Uncategorized

Too Clever By Half

Plot and structure do not come easily to many writers. So much is obvious from the number of posts in writers’ forums from people who want to write, but are unable to begin, or have developed characters and wonder what to do about them. In my own case, a sense of story only came after I diagrammed a couple of dozen of my favorite plays and novels to see how scenes connected to each other. However, some of the secrets of plotting only become obvious after I observed and labored to do my own plotting. One of my recent lessons was to know when not to over-elaborate. Without a sense of when enough was enough, I was apt to produce what I call Scooby-Doo plots – structures that failed because they were more clever than strictly necessary.

I first recognized the potential problem in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Leckie is an accomplished writer, with a real gift for characterization, and her topic – an AI who in the past has operated space ships struggling with the limits of being in a human body – was perhaps the most original premise of the last decade in science-fiction. Unfortunately, though, Leckie chose to add a culture that uses “she” as the indefinite pronoun. The choice was a pithy comment on a still-current linguistic debate, but when added to her former AI character was smply too much in the same novel. When I should have been focused on Leckie’s AI character, I found myself wondering how that use of pronoun might have come about. What history created it? How did it influence the culture? A whole second novel could have been written around that single detail, but in three books, I got very few hints of any answers to such questions. It was as though Ursula K. LeGuin had created the hermaphodites of The Left Hand of Darkness, and then only talked about their civics. I had to give Leckie full credit for ambition, but the execution frustrated me.

Recently I finished Leckie’s The Raven Tower – and, so far, she appears to have the same thing. Her idea to treat gods as a species, immortal but always changing and adapting in their symbiosis with humanity is brilliant. But, once again, one good idea is not enough for her. She has to have one point of view in the second person, a difficult perspective that always seems to me the ultimate in mansplaining, with a narrator telling the “you” being addressed things they already know. Once again, I found myself swinging between admiration and extreme irritation.

Leckie can, of course, do what she wants, and the awards and nominations she has collected make my opinion easy to dismiss. However, I mean no disrespect. What I am saying is that her way is not my way, with the addition that it should not be most writers’ way, either.

I wish I had made this analysis of Leckie’s work a few weeks ago when I was trying to get my characters out of a fantasy town without being arrested. I am a long time admirer of Avram Davidson and his elaborate plots, and I thought I would celebrate their departure after several chapters by having three groups who were looking for them all appear at the same time, only to run into an unexpected fourth. In other hands, this premise might have been a wonderfully chaotic romp. In my hands, though it was too much handle, perhaps through inexperience. I tried several times, and I just couldn’t realize my intentions, not without far more pages that the importance of the scene would justify. Finally, after talking with my critique partner, I eliminated all but one of the pursuing groups, and got on to more important events.

Thanks to reading Leckie, I now realize my mistake. In the future, I resolve to attempt no more Scooby Doo plots, and to eliminate over-elaboration altogether.

Uncategorized

My Love Affair With the Editing Process

If you ask most writers what their favorite part of the writing process is, most would probably say worldbuilding, or plotting, or maybe drafting. Scant few would say editing and revising, in fact, many would probably say they dread editing, and why shouldn’t they? Editing has a reputation for being boring and tedious. Some people even farm the whole process out to others, paying editors to polish their manuscripts before they’ve ever crossed an agent’s desk. And yet, this is hands down my favorite part of the writing process.

I’ll confess, as a pantser, for me editing and revising is a slightly different process than it is for someone who outlines religiously. For a pantser, editing is often where you take the story that you’ve written and embellish, adding detail or, filling plot-holes and consistency issues. You know the characters and the story better, and you can shape your manuscript and watch it become the book you envisioned.

Sometimes, distance from the original material gives me new perspective. During the editing process a number of things became clear about my manuscript. I realized, for instance, that I’d started at the wrong point in the story, and wrote two new chapters earlier in the narrative. I realized that I’d made one character’s journey needlessly complicated, and that I could get her to the same place with one easy change. There are some simple and elegant ideas that didn’t come to me while drafting, but which, given a bit of distance, now seem obvious. Those sorts of revelations are the best.

I don’t mind the nitty gritty of editing either. I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd. Aside from English, I’ve learned four different languages, and I treat each one of them as a bit of a puzzle. English itself is no different. The editing process for me is like moving around pieces of a puzzle, trying to make each piece fit exactly right. For me, questions of syntax, including sentence length and word order, are simply a part of the puzzle. When I get the order correct, the sentences go from plain functioning words to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t even mind cutting. I’ve always taken somewhat of a scorched earth approach when it comes to editing, and I generally resist sentimentality about my scenes. Since I’m an overwriter rather than an underwriter, I always relish the opportunity to cut length. While I have a discard folder where my favorite scenes live forever in posterity, I find that when I cut, the new version soon becomes just as beloved as the old.

Some writers seem to have an aversion to editing, perhaps based upon attachment to the first draft, or perhaps because they don’t really know where to start. Luckily I have excellent critique partners who are happy to point out the issues with my manuscript, and what’s more, who are happy to discuss the craft of writing with me and brainstorm all of the ways that I can make my story better. When I talk about the changes I want to make to my manuscript, I get excited about making those changes. I can see the potential there on the page, waiting for me to unlock it.

Editing is truly the part of the process where I see the manuscript transform into something that I can truly call a “book.” I won’t call it magic, since it is more satisfying than that. Each change that I make, each little tweak of the language or change to the story, each chapter cut or line of dialogue added, brings the book one step closer to completion. Editing is hard work of the best kind, like taking a good hike up a mountain trail, or a long swim in the ocean on a hot day, the kind of work that leaves no doubt about the worth of the task.

Uncategorized

Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A decade as a technical writer has left its mark on me. Mostly, technical writers work anonymously. No one cared who I was — they wanted completeness, clarity, and structure. As a result, those were the things I concentrated on. I haven’t written a manual or a company blog for fifteen years — and am unlikely to in the future — but that emphasis has lingered with me as I moved into fiction. For that reason, I am always gobsmacked when I come across someone who thinks that wanting to write makes them special. It seems clear to me that such people have misplaced priorities.

You can hear this declaration of importance when the role of the writer is discussed. It crops up frequently when subjects like sensitivity reading comes up. “Never sell out your talent in order to prevent hurting people’s feelings,” one poster declared recently. “Writers are the epitome of free thinkers,” another declared, and still another, “If you’re not offending someone you’re not doing it right.” But my favorite was “It’s the responsibility of an artist to express what is within” — to which I replied, “Responsibility? Are you sure you don’t mean self-indulgence?” Such remarks rival Shelley’s declaration that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — and at least he had a proven talent that demonstrably inspired people. But who are the unknowns make these grandiose claims?

Most writers, I suspect, fantasize about being published and remembered. But if you are a would-be writer, stop for a reality check. A single group on Facebook has over one hundred thousand members, and I’m confident that all the writing-related groups put together would make a minimum of half a million — perhaps even ten times that. So what makes me, or anyone else special in our aspirations? Even those who have actually published, traditionally or by themselves must be in the tens of thousands, and most of those have enjoyed a brief shining moment of publicity before disappearing into the mid-list.

As for being a free-thinker, all I can reply is, “Really?” Books don’t fit into a genre by accident. If you’re writing an imaginary world of long-eared, or a Regency romance or a cozy mystery, you make a damned unconvincing rebel. Far from being a free-thinker, you could hardly be more conventional. Thinking of yourself as an entertainer would be more accurate — nor is there a single thing wrong with that. Just don’t claim that your imagination is something precious that should be nurtured and cherished.

I mean, who gave you the responsibility to explore within? No one, unless it was yourself so that you could feel important. Being a writer does not make you exempt from common decency, let alone immune from criticism.

If you want to explore anything, explore the craft of writing. Learn how to tell a story, how to construct a plot, select a metaphor, and create a character arc. Instead of mentally replaying Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead with yourself as the misunderstood and under-appreciated main character, learn the craft that you claim to follow. That’s a lifelong study, and one that may actually gain you the respect you crave.

Or, as I like to put it: Take the work seriously, and never yourself. Otherwise, you’re not a writer; you’re just a daydreamer who has confused your dreams for reality.

Uncategorized

Writing and the Search for Authenticity

 

I often witnessed a phenomenon among travelers who would visit the city in China where I lived for fifteen years. Encounters which would inevitably result in some wide eyed visitor complaining to me about how they had not expected China to have Wal Marts or Starbucks, and then asking me where they could go to see the “real China.”

For those of us who lived in China, the idea that the China we called home might somehow be less authentic than say, a village in a mist shrouded mountain, was somewhat laughable. If that was the real China, then was the China where I made my home somehow a “fake” China?

Of course what these travelers meant was that they expected China to meet their own expectations, often steeped in Orientalism, for a more “exotic” China. They wanted a China that was decidedly “East” to their “West,” something different and other. While they could accept that Chinese people wore jeans and t-shirts rather than qipao and high collared shirts, the fact that there was a Wal-Mart smack dab in the middle of the city was a bridge too far. China, they would proclaim, was being ruined by the West.

While I could appreciate concerns over cultural imperialism, the travelers rarely were concerned about that. Afterall, the same people who decried Wal-Mart in the city center would raise holy hell if their hotel had a squat toilet. The concessions that China was allowed to make to Western culture were the ones that made their lives more convenient. Above all, China itself should not interfere with the foreign traveler’s idealized version of China. China was to exist perpetually as it existed in the travelers minds – the exotic fantasy of mist covered mountains, kung-fu masters, ancient temples, peaked roofs – regardless of what the Chinese themselves wanted. The Chinese actually find Wal-Mart convenient and want to shop there? They enjoy their lattes? Too bad. China exists for the foreign travelers consumption, not as a place in and of itself.

This is the problem with the idea of authenticity. Recently in the book community we’ve seen reviews which criticize books written by non-white authors for not being instructive enough. What these reviews say, in essence, is that the culture and people depicted in the book do not get to exist as they are, but instead exist for the edification of the white reader. If a Chinese-American book does not depict a generational struggle, or describe Chinese food in loving detail, it is not “Chinese” enough, even though Chinese-Americans have varied experiences and are not a monolith. Just as China itself has no obligation to exist to serve the orientalist expectations of the foreign traveler, the Chinese-American (or Indian-American, Arab-American) writer has no obligation to exoticize their own culture for the entertainment of white readers.

I grew up reading Amy Tan’s novels, and of course the influence she has had on American literature, and the doors she opened for Asian-American writers are undeniable. However, as I grew older, and especially after I lived in China, I started to become a bit uncomfortable with the way white Americans would discuss her books. Amy Tan writes, for the most part, about the China of old. Her stories are evocative of those mist covered mountains, and call forth a sense of the “mystical orient.” Critical analysis of Tan’s work has accused her of self-Orientalism, and while it is a heavy criticism, I think it is hard to deny that Tan’s work is certainly, on some level, influenced by the way China is viewed though the the Western gaze. Still, she was a trailblazer for Asian-American literature, and writing at a time when the West barely viewed China at all, and when it died, it was undeniably through our own orientalist gaze.

Nowadays, however, Chinese-American writers are much more widely published, from YA romcoms like Loveboat Taipei, to literary fiction such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, to fantasy such as The Poppy War. Chinese-American literature does not have a mold that it must fit, any more than China itself has a mold it must fit. Readers who would criticize a book for not being “cultural” enough are missing the point. Chinese culture in 2020 is  Starbucks and Burger King just as much as it is Didi and WeChat, just as much as it is also, still, mist shrouded mountains and 5000 years of history. And non-white literature too, can be everything that white literature is, as well as many things that it is not. If you find yourself questioning the “authenticity” of a book you are reading, remember, there is no such thing as authentic culture. The idea of “authentic” culture is based upon expectations heaped upon that culture by outsiders. Culture simply is, and it cares nothing for your expectations.

Uncategorized

Do Your Research … But How?

Writers, when asking about writing characters outside of their own backgrounds, often get told “do your research.” This answer is deceptively simple, and appealing in its simplicity. White writers, upon reading that all they need to do is “do their research” and “consult a sensitivity reader,” may feel like they have the necessary materials at their fingertips. After all, how hard could “research” be? Most of us who graduated university wrote a research paper or two in our day. Some of us have even done dissertations. However, white writers, if we approach the research that is necessary to write acceptable POC representation the same way we approach the research necessary to write a term paper, we are bound to fail.

Wikipedia, scholarly articles, websites, even entire academic books, are simply not enough. The kind of research that is generally necessary in order to write another culture convincingly is the sort of research that would have you living and experiencing that culture, or getting as close as you possibly can, as a white person, to living and experiencing that culture. If the old adage “write what you know” holds true, then the white writer must know the culture that they choose to write about, and that knowledge cannot come from books, but from lived experience. The sort of knowledge that can be gleaned from a website, consuming media from the culture, or even reading academic journals may be fine for writing a research paper, which, after all, does not need to resonate emotionally with the audience, but a novel requires more.

Does this mean you have to spend decades living in a culture before you can write it? Not necessarily (although it would certainly be helpful), but it does mean, in my opinion, you have to be granted some degree of insider access to the culture, rather than using purely secondhand research. Painter Emily Carr, who was inspired by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest and often included scenes from their villages in her landcape paintings, spent extended periods of time living in First Nation villages, living among the people and getting to know them personally.  S.A. Chakraborty, who wrote the Daevabad trilogy, is a white woman who converted to Islam long before she wrote her trilogy featuring a Muslim hero. While Chakraborty did not live in Egypt, the country where her story begins, as a Muslim woman as well as an Islamic scholar, she has first hand as well as academic knowledge of the religion and culture.

Consider, before writing outside of your own experience, that there are many writers out there who do have those experience and who are eager to tell their own stories. What makes you, someone whose knowledge is purely secondhand, a better person to write that story than a person whose knowledge comes from lived experience? Can you write it better, or if not better, can you do as good a job as someone who has firsthand knowledge of that culture? If not, are you willing to put in the work necessary to gain the firsthand knowledge needed?

Many of us do not like being told we cannot do something or cannot have something. When we are told “do research” we interpret “research” in terms that are most charitable towards ourselves. What is left unsaid is that often it may impossible for you to do the “research” necessary for you to do a culture justice. Personally, I would not attempt to write a book about the experience of being a Black person in the USA. I have not even lived in the United States for the majority of my adult life, and my experiences are so far removed from the reality of most Black Americans that any attempt on my behalf would be cobbled together from popular media, the internet, and consultations with sensitivity readers. I am a decent writer and I could possibly piece together something that was at the very least blandly inoffensive, but my account would be at best a pale imitation. Am I really the best person to be writing about what it is to be Black in America? Absolutely not. I will never be that person, because that experience is completely beyond my scope.

On the other hand, I have written copiously about the region of China, Yunnan, where I lived and made my home for fifteen years, as well as the Yunnanese people who live there. I have firsthand knowledge of the culture, I speak the language, and I have family members and friends who are from Yunnan. If I have a question about the region or the culture, I have multiple resources who are simply a text message away. I lived in villages and cities, and worked in environments where I was completely immersed in the culture. I was married in Yunnan and had my children there. I navigated the public school system when my kids started primary school, and had playdates with local moms. I was in every way immersed in Yunnanese life. While my family and friends cannot give me “permission” to write about their culture (an aside about permission: anyone seeking permission is inherently misguided. There is no counsel that grants such things, and if you are uncertain enough about your ability or suitability to write a culture that you go seeking permission, then you probably shouldn’t be writing that culture), they are excited that I am doing so, and are eager to help me get it right. There aren’t many Yunnanese people writing in English out there, and even fewer represent my family’s particular ethnic group, and they are happy to see their region on the page. And still, even with all of my experiences, all of my resources, I still might make mistakes and get things wrong. Now imagine if I only had the internet and books at my disposal?

Writing characters from cultures other than our own is something that not every writer can do, and we need to accept our own limitations. Yes, do your research, yes consult your sensitivity readers, but most of all, know your limits. The sort of research that must be done in order to write a culture outside of your own is not the kind of research that can be done without dedicating years of your life to the endeavor. If you’re not up to the task, then there is no disgrace in sticking to what you know.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

#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.

Uncategorized

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.