Guest Post

Sexism and Second Chances, by Brianna Wu

As we continue to see discussion and fallout surrounding Odyssey Con, it’s important to remember that these things don’t happen in isolation. While I wish it weren’t necessary, I’m happy to share this guest essay from software developer and Congressional candidate Brianna Wu, talking about some of the reasons we keep seeing this kind of mess with sexism and sexual harassers.

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I want to tell you a heartwarming story about second chances. Last year, Google welcomed a developer named Chris onto their team. Chris is like a lot of men I know in the tech industry. He’s super geeky, white, male, just 28 — and has an incredibly irreverent sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy that would fit right in a Google — or really any other large tech corporation.

Just one catch. Chris had a bit of a misadventure as a teenager, launching a well-trafficked internet site where some pretty unsavory things happened. An encyclopedic list would take too long, but here are the highlights:

  • The site was a haven for child pornography.
  • A member murdered a woman violently, and posted picture of her strangled to death on the site.
  • A transgender woman was outed and then bullied until she committed suicide.
  • A breach of iCloud resulted in non-consensual sexual imagery of celebrity women to be spread through his site, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, who called it a “sex crime.”
  • Prominent women in the game industry were relentlessly harassed through his site, resulting is several careers being destroyed — and unmeasurable personal harm.

I’m speaking, of course, of 4chan founder Chris Poole. Last year, after not being able to make money from his site, he decided to take a job with one of the most powerful corporations on earth. As I was one of the women who had been repeatedly targeted by 4chan, I was fairly incredulous, as were my fellow women colleagues.

Unsurprisingly, the white men in tech I know felt differently.

I’m not going to name names, but I had at least 10 conversations with colleagues in tech about Poole’s hiring. They felt it would be unfair to deny him a fresh start at a career. They didn’t want his past to haunt him forever. They saw 4chan as just a silly teenage hijink, something all in good fun. It’s hard to imagine, they saw parts of Chris Poole in themselves — and by giving him a second chance — they could give themselves a chance to clean up their own mistakes.

America loves second chances. But it’s hard to not notice that the main people that seem to get them are straight, white, and male.

This brings us Odyssey Con.

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, which has been written up here. But, long story short, the con had decided to let an extreme sexual harasser onto the programming committee. When guest of honor Monica Valentinelli was put on programming with him, she asked the con to step in. They wrote an amazingly condescending email back to her, at which point she withdrew from the con.

What stands out to me the most in the whole harmful affair was a single line by Gregory G.H. Rihn, writing about “what would be fair.” He suggested a compromise between Monica and Jim Frenkel, the known serial harasser. In a world where sexual harassers are on one side, and women wanting to be treated with respect are on the other — women can never win. Rihn saw himself as an impartial observer, but he’s part of the problem in a way he can’t understand.

And he’s far from alone. Or even, a particularly egregious example.

As a prominent woman in the game industry, I’m also married to four-time Hugo award winner Frank Wu — so I feel uniquely positioned between the tech industry and science fiction fandom. And while, I know it would shock some of you to think about this, the structural sexism is practically the same. Consider the following.

  • Like the game industry, I am regularly asked to do programming at cons on my gender rather than my professional expertise.
  • Like the game industry, I am regularly talked over by men on programming.
  • Like the game industry, men generally talk to my husband and not me when we are in groups.
  • Like the game industry, it’s the men in the field getting big career opportunities – and not the equally talented women.
  • Like the game industry, no men I know will admit they are part of the problem.
  • Like the game industry, the men in science fiction consider themselves impartial judges of structural sexism – rather than influenced by motivated reasoning.
  • Like the game industry, there’s a lot of window dressing and very little examination of bias.
  • Like the game industry, I regularly hear sexist, racist and transphobic jokes that make me blanch.
  • Like the game industry, men that speak out about sexism are heroes — while women are put in a career box as a known feminist.
  • Like the game industry, you have a hate group rooted in white supremacy — hellbent on establishing a golden age without diversity.

If the tech industry gets a D- for sexism, science fiction doesn’t deserve much better than a C-. Maybe a C+ on the good days.

This brings us to Jim Frenkel. His situation is no different than Chris Poole’s, albeit a lot less extreme. The men of Odyssey Con (and one woman is a position of power) were reluctant to exile him from fandom because if he were held to high standards, that would mean they or someone like them might be one day as well. So, he will get an ample supply of second chances, just like most white straight men in science fiction.

There are so many times in science fiction I hold my tongue because I don’t think anyone on programming would listen. Recently, I was on a panel with a rather prominent man in the game industry that made a wildly sexist remark about “banging whores.” I sat there for the panel, stewing, feeling like this inappropriate statement needed to be called out. I asked male friends about it later, who all told me to, “let it go.”

I realized it wouldn’t be worth it to fight that battle with programming, and it could burn a bridge with someone powerful in my field. Like most women, I fight these internal battles daily — and I lose a piece of my soul every time. I have to imagine Monica Valentinelli was fighting this same internal battle before withdrawing as guest of honor. Her comment about wanting to be known for her work rang so true for me. It’s the same fear all women feel when deciding to speak out, being shoved into a box that says loud feminist.

Our political system trains people to root for one side like a football team- everyone points fingers and no one feels accountability. For science fiction, there are plenty of men that vote Democrat and believe intellectually in the equality of women. They think that’s the end of the story. It is not.

You can either have a community where the Jim Frenkels are thrown out, or you can just admit all the talk about gender equality is window dressing.

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Brianna Wu is a software engineer and a candidate for US congress in Massachusetts district 8. You can follow her on Twitter at @spacekatgal or on Facebook at Facebook.com/developerBriannaWu.

Guest Post: On Representation in RPGs, from Monica Valentinelli

I met Monica Valentinelli years back … I think it was at GenCon. We got to hang out again last year at Launch Pad. (Confession: I might have name-dropped her from time to time when I wanted to impress people by talking about how I was friends with someone who co-wrote the Firefly RPG.)

She’s a full-time writer of stories, games, essays, and comics for media/tie-in properties and her original works from her studio in the Midwest. She’s also a former musician of 20+ years. She’s the developer for Hunter: the Vigil Second Edition, and was the lead developer/writer for the Firefly RPG books based on the Firefly TV show by Joss Whedon. Her book The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Language Guide in the ‘Verse, featuring the work of the show’s original translator Jenny Lynn, debuted in April 2016 Titan Books.

In other words, she knows a lot about media properties and RPGs. In April of this year, she’ll be teaching a class on Writing Inclusive Games. Why does that sort of thing matter? Read on…

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Why does representation in RPGs matter? The answer is simple: players play games so they can be the hero in their own stories. The characters they choose (or build) allow players to perform heroic acts with their group, and they’re crucial to a player’s ability to have fun. There’s even a joke told about this at conventions. What’s the best way to get a player excited to talk about their game? Ask them about their beloved character!

Characters are important, and I feel it’s a game designer’s job to acknowledge different styles of play to offer a broad range for players to choose from; the other side of that coin, however, is to remember that players also possess different identities. In order to consider both in the games we make, developers, designers, writers, and artists address inclusivity through the lens of representation.

Representation intersects into a game’s design and presentation in a few different ways. The first and most easily visible method is through the art; the decision-makers for the art will vary widely, however, and will depend which company you work for. The second way that representation comes into play is through the game’s design itself. An alternate history game with magic that intentionally limits the role of women, for example, is not well designed, because you’re sending a message to players that the female identity is sub-par to their male counterparts. Often, the argument used to justify designing games based on a player’s identity is: “Well, it’s not historically accurate!” Only, historical accuracy doesn’t apply once dragons are involved. Even so, designers opting for realism know that many history books have erased or ignored the contributions and presence of women and minorities. So, in some cases, when a designer is making decisions that are historically accurate it might appear to be “wrong”, because those details are not what a player or reviewer had internalized as true.

Lastly, representation is incorporated into the text itself. The text, which includes rules, setting, and fiction, is what the players and gamemasters of the world cue off of. While it’s true that some players and GMs absolutely take a game and modify it for their table, over time I’ve found that many players want a fully-developed and well-researched world before they’ll do that. Most players place a lot of trust in the material, and when those details are done well it can have a huge impact on their creativity and the time they invest in that world. RPG enthusiasists tend to be avid readers, and many will read more on a subject (both fiction and non-fiction) to prepare for their games because they’re inspired by what the designers wrote. Mind you, there are games designed with different goals in mind, so including detailed setting isn’t a one-size-fits-all-games approach or solution to representation. In general, however, representation is addressed through the game’s text to varying degrees, and the setting portrayal and characters are an important part of that effort.

If done well, corebooks, supplements, and adventures will place a player in that world, entice them, and get them excited to play. Most players won’t notice when representation is done well, because different identities will be ingrained into the worldbuilding and presented in a natural fashion. Thus, players will be able to spot themselves in the game, and won’t feel excluded. The game’s design will clearly say: “You can slay the dragon. Can you see yourself wielding that sword?” “Yes!!!” If done poorly, however, representation can cause harm by perpetuating stereotypes and by hurting a player who either sees themselves represented badly—or not at all. A game that falls down on representation can do significant amounts of damage, because there is a strong, social component to playing games.

The good news is that there are more resources and tools to facilitate better representation in RPGs than ever before. Those tools include the classes conducted by K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl. I have the honor of teaching a class in April with K. Tempest Bradford, lending over a decade’s worth of experiences to address the issue of representation and help you be successful working in games. If interested, please consider registering for our class called: “Writing the Other: Writing RPGs Sans Fail.” Together, we will show you how to address representation in RPGs, and how to be inclusive so players say “Yes!”

Writing Inclusive Games: Creating RPGs Sans Fail

Guest Post on Policing in Problematic Times

I blogged last week about the police shooting of a black man in Florida. I’ve talked about Black Lives Matter as well, and I’ve been trying to follow the reporting and discussion online. Recently on a friend’s Facebook page, a commenter talked about how the police should be trained to shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill. Which…isn’t how that works. It’s hard to have these conversations if all you know about law enforcement comes direct from Hollywood.

A U.S. police officer named Griffin weighed in and offered his perspective and experience. I appreciated the knowledge he shared. We chatted a bit more after my post last week, and I invited him to share some of his thoughts on the blog. His friend Adán, a retired police administrator from a department in an urban area, also contributed.

Both men recognize that our nation has systemic problems with race and other issues. That creates very real conflicts for the police. (As a police officer, your job is to enforce the law. What do you do when the law itself is racist?)

I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything. But their post gave me more to consider, and is a good reminder that these problems exist on multiple levels, from the individual to the global and everything in between.

Thank you to Griffin and Adán for taking the time to write this. Please remember they’re guests on my blog. I’d appreciate if we treat them as such.

The whole thing comes in at about 4400 words.

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Guest Post from Rachel Swirsky: Coping with Harassment (Also, Butts!)

Rachel Swirsky is one of the founding editors of PodCastle, served as Vice President of SFWA, and is a prolific author as well. She’s twice won the Nebula award, and has also been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, Sturgeon, and the World Fantasy Awards. Her second Nebula win was for her story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” which was also nominated for the Hugo.

Like every other award-winning story in existence, you had people who loved this story, and others who didn’t. And just like the rest of us, when faced with a story they didn’t like getting such honors, everyone calmly accepted that different people have different tastes, and looked for worthy work to nominate and support for next year.

Yeah, not so much. A small group set out to harass the hell out of the author, up to and including “jokes” about killing her.

Swirsky responded with a fundraiser, “Making Lemons into Jokes,” which has so far raised more than $700 for Lyon-Martin health services, one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the LGBTQIAA community — especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. As part of the fundraiser, she’ll be writing a new story that riffs in part on this year’s Hugo Award mess, “If You Were a Butt, My Butt.”

I asked her to talk a bit about coping with this kind of harassment. Read on for her thoughts.

Also — and this should go without saying — if you start trolling or bullying in the comments, my web goblins will ban your ass so hard you’ll spend the next month farting through your nose.

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My warm thanks to Jim for letting me come into his space to talk a bit about the fundraiser I’m doing for Lyon-Martin health services through my Patreon. We talked a bit about what subjects I might want to discuss. For Ann Leckie, I wrote about why advice to ignore the bullies misses the point. For Mary Robinette Kowal, I wrote about a few of the many threads in my life that make advocacy important.

Jim asked me to write about how to cope with harassment. That overlaps a little with what I wrote for Ann, but on her blog, I wrote about how to be part of a community that was coping, not how to be an individual who copes with being a target.

A few years ago, there were a lot of pieces circulating about how hard it could get for women online. The VOLUME of hate and harassment; the INTENSITY of it; the terrifying PERSISTENCE. It spoke not of ordinary road-rage-type flame outs, but of something with more emergent structure. Not just drivebys, but pack hounds, stalking victims.

I wrote to a woman who had published such an article. “I so admire your courage,” I told her. “I don’t think I could stand up to it. I’m a weak person.”

It’s strange, I suppose, to identify yourself as a weak person. I am, though. A long time ago, I was on a panel about apocalypses, and someone (I believe it was the keenly insightful Eileen Gunn) said that viewers and readers always identify with survivors, assuming they too would survive.

I don’t. I’d die.

That’s fine. There are zombies or there are Rachel Swirskys and the twain shall not meet, except for the bloody moment of skull-breaking and brain-scavenging. I hope the zombie comes out of it with nagging depression and Star Trek pedantism.

I could write a whole essay interrogating the concept of weakness as I’m using it, of course. But that’s not this essay. I want to talk about how I feel about myself, not culturally critique the feeling.

I am weak because I am vulnerable. It’s dangerous to admit being vulnerable. Bullies go for the vulnerable. That’s one of the things they do.

When I wrote to the woman mentioned above, to tell her that I admired her courage, she expressed concerns. In retrospect, I think she meant that it does not take unusual courage to stand up to harassment. The women who stand up to it are not superhuman. They have done and are doing a difficult thing that no one should have to do, but they undertake that labor as people, with their own strengths and stresses.

I do not need to look at that woman and think, “You are brave. I am not.”

I can look at her and think, “Courage is work you do, not who you are.”

(A complication: Some people really are less vulnerable and more buoyant than others. Often, they’re the ones who speak more, which is perfectly natural.  They do everyone a great favor by using their resources and energy to speak out. But it can feel intimidating sometimes, which is no one’s fault.)

Personally, I complain to friends a lot. I really, really like listening to the audio recording of Alexandra Erin’s John Scalzi Is Not a Very Popular Author, and I Myself Am Quite Popular. I subtweet; over time, that’s mostly become overt tweeting. I suspect specific solutions are very personal.

This I’m sure of: for me, it feels better to talk than stay silent.

If you’re vulnerable as I am, and you become a target as I have, this is the best I know to give you: You’re not alone.

Don’t count yourself out.

Best,
Rachel

From Russia with Love (and More than a Little Magic): Guest Post from Deborah Blake

Deborah Blake and I have been internet author friends for a while now, though we haven’t yet met in person. (Note to self: Meet Deborah Blake in person one of these days.) A year and a half ago, I read, enjoyed, and reviewed her first Baba Yaga book, Wickedly Dangerous. From the look of things, the paranormal romance series has been doing quite well, and yesterday marked the release of book three: Wickedly Powerful.

Jim, reading Wickedly PowerfulTo celebrate, we’re doing a blog swap today. I’m over at her place talking about…okay, I forget what I wrote my guest post about. And Deborah’s here discussing fairy tale retellings and how she developed the Baba Yaga books.

She’s also giving away an autographed copy of the new book. Just leave a comment, and we’ll pick a winner at random. It will look just like the book I’m reading here, but this one is mine. You’ll have to just win your own.

Or if that fails, you can pick up a copy at Amazon, B&N, Indiebound, and the usual suspects. You can find Deborah on Twitter, Facebook, and at her website.

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Jim and I are book twins this week. His book REVISIONARY (the fourth and final installment in his fabulous Magic Ex Libris series) came out on the same day as my WICKEDLY POWERFUL, the third book in my Baba Yaga series. Since we are huge fans of each other’s work, we decided to swap blogs and talk about how wonderful the other one is. Er, and chat a bit about our own books, too.

Wickedly Powerful coverJim was, in fact, part of the inspiration for the Baba Yaga series, although I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned that particular fact to him (you know, in case he wanted a cut of the royalties). I’ve always loved updated fairy tales, and Jim is one of the authors I read who did a terrific job taking an old classic tale and making it into something completely original and not a little kick-ass.

When I decided to do something along those lines, though, some people had already used up most of the better known fairy tale characters, like Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and the rest. I decided to find a story that was a bit more obscure. And featured witches, because that’s kinda my thang. So my books are based on the Russian fairy tale witch, Baba Yaga.

Yeah, I know. A bunch of you just said, “WHO?” Hey—if everyone knew about her, I wouldn’t have been the first one to write new stories featuring her as the protagonist, now, would I?

The traditional Baba Yaga might seem to be an unlikely heroine (unless you asked her, I suspect). Although she had roots as an elemental goddess, by the time she became a tale to scare children into finishing their borscht, she had iron teeth and a long nose, lived in a wooden hut that ran around on giant chicken legs, flew through the forest in a mortar steered by a pestle, and kept such dubious company as a dragon named Chudo-Yudo, and three mysterious men called the White Rider, the Red Rider, and the Black Rider.

Seriously—what writer could resist playing with that kind of material? The stories even talked about the Baba Yaga’s sisters (also called Baba Yaga), which gave me the perfect opportunity to write a trilogy about three different characters, all with the same basic job—guard the door between our world and the magical Otherworld, keep the balance of nature, and occasionally (if it was absolutely unavoidable) come to the aid of a worthy seeker.

Of course, things like movable huts, flying kitchen implements, and dragons would probably stand out these days, so I had to update my Baba Yagas a bit. So instead of huts on chicken legs they have cool traveling houses. Barbara, the first Baba you meet (in WICKEDLY DANGEROUS) lives in an Airstream trailer. Beka (from WICKEDLY WONDERFUL) is more of a California hippy type, so she has a funky refurbished school bus. Whereas Bella, who is the protagonist of WICKEDLY POWERFUL, has a cool modern traveling caravan.

The dragons are disguised too, of course. Barbara’s Chudo-Yudo is a gigantic white pit bull, Beka’s is an oversized black Newfoundland, and this time around (at the insistence of my five cats), Bella’s companion is a huge Norwegian Forest Cat. Mind you, no matter what form they take, you’re going to want to have some good fire insurance…

One of the things that drew me to Baba Yaga as a character was that even in the traditional stories, she wasn’t a “bad” witch or a “good” witch, as scary as she might have appeared. It all depended on how you approached her. If you are pure of heart and strong of will, she will almost certainly help you with your task. If you’re not, well, can you say ribbit?

Mind you, it’s not easy being a Baba Yaga. Poor Bella has this tiny problem with setting things on fire when she gets upset. Probably not the best issue to have when you are dealing with a mysterious arsonist and a flame-shy former Hotshots firefighter in the midst of a Wyoming national forest. Still, it’s all in a day’s work if you are a mystical, magical witch out of Russian fairy tales.

I loved reading fairy tales as a kid, and I’ve really enjoyed reading updated tales by authors such as Robin McKinley, Pamela Dean, Patricia McKillip, and oh, some guy named Jim Something or other. (Editor’s Note: That’s Jim C. Something or other, thank you very much!) I wanted to write my own books that would add something different to the genre, and maybe bring a little bit of magic to those who read them. You’ll have to let me know if I succeeded.

Thanks to Jim for letting me share release day with him. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a new book called REVISIONARY to go read. If you’re curious to learn more about me or the Baba Yaga series, you can check me out at www.deborahblakeauthor.com or find me on Facebook or Twitter, usually talking about books, cats, or (on a good day) dragons.

Jennifer Brozek: Revealing Personal Details Through Your Writing

Never Let Me Die - CoverEditor and author Jennifer Brozek has a new book out today! Never Let Me Die is the third book in her Melissa Allen series. She’s also edited more than fifteen anthologies, written for numerous role-playing companies, won a number of awards including the Origins, Scribe, ENnie, and Australian Shadows. In her free time, she’s a Director at Large for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. And she’s just a generally nice person. You can find her on Twitter at @JenniferBrozek.

She’s talking today about the things authors reveal in our writing — both unintentionally and deliberately…

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Writing is a private, intimate affair. It’s the writer and their work. It’s easy to see why we pull from personal experiences to enhance the story on the page. For me, this is a terrifying fact in retrospect. Sometimes, many times, we authors reveal more about ourselves and our experiences in our writing than we intended. Then again, sometimes, we do it on purpose.

The Melissa Allen series (Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, Never Let Me Die) is the first novel series that I wrote based on things in my own life. Things that I wanted to see on the page for others to experience.

I wrote a mentally ill heroine because I never had the opportunity to read about one growing up… and neither did the young woman I wrote the book for. I knew from the get-go that I would be questioned on this aspect of my protagonist. I knew that I would need to reveal my own autism (high functioning aspergers), my dyslexia, my stutter, my bouts of anxiety.

I knew I would be opening the door to that mostly hidden part of my life. However, it is this hidden aspect that needed to be shown, because I have many coping mechanisms. Enough that most people are surprised to find out I suffer from any of it. This is something I wanted to point out. Many people suffer from mental illness, and you never know because we don’t advertise. We cope. We medicate. We hide. We try to get through the day.

In Never Let Me Leave, I introduce a secondary protagonist, Carrie, who has a congenital defect. She is missing the top two sections of her fingers on her left hand. Why did I do this? Because this is something my mom has. I was sixteen before someone was brave enough to ask, “What happened to your mom’s hand?”

I was surprised at the question. At first, I thought she had hurt herself and I hadn’t noticed. But, no, they wanted to know what happened to her fingers.

Nothing “happened.” There was no story there. She was born that way.

I talked to my mom about adding this detail to one of my characters. I wanted to make sure it would be okay to do so. I knew I would be asked about it. Why would I want to “limit” and “deform” one of my characters like that? Because… tens of thousands of people deal with the same thing every day.

I wanted to show that even with such a facet to her character, Carrie is strong, smart, fast, and resourceful. Like my mom, she is a fast one-handed typist. Like my mom, she is good with computers. Like my mom… she exists. I wanted to include a heroine like my mom for her and every other person like her out there. They deserve to read about characters like them

Both of these facets (my autism, my mom’s hand) are big details that I meant to reveal. There are others that just sort of happened while I was writing because they were details I remembered and used — like an intellectual magpie. Little things: the experience of wearing pink in a military hospital, phrases told to me over and over as I was growing up, Also big things: like personal thoughts on social issues happening today.

I didn’t want to write about Ferguson, but one of the characters in Never Let Me Die is a black teenager, Adam. He grew up sheltered, but he still had access to the internet. He is very aware how many people view black teenagers. He knows the words and images the news gives to young black men. It influences him as a character.

In specific, he distrusts the police in the small town they moved to because he doesn’t know they won’t mistake a bag of skittles in his pocket for a gun. This means he is reluctant to deal with firearms in a public setting. This informs the reader that I’ve been thinking about the difficulties and the crap many young men and women, who aren’t white, face. This wasn’t something I had specifically set out to reveal. It was something I realized after the fact.

I could go on. There are so many things writers reveal through their writing. I think it’s because of the adage “write what you know” and the corollary “write what you can extrapolate from what you’ve experienced.” The more I write, the more I learn about why I write and what I want to write about.

I started out writing because I had stories to tell. I continue to write because I have messages to give: intentional and otherwise.

Julie Czerneda: I Think I’ll Call It Bob

Julie Czerneda

Photo by Roger Czerneda

I’m delighted to turn the blog over to author, friend, and generally wonderful human being Julie Czerneda. Her new book is This Gulf of Time and Stars [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], the first in a new Clan Chronicles trilogy that will finally answer the question: Who are the Clan? Julie’s here chatting about the potential challenges of making up new names and words in speculative fiction, and oh can I relate…

As an added bonus, DAW is giving away a copy of the book to one of my lucky readers (from the U.S. or Canada), and Audible will be doing the same with a code to download the audio book. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment with your favorite made-up word, either from SF or elsewhere. (Make sure you also leave a way for me to get in touch with you.)

You can learn more about Julie’s blog tour on Facebook, or check out an audio sample of the new book, courtesy of Audible.com.

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Picture this moment, if you will. I’m writing along at a happy clip, action underway, dialogue snappy, plot racing, and I say to myself, this isn’t so hard. Then, SMACK. I run into that bump in the writing road known as “What to Call It.”

Every writer hits those. (Don’t get me started on titles! That’s another post. Names for things—and characters—and places are bad enough.)

Before I sold my first book, I had a simple method. I’d hit keys until I had something cool looking.

I’ll let you ponder the wisdom of that.

With my very first book, I discovered making up words by how they look is less than ideal.

Sheila Gilbert is my editor/publisher at DAW. Her first revision comments for A Thousand Words for Stranger were prefaced with: “You’ve never said these names out loud, have you.”

Why would I? I thought. It’s a book. Aloud, with caution, “No.”

“You’ll need to,” she explained patiently. “When you read in public.”

I believe I was rendered speechless.

My editor-dear went on to read some of my made-up names to me, starting with “Pul.” In her light New Jersey accent, it came to my ear as “Peew-ul” Not good. So Pul di Sarc became Rael di Sarc. (In Beholder’s Eye Sheila caught me again. I’d come up with “Liccs” and “Scru.” Feel free not to ponder too long. Those I changed, and quickly.)

I now, sometimes, say my new words out loud. Not as often as I should; it makes me self-conscious and I giggle. Sometimes I’ll make a name almost unpronounceable on purpose, giving myself an out with a nickname. In Migration “Arslithissiangee Yip the Fourteenth” is “Fourteen.”*

Having learned how naming things and characters could mess me up? I changed tactics.

The Do-It-Later Approach

One way not to slam on the writerly brakes is to insert a searchable placeholder and keep going. I use 000. Good idea, because if I have a few of those, I can take my time and pick words that won’t conflict and might even work well together. For example, that’s how I wound up with comtech, comlink, etc.

Bad idea, because after a few are scattered through the text I begin to feel the manuscript is full of holes. Creepy!

Also, if I use 000 for more than one name? I end up wondering which 000 was whom, when. That way lies madness, trust me. These days, I try my best to fill them in as soon as possible. (Having them here makes me twitch, to be honest.)

The Modified Do-It-Later

A better approach, if you’ve the patience, is to insert a descriptive placeholder. For example [ADISGUSTINGHOTEL]. The advantage here is that you have a clue later what you were thinking at the time, and can move on quickly. I found this also helps me leave some of the descriptive details for later when I want to write quickly, a trick I learned from the inestimable—and insanely speedy—Ed Greenwood. It’s proven handy so long as I spot them all. Which didn’t happen my first go, so now I add in my searchable 000 string [000ADISGUSTINGHOTEL].

Occasionally, when reading these over, I giggle. Writing’s like that.

The Think-of-Them-All-First Approach

I suspect there are writers of vast virtue out there who do this. I’m not one of them. I manage to create a few names for things, while researching and noodling the plot, but the instant I’m ready to write a story, it’s full ahead at a happy clip, with bumps.

That said, I did myself—and the Clan Chronicles, including This Gulf of Time and Stars–an unexpected favour a few years ago. Back then, my inbox kept getting spammed. Rather than let myself get annoyed, I’d jot down the more interesting names before deleting. Soon I had the collection shown in small part here. To my joy—and perhaps with a smidge of righteous vengeance—my spammers proved perfect names for many of the Om’ray, and others.

Spam Names

Don’t Use Me Twice List

Because that happens. I named a planet in the Webshifters series “Paniccia.” Later, I became close friends with someone having that last name, totally forgot about the planet, and used her name for a character in the Clan books. I’m not telling you the others. These days, I keep a glossary of “Julie’s Wierd Words” (misspelled on purpose—the copyeditor is aware) for every book and series. I’d like to say I add words to it as I make them up, as a writer of Vast Virtue should.

Nope. I write down those I need to refer to as I go, such as all the people in a room, and leave the rest until I run the US spellcheck to dig out my Canadianisms before I send in my draft. I know it’ll pick up words I’ve made up, most of them anyway, and that’s when I enter them into the glossary, as well as add them to the dictionary for the book.

Because, misspelling your own made-up words happens ALL THE TIME. Copyeditors (Hi Paula!) are worth their weight in gold-pressed latinum, believe me.

Notebook JC-Glossary

Don’t Use Me Ever

I google each word I’ve made up, in case it isn’t a word I’ve made up. Trust me on that. On the flip side, I’ve encountered many unexpected tidbits of information along the way.

Then, There’s Consistency

Oh gods. You make up a single name and suddenly there are relatives and ancestors, let alone conventions for children or sexes or status, not to mention titles and nicknames and slang. Nothing says they’ll be the same for the people over there, because they aren’t here, are they. Think things and places are safer? Nope. I decided to make a setting more alien even to me by removing words such as “forest and tree and leaf” from my vocabulary in Reap the Wild Wind, a setting OF trees, no less. It worked, but there were times I’d stop and search on “leaf” to be sure. Readers have a right to expect a consistent use of a term. When you’re sticking random apostrophes in alien names (in my defense, it was my first book), they move! All by themselves!

Outside Input

Tuckerization is when you use a real person’s name in a book. It’s a fine way to raise funds for charity, and I’m proud to have done so, but it’s not always straightforward. A name may not fit the nomenclature of the story’s setting and need to be altered. I’ve had two people go together to bid on a character name, Ruth and Tim; fortunately, they were happy to combine their names into one: “Ruti Bowart,” from Ties of Power. Then there’s sequels, characters who must die, and so on. A topic for another blog post.

Shouting for Help

Every so often, I’m stuck. There’s nothing in sight to inspire (I do scramble words if I must. A Juicy Fruit label somehow inspired “Yihtor” in Thousand. Honest.) Or I suspect I’ve used a great word elsewhere (see above). Online friends to the rescue! I’ll post a plea on Facebook or Twitter and have an answer in seconds. Thank you all! Some of my favourite made-up words/names resulted from our quick interactions. My friend Janet dared me to use “Jim-bo Bob.” I did. “Janet Jim-bo Bob” is the Carasian in Reap. (Proper name: “Janex Jymbobobii,” but I couldn’t resist.) For In the Company of Others, I needed more names for the security unit on the Earth starship. Anyone who contacted me that day from my newsgroup is in there.

Readers Get It

The best thing about words in science fiction is the enormity of ready-made language at our fingertips. Anyone who’s read Andre Norton will know what I mean. Thanks to her and others, I can say blaster, spaceport, alien, teleport etc. and my readers stay with me. (If you’re curious about how many words science fiction folks have coined, check out the Oxford Dictionary Citation project which is now a book, Brave New Words. Note to self, get that.)

Genre-friendly words and scientific terms are jargon, however. Words we know and they don’t. I do pay attention to which might be a potentially fatal stumble for those coming fresh and new to science fiction. After all, we want such readers to stay and love this stuff too. Where I can, I put those terms in context as they come up, regardless of how familiar each seems to me. Or to you.

Other Bits of Fun, and Bob

Some names I give things are for fun. I’ve starships named after Canadian astronauts. Some characters share names with those on shows I love, such as Farscape. Sharp-eyed fans might have spotted a few Toronto Maple Leafs in Survival. And then, there’s Bob.

We have an old British expression in our family. “Bob’s your uncle.” It means, more or less, a tidy, pleasing finish to something. Well done. A wrap. At the end of Titan A.E., the main character suggests “Bob” for the name of humanity’s new world for good reason. Makes me laugh every time. I’ve used it in In the Company of Others the same way. Maybe somewhere else. Not telling.

I hear it makes an excellent working title for a book, too.

The takeaway from this? Made-up words are an essential part of building a world that isn’t like this one. It’s work and fun—and fraught with risk!—all at once. So when next you see a writer head down and scribbling frantically? Give them a moment.

They’ve thought of that new word.

This Gulf of Time and Stars

Thanks for hosting me, Jim. Love your words, by the way. “Fire-spider?” Genius!


* If you missed my recent interview with Allyson Johnson, voice actor for the Trade Pact and Gulf, check out her take on my made-up words here.

Writing Full Time: Leah Cypess

I quit my full-time day job just over a month ago. By now, thanks to all that newfound time, you might expect I’d have finished up three books, eleven short stories, written a spec script for Doctor Who, and branched out into goblin romance novels under a pseudonym. But apparently it doesn’t work that way…

Death Sworn - CoverAuthor Leah Cypess has been doing this Writing While Parenting thing a lot longer than I have, and has come along just in time to share some of her insights and lessons on trying to balance it all and make the most of that time.

Leah has two series, the most recent of which begins with the YA fantasy Death Sworn. Booklist compared her protagonist to Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and George R.R. Martin’s Arya Stark, which is pretty cool praise if you ask me.

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Posts about balancing writing and kids usually intimidate me. Other people are getting up at 5 a.m. to write or actually getting their kids to leave them alone when they want to work. These people have figured it out, and I clearly have not.

(Case in point: I originally told Jim I would send him this post in late August, exactly the time when my kids have no camp and no school. I think the takeaway from that is obvious.)

With that said, I have 4 kids and 4 published books, and in the process of producing all 8 of these, I’ve gained a sense of what works for me and what doesn’t. I don’t have a “method,” but I do have a set of principles that I’ve learned to ignore at my peril.

They may or may not work for you; but for those who will find them useful, here they are:

[1] Write first. I cannot stress this one enough. Raising kids involves a million mindless tasks, ranging from necessary to bizarre, that can keep you occupied every waking minute. Don’t waste your alert mind on those tasks. I try to get an hour of writing done every morning, as soon as possible after the 3 older kids are in school, before the endless tasks list can take over my attention. That is almost always the most productive hour of my day.

[2] Go outside. There are times when it is really tempting to skip this one. My husband got the older kids out the door, the baby is still sleeping, and I just woke up with an epiphany about exactly what need to happen next in my book and how it’s going to be the coolest plot twist ever. I’m wearing really comfortable pajamas and there are no distractions on the horizon. Obviously, all I need to do is open my laptop and write five thousand words. No, seven thousand! Ten thousand! This will be my most productive day in months!

Right. Half an hour later, I realize the plot twist doesn’t actually make any sense, and I need to pause and think it over. I check my email, an hour later, I check facebook, and next thing I know my kids are coming home from school and I’ve written five paragraphs and eaten half a box of chocolate peanut butter cups. Okay, maybe not as bad as that, but there is something about staying home in my pajamas that drains my willpower and creative energy.

[3] Don’t take on extra commitments without thinking about them carefully. (See first paragraph above.) But DO take on some commitments, even those that don’t seem to make perfect sense on a time-for-money basis. Every time I agree to do a bookstore visit, I end up regretting it the day before — because I have to drive so far! and find a babysitter! and it’s taking up so much of my time! — but my regret is almost always gone by the time the event is over. There’s nothing like hanging out with other writers and meeting fans of your books to remind yourself why you wanted to do this in the first place. Just try to schedule your commitments realistically; everything you do eats into your writing and childcare time, so make your decisions with open eyes. (Maureen Johnson wrote a blog post I find myself re-reading often, to help myself stick to this.)

[4] Your kids need to occupy themselves. Not all the time, but some of the time. You don’t actually need to be actively engaged with them every second. (An especially important message for women, since society sometimes sends the message that any time a mother is not fully focused on her kids, she is being selfish.) You can help by taking them places where it is easy for them to entertain themselves. For younger kids, playgrounds are awesome — free, always open, and with convenient benches for sitting and writing. For older kids, playdates are usually the answer. Another huge help is reading: if you can get your kid interested in reading, then aside from all the obvious benefits to them, you can sit next to them while they read, and you can write, and everyone is happy.

That’s what works for me … most of the time, anyhow. What works for someone else may be entirely different. Heck, what works for me in four years may be entirely different. But for now, this is keeping my own balancing act going; and maybe some aspects of it will be helpful for yours.

Writing Full Time: Diana Pharaoh Francis

Cover: Edge of DreamsIn three more days, I reach the end of my time as a full-time state employee.

Author Diana Pharaoh Francis was kind enough to write the letter below, congratulating me and sharing her experiences and the lessons she’s learned. Taking care of yourself is important advice, and it’s something so many of us routinely forget or neglect. My thanks to Di for the reminder.

Her latest book is Edge of Dreams, the second Diamond City Magic book. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of her other work. You can also say hi to Di over on Twitter or Facebook.

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Dear Jim,

Congratulations on leaving the day job and embracing the word-job full time. Scary as it is, it’s a wonderful thing. I’ve been working on what to say to you, and I was embracing the funny, but really, I couldn’t maintain it. This is too important. So let me tell you from the heart some things that I think are important.

As you know, I did this about two years ago. I left a stable tenured job at a university and moved across several states with my family and went full time writer. It was a glorious dream come true. I was over-the-moon excited. This was something I’d been working toward for a long time. Like you, I have a spouse with insurance and a stable income, but I still need to make a certain level of income to get the bills paid. Unfortunately, unlike you, we couldn’t pay off our mortgage (I so envy you that).

At first it was amazing. The kids were in school and I was writing like a fiend. Words tumbled out on the book and I was having a fabulous time. And then came the unexpected. My son developed an illness that turned into a long term illness. It’s lasted now for the better part of two years. I’ve been so grateful to be able to be with him and to have the schedule that lets me go to hospitals and doctors and so on without having to worry about getting time off. On the other hand, it seriously cut into my writing time. It also cut into my creativity. (He is getting better finally. Yay!)

I didn’t realize it was happening to me, but over the months, I began losing motivation and ability to write. I felt tired all the time and I couldn’t think. I had a lot of resistance to writing. It took me time to figure out that this was stress. Perfectly reasonable, but by that time, the stress of not being able to write had added to the stress of everything else and created a terrible feedback loop.

And that’s where I come to my advice. Take care of yourself. You know that means exercise and taking schedule time off from the job, and so on. But I’m here to tell you that one of the most important parts of taking care of yourself is to find a community of writers to hang out with. We do this at cons, but it’s truly important to do this in your real life, too. Maybe it’s online in chatting. Better if you can do it in person. I’ve taken to meeting other writing friends for coffee or breakfast. The conversation is sometimes about writing, but more it’s just talking to people who really get what your life is like. They’ve experienced the same things. There’s something so positive and rejuvenating in that understanding, it can be a lifeline when you’re struggling on any level.

So that’s it. My big advice. Oh, except this one thing, which is actually from Neil Gaiman. Enjoy the ride. It’s lovely and fun and exhausting and difficult and so very amazing. Remember to enjoy it.

All my best,
Di

Writing Full Time: Harry Connolly

This past weekend, I had a plan. I was going to sit down and finish Revisionary. Nothing was going to get in my way!

Then the internet happened.

I still finished and turned in the book, but it took much longer than I’d planned for. How do you deal with the siren song of social media, especially as a full-time writer? A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark - CoverEnter Harry Connolly, with his supernaturally well-timed advice.

Does his advice work? Judge for yourself. His latest novel is A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, a pacifist urban fantasy with a protagonist who is a mix of Auntie Mame and Gandalf. Locus Magazine says it has “… a strangely satisfying conclusion. Then there’s the starred review Publishers Weekly. gave his epic fantasy/apocalyptic thriller The Way into Chaos.

You can find Harry on Twitter at @byharryconnolly or at his website.

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I used to joke with my friends that the internet is a temporal gas: it expands to fill whatever time we have. Then I left my day job, had access to it at all hours, and suddenly it wasn’t so funny any more. Twitter, political causes, movie news… all of these felt like things I ought to be doing.

But it fills your day, crowding out important stuff, including the writing.

When I had a day job, I could get up early and write for an hour before my shift started. I had a daily deadline, one I couldn’t extend without getting fired. My goals were small. Even better, the coffee shop expected patrons to pay for wifi. In the war between stinginess and laziness, stinginess usually wins. Productivity!

Then I walked away from that job and switched from the cafe to home. Every day, I had oceans of time and a thousand oceans worth of internet to fill it with. Impose my own daily deadline? As a deeply unserious person, I never took them seriously. Without an external daily deadline to keep me focused, I wasn’t.

If you’re Jonathan Franzen, you pull your wireless card and squirt a dab of glue into your ethernet port. (I don’t know if that story is true, but it’s useful. Useful is better than true.) If you’re Colson Whitehead, Mr. “It’s called willpower” himself, you just do it. No hostage pit required.

Of course, Whitehead doesn’t have my treacherous, distractible brain. His perfectly sensible suggestions–stop fooling around and write–simply don’t work for me. I’ve tried. The urge to check email or catch up to Twitter when the writing gets difficult is irresistible. Willpower? That’s just a stat on a character sheet, with as much meaning to the way I live my life as “Mana.” I can turn down pizza. I can wake early in the morning. I can resist bright and shiny new tech. But interesting stuff online when I should be working? Nope.

Which is where apps come in.

As with most people, it’s much easier to plan self-control for the future than it is to exert it now. It’s easier to eat a healthy lunch if you pack it the night before than if you run out of the office hungry with twenty dollars in your wallet. Virtue does not like to be summoned in the moment. It has to be scheduled.

Mac Freedom was the name of the app I used. I loved it. Before bed, I’d set a length of time for my laptop to block all internet access, then close it. The timer only ran while the clamshell was open, so the six-hour countdown wouldn’t begin until the next day, when I was actually working. I could go online if I really, really needed to, but that involved force-quitting Freedom and rebooting. That was enough of a bother that I could resist the temptation (although I know of other writers who couldn’t).

Sadly, once I updated to Yosemite, Freedom stopped working. I had to pay again for a new version and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to discover that it had a bunch of new features I didn’t like. Now the timer continued to count down even when the clamshell was shut.

Worse, there was an actual timer telling me how much work time I had left. I love clocks, maps, and calendars; I check them constantly. Having a big-ass countdown clock was a massive distraction.

They’d also added a scheduler. For each day of the week, you could select blocks of time when the app would shut out the web. On Wed night I could ban the internet for a set “shift” on Thursday. Better: having a set writing schedule meant I could arrange a weekly schedule and forget about it

Or I would have done, if the new version of the app had worked.

It had been a year since I tested the new version of Freedom, so before writing this post for Jim I reinstalled it. The company might have updated it in the past year, right? They might have fixed it?

Well, yes, they had updated it, but no, it wasn’t fixed.

I needed something new, and it needed three things:

1) It had to block access to the internet, not just minimize it or remove it from the screen.
2) I needed to be able to set my work time in advance.

It turns out there are a lot of options. Sadly, many of them do little more than “hide” other windows. Others are dedicated word processing programs (“includes spellcheck!”); I’m already using Scrivener. Browser extension? Those are great, except that they don’t protect me from my Twitter client. And the Pomodoro Method–25 minutes of work followed by a five minute break–is a fine idea. Getting out of your chair every half hour is a good thing. But I can’t limit my breaks to five minutes if the internet is involved.

What I settled on was Focus. There’s a timer (which I don’t use) and a scheduler (which I do). The downside of the scheduler is that I can only set one time for weekdays and one for weekends. I’m a writer. I don’t have weekends. What I have instead is a weird schedule of homeschool requirements and… Let’s just say it’s a weird schedule.

The plus side covers two things: First, it closes apps for me, so I can shut off my Twitter client and any browsers I like, while leaving Dropbox open. This means that my Very Admirable Backup System functions as the day’s work progresses, not just at the end of the day. Second, when it says it’s blocking my internet, it is. End result: work is accomplished.

Obviously, I’m not offering specific advice for Jim as he embarks on his new path as a Writer Without A Day Job. It’s not specific advice for anyone. What everyone needs is a broad Franzen-to-Whitehead spectrum. If you’re someone who needs just a little help cutting out the distracting clutter, a program that takes up the entire screen might do the trick. If you’re someone who can’t resist the temptation of rebooting your computer to check Facebook, you might prefer Self-Control, which has a timer you can’t shut off until it finishes.

Speaking for myself, I had the utterly typical experience of More Time To Write -> Less Writing Done. Productivity apps are one of the ways I turned that around. Maybe they’ll help others, too.

Jim C. Hines