Thursday, June 27, 2013

World-Building in Collaborators – Designing a Gender-Fluid Race

I begin with an excerpt from my last post on Thinking About Gender:

In writing Collaborators, I wanted to create a resonance between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from differences in gender and gender expectations. It seemed to me that one of the most important things we notice about another human being is whether they are of “our” gender. What if the native race did not divide themselves into (primarily) two genders? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How would Terran-humans understand or misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover and life-mate? Not only that, but in a life-paired couple, each is equally likely to engender or gestate a child.

We humans tend to think about gender as binary, and the concepts of fluidity (changing from one to the other, not necessarily once but perhaps many times during a lifetime) or being both male and female (or neither) are fairly recent additions into conventional public discourse. Fluidity is not the same thing as being transgendered (which is where a person’s gender – their identity – and their sex – their biological/genetic category) are not the same. Both are different from sexual orientation, which has to do with attraction to another person. All too often, if a species that does not fit into the female/male division is portrayed in media, they’re shown as sexless, not only androgynous but lacking in sex drive.

I take exception to this. I see no reason why sexual activity should not be as important to an alien race as it is to human beings. We have sex for lots of reasons, reproduction being only one of them. It feels good – no, it feels great. It creates bonds between individuals, whether as part of lifelong commitments or otherwise. It’s physiologically good for health, both physical and mental. So for my alien race in Collaborators, I wanted sexuality to be important.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Collaborators – Thinking About Gender

As the concept for Collaborators took shape, I realized that one of the key issues was power: power that comes from advanced technology, power that comes from military superiority, power that comes from idealism, power that comes from love, and power that comes from political advantage. But also and especially, power that relates to gender. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to address the issues of power without talking about gender.

People – that is, we Terran-humans -- often confuse gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Sex identification arises from biology, and most of us are either male or female genetically and phenotypically. That is, we possess either XX or XY chromosomes, and our genitals conform to the norm. These are not the only possibilities (you can have XXX or XXY, for example) and problems arise from the societal demand that every person fit into one or the other category. This has nothing to do with “masculine” and “feminine,” which are cultural interpretations, or with who a given individual is sexually attracted to. The binary division of male and female, while appropriate for many people, does not work for everyone.

Gender, on the other hand, has to do with how you experience yourself, a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person. Gender has been described as "who you want to go to bed as, not who you want to go to bed with."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop needs your help!

As many of you know, I was privileged to attend Launch  Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2011. This extraordinary workshop, a college course in astronomy offered over the course of a week, was one of the most intense, exhilarating, and inspiring adventures in bringing excellent science to larger audiences through fiction. Now Launch Pad needs your help to make this experience available to more writers, editors, journalists, artists and more.

Launch Pad is an education/public outreach effort, aimed primarily at writers, filmmakers, and other creative professionals.

At its best, science fiction can inspire and teach a wide audience about our universe. At its worst, poorly written fiction can mislead the public. At Launch Pad, we aim to provide our attendees with a weeklong Astronomy 101-level course, including a visit and observations through the University of Wyoming's 2.3-meter telescope.

In previous years, funding for Launch Pad was made possible through grants from NASA and the NSF. Due to funding cutbacks, we are asking for your help to cover our costs and reduce the out of pocket expenses for our attendees.

Monday, June 17, 2013

World-building in Collaborators: Add Some Characters

The central inspiration for Collaborators – that individuals respond in a variety of complex and contradictory ways to a situation of occupation and resistance – immediately suggested many types of characters: the rebel, the idealist, the opportunist, the political player, the merchant willing to sell to anyone if the profit is high enough, sadist who exploits the powerlessness of others for his own gratification, the ambitious person who doesn’t care who his allies are, the negotiator, the peace-maker, the patriot.

These are all interesting roles, offering scope for compelling confrontations, but they are not in themselves characters. They’re slots into which characters might fit at any given time, as those characters progress along their own life story arcs. The temptation is to take such a slot, insert a character, and then have him behave in that way and only in that way throughout the story. This is the classic “spear-carrier,” whose only function is to come onstage, carry his spear (or throw it, or make a speech, or die in some plot-appropriate way), and then disappear. He might have a few warts or wrinkles or a bit of backstory, but only in service to his predetermined function.

Effective characters work in just the opposite way. They go about their lives in their idiosyncratic ways, with their own histories and families, dreams and neuroses. Interesting as these might be, they do not in themselves constitute a dramatic plot, only a series of linked episodes. Then something – whether it’s an internal event like a new goal or an external one like an invasion by a space-faring race – catapults the character into a dramatic course of action. The overall problem/crisis/goal informs and shapes the character’s choices, but at the same time the character – her personality, history, viewpoint, relationships – drives the action in a unique way.  So I needed to find out who some of these characters were, both alien and Terran, throw them into an escalating situation, and see what they did with it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

BOOK RELEASE: Azkhantian Tales

The Seven-Petaled Shield was inspired by four short stories that Marion Zimmer Bradley bought for Sword & Sorceress. Now they're together in one collection (with a gorgeous cover by Dave Smeds!) Here's the skinny:

Across the Azkhantian steppe, warrior women ride to battle against foes both human and supernatural. From the world of The Seven-Petaled Shield come four fantasy tales, originally published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress.

Prophecy links a mother and daughter in an unbreakable bond.

A young woman defies tradition to become a shaman.

When twins are magically divided, the survivor searches for the other half of her soul.

A warrior woman discovers that to wield a magical blade dishonorably carries a heavy price.

This collection includes a previously-unpublished Introduction and a sneak peek at The Seven-Petaled Shield.

Only $1.99 in DRM-free multi-format from Book View Cafe

Monday, June 10, 2013

World-building in Collaborators – “In A City Far, Far Away . . .”

Every story has a beginning, not just in the text itself but in the mind of the writer. Sometimes we begin with an image or a phrase that’s so evocative, so mysterious and compelling we just have to find out what it means. At other times, a character will pop up and demand that her story be told. Or we’ll look at something quite ordinary and wonder, “What if?” What if this were different or that happened at another time? What if the rules of physics worked in ways at odds with accepted reality? What if magic – or vampires, or angels, or superheroes --  shaped the world?

In this case, my story began with a place. A city. Not any city, one specific city. My family and I had an opportunity to live in France for about nine months.

We arrived in Lyon in January 1991, shortly after the beginning of the first Gulf War, and none of us knew quite what to expect. We were nervous, being Americans abroad at such a tense time. It was (by California standards) bitterly cold, the streets covered with ice and slush. I had a little high school French, very rusty, and I’d injured my back before we left, but I went out every day, getting the kids enrolled in school, finding out where to buy bread (the corner boulangerie, of course) and when Rhône Accueil, a sort of international welcome gathering, met. We had some pretty dreadful days when everyone was sick and not adapted to the cold or to the French way of doing things. But with patience and open minds, we settled in. My older daughter attended a private bilingual school, where she was something of an exotic celebrity, coming from California, and the younger one soon made herself at home at the école maternelle (and came home chattering in French). I wrote every day, working on the revision of Northlight.

Friday, June 7, 2013

ARCHIVES: Where Do You Write?

I've been pondering this question as I shift my writing location. I do this every winter. My primary spot is my office, a little cubbyhole on the north side of the house. In the summer, it's glorious, with a view of lilac bushes and a beautiful old California oak. There's even a kestrel house on a pole, although in all the years since my husband put it up, it has not attracted a resident. Shaded as it is, and far from a heater vent, it's chilly in the winter. We've looked at increasing the insulation of the window (double-paned glass) and the possibility of a small space heater. In the end, though, my usual solution is to follow the example of birds -- and migrate to a warmer clime.

Monday, June 3, 2013

My editor comments on COLLABORATORS

My alter ego, Deborah Wheeler, has just published a science-fiction novel, Collaborators, from Dragon Moon Press. In the weeks to come, I'll be blogging about world-building in this book. First, a word from our, editor. I've always thought it unfair that editors aren't supposed to review the books they've worked on (and I intend to defy that precept myself!)

In her blog, Gabrielle Harbowy writes: 

COLLABORATORS does something I’ve never seen in a first contact story. We’ve got plenty of first contact stories where humans (Terrans) do the outreach and the aliens have the dominant point of view. But I’d never seen a premise that thought so deeply about the alien culture and what sociopolitical chain reactions First Contact would set in motion.
....In COLLABORATORS, the Terrans choose an arbitrary landing spot, and have no idea that it sparks off an uneasy tension between two rival nations. The unchosen are immediately suspicious, asking questions like: Why did the aliens make first contact with them and not with us? Are they giving them advanced technology to use against us? Are our enemies going to bias the aliens against us?
.... Deborah gives us a lush world, compassionately populates it with real and complex beings, and shows her skill as a master craftswoman and storyteller.

Earlier, I wrote about "unsellable" stories. This was a book that was too good to give up on. It just had to wait for the right editor, the right opening, the right time.

Oh, and should Gabrielle's review pique your interest, you can find the book at Amazon and Goodreads and will be propagating to other online booksellers in the next few weeks.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Unsellable Stories?

Gabrielle Harbowy, who is both an editor and writer, knows about "unsellable" stories. As an editor, she's acquired and edited novels that had been rejected so many times, the authors were despondent (and some of these have gone on to receive great reviews and award nominations). She's also rejected stories that other editors have picked up.

My own experience of being both author and editor is that things look different "from the other side of the desk." Yes, making editorial decisions about someone else's work has given me insights into why my own editors do that they do, and especially Not To Take Things Personally.

Gabrielle says,
I should know that nothing’s really “unsellable.” I should know it because I see other authors sell pieces that they love but don’t expect the market to welcome. I should know it because I sometimes acquire them. I should know it because I see manuscripts I reject get picked up and lauded by other (and sometimes bigger!) publishers.

And yet, when it comes to my own work, where I’m the author and not the editor, it’s hard to keep that editor objectivity and ego separation from the work. Just like you can’t tickle yourself, you also can’t be objective about your own work. That’s been an interesting and challenging lesson to learn, but I know I’m a stronger writer for having learned it.
Sometimes stories don't sell because they really aren't good enough, because they have unsurmountable flaws. But sometimes they're wonderful stories that don't fit the market...or have not yet found the editor who will love them. As much as I applaud the proliferation of publishing options that includes self-publishing, I know all too well from my own experience that (most of the time) I cannot tell the difference.