Undiscovered Countries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

such_different_tribbles_by_ayumi_lemura-d4fskiw

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

trek cast classic

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

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

Naima

 

 

 

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Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

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

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imageshutterstock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind…blown…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.