Undiscovered Countries

On Labor Day, I had the pleasure of watching SyFy’s Trekathon. In these times where it seems like all the news is bad news, the future, and worse, visions of the future, seem increasingly bleak, it was both nostalgic and exciting to revisit the inherent optimism that Gene Roddenberry infused in the original Star Trek franchise.

StarTrek6pic_origI grew up in Star Trek. My mother, being a mixed-race woman growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, found the vision of a world of Infinite Diversity and Infinite Combinations (IDIC) to be compelling and wonderful. I grew up going to Star Trek conventions with her wildly diverse group of friends whose main point of commonality was this optimistic vision of what could be, and there is still a fanzine out there somewhere in someone’s attic with my first poem titled, “I Love Spock.”

idic_keep_calm_by_sailmaster_seion-d6dv4rrI don’t remember what I wrote, and that’s probably for the best.

I do remember running through the halls of the Hunt Valley Marriot Hotel at Shoreleave (a Star Trek convention that I recently revisited after a decade had passed,) playing laser tag with kids and adults of all ages and backgrounds. I remember being horribly teased because my mother wrote me a note explaining that the reason I wasn’t in school for the Friday of that weekend was because I had a “family reunion” and my friend at the time (who I’d made the mistake of excitedly confiding in) told someone else, who told a teacher, so when I got back, even the teachers were making fun of me being “taken to my leader” and the like. (Some of this was good natured, and some of it was not…doesn’t matter, my mom is just awesome either way!) I still have most of my Tribbles (and Dribbles, the ones with the eyes) and I owned the two tape series, Power Klingon, though I never had the dedication to learn the language. I remember Pirate parties, and watching the first appearance of the Borg at my mom’s friend’s house in front of her giant screen TV, gasping in horror and shock when Picard declared, “I am Locutus of Borg.”

i_am_locutus_of_borg_by_trotsky17-d5fjy65In short, I was raised in a Geek’’s Paradise, and it’s made me who I am today. Thank whatever Gods are out there.

Yet now, when we look at visions of the future in popular media, it seems like the darker aspects of our nature dominate. Don’t get me wrong, I love these dark stories too. The remake of Judge Dredd had me on the edge of my seat, and I’m a huge fan of the ‘we’re all just trying to stay ahead of the gutter, but we don’t really win’ theme that permeates Firefly (the series). I love cyberpunk and Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. I think these stories are a reflection of the world we’re living in, where the line between good and evil seems increasingly blurred, and there are so many possibilities even in your Facebook feed that it’s difficult to latch onto anything and call it right.

It’s hard to imagine a United Federation of Planets when even having an effective United Nations seems difficult, and getting the U.S. Congress to do anything seems impossible.

As fiction writers, we’re supposed to be lying to tell the truth. But I wonder if, in the barrage of negativity we see in the world, the bombardment of Youtube videos of beheadings, school and police shootings, and the generalized glorification of violence that seems rampant in our media, we are reflecting the right stuff. Not that I’m advocating in any way the forced wholesomeness of censored media. I just wonder if by reflecting disproportionately the dark, depressing, and violent, are we in turn projecting a future of increasing darkness, depression and unnecessary violence?

such_different_tribbles_by_ayumi_lemura-d4fskiw

When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise, that vision did not reflect the world he lived in. The world he lived in had rampant sexism and racism throughout. The world he lived in considered the Russians and the Japanese to be the enemy, and Black people having equal rights to be a threat to the fabric of ‘normal’ society. He projected a better world (okay, one that still had its fair share of sexism and whitewashing but he was trying.) His future was optimistic, and people like my mother in that optimism found a future worth believing in. It’s what drew me towards science, writing science fiction and fantasy, and towards a deeply held understanding that the differences between us can be breached through open conversation and mutual respect. I think it helped foster in me a basic belief in the goodness of people (which often contrasts with reality, but I’ve found that by having faith in people’s better natures, they will often live up to them in spite of themselves.) It’s not 100%, and Star Trek has been forced on many occasions to examine and recreate itself when it has not lived up to its vision, but that vision has shaped our world and many, many people (like me) in it.

trek cast classic

When I think about writing, I do find myself sometimes falling into the trap of being reactive. In writing, especially in writing speculative fiction, we have the ability literally to shape worlds and reality, and it’s easy to reflect haphazardly instead of truly creating. And reflecting is great, when there’s something behind it. That said, I also think we have a profound opportunity, right now, because things seem so dark, to create through our fiction a world we want to live in. Not a perfect world, but maybe a possible future where the darker parts of our nature haven’t won yet. Where it’s not a given that we’ll all be living in a dystopian hellhole just because it sure looks like that’s where we’re going. (and I LOVE dystopian hellhole books and movies, I’m just sayin’…) Maybe we can write about a world where everyone, at every moment, isn’t entirely operating from pure self-interest. (GotG managed to pull this one off I think) Because compassion is a part of us too, and sometimes it even wins. The truth is, we are a mix of dark and light, optimism and pessimism, action and reaction.

So let’s lay in our course to the futures that we create, and let some of them even rest among the stars.

Naima

 

 

 

Speculative Fiction podcast link spam!

When it comes to fiction, I generally prefer reading over listening, but over the last few years, two factors have led to me spending more time listening to short fiction podcasts: 1) I’m a dreadfully slow reader with very little free time, and 2) I often have stretches at work where I’m doing fairly routine tasks like binding or scanning music—the perfect opportunity to put on my headphones and let someone else do my short fiction reading for me.

What’s been interesting about listening to fiction rather than reading it myself is that audio often gives me a better sense of when a story is truly gripping me. The less engaged I am with the story, the more I find myself zoning out and missing things. But when a story’s good, I’ll hang on every word—assuming the narration is decent, that is. There have been a few times when I’ve given up on an audio story because of a monotone narrator or mispronounced words left and right. Sadly, poor narration can ruin a perfectly good story. Luckily, poor narration has been the exception in my listening experience.

That’s enough babbling from me. I now present you with the promised podcast link spam! I’m sure there are more short fiction podcasts out there, but these are the ones I’ve given a listen to (some more than others).

Magazines that podcast some of their content:

Other assorted speculative fiction podcasts:

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her writing at www.babarnett.com.

Writing news: KALEIDOSCOPE is out today! :)

I’m delighted to announce that you can now read my color vampire story “Krishna Blue” in the diverse speculative young adult anthology Kaleidoscope. An excerpt is available here.

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

Also, I did a guest post at Visibility Fiction on why I wrote the story. Here’s a taste:

“A kaleidoscope is a thing that twists colors into beautiful mosaics, each one different and lasting only as long as the object chamber isn’t turned again. Ephemeral but gorgeous. I’ve always loved them. I’ve also always loved colors themselves, always imagined being able to ingest them, to slice myself a piece of cerulean sky and crunch it between my teeth like rock candy, to gulp down the sweet-tart mango juice of a setting sun. So it only makes sense that I would eventually write a story about a color vampire.

But that ache for color isn’t the only thing that led to this story. It’s a tale about many types of hunger, one of them the desire to belong. You see, I grew up in a small farm town in the American Midwest where difference was not exactly welcome. A girl with brown skin and a name that wasn’t Greek or Anglo in origin didn’t belong, and my teenage insecurity and lack of self-esteem did nothing to help me fit in. In short, I was miserable.”

Anyway, I hope if you check out the link and the story, you enjoy them!

Love and lotuses,

Shveta

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, active dreamer, devourer of books and tea and chocolate, occasional harpist, and part-time nagini. You can learn more at www.shvetathakrar.com.

Writer vs Distraction, Round 478.

You’re reading this post, but you’re also checking Twitter. And Facebook. And maybe Reddit? How about G+? (Heh, just kidding.) Perhaps there’s a link suggesting that you click to discover the 14 best celebrity butts. Or how this corgi will make you weep with joy. Are any of those things helping you get writing done?

click-bait

 

Seriously, you do have about 12 windows open on your screen RIGHT NOW. Either that, or you’re caught in the Spiral of Despair, where you check each Social Media Thingy in succession–clicky, clicky, clicky—-until you realize none of those things is going to fill the void in your soul and none of those things will help you write the thing you need to write.

I know this is true because you’re a human living in 2014. Well, buck up, friends. There’s a solution. It’s called turning off the internet!

Yes, yes. Easier said than done. Yet this problem of infinite distraction is so well recognized that people are writing books about it (presumably, they did so after turning off their own internet). At least one person, Michael Harris, has started a thing called Analog August, and I think it’s worth a try.

The overall concept is broader than just reducing distraction, but you have to start somewhere. The less you look at the many, many screens you own, the healthier you’ll feel. The less distracted and stressed you’ll be. The more TIME you’ll have. And the more brain power you can pour into creative projects such as writing.

Based on this idea, I’ve come up with a few ideas for analog newbies, or just peeps who want to stop wasting time digitally,. Throughout the month of August (or whatever month you stumble upon this), try to teach yourself to do at least one of these things:

  • Check your email at predetermined times. Do it at the beginning of the day to check if you need to act on any work/personal emergencies, after lunch, and in the last hour of your work. Only respond to emails during those times. Tell people they might have to wait a few hours for an answer. Imagine them swooning.
  • Turn off all your notifications. Those little beeps and red dots are turning you into Pavlov’s dog, slavering at a cue but rarely getting a tangible benefit for all your devotion.
  • Put. The phone. Down. Walk away. Take a breath. Here’s a secret: the internet is gonna be fine without you for a while. Hours, even.
  • Tell yourself the computer is a tool, not a connector. Turn off the internet (or use an app like Freedom, if you need help). Then just….write your thing. Don’t click away from the writing app. Just write. When you need a break, don’t go to Facebook. Just stare out a window and imagine what Jack Kerouac/Jane Austen/Stephen King would do about the next chapter.
  • Go full analog. That means pen and paper. Write down your ideas. Draw a mind map. Doodle. You may find that you can retrain your mind to make new connections. There’s also something pretty cool about rediscovering whether you have good handwriting or not (Fact: I do not).
  • Turn of your TV/screen/shiny device and read a paper book. If you’re like me, you still have a stack of really real books to be read. Yes, even if you love your Kindle. So go pick one up and start reading.
  • Put away your devices and talk to a human who has also put away their device. Crazy? YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

These are just examples of ways to unlearn your addiction to digital stuff. Some of them are tougher than others. Some require more thoughtful ways of going through your day. But the main point is to realign your priorities so you are not at the beck and call of your devices. Make them work for you. And also, there is a world outside the digital. Live in it. It’s a pretty neat place.

 

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Free Writing Resources Online

FreeSo you think you have to spend thousands of dollars on books and classes in order to learn how to write? Well, you probably will over the years, but there are also some great free resources you can use right now to either get yourself writing kick-started for the first or 400th time. Here’s a selection of some awesome free writing resources I’ve found:

Writer’s Digest Free Downloads: http://www.writersdigest.com/free

Including blogging to setting deadlines to plagiarism to grammar rules for novelists, there’s a lot of great information here, for FREE. Most of these are excerpts from Writer’s Digest books on writing, but they’ve got some excellent books on writing so jump right in!

10 Universities Offering Free Writing Classes: http://education-portal.com/articles/10_Universities_Offering_Free_Writing_Courses_Online.html

Note: A lot of these are geared towards academic writing, but there are some fiction courses here. Some of these are youtube videos of classes while others seem to be online classes. I haven’t tried any of these, but it looks pretty neat.  If you have done any of these courses, please let me know what you thought in the comments.

My only caveat for any and all classes is try out new techniques and approaches, but don’t take anything as gospel. Otherwise you end up like me when I first began writing, starting every fiction piece with a dead body on the floor because that’s how you hook the reader… One of my favorite writing professors often says (paraphrased), “There are no rules for writing. There only the rules you find for yourself, but every writer, once finding her rules will then cheerfully and from the best place work to hammer them into everyone as though they are ‘the rules.'”

10 Amazing Free Writing Courses: http://freelancefolder.com/10-amazing-free-online-writing-courses/

These are geared to the freelance writer, which you might be doing as you work on your great fiction opus, so it’s worth taking a look at.

And a grab-bag of daily writing prompts:

30 Sci-Fi Writing Prompts: http://www.justinmclachlan.com/684/sci-fi-writing-prompts/

 Creative Writing Prompts for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Lovers: http://www.writingforward.com/writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts-for-sci-fi-fantasy-lovers

 Daily Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Prompts: http://www.promptinspiration.com/category/writing-prompts/science-fictionfantasy/

 Writing Prompts That Don’t Suck: http://awesomewritingprompts.tumblr.com/

And here’s my personal favorite:

Nanowrimo: http://www.nanowrimo.org

I’ve been doing Nanowrimo almost every year (I took a year off in Japan) since I read Chris Baty’s Book “No Plot, No Problem” years ago (I don’t remember how many, but at least six). The best thing about Nanowrimo is you can do it any month of the year (though in November, you get the fun of doing it with a whole world of writers). Not only have I written four and a half novels through Nanowrimo, it has really given me a different relationship with my prose. I’m not so wedded to creating the perfect sentence or even chapter, but instead I understand that the book has to be finished before you can edit it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’re in a rut, it’s a fun, high intensity way to kick yourself out of it. Most of Nanowrimo is volunteer organized with forums and local events in your area. I’ve met some wonderful friends all over the world doing Nanowrimo. Give it a shot, you won’t regret it, and all it costs is time and a clean house :)

So here’s some weapons for your arsenal! Check it out, put your butt in the chair and get that writing in gear!

Naima

Learning the Craft: A Writing Cheat Sheet for Newbies

Having been critiquing for a while now, I’m starting to recognize what I would call phases in a writer’s growth. These phases include making certain kinds of mistakes, similar to how children learning a language make predictable errors. In English, for example, a child often says “brung” as the past tense of bring. Which makes plenty of sense—it just happens to be that bring has an irregular preterite form (brought). But eventually the child figures out the grammar and learns to speak the way the adults and older children nearby do. Really, learning any art is like that: you’re a beginner stumbling your way through, first copying the work of those you admire, and then branching out and discovering your voice, and finally honing that voice so that you can tell/paint/sing in a way that’s wholly yours.

Most of us go through these phases—I guarantee my fellow Sirens and I have made many of the mistakes detailed below!—but it’s important to keep working at your craft so you get past them. Ways to do this include being in a critique group with people who are (currently) better than you, study the books you read to see why they work and don’t, and above all, keep writing.

And here’s a little cheat sheet of problems to look for and avoid in your own work to help you level up that much faster.

  1. Whether you’re writing in first or third person, never varying sentence structure and ending up with blocks of text that look like this: “I went to the market. I bought apples and mangoes. I spent a lot of money, and I carried home lots of bags.” Basically, I, I, I, I, I or she, she, she, she, she. Vary your sentences and find ways to avoid using all those pronouns!
  2. Using too many dialogue tags. If you do your job right, the reader will figure out who is saying what. Plus you can take the opportunity to add some action beats like “Sarita bit her nail. ‘I don’t know’” rather than “‘I don’t know,’ Sarita said” and show us what’s going on. (Don’t overdo this, either, though!)
  3. Using verbs that are actions to mean “say” like: “‘Close the door,” she sighed/laughed/shrugged.”
  4. Using weak instead of strong verbs. Here I’m not talking about grammar but precise language: see the difference between “The child was mad” and “The child screamed how unfair it all was.”
  5. Using cliché details again and again, like the color of a love interest’s eyes. “They were so blue, I lost myself in them.” “I stared into his blue eyes.” “His blue eyes were full of fury.” Once is enough. ;) Also, eyes really don’t convey all that much specific emotion.
  6. Giving the reader too many details about things that don’t matter to the story, like every piece of furniture in the room.
  7. Conversely, not giving the reader enough details about a setting or what someone looks like. (White room syndrome.)
  8. Overexplaining a character’s actions through internal monologue instead of showing the reasoning through context.
  9. Not delving into the emotional consequences of a character’s actions. For example, let’s say a woman discovers her husband of ten years has been cheating on her but just shrugs it off and goes on with her life, no emotional reaction, or at most a shallow one, displayed. Not only is that unrealistic, but it cheats the reader. What ultimately makes a story work is the raw and difficult emotional struggles characters go through.
  10. Having characters repeatedly gasp, storm across a room, grab people’s hands, burst into tears, shout. Good characterization is usually much subtler. Look at one of your favorite books to see what I’m talking about. The dialogue, the choices the character makes, the way the character reacts to adversity . . . all these things will add up to form a much more believable person.
  11. People’s jaws rarely drop in shock in real life, just like their eyes narrowing in anger. These tics are something we learned from fiction.
  12. Flat characters who have only one or two defining qualities, like being brave or nervous or even the generic brooding love interest. Round your characters out!
  13. This goes for protagonists, too. Don’t tell us what they’re thinking or why/how they supposedly are as people; show it! Showing is much more powerful and allows the reader to connect to the character.
  14. Thinking every detail matters. This goes for internal monologue (what the character is thinking), adjectives, and adverbs. Less is often more; then every detail you give the reader will matter.
  15. Using too many punctuation marks that call attention to themselves. These include semicolons, em dashes, and exclamation points. Like salt in a dish, use them sparingly and trust your writing to do the rest.
  16. Adhering too closely to plots and formulas you’ve read rather than telling your own story. This one especially comes with time and practice.
  17. Not having a unique voice for each character.
  18. Forcing theme and message rather than letting them flow naturally from the story.

I hope these are helpful. Readers, can you think of anything to add?

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, active dreamer, devourer of books and tea and chocolate, occasional harpist, and part-time nagini. You can learn more at www.shvetathakrar.com.

Siren-ish fiction on the web!

Barb here to interrupt your regularly scheduled blog programming with a moment of shameless self-promotion:

1) My story “The Swan Maiden” (originally published in the October 2013 issue of Flash Fiction Online) is one of the audio stories featured in the latest episode of the new fantasy fiction podcast Far-Fetched Fables; and
Unburied Treasures cover

2) Unburied Treasures: An Illustrated Anthology of Speculative Fiction, which includes my story “7:74 p.m.”, is now available as an ebook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and iTunes. It’s only $2 and is full of all sorts of fantastical goodies—including a talking pug, ’cause that’s how my story rolls.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.