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

 

 

 

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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

Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

What do you do when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper, blank screen, or partially complete manuscript and you have nothing, I mean NOTHING to say? Let’s face it, this is an experience we’ve all had as writers, especially fiction writers. Whether you’re just starting a story or smack in the middle of it, we’ve all frozen up.

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

  • Is this story wrong?
  • Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Do I just suck as a writer?

After years of writing, I’ve found the source of my deep freeze usually stems from two areas:

1. Am I missing something I need to know about my world?

  • This applies both to realistic and fantastic fiction, though your approach to answering that question may differ. For example, in a recent, non-speculative fiction novel, I had to write a scene about a man who was having a heart attack. The story was set in modern day, but characters had neither a working cell phone nor a landline telephone. I had a number of characters on the scene, one who was trained in CPR. My story got stuck rather quickly because I needed some basic information: (a) how long could a person be under CPR before being reasonably revived (b) how long a person could perform CPR without succumbing to exhaustion (c) how far the runner would need to go in order to find someone with a working cell-phone? A bit of research into the terrain and the intricacies of CPR and I was good to go!
  • The same thing can apply more deeply. For example, is your magical system unclear? What do people eat in your world, what are the obligations of a host to a guest, how long does it take to travel from village A to B and etc. Sometimes the answer is just learning more about your world, whatever it is. The danger of this, of course, is spending the next two weeks playing the research game. So how do you escape this trap? For me, I always ask myself, what is the minimum I need to know to write the scene? Get specific. For example, I need to know what the obligation of a host is to a particular guest, but only insofar as it’s relevant to the scene at hand. I can fill in the rest later, should it become relevant. The more important a detail is to your story, the more you need to fill it in, but if it’s a minor thing, don’t spend more than a ten or fifteen minutes looking/making it up.

So how do get yourself unfrozen when faced with a world building problem? Here is my favorite site for developing my world: Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. It is VERY detailed, and I don’t start with doing everything here, but I try to touch on the high points as I like to have a fair amount of worldbuilding done before I start writing. I also find that these questions apply just as well to science fiction as to fantasy worlds.

LINK: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

2. Am I missing something I need to know about a character in the scene?

  • Main character: Is there something important that I don’t “know” about my main character that I need to know in order to start this story/write this scene? Do I know enough about this person’s past in order to understand her present? Do I have a good feel for her voice?
  • Supporting Characters: Is there something I need to know about non-main character in the scene? I especially love to ask this of minor characters. What’s the butler’s story? How about that kid in the corner shining shoes? The fool? The family dog? The most important question for me about minor characters is “what do they want?” Either that or, “what is their secret”. Both of these are fun. Even something as simple as the man serving wine wants to get back to the kitchen and see his  boyfriend gives me some idea of how he’s acting in the scene. His boyfriend is the main character’s brother makes things even more fun.

So how do you learn more about your characters? For me, the best method for finding out what I’m missing is to do a character journal. If it’s a main character, I’ve generally done a character journal either before I start the book or at least somewhere in Chapter 1. But for minor characters, I may not know anything about them at all. So my first step is to look at each minor character and ask myself, “What are you doing in this scene? Why are you here?” and most importantly, “What do you want?” or “what is your secret?” Usually my instincts for this are pretty good, and it only takes 1-2 characters for me to find out who the important (seemingly unimportant) person in the scene is. Once I know who this person is, what they want, and what they’re hiding, the scene usually gets unstuck rather quickly and it’s full speed ahead!

My favorite resource for character journaling is in Alice Orr’s book No More Rejections. I’ve used the character journaling techniques in this book for over a decade and they’ve work for me. What I like about her approach is that you answer the question in the first person and there are many questions like, “I think my best feature is ____” which allows you to really get into the psychology of how the character feels about herself as opposed to merely a physical list of traits. I’ve applied this approach to character lists I’ve found for free online, but hers is the best, in my opinion.

LINK: http://www.amazon.com/No-More-Rejections-Secrets-Manuscript/dp/1582972850/

So that’s my approach, first I check my world, and then I check my characters. What do you do to get unstuck? Feel free to post in the comments below.

Let’s talk about GoT Baby – A Game of Thrones Link Grab Bag!

I’m not going to lie, I just got back home after almost two months of globetrotting and I’m as jetlagged as I can be, so we’re keeping this one short and incoherent.

Let’s talk about Game of Thrones!

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I’m one of the rare literary nerd types who hasn’t actually read the series in advance of the television show. This is because I made a deliberate decision when I was about 17 years old not to start a thousand page/book epic fantasy series until it was finished (for fear the author would lose interest or suddenly expire, leaving me on an endless cliffhanger…kind of harsh but there you are), and while I don’t always follow this rule, it has generally served me well. It’s also why I haven’t read Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time.

Since falling in love with the television show GoT though, I have started to read the books, taking care to read each book after the television series has covered what happened in it. (Hence, I’ll be reading book 3 after season 4). This is because nine times out of ten, you like the book more than the television series or movie, and the best way to enjoy both is to watch it first, then read. This is another personal rule that has served me well.

I am enjoying Game of Thrones: watching the show, playing catchup with the novels, looking at memes and catching up on all of the chatter about the show online. It’s with that background that I bring you some interesting perspectives from other well-rested bloggers that I have found online.There are spoilers through season 3 as well as for the books up to that point. You have been warned.

Ever ask yourself how female characters are handled in the GoT television series? Do you think Sansa Stark is wildly annoying or a tough girl in a bad situation? How about all of those whores? Here are some interesting links related to feminism and GoT:

In Defense of Sansa Stark: http://feministfiction.com/2012/05/10/in-defense-of-sansa-stark/ (and check out the rest of the articles about GoT on this site)

Just Because You Like it Doesn’t Make It Feminist: http://feministcurrent.com/7578/just-because-you-like-it-doesnt-make-it-feminist/

Do you get a bit squirmy when you see how POC are depicted (or not) in GoT? Some interesting articles on race and GoT.

Is Game of Thrones too White: http://www.salon.com/2012/04/01/is_game_of_thrones_too_white/

George R. R. Martin speaks on Race and GoT in Season 4: http://www.themarysue.com/grrm-thrones-race/

Game of Thrones HBO TV Show Has a Race Problem: http://www.policymic.com/articles/48275/game-of-thrones-tv-show-hbo-show-has-a-race-problem

Game of Thrones and the Disabled:

The Disabled Can Play Game of Thrones: http://www.fangsforthefantasy.com/2012/03/disabled-can-play-game-of-thrones.html

Pop Culture: Review of Tyrion Lannister: http://disabilitythinking.blogspot.com/2013/05/pop-culture-review-tyrion-lannister.html

And some humor:

Honest Trailer – Game of Thrones: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVaD8rouJn0

So what do you think? Have any other links to share? Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.

Stranger in a Strange Land: How to Take Your Reader to New Worlds

In the summer of 2007, on the first day of my first week of the Odyssey Fantastic Fiction Writing Workshop (an excellent program that was well worth blowing my savings at the time and living without income for six weeks,) our teacher and fearless leader Jeanne Cavelos led a fascinating discussion on what unique expectations readers bring to speculative fiction as opposed to realist genres. One thing she noted was that speculative readers (scifi/fantasy/horror) are looking for an experience of estrangement. They like being immersed in a world or experience that they don’t fully understand and then filling in the pieces from context. I know this is true for me, and I bet it’s true for a lot of you who are following this blog as well.

Imageshutterstock.com

I dig estrangement. I love the idea of exploring strange new worlds, and when I travel, one of my favorite things is to just get lost and see where I end up. Wanting something completely different was one thing that brought me to Japan to live and teach in spring of 2010. I’d studied Japanese off and on, and though circumstances prevented me from my dream of living Japan for many years, when I had the opportunity, I jumped in whole hog and had the time of my life.

As a foreigner living in a place where English was often not spoken, I had to learn to live and work in my second language (and second culture). I was also partially illiterate and the system of measurement was in metric, which really messed me up because I never knew how faraway things were or what the temperature really was. Much of my daily life was about picking up thing from context and challenging my own assumptions about how the world was supposed to work. In short, I was living estrangement. To add to the fun, after three years when I went home in spring, 2013, I was once again a stranger in a strange land as my habits, assumptions, and life were out of step with that of my family and friends. Within a month or so, I had adjusted back to my life in the States, but the experience lingers.

Now, a year later, I’m sitting under a kotatasu in a hostel in Sapporo, Japan, having returned for a one month visit. Returning to a country with a vastly different culture has gotten me thinking again about estrangement and how it works in fiction, and like someone who makes stuff up for a living and expects random strangers to believe it at least for some time and pages, I’m going to spin some theories about estrangement and then give some ideas on how to apply them to your own writing. Disclaimer: like much of my life in Japan, I’m winging it. There are two types of estrangement that I think are important to discuss and apply when thinking of how to construct cultures and societies different from your own in fiction. I will call them Category 1 and Category 2.

Category 1 has to do with taking an extreme or opposing viewpoint to a binary that exists in your culture.

For example: Cultural assumption: Woman are biologically made to bear and raise children and have to struggle to be equal to men in non-domestically related work.

Response: I will write a world where men are seen in that light, whether it’s by a change in male anatomy or an idea that women bear the children and the men stay in the house to raise them, etc. Or I’ll make my main character exist in a culture where this assumption doesn’t exist so you see about 50/50% division of careers (either in or out of the home). This is often done to great (and not so great) effect in SF, Fantasy and even Horror fiction.

Living in a world where there is a core cultural assumption that exists on the opposite of a binary than your own is quite estranging. For example, in my second year of teaching at Japanese Elementary schools, I came head to head with this sort of cultural binary when I decided that I wanted to incorporate phonics education into my work with the students. Though my classes were conversation based, because I worked at six schools and taught grades 1-6, I didn’t get a lot of time to work with my students, especially grades 1-4. I knew that after elementary school, they would be moved to a heavily reading and grammar based Junior High school educational model, and it seemed to me that the faster I could get them reading, the easier time they’d have retaining what they’d already learned, interacting with written English outside of class, and in their future education when they left me. I’d come to this thought both through training at my company and other reading I’d done on EFL education. At five of my six schools, I had a great deal of flexibility in lesson planning and execution, so incorporating phonics wasn’t really a problem (beyond my own learning curve in presenting it).

At my sixth school, however, they had a well-established and excellent curriculum for teaching English, and I was actually and only an assistant. I’d assumed, with this school’s really strong commitment to teaching English, that once I presented the benefits of incorporating five or so minutes of phonics pronunciation education into what they were doing, it would be a no brainer and I was really excited to see how the students at this school, who already had an intensive English curriculum, would improve with this addition of phonics.

Alas, it was not to be. I was frankly bewildered at the abrupt rejection of the idea and assumed it was because my Japanese wasn’t strong enough to effectively present the idea. I had a moment with one of the school advisers, a woman who spoke perfect English and whose opinion I deeply respected, and presented the idea again. She also said no, and when I asked why, she said, “and if our students improve so much from learning this, what about their Junior High school teacher next year? How will she be able to handle the difference in skill level between our students and her other students? That will be very difficult for her.”

Mind…blown…

I realized suddenly that this was a clear example of a cultural assumption coming in at the opposite side of the individualism vs. collectivism binary that we often see in writings about Japan (and we often see over-romanticized and oversimplified in my experience). I’m an individualist, raised in an individualist culture. Those kids were “mine” and I wanted them to be the best, period. I didn’t (and still don’t, tbh) care about how difficult it makes the Junior High School teacher’s life, and my cultural assumption was, “if I can teach my students to do something better, then this makes me a better teacher and thus I am successful at my job.”

Confronting a world where individualism wasn’t naturally favored was highly estranging for me. I also realized that there had been a lot of very subtle things that were truly different in my daily life as a part of coming at the binary from the opposite side that I simply hadn’t noticed. It was shown in how decisions were made at the school, for example, which students in each grade were selected for having produced the best calligraphy in the new year (a complex, time consuming group effort that had bewildered me at the time).

The individualism vs. collectivism binary is something that we understand culturally, though we certainly skew strongly to one side of it in the US and many Western cultures. Because it’s a binary that exists in our culture, which is why I placed it under Category 1. Here’s some good approaches for writing Category 1 estrangement in my experience:

Step 1:  Take a binary that you take for granted in your culture. If you’re American, just watch any political speech during a Presidential campaign season if you’re stuck for ideas.

Step 2: Challenge it. For example: Democracy is the shining light of freedom (what if it’s not?); We want all of our children to be well educated (what if your made up culture doesn’t; what if they only want certain types of children to be educated or what if they don’t want anyone to be educated?); In order to lead a county, you must be the most patriotic (what if it’s the opposite?), etc. If you don’t like politics, you can always look at fashion magazines instead. What if thin isn’t attractive? What if light skin and long hair isn’t favored? Etc. All of these things are different and create a feeling of a different world, but all of these things exist within your own existing assumptions and cultural binaries, hence they are Category 1.

Category 2, in my mind, is bringing in cultural assumptions that exist out of established binaries. In truth, these aren’t any different to write than challenging Category 1 assumptions, but they are more difficult to find because you really have to think OUTSIDE of your own boxes. For example: the binary Men vs. Women doesn’t take into account the concept of fluid or different genders outside of male/female. The moment you create a third or a fourth gender, or a period of life where people are not seen to have gender, you are no longer taking a position within an existing binary, but instead creating a truly different cultural assumption. Note, I’m saying gender here and not sex, though you can certainly create a sex based biological difference between non male/female genders, I think it’s equally, if not more, estranging to create multiple genders outside of obvious (to us) biological differences.

An example from my life in Japan that really brought this concept to life for me was the experience of living for three years in a place where monotheism was not the norm. If you grow up in the US, whether or not you are polytheistic, you live in a larger culture that assumes (Judeo/Christian) monotheism as the norm. Further, this binary’s opposite in the USA is atheism. In short, there is literally no room made for polytheism or animism (or other ‘isms’) in everyday life in the States. This assumption of monotheism (and its opposite being atheism) permeates every aspect of our lives. When we sneeze, we don’t say “Gods bless you.” Only one God blesses America. When you’re surprised, it’s “Oh my God!” or “My gosh” if you think the first one is blasphemous. Do you want to enjoy a feeling of estrangement? Try explaining the meaning of these expressions to a classroom full of students or a group of friends who have no assumption of monotheism (and no particular interest in it beyond the academic). Try explaining curse words and the Devil. Then listen to your students explain their cultural and religious traditions and their relationship to their Gods. Try living in a world where Christmas is a dating holiday and people rush to KFC for their Christmas chicken dinner.

One very interesting cultural experience I had here was attending church with my Brazilian friends. As members of the minority religion, my Brazilian Christian friends had to travel an hour to find a church that was their denomination, which happened to be in a building in the middle of a rice field. (Lots of buildings are in the middle of rice fields where I lived in Japan.) Contrast this to temples, which are a dime a dozen (there were two within walking distance of my apartment) and on Japanese holidays they are packed with young and old alike. The Church was also full, mostly with foreigners whose religion was as thought about by mainstream Japanese culture as often as we in the States think about Shintoism. Fantasy novels often have polytheistic cultures, but I can’t think of that many we see in SF, though Battlestar Galactica, the TV series, comes to mind. In my SF reading experience, if you have a religion in SF, especially among human beings, it’s monotheistic (and generally recognizably Judeo-Christian). This is in part, I think, due to another Western cultural assumption that society moves from animism and polytheism to monotheism and then with the introduction of technology, to secular atheism. Not everyone believes this, but I think it’s an assumption we see a lot in SF, and like all assumptions, we chose it and other cultures have chosen different ones.

So how do you take step away from Category 1 estrangement (taking a position on an existing binary) and step into Category 2 (creating another option)? I think a good way to do this is to take an existing binary and ask yourself what exists outside of it. Instead of taking a binary like White vs. Black, why not have some other colors too? Why not have a cultural assumption that through science, one gains a better comprehension of the various Gods that exist in the universe? Why not have a culture where there are four natural genders that people pass through as they age, in varying order depending on other cultural factors? In my opinion, both Category 1 and Category 2 estrangement can be used to create great speculative fiction. However, it’s easier to work within what you already know. Like a fish who has lived its entire life at the bottom of the ocean, the concept of running is not obvious. It’s weird and wonderful and estranging in the best way. It’s something our readers are looking for when you take them to strange lands in their minds.

Next question: How do you step out of your own assumptions? Well, you can go live in or at least travel to a different country for a while. I recommend it, but it involves you uprooting your life and it isn’t so cheap. Another thing you can do is meet and talk to people who are from other countries. Learn a new language and make some new friends. (believe me, as someone who has lived and traveled abroad, the help and insight you can provide will be invaluable to their lives). You can also read books by people from other countries and cultures. Autobiographies and realist fiction is great from other cultures is great. What assumptions are common to other cultures, and how are they different from yours both within your own cultural binaries and outside of them? Work to get your mind blown. It’s uncomfortable, unnatural and downright weird. Isn’t that the point?

A Writer’s Guide to Managing Your Social Media Addiction

ImageIn spite of my best efforts, I kill a lot of time on social media. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and though I’ve managed to stay strong and avoid Tumblr, I assume it’s only a matter of time before I succumb to that, as well. I’ve always been a person who is vulnerable to the siren’s call of the Internet. I remember those AOL CD-roms and spending money on an hourly basis in the 8th and 9th grades to sit in a chat room, generally about Star Trek, and engage in typed conversations with 10-15 strangers. We shared deep moments of communication, including: Age/Sex/Location check and “Data or Spock?” I spent hours doing this every day, just for the thrill of knowing that I was talking with someone all of the way in Oklahoma, which as far as I was concerned might as well have been as far away as Mars and certainly a weirder place to live.

I think in part it’s because since I was a kid, reading sci-fi stories and watching movies with future technology my iPhone now puts to shame, I’ve been waiting for a world where I can hold a computer in my pocket. I’m an oddball among my writer friends. Not only do I love eBooks, I’m also happily sending my paperbacks (and even many of my precious hardcovers) to the used bookstore in favor of my digital library. eBooks truly saved my literary butt when I lived in Japan, allowing me to keep up with new books by my favorite authors and read new books too just like I was living in the States. In fact, the Internet was my main way of keeping up with events and family at home, and I was grateful for social media for allowing me to maintain my relationships in an easy and fun way.

Now though, after close to a year back home, I’ve noticed that the Internet, specifically social media, is taking over my life. And not in a good way. The inter-connectivity I’ve always craved is actually getting too invasive, what with the push notifications (even my flashlight wants to send them to me) and the feeling that I really should respond to this post or that message/tweet RIGHT NOW! And this issue is being exacerbated by the fact that I am now doing most of my professional work in front of a computer screen, a new experience for me. I’m living my dream, making my living through my pen (mostly writing to spec and some editing, but hey…it pays the bills), and as such the distraction of the Internet is always front and center. So managing my internet social media addiction is increasingly vital to my happiness and creative life. And I’m betting I’m not alone, hence this post.

Other creative professionals approach this issue in varying ways:

Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock fame, has taken the hands off approach and chooses not to participate at all: http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/sherlock-actor-benedict-cumberbatch-admits-3143719

ImageLaudable, but as I’m managing all of my professional social media marketing (and my brain would probably explode if I didn’t look at least one adorable kitten video daily) that’s not going to work for me.

ImageFor most of us, personally and professionally, life requires some degree of social media engagement. These are the tools we use to keep in touch with family, friends, professional contacts and eventually fans. Facebook allows me to keep up with my friends overseas and coordinate visits as well as other business. It also is allowing me to build my personal mailing list so that I can send notification of new releases and book specials to my readership. It reminds me of my friends’ birthdays (I suck at that) and lets me know when events are happening in my city.

WikiHow (http://www.wikihow.com/Defeat-a-Social-Networking-Addiction) suggests that the first step towards dealing with social media addiction is to admit you have a problem. Probably, if you’re still reading this, you know you have a problem. I think it’s more important to determine how severe a problem you truly have with social media. You may be perfectly happy with your social media usage, even if it is a couple of hours a day that you could be doing something else. Until recently, mine has actually been manageable, in large part because I had too much else going on in my life to spend hours and hours online. Now though, my life has settled down, and this gives me more time to kill…literally. Hence, I’m feeling like it’s time to make a change.

So here’s my six step trial program

Step 1: Admit you want to make a change in your relationship to social media. As I said above, until recently, I was perfectly happy with my social media usage, though, for other people, it might have seemed a bit much. Lots of people complain about using Facebook too much, but actually they really aren’t bothered by it. They keep rocking on with their goals and it’s just not a big deal. That might be you, and that’s cool. But if you are feeling like your social media usage is detracting from other important areas of your life, and you think that’s a problem, then it’s time to make a change. Also, if your family/friends think it’s enough of a problem to express this to you, that’s also a clue that you want to make a change, for example: you’re too busy checking your Facebook to interact with people at parties or are more concerned with your hotel WIFI in Beijing than seeing the Great Wall.

Step 2: So you’ve decided you want to make a change. One piece of obvious advice is to ask yourself how many minutes to hours daily you want to spend on social media, and then stick to that plan. So, you want to spend a half hour a day on social media. Okay, set a timer for 30 minutes and turn off the social media when it goes off. Even better, do this at the end of the day when you’re done working (instead of in the morning when you wake up and then at lunch, and again midafternoon and etc.)

As I said, this is obvious, and it doesn’t work very well in my experience for two reasons:

  1. You have to pick a goal that is actually something you will do. If you’re spending 3-4 hours on social media throughout your day, trying to cut down to 15 minutes/day is not going to work unless you have incredible self-discipline. Which, face it, you probably don’t because otherwise you wouldn’t be spending 3-4 hours on Facebook daily. I personally don’t have incredible self-discipline, so I’m aiming for 30 minutes, 2x/day for Facebook and 10 minutes daily for Twitter. After I get my work done. (And remember to set that timer. There’s one in your smartphone. It’s smart like that.)And after you’ve turned off your push notifications (or whatever they’re called on your phone, and if you manage Facebook pages, turn off the notifications on your Pages app as well), the next step is to let your close friends know that you aren’t going to get on Facebook and Twitter until the evening, so if they really want to contact you, send a text message. Or make a phone call. Weird, I know.
  2. You probably have a smartphone, and it LOVES to let you know about any changes to your social media accounts. For example, I have an iPhone that sends me PUSH notifications whenever anything happens on my Facebook and Twitter. I don’t even think about them. Most of us don’t. Did you know you can turn these off? It’s in your phone settings. After you’ve decided how long you want to spend on social media, go to your settings and turn off your notifications (if you manage Facebook pages, turn off the notifications on your Pages app as well). It will feel like a kick in the gut when you do this. You’ll glance at your phone, wondering if someone has sent you a message that is eagerly awaiting your response. Remind yourself that a few hours won’t make a difference. Unless you’re a freelance bomb disarming specialist whose clients contact you through Facebook and Twitter, in which case, keep those notifications on.

Step 3: Stick to your plan for a minimum of 28 days (or 1 month if that’s easier to remember). It takes 28 days to make/break a habit. Saying you’ll stop something for a week is easy, but after the week is done, you’ll just go back to your old ways. Pick a month when you are not having major life changes like moving, major house construction or traveling, because that’s not your norm, and you are trying to reset your norm. Also, if you can, start in the spring. The weather is nice so you’ll want to go outside. For example, as I’m going to be traveling for the next month, I’ll start resetting my relationship with social media after I get back from my trip. As a bonus, it will be spring. I did turn off those push notifications though.

Step 4: Clear your cookies and any remembered passwords for your Facebook and Twitter on your computer. It’s easy to just click okay if you go to the page, which you will do automatically for the first few days, but if you have to type it in you’ll at least have to pay attention to what you’re doing.

Step 5: Find something else to do. This is the time to take that art class or start that exercise regime or dance class or do ANYTHING that will keep you out of the face of temptation. I can also say, a major reason why I waste time (there’s a difference between spending time and wasting time) on social media is because I have some spare time. Then that free moment turns into an hour where I really did want to get something else done (like writing,) but the social media just got out of hand. So sign up for a class. Volunteer. Get out of the house. Or give yourself a writing goal, and turn off your web browser while you’re working on it. There’s software you can get to help with this, if you don’t trust yourself, or you can always go to a café and not ask for their WIFI password.

BONUS: Keep your social media posts/shares away from subjects that inspire intense debate that you then have to moderate. For example, in the past week, I’ve made the mistake of sharing a post that inspired a debate on religion in science education and another that inspired a debate on gay activism and religion. I have deep, passionate stances on these subjects. So do all of my friends. They don’t all agree, and once the sparks start flying, everyone has to express themselves. I have never met anyone who has changed her political or religious views based on a Facebook or Twitter thread, but such conversations will take you hours into the night before all parties just agree to disagree. Or stalks off in a virtual huff. So if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, don’t start the conversation. And don’t jump in on someone else’s controversial thread, no matter how much you disagree with the other parties involved. This is incredibly difficult if you are an activist type, but if your goal is actual change, quit shouting into the echo-box and instead take 5 minutes and give $5 to an organization that supports your views. That will save you hours of useless social media debate and maybe even accomplish something. In the words of the famous rap artist, DMX, “Don’t start nothing, it won’t be nothing. You wanna start something, it’s gon be something.”

ImageImage Source: http://ionetheurbandaily.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/dmx-the-weigh-in.jpg

Like with any addiction, you are going to suffer stress and withdrawal symptoms from kicking your social media addiction. You might fall off of the wagon. Forgive yourself and try again. You can get yourself to the level of social media usage that fits ideally into your life. Or at least to a point where social media isn’t controlling your life. Trust me, if you don’t pick up these skills now, how are you going to handle your internet brain-node in the future?

Links for further reference:
http://voices.yahoo.com/social-media-addiction-symptoms-treatment-12045080.html?cat=5
http://www.wikihow.com/Defeat-a-Social-Networking-Addiction

It’s the Skull, Stupid (aka: using a drawing eye to put POC in your fiction)

Though today is the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, I’ve wanted to write on the subject of writing people of color (POC) in far future fiction for a while, but I haven’t really felt like I had the tools necessary to talk about the subject as (even as a POC) it’s something I struggle with myself.  I was finally inspired to take this topic this week after watching lesson four of the online Craftsy class I’m taking titled Drawing Facial Features by Gary Faigin. Mr. Faigin is a portrait artist who has done extensive study of human anatomy for his craft. This class is focuses extensively on how the skull affects a person’s appearance. As a POC (especially a Black woman born and raised in the US) there’s always some wariness when people start talking about skull shape and race, but the fact is, there are patterns in regards to skull shape and facial features that do map onto racial appearance and gender, and as a writer (in addition to as an visual artist), these are worth exploring.

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This is especially true for those of us (like me) who write far-future science fiction or fantasy worlds that aren’t specifically based around a specific period of time/historical culture. We are faced with what I feel is a special challenge in regards to how to show that the person you are writing about is non-White in a way that feels natural to the story and at the same time doesn’t rely on modern cultural references to convey the point. For example, if you are writing a world where being a POC is not relevant to how you are treated or in a world that doesn’t have the same history of race relations as our own, how do you populate your story, book, or epic series in a with a plausible, multi-ethnic brush.

A truism of writing classes, especially writing instruction in regards to conveying exposition in science fiction is “if it’s not relevant to the story, cut it.” The last thing your reader wants to struggle through, common wisdom in the field states, is your hours of historical research, the full monty on your jump drive functions, or a point by point bio on every part of your character’s appearance and life prior to the start of the book (take that, Victor Hugo).

This begs the question, if in my brain the two main characters of my book look East Asian and Black, but it isn’t relevant to the story, does it matter if these details don’t make it to the reader? I only have so much space in this story to devote to exposition (and my jump drive is based on a little known wrinkle in M theory which is really cool). Isn’t it more important to state that one of the main characters is born of a corporate aristocracy and on the run from the men who kidnapped him to ransom back to his parents while the other is an intrepid but untalented street boxer who has had to replace all but two of her visible teeth with low grade, too-white, implants?  (btw: why am I not writing this story?)

This is further complicated by the fact that for us, (and I’m saying US citizens here,) a person’s race and how they identify is VERY IMPORTANT to the people around us. As a multiracial (mostly Black and Greek) woman who doesn’t have an easily identifiable race, I’ve spent almost every day of my life answering the question, “What are you?” (These days I’m tempted to say Swedish, and I’ve occasionally answered ‘a natural born American mutt,’ which doesn’t really end the conversation but at least gets things going on a friendly note. This doesn’t even get into the fun of having people not believe me when I tell them I’m Black.) What’s even sadder about this is that it’s been such a staple of my life, it never even occurred to me to get offended by the question until I was having lunch with a Pakistani girl in my grad school program who had been asked this question earlier that day and spent most of our lunch together ranting about how rude it had been to be asked by a perfect stranger about her race.

So if you care about populating your fiction with a variety of characters that accurately reflects humanity, then getting across a variety of ethnicities matters. And the weight of importance that we put on the physical features that lead one to say “that person looks Black” or “that person looks Indian” matters enough that race (visible) is not a detail that you can just throw in later, even though within the context of your world, doing so would be more natural. In Western culture, specifically that of the United States (where I live), if given no guidance, chances are very high that a reader will simply assume a character is white unless given some clear indication otherwise. So if you inform this reader that the main character isn’t white halfway through the story, one of two things will happen (1) the reader won’t notice or (2) they’ll be totally thrown trying to recreate their character in a new image. This happens with every detail in your story actually. Lacking information, the reader just fills in the most obvious thing, which is why good writing is a LOT about managing details.

Which gets us to what I really want to talk about: how can we use principles of portraiture to depict race and gender in a world where you can’t lean on modern cultural cues (and stereotypes) to get your point across? Or if you just don’t want to lean on those cues. (He was a tall drink of dark chocolate cocoa…mmmhmm…)

(Btw: if you want to see an example of how NOT to lean on stereotypes to depict people of color, here’s a humorous video on the subject: http://www.upworthy.com/a-hilarious-stand-up-routine-about-how-commercials-for-black-people-actually-sound?g=2&c=ufb1)

Mr. Fagin makes the point that one of the key and most important determiners of a person’s racial ancestry has to do not with their features (though these matter) but the “facial angle”. If you look at a person of northern European descent in profile, their features are more likely to line up on a 90 degree angle. In contrast, a person of African descent is likely to have a face angle that slopes more, closer to 45 degrees, meaning that their jaw will be further forward than their European counterpart. East Asians tend to be somewhere in between, having a greater angle the Europeans though not as great as those of African descent. Then you get into features. People of Asian descent tend to have eyes that are set more forward than those of European and African descent, and most people in the world it seems have wide, flat noses, making the straight nose of northern European descent more of an outlier than a norm.

Here’s my face in profile:

Profile

As you can see, I have a fairly strong face angle. (the tip of my chin is a good deal more forward than the base of my nose) My shadow is even more African descended than my face, if you look at the picture, which makes me smile.

The take home message from this for me is not that I’m going to go crazy in describing face angles in my writing (so yes, the title of this post is a lie, but so is fiction), more that it is important to describe what you are actually seeing as opposed to what you think you’re seeing. For example, I’m not really Black, nor do I know anyone who is. Nor do I know anyone who is white. I do a number of people who are brown. Dark brown. Light brown. Tan. Peach. Cream colored. I also know people with protruding jaws, and those who have small chins. I know people with tight, curly hair. I know people with hair the texture of moss. I know people with large brown eyes, long lashes, and designs shaved into their dark brown, springy locks.

When describing your characters, ask yourself, what am I seeing? Does this person have a wide, flat nose? Does she have a sloping forehead. Full, flat lips? What color is s/he really?

And if you’re looking for more resources on how to write POC, women and just about anything else: http://missturdle.tumblr.com/post/52757340887/gee-i-dont-know-how-to-research-writing-characters-of

And here’s your challenge. Take any of these four pictures and describe the person in two sentences without depending on cultural cues or direct mentions of the person’s (perceived) race:

1.

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2.

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3.

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4.

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BTW: If you’re looking for a truly remarkable facial proportion to put into your fiction, give your adult character an eyeline that is not halfway down his or her face.

Happy writing!
Naima