Cities as Fantasy Settings: a panel retrospective

What a panel, friends. I am not kidding. I was so honored to share space with my co-panelists, Gary K. Wolfe, Kathleen Jennings, and David D. Levine. They were very passionate about the subject, and came to the panel ready to drop some serious knowledge.

I’m not going to get everything we talked about in here. It was 50 minutes of seriously dense conversation, so there’s no way I could condense all of it into one blogpost. However, I’ll endeavor to describe some of my favorite conversational highlights. The panelists also gave tons of book recommendations, and I’ve endeavored to include as many of those as possible in a list below.

To start, I asked the panelists a really simple question: what is a city? We were talking about fantasy settings, which is really just a shorthand way of saying speculative fiction settings in this case. Those settings can span a lot of different kinds of worlds. Accordingly, the definition of a city might change from one world to another. Various definitions of a city were discussed. A city could be considered a system, a place where collaboration and innovation were simplified because of relative population density, and a place the creates the illusion of anonymity. Overall, the panelists felt the city could best be described as a social experiment.

So with that nebulous definition, we jumped into the panel.

The theme of the conference this year was “Secret Histories”. There are a lot of assumptions we make when designing worlds, so I wanted to know was kinds of assumptions or inspiration was used in designing their fantastical cities. David started off by referring to how colony domes in space settlements could function similarly to the defensive walls of older European cities, and comparing that to the cities of the United States – often sprawling, spread wide by quick car traffic and flat, fertile lands. Kathleen pointed out that a lot of cities build upwards on top of themselves, each layer almost geological in nature. She mentioned the subterranean tunnels in New York City, sealed up in the early 1900s and forgotten until one was excavated just recently, which were used to bring cattle into the city to be slaughtered. When she was talking I couldn’t help but thinking of the city as a coral reef, building always on its own bones.

Gary pointed out that this building on a given city was something that you could also trace back in literature – it wasn’t just about the new physical layers of the city, but also the story-layers that had accrued. In his words, “When someone writes about New York, they are writing about everybody else who’s written about New York.”

This raised the question of the city as a living thing. The example that came most readily to my mind of a city embodied was “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin, where the city is literally embodied in an avatar. Kathleen pointed out that there was a difference between a city as a person versus a group or people taking on the genius of a place. She saw the city as more porous, shaped by the people who passed through it as much as it shaped those people.

Discussion turned to other cultures that had inspired city settings in the fantastical, then. We talked, briefly, about how cities in Africa and Asia, for example, have drastically different architectures and designs because colonists often built over existing infrastructure. Cities in the United States, in comparison, and in Australia do not often have that base infrastructure to build on, and are relatively young because of it. The panelists felt that overall, writers are becoming better at depicting a variety of cultures because more material is available about alternate ways of living, thanks to things like the internet.

As might be expected, the topic of urban fantasy as a subgenre came up. After all, talking about fantastical cities inspired by real cities would inherently lead to a discussion of real cities pulled into the fantastic. Several great book recommendations came out of this conversation in particular. One interesting comment made by Gary posited that the city may have replaced the forest as the new wilderness or frontier, which was prominent in much colonial literature. The frontier being conquered, writers were forced to turn to either outer space or to the urban jungle. I personally felt a little uncomfortable with that statement, and asked if that implied an otherization of the city and its inhabitants. To me, describing the city as a frontier implies a certain feeling of antagonism toward the city that might have arisen out of the industrial revolution’s squalor and the collapse of inner cities in the 80s. What about the city feels unnatural or foreign? While we weren’t able to answer that question, I think that it would make a really good research paper, personally.

Anyway, please enjoy this list of recommendations below! I haven’t read most of these so I can’t speak to them, but if you want some of my personal recommendations, you can check out my post from last week. I plan to add quite a few of these to my reading list!


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MystiCon schedule

Hey everyone! Taking a brief break from cover reveal stuff for a special MystiCon Schedule post!! Check out the panels, readings and signings I will be doing below.

Reading – Friday at 4:30 pm, Room 533

If you want to hear an excerpt from the upcoming Daughter of Madness, check in here! I’ll post the excerpt up on the blog the following weekend for those who can’t make it.

Panel – “It’s the End of the World”, Friday at 6:00pm, Ballroom C

We’re going to talk about apocalypses! I’ve got some fun projects I’m querying in this vein, and I LOVE dystopias, so I am very, very excited.

Signing – Saturday at 11:00 am

I’ll be taking over one of the signing tables at eleven! Come out to get free swag, sign up for the newsletter, buy a book, or chat about your favorite characters!

Panel – “Epic Scale Fiction”, Saturday at 4:00pm, Dogwood 1

I’ll probably mostly talk up the Creation Saga and the epic fantasies I have loved that have inspired it. Maybe there will be some LotR and ASOIAF references!

Panel – “I Must Create a System”, Sunday at 9:00am, Ballroom C

I actually have no clue what this panel is about or how I got on it, since I intentionally was trying not to schedule things for the morning. Wee!

Panel – “The Last Race Benders/Gender Benders”, Sunday at 11:00am, Dogwood 1

I am ridiculously excited to talk about gender/race bending in ANYTHING.

Panel – “Viewer’s Guide to Anime”, Sunday at 2:00pm, Ballroom E

Anime is the best. I will probably talk about my pet peeve of how everyone assumes all anime characters are white and obviously they are Japanese???? Unless otherwise specified??? Otherwise mostly glorious anime goofiness and how I love reverse harems. Yep.

I hope to see you all there! If you need more information, you can check out their website.

 

 

 

Creating as a woman

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the movie The Fifth Element. My S.O. loves that movie. It is ironically one of the only science fiction movies that he enjoys. I chalk this up to nostalgia – not that I don’t enjoy the movie, the opposite, but it’s not really his kind of science fiction. His speed is more Interstellar or something else vastly cerebral.

Anyway, so my friend and I were discussing this and she mentioned that The Fifth Element would have been vastly better with some gender-flipping. The trope of the woman as sacred object, the naive woman who needed a man to save her and help her navigate the world, was tiring for her. Make Bruce Willis be Leeloo, and have Milla Jovovich be the tough cab driver with a mysterious past. I suggested going one further – keep Jovovich as the mystical Leeloo, and cast some hard-bitten older woman in Bruce Willis’ role. Her name could be Kora, or Ervin. You already have several speaking male side characters, including the very prominent role of the antagonist. Why not?

In a separate conversation on one of the social media sites I subscribe to, I found this post which talked about the role of female heroes in writing. I want to talk about how it made me feel in light of the above and in light of my identity as a writer. I swear it connects to the above.

female-heroes.

Writing as a woman is hard, because you’re covered in sticky cobwebs of male gaze and you don’t even know it. The post above mentions male writers, but male writers, as male directors, are only part of the problem. They are a huge part of the problem, sure. But the other part of the problem is that we as female creators often perpetuate their tropes.

Unfortunately, even once you awaken to the tropes in question, it can be hard to shake them, mostly because there aren’t any mainstream models of the kind of story you do want to tell. You end up making it up as you go along. I was lucky. I found authors like Martha Wells and Laurie J. Marks early. I knew I loved what they were writing, but I didn’t really understand why. It took me years, four of them spent at an all women’s undergraduate college, to really recognize what it was that was so fulfilling about these stories for me. It was because those stories were written for me. They weren’t written for the male gaze, but for mine. The characters in them, both male and female, were not indefinably crippled by the assumptions that so often come up in our stories: the woman must be saved, the woman must be beautiful, the woman must be perfect, the woman must have volition, but not too much. She must not overshadow the male protagonist. She must be good.

Nowadays I have added a plethora of authors to my list who are writing the kinds of stories I want to write, and to read. Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente, Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin – they are all doing amazing things, testing the boundaries of their genres, and generally rocking out. They are telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell

But it is still hard, despite that, to shake the tropes that have so often reoccurred in mainstream fiction and genre fiction. I still read through a story or a paragraph and realize, oh, I have done the thing that I did not want to do. I have reduced my character to her attractiveness, to her goodness, and not let any of the dark survive to give her flavor. Writing as a woman is a balancing act between being true to your heart and being pulled in by the assumptions you never realized that you were taught to make. You can guarantee that if you are true to your heart, someone will accuse you of being an SJW, of distracting from the story, of advancing an agenda. And if you get pulled the other way, if you give up – well, you have even more left to lose. It is hard.

But the best things in life are rarely easy. So chin up, buttercup. Write your heart.

(P.S. if someone wants to write that Fifth Element AU I will totally read it. Totally.)

Prioritization, the beast immortal

So I have a problem called spin-too-many-plates syndrome. Meaning I like to constantly be juggling a lot of stuff. “Like” may not be the best word, actually. Perhaps it would be better to say that I pathologically over-stuff my plate. Or that I get bored easily. Or that I am overly ambitious. Or am violently deficient at correctly estimating my resources.

Anyway.

This past weekend, I told you that the audiobook for Mother of Creation would be out. We busted butts to try to make that deadline, me and my producer both. Sleep was lost, stress was had. I cried for an hour or two when I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Part of me missing the deadline was that I was trying to do too many things at once, trying to work my day job, find a place to live, plan a wedding, write a book, and simultaneously review and publish an audiobook. It just wasn’t going to happen.

That said, we did get the book out, finally. You can get the audiobook of Mother of Creation on Audible, Amazon, or through iTunes/iBooks. If you start a free trial membership of Audible, you will get my book for free. I’m so excited to be able to offer you this opportunity and I hope that you will take advantage of it.

Focusing on one project and not deviating and meeting deadlines can be really hard for me. I’m very good on figuring out what needs to be done, but not so good on figuring out which thing should be done first. My single human form is obviously not an army, except maybe an army of bacteria. Bacteria does not write. All of this is probably the result of the fact that, like many authors, I am a creator. I am an idea person that likes to constantly be dreaming up new fluffy bubbles of magical rainbow transcendence to dazzle the world with. That makes it really hard to a) stick with one fluffy bubble to the end and b) realize which of the maintenance things need to take priority in order to preserve those fluffy bubbles so they don’t just pop and die.

I’m not apologizing for that weird metaphor. In case you were wondering about that.

Right now my list of weird half-finished projects looks like this:

  • Two projects that need edits. One needs being sent out to a beta reader group of some kind. One needs to be finalized and polished with already-received beta reader feedback.
  • A novella that needs major rewrites. This may be at the bottom of my list honestly. Another novella that also needs rewrites, final edits, and distribution.
  • Several sequels that need writing.
  • Several query letters that need sending out for various completed or psuedo-completed short story projects.
  • A short story I’ve never finished that might turn into a novella but I would like to see done regardless.
  • Several other short story ideas in the works.

That’s a lot of stuff that is floating around in my brain. Knowing which thing to work on next isn’t just about what I most want to work on next, but also about what I think I’m likely to be able to pitch successfully.

The other downside to all of this is that even when I decide on what I think will be successful and start to work on it, it’s often just as likely that I will hare off and do something else at some point that is not planned, or forget I made the plan in the first place and rehash the same tired conversation in my head a month later. I try to keep good notes, but don’t always go back through the notes that I do keep. This is general disorganization, but also a sort of pathological self-sabotage. It’s easy to point to things that you failed to do as the reason that you are failing, instead of accepting that sometimes the reason you are failing is just bad luck or lack of a complete picture.

I don’t have any tips for how to fix this, because it is something I am struggling with all the time. My only advice is to just continue forward in spite of yourself when these things happen and accept that it is a bit of who you are. Not the entirety of who you are. You are not in your entirety a being of procrastination, or you would never get anything done. Nor are you entirely disorganized, or entirely unable to follow through with projects. These are not fair descriptors any more than it would be fair to say that you always keep your work organized and complete everything you set your mind to. People are complex, life is complex, any creative work is complex.

It’s really easy to oversimplify the challenges we encounter, to see them as daunting, impossible beasts which can never be conquered. It is really easy to lose hope and never try. It can be very hard to both believe in yourself and strive to do better. After all, the first of those is a positive thing, right? Believing in yourself requires optimism and faith. Striving to do better requires some of that, but it also requires a certain self-criticism, an awareness of one’s faults. It’s very hard to hold your faults in your head and still love yourself. There are days where you might not be able to accomplish that.

On those days, I advise you to eat some ice cream, take a bath, drink some tea. And then get right back in your chair and write, write, write. Turn off the little voice that’s talking about what you can do better, and do what you can. Put another word on the page. You’re the only one who can write your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be yours.

Some event updates

I’ve been playing a lot of catch up the past two weeks following my vacation and in advance of some upcoming deadlines. As you know, the audiobook for Mother of Creation is out October 1st. What you may not know is that I also am working against a deadline for the rough and first drafts of Daughter of Madness, the long awaited second book in the series. That deadline exists because the book needs a cover that I can use for marketing and promotional things, and also I need some time to do rewrites, etc, before an early 2017 release date. That date is To Be Determined at this point in time, but I promise to keep you updated.

In other news, given that schedule that I’m working towards I have decided to forgo World Fantasy Convention this year. WFC has in previous years been a lovely trip, and I’m going to greatly miss all of the people I usually see there, especially the Clarion West crowd. One of my great dreams is to give them my money and attend a Clarion West workshop, actually, but 6 weeks off is probably not something I’m going to have all in a row anytime soon. I generally have attended WFC previously as a way to connect with other writers and to pitch editors and agents for traditional publishing projects. I hope to attend larger conventions in the future to do just such activities, but right now I need to focus on the next step in my self-publishing career and also on my home life (i.e. remember that time I’m buying a house? Sometime soon? Whose idea was that?)

Anyway, no WFC this year. If anyone is interested in purchasing my membership before end of October, do let me know.

However, I have some exciting news! I have been notified by MystiCon that I will be a guest this year! MystiCon is held in early February in Roanoke, Virginia. If there is a panel topic you would like to see presented on, I encourage you to contact me, since I need to get some ideas together to pitch to the organizers pretty soon.

I will also be at Roanoke Author Invasion in April, as previously announced. So those on the east coast still have two chances to catch up with me and buy some books this spring!

I’m hoping to have an audiobook sample and some other fun stuff to post up here soon, so keep you eyes and ears open.

 

Parallel worlds

I try not to talk about my day job too much. Granted you could probably figure it out if you dug, but generally I try to keep the writing half of my life somewhat separate from my other pursuits. But I’m going to talk about it a little today, because I have some thoughts I want to share about the worlds that are often right next to us.

One of my weaknesses as a writer is my world-building. I get caught up in the characters and the action and forget to think about the world it is set in, or at least forget to tell you about it. This is likely a symptom of my own way of moving through the world. I live in my head a lot, and places can be somewhat fuzzy for me. One of my tasks in my day job is to make maps, and I like to joke that it’s regrettable because my spatial awareness is not the kind that fits neatly into a grid of latitude and longitude. Luckily in this day and age we have computer systems that plot that for you. Making a map can be an eye opening experience. Things I thought of as linear are suddenly curved. Things which I didn’t realize were connected are of a piece. It changes the way I think about my city and my valley, almost on a daily basis.

One of the other things I do is ride the bus.

Okay, you’re wondering about that. I’ll give you a brief overview. My job, sometimes, includes riding a bus to count how many people are on it. The time and route are generated randomly. The counts are used to help argue for better bus services. It’s good work, and it has taught me a lot.

When I first moved to this city, I wouldn’t go near the bus station. Most relatively privileged people don’t here. The station is located downtown, and often there are a lot of “rough” looking people hanging around it. Rough is in this case code for poor POC. I’ve grown a lot since then. But I still had only ridden the commuter bus – a high end coach that takes one to a neighboring city – before I started this new job. I rode it when I was in graduate school and didn’t have a lot of options. That seems to be when most people ride buses. They do, after all, cost one extra time. Time is an even more precious commodity than money for many.

Anyway, this job changed that. I have now been all over the city by bus. I am riding the bus as a relative outsider – it’s my job to observe – and let me tell you. It is very different from what I had observed as a passerby.

Before my first bus ride, I had this idea about how buses worked. The bus stop is, as mentioned, downtown. It takes up the whole first floor of a building owned by the bus company. There is a small lobby. I remembered the lobby as being sort of dark and dingy and crowded. I remembered the actual station as a broad, concrete space. Both of these are…sort of right. The lobby is small, but the walls are white. There are metal benches throughout. It’s not in the best repair, but you can tell they try to keep it clean. There are usually a handful of people inside, and right before the buses go out – they leave every hour – there can be a lot of people waiting, especially in the winter.  But most of the time it is relatively quiet. Those “rough” folks hanging out on the street always say good morning to me, or good afternoon as the case may be. The bus station itself is poorly located, and floods after a hard rain sometimes, stalling the bus service. The buses pull up into their relative lanes, all of which are marked with brightly colored signs indicating the route number and general destination. People from all over the city and all walks of life rub elbows here. It is colorful and vibrant and alive – not a dreary industrial space, as I had thought, but a space made living by the people who use it.

Is it always a comfortable space? No. I am still, after all, an outsider. Someday I might take the plunge and use the bus system as a rider, but for now I’m still the paid observer, dipping into this world and leaving. Being around other people is messy, too. A bus station is a type of urban commons, and there is no method to deny others entry. Being faced so abjectly with my privilege every time I go can be disheartening.

But back to writing, since that’s why you’re here.

Setting is a thing made of details. Each character might perceive their setting differently. I certainly perceive my time on the bus differently now than I would have two or three years ago, and even differently than I did just a month ago. As we know a place better, it changes. As a writer, to make a setting live, I need to bring that into my writing. There are whole parallel worlds within my kingdom or town that another character might never perceive. I should, however, know what those are. My perception of the setting should not be myopic, as my characters’ might be, but should encompass it in its complexity. Communicating that complexity to readers is a challenge, but if done well the world breathes and fidgets and generally feels real.

It’s something I’m still working on, but I think I understand it better every day.

Profligacy

Something that I remind myself of periodically is that even successful writers often only get about one book out a year. I know this because so many of the authors I love keep to about that timeline.

Kameron Hurley, for example, works full-time like me and still manages to have cranked out six books since 2010, along with a startling array of novellas and short fiction. Her book a year reminds me that I, too, can do it if I put my mind to the accomplishment. On the other hand, of course, you have forces of nature like Seanan McGuire, who, since her break-out novel in 2009 has published an astonishing 27 books. That averages to about 3 and a half every year. These women inspire me to do better, to write more, to strike a hard balance.

I am conscious that I, also, am an inspiration to someone. This is comforting on days when I feel that I cannot accomplish anything because so many things want my attention.

I published my first book, since taken down for editing, in 2013. I had been working on that book since 2009. It wasn’t ready to go up, but it taught me a great deal. I have since written thousands of words, including Mother of Creation and two unpublished novellas as well as editing an unpublished novel something like a thousand times, which I pitch to traditional publishers as time permits. I have a trunk of short stories, some of which have received good reviews from editors, though none have yet found a home. I am about two thirds of the way through Daughter of Madness. I have done all of these things while attending graduate school, job hunting, and finally holding down a full-time job. I am, by these counts, a writer.

Recently, I don’t just say I’m a writer. I feel like one. Making time for writing, while it puts additional pressure on me, reminds me that this is a part of who I am. It’s not something I can just stop being.

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Instead of being anxious and upset that I’m not writing, I remind myself that I will be writing tomorrow. That I will sit down in my cafe and put on my headphones and dip into another world, shaping it and creating it. That has done wonders for my stress levels and my productivity.

There are still so many things that try to pull me away from this part of my life. The job. My family and friends. The chores needed to make a house run. Volunteering. Planning a wedding. The internet. Even hobbies like reading and watching shows. They’re all things I need. They’re all things that make me who I am and it’s not a contest. For me to be me, I must do all of it. I must bring it all into balance, and really, isn’t that what we are all striving for? Balance?

Balance, to me, is probably the hardest skill and also the easiest. Once you find balance, life becomes easier, but finding and holding onto balance in a changing world is massively difficult. My competing wants can pull one another down as easily as they push one another up. And yet, when I strike that balance, however briefly, I am happier. My writing is better, my mood is better, I am a better lover and friend. It’s worth striving for, however elusive. It’s worth remembering that producing words takes something out of us, and that the well isn’t endless. Our profligacy is directly dependent on our ability to feed it.

The next time that you are down and out about something you want to accomplish, remember that no one does it easily. We are all balancing our own plates, overburdened with bounty as they sometimes are. The task is to walk in balance. That seems easy to say, and harder to do. It is both of those things. No one can tell you what balance will work for you, but find one that does. Compare yourself to others for inspiration, if it helps.

If it doesn’t, throw those comparisons out the window. Your writing, your act of creation, your passions – they don’t belong to anyone else. They belong to you.