’t a man and doesn’t want to portray them incorrectly. There aren’t panels about how to write three-dimensional men. Why? Because there are already so many examples to mimic. Anybody who reads books can cobble together a male character without breaking a sweat, simply by mix-and-matching characteristics they’ve seen before and then adding a little backstory. What makes diversity challenging for some is that it means extra effort, extra research, extra reading.

When people say they wouldn’t know how to do it, so why do it at all, to me that’s code for “Not only do I never write outside my comfort zone, I never read outside my comfort zone.”

And if we’re not doing this because we like reading and we want to contribute new stories for other people to read, what’s the point?

baby bookapalooza

IMAG0246

Somebody wantee

I went up to my mom’s last weekend and picked up 133 baby and kid books from the family storehouse. Each of us had some books of our own, especially once we were in the elementary reading range (think Babysitter’s Club and Goosebumps level reading), but most of the learning-to-read books were just passed kid to kid. Why rebuy?

Anyway, my kidlet is years away from using most of these, so I’ll probably share around the cousin network for a while, but it was a hoot to go through the storehouse and pick them out. There are some real gems, let me tell you! Let’s go through in categories.

First, of course, there is the “everybody had some of these!” category. Your Clifford the Big Red Dog, your Little Critter, your Richard Scarry. Oh, and of course your BerenSTAIN Bears, which everybody in the universe remembers as being BerenSTEIN but what do I know.

IMAG0236

I’m sorry this is clearly a prank by a time-traveler, it was definitely STEIN when I was a child

IMAG0237

Oh and while we’re here let me say I think somebody needs a swift slap on the ass

Next, of course, there is the “brand tie-in” category which is now generally dominated by Disney/Pixar. I’m not knocking Disney/Pixar, I’m just saying that my nostalgia button is hit much harder by Duck Tales, The Muppets, and Super Mario Brothers! 

brand tie in

Okay Duck Tales is still Disney but c’mon

That Mario Brothers book is particularly great because they fully incorporated the magic mushroom element but also carefully backpedaled to discourage children from eating random sewer mushrooms.

IMAG0234

“Great gobs of purple pasta!”

Next up we get the “only nostalgic for me” category, which includes the fantastic story of The Little Red Hen. In this story the titular hen is trying to bake a loaf of bread. She goes around to her lazy friends asking for help at every step of the process, and at every step of the process her lazy ass friends make up shitty excuses and refuse to help. When she finally finishes her bread they all come snooping around and want to eat some. And what is the lesson here, kids? Say, “AW HELL NO YOU LAZY SHITS, I MADE IT MYSELF AND I’LL EAT IT MYSELF!”

IMAG0224

THE END

Also in this category we get the Strega Nona books by Tomie de Paola, about you got it, an old Italian witch grandma!

IMAG0252

Yep that is a boy disguised in girl’s clothing in the back. He just wants to learn Strega Nona’s magic!

Finally, there is the true reason for me cackling to myself all morning and writing this blog post. That would be the “wow THIS isn’t in print anymore!” category. I can’t get rid of any of these, because how would I ever find them again? There are a few different factors at work here. Firstly and dominantly there are all of the fairy tales and fables with gruesome plot lines, which have generally been Disneyfied over the years and spat back out in more kid-friendly versions.

But the “NOW YOU CAN READ!” series did not pull its punches. The vocabulary was simplified for first time readers, but those stories remained the same. Witness the horror that is The Little Mermaid.

little mermaid

Suggested murder and suicide, cool

There is even this amazing page at the back encouraging children to make their own stories with all these new words they’ve learned.

IMAG0231

KNIFE

The Illustrated Classics that I have stacked up at the top of this post were another glorious series simplifying literature for new readers. Again, the vocabulary is brought down but the stories are the same. I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame and then running, sobbing, to my mom because Esmeralda was executed and then the hunchback crawled onto her grave and died of grief.

IMAG0240

So long, Esmeralda

They even did a Tales of Mystery and Terror by Edgar Allan Poe, which resulted in this fabulous children’s illustration of Fortunato being buried alive in The Cask of Amontillado.

IMAG0243

The moral, kids, is don’t insult a Montresor

My final pick for the evening is the other type of “wow THIS isn’t in print anymore!” book. It was content originally written for children, as opposed to the simplified classics, but ummmmm I’ll let you see for yourself.

IMAG0216

Tomie de Paola strikes again

I do love this one. Oliver likes to dance instead of playing sports, so his parents send him to dance school. By the end the other kids stop making fun of him because they realize he is so good at dancing. It’s just a little story about acceptance and that it’s okay not to conform to gendered expectations. But you know. Woof. That title. That is some 1979 right there. I especially like all the Amazon reviews that say the book is unrealistic because bullies will only bully you worse if they watch you perform. But what are you gonna do? Dance on, Oliver.

IMAG0218

Oh Oliver

that f***ing rat!

When reading the same set of board books to my baby over and over (and over), I find myself making up new narration to entertain myself. I mean, hey, it’s not like he is anywhere close to learning to read yet! He doesn’t know what the book really says!

It reminds me of when my dad read to us when we were little. Because he was an ex-Navy man with the salty vocabulary to show for it, he entertained himself (and us!) by inserting curse words throughout. IT WAS THE HEIGHT OF COMEDY, YOU GUYS. Nothing is more thrilling to young children than the use of forbidden words. My particular favorite was some obnoxious little picture book about a bear that was afraid to go to sleep. A ‘sniveling shit,’ as I recall.

And THAT train of thought reminded me of the time I continued the grand tradition by sending my college-dwelling sister a modified children’s book for her twentieth birthday. This week, instead of anything funny or insightful, you get a picture book: the charmingly titled, That Fucking Rat!

P1050470

P1050472

P1050473

P1050474

P1050475

P1050476

P1050477

P1050478

P1050479

P1050480

P1050481

P1050482

P1050483

P1050484

the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end

This is realistically my last post of 2015. Let’s not be cute and pretend I’ll actually do a year-end wrap-up on New Year’s Eve. Your options are two weeks late or right now, so let’s do this.

I’ve posted enough about the highlights of my year (baby! house! MAD MAX FURY ROAD!) that I don’t think I need to rehash them yet again.

I had more physical ailments than at any other time in my life (gallstones! mastitis! Hashimoto’s!), hmm, and every one of them was baby-related. There’s a reason this used to be women’s number one cause of death. (In the U.S. for my age range I believe the crown now goes to murder. Woohoo!)

I wrote a book while on maternity leave and then entered an unproductive vortex following my return to the workforce. A handful of short stories are all I have to show for the last six months. Give me a moment to shed one artful tear… okay, moving on.

I’m going to end up reading exactly 52 books, which would be a much more satisfying number if 33 of them hadn’t been finished by July.

It’s hard to believe I have a 9-month-old trying to walk and talk. (For the record we’ve got four words: mama, dada, cat, and more uncertainly: baby). He’s gone from jaundiced, squish-faced goon to fiendish Joker face in no time at all.

goon to joker

Disgusting > Acceptable

In defiance of my usual seasonal writing pattern, I have officially begun my spring 2016 book early! I’m 1000 words in. Now I just need to do this about 79 more times and I ought to have something interesting to show for it. What’s that you say? Finish editing my 2015 book first? *COUGH COUGH* WHAT’S THAT OVER THERE??

Once we get past the remaining mess of holiday I’ll be embarking on some lingering home improvement and indulgent purchasing plans, including the highly coveted acquisition of a scanner. And then, OH HO HO, and then I will have some fun items to post from my ever-popular youth. There is always another stupid memory to exploit in the name of entertainment.

Finally, my biggest regret of the year was failing to throw a proper Back to the Future party. There will never be another opportunity like it. Alas, life got in the way.

So there you have it. Happy Christmas Eve and Merry New Year, I’ll catch you on the other side!

half year goals – three quarter year update

Well I brashly outlined some goals not too long ago. And. Well.

Hm.

I’m 4 books away from my minimum annual goal of 52 books per year, but it is noooot looking like I’ll read an additional 29. Every year I get cocky. Every year it falls apart in the Fall and then I read like crazy all my new birthday books in January.

Instead of editing a book I wrote a handful of short stories. But this is perhaps the kick-in-the-ass reminder I need to get back to that for the next couple of months.

I have played with my baby a lot. He is indeed saying mama. Good job baby!! He is also crawling and standing and eating vegetables and wearing 18-month clothes and generally being far too large for a 7-month-old. He is currently hiding beneath my giant hippie skirt while I type, cooing like a little bird.

My only abject failure of the year (so far) was my failure to throw a Back to the Future party around Future Day. *sigh* I made a planning document two years ago for this party, but life got in the way. Life got in the way of a date that will never happen again unless America breaks off from the Common Era and restarts the calendar. Except it wouldn’t really be the movie’s 2015 because that was expressly 30 years after the events of that 1985 and the McFlys were alive and well. And anyway I won’t be around in another 2,015 years probably so it is moot.

Aside from baby we have been *let’s drop to a whisper now* secretly house hunting. Not so secretly that I don’t make the occasional statement of existential despair on Twitter (why aren’t you following me??), but secret from most other acquaintances and social media. This weekend I ought to have some abrupt news to share on that front. Till then, the timing of this new venture has put a lot of other stuff on hold. Including the prompt updating of this blog, clearly.

Hopefully I can rally the rest of the year and deliver my promised blog gold, cosplay, and of course some objective reporting on our themed holidays. Because the countdown begins. We are 23 days away from THANKVENGERS: THE WINTER SOLSTICE. Prepare for ludicrous holiday decorations, irrelevant costumes, and a night of drunkenly competitive Mario Kart. This will be our fourth year hosting siblings’ Thanksgiving, and hoo boy howdy, it is shaping up to be the best one yet.

2015 reading update 2: the return of the academic hero

It’s been too long since my first update, but hey I’m also working again. I’ve got some more highlights to share. Lately there are so many exciting books coming out… I need more money and more free time!

Books Read So Far This Year: 45

Re-Reads:

I’ve accidentally been on a roll at Book Club—folks keep nominating books I’ve already read! It’s given me a couple of fun re-reads, notably The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Earnest I hope needs no introduction. If you don’t like reading plays then get yourself the Colin Firth/Rupert Everett movie and enjoy.

Perfume got mixed reactions at my Book Club but oh man I have such a fondness for its insanity. So it’s about a serial killer with the most perfect sense of smell in the world! The writing is so evocative of the senses, and the story goes in such a bizarre direction, I can’t help but enjoy it. It sweeps along like a horrific fairy tale and you prooobably won’t predict how it ends. This one also has a movie (with Alan Rickman!!) and bless them, they upped the ante on the crazy ending.

New Books By Authors I Already Read:

A whole lot of Catherynne M. Valente! Just go look at my 2015 Readings tab and assume I recommend every single one. I’ve also been finding short stories of hers in online publications, and I’m the worst at keeping up with short stories. Her style is so vivid, her prose so precise, she can make up every other word and still suck me into a compelling narrative. I don’t understand how she does it. This author goes on my list of books that I want to throw at the wall in jealousy as soon as I finish reading them.

I read some more N.K. Jemisin and Nalo Hopkinson, other authors on my “slowly acquire everything” list. And I found a book of short stories, At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. I had only read her novel, The Fox Woman (which is FANTASTIC), and like Valente she is now renewing my appreciation of the short format.

Books by New Authors:

Like I said, there is some good shit coming out all the time right now. I can’t keep up!

I read The Martian by Andy Weir and got myself all excited for the movie coming out this winter. Let’s go save Matt Damon in space again, because this story not only had a great voice but a plot composed of a really rollicking series of disasters solved by legit science.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison was an enjoyable tale of court intrigue full of elves and goblins and airships. This is a difficult subgenre to master in my opinion because you have to juggle a lot of characters and a lot of really minute worldbuilding or else the court system seems shallow. But you also have to make all of those characters distinguishable and keep the plot moving, and Addison did that well.

Finally, I wanted to highlight City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. I picked this up solely due to a recommendation on the great fan blog by Aidan Moher, A Dribble of Ink. And it was great! More great worldbuilding (Russian and Indian vibes + spy novel + a backstory about dead gods and colonialism that made me super jealous!), as well as a main character duo that I loved. Shara and Sigrud forever. I had just posted here about my love of academic action heroes, but I only used movie examples, figuring they’d be most accessible. Shara is now on my list of awesome academics in literature, and I ought to make that its own post at some point because she’s in great company.

I can’t help it, I just love seeing nerds thrust into a world full of monsters and explosions, in which their many readings save the day. You can’t possibly read anything into that!

rough draft hollaaaa

I didn’t post last week because I was in a writing flurry. I always go nuts when I’m nearing the end of a draft. If I did things right, then it is like dominoes falling all the way through the end. In this case there were a heck of a lot of dominoes, because it was book two of a two book set. Don’t ask me the details, for I am infuriatingly vague at all times.

And yesterday, it happened! I completed the rough draft! Now, it is definitely the roughest rough draft ever to draft, but it has the words THE END tacked on, so it is totally legit. I have to completely rewrite the first half because I had an epiphany and mentally changed everything, then carried on writing as though I had already implemented those changes. But shhh, shhh, let me have this moment! My goal was to complete a rough draft by the end of my maternity leave, and I did it with 6 days to spare.

Then I got really sad about the end of my maternity leave, and in a combination of self-congratulation and self-pity, I might have ummmm bought a couple more books than I originally intended when I entered my favorite indie bookstore.

DSCN0397

In the words of Homer Simpson: Haha, heehee, hoohoo. Oh my.

My word total for the year is up to 97,000, which I am pretty satisfied with. Plus about 30,000 words of an unfinished rewrite, when I went crazy for two weeks and thought I should turn this two book set into one book. I came to my senses, abandoned that madness, and carried on through the originally intended draft. But anyway, it’s done now!!

I’m going to spend this week outlining up a storm, and then reading the shit out of some books, and hugging the literal crap out of my baby. Tune back in for the next exciting chapter: Sam goes back to work and everything changes again!