Women in Science Fiction

My name is K. Ceres Wright and I’m a science fiction (SF) writer. I had the pleasure to attend Seton Hill University with Venessa Guinta, and she has asked me to write a blog post on women in SF, which I gratefully agreed to do. Although there are many women SF writers, I will focus on five in this post: Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, and C.J. Cherryh.

Octavia Butler

Ms. Butler was inspired to write SF after viewing a particularly bad movie called “Devil Girl From Mars.” She figured she could write something better than that, and promptly set about doing it. She was 12 at the time. And since then, she has won nine writing awards, one in 1995 for the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant.”

One of the best known African American SF writers, Ms. Butler cited the women’s movement as having a profound effect on her writing. One of her teachers, Joanna Russ, encouraged women SF writers to stop writing under their initials, male pseudonyms, or androgynous names. Ms. Butler said that women breaking into SF without pretending they were someone else was a new idea.

Ms. Butler’s works include the novels, Wild Seed, Parable of the Sower, and Kindred, as well as a collection of short fiction and essays, Bloodchild and Other Stories. Her work explored the concepts of race, power struggles, gender, religion, and social class.

When asked why she wrote SF, Ms. Butler said, “Because there are no closed doors, no walls. I mean the only rule is, if you use science, you should use it accurately. You can look at, examine, play with, anything. Absolutely anything.”

Sadly, Ms. Butler passed away in 2006. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010.

Ursula LeGuin

Ms. LeGuin, like Ms. Butler, began writing SF at an early age. She submitted her first short story at the age of 11 to Astounding Science Fiction. It was rejected. However, she has since written a number of both SF and fantasy books, including The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Lathe of Heaven. Her novels often feature people of color, which she notes as reflecting the non-White majority of human beings. Among Ms. LeGuin’s varied influences are J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, and the Tao Te Ching.

Her book, The Lathe of Heaven, has been twice adapted for film. When asked why the story developed a loyal following, LeGuin said, “It’s kind of like old fairy tales, where somebody is trying to do good and is always defeated by reality, because trying to do good just isn’t enough. You’ve also got to be realistic… Poor Haber in the book is a do-gooder who’s self-defeated. He isn’t defeated by anybody evil. He’s not evil. He means well all the way through the book, but he’s doing it wrong. And I think people are intrigued by that.”

Ms. LeGuin was not an early success. Having raised three children, she often wrote at night. It would be 10 years before she would sell any short stories or novels. She noted that editors often said, “You write very well, but you don’t know what you’re writing about.” Unperturbed, she would continue submitting stories. As a result, she has received numerous writing awards, including several Locus, Nebula, and Hugo wins. In 2000, the Library of Congress made LeGuin a Living Legend in the Writers and Artists category.

Lois McMaster Bujold

Like Ms. LeGuin, Ms. Bujold writes both SF and fantasy and has received numerous awards. Her novella, The Mountains of Mourning, and novel, Paladin of Souls, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. She had an early interest in SF, which she attributes to her father, an engineer who edited the Nondestructive Testing Handbook.

On her writing process, Ms. Bujold admits that it developed over time. When her children were young, she wrote during small blocks of time at the library in longhand, then would return home to type up her notes. Her system evolved as her children grew and she had larger blocks of time to write. Ms. Bujold would outline the first draft, but has since abandoned the tactic. She now works straight from scene outlines, which she transcribes onto the computer. She notes that with so much structural work completed, she does not have much revising to do.

When asked if she had any secrets to pass onto aspiring writers, she said, “There are no real secrets. It’s the same advice you get all the time. You learn to write by writing. So sit down and write, finish things. That’s how it’s done. Writing is the least regulated profession in the world. They’re not going to stop you. A good blog advice column is by Patricia C. Wrede. She does writing posts twice a week, short and very practical.” (http://pcwrede.com/blog/)

In 2011, Ms. Bujold was given the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction, known as the Skylark, which recognizes someone for lifetime contributions to science fiction.

Connie Willis

Ms. Willis is a giant in the field of SF, with her works having garnered 11 Hugo, 7 Nebula, and 4 Locus awards, among others. Several of her books have dealt with time travel, with recurring characters from a future University of Oxford visiting various periods in history (Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog). Her most recent book, Blackout/All Clear (a two-volume work) concerns World War II.

A history buff and meticulous researcher, Ms. Willis admits she is a slow writer, which she partially attributes to the sheer volume of research she conducts. She divides her research time into three categories: General, specific, and “something that will illuminate your book.”

For Blackout/All Clear, Ms. Willis came across a story of a British ambassador and his wife who visited Washington, DC, in hopes of gaining funding for the war. An American had asked the ambassador’s wife, “How is civilian morale in London these days?” To which the wife haughtily replied, “There are no civilians in London these days.” Ms. Willis used this concept as the driving force for her book.

Ms. Willis’ books deal with the impact of technology, coming to terms with grief and loss, gender roles, and human psychology. She was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Science Fiction Writers of America named her its 28th SFWA Grand Master in 2011.

C.J. Cherryh

When asked why she wrote SF, Ms. Cherryh replied, “As a child, I liked adventures, exploration, ‘what-ifs,’ and fairy tales. I liked sea stories and memorized all the parts of a clipper ship before I was eight. And this was in landlocked Oklahoma. Before I was nine, I wanted to see mountains taller than the Wichitas and I wanted to see an ocean. I wanted to see a narwhal. I wanted to ride camels and explore the desert. I halfway believed in lost worlds.”

When she finally became an SF writer, Ms. Carolyn Janice Cherry was encouraged to use her initials as her pen name by her first editor, and to add an extra “h” at the end to keep it from sounding like a romance author. Despite these restraints, Ms. Cherryh has published more than 60 books, some of which have received Hugo and Locus awards.
A student of Greek classics and teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek, Ms. Cherryh has incorporated her love of linguistics, history, archaeology, and psychology into her books. When writing her various universes, she addresses issues such as environment, diet, knowledge sharing, and death rituals in order to fully inform her alien worlds.
Says Ms. Cherryh, “Historians world build. You have to take information from the past and put it together in a way that makes sense. And if you’re a good historian, you try to keep yourself out of it as much as possible and not try to make “back then” an analog for “right now,” because that’s how you end up slanting history. … When I work, I borrow a little from this, a little from that, but I try to make them legitimately connected.”

In 2001, Ms. Cherryh had an asteroid named after her and in 2005, received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Each of these women came from different backgrounds and disciplines, but each is an accomplished writer in the field of SF. I believe this fact reflects the diversity that SF celebrates, whether it be plot, style, or subgenre. And it is diversity that allows SF to incorporate technological and societal changes and craft stories that just may change the future.

Afrocentric Science Fiction and Comic Book Conventions

Black Age of Comics Convention

An artist, entrepreneur, author, art therapist, educator, and publisher, Turtel Onli founded the Black Arts Guild (BAG) in 1970, which was based in Chicago. The BAG sponsored art exhibitions and published works by its members. Onli is also known as the father of the Black Age of Comics, a movement that formed from the development and promotion of comic books and graphic novels depicting Black characters, themes, and concepts. Even though Onli didn’t develop the Black Age of Comics until 1993, he says, “So BAG morphed into a movement that I’ve called The Black Age of Comics, and we now have four Black Age conventions—One in Detroit, one in Philadelphia, one in Atlanta, and the one I give in Chicago is the oldest. And so that’s focusing a lot of these same concepts, on the comic book, graphic novels.”

The Black Age of Comics is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Visit their website: http://www.blackageofcomics.com/default.html

East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention

Borne out of the Black Age of Comics movement, the ECBACC was founded in 2002 by Yumy Odom, an educator and scientist affiliated with Temple University. The event takes place on a May weekend in Philadelphia, PA. It offers the ECBACC Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award and the Glyph Comics Award.

Says Akinseye Brown, VP and Event Coordinator, “The foundation was about community building, networking among writers and artists interested in creating comic books. But also, the founding mission is youth literacy.”
This year’s con featured the second annual Africozplay contest and a screening of the documentary film, White Scripts and Black Supermen.

Visit their website: http://www.ecbacc.com

Midwest Ethnic Convention for Comics and Arts (MECCACon)

Maia Crown Williams founded MECCACon in 2013 because she thought that the Midwest, and Detroit in particular, needed a venue for the representation of Black art, comics, film, and other media. She noted that women, as well, needed positive representation in the comic world, where they are often over-sexualized or ignored. MECCACon has been going strong for 4 years and counting.

Visit their website: https://meccacon.wordpress.com/

Onyxcon

Onyxcon promotes, showcases, educates, and entertains all fans of media related to the sequential arts with a focus on African diaspora cultural concepts. It holds its main event every August, usually at the Southwest Arts Center. Onyxcon also hosts a February event in honor of Black History Month and Black Comic Book Day, when feasible.
Joseph Wheeler, III, artist and founder of Onyxcon, says, “I focus on being evolutionary. I focus on work that grows outside of the spectrum, and it’s all about adding something new to what already is.”

Prior conventions featured guests such as Damion Poiter, actor; Tananarive Due, author; Steven Barnes, author; Sheree Renee Thomas, author; and Chris Miller, illustrator.

Visit their website: http://www.onyxcon.com/

Alien Encounters

Sponsored by the Atlanta-based State of Black Science Fiction collective and the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, Alien Encounters is an annual conference for Black speculative and imaginative fiction, and offers informational and interactive discussions, film screenings, book signings, and much more that are all free and open to the public. This is the fourth year for the conference, which began in 2010.
Sharon E. Robinson, the original event organizer, explains the origins of Alien Encounters:

“About four years ago, I went to the Decatur Book Festival, and found authors of color who wrote in these genres [science fiction, fantasy, horror]. We got together, talked, had several meetings, and finally came up with the idea of putting together this program… There are a lot of writers, in the Atlanta area and across the country, who write in these genres, and we hope to increase readers’ knowledge base about them and their works,” she explains. “Our ultimate goal is to broaden visitors’ literary knowledge and understanding about these particular genres.”

Visit their website: http://chroniclesofharriet.com/tag/alien-encounters/

Sword and Soul

You may have heard of Sword and Sorcery, but have you heard of Sword and Soul? Sword and Soul is “heroic fiction and epic fantasy based on African traditions, cultures, and history,” as described by Milton Davis, an author in the field.

As the call for diversity in speculative fiction finds authors willing to champion the stories of African myths, legends, and lore, the genre of Sword and Soul will expand, sweeping up the experiences of the diaspora. People of color will be able to see themselves in fantastical stories that reflect their culture, not consigned only to those stories whose landscapes resemble The Lord of the Rings.

I caught up with four Sword and Soul authors (Carole McDonnell, Charles Saunders, Valjeanne Jeffers, and Milton Davis) and asked their opinion on the matter.

What is Sword and Soul to you?

McDonnell: Sword and Soul is about theme and culture. On the one hand, it’s a celebration of African culture. Africa had a glorious history, as mystical and magical a culture as Europe with their Euro-royalty, Euro-faes and monsters, and Euro-wars. So why shouldn’t there be Black shape-shifters, African warriors, Sub-saharan spritualities and culture in fantasy? Sword and Soul such as Charles Saunder’s Imaro, Milton Davis’ Amber, and my own Wind Follower address all that. But for me also, Sword and Soul is not necessarily rooted in Africa, but in an African-American present, in the here and now of my life. It’s a truer, more American alternative to current fantasy and it addresses themes that are important to African-Americans. As a Black American, one can’t help but have story themes such as injustice, prejudice, oppression. African-American writers of Sword and Soul are African-Americans, not Africans. And one cannot help but be affected by the larger culture. So my short stories about contemporary times—although there are often no swords present—do carry the themes of Sword and Soul.

Saunders: Since I don’t have any actual children, I would have to say that Sword and Soul is my “brainchild.”
Jeffers: Sword and Soul is a genre created by the illustrious Charles Saunders, an author who is considered by many (myself included) to be a legend in his own time. His Imaro series is a groundbreaking collection of novels. Sword and Soul sprang from his genius, and is a synergy of African history (real or fictitious) and mythology. For me, the growth of Sword and Soul is part and parcel of the proliferation of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy literature, actually of SF/Fantasy written by folks of color, which has swept across America during the last decade. This is a movement. Indeed, it is a Renaissance.

Davis: Sword and Soul to me is heroic fiction/sword and sorcery/epic fiction based on African culture, traditions, and mythology.

What is your process for developing plots and characters?

McDonnell: I generally don’t develop characters. The characters turn up as they are. I just try to see clearly. I write and depict what I hear them say and what I see them do. I don’t sit at my computer and say, “This character should be like this, should do such and such, should have such traits or such flaws, should fall in love with this person, etc.” The plot is something the characters do and I try to observe them carefully and record what they say. Stories already exist in the cosmic ether, basically, and my purpose is to bring the stories down and onto the page exactly as the universe presented them. I have to hear carefully, so writing a story is all about discovering what already exists.

My only personal choices, as a writer, come after the first drafts. For instance, I often write a scene because I see clearly that this scene happens. But in subsequent drafts, it becomes clear that the scene is in the wrong place, so I move it. Or I see a death scene and I write it for a specific character, only to realize that the same death scene occurs, but with different characters.

The good thing about editing over a long period of time is that one can play plot-clean-up more efficiently.
Other choices come in the proofing sessions. If a character is lame, I have to make sure I don’t have him lame in one leg in one chapter, then lame in the other leg in other chapters. And that he has the same eye color, clothing style, speech habits, or personal tics throughout. If I see inconsistency or if I realize the characters are showing me their own symbolism, then I clean it up and tighten.

Saunders: My watchword is “Let it flow.” I start with a basic idea, and then see where it takes me, and who goes with it. Sometimes the final story is nothing like what I thought it would be when I started.

Jeffers: I’ll use my Sword and Soul stories as examples, since my technique in writing all of my stories and novels (except for research) is essentially the same. A character emerges in my mind and I develop a plot sketch in my mind, which eventually coalesces around the character. In Awakening and The Sickness, this character is Nandi, a young West African woman. Nandi is a Zulu name that means strong-willed; it is also the name of Chaka Zulu’s mother. Nandi’s tribe, the part of the continent where she lives, the food she eats…are all West African. In Sword and Soul, whether your tribe is real or fictitious, it must be authentically African.

Davis: It varies. Most of my plot lines come from things I’ve read in history. Many of them I honestly couldn’t tell you how they developed. As far as characters are concerned, for me, they are usually secondary to the story. The story comes first, then the characters are created to support the story. Sometimes I’ll come across an image of a person that inspires a story, but still it’s all about the story to me.

Where do you hope Sword and Soul will go in the future?

McDonnell: For me, sword and soul is reality. It’s multicultural and has multicultural concerns. There really is no reason why a speculative fiction story written by anyone in the contemporary western world should have only one race. Some Sword and Soul stories look back to Africa or ahead to Afro-futurism. But as an American who lives in a world with other ethnic groups, I hope Sword and Soul will show how pitiful and bereft typical white spec-fic can be. Really, we live in the USA. There is no excuse for having stories like Game of Thrones where black characters are ghettoized. I want Sword and Soul to so reflect the real ethnic make-up of the world that from now on, it would seem utterly strange to have thoughtless homogeneous fantasies. I’m not against homogeneous fantasies. Just bothered by the ones where characters of the non-majority race are placed like tokens in stories.

Saunders: I want it to reach for the sky, and beyond. I want to see more people both writing and reading it. I want to see it go in directions I’ve never dreamed of.

Jeffers: I see Sword and Soul as continuing to grow and gain respect. Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology (edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders) has been very well received. Griots II: Sisters of The Spear (also edited by Charles Saunders and Milton Davis) has been eagerly anticipated and is scheduled for release in December 2013. I’m very honored to have stories published in both: “Awakening” (Griots) and “The Sickness” (Griots II). This is a genre that attracts, and I believe will always attract, a lot of talented, imaginative writers. Some of the Sword and Soul novels I’ve enjoyed include the Imaro series, Meiji (Milton Davis) and Once Upon A Time In Afrika (Balogun Ojatade), which I also had the pleasure of editing.

Davis: I see it growing significantly. Over the past three years, I’ve seen my book sales double every year. I think there is a core audience that has a real affinity to Sword and Soul. That audience includes people of African descent who have been starving for books and stories that show them in a positive light. I think we’re just scratching the surface where that audience is concerned. That core audience is why Sword and Soul will survive. There is also a significant audience beyond the core group that is happy to see Sword and Sorcery from a different cultural perspective. Then there’s the fact that Sword and Soul is just plain old good writing, and good writing transcends all barriers.

To read more about these writers, visit their website. To help ensure Sword and Soul continues to grow, please purchase their works and post a review on Amazon. This holiday season, that’s the best gift you can give a writer.

Carole McDonnell: Website. Her books include The Constant Tower, Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction e-book; Spirit Fruit Book, and Wind Follower.

Charles Saunders: Website. His books include Abengoni: First Calling, the Imaro series, Damballa, and Dossouye.

Valjeanne Jeffers: Website. Her books include Immortal (five-novel series; and The Switch II: Clockwork(includes novels I and II.

Self Editing for Writers: Five Steps

Self-Editing for Writers: Five Steps

It is often said that writing is rewriting. Unless you’re quite the accomplished writer, your first draft will likely be filled with typos, plot holes, crutch words, and unmotivated characters. Polishing a rough draft down to a finished product takes hard work, focus, and a willingness to sacrifice your darlings. I offer these tips to help with your self-editing (or rewriting) to produce tight, elegant prose.

1. Distance yourself from your writing

Put your work aside for a few hours or even a few days. Don’t try to edit your own writing as soon as you’re done. It’s too fresh in your mind and you will read what you think you wrote and not what you really wrote. Your brain will skip over even the most obvious errors. As Mark Twain once wrote, “…you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.”

2. Print out your manuscript

Reading a hard copy of your work will allow you to experience it as a reader might. You’ll review it in a different frame of mind, and will most likely be able to pick up on errors you wouldn’t be able to by reading it on the screen.

Another tip to help edit your manuscript is to read it aloud, which will make it easier to detect missing words and discover the cadence of your writing.

2. First pass: Read like a reader, not like an editor

The first time you go through a piece, read it as a reader. Ignore small mistakes and read for comprehension . . . The Big Picture. Once you’re done, assess what you’ve read. Is the protagonist likeable and the villain sympathetic? Did the plot and subplots make sense and tie together? Are there any loose ends that need to be tied up? Have you properly foreshadowed upcoming events to prepare the reader? Have you made the reading experience visceral by including descriptions of smells, sounds, and texture? If you can answer these questions satisfactorily, then move to the next step.

3. Second pass: Copyedit and check for filtering

The devil’s in the details, as they say. Read your manuscript carefully, sentence by sentence, to correct typos, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you’re grammar challenged, don’t be afraid to consult a manual. I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style and The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein.

Then check to make sure you’ve eliminated filtering. Filter words separate the reader from the character’s point of view and put a barrier between the character and the action.

Example:
Nicholle noticed an elderly couple as she skirted past them and decided to take the steps up to Washington District hospital. She realized she reached the top when she saw the magfield, and butted her way past startled patients. She decided to tap open a directory, which seemed to unfold before her.

Revised:
Nicholle skirted past an elderly couple and bounded up the green marble steps of Washington District hospital. She reached the top, ran through the magfield, and butted her way past startled patients. She tapped open a directory, which unfolded before her in a holographic display of green and black.

Does the revised passage feel more “in the moment”? Comb through your writing and eliminate filter words. Here is a list of common ones:

• to see
• to hear
• to think
• to wonder
• to seem
• to decide
• to know
• to feel
• to notice
• to realize
• to watch

4. Third pass: Crutch words

We all have words that we use too many times, words we fall back on when we’re in the draft phase. It’s okay to use them then, to help keep the creative juices going. But be sure to delete as many as you can in the editing phase. My crutch words were “suddenly,” a catch-all to describe things that happened quickly, and the form of “to be.” I knew I could write more creative narrative, so for each instance, I rewrote the sentence. Here’s a list of common crutch words. Which one is your go-to word?

• a lot
• is/was/were
• very
• actually
• really
• so
• anyway
• could/should/would
• almost

5. Last pass: Read it as corrected

Finally, read the document with all changes made and check for additional errors. Make note of your weaknesses and develop a checklist for you to use in the future.

And that’s it. Of course, it usually takes years of writing practice just to create a workable first draft. For example, character motivation has its own set of rules that have to be learned and practiced. But that’s another article.

Happy writing!

Stuck for a Story Idea? Go Old School. As in Old Testament.

Face it. We writers get in a slump sometimes and find it hard to come up with a story idea. And when people ask what we’re working on, we’ll say, “It’s just the beginnings of an idea,” or “It’s not fully formed yet.”

Welcome to the club.

But fear not. Help comes to us in the form of stories told over the past few thousand years. Stories that will surprise you. And with some skill, stories that you can adapt to your own nascent thoughts and craft into a real plotline. You don’t have to be a believer to use these stories. Just a writer. Summarized below are a story from Genesis in the Old Testament and one deuterocanonical story from the Book of Judith, along with some tips on adapting them to your work in progress.

Tamar the Widow:


Original Story—Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, who was the progenitor of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Judah had three sons, and married his eldest, Er, to a woman named Tamar. According to the Bible, Er was wicked, and God struck him down, childless. Hebrew Law required that a man marry the childless widow of his brother to produce a child who would carry the deceased brother’s name. And so, Judah married Tamar to his second son, Onan. However, Onan refused to impregnate Tamar, and he was struck down, as well. Judah told Tamar to wait until his third son, Shelah, was of age, and he would marry her off to him. But when Shelah was old enough, Judah did not give him Tamar in marriage. So Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands. She laid aside her widow’s clothes, put on her best finery, and sat in the open on the way to the city where Judah was going to shear his sheep. Thinking her a prostitute, he went in to lay with her. In return for her ‘services,’ Tamar demanded Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff. He obliged.

When Judah left, Tamar went back home and put on her widow’s clothes again. Three months later, she was called out for “playing the harlot” and was scheduled to be burned. She, however, brought out Judah’s belongings and said the father of her child was the owner of the signet, bracelets, and staff. Judah admitted that “she had been more righteous than I” for following the Law. She was free to go, and eventually gave birth to twins.

How You Can Adapt It:

There are numerous characters to play off of in this story. Your protagonist can start off as a disenfranchised character, subject to the manipulations of those who are more powerful. However, when the protag finally figures out that those in power are only going to do what’s in their best interest, your protag can take action. Such actions should not be able to be interpreted as vengeance, but as “making things right,” or as adhering to a certain code of conduct you have established in your universe.

The villains in your story can take on a minor role, as Er and Onan, or a larger role as the main antagonist, such as Judah, or even, one might argue, Hebrew Law and patriarchal attitudes. You protag may have to fight both the antagonist and the “system,” or whatever rule of government you establish that hinders your protag from accomplishing her goal. Rules may not hinder her, per se, but the way your villains manipulate the rules can. In this case, your protag has to use her wits and unfailing knowledge of the rules in order to beat the antags at their own game.

Judith:

Original Story—King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general, Holofernes, to fight Israel, and all the people of Israel in the city of Bethulia were afraid, distressed at seeing the great number of the Assyrian army, and at the drying up of the cisterns, leaving them without water. The city’s leaders had declared that they would hand over the city after five days if the Lord did not deliver them. This proclamation reached the ears of Judith, who is described as a wise widow, who was also beautiful. She told the leaders that she would deliver the city and they should not tempt God by placing a time limit on Him. The leaders acknowledged her wisdom and told her to go in peace with God to deliver the city.

Judith puts on her finery and goes to Holofernes’ camp, along with her maid. There, she tells the Assyrians that she is fleeing the city because they will eventually surrender and that she knows of a secret passage that they can use to attack the city. Happy at this news, they bring her to Holofernes, who is taken with her beauty and eloquence of speech. He tells her she is safe in the camp and will not be harmed. She agrees to stay, but asks that she be given permission to go into the valley at night to pray. He acquiesces and she stays in the camp for three days.

On the fourth night, Holofernes throws a banquet and Judith attends. She feasts in his presence, and he is driven to drink more wine than usual. When the party finally ends, Holofernes lies passed out in his tent. Judith takes a sword and chops off his head. She gives it to her maid, who places it in a basket, and the two walk out of the camp to pray, as they had done on the previous nights. But instead of going to the valley, they return to Bethulia and tell the men to place Holofernes’ head on the wall and take up arms to fight the Assyrians. Once morning comes and the Assyrians are in disarray at knowing their general is dead, the Israelites win.

How You Can Adapt It:

Your protag can be someone who is minding her own business, doing what she loves in her own little protag world, when the antag suddenly breaks in upon her universe and forces her to react. The antag can be a person(s) with her own agenda, or agent(s) of a system that is opposed to the protag. In either case, they force the protag to take action in order to help preserve or maintain her current way of life. In other words, she has to deal with the issues at hand before she can continue to do what she loves, be it racing cars, writing novels, sculpting statues, or running a corporation. I use this scenario in my book, Cog. My protag, Nicholle, is a curator at a holographic art museum who is recreating the Prado in a disadvantaged section of the city. She loves exposing the public to fine art. Her father and brother, however, work at the family wireless hologram provider company and have a falling out. She is dragged into the situation, but then has to leave town to save her life. If she wants to quit living on the run and regain her former way of life, she knows she is going to have to deal with the mess her family wrought.

The villain(s) can be part of a large group, as Holofernes’ army, or a single individual with the power and arrogance of Holofernes himself. However, as with the Israelites, you can use one person, armed only with cunning, to take down an entire army or powerful group of persons. But make sure your characters’ actions easily arise from their backstory. Don’t write them acting in a manner that would seem false to the reader.

If you really want a character to react in a way that would seem alien, then trap her in an impossible situation with only one way out. Bonus points if you can craft the action to result in a good outcome for the society at large, which will not only help to soften the blow for your protag, but will also give her hours of soul-searching, angst-filled guilt in the sequel.

These are only two stories from the Bible, which contains a vast array of protagonists and villains; tales of war, sexual conquests, and romantic love; as well as tales of sacrificial love and acts of bravery. So the next time you’re stuck for a plot, just crack open the Old Testament and bring its contents forward a few thousand years. Who’ll be in your story?

 

Create Your Own Archetypes

Having trouble coming up with characters, or even plots, for your next book? Try an archetype. What is an archetype, you ask? It’s a pattern or model of an idea or image, or a recurring symbol in literature or art. In literature, for example, there is the hero/heroine, trickster, or mentor. But in this media-laden existence that is American pop culture, it may be easier to categorize your favorite book, TV, movie, or comic book characters. Oh, and don’t forget real persons. Remember reality? Start a book by picking a few of these archetypes, discover their motivations (plot driver) and add the details along the way.

Brilliant Doctor/Lawyer with Flaws:

Dr. Susan Calvin of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series books is a gifted robot psychologist who is physically plain and socially challenged. She feels more comfortable among robots than people and has a tendency to isolate herself in her lab, yet susses out the most baffling cases of robot behavior.

Dr. Gregory House of the TV show, House, experiences constant leg pain for which he overdoses on Vicodine. He continually manipulates his employees and friends to prove his worldviews while solving medical mysteries.

Attorney Keegan Deane of the TV show, Rake, is a criminal defense lawyer that expertly handles the most challenging cases while battling his own sex and gambling addictions.

 Not Too Smart, but Instinctual

Cat of the TV show, Red Dwarf, is a humanoid evolved from a cat over the course of 3 million years. He is superficial, interested mainly in his hair and clothing, but can smell danger from miles away.

Leela of the TV show, Dr. Who, is a “primitive” warrior descended from a planetary survey team from Earth who becomes the Doctor’s companion. She wears animal skins and carries weapons, and has a highly evolved sense of danger.

Melody Valentine of the comic book/TV show/movie, Josie and the Pussycats, is portrayed as the “ditsy blonde,” but has a sharp instinct for figuring out people and their real agendas.

 Collector of Broken People/Things

Olivia Pope of the TV show, Scandal, employs a team of “gladiators,” all of whom she rescued from dire circumstances and who help her to “fix” the mistakes their clients make. It takes a while for her to realize how broken she is, as well.

Michael Stone of the TV show, Hustle (UK), leads a team of con men, or grifters, who seek to steal money from the arrogant and dishonest. They hold to the honor code of not cheating the honest, but have no qualms about stiffing their favorite bar owner.

The Island of Misfit Toys proves that the collector doesn’t have to be a person. In the TV movie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, all the unwanted toys are gathered on the Island until the King can find a home for them. When Santa comes to rescue them, they realize that one doesn’t have to be “normal” to be accepted.

 The Displaced

Ichabod Crane of the TV show, Sleepy Hollow, has been sleeping for more than 200 years and awakens in modern-day New York. He must use his knowledge of the past to help defeat an enemy who threatens the future.

John Blackthorne of the book, Shogun, is an English pilot who lands in feudal Japan (1600s). Japan’s customs are alien to him, and he must use his wits to learn Japanese language, customs, and etiquette without getting himself and his men killed.

Marty McFly of the movie, Back to the Future, is accidentally sent back in time to the 1950s, meets his future parents, but becomes the focus of his mother’s romantic interest. He must manipulate circumstances to get his parents to fall in love and make it back to the 80s.

Reluctant Leaders

Storm of the comic book/movie, X-Men, served as a team member for years before being promoted to team leader after Cyclops left when Jean Grey died. Storm is hesitant about assuming leadership, but soon proves herself many times over as a capable leader.

Aragorn of the book/movie, The Lord of the Rings (trilogy), is heir to the kingdom of Arnor/Gondor and whose identity is hidden after his father was killed by orcs. After he comes of age, he purposefully does not seek to assume the title of king, as it would divide the land, which needs to unite in order to defeat Sauron.

Albert Windsor of England becomes King George VI after his brother, Edward, abdicates in order to marry a divorcee, Wallis Simpson. King George sobs at the prospect of becoming king, but manages to increase the popularity of the monarchy during troubled times.

Do you see a pattern or common threads among the characters within the above categories? You can begin with simplified personality traits, or your own archetypes, as you write, and then flesh them out once you discover their own hidden agendas, motivations, quirks, and flaws. Use their inner desires to drive the plot, and antagonists’ counter-desires to provide roadblocks. Before you know it, you’ll be hurtling toward finishing your book…and wondering what other capers these characters can get up to.

Diversity in Fantasy

Change is the nature of our society. Nothing stays the same. New combinations of things under the sun are broken down and reformed every day, only to be remade the next day.

In genre fiction, more stories featuring diverse characters and cultural elements are finding their way into the mainstream. Old and worn are the traditional European-based sword and sorcery tales. Diverse readers crave to see characters that reflect their appearance, mores, and culture.

As far as fantasy is concerned, change is coming in YA fantasy, because I think younger people are more willing to entertain change. They’re growing up in a more diverse culture and open to seeing that diversity reflected in their media.

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A major problem is that years ago, children were not usually taught history from the person of color’s point of view. I was grown before I knew about Alessandro de’Medici, the Duke of Florence; Saint Maurice of Switzerland; or Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. By the time yesteryear’s kids grew up, they believed they knew exactly what shaped Western culture, and when they found out that yes, Blacks and Asians and women and others besides white males also played prominent roles in history, it upset their world view. And people are loathe to change. They don’t like it.

I think that diverse books will allow readers with different abilities, backgrounds, and cultures, to see themselves reflected in the books they read. And diverse authors may encourage readers to aspire to become writers of diverse books themselves. I know some writers may be hesitant to write about other cultures for fear of offending someone, but if they intend to become serious writers, they will have to learn how to research other cultures and incorporate that knowledge, in some way, into their writing. For example, don’t assume that the same standards of beauty cut across all cultures. I have a cousin who’s 6’3” and model thin, and felt she was discriminated against in the Bahamas because she was not overweight. I watched a documentary of an African man who wanted his wife to weigh 200 pounds for their wedding, so she sat in a hut and drank goat’s milk for weeks.

The incorporation of research makes for richer prose. If you’re worried about offending someone of a particular group, get on the Internet and ask someone to read some of your work and offer advice. Read the works of other writers of color, or women, or those who are differently abled to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Also, read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

I know it’s all about money in the world of publishing. But a recent Pew study showed that the most likely reader was a college-educated Black woman. I think there needs to be a paradigm shift across the industry, from the CEO, to the acquisitions editor, to the copy editor, to the book store owner. New audiences may require new marketing methods, but as I said before, change is the nature of our society.

One way to help bring about positive change surrounding diversity in fantasy is for editors of anthologies and magazines to solicit stories from diverse authors to let readers know about the existence of writers from different cultures and backgrounds. I think the traditional publishers aren’t taking risks as they would during flush economic times, so people looking for something different are starting to turn to small, independent, and self-publishers.

And if you want some recommendations, try Abengoni: First Calling, by Charles Saunders, who has been writing diverse fantasy since the seventies. There’s also The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell, Changa’s Safari by Milton Davis, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers, Taurus Moon: Magic and Mayhem by D. K. Gaston, Ghosts of Koa by Colby R. Rice, Sacrifices by Alan D. Jones, the Scythe by Balogun Ojetade, Sineaters by Kai Leakes, the Seedbearing Prince by Davaun Sanders, and The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan by Zig Zag Claybourne.

Publishers need encouragement to develop and distribute diverse books. If you find a diverse book you like, call or write the publisher and let them know you appreciate their efforts, and tell them you’ll purchase more books like that.

And even though more diverse characters and cultural aspects may populate speculative fiction books, the important elements of keeping the reader engaged and delivering on expectations will remain constant. As Barbara Deming once said, “The longer we listen to one another—with real attention—the more commonality we will find in all our lives.”

 

Diverse Writers & Artists Of Speculative FIction

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