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 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.

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!


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.


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.”


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?

The Problematic Approach of Colorblind Writing

In her last post (It’s the Skull, Stupid), Naima raised 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?” Naima’s post focused more on how to describe a character of color in fiction, particularly when writing a fantastical world that might not have the same historical and cultural shorthand that exists in our world. For this post, though, I wanted to get back to that question of why those kinds of details matter in the first place.

Sometimes I hear other writers (almost always white folks like myself) mention how they try to be “colorblind” in their writing—in other words, purposefully not describing a character’s skin color so that readers are free to picture the characters however they want. There was a time when I naively thought that was a good way of striving for inclusivity in fiction. Unfortunately, while colorblind writing generally comes from a place of good intentions, it’s ultimately a flawed approach.

The first problem with colorblind writing is the underlying assumption that, if a character’s skin color is not described, readers will default to imagining characters who look like them, thereby making the story inherently more inclusive and diverse. Sadly, that assumption just doesn’t hold up. My wake up call to that fact occurred several years ago when the concept of colorblind writing came up during a discussion I was having with some other writers. It surprised me when two of the writers, both people of color, said no, they actually didn’t default to picturing characters who looked like them. They had grown up in a world where white was the societal default and where they were frequently bombarded with the message that their skin color was not ideal or, worse yet, a sign of inferiority. So when reading a book, they assumed a character was white unless told otherwise. Because that was what dominated the society around them.

Another major problem with colorblind writing is that you’re not just erasing skin color; you’re erasing all of the culture, identity, and history that comes with that skin color. What we look like and where we come from plays a significant role in shaping who we are, so let’s not ignore that by embracing this Pollyanna-ish “I don’t see race, I see people!” idea of equality. Equality doesn’t mean being oblivious to differences in race; it means not hating or discriminating against people based on those differences.

Of course, some people will make the argument that, if you’re creating a fictional fantasy world, that world need not be saddled by the same racial dynamics and tensions that exist in the real world. True. But in order for me to lose myself in a fantastical world, it needs to have a sense of realism to it, and racial homogeneity isn’t something I find to be realistic (unless you’re writing about an engineered society or something like that). I think one of the best ways to achieve a realistic fantasy world is to create one that, like our own, has a rich diversity of races and cultures and people who have been shaped by those backgrounds. Those cultures can be different than what we have in the real world, and they can have a different history with each other (though there are still plenty of Save the Pearls-style pitfalls you can stumble into with that approach, but that’s another post). But even in a fictional world where people aren’t judged by skin color, I imagine people would still notice skin color in the same way we notice hair color or eye color. That’s the thing—noticing skin color doesn’t have to be negative or combative or racist. It can just be one element among many that makes up a full person.

Anyway, that’s enough babbling from me. Here’s what some other folks have had to say on colorblind writing and reading:

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.


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:


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:










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!

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!

My Precious: On Killing Your Darlings

As writers, we’re often given the advice to “kill your darlings.” The general interpretation of this (in my mind at least) is not to get so attached to a sentence, plotline, or character that you allow them to take away from instead of add to your story. In short, nothing is precious.

Pic of Golem from LotR: http://cynicritics.com/tag/gollum/

I generally like this advice, especially when it comes to plotting. If one of my characters has a secret that will destroy my story if discovered, I make sure that secret comes out as quickly as possible. In my mind, it’s impossible to create something new if your mind is all cluttered up with your initial plot ideas.

That said, some people take this advice too far:

  • So you think it’s your best sentence – cut it immediately.
  • You think that subplot is important – EXTERMINATE!

This is how I ended up rewriting the first sentence of my very first novel (a 150,000 word monstrosity of magical martial arts battles and epic swordfights that will never see the light of day) over 20 times. One of the most difficult parts about (re)writing is knowing what to save and what to kill. And the harder truth of it is, this never gets easier. Well, maybe it does for some people, but it hasn’t for me.

For example, I’ve already scrapped two ideas for this blog entry alone. I even wrote three paragraphs about Nelson Mandela and they aren’t terrible…just wrong. The thing is, writing walks that terrifying razors’ edge of complete passion and necessary objectivity. This is why many (most) of us join writers groups. Sometimes we need someone else to tell us when an idea’s got to go.

But there are other things that we take on as precious that we don’t even think about. Stereotypes (the hero is tall, muscular and male). Assumptions (education will be the same 100 years from now, resembling a 21st century high school drama). Western ideas of plot structure and design. Which of these darlings should we kill or keep?

Image of Anissa Pierce aka Thunder: http://www.comicvine.com/thunder/4005-3407/

I’ve been thinking about killing darlings lately because in spite of the fact I’m well familiar with the concept of not letting my writing become too precious to me, I’ve managed to fall into that trap anyhow. In the past six years, I’ve drafted at least 10 short stories and a fair number of novels and novel parts, all of which are currently fossilizing on my hard drive. I keep saying “I’ll revise this” and “I’ll send that out when I get this thing done” but ultimately, I’m not doing anything. And so my work stagnates, precious and unread.

So I’ve decided I’m going to put one out there, for free, and collect the most salvageable of the rest for $.99c in a kindle ebook this month. By doing this, I’ll reduce the clutter in my brain so that I can create new things. And who knows, someone might even like it.