@12 -- I definitely do not endorse imposter syndrome, and I would never want the idea of "only I could have written this book" to be some kind of test of authenticity or how special you are as an author. When you talk about the hours and years you spent crafting every chapter and putting together the characters and the world, THAT'S why it's something only you could have written. And I feel like most agents really want to be queried with an engaging, snappy synopsis that makes it clear why this is a fascinating story, and a short paragraph about your past publications or any other relevant stuff. I've never heard of an agent asking why this is something only you could have written, as if there's going to be a biographical answer to that.
@2, @3, @4 --- thank you SO MUCH. I cannot tell you what it means to me to hear these essays have been helpful and useful. I am so grateful to you for reading and to Tor.com for publishing these things. It's been a huge thrill and a privilege, and I can't wait to read all your fiction someday. Thank you!!!!
Oh yay, did not realize my story was in here. Doing a little happy dance!
@3 - YES! I love that example. Love when we really buy into a character's whole view of events and their place in the world, and then they're suddenly confronted with evidence that they've been wrong about something really fundamental. That is my jam. :p
@1 - Thank you so much for responding, and YES -- I think getting the combination of emotion and distance at the same time is the real jackpot, and it's surprisingly hard and rare. I have not read The Secret History yet, but you just moved it up to the top of my to-read pile.
I love this essay so much. So many lines in here that I'm going to be quoting forever. Like, "You are not the center of the universe... this can be comforting." "Stereotypes flatten human complexities into readily manipulable caricatures." "We're all in this together."
This piece has given me a lot to think about, in an extremely good way, and I'm going to keep coming back to it. I love the reminder that it's not about any individual author, it's about community. Thank you Nisi for writing this piece, and thanks to Tor.com for running it.
@20 - Oh yay, I'm so glad that was helpful! I'm definitely going to include that in the final essay. Good luck with your writing!
@17 --- there's a lot to unpack here, and I don't quite have the time to respond to all of your points right now. But let me just say that I think you may be somewhat off base to think of this purely in terms of cultural knowledge. People might not know every tiny detail of medieval Eurasian history, but they still respond to seeing people who look like themselves, and belong to cultures and experiences like theirs, on screen or on the page. And that representation affects how people see themselves in the here and now, which is why #ownvoices is so important in making sure that people feel like they can control how their own experience is represented.
And just as much as we always say that science fiction set in the future is really about the present, the exact same thing goes for stories set in the past, even the distant past. When you write about 30th century Mars, you're really writing about Earth in 2020. And the same thing goes for if you're writing about 12th century Sicily. It's always about the here and now. My mom is a historian, and we talk frequently about how our understanding of the past changes radically as certain pieces of evidence and information get brought to the surface, or else de-emphasized. Historical "accuracy" is a moving target.
Bottom line: even academics are recognizing the importance of including representatives of a particular culture in scholarship about that culture's history, and for popular fiction, it's even more important to make sure these stories are being told by the people who have the most stake in them.
Thanks for responding, and for the kind words!
@14 -- I think it is pretty confusing right now, and there's no way around that. As I say in the essay, everybody needs to figure out where the line is for themselves, but you can involve a sensitivity reader pretty early in the writing process, as a "developmental editor." Where I personally see the line is that I would write about an Asian person in the context of a story about starships and robots, and I would try to give that Asian person a full and realistic sense of self — including what's going through their head, and how their culture has shaped them. But I personally wouldn't set out to write a story where the point of it is to explore Asian culture or to introduce Asian culture to my fellow White people. Does that make sense?
I think the "developmental editor" thing is an important piece, and I should probably talk about that in the final version of this essay. Again, these comments are proving incredibly helpful!
@8 - I think that the purpose of writing and reading fiction is primarily entertainment. I always say that I became a writer because my singing voice isn't good enough and I can't dance that great. If I could sing and dance, or play an instrument super well, I'd be a musician instead. :p
But obviously, the central premise of these essays is that writing (and reading) can help save your life, when times are tough, by giving you an escape and letting you build a fictional world to hide inside when the real world is garbage. And by letting you talk about scary stuff without touching on it directly. And I also think one of the major pleasures of reading (and writing) is getting to experience life through someone else's senses, and through another consciousness. Including the lives of people who are very different than ourselves.
I don't just advocate writing a diverse cast of characters because we need more representation in our fiction, but because it makes the storytelling better. And richer, and more exciting. When I write someone who comes from a very different place than me, in terms of culture or marginalization, I feel a huge responsibility to get it right, but I also feel like this story is going to sparkle more, in the end, because I got to identify with someone whose perspective is so different.
Again, I'm so grateful for the comments on this piece, because this is all going to be incredibly helpful when I revise it for the book version.
@10 -- have I told you lately how much I appreciate you? So, so much.
Hey, I'm sorry I don't have time to respond individually to these comments right now, but I really appreciate all of you taking the time to post them. These comments are going to be incredibly helpful in revising this essay for the eventual book.
I obviously should have been clearer about what I was actually saying here --- like I said in various places in the essay, I *do* include plenty of characters whose experience and culture are different from my own in my fiction. Tons, in fact. And often those characters have pretty major roles. I work incredibly hard to give those characters the same inner life and the same complexity as the characters whose experience is more similar to mine. Which means I do a ton of research, and talk to my friends whose identities are similar to those characters, and I often will read a ton of books and watch lots of documentaries.
I will make sure to include tons of details that anchor those characters in their own cultures and lived experiences. And I won't shy away from depicting the garbage they've had to deal with as part of their marginalization, hopefully without descending into misery porn. In the case of my story "Clover," I found that when writing about a gay Egyptian man in North Carolina, I had to show how homophobia and Islamophobia had affected him, otherwise he wouldn't feel like a real person. I was so grateful to Saladin Ahmed and a few other friends for helping me with that story.
As I say above, where I personally draw the line is: I will include an Asian character in a major role, in a story about fighting off alien invaders, and I will do my best to get into that character's head and depict them as a fully-realized, complex person who is shaped by many things including their culture. But I *won't* write a story that is all about Asian culture, because someone who grew up in that culture can do a much better job than I could. I won't try to write the definitive story of growing up Asian or living in an immigrant family, and I won't try to use Asian culture and folklore as the basis of my story.
I feel like it's essential and vital for us, as White authors, to include BIPOC people in our work and to show their humanity. That involves a lot of work, and a ton of listening, and plenty of research. And lots willingness to pay attention when people tell us that we've screwed up. But we can include that level of representation in our work, *without* writing the stories that aren't really ours to tell.
Does that make more sense? Again, thank you so much for chiming in -- I'm going to make sure the final version of the essay includes more clarity on this.
@12 -- I love that dictum of the "plausible impossible". Makes SO MUCH sense. I'm going to start quoting that! Thanks so much.
@9 — thanks for catching that!!!
@4 -- Oh wow, thanks for sharing that. I love the AGU and I'm so sad they're not having their annual meeting in San Francisco due to the pandemic... And thanks so much for recomending this series. I really really appreciate it!!!!
@3 -- YES! "Realism" is always kind of a cheat, because you're choosing how to frame the picture. And when you're in the midst of chaos, nonsense might actually make more sense than sense. :p
And I *love* that sig file!
@1 - Wow, Jason, that novella sounds totally nuts. And honestly, I think even twenty years ago people would have been somewhat freaked out by the idea that everyone carries around a tiny camera which they use to send filthy selfies to each other. <g>
I could geek out about weirdness all day tbh. This piece was just the tip of the weirdberg. I used to read so many zines that published weird fiction, from Crank! to Flurb to CyberPsychosAOD. In my shelf of anthologies, I have a bunch of collections like The Best of Crank! (published by Tor Books) and Feeling Very Strange, and SemioText(e) SF, and some weird stories from the Forbidden Planet store. I miss when there were so many venues dedicated to bizarre fiction.
@3 - Thank you so much, that really means so much to me.
@1 - Yay I'm so incredibly glad to hear that. Thank you so much for reading these!
@2 -- Hey Nick, great to hear from you. I feel like there are a bunch of online critique groups, like codex and stuff, but I haven't kept up with them lately. If you are on twitter and want to ask for recs on there, just pls @ me and I will RT/signal boost.
@1 - Yes! Everybody gotta find their own way to be outrageous, rather than copying someone else's. :p
@1 -- thank you for reading!!! I'm so glad it's helpful.
@2 It's 100 percent true — I'm doing this because you asked me to, Jasmine!
@1 Tom, thank you for the kind words about AtBitS!!!
The writing process for that book was kind of chaotic --- this is a common motif in every writing project of mine, tbh. For All the Birds, I wrote a draft in longhand in notebooks, which was more or less sequential IIRC. I think I had a few times when I felt like writing "ahead," like I was still on the part where they were kids, but I wanted to write some stuff about them as adults just to get some ideas on the page. But for the most part, I think the notebooks were kinda sequential-ish. Then I painfully transcribed that stuff into a Word doc, revising as I went, and tried to fix continuity errors that had inevitably crept in. At some point, I started just writing tons and tons of extra slice-of-life stuff, because I felt like the book needed a *lot* of scenes of Patricia and Laurence just being friends and hanging out. So I deliberately wrote probably around 30,000 words of just fun scenes. The very last scene I wrote was the one where they are watching the parrots and debating ethics. I knew I needed another scene at that point in the book, because the next time we see P+L some major stuff goes down. And I wrote several different scenes that could go there, like one scene where P+L go to an environmentalist protest together, along with Isobel and Taylor. And a scene where they eat dinner, and a scene where Patricia needs Laurence's help solving a problem. I had to write a bunch of different scenes before I hit on the parrot scene, which ended up being my favorite scene in the entire book.
@2 - Thank you so much for this feedback! One reason I was so eager to post these essays on Tor.com before collecting them in book form is because I was hoping for some real-time responses to help me figure out how to make them more useful. I was already planning on having these chapters get more nuts-and-bolts as they go along, while still keeping the theme of "using creative writing to get thru scary times" but this gives me a good sense of what would be most useful. Thank you!
@5: "The best of SF shines a light on our experiences, attitudes and prejudices through the lens of the fantastic."
I could not have possibly put this better, and I'm so grateful that you think I'm upholding that tradition. Thanks for the kind words!
@2 Thanks so much!
@4: Susan, I'm kind of amazed that it wasn't just me. In my case, the phone actually didn't work, it was just a prop that wasn't connected to anything. And they wouldn't let me read a book while I was sitting there.... :/
@1 Wow I'm so glad to hear that --- both that the advice as useful, and that my book meant something to you in the midst of badness. Thank you! <3
@4: So glad to hear that!
Just wanted to say that I'll be lurking in comments on these essays and I'm excited to chat with anyone who wants to discuss them!