How I Learned to Handle Criticism

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, regardless of your genre, as inevitable as covid-19, when you publish you are going to get criticism. Moreover, a lot of it is going to irritate you so much that if you were an oyster, you’d be producing pearls by the bucket-load. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty years of selling non-fiction, it’s this unenviable fact. I’ve come to accept, too, that the only choices are to stop publishing or to develop a skin as thick as plate armor.

Maybe I’m insecure, but one criticism can ruin my day even when accompanied by twenty comments that sing my praises. There are simply so many ways that a negative comment can be wrong. The least of those are the readers who are not talking about my article at all. Instead, they have something they want to say that is vaguely connected to my topic, and are using my article as a way to get more readers. Much worse are the ones who take a single sentence out of context. The ones who attack me for not saying exactly what I said. The ones who miss that a comment is sarcastic or flippant. Worst of all, those who have never met me but decide to dislike me, and become on-line stalkers (which has happened three times). I do not expect everyone to like my work, but I often find myself saying that, if people are going to criticize, they can at least criticize me for what I actually say or think.

Then there is the fact that criticisms can be mutually contradictory. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have had people call me a capitalist apologist and a communist stooge because of the same article. Still others have condemned me as pro and anti feminist as the result of one article. Such responses leave me baffled as well as irritated. How can one article produce utterly different responses? Surely, the article cannot support mutually exclusive views?

When I first start selling articles, all these reactions left me shattered. In my naivety, I imagined that my articles would be universally loved, that I would be hailed as an essayist for all time, as the next George Orwell or Christopher Hitchens. Rudely disabused, I was left wondering if I had any ability at all. I would brood for days, so strongly affected that I could barely write the next overdue article.

For my own sanity, I had to snap out of this funk. I couldn’t afford to brood so much that I couldn’t write. Still less could I afford to answer every response that I felt misunderstood. For one thing, my critics seemed to have endless time to nitpick and argue. For another, practically none of them would ever admit they were wrong. I could have spent days, sometimes weeks arguing, and in the end I would have nothing to show for my time except wasted effort.

Still, staying quiet went against my nature. I could imagine myself as the angry figure in the famous xkcd comic, staying up late to hammer out a reply because someone on the Internet is wrong! While some commenters defended me, who was better qualified to correct all the misunderstandings than me?

Yet gradually, I learned how unimportant most of these comments were. They didn’t change the opinion that publishers and editors had of me. I was still paid to write, and a month later the flame wars the hostile commenters sparked were forgotten. The only loser was me when I was distracted by trivia. So, gradually I learned to control my annoyance and use my time in more constructive ways.

I admit, though, that I couldn’t bring myself to let all their misrepresentations stand. Instead, I compromised with myself. I would allow myself a maximum of two responses. In the first, I would correct anything I felt wrong in their comments. In the second, I would answer any further misapprehensions, and announce that I was ending the discussion. They might continue to rant but I’d have had my say, and they were left talking to themselves.

And in the end, why should I care what they said? I didn’t know them, and I definitely didn’t want to.

That is the advice that I would give to new writers overwhelmed by hostile reactions: don’t let them waste your time, and move on as soon as possible. Don’t let their hostility make you ignore legitimate comments — sometimes, people find significant mistakes in your work, or express a point of view you haven’t considered, and deserve your thanks and revisions. But if the response is abusive, with no redeeming features, don’t let it affect your life. Correct it if you must, and then ignore it. Your detractors will be left fuming, and you will be much happier.


Choosing (and writing) Your Battles

If I have one weakness when it comes to writing fantasy or historical fiction, it would be my absolute reluctance to write battle scenes. My reluctance is something I come by naturally — I’m no fighter myself, and I’m fairly conflict averse. Despite being married to a guy who is a total military buff, I have never really much cared for the nitty gritty of war. Action movies aren’t really my style, and when I read battle scenes on the page, I often skim. Nothing bores me faster than reading drawn out battle choreography.

This poses a problem for me, considering I write fantasy, and battles are a fairly well established fantasy tradition. Even books that focus more on political intrigue often feature an epic battle or two. So how does an avowed battle-hater handle battles, aside from avoiding them altogether?

Well, first of all, lots of fantasy writers don’t realize this, but avoiding battles is in fact a viable strategy. Think of conflicts that could take the place of the final battle. Daniel Abraham, for instance, has a financial audit as his final showdown in the first book The Dagger and the Coin series. Last year’s YA fantasy by Elizabeth Lim, Spin the Dawn, has a dressmaking competition, sort of like Project Runway, as its main conflict.  Political intrigue — think assassination, poisonings, coups — can also be just as thrilling as a good battle. The main conflicts in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, for instance, revolve around the political schemes of the main character Jude, who must outwit the faeries of Elfhame in order to secure her status. In Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, the mode of conflict is the enchantment of coins rather than a battle to the death. Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, the first book in the Sevenwaters series, has the main character spinning shirts made out of nettles in order to remove a curse. All of these represent instances where writers chose ways to escalate and resolve conflicts without the resorting to the epic battle cliche.

Furthermore, recently I have seen quite a few agents and editors recently putting what they call “quiet fantasy” on their wishlists. “Quiet fantasy,” or “cozy fantasy” (close kin to “cozy mystery”) is fantasy with relatively lower stakes, that might revolve around issues of a rather more personal nature. These books are the opposite of grimdark, in that they tend to involve less killing, fewer gory battles, end on a more hopeful note. Marie Lu’s The Kingdom of Back, for instance, revolves around one young girl’s quest to be remembered. If your manuscript is relatively more character driven, and involves close, personal stakes, then consider that trying to shoehorn in an epic battle might just be completely out of place.

But what if you need a battle? You’ve avoided it as long as you can, but there’s no avoiding it any longer. What can a battle hater do? First of all, let go of the idea that yo must include detailed battle choreography. While some people do battle choreography very well, not everyone can, or should. If you’re not a fighter yourself, have never seen battle, and are not dedicated to watching hours upon hours of videos studying the techniques of the fight, then you’re better off taking a different approach. One of my favorite passages about battle comes from Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom. While Cornwell often does describe battles in vivid detail, in this particular passage he uses telling, rather than showing, to great effect:

“What is there to say of the battle that the West Saxons said happened at a place called Aesc’s Hill? … The poets could fill a thousand lines telling what happened, but battle is battle. Men die. In the shield wall it is sweat, terror, cramps, half blows, full bows, screaming and cruel death.”

Moreso than all of the detailed battle choreography, this passage stuck with me. Why? Because it describes so perfectly the utter mundanity and ultimate sameness of war. When it comes down to it, killing people in a brutal way is not a glorious business, and in a lot of ways one battle is only different from another battle insofar as who lives and who dies.

It might come as a surprise that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, considering how much I hate battles, but like Cornwell above, Tim O’Brien avoids battle choreography. O’Brien focuses on the emotions of the battle, namely terror.

“For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.”

This passage is raw and real and more so than any detailed description of whose sword went where, shows the sheer horror of battle. O’Brien, himself a Vietnam War veteran, knows that battle is terrifying, and he brings us there right along with him, to that place of terror. While detailed battle choreography is often bloody and brutal, it often lacks emotional impact.

I would argue that choreographed battle scenes are in fact, less impactful than a masterful depiction of a battle without writing a single battle “move.” Someone like me, who hates battles, can still write a great battle scene by zeroing in on the emotions — fear, rage, sorrow — that should naturally follow when writing about war and death.

I challenge writers, both battle averse as well as battle lovers, to look at conflict in fantasy from different angles. The epic fight pitting good against evil with armies tens of thousands strong is in a lot of ways by now a fantasy cliche. I challenge you to find new and inventive ways of resolving conflicts on the page. If you do need to write violent conflicts, I challenge you to think about battles, really think about them. Speak with veterans, people who have seen war, and ask them about the emotions they feel. Ask them what they remember. If you can’t speak with veterans, read first hand accounts. Fighting is about much more than cool moves, it is complex and emotional, and the skilled writer will be able to convey that to the reader.


The Commodification of Indigenous Culture

Earlier this week, my blog partner Jessica wrote about the difference between an enthusiasm for another culture and fetishizing it. By fetishizing, I take her to mean having a view of the culture that is superficial and false and reduces the culture to another brand to sell. To illustrate this meaning, I can think of no better example than the prevailing views about indigenous cultures of North America — those who in Canada we call the First Nations. In their case, the commodification has become almost mainstream.

In the current political climate, to talk about Black culture might seem more timely. However, in Canada, the First Nations occupy some of the position as Afro-Americans in the United States. Moreover, the First Nation’s situation is something I know firsthand. Knowing many First Nations artists and supporting their work, I have heard these misguided views I am pointing at again and again (and also the mingled anger and laughter of the First Nations themselves, since there is no shortage of European ethnics to tell them what to think about their culture).

For one thing, many people are surprised that there are more than one First Nations culture. In the minds of many, the traditional culture stretches from Florida to Alaska. It is like assuming that everyone from Ireland to Russia shares the same culture. The truth is that there have been hundreds of First Nations culture, ranging from nomads to city states and even empires. Those cultures that survive today are united chiefly by their treatment by the European settler governments, who for several centuries have done their best to eradicate and assimilate them.

The imagined pseudo-culture is a grab-bag of traits and customs. The tipis of the plains mingle with the totems of the Pacific Northwest. Everyone wears feathered bonnets and build sweat lodges, and decorate their dwellings with dream-catchers. Everything is all very spiritual — much more so than in modern industrial society, as one potential buyer told a local carver who drives a pickup, lives in a suburban house, and earns most of his income from his online store. It is apparently a deeply romantic place, especially in Germany, where thousands of fans of Karl May’s early twentieth century novels gather to spend a few weeks camping in tipis and calling each other by what they imagine are First Nation names.

This pseudo-culture is so powerfully entrenched in our minds that the modern reality is mostly ignored. Nothing is said of the poverty that many First Nations face. If we think at all, most of us imagine that the First Nations people who survive live on reserves and are dying out, when the reality is that three-quarters are urban, and the birth rate is among the highest of any ethnic groups in North America. Tell them that First Nations like the Nisga-a and the Navajo are self-governing, or that other hereditary chiefs are enough of a power to start country-wide protests, as the Wet’suwet’en of northern British Columbia did, and none of it makes an impression. The pseudo-culture claims our imagination more than the reality.

The pseudo-culture is especially strong when it comes to art. The best-known art among the northern First Nations of British Columbia is known as formline, a semi-abstract library of shapes and traditions that is often compared to Celtic knotwork. Often, it depicts family crests, although the art sold to the general public is more likely to depict stories from the traditional mythologies that are not owned by a particular family.

In its complexity, formline is regarded as one of the great arts of the world. Yet many of us, historically beginning with visiting surrealists and anthropologists, regard it as a primitive art form. Never mind that modern formline draw inspiration from Maori, New Guinea and South America, as well as from the minority cultures of China and Japan. Tourists on the streets of Vancouver see no difference between formline masterpieces and a carving done by an unskilled homeless person sitting in a doorway, except that the homeless person’s is much cheaper. Tourists are also easy marks for “artifakes” carved in Indonesia that are made of mahogany rather than cedar or alder, and mostly imitate formline with no understanding.

Instead, the pseudo-culture imposes its own meanings and standards. Countless gift shops sell pewter pendants and earring with a tag attached that assigns a characteristic to the animal depicted. Wolves, for instance, might be said to symbolize ferocity, or bears tenacity. Among those about to marry, rings or bracelets with pairs of hummingbirds are popular. I have often heard customers in shops natter on about this symbolism as they make their choices, although the entire system originated almost entirely in the minds of copywriters looking for a way to move more marketing.

Meanwhile, amid all this misguided imagining, the true cultures and reality of the First Nations are mostly ignored. A few writers, like Eden Robinson — who is First Nations herself — depict modern First Nations lives but such works are rare. Moreover, in any sort of fantasy, the pseudo-culture prevails. I have seen fantasies, for example, in which the giants of the Cherokees are conflated with the Sasquatch of modern Northwest Coast lore, although all the two have in common is height. Similarly, the Wendigo spirit of the eastern Woodlands is placed in Oregon, or the skinturners of the Pueblo legends in New York. It’s all the same culture, the reasoning seems to be, so why would the details matter.

After decades of genocide and neglect, this pseudo-culture is a final insult. After being nearly eradicated, now that the cultures are reviving, they are made into commodities — that, is, when they are not erased altogether in fantasy, or replaced by homo erectus, or orcs and trolls.

But in addition, reaching for the pseudo-culture should be deeply embarrassing to any writer. To do so, is to brand yourself superficial, if not actually racist. And, perhaps most importantly, it is to chose the trivial over the richness of the true traditions. Any writer who fetishes another culture in this way should be deeply ashamed of themselves.


A Dubious Fascination: Culture as Commodity

Recently, on a writer’s forum that I moderate, someone asked the very salient question, “how can you tell the difference between having an interest or enthusiasm for another culture, and fetishizing that culture?” I myself have had some experience with straddling the lines that exist between consumption, appreciation, and experience, and have enough to say on the topic to fill multiple articles, but first, some context.

I moved to China when I was twenty-three years old after spending four years in university learning first Japanese and then Mandarin Chinese. I took my first Japanese class in high school, and at that point I certainly had no deep understanding of Japanese culture. My desire to learn Asian languages was driven mostly by a desire to do something different. Plus, I’d run out of Spanish classes to take by my senior year in high school but foreign language had always been my best subject. Doing a year without studying a language seemed inconceivable, so I chose Japanese. If they’d offered Vietnamese or Arabic or Igbo, I’d certainly just as soon have taken those. I wanted to learn something that wasn’t the usual Spanish French and occasionally German that my peers were all learning.

As a teenager and young college student I certainly engaged in some degree of fetishization. I was consuming foreign cultures as if they were the cure to that mid-90s suburban boredom that I felt so keenly as a teenager. Heck, eager for a break in the monotony, I even heckled my parents until they agreed to let us host a Japanese exchange student for a year. I took a trip to Japan after winning an essay contest, and I took first prize in the Japanese speech competition, and learned to like Japanese food, music, and dramas (I never did get into anime, however).  And when the Japanese language lost its luster for me, I turned to Chinese. It wasn’t until much much later, after living in China for close to two decades, that I was able to see my past behaviors as problematic. By that time I’d long since ceased being “fascinated” by my host culture. China was simply the place where I lived, and Chinese culture was the culture that I was living in — beloved, complex, often infuriating,  just like my own.

Realize that unless you immerse yourself in a culture (and sometimes you can do that, but other times, you can’t), your perceptions of that culture are usually largely based upon a commodified version of that culture, and in turn you treat that culture as product to be consumed. We must examine why we are “fascinated” by a culture, or the products of that culture. Is the fascination rooted in othering? Certainly, for teenage me, my desire for an escape from the monotony of American suburban culture, and my impulse to find that escape in Asian cultures was rooted in othering.  Usually when we speak of being fascinated by a foreign culture we mean we are fascinated because the culture is different in a way that we can enjoy from afar, and then set aside when we are through. It is treated as an expendable commodity, and the culture is made to serve us, rather than existing on its own, separate from our own perceptions and expectations of it.

Understand too that when you “other” a different culture, your implicit statement is that the culture is lesser than your own. It is something to enjoy, a pastime, but something that you ultimately set aside at the end of the day in favor of your own “superior” culture and its values. Think about the adjectives you might use to describe the other culture, and contrast them to the adjectives you would use to describe your own. Oftentimes this will reveal those implicit biases about those cultures. Do you call it exotic? Quaint? Fascinating? Colorful? Are the people humble? Generous? Kind?  How about the food? Is it an adventure? Crazy? While seemingly innocuous, those statements carry with them a distinct undertone of superiority. The message is “this is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.” They tell us that this place is different from our own homeland, good for a diversion, but not suitable for those with more gentle tastes. This language of othering is extremely harmful, as are the attitudes which prop up the language. T

Of course, enjoying other cultures as commodities doesn’t make you an evil bad person. Many of us enjoy traveling, learning new languages, and experiencing new cultures. However, the impulse is not something that should go unexamined. Consider what you mean when you say that you appreciate a culture. Have you lived in that culture? Interacted meaningfully with people from that culture? Do all of your interactions involve consuming, and does that consumption benefit the culture itself? When possible, rather than seeking out surface level ways to interact with a culture, you should interact in a meaningful way that actually benefits the culture, or at the very least, does little harm. “Appreciating” Japanese culture by eating sushi or watching anime is not, on the surface, harmful, but nor are they really meaningful ways of engaging with Japan. If you like the commercial products produced by this culture then consider that perhaps you just like anime, or sushi, instead of claiming to appreciate Japanese culture.

I critiqued the work of a young man who was writing a Chinese-based fantasy and yet the entirety of his engagement with Chinese culture came from C-dramas. Still, he claimed to appreciate Chinese culture. It goes without saying that while he created a world that looked, on the outside, somewhat Chinese, it was at best a surface level replica. I found his world to be a pale imitation, something that shared at best some shallow similarities with ancient China. As it turned out, he enjoyed C-Dramas and particularly the aesthetic of long haired men in flowy robes, but knew little about actual Chinese culture. His China was a pre-packaged imitation China, not the real deal.

For us writers, this is a particularly important lesson to learn. Interacting with a culture in a non-harmful way goes beyond simply avoiding appropriating from said culture — writers must be mindful of how we engage with a culture on the page. Here is the kicker — you can do all of your research, treat the culture respectfully, engage with sensitivity readers and still have your work be based upon a version of the culture that does not exist except in the mind of the author as consumer. Writers in particular must be wary of borrowing from cultures they have merely consumed, rather than engaged with and experienced in a meaningful way.

Characters, General Writing

The Fallacies of Character Flaws

“What are your main character’s flaws?” I scroll past this attempt at conversation several times a week. I never try to answer it, because it is usually based on the assumption that a main character, if not all characters, are only realistic and sympathetic if they have defects. This assumption is so cluttered with fallacies that I have never taken the time to answer it until now.

So far as I can tell, the assumption seems based on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Poetics. In discussing tragedy, Aristotle introduces the term hamartia. Harmatia is often popularly translated into English as “flaw,” but, according to Wikipedia, is a much more neutral term, better translated as “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” Harmatia is the misunderstanding or lacking piece of information that determines the events of the tragedy.

So, right away, the belief that a personality flaw is needed is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding explains why it can be difficult to assign a flaw to a classical tragic hero. What, for example, is the flaw that leads to Oedipus marrying his mother? By every indication, Oedipus is a conscientious, upright soul with a strong sense of responsibility. Similarly, nothing is lacking in Orestes when he kills his mother. Rather, Orestes is caught between his duty to his mother and his responsibility to avenge his father’s murder. Neither Oedipus nor Orestes can be assigned a flaw without stretching a point, although many teachers have tried.

The tradition continues when Shakespeare is taught. I remember being told in high school that Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, while Hamlet was unable to make up his mind. Such over-simplifications create the illusion that we have a handle on complicated stories, but do we? Othello does not leap to jealousy by himself, but has his relationship with his wife poisoned by the whisperings of Iago. As for Hamlet, he delays only until he is convinced that what his father’s ghost has told him is true. If you had to assign Hamlet a flaw in Act V, it would be that he acts far too rashly.

Harmatia is a flexible enough term that it can cover Oedipus, Orestes, Othello, and Hamlet, but the hunt for flaws simply doesn’t work. However, few writers today are producing tragedies, so harmatia is irrelevant. Aristotle was not analyzing the structure of stories, but of tragedy, which is only a subset of stories. No matter how you translate Aristotle, his comments have no more than an indirect insight into a modern novel or short story.

Still, believers in flaws are apt to say, a flawed character is easier to identify with. And it is true that an impossibly noble hero is unlikely to be sympathetic. Often, an anti-hero, an amoral rogue with some redeeming traits is more likely to keep readers turning pages. However, all stories cannot be about anti-heroes. More importantly, I have to ask whether a personality flaw really makes a hero more relatable. Do we actually like a character more if they are weak-willed? If they drink too much? Or sleep around? At the very least, flaws only make a character more sympathetic if they are carefully selected. We might identify, for instance, with a ruthless killer who shows mercy, or only murders the corrupt. However, flaws alone do not seem a consistent tactic to make readers identify with a character.

Besides, fiction is not a role-playing game, where characters exist in isolation because the story is shaped by the DM. In fiction, a character depends largely on the needs of the plot. Does the story require someone who changes sides? Then the character involved is likely to be someone with imagination and empathy. Does it depend on a betrayal? Then the betrayer needs a motive like a lost cause or a wish for revenge. Successful characters rarely emerge fully-formed — they develop in a complex interplay with setting and plot where it is hard to say which comes first. If they are created in isolation, they are likely to be unconvincing. No matter how many flaws you sprinkle over them like spice, there is no hiding that you are serving up a bland dish.

Anyway, who is to say what a flaw is? A character who is rash could be praised in one circumstance for resolution, and in another for thoughtfulness. By contrast, working with the concept of flaws seems almost certain to result in puppet-like characters whom no one wants to read about.

What characters do need is an arc: a movement from one state to another. They might set out to accomplish a certain task. They might learn as the story continues, becoming fit to realize their goals in a way they weren’t at the start of the story. Such arcs are what engage readers — not a set of arbitrary flaws.


#PublishingPaidMe and the Industry’s Problem with Race

In the wake of the historical Black Lives Matter protests that sprung up following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, conversations about race began to take place in many industries, and publishing was not exempt.

Of the many discussions that emerged surrounding the racism that permeates the publishing industry (publishing as a whole is 76% white according to a study by Lee and Low ) was the discussion of author advances. An advance is the money that the publisher pays an author up front, before the book has sold any copies, as an advance against any royalties earned. Before an author can start receiving royalty checks, they must earn back their advance, which means that authors who receive high advances have to sell a lot more books before they start to see royalty money. Usually, advances can be seen as a mark of the publisher’s confidence in a book. A high advance indicates that the publisher is relatively certain that the book will make a substantial amount of money. Higher advances often, but not always, mean that the publisher will invest more effort in the marketing and promotion of the book.

Advances have long been a rather mysterious topic, with very little transparency regarding the specific amounts that authors can expect. Traditionally authors have been reluctant to disclose their exact amounts advance amounts, although it is relatively common to read press releases stating that so and so’s book sold at auction for “six figures.” Some authors actually have clauses worked into their contracts which state that they may not disclose the amount of their advance, whereas others simply feel uncomfortable, in a culture that treats discussion of salary as taboo (a norm that has long been used to perpetuate salary gaps in many industries), discussing their exact advance figures. However, given the current Black Lives Matter movement, many authors and allies felt like a conversation about the discrepancy in advances between Black and non-Black authors was long overdue.

Thus, author L.L. McKinney created the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe.

The purpose of the hashtag was to expose these discrepancies. McKinney emphasized that Black authors did not have to participate by disclosing their advances, but that non-Black authors should disclose their advances in order to help Black authors confront a wage gap that existed so far mostly anecdotally. The hashtag would provide actual numbers which would prove not only that the wage gap existed, but that it was pervasive. Armed with evidence of what their non-Black colleagues were being given in advance, Black writers would be in a better position to negotiate their own advances.

However, Black authors quickly began taking part, exposing massive discrepancies in advance numbers. One of the revelations that sparked the most consternation was Hugo award winning Black author N.K. Jemisin’s:

Many authors and readers found it completely unacceptable that an author of Jemisin’s caliber had received such low advances. But Jemisin wasn’t an outlier. A Google Docs spreadsheet was quickly compiled in order to create more solid and actionable data. The numbers were revealing. While genres varied, at the time of writing this, of 163 advances payments greater than or equal to $100,000, only 12 of those advances went to Black writers.

Clearly publishing, like many industries, suffers from a wage gap. Publishing seems unwilling to take the same risks on Black authors as it does on white authors. In fact, white authors are often given multiple chances and are still awarded second chances even after a first book flops, whereas Black writers often are given only one shot.  As many have pointed out, this discrepancy does not fall solely at the feet of agents and editors, but is also the responsibility of sales executives and even booksellers who see books by Black authors as a poor investment, this despite the fact that college educated Black women are the demographic most likely to read books.  The source of this misconception? Implicit biases among mostly white publishing professionals who assume that Black people are less likely to read books and that white readers will not pick up books featuring Black protagonists.

To show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the light it shed on the issues with the publishing industry, a group of more than 1000 publishing industry workers declared a day of solidarity and took a day off to protest against racial injustice and also vowed to donate a day’s pay fundraisers. In response, major publishing houses such as Penguin Random House acknowledged the problems with racism within the industry and vowed to foster more diversity within the company. They also promised anti-racist training for all staff members. Of course, only time will tell if these measures will make a difference, or if publishing houses are simply worried about the optics should they fail to make a bold statement in the midst of a global movement.

One thing is for certain, publishing has a race problem, and that problem reflects the larger culture of white supremacy that exists in all countries where the legacy of slavery and colonialism lives on. While efforts such as We Need Diverse Books and #DivPit have helped to mitigate the effects of racism upon the publishing industry, it is only through the complete eradication of white supremacist culture that the publishing industry, like all other industries and institutions in this country and others, can finally rid itself of the specter of racism. So while diversity training and education and earnest pledges to do better are a nice gestures, they will be ultimately meaningless unless white supremacist culture is dismantled once and for all.

General Writing, Marketing, Reviews and Analysis

How I Learned to Love Series

Shamefacedly, I have to admit: I’m now writing a trilogy. And to make matters worse, I feel pretty good about it.

It wasn’t always that way. For much of my life, I’ve looked down on trilogies. Tolkien may have needed to divide The Lord of the Rings into three books in order to be published, but that was something imposed on him, not something he planned. Those who have come after him usually don’t have the same excuse. As a result, trilogies have come to mean one book’s worth of material stretched over three, with a sagging second book that should be hurried over as quickly as possible to get to the better stuff. To me, trilogies were a sign of flabby writing and imagination.

As for series — well, I’d say don’t get me started, but I’m already on the backstretch. While I’ve read series, too often they seemed to me to be shameless catering to readers’ demands for more of the same. Nothing a serious writer (sniff!) would consider. Something always died in me when I heard aspiring writers cheerfully planning a twelve book series. “Why are you planning to be a hack?” I always wanted to ask.

Weighed down by these prejudices, when I became serious about writing fantasy, I resolved to only write single books. The trouble was, my current work in progress kept bolting and trying to become a duology. No, a trilogy. No, a series. Two-thirds of the way through and worried about length, I finally admitted the obvious: there were three sharply defined arcs in the tales, and I would have a far better chance of publication if I placed them in separate, shorter volumes.

I take comfort in the fact that in the marketplace, if not necessarily the canon, I am following in the footsteps of Tolkien. The only difference is that I am doing so before being asked. These days, that’s the likeliest way of getting agents or publishers to even consider me.

More importantly, I have to admit that a trilogy or a series does not condemn me to literary mediocrity. Plenty of respectable writers do series. Lois McMaster Bujold, for example, has kept her Miles Vorkosigan saga fresh for over twenty books. She does so by making each book independent of the others except for the same background and many of the characters. Mostly, they center on her hero Miles at a different stage in his life. More recently, though, the series have centered on Miles’ cousin, mother, and wife. And throughout, books have borrowed from genres ranging from space opera to mysteries and romantic comedies. Similarly, her forays into fantasy like the Curse of Chalion, The Paladin of Souls, and her Penric novellas share little more than their background. With tactics like these, Bujold manages to keep the individual books in her series fresh. They benefit from the shared background, but stand on their own.

More recently, I have come across Daniel Abraham’s five volume series, The Dagger and the Coin. According to my former attitudes, this work should be twice-damned, because it is not only a series, but one with multiple points of views — a choice many writers have followed down the path to disaster. However, Abraham manages to pull off these challenging choices, largely because of his unusual characters. Ensnared by genre tropes, how many other writers would make one character a young girl learning the intricacies of banking, of all things? Or an utterly conventional noble woman forced to struggle for her family’s and country’s survival? Or a villain who is a lonely introvert out to revenge himself for bullying, who cares for his young ward? Each of his leads is so strongly motivated that arc could be a novel in itself, and the fact that most books in the series have a minimal resolution hardly matters. Like Tolkien, the books are really one novel, and kept me too busy hurrying on to the next one to exercise my prejudices.

As I should have known, the problem was never with series in themselves. It was with mediocre writers, mindlessly following conventions. If there are any limitations to trilogies or series, strong writing and originality can overcome them.

So, yeah, I’m writing a trilogy. Want to make something of it?


What White Writers Can Do

Activism can take many shapes. Some people take to the streets in protest, others donate to bail funds, still others choose to change the world by creating the works of art that shape our culture. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a writer, and, if you’re a white writer like me, you might be thinking about how you might best use your words to create change in the world. What can you, a white writer who wants to be actively anti-racist, do to make sure that you are not a part of the problem?

Recognize your privilege

Recognize that as a white writer you have benefited, from your earliest days, from white supremacy.  Even as a writer, you benefit from a publishing industry that is overwhelmingly white, which means that when you pitch your novel? Chances are the agents you pitch to look like you, share your experiences, and probably have some implicit biases in your favor. It means that your women’s literature book about two white sisters caring for their aging white mother, or your Game of Thrones medieval European fantasy, will not be considered a risk to publishers. No one is going to call your book weird or complain that the characters or setting are unfamiliar or confusing. No one will look at your book and think, “can we fit another white author on our list?”  Benefiting from white supremacy doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make those agents and editors bad people, but it means that you have an obligation, as a white person who wants to be part of the solution, to help dismantle those systems where you see them. Let go of your white fragility, of the knee-jerk reaction that is telling you “yes, but not me,” and remind yourself, “yes, even me.”

Boost BIPOC Voices

Instead of trying to write the definitive book on racism yourself, use your privilege to boost the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Of course, not all of us have massive platforms, but the size of your platform doesn’t particularly matter. A great place to signal boost is in pitch events, particularly #DivPit and #PitMad, the latter of which has a brand new hashtag associated with it, #BVM, for Black Voices Matter. You can signal boost the pitches of Black and other marginalized creators by commenting or retweeting (according to the rules of each event) the pitches you like. Remember, the agents and editors need to know that these pitches have broad appeal, and your voice can help those pitches get noticed. When you see people asking for book recommendations, don’t just recommend books by white authors — make a point of recommending books by marginalized creators. Promote writers of color on your platform — retweet, link, boost. Remember, writing is not a zero sum game. Boosting others doesn’t mean that you take away from your own work, and in fact, some of the most successful writers are known for lifting up their fellow writers, rather than just focusing solely on self promotion.

Don’t Speak over BIPOC

Sometimes the hardest thing for us white people to learn is when to sit back and listen. We are used to being heard, after all, and writers, especially, have chosen this mode of expression because we feel like we have something to say. And of course, this doesn’t mean we should shut up and say nothing, it simply means that sometimes we should let others do the talking, and know when it is our turn to sit back and listen. What it also means is that sometimes we need to understand that our thoughts and feelings are not always going to be the most important ones on each issue. I am in a group for freelance writers, and during the recent Black Lives Matter protests a white woman wanted to know where she might pitch an article about why being married to a BIPOC doesn’t absolve her from racism. The members of the group politely told her that while her article was surely well intended, her voice was not the voice that was needed right now. At a moment in history when the Black community is taking to the streets to protest Black people being brutally murdered by the police, we don’t need a navel gazing article by a white woman centering her experience of white privilege, we need to hear the voices of the Black people who have been impacted by white supremacy. Will there ever be a time and place for white people to muse about their struggles to be antiracist? Certainly. These types of articles have their place, but that place is definitely not in the middle of a national Black Lives Matter movement. Make sure you read the room.

Change Your Reading Habits

Similarly to boosting BIPOC voices, consuming more media created by BIPOC yourself is a way that you can make a difference, however small, by doing your part to normalize non-white content. You might need a deliberate effort at first, depending on how diverse your consumption already is, to read diverse books, or watch diverse shows. Make a personal commitment that for every book you purchase that is written by a white person, you’ll purchase another written by a BIPOC. There is so much great content out there, and if you’re only reading books by white writers not only are you perpetuating a kind of white hegemony in publishing, you’re missing out on a lot of really great books.

Donate Time, Energy, and Money

Probably one of the most helpful things you can do is to donate, either your money, or, if you are short on that, your time, to causes that help marginalized writers or BIPOC in general. Recently, industry professionals and experienced creators have been offering mentorships and query letter critiques for writers of color, a way to help combat the imbalance in the publishing industry. If you don’t feel like you’re qualified to personally offer help to BIPOC writers, try donating money to an organization such as We Need Diverse Books, the Diversity Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation, the Carl Brandon Society, or the Writers of Color scholarship fund at the Viable Paradise workshop. In a broader sense, get involved in grassroots organizations in your community,  and most importantly, campaign, volunteer for, and donate to candidates that will support BIPOC causes and fight against white supremacy.

Finally, Always Speak Up

This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it is easier to stay silent than to speak up, and as white people, we often choose the path of least resistance when it comes to activism. Now, I say this with the caveat that if you cannot speak up for mental health reasons, I trust that you know your limits, and I do not mean to shame you for them. That said, if you are able, and if you care about being a good ally to BIPOC, then of course you should always fight against white supremacy when you see it in person. It might be uncomfortable to speak up and tell Aunt Karen that her views on the nationwide protests are wrongheaded, but imagine how far beyond uncomfortable it is to be a Black person who must live in fear of being shot by the police. Put things in perspective, and if at all possible, speak up when you can. Rather than muttering “yikes” to yourself and moving on, take the opportunity to educate when you can, and condemning when you can’t educate. As writer, be a voice for change, rather than a fence sitter or a reactionary. Boycott problematic writers, refuse to query agents who are not supportive of BIPOC and movements such as Black Lives Matter, and choose agents and publishers that support diversity in publishing. As a white person, use your white privilege to effect greater change in both the publishing industry and the world in general, rather than hiding behind that privilege and allowing the status quo to continue unchecked.

Please add any resources in the comments section of this article, and I will edit the article to add them in. I welcome any comments, suggestions, and corrections. I too, strive to always do better.