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.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it’s true, but then so’s everything.”

–Charles de Lint

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how telling stories goes far beyond the entertainment factor—though make no mistake; that’s plenty important. A story’s only as good as its ability to keep the reader/listener engaged—and how we often forget that no stories are told in a vacuum. Those oh, so “original” ideas we have? Our characters’ “obvious” and “realistic” actions and thought patterns? All shaped by the culture we live in. If you’re American, no matter how thoughtful you are, American values are going to come through, from the characters’ decisions to the very structure of the story itself. And of course, in the messages, like the idea that the will of the individual is more important than the will of the many.

Other cultures would lead to other messages and values. It’s inevitable.

Maya Angelou’s album (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Stories, then, are ultimately how we define ourselves and others. And the more exposure we have to experiences outside our own, the more we can figure out who we are apart from the narratives already given to us.

Plus, guys and ladies and those beyond the binary, why do we read? Because it’s just amazing to be able to read books and have adventures in all kinds of situations and through all kinds of eyes.

We all know of (newly deceased) poetess and civil rights visionary Maya Angelou, but how many of us were familiar with her past, including that she used to be a sex worker? Or a nightclub singer? Or even a cable car conductor? Most of have no clue about that, because it doesn’t fit the story people want to tell about her, even though those parts of her life helped shape the person she became. Because our society had decided what is “appropriate” for us to know—based on unquestioned societal values and norms.

YA author Marie Lu with her WNDB button (courtesy of the WNDB Tumblr)

But one thing we can do to honor Maya and ourselves is to start reading books from cultures different from ours—even subcultures within the greater umbrella of our own country, like the African American or Indian American experience—and examine the values we take for granted. It’s a way to better choose what messages we are actually putting into our work—and to choose which version of a story we’re going to accept.

So I want to point you, dear readers, toward a very important and related campaign: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Spearheaded by Ellen Oh, author of the Korean-inspired YA fantasy trilogy The Dragon King Chronicles, and a group of diverse authors and book bloggers, this campaign has been raising awareness of the different books out there, the ones that rarely get any air time but deserve to be read as much as any other title. WNDB just had a panel at this past weekend’s Book Expo America BookCon in response to all of BookCon’s authors being white. (Oh, and a cat. We can’t forget the cat.) Here’s the panel. Hope you’ll give it a listen.

http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/post/87586495592/bookcon-panel

Then I’d urge all of you to scroll through the WNDB Tumblr and buy or check out books you hadn’t heard of, books about people not just like you. And then consider how the values and actions of those characters might differ from the ones you consider standard/expected. And then see how that affects your writing. I will bet it can only get better.

“That’s nice,” you say, “but I just want a good book. I don’t care about all this do-gooder, eat-your-vegetables stuff. Reading’s supposed to be fun.”

Well, guess what? I totally agree! Don’t forget that reading diversely means you get a whole slew of awesome books to read through—it’s like stumbling upon a candy store full of goodies you’ve never tried, but without the ensuing tummy ache. After all, the best books, no matter who wrote them or who they’re about, are at their heart good stories. So go forth and consume, consume, consume!

The “Rules” of Trilogies–Do They Exist?

Recently in the world of young adult literature, a couple highly hyped trilogies came to an end. Their concluding installments had been eagerly anticipated online, as fans hypothesized about and debated what might happen. How would the books’ respective authors bring these sweeping tales to a proper close?

Then the books came out, and reviews began pouring in. Some readers were delighted, others horrified, and still others found themselves somewhere in the middle. But what I found interesting was the often-repeated sentiment that trilogies have rules, and both authors had broken the rules—and thus betrayed the readers.

This group of readers pointed out that the first book of a trilogy traditionally introduces the main characters and establishes the stakes that will have to be addressed in the rest of the trilogy, including just what’s being fought for. The second book dives further into the problem and the challenges the characters face (as well as the growth that results), often heightening those stakes. The third volume showcases the climax and ends with a satisfying resolution, tying up most, if not all, plot threads.

 

Because both the books I’m referring to are new releases, and I don’t want to spoil anyone, I’m not going to refer to titles. Instead, I’ll paraphrase what happens and how this deviates from the expectations listed above. Let’s call the books A and B, shall we?

In Book A’s trilogy, the author had told the story through a first-person point of view and of course had the narrator endure some big trials and challenges. The stakes for her grew ever higher—to the point that in Book A, she chooses to sacrifice her life. In other words, the author killed off the main character, leaving behind her love interest (and telling the rest of the book from his point of view).

Some readers thought this was a very brave decision and felt true to the story and the protagonist’s arc, and they thought the cost of the protagonist’s self-sacrifice gave the trilogy its emotional resonance. Many others were infuriated, claiming the author had broken the rules of a trilogy. The main character, the one we’re rooting for, they said, is supposed to survive to the end. If you’ve killed off the main character, you’ve killed off any purpose to the three books leading up to her death, and by extension, you’ve cheated the reader, who invested time and money in those books.

In Book B’s trilogy, the existence of magic is revealed here on Earth, and then through a twist of storytelling, we’re shown that there is another world, too, from which the magic comes. The main character is actually part of a great war between races in that other world. In book two, we’re introduced to the war’s participants and shown the stakes—made greater especially because some of those participants want to bring their war to Earth. Also, a new character is shown to be pursuing one of our main characters. But in Book B, those two subplots and others are quickly and easily resolved in order to make way for new characters and an even greater revelation about the scope and nature of the universe. The battles yet to come must necessarily be left up the readers’ imagination; there’s just no room for them in this volume.

 

Again, some readers thought the inclusion of new characters and an even bigger scope (though it would never be addressed in that particular trilogy) was fantastic. They couldn’t praise the author’s sense of worldbuilding and imagination enough. Others felt the book had deviated wildly from the course promised in the first volume, and they often didn’t care about the new characters and felt their presence took screen time away from the characters they did care about. They also mentioned being unsatisfied by the introduction of new plot elements that will never be resolved and the dropping of high-stakes plot threads.

But at the end of the day, readers don’t determine a trilogy’s course. The author does. So who’s right, if anyone?

Let us know what you think: Do trilogies have rules? Do authors have implicit agreements with their readers? When you pick up book one of a trilogy, do you expect the author to follow a familiar trajectory, if not a formula? Has the author failed if not? Can you think of any trilogies where going against the expectations made the book better?

Some Thoughts on Revising

I’ve been revising. A lot. I recently sold a short story I’d started in 2006 to an amazing anthology, and even though I’d rewritten the piece a number of times in the intervening years, it still wasn’t quite right.

Only I’d gotten too close to see what wasn’t working, and so had my critique partners, who’d read a few drafts. So enter the wonderful anthology editors, who got right to the point and showed me exactly what needed to go.

Once I got that story cleaned up and turned in, I moved on to another piece I’d written last year. The Sirens had critiqued it, but I’d never gotten around to revising. Now that I am, it’s amazing how spot-on and vital others’ comments can be in helping you fix your own story.

All that said, here are some thoughts I’ve compiled over the past few months.

Underwoodfive

  • You absolutely need others’ eyes. I don’t care if you’re a gigantic name splashed over the New York Times bestseller list for forty weeks in a row with rights sold all over the world. (May we all be so lucky.) You need others to show you where holes remain in your work, where you can tighten things, where you can and should cut.
  • Trust your own writing. In the anthology story, I’d repeatedly shown a character doing/feeling something and then gone ahead and explained it. (To be fair, a lot of this was holdover from previous drafts. See above about being too close to to the material.) If you’ve done your job right, you don’t need to explain these things to your readers. They’ll get it from context.
  • Sometimes even those of us who tend to write in more poetic voices can have the most impact by saving those poetic images for the actual magic/supernatural moments in our stories. Not always, but it’s something to consider.
  • One clear image is much sharper and more effective than a jumble of two or three. That undercuts their power.
  • You don’t automatically have to kill your darlings—you should like what you’ve written!—but you do need to make them work for you. If you can’t find a way to do that, then yes, cut them. I’ve heard it said that each scene should either develop character or advance plot or establish setting (ideally all three), but I’d add that this pertains to every sentence, too. Make your pretty prose/cool character/awesome idea hold its weight!
  • Sometimes the right elements are there in the story; they’re just in the wrong place. Moving them around and applying the putty of transitions, etc., can often be just the thing you need.
  • Wonderful, unusual ideas are exciting, but they need to be supported by an emotional payoff in some way. Not every character has to be likable, but the reader does need to be able to form some sort of connection to them. Basically, know what the emotional stakes underpinning your story are, and make them clear.
  • Your story doesn’t have to be absolutely linear, but for the most part, unless you’re doing something experimental, the reader needs a bit of foreshadowing and the suggestion of structure. You want them to think, Of course it would end that way!—not because it’s predictable, but because subtle clues were sprinkled throughout, creating a sense of inevitability. Otherwise, the ending feels unearned and confusing, and the reader goes away unsatisfied. Know where your story is going, and lay a path to get there.

So those are some of my musings on the process. Do you agree? Disagree? Have anything to add? Tell us in the comments.

Due Process, or How Do You Write?

Naima and I were having a conversation the other day while painting pottery at a local studio (so much fun, and I totally recommend it as a way to recharge your creative batteries!) about art. You see, Naima trained as an artist, and has recently started honing her abilities again. I used to draw until I quit in high school, believing I wasn’t good enough, so why bother?. But I recently realized how much I miss art and decided to start taking drawing classes, because I really wanted to be able to do it well. Not for anyone else, just for me.

So Naima observed me at work, first painting my plate and then sketching a still life. She remarked that she thinks artists (and this includes writers) fit into one of two categories. Either they’re messy artists, who let loose with their charcoal or words or ideas at the beginning and have to go back and prune/erase mercilessly in revisions, or they’re clean artists. Clean artists are meticulous, the ones who have to do things just so and get a section right before they can move onto the next one. Naima falls into the first, and I fall into the second.

But both have their advantages and disadvantages. With being messy, there’s more freedom for entire volumes of incredible ideas to tumble into being—but a lot more to whip into shape later. With being clean, there’s more order and planning involved, but less opportunity for wild brainstorming and amazing schemes to fall into your lap. Either way, with hard work, you’ll get to where you’re going. In the end, Naima and I both finished our plates, even if mine took longer. (And I still need to go back and add a little detail. Meticulously, of course.)

The same goes for our writing. Naima can conjure the arc of an entire doorstopper trilogy out of one scene, while I really have to go bit by bit (“the three feet in the headlights the whole way” method). Which way is better? Neither. It’s what works for us as individuals. I’ve noticed there’s often a tendency for people to figure out what works for them and then try to say it’s the one correct way to do things. Considering how different we are as people and how varied our life experiences, I think there are as many ways to do things as there are humans on the planet. Not to mention process can change through time. My first novel started life as a NaNoWriMo draft, and then I rewrote it five more times. With my second novel, I’m doing my best to get each chapter as good as I can before moving on.

Maybe you’re a writer who can churn out ten thousand words in one sitting and have them be amazing. Maybe you need five years and a room of your own to produce an elegant manuscript. Maybe you need to write seven drafts before you’re even ready to show your work to anyone else. But your process is yours.

It took me a long, long time to accept that. I would compare myself to other writers and get so frustrated that glorious, profound literature—with magic, of course—wasn’t just pouring forth effortlessly from my fingers. Or that I couldn’t imagine the entire final version of the story in one go, only tiny slivers that often turn out not to be right, anyway. And it’s not like I don’t get envious sometimes of other people’s processes. But I can’t change my brain, so instead, I think about what I can do. Write a little at a time, maybe a thousand words, maybe two, and polish along the way as I discover what my story really is.

Anyway, the important thing is to get to know your brain and how it functions for you. Clean, messy, fast, slow . . . your brain is the only one that can make your particular art, and that’s the point.

So how would you classify your process, or are you still figuring it out?

“May be innocent, may be sweet. Ain’t half as nice as rotting meat!” What we can learn from ‘eighties fantasy flicks.

I spent the past weekend watching three classic ’eighties fantasy movies, all of which I’d seen at least once as a kid: The Dark Crystal (1982), Legend (1985), and Labyrinth (1986). These films and others like them have definitely shaped fantasy writing here in the West; the way we tend to imagine other worlds and creatures in our fiction has a certain shared, familiar quality to it. And not just that; these stories are loved. Author Holly Black and her husband, artist Theo Black, named pets after characters in The Dark Crystal. Poetess and author C.S.E. Cooney admits she learned how to make delicious, eerie goblin poetry from the rhyming goblin in Legend. And on and on.

Since these movies remain cult favorites, and if you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve probably seen at least one of them, I thought it might worth taking a look at what keeps people watching twenty-some years later, and what we can learn from them as writers in 2014.

First off, all three can be classified as quest stories: something is taken/lost/destroyed and must be regained/found/restored, or else there will be dire consequences for the world or at least the main character. As a plot line, it’s pretty linear. Go off on an adventure to get the MacGuffin, and all will be well. Fail, and disaster ensues. In The Dark Crystal, it’s the broken crystal. In Legend, it’s the severed alicorn. In Labyrinth, it’s the main character Sarah’s baby brother Toby. We as observers know what’s at stake, and we want to see our heroes succeed and set things right again.

(It’s interesting to note that in the latter two movies, a main character is responsible for setting the chain of events into motion: in Legend, Lily touches a unicorn, which is forbidden, and in Labyrinth, Sarah unknowingly offers her brother up to the Goblin King. They must then atone for their mistakes. In The Dark Crystal, it’s a little different; responsibility for saving the world is thrust upon Jen’s shoulders, but he wasn’t the one to break the crystal.)

There’s a strong end-of-days motif that runs through all three: the world as we know it will be over if the character doesn’t succeed. In The Dark Crystal and Legend, if the heroes fail, darkness will destroy everything forever. But in Labyrinth, it’s a more intimate ruin on the horizon: Sarah’s baby brother will be changed into a goblin, and her family will be shattered. These are still big stakes, if not global.


(courtesy feyawarenessmonth.com)

Some kind of lesson is learned during the quest, or to put it another way, the inner journey of the main character mirrors the outward, physical one. Whether it’s Jen the Gelfling finding his own strength in The Dark Crystal and coming to trust Kira, the only other living Gelfling, Lily and Jack in Legend learning that there can be no light without darkness, or Sarah in Labyrinth realizing that nothing is as it seems (and possibly also that she might want to be careful what she wishes for in the future, because you never know who’s listening!), we want to see our heroes grow and change.

The individual (with the help of friends) has the power to overcome dark forces and triumph. Even though our heroes are underdogs and don’t have the same sheer power as the antagonists, they are plucky and courageous, and they work together to come up with solutions. Sometimes, as with Sarah in Labyrinth, they trick out the answers they need to continue. But no matter what happens, they never give up.

Balance is another thread that runs through all three movies, the idea that there should be balance, and if that balance is disturbed, things go badly. The Dark Crystal does this subtly, showing us the race of evil Skesis and the race of noble Mystics and letting us put the pieces together the same way Jen does as he restores the shard to the original question. We then discover what the clues have been pointing us to all along: when the crystal was broken, the whole, complete people known as the UrSkeks split into two. They had to come back together, flaws and virtues both, for the world to survive. In Legend, which sadly tells us at the beginning what it wants us to know in a block of text rather than showing it, balance between light and darkness is paramount. When the forces of darkness attempt to destroy light forever, they must be stopped. Even in Labyrinth, the Goblin King’s minions learn that they can have friends and be kind and selfless despite their origin.

Temptation plays a big role in the films, too. In Legend and Labyrinth, the villains grow attracted to the heroines’ light and try to woo them. Lily and Sarah find their virtuous natures tested again and again, as they are shown beauty, given jewels and fine black gowns and dream-inducing peaches, and offered eternal love as a queen of the night. Both times, our heroines do not succumb and remain true to their mission (and in Lily’s case, to her love Jack).

So what does all this mean? I think it says a lot about the elements we as a genre like to see in our fantasy, and it’s definitely something to consider in our own work. Not every story has to be a quest story, not every story has to have a MacGuffin, and not every story needs to spell out its message (in fact, I’d argue no story should!), but it does have to have characters and stakes we care about. And hey, a unicorn never hurts, either!

On writing diversity

The Sirens are singing in a shiny new year, one full of dreams and stories and magic. We hope you’re brimming over with ideas you just can’t wait to write about!

As you know, diversity and respectful representation are very important things here in the Star-Dusted Sea. So I’d like to talk a little about how to do it well—and how not to do it.

Speculative fiction lets us talk about complex issues in our own world, but it’s also a wonderful way to shine a light on countries and cultures that are underused in the genre. I’d love to see many more novels and short pieces set in India and China and Mexico and and and . . . Or even with characters from those countries who live in the U.S., in a way that honors their background and heritage while allowing them to have the same kind of fun adventures other characters get. (“I’m brown; where do I belong?” is far from the only story to be told!)

Sounds easy enough, right? Not so much—I’m thinking about a few books I’ve read that fit the above description and still fall down in some crucial way. Let’s take a look at the mistakes they made, individually and as a group.

First, the authors failed to do the research that would result in an accurate, rounded depiction of the country and the people who lived there. They often fell back on stereotypes, faulty information, and in one case, even demonized a religion that’s already the victim of misunderstanding here in the West.

Think here of a movie: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That movie portrayed the Hindu goddess Kali as a bloodthirsty monster and her followers as eyeball-eating creeps. And of course the white characters (Indy and his friends) were the heroes and justified in everything they did against the Thuggees. Do I really need to say that is hurtful and terribly biased, not to mention ridiculously inaccurate?

Our job as writers is to tell a good story, yes, but we are also in search of truth, big Truth and little truth, which we sprinkle through our work. One thing we really owe it to our readers not to do is to continue spreading harm through stereotypes and patently wrong ideas about the people we’re writing about. Research does matter.

The second thing these books did wrong was to appropriate their settings and cultures. What I mean by that is, they grounded their stories in a supposedly “exotic” location, but the story itself actually starred white main characters from the West, often in savior roles. Imagine a book set in China that had almost no Chinese characters; the setting just acts as a backdrop for the Western characters to play out their journey. Any actual cultural trappings only exist insofar as they serve those characters. This happens far more than you might think, and it’s often never even called into question.

Erasure is a huge problem. It’s far too easy to think that the straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical point of view is the default one, the way of seeing everyone should be able to relate to, and thus that character deserves to be the star of every story. But that’s a fallacy, and a very harmful one.

A third error is the use of the Magical Negro. Basically, if there is a person of color (or a queer person, etc.) in the story, this character exists solely to further the journey of the white main character and has no real role/arc of their own. In fact, they often die in service to the white main character. Please don’t do that. That’s another colonial idea, that everything and everyone exist for the sake of white people/characters, particularly those from Western Europe and America.

Finally, the authors of these books don’t appear to have taken the time to examine their own prejudices and the filters on their worldview. We all have ideas given to us by the society we live in and the media we’ve been exposed to, ideas that are so deeply entrenched that they’ve become mental wallpaper to us. We don’t even see they’re there until someone else points them out, but they do shape how we think and see things. And that will always bleed through into our work.

So how do you do diversity right? How do you tell stories about people not exactly like you in settings unlike your own? Research, research, research. Then research some more, and read books and watch movies about the culture/country you’d like to write about, but make sure those media are by people from that culture. Also, talk to people from that culture. Internet forums are a great way to do this, and you might make a friend, too. It’s so important to step outside your familiar circle of friends and fellow writers, because they very likely share your notions about things, and the same things that slide by you will slide by them.

Most importantly, don’t forget that you’re a reader, too. Read and promote work by the people from that culture!

Know that writing truly and respectfully takes hard work, and yes, you may get something wrong, but it’s also an important thing to do. As writers, our job is to put ourselves in others’ shoes and report what we find. All the stories of all the people in the world deserve to be told, so let’s tell them with compassion, respect, and love.

Happy writing!