Guest Post

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.

Writing Full Time: Marie Brennan

Voyage of the Basilisk - CoverWhen I announced that I’d be quitting the day job and devoting more time to writing, I also chatted a bit with some writer friends about their own experiences and advice. I ended up inviting some folks to share their stories. First up is author Marie Brennan. I’ve been a fan of Brennan’s work for a while, as you can see from some of the reviews I’ve posted.

Her latest book is Voyage of the Basilisk, with In the Labyrinth of Drakes coming up next in 2016.

Brennan’s experience below reminds me a bit of something my mother used to say when she was raising me and my brother, about the desperate need to get out of the house from time to time and talk to someone who wasn’t a) a little kid or b) a character on a children’s TV show…

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Like many writers, I’m an introvert.

When I started writing full time, I found out the hard way that even introverts need a certain dose of social interaction to remain sane.

It happened while I was writing A Star Shall Fall — the first novel I drafted in its entirety after leaving graduate school to be a full-time author. Due to some changes in the plot, I fell behind, and was worried about making my deadline. Ordinarily I write a thousand words a night (which is a pace I know I can generally maintain for an extended period of time, without outpacing my ability to figure out the next bit), but for a while there my goal was to write 1500-2000 and revise 5000 every day.

Fortunately, I had some spare time in which to do that. The dojo where my husband and I study karate closes down for two weeks every summer while the man who owns it goes on vacation, and this happened to coincide with me going into overdrive on the book. I thought, This is great! Karate eats a couple of hours a couple of nights a week, plus it just kind of disrupts my evening in general. With the dojo closed, I can just buckle down and get through this hard patch.

A bit over a week into that, my husband more or less dragged me out of the house by force, because I was going out of my skull.

It turns out that although social interaction is indeed draining for me, I need a certain dose of it or I go off in the deep end. My husband doesn’t count: I told him and my sister once that they aren’t “people,” in the sense that I don’t mind having them around when I’m not in a mood to deal with people. Having only him to talk to for a week or so gave me cabin fever like whoa. I needed to get out of the house; I needed to deal with somebody other than the imaginary people in my head.

You don’t think about this kind of thing when you’re planning your life as a full-time author. Setting up a work space, sure. Arranging your schedule, definitely. But making sure you have a life outside work? Not so much. (Not unless somebody warns you that you need to plan for that.) And yet it’s a vital part of the care and feeding of a writer, and if you neglect it, you’ll pay the price.

Which is why I go to karate, and I run a role-playing game every Tuesday, and I invite friends over to watch TV or to meet me at a museum exhibit. If I’m under the gun for a deadline, I think very carefully before I let those things slip. As much as I need to devote my time to getting the book done, I’ll work a lot better if I keep my mind in balance.

What Do We Look Like in Your Mind? – Kat Tanaka Okopnik

Welcome to what I believe will be the final guest blog post on representation in SF/F. In addition to working on Invisible 2, I also plan to put together a round-up of links to all of the guest articles, and if I can make the time, to pull together a reading list as well, based on comments and conversation around the posts.

In the meantime, my thanks to Kat Tanaka Okopnik for bringing us to a close with her personal and powerful piece about seeing your own children shaped by problematic tropes and stereotypes, and the urgent need to do better.


Before you read further, indulge me please. Picture, if you will, a young (East) Asian American protagonist. If you can, do a color drawing, or write down your description. If you feel ambitious, please do the same with White, Black, Latin@ friends for them.

What made that character seem plausibly East Asian to you?

Was it the golden skin, and the tilted eyes?

Where do they live? What do they eat? Where did their parents grow up?

I hate writing this essay.

I wish there wasn’t such urgent need to write it.

I wish I were writing about it in the past tense, rather than as a pressing need that I’m finding exhausting. I have two young children who are surrounded by media that are leading them to perform the very same problematic tropes about (East) Asians that I grew up around. It’s 2015. Aren’t we supposed to be done with this?

I wish all the blithe pronouncements of our colorblind, postracial society were real. I wish there were actually enough mention, by other people, of the issues facing Asian America so that I could write sense of wonder stories instead—but my child has said to me, “Mommy, my skin is ugly!” Further discussion reveals that he’s come to think of lighter and darker skin than his own as beautiful, but his light olive is unacceptable in his mind. I spend months working even harder to make sure that people who look like him are presented as attractive, too.

It’s a rare week when I don’t see yet another case of yellowface and exoticization of East Asians dismissed as a non-issue. The excuses are predictable: it’s historic, it’s satirical, it’s humorous, it’s tribute, it’s realistic, why do we complain when there’s representation? it’s not just East Asians! actually it’s punching up, hey my Asian friend said it was okay, oh it’s someone East Asian doing it.

I’m known to have an interest in finding non-problematic media, and so I’m offered a pretty steady stream of recommendations. The majority of “diverse” stories and shows that are offered to my children come in two categories: East Asian kid as a member of the tokenized team of sidekicks to the white protagonist, or stories of East Asia or the recent diaspora. Often, the indicators of East Asian identity for the team player are an East Asian-language name and “golden skin and straight black hair and slanted eyes.” There’s a parent or grandmother who speaks in fortune cookie Wise Oriental proverbs. Unfamiliar words are dropped into the conversation, with an echoed translation into English immediately afterward.

The rest of the stories happen long ago or far away. They’re just as much unreal fantasy as dragons or turtle ninjas. Actually, my son seems to want to become a ninja partly because that’s the expected pipeline for “an Asian kid”. (His peers mostly want to be turtle ninjas because that would be cool.)

They’ve been taught by the culture around them that “Chinesey” is a performance based on wearing cultural artifacts, and that East Asians are defined by accents and tinkly background music. There’s a continuum from Tikki Tikki Tembo through The Runaway Wok and The Mikado that portrays Asia as a place of silly sounding names and illogical people. And yet these are the things that well-meaning educators are presenting to them and their peers.

My children don’t see themselves in these stories. They know that people from all sorts of backgrounds have small or slanted or “slitty” eyes, because they’ve grown up in a diverse community—they’ve seen living examples in peers whose family heritage is from Africa, or Europe, or more southern parts of Asia. They see the range of skin color in the families around them, including the ones they are most closely tied to by genetics and history. But they are getting a persistent message that’s showing through in their expectations and in the behavior of their peers: skinny blonde girls are the heroes, except when the hero is some sort of white boy. Asians speak funny and are from far away. Sometimes there’s a character who’s black, and the world is divided into black and white. My children have no context for Asian American protagonists. They resort to identifying themselves as white, and my daughter wants her hair to be “yellow.”

I can work hard to give my children a healthy sense of belonging and potential, but I can’t change the world they’re interacting with on my own. It’s their peers’ sense that Asianness is defined by otherness that causes me the greatest concern.

Now that they are reading fluently, I wish I could just hand them an age-appropriate book. Where’s the “Heather Has Two Mommies” of cultural etiquette for the single digit set? It may be out there, but it’s buried under the pile I review and reject for my children. I know we can do better as a society.


​​Kat Tanaka Okopnik started writing about Japanese American history at age 13 and has gone on to write about geek culture, food, parenting, social justice, and stepping outside the confines of narrow social expectations.

She’s pleased to note that she has an essay forthcoming in WisCon Chronicles 9. Her current big project is the Dictionary of Social Justice. 

She’s available as an editor, copy editor, and writer, and offers private consultations and group encounters on facilitating difficult discussions on social justice topics. She also does cultural consultation for writers, editors, and others on East Asian representation, with a focus on Japanese diaspora history and contemporary issues as well as for general social justice pitfalls.

​​Kat Tanaka Okopnik

On Being An “Older” Female Writer – Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo, in addition to having the coolest name ever, has been an active part of SF/F for about as long as I can remember. She’s served in SFWA, and is currently running for president of the organization. She edited Fantasy Magazine. She’s a prolific author. And she has the best hair! I’m happy to welcome her to the blog to talk about her experiences as an “older” female writer in the genre.

You can check out her new book Beasts of Tabat on Amazon or Wordfire, or read more about it on her website.


A year or so ago, I celebrated my 50th birthday. I did it wonderfully, with food and friends and all sorts of festivities, but at the same time, my inner teen kept eying that number and going OMGWTFBBQ.

If you are beyond your teenage years, you know what I mean, because all of us are, to one extent or another, significantly younger in our heads than our exteriors may indicate. My mother confirms that it’s just as true in one’s 70s.

I do find my reading habits changed a little. My stance on romance nowadays has shifted. It sometimes makes me a little impatient, a little get-on-with-it when it’s not interesting, and when it is badly written. I find simplistic stuff unsatisfying unless it is absolutely, beautifully wrought. I don’t mind unhappy endings as long as they resonate and I can tell.

But it’s when I write that I sometimes feel my age, not in a bad way. Not in a bad way at all. But rather I understand things better than I used to. I have more grasp of how to flip oneself into the opposing perspective, so I can better understand what’s on the other side of a debate. I hate to call it wisdom, but yes, I have learned a few things, and because I’ve read deeply and also worked in some people-skills-intensive position, I’ve got enough of it to know I am not wise at all, and that’s farther along than some people have gotten.

Beasts of TabatI’ve come to the point where I understand something of why I write, and a little of what I want to say. I like that. And I know people better now, and that helps me create interesting characters. The novel that’s coming out, Beasts of Tabat, features a middle-aged female gladiator and a teenage shapeshifter. That’s a pair of protagonists a bit outside the norm, and I think that it’s experience that let me come up with Bella Kanto and Teo.

At the same time, as an older female writer, I’m also conscious that I’m part of a demographic traditionally dismissed, particularly in writing. I am one of that mob of dammed scribbling women that Nathaniel Hawthorne deplored. And I am aware that much of that mob has been allowed to fade from historical memory, something I see happening to some of the women in the speculative field before me right now. Something that I worry will happen to me.

There’s been lots of sturm und drang about an idea Tempest Bradford proposed, that people try one year of reading outside the standard category, and I will take it one step further: if you are an adventurous reader who likes challenging yourself, spend a year reading from outside that category, but only books that are 30+ years old, preferably even older. You’ll find the chase illuminating. You’ll find influences. You’ll find writers talking to each other, an endless call and answer throughout literature that every writer takes part in, and sometimes those conversations will startle you in their modernity. You’ll find people that maybe other people tried to erase, or maybe the hegemony just wasn’t set up to perpetuate their name — it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the renewal of energy in their names. Read in other cultures, other times.

Younger writers will find inspiration there, older writers comfort as well. And the fuel to keep going — at least that’s one of the ways I feed my own fires.

I do hope you’ll read my own new novel before embarking on the course I advise 🙂

Good writing/reading to you all.


Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com as well as three collections and her latest work, the novel Beasts of Tabat. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see http://www.kittywumpus.net.

Cat Rambo

Alien of Extraordinary Ability? Migration in SFF and in my Life – Bogi Takács

As we get to the last few of these guest blog posts, I’m trying to look ahead to the process of pulling everything together for Invisible 2. Like last year, my plan is to do an electronic anthology, and to donate any profits to a relevant cause (which I’ll be discussing with contributors.) The anthology will probably have the same $2.99 price point. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’ll share more info as things progress.

For today, I’m happy to welcome Bogi Takács to the blog to talk about migration/migrants in SFF, and in eir life. It’s educational and eye-opening, to say the least.


I’m an autistic trans person from a non-Western country where I also belong to an ethnic minority. I could write about many, many intersections, and how my lived experience is or is not represented in SF. Yet for this essay I chose to talk about something people might not consider about me: the experience of being a migrant.

Before we begin, a terminological note: I really do prefer the term “migrants” to “immigrants”. First, “immigrants” assumes that your destination is more important than your origin. (It is, not surprisingly, common in US-centric discourse.) Second, “immigrant” often has a precise legal definition that many migrants are literally not able to claim.

With that in mind, people migrate all the time: they immigrate, from one perspective, they emigrate, from another. I’ve lived in Hungary (where I was born), in Austria, in Norway, and I’ve recently moved to the United States. I have experienced a bewildering range of reactions and treatment, some of which I would not even describe here, because I developed quite an amount of self-censorship in the process.

As a migrant academic, I often find myself in curious legal categories where I can’t even claim the legal protections afforded to people with immigrant status, with many if not most of the downsides. Right now, I cannot earn any money outside campus – I even had to turn down the $10 Jim offered to include this essay in Invisible 2.

On the online SFF scene, I am usually seen as the ethnic, religious, gender, sexual minority person – take your pick! People don’t see me as a migrant, and yet this is possibly what defines my day to day experience the most. I now live in a small liberal town where I can literally go around being draped in a Pride flag and random strangers will cheer me on. (For the record, I tried this. I also tried this in Hungary. DO NOT TRY THIS IN HUNGARY.) People are sometimes perplexed by my gender, but unlike in my country of origin, I haven’t experienced physical violence. Americans also have trouble believing that I have ever been the target of physically violent racism, because they categorize and treat me as white.

Warning: self-exoticization follows!

By contrast, what I experience all the time is being the strange foreigner [sic], being from somewhere else with exotic customs [sic] – and often not being taken at face value when I talk of my experience having lived there. I have a weird accent [sic]. (Actually I have a “weird accent” in any language due to being autistic, but most Americans don’t know this.)

People try to be nice: “I have been to your country as a tourist, it’s such an amazing place!” …Umm, yeah, guess why I’m not there.

To see where migration fits into my experience of SFF in particular, and why I feel invisible as a migrant, we need to start quite far, both in space and in time. As a multiply marginalized person, I discovered thanks to the Vienna Public Library that there was a vast amount of literature beyond the Western literary canon that really resonated with me. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work – both fiction and nonfiction – in particular was eye-opening to me, especially Matigari and Decolonising the Mind. I discovered the solidarity of the marginalized that had up till that moment been nothing more than a dated Communist slogan from my childhood.

This was before I got summarily thrown out of the Vienna Public Library and my account cancelled because as a migrant I didn’t have just the right legal document! (Even though I was in Austria perfectly legally.) …My life was changed regardless.

I had been a voracious SFF reader since early childhood – my parents were both agricultural engineers at that time and heavily into SFF. In Hungary this is not a particularly subcultural activity, SFF is much more a part of mainstream literature and a lot of people read SFF who would not be considered part of core fandom in the US. The definitive Hungarian print SFF magazine, Galaktika, has a print circulation similar to the big three print American SFF magazines, while Hungary has a population half the size of the New York City metropolitan area!

As a child I read many, many Soviet and other Eastern bloc SF works where people of different cultures and races worked together – this was a trope of Communist propaganda, the “friendship of the peoples” (népek barátsága in Hungarian, druzhba narodov in Russian). But these works were written by ethnic majority people, and from a position of power – in the case of ethnic Russian authors, even a position of colonizing power.

The friendship of the peoples was, in practice, very limited. It could not include Jews. It could not include Romani or Beás people. It could not include queer people. Trans people could only be aliens – oddly, they could be aliens. Religious people were obviously out – religion was the opiate of the peoples, as Marx had put.

When I started to read in English, what could I obtain in Hungary? Novels from the Asimov-Bradbury-Clarke triumvirate, some William Gibson, and precious little else… basically the same American authors that I could already read in Hungarian translation. While I greatly admired Bradbury, his semi-autobiographic Dandelion Wine was so different from my own childhood experience that I literally cried from frustration. (Gibson was different, but that’s a topic for another time.) I came to understand why Dandelion Wine was never published in Hungary!

So when I discovered online short SFF in English, I was amazed. There were so many people, from all over the world, who were writing from their own perspective, about their own experience, and I could obtain vast amounts of this stuff free of charge! I could actually talk to the authors and they responded! At the risk of sounding trite: this was, in effect, the friendship of the peoples.

Yet almost immediately thereafter I discovered a curious gap: a lot of the American SFF discourse, even very “progressive” and left-wing discourse, seemed to ignore that migrants existed. Again, the friendship of the peoples didn’t seem to extend very far… For instance, I was baffled when Ekaterina Sedia was dismissed by Wiscon organizers who tried to shoehorn the American immigrant experience into, at best, an “ESL workshop”. (Because professionally published writers like her need an ESL workshop – how patronizing is that?)

How to Live on Other PlanetsThe first anthology of immigration-themed SFF, How to Live on Other Planets (ed. Joanne Merriam) is coming out just now, and it’s reprints-only and had a royalties-only payrate. (Not that I can get paid, anyway!) Despite that, the lineup is stellar, because many, many writers are migrants themselves, or the children of migrants, and are eager for their words being heard. It is also striking that a lot of the best migrant writing seems to come from semi-pro SFF or literary fiction markets, not the core pro SFF venues.

Full disclosure: I have a poem in How to Live on Other Planets. It’s about my country of origin, so might be a bit out of place, but it does examine Hungary from the PoV of an outsider – an alien.

I am, right now, literally an alien – probably the most annoying kind, the “non-resident alien”. (This is the actual legal term.) I have to pay taxes, yet I cannot vote.

For further American legal terms to baffle and entertain, I also recommend you look up “alien of extraordinary ability”. I’m not an alien of extraordinary ability. I’m just a quirky and mild-mannered everyday person who sometimes writes poetry. I’m also very loud and paste myself all over the internet, so if I remain invisible, that’s not on me.

Part of my loudness consists of providing story recommendations to every passerby on Twitter who just as much asks an idle question. Therefore, I close this essay with an amount of free, online SFF story recommendations on the theme of migration!


Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who’s recently moved to the US. E works in a lab and writes speculative fiction and poetry in eir spare time. Eir writing has been published in venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Scigentasy, GigaNotoSaurus and other places. You can follow em on Twitter, where e tweets as @bogiperson, with semi-daily recommendations of #diversestories and #diversepoems that are regularly collected on eir website.

Bogi Takács

Photo by Rose Lemberg

Not Your Mystical Indian – Jessica McDonald

I remember being a child and getting bags full of plastic Cowboys and Indians–similar to green plastic soldiers, but these came in all colors. The Indians all had bows and arrows and feathered headdresses and buckskins. I never thought much about it, but looking back, my sense was that Cowboys and Indians were something out of history. Almost a mythical thing, from hundreds of years ago.

In Boy Scouts, I was a member of the Order of the Arrow. It was an honor to be voted into this group by my troop, and I remember thinking how cool the Native American lore and ceremonies were. I spent several years as a part of our ceremonies team. Eventually, I remember starting to feel uncomfortable, and asking if we weren’t being disrespectful. I was told that our lodge had worked to research historically accurate regalia, and that we’d worked with local tribes to make sure we were being respectful. At the time, I was satisfied. Looking back, I find it interesting that we never actually spoke to or interacted with anyone with native heritage during our time in OA.

My thanks to Jessica McDonald for sharing her story and perspective here. There’s so much here and in the other guest posts that I wish I’d learned as a kid…


In 1889, the US government opened up Indian Territory for white settlers in an event called the Oklahoma Land Rush. Fifty thousand settlers homesteaded on over two million acres of Unassigned Lands. Unassigned, of course, meant appropriated from Native tribes.

A hundred years after the Land Rush, I was a second grader at Carney Elementary School in central Oklahoma. Carney is the kind of town that small doesn’t begin to describe. We didn’t even have a stoplight to brag about. Farms, baseball, and ubiquitous red soil were about the extent of Carney. For the Land Rush celebration, my school did a re-enactment. White kids played settlers, triumphantly surging over the territory line to claim their homestead—a mark of prosperity and hope.

Native kids played dead Indians, lying prone on the ground.

I stood there, unsure of what to do. You see, I’m mixed race—Cherokee and white. I didn’t know where to go. My teacher asked me which side I’d like to be on.

I told her the settlers.

And as an eight-year-old, why wouldn’t I choose the settlers? They were pioneers, exploring and shaping history. Of course I wanted to be part of the victors. Of course I wanted to be white. I knew my family, but when I looked to the culture around me, the media I consumed, all my heroes were white (and male). That was my reference point for greatness.

I’m way past second grade now, but not much as changed. Sci-fi and fantasy—still my favorite genres—seldom offer more than tropes for Native characters. Let’s take a look at James Cameron’s Avatar. Set on a futuristic death planet where everyone is still inexplicably white, the Na’vi are clearly based on indigenous people and presented as the Noble Savage. They are held up as the ideal, “pure”, and quite literally connected to their planet. And yet, it takes a white dreamwalker to save them, because at the end of the day, they are still savages; they do not possess the sophistication to fight the invaders alone.

The weird Western novella Sheep’s Clothing by Elizabeth Einspanier utilizes another trope—the Mystical Indian. Half-Indian character Wolf Cowrie is a gunslinger and half-skinwalker that uses his shamanistic powers to fight vampires. The problem with this is that it reduces Native characters to one (false) aspect: their unequivocal badassed-ness, a nature derived from a history filled with war and mysterious magical abilities.

Westerns used the Drunk Indian and Red Devil tropes, but sci-fi and fantasy utilize stereotypes like the Noble Savage and Mystical Indian in a way that’s arguably worse. These tropes, which simultaneously glorify and erase Native identity, are what’s called positive discrimination, and it’s more insidious precisely because, on its face, it appears flattering. “Look at how honorable and incredible these Natives are! We should strive to be more like them.” Even Star Trek fell into this—in the episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter an Earth-like planet… with Native people that are not only blends of completely different tribes, but also primitive and uncivilized, despite living in the twenty-third century. Oh, but these Natives are definitely in harmony with nature, and are romanticized for it.

All this does is add to the chasm of otherness; these tropes don’t seek to understand or accurately portray indigenous people, but only use us as one-dimensional morality points or exciting badasses. Sometimes we get to stretch the limits, and we’re hypersexualized instead (Tiger Lily, Pocahontas, any Indian Princess trope).

The proof is in the costuming. Rarely do we see even “positive” portrayals of Natives in anything other than buckskins, beads, and feathers. We are homogenized to the point that the Plains tribes, with headdresses and horsemanship, are the representatives of all indigenous people. Never mind that Algonquin tribes, who lived in lands dominated by forests, had no use for horses. Never mind that the Salish peoples wore outfits woven from cedar and spruce instead of long, feathered accouterments.

A Cree friend of mine encountered a woman in a critique group who had a Shawnee character that was a horse whisperer. When my friend pushed her on why this character was so connected to horses, the (white) woman responded that it was “in his heritage.” Because being Native clearly means you speak horse.

My brother has been asked if he can ride horses without a saddle and if he smokes peyote. During a particularly asinine line of questioning about whether he lived in “modern” accommodations, he shot back, “Yes, because I live in 2014, not 1865.” His tipi has a mortgage, folks.

I’ve read work by otherwise intelligent, compassionate authors who twist revered Native spirits into European-based demons bent on destruction just to fill a plot point and without any regard for the religious traditions behind those spirits.

I don’t speak to animals. I kill plants just by looking at them, and I don’t feel profoundly connected to the earth. I can’t tell the future and I don’t have some sort of sixth sense about otherworldly things. I sure as hell don’t speak in broken English. Relatable Native characters in sci-fi and fantasy are few in far between. Mostly, I see variations on tropey themes. What’s most painful about this in sci-fi and fantasy is that these are genres about the possible. SF/F is supposed to be the genre where the marginalized are heard. We get worlds where magic is real, where we travel to far-away galaxies, where miracles happen. But not where indigenous peoples can escape their stereotype boxes.

And why not? Sci-fi and fantasy are written by people in today’s world, and what we have today is a major football team using a racial slur as their name. We have white University of North Dakota students proudly proclaiming that they are “Siouxper Drunk”; Injun Joe from Tom Sawyer; Disney’s Pocahontas and Peter Pan; NDNs (played by Italian Americans) crying over pollution.

Chief Man-of-Bats, from DC Comics

Chief Man-of-Bats, from DC Comics

We have NDN heroes that are literally red.

To add insult to injury, even the problematic Native roles in film and TV were largely portrayed by white people. It wasn’t until 1998 with Smoke Signals that we got the first feature-length film by Natives. And yet, in 2013, we still had Johnny Depp playing Tonto and The Lone Ranger winning an Oscar for costuming based on a painting that was itself based on stereotypes. We still have white washing of Tiger Lily.

If you’re thinking, hey, man, it’s just comic books and movies, it’s not like it’s real life—consider the impact this has on young Native and mixed-race kids. Consider why I wanted to be on the white side as a child. I had no reference for modern Natives. I had no role models, no fictional characters to inspire me. All I had were people in revealing buckskins with tomahawks and bows.

Studies show that when Native kids see these harmful stereotypes, their self-esteem suffers, along with their belief in community and their own ability to achieve great things. There’s a danger when you don’t see yourself represented in your culture’s art; there’s an even greater danger when your only representation is fraught with negative messaging and teaches you that you do not belong in this world. You’re a thing of the past, a ghost, a myth.

We’ve got a few reasons to hope the tide is changing. Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series and Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series turn the Mystical Indian trope on its head, with nuanced and dynamic Native heroines. Adam Beach, a Saulteaux actor famous for his roles in Smoke Signals, Flags of Our Fathers, and Windtalkers, refuses parts that perpetuate these stereotypes, and his work offers hope for better representation. Lakota rapper Frank Waln creates music that speaks to growing up Native, and advocates for indigenous voices to be heard. Last year, the Senate confirmed Diane Humetewa as the nation’s first Native American woman federal judge.

This year, we even have two sci-fi films that are breaking out of the Native trope mold. Sixth World, written and directed by Navajo woman Nanobah Becker, is based on the Navajo creation story. Legends of the Sky is written and directed by a white man, but is set in the Navajo Nation and features a mostly Native cast.

It’s not nearly enough, but it’s sure as hell better than playing dead on the ground.


Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for SparkFun Electronics in Boulder. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter or on her website.

Jessica McDonald

Jim C. Hines