#EndJapaneseElves: An extremely belated con report

In May of 2014, I attended WisCon38, the annual feminist science fiction convention. In addition to feminism, WisCon is concerned with justice and equality in all forms, particularly as they manifest in science fiction and fantasy – the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world isn’t, but could be. One of my favorite panels was called “Not All Aliens Act Japanese: Writing Exotic Cultures Without Exotifying Real Ones,” featuring Diana M. Pho, editor at Tor books and multicultural Steampunk activist; N. K. Jemisin, author of two outstanding fantasy series and one of WisCon’s guests of honor; and authors Eleanor A. Arnason, Emily Jiang, and author and editor Sophie Werely. They offered some great discussion and advice, and as I look forward to this year’s WisCon, I’d like to share some of that with you.

As the panelists pointed out, it’s very difficult – maybe impossible – to make up something out of whole cloth. Most fantasy worlds are based, however loosely, on something from the real world. This isn’t bad – after all, it’d be hard for a reader to get a grip on the story if there was nothing familiar for them to latch onto, either. But it does mean that we as writers must tread carefully when treading on someone else’s culture.

The more you know about different cultures, human and otherwise (Eleanor Arnason once created a culture using African hairless mole-rats as a basis), the better off you’ll be when creating a culture of your own – but remember that there are no human cultures that exist in complete isolation. One group of people interacts with another one, and they both change. Similarly, all cultures have a history, events and circumstances which have changed them over time: culture is never frozen.

Culture is also not always consistent. America is often described as a Christian nation, for instance, but there are plenty of non-Christians who live here, and exactly what “Christian nation” actually means is a matter of much debate. Emily Jiang discussed the importance of individuals within the culture – is your particular character a conformist or a rebel? How they interact with their own culture can help you to describe both of them at the same time, but it will change the picture your readers get as well.

While building a foreign world can seem intimidating, Sophie Werely quoted Nalo Hopkinson, writer and instructor of the “Writing the Other” course, who says that the reader will trust the writer’s unshaking confidence and authority – sometimes just diving in will pull people along with you. Character, too, is always a good starting point – people love other people, and will follow them into exceedingly strange places.

N.K. Jemisin pointed out that this is also the best way to do diversity in fiction. Empathy, she said, is the crucial difference between real and superficial diversity, and our culture does not emphasize empathy with everyone equally. “We are all capable of comprehending each other,” she said, we just don’t always try very hard. Werely emphasized that what publishers are pushing for is for the marketplace as a whole to become more diverse, not necessarily each and every book – no one wants to read a checklist.

When asked how to avoid cultural appropriation, Jiang reminded the audience that no culture is a monolith, and everyone who is a part of it or has a stake in it will not necessarily have the same opinions. What’s fine with one person might offend someone else. Understanding the significance of a particular thing to the culture overall is a huge part of being respectful. Werely also emphasized that many reactions people have to cultural borrowing or appropriation are less about the specific thing done in that instance and more about the overall shape of the culture – cultures who have suffered oppression are more likely to be sensitive about even the most well-intentioned gestures.

From a marketing standpoint, truly unique worlds seem to do better in science fiction – Jemisin recounted the difficulty she had with selling her Dreamblood duology, which is fantasy based on Egyptian culture. She wasn’t able to sell it until she’d established success with her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, which has a more traditional fantasy setting.

Diana Pho also mentioned that there’s another aspect to all this, and that’s how you handle criticism once it’s all finished and out there – and there will definitely be criticism. Arnason mentioned the research she’s been doing on Iceland, saying she’s been reading about it her whole life and she still doesn’t know enough to write about it, and she’s come to terms with the fact that some Icelanders will read her work and be sarcastic about how she got it wrong and that’s okay. What it comes down to, she said, is the oldest question there is in writing: is it okay to write about anyone other than yourself?

Jemisin and Arnason both agreed, though, that there is only one good response when you’re criticized for doing something wrong, being insensitive, or falling into a hurtful stereotype: “Thank you for telling me what I did wrong.” Try to learn from your mistake, try never to do it again, and never, never defend something you did that hurt someone else.


Registration is now open for WisCon39 at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, May 22-25, 2015. If this sounds like the kind of thing you’d love to spend a long weekend doing, I’d love to see you there!



I’m leaving in 3 days. The image above is a visual clue to my destination. If you click on the picture, there’s an audio clue as well.

I’m very excited. And nervous. I call this state “happrehensive” because I like to shove words together to make new ones. Maybe it’s the German part of my heritage.

Anyway, here’s what’s happening: I’m going to a writing workshop/retreat with some wonderful writers-as-instructors: David Anthony Durham, K. Tempest Bradford, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nisi Shawl, and Cynthia Ward. There are also some pretty impressive writers-as-fellow-workshoppers, but the list is really long so I won’t subject you to it. However, many of my fellow attendees have some rather impressive credits, so I’m hoping not to embarrass myself.

Next week you’ll probably mostly see photos in this space—some from my garden and some from vacation. Sis, some cousins and I went to California for a long weekend. It’s a thing we do.

There will be a workshop-related post later. Maybe more than one.

Public domain photograph of the Appalachian mountains by Ken Thomas.

The Cat Came Back – Another Workshop with Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo

I took another online workshop with Cat Rambo. Isn’t Cat Rambo the best name ever? I wish I had one that was as cool.

Anyway, this workshop was on flash fiction, conducted via Google Hangout. You may be asking what I got out of it. Because that’s the point of taking writing workshops, right? Well, it’s one of the two points. The first point is that you get to interact with other writers. There were some terrific writers taking it. I was able to find out the twitter handles and/or web sites for a couple of them – Heather Clitheroe and Sunil Patel – so now I can keep track of them. Cat also shared some markets with us, which is always helpful.

The second point has to do with what I might or might not have learned. All told, I’m glad I took the workshop. I enjoyed the other writers’ work, and I got a reminder about “timed writing”. This is not new stuff, as Cat would say. She took it from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The idea is—and anyone who’s done word sprints as part of nanowrimo or with a writer’s group generally is familiar with this, even if they don’t know Natalie Goldberg—you write as fast as you can write without stopping. Whatever you write, it’s all good. Okay, maybe it’s not all good. You have permission to write the worst crap imaginable. The point is, you write, whether from a prompt or just on something you already know you want to write about. It may be fabulous, or it may be dreck. Most likely, though, you will at least get some sort of nugget from it that’s worth working up into a story you actually want to write.

In the workshop, we used 3 prompts. First each participant came up with if/then statements. Then we each wrote the “if” portion of our statements in the Google chat window so everyone could see it. The person who posted after you was the “if” portion you used to create your prompt. You then appended your own “then” portion, and wrote from there. Five minutes, flat out, as fast as you could write. Here’s what I ended up with:

If the house is quiet, then you would be very popular. People like a quiet spot for reading, writing, and just generally to keep from going crazy from all the expectations. They work, they socialize, they help others, but then what?

You’d be turning them away in droves. You might, unhappily, end up with a house that is no longer quiet. Then you would lose your cachet entirely. People would look around and see the turmoil and hear the cacophony and say to themselves, “why am I here? How is this better than just going home?”

And they would go home.

Then, finally, blessedly, the house would be quiet again. What would you do with yourself? Would you take a flash fiction class? That’s what I’d do, but really, you have to please yourself. Let’s imagine that you’d like to paint something, instead. Paint your quiet house, with gray clouds looming, but one ray going into one window. That’s your inspiration, the reason for your quiet house.

Mine was clearly not fiction. Also not good. I was nervous, okay? I was going with the ‘it doesn’t matter what you write, just write, there’s no wrong way to do this.”

That might be true, but there are better ways to write, as became abundantly clear after other people read their results aloud. My next two outings were more successful. The second writing came from a written prompt.

-EDIT-I started by including my result from the second timed writing when I realized Cat might want to use the prompt in future workshops, so I’ve removed it -/EDIT-

The third prompt was a picture Cat had saved on her Pinterest page. I also enjoyed the results from that prompt, but it needs work, so I’m going to improve it before I share. Here’s the picture, though:

Image for writing prompt – Georges Méliès via Cat Rambo

So, was the workshop valuable? Yes, to some extent. But I still have an issue that I really need to concentrate on: how do you mine the really good stuff from a timed writing and go from there? This is not the kind of issue that’s easily covered in a two-hour online workshop. It’s more the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime doing. So as much as I enjoyed the workshop, I still have to figure out the next part, which is making my writing not crappy. We’ll see how that goes.

I’m revising a novel right now, which I hope to have a readable draft of by early June, before I go attend the Writing the Other Workshop and Retreat in Chattanooga. Did I mention I’ll need beta readers? Please comment below, message me, or email me if you’re willing and able to help with that. Thanks so much!