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?


On women and science fiction

This post was adapted from a blog entry I wrote a few years ago when there was a big blow up in spec fic writing circles surrounding representation of women writers in science fiction:

When I first encountered the stereotype that SF was strictly a boys’ club, it was rather strange to me because it was my mother, not my father, who helped kindle my interest in SF. In fact, my father doesn’t particularly care for most SF. Throughout childhood and high school, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who didn’t tell me I shouldn’t like all those “boy” things I found interesting, like spaceships and splatter flicks. One exception was an adult who, upon seeing that I had brought a copy of Dune to read while babysitting her kids, said, “Why are you reading that? You should be reading my trashy romance novels instead.” I finished Dune while I was there and didn’t have another book with me, so I picked up one of her romance novels. After a few chapters of it’s-not-rape-if-there’s-no-penetration-and-it’s-actually-romantic-because-she-secretly-wants-her-hot-abductor ridiculousness*, I chucked it aside and started re-reading Dune.

Given my otherwise supportive environment growing up, it came as a bit of a surprise to me when, freshman year of college, one guy on my dorm floor refused to believe that I could truly be a hardcore Star Wars fan. Because I was a girl. He took to quizzing me on the films every time he passed me in the hall and emailing me whenever he thought of an obscure bit of Star Wars trivia he was oh-so-sure I wouldn’t be able to answer. I answered them all, quickly and correctly, but it got really annoying really fast. One night, a bunch of us were hanging out watching Return of the Jedi. Quiz dude was there, hammering home the fact that I was the only chick in the room by continuing his interrogation until one of the other guys burst out with, “Would you stop already, she knows her shit!” Sadly, it took admonishment from the alpha male in the room and nothing I said or did to finally convince quiz dude to give it a rest.

Another college incident: Spring 1998 semester, there was a class on women science fiction writers being offered. I very excitedly enrolled. This class was the first time I read Frankenstein. It introduced me to Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which became one of my all-time favorite novels. We read Octavia Butler’s Mind of My Mind, and my mind was sufficiently blown. Other books on the syllabus included Gaia’s Toys (Rebecca Ore), The Eye of the Heron (Ursula LeGuin), The Ship Who Sang (Anne McCaffrey), Speaking Dreams (Severna Park), and the professor’s book Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. As if all that wasn’t awesome enough, if you got an A on your first paper, you had the option of writing a short story for your final paper. Gee, bet you can’t guess what I chose to do after getting an A on my first paper. Rather appropriately, the story I wrote for that class eventually became my first paid fiction sale.

Now for the part that marred an otherwise awesome class. We had to do group presentations at one point. I had the misfortune of being grouped with two girls who, when we met up to work on our presentation, spent the better part of the time cattily discussing the poor fashion choices of other women in the class and how some of them were fat and needed to drop some pounds and learn to wear makeup. The real kicker came when the one girl, while complaining that she didn’t like the books we were reading in class, proclaimed that women just can’t write science fiction. Being an aspiring SF writer with a vagina (not that this person would have known about the writer part), that of course pissed me off. But I didn’t want to get into a fight that might impact our project grade; I just wanted to be done and get out of there. So I kept my “Then why the !@#$ are you in this class?” reaction to myself. But I got my dig in later. During the fashion mock-fest, these two girls derided one woman for wearing sweatshirts with Disney characters, because it was childish and she needed to grow up or something. So for the day of our presentation, when they’d be stuck next to me in front of the class, I wore a Yoda t-shirt and a Tigger baseball cap.

Minor fashion victory aside, so many things about that incident bother me. I’m bothered by the castigation of those who are different in how they look or dress and the internalization of unhealthy ideas about body image. I’m bothered that a dislike of a mere seven books was not met with “I don’t care for this professor’s selections” but with a blanket declaration that women can’t write science fiction. That such a statement came from a woman suggests a scary amount of self-loathing. I’m also bothered that, in order for me to have been party to all of these comments, there appeared to have been an assumption that I was “safe” to launch into this tirade around. Perhaps because I was a thin girl who dressed in what they deemed to be socially acceptable fashion (at least until the presentation), I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with those overweight social misfits and would therefore agree that they were to be scorned, right?  Yeah, whatever. I’m just as sick of people being mocked for looking like your stereotypical SF geek as I am of having it assumed that I can’t possibly be a SF geek unless I’m wearing the proper uniform (the proper uniform apparently being plus-size clothing, shirts proclaiming one’s fandom affiliations, and/or a penis).

That lovely incident was 15 years ago, so I’d like to believe that we’ve made progress toward achieving gender equality in science fiction circles (and in general) since then. But I still see and experience plenty that tells me we’re not there yet, from contractors who enter my home and assume that the swords and SF toys must be my husband’s, to sexual harassment at cons. And it’d be a lot easier to make progress if we didn’t have to maneuver through all the poo that gets slung about when people debate these issues. Getting that stuff off your shoes? Kind of a pain in the ass.


*I realize that not all romance novels are like that, but this particular book was pretty damn appalling.

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:

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:

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.

Finding the Right Market

The words submission and acceptance are emotionally charged in the context of gender relations. They are also emotionally charged in the context of professional writing. I have a story to tell about that.

Quite a while ago, I wrote a science fiction story called Message in a Bottle with a female main character. I liked the story a lot. I spent a loooong time tweaking it. When I finally committed to the notion of getting published, it was the first longer piece that I tried to sell to any market.

It got rejected. I aimed high, and was quickly rejected by several established markets. Most were form rejections. A couple were personalized. One offered inexplicable advice for rewrites (“Why not talk more about the computer system?” Um, because boring.). Overall, just standard responses.

But it was rejected enough that I started worrying. None of the rejections suggested that the reasons had anything to do with gender. But then, why would they say it outright? I am pretty obviously a woman: I write under my full first name, not initials or a pseudonym, and my little 3rd person bio uses “she” and “her”. My story featured a woman. What if either (or both) of those things influenced editors’ decisions? Before you ask, let me say that none of the markets I submitted to anonymized submissions.

Message in a Bottle was not specifically about my character being a woman. I deliberately gave my character a sort of gender-ambiguous name, Dorian. Her movement throughout the story was defined by her professional role rather than her gender. The big idea involved first contact, not any interpersonal dynamics, or (heaven forfend!) a romance. The story had a bit of math in it, but I would never characterize it as “hard SF”. So. I was left with a soft SF story featuring a woman.

I didn’t doubt my writing, but I did begin to doubt the fairness of the system. Was I making a mistake in trying to publish science fiction? Should I stick to fairy tales, which I also love writing? Should I shelve this story and go onto something else, until I got a few more publishing credits?

Or…should I gender-flip my protagonist and see if that changes the outcome? Hell, I wouldn’t even have to change the name! Search and replace a few pronouns, and I’d be golden.

I thought that might be an interesting experiment. Maybe, I thought, I could submit the story with Boy Dorian, and if it got accepted, I could request to have the Girl Dorian version published. (Because what’s more attractive than an unknown author with demands? Amirite?)

So I went ahead and made a gender-flipped version of the story. Simple pronoun swapage. It was easy. And I didn’t like the result AT ALL. Boy Dorian was acting all wrong. He seemed overly sensitive, emotional. Certain words that worked fine for Girl Dorian suddenly sounded jarring. Girl Dorian nestled in a shelter. Boy Dorian huddled. Girl Dorian had intuition. Boy Dorian had a hunch.

WTF had I written? I could have sworn that my original story was admirably gender-neutral. Girl Dorian was the job. She analyzed evidence and crunched numbers and then endured a bad situation like a pro. Yet when I gender-flipped the character, I realized that my Dorian simply wouldn’t behave the same way as a man would (at least not in my created world).

I was so uncomfortable with the Boy Dorian version that I resolved to try once more with my original story before committing to a gender-flip strategy. I found a market that looked promising. It was a magazine actively committed to promoting both authors and characters who are women, people of color, queer, disabled and/or otherwise underrepresented groups. They might not like my story, of course, but I was confident that if it got rejected, it wouldn’t be because of gender discrimination.

Then a weird thing happened. My story was accepted.


There were some readers who liked my writing and didn’t have any concerns about girliness. You can read it here, in the April issue of Crossed Genres.

So in the end I never got to try out my gender-flipped version of the story. I’ll never know if the same markets that rejected Girl Dorian might have accepted her twin brother. I’m really happy not knowing that.

I’m also happy to be a published author. Crossed Genres offered me my first professional sale. It was a huge boost for me as a writer, but I might not have ever submitted my story there if I hadn’t seen their statement of welcome for new writers, and writers of non-quite-the-norm. Markets like CG are vitally important to the fiction world because of their two-pronged strategy of publishing good fiction and fiction by underrepresented peeps. Those two goals are not separate.

It’s sometimes not enough to state that all are equal. Today, that’s a low bar. CG and some other markets have taken that extra step to be open, to invite submissions by minorities, by women, by all kinds of Others. That’s a different message than just saying “The door’s not locked.” CG said “Hey, the door’s open. We were hoping you’d come by.”

To those people in the publishing/writing/reading world who are interested in fostering new writers, writers outside the conventional pool, writers who might not have lived life on “easy mode”… well, that doesn’t just happen on its own. People need to make it happen.

Which brings me to my final point. Crossed Genres pays professional rates and it is trying to become an SFWA-qualifying market. But running a magazine isn’t free, and without enough support, CG will close at the end of 2013. If you support the idea of a rich, diverse field of writers, you should support CG. Buy a subscription (I did.). Buy a gift subscription. Donate.

Talking about encouraging new writers is great. Paying writers (and the editors who work with them) real money is also great. You’re not saving anything. You’re supporting a producer who shares your values. Easy, right?

And in the end, you are what you defend.

Jocelyn Koehler is one-fourth of the Star-Dusted Sirens.