Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ten Ways to Help Avoid "Culturefail" in Speculative Fiction

Be prepared to include all
kinds of people, places, and
cultures in your speculative fiction.

One of the panels I attended at Arisia 2013 was "Avoiding Culturefail."  This expert panel hoped to express to its listeners how to "win" when writing about another culture.  In other words, when writing about "the other" (which in some sense we do every single time we write), how can we avoid propagating negative tropes and stereotypes?  How can we ensure that our writing becomes part of the solution, rather than continuing the problem?

Here are some of the main ideas I gleaned from the panel.  I distilled them into ten points as a reference list when starting and then working through a new story.
  1. Commitment.  Commit to yourself to doing the best that you can when addressing cultural issues in your work.  You may not succeed in a "culturewin" but only a commitment to try will give a writer that opportunity.
  2. Know Thyself.  Ask, "Who am I?  Where am I coming from?  What is my perspective?  What are my biases?  How does the nature of privilege in my life influence my approach to that "other" I am writing about?"
  3. Research is the beginning.  The canonical phrase "do your research" still stands.  Intellectual knowledge of your subject, including cultures represented, is a necessity.  
  4. Community Contact.  Research is only the beginning.  After reading up on your topic, don't stop there.  Research is only the very first step.  Deep knowledge and understanding requires engagement with the culture in question.
  5. Be Thorough.  Research and community involvement need to be carried out on multiple levels.  Engage with more than one person of the culture you are writing about.  Use all the senses when doing research, i.e. looking at photos, listening to music, touching artifacts, and eating the cuisine.  Absorb stories, myth, and other literature.
  6. Subvert the Tropes.  When writing, subvert the common tropes, cliches, and negative stereotypes.  Tell an effective counter-narrative.  
  7. Be Uncomfortable.  Allow yourself to go to the uncomfortable places and "tell the harder truth."  Do not ignore issues of privilege, power, and oppression in your work.  Humble yourself.
  8. Conduct a Diversity Survey.  Conduct a diversity survey of your manuscript that includes the statistics of who and what is represented, and how.  Such numbers may surprise you, and may lead you to change aspects of your work.
  9. Get Feedback.  Ask for constructive criticism of your manuscript from people who are a part of the culture groups in question.  Be prepared to accept feedback that is emotional, since some issues are highly charged.  Be gracious to reviewers and consider their input carefully.
  10. Be Prepared to Make Changes.  Feedback and community engagement may lead you to reconsider your topic and/or how it is presented.  Be prepared to make major shifts in the work, if necessary.
I think of all the points here, I was most struck by my number seven, Be Uncomfortable.  I so often try to avoid discomfort, I think we all do.  As a writer, setting up tension and then resolving it is part of the process.  This point suggests to me that I shouldn't be over anxious to rush to a resolution, but instead I should abide in that space and allow the discomfort to remain a while.  There is clearly much to learn there.

Image Credit - Photoxpress.  Isolated pencils drawing.  Colored Pencils.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fun and Fandom at Arisia

The Captain and Yeoman of
the Enterprise stop for pictures

Arisia 2013 was really my first real con.  I know, I know - sort of sad for someone who has been a fan of sci-fi and such ever since they can remember.  But I'm glad I had a chance to finally get to dip my toes into the con pool, and learn at least a little.  As well as have some fun, of course.

I wasn't staying at the con hotel, and that definitely drove the nature of my experience.  I'd have checked out a lot more of the later movies, sessions, and parties had I been on the property.

Most of my time was spent sitting in on panels, which had subject matter covering a wide, wide range of topics from fan interest and community, to media, writing, reading, costuming, and a whole lot more.  Even some rather, um, otherwise seemingly unrelated topics like BDSM 101.  Yep.  The panels that I found to be the most memorable of those I spent some time in were the "Small Press," "Avoiding Culturefail," and "Speculative Poetry is Awesome" panels.

The vendor's area, i.e. Huckster's Room, had a good mix of different products including books, tea, jewelry, and an array of costuming options.  I had a lot of fun just people watching there and elsewhere, and seeing how attendees wore their fantasy fashions.  Saw some excellent Borg and a few meticulous Victorian area dresses with elaborate wigs.  I enjoyed the juxtaposition of sipping a cosmo in a modern hotel bar while the lords and ladies strolled along, followed by Jedi with light sabers aglow.  

Things I wished were different.  Some of the topics covered in panels might have been better addressed by a single person giving a presentation for education/entertainment.  Panels can get a little tedious after you've been to a few in a row, and it would have been nice to break it up with other formats to get at similar information.  I wish the board game room had had more open tables, since one thing I might have done on the fly would have been to bring a favorite game and randomly see who might be interested in playing.  I saw Settlers of Catan and Power Grid, for example, but not Talisman.  The times I was there the place was really packed up with games and tables filled to capacity.  The dealer's room was a little tight, and not very well ventilated.  It shared the same open space with a small food court sort of thing and the art show, so all three of them suffered a bit from crowding.

But overall, it was a good introduction to the world of the con.  Next con I'm going to break out some of my own fun costuming and join in with that.  I'm also thinking I have some great science topics of interest to sci-fi fans that might make a really good lecture/presentation.  And I'm going to stay in the hotel and force some friends to come along.  Clearly, the best part of the con is the social aspect of sharing what we all love, and going with a group would obviously be a blast.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Well-Grounded Characters - What's Beneath Our Feet

Two kinds of lava flows, new a'a over old pahoehoe.
The next time you pick up your current read, consider this - do you know what the characters are standing upon?  Can you see it in your mind?  Has the author added some text that allows you to get a real feel for your footing, so to speak?

Authors will speak of a reader being "grounded" in the text if the reader has a good sense of what the surroundings are, where the characters exist in this space, and how they move through it.  An ungrounded reader is less invested and less in touch with the story.  Keeping the reader grounded is a key element to good writing.

Not surprisingly, one way an author can do this is by examining the ground, literally.  Our connection with the ground is very powerful, and evokes a whole suite of sensations from all the senses.  We can smell grass, feel our balance waver as we hop from one rock to another, hear gravel crunch, and see the colors of the concrete or linoleum beneath our feet.  Depending on the material - salt flats, say - we might even be able to taste the ground. 

One of the most evocative memories I have of the ground under my feet is walking on a old, hardened lava flow.  Lava flows come in two types, "pahoehoe" and "a'a."  Pahoehoe has a relatively low viscosity, and hardens with a surface texture that resembles smooth, thick ropes.  A'a is highly viscous, and when it moves it more resembles a tumbling pile of black concrete than a flow.  When it hardens, the surface retains that broken concrete block texture.  Walking on it is very difficult, with clinky, pointed blocks of various sizes shifting under each foot.  The glassy material in the flow makes it painful to fall, and likely to rip up clothing that is dragged across it.  The clanky sound, the need to pay attention to every single part of a step, and the subtle sort of flinty, gunpowdery smell, all made the experience very memorable.

Do you remember a passage where an author focused on the ground?  How did the characters move over it, and how did or didn't it change their actions or the plot?  Did their feeling more grounded help you feel that way?  What is your most vivid memory of the ground beneath you?

Image Credit:  USGS Volcano Hazards Program, Glossary A'A 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Isn't NASA Protecting Planetary Research?

Surface of Mercury showing ice
in permanently shaded polar craters.
It's amazing that ice can persist so
close to the Sun. 
My answer to this question is "I'm not sure, because there isn't enough transparency."

Take a look at a recent article over at Scientific American.  This is a guest post by planetary scientist Dr. Andrew Rivkin, whom I have interviewed here on this blog.  The title of the SA article "The Fight to Save Planetary Science, and Why the New Mars Rover Does Not Mean Victory" points to a problem between a perceived "win" for planetary science, and what is really going on behind the scenes.  As a planetary scientist myself, I have been as baffled as Rivkin by the ongoing situation, and with NASA's choice of upcoming plans.

So go ahead and read that article, I'll wait here ...

Rivkin makes many good points in the article, but the one that strikes me the hardest is the one regarding transparency.  Given the complex nature of the relationship between planetary scientists and NASA, we as scientists need to understand why and how the key decisions are made.  There is confusion over the subject, because, as Rivkin points out, we believed we had produced a document detailing our priorities, and yet we do not agree that those priorities are now being followed by NASA. 

Research is not suffering simply because of a tight budget.  It is not suffering because the Decadal Survey ignores it (quite the contrary.)  It is not suffering because there are too few planetary scientists to get the work done.

So why are we looking at such dramatic cuts in Research in favor of missions not specifically requested in the Decadal Survey?

Again, I don't know, because I can't figure out NASA's decision making process.

What's your take?

Image Credit:  Nancy. L. Chabot et al., JGR, 117 (2012).  NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/NAIO, Arecibo Observatory

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lessons from NMX: Keep it Emotional, Take Risks, and Other Uncomfortable Strategies

New Media Expo / Blogworld
I'm in the process of finishing up three days at the New Media Expo/Blogworld conference.  It has been enlightening for a host of reasons of the kind that can make you feel both elated and uncomfortable.  I didn't really know what to expect of the conference before I arrived here.  I was simply hoping to get some information and inspiration to get me out of my blogging rut and into something new.

I've always been a straightforward blogger.  Controversy is not something I generally explore on my blog, nor am I usually interested in taking part in discussions where people have their minds irrevocably made up.  Yet much of the advice about writing interesting and useful content for readers centers around taking risks, thinking in black and white, and evoking emotion.  This is a new way of thinking for me.

For the most part, the advice is good.  I know that from switching myself from the writer to the reader, and imagining the kind of posts I like to read.  The suggestions are to open up, put yourself out on the web, take a stance, have an opinion, and be sure to surprise or even shock the reader.  I don't particularly like anything too emotional or shocking, but I do like the unexpected, surprises, something new, and something that makes me think in ways I haven't before.

So this is my first and most important lesson to take away from the conference.  To take risks with the blog content and voice, and not to shy away from expressing and eliciting emotion.  It's a new spin for me, but I'm going to start moving my posts in that direction.  One might ask why I'd do something like that if it makes me uncomfortable.  My response is that - as I look back on many of my previous posts - they seem distant, watered down, and even overly clinical.  My voice on the page is dry, and I see that I'm not doing a good job of sharing why I think something is important.  After all, the reader's time (mine and yours) is limited.  What I offer has to be something worth reading more than doing pretty much anything else, at least for the amount of time it takes to read.  I can see good content and solid information in my posts, but for someone who writes a lot of fiction, I do not represent my storytelling style in the blog itself.

It's time to tell the stories here.  Not the fiction, but the part of our world and culture that intersects with it.  What is the emotion behind the movies and books we all love?  What are the really compelling messages in our genres, and why do they hook us for hours on end?  What is so entertaining or Earth-shaking?  What makes us as a community feel strongly, and what are we willing to stand up for and promote/protect?  What is unique about our culture, and how do we fit into it?

And before I do any of that, I need to step back myself and answer those questions from my own personal perspective.  I love to write about all aspects of speculative culture.  But why?  What really grips me and keeps me focused?  What is just so darned important that I feel I have to write about it in a post or I'll feel I missed out?  What makes me feel like I will simply bust if I don't share it?  Time to really dig, and come up with content that makes both reader and writer feel like there is nothing else in the world they would rather be doing than be right here on the blog.

For your typical overly-analytical geek, sci-fi writer, this sounds like a daunting challenge.  But I know there is a lot of great stuff to be had by trying.  So, this post is in the style of my 'old' voice, let's see how I can do with shifting into the storyteller ...

Image Credit:  New Media Expo 2013, Las Vegas

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Not a New Year's Resolution, Really

I've long been a detractor of New Year's resolutions.  After all, if I haven't started something important during the year itself, I'm not likely to happen to start it on January first, either.  Yet I have to say there is something compelling in the idea of a fresh start.  Of course, any day of the year could be defined as a fresh start, or the first day of the rest of your life, etc.  But for the time being I am succumbing to New Year's new-start fervor, and deciding to post a few goals.  Not resolutions, mind you, just goals ...

The first is my story writing goal.  Last year I started on May first with the idea that I would write a story a week.  I managed 15 stories during that run, with a smattering of others coming in later in the year.  Nanowrimo naturally took a bit of a toll on the story writing as well as the poetry writing.  Realistically, I now see that too many other writing projects get sidelined if I'm writing a story a week.  So this year the goal is going to be half that - 25 stories this year, while keeping up my poetry and novel projects.

The second goal is the childhood horror poetry chapbook I've been working on.  I'd really like to get that into shape for readings by Halloween of this year.  I'm hoping to use some of April and NaPoWriMo to get a few more new poems written for the collection, and then have some time later in the summer for editing.  Meanwhile, I'm hoping to get a few more of the finished ones published.  So we'll see how that project progresses.

I have one novel that needs editing pretty desperately.  I'm only up to chapter three on the new draft, and the rest has been sadly languishing.  Time to get that manuscript shaped up.  I also have another novel that needs just about 15K more of writing to be finished.  It would be great to get that one tied up and then into the editing stage.

Then of course, there are the science fiction novels I am perennially writing.  Would love to get the first in that series drafted ...

But I also had some notions of doing a bit more freelance writing, especially in the area of astronomy, outreach, planetary science, and the like.  I had drafted a proposal for an article on science and religion, and have an outline for that piece.  Perhaps there is a market out there that this might match well.

Okay, that is really enough.  Plenty.  And yet I know when new opportunities and ideas come along, I'll still find some way to make room for them.

What are your writing goals for the year?

Image Credit:  Happy New Year! by Jon Glittenberg CC 2.0 flikr via Creative Commons