Interview with Contest Judge C.C. Finlay

How can a beginner learn from writing for a contest and from writing short stories?

Contests for beginning writers can be a good way to gauge where you are in your development. When you submit a story to a magazine, you're competing for attention with other beginning writers, but you're also going up against writers with ten, twenty, thirty years of experience. You're in the same pool with writers who've never sold a story and writers who've won multiple awards.

It's important for beginning writers to do that, to get work out there with the big name authors and try to shine. Every writer goes through that, and all of the magazine editors I know are looking for new voices and perspectives. During the five years that I've been editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, we've published a debut story by a first-time author, on average, in every issue. Even our "all-star" issues, like the 70th Anniversary edition out this month, usually include a first pro sale. Almost always, those writers have been working and submitting work for years before that first sale.

Contests are a good way to stay engaged on that journey toward professional status. In addition to the validation you get from winning, or the important things you can learn by getting a professional critique, there's also the chance to pick up critical skills. When the winning story is announced, it's something you can look at and say, "Okay, this was written by someone at the exact same spot in their career as I am—what skills do I need to work on to bring my stories up to the same level?"

What do you look for in a short story?

I never know if I'm going to like a story until I read it, so that's a hard question to answer. I like to be surprised by fiction, whether it's by the quality of the prose, the voice and perspective, the ideas, the character insights, the narrative arcs, or the plot turns. Or, even better, some combination of all of those things.

Structure is also very important to me. But not structure as in, "Here's a formula, now you have to follow it." Every story has to find its own specific structure. But more generally, for me, all stories need a beginning that grabs me and pulls me in. First paragraph. First sentence is even better. Something specific and unique to this particular story and character is almost always going to feel more fresh to me than some common situation or trope. Sometimes small, relatable stakes are more effective at grabbing readers—and me; I'm a reader first—than big life-threatening stakes, especially if we don't know the characters and don't care if they live or die. After I'm grabbed, the narrative needs to sustain momentum—every scene or section needs some kind of in-the-moment stakes, something to keep us engaged and to move the story forward, and the pacing needs to keep us reading from one paragraph to the next. Finally, I expect the ending to be satisfying. The biggest piece of the impact of a story is the ending, because it's the culmination of everything before it and the last thing the reader sees of a story. Something specific and unique to this story and character is almost always more effective as an ending than something familiar.

Beginnings and endings are the places I see most writers resort to cliches and familiar tropes. Too many new writers try to game editors by giving us exactly what they've seen be successful in another story by a different writer. "Oh, Charlie bought a story with this kind of beginning—I'm going to do the exact same thing." I bought that story because I thought it was unique and reflected that specific writer. The best way to simultaneously stand out as a writer and also connect with readers, is to find your own unique stories. The things that only you could write about in that particular way.

What are common pitfalls that new writers can experience when submitting for the first time?

This goes back to the last question. A lot of new writers submit stories too soon, before the stories are ready to leave the outbox. I also see a lot of new writers telling very familiar plots or using very familiar tropes in familiar ways; they're not finding the new thing they have to offer to the long, ongoing conversation that is genre fiction.

But those are only pitfalls in as much as they're part of the learning curve for new writers. If you're finishing stories, submitting them to editors, and working to improve your craft and hone your skills, then you're on the right track. Not finishing stories, not sending them out into the world, not trying to improve your craft or get better—those are the real pitfalls.

Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite short stories of all time?

Different stories and writers resonate for me at different times in my life, and I read old stories over to new effect, simply because I'm always changing, always responding to what's happening in the moment, and being present and aware while I read fiction opens me to seeing different things. On the whole, I think that's positive and one of the traits that makes me a good editor.

That said, The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes is a story collection that I read when I was young, just starting to write seriously, and it's one I go back to reread every few years. "Cora, Unashamed," one of the stories in that collection, is the epitome for me of everything that Hughes does well: the depiction of character and circumstance, the grinding build of tension, the satisfying release at the end. If that story doesn't make you feel, I'd worry that you've closed off your heart. If it doesn't make you think, I'd worry that you've turned off your brain. It's also such a clear and vivid picture of a specific time and place. When he wrote it, no one else besides Hughes was trying to write about those particular people or tell that particular story. For me, it's pretty close to perfect.

Within genre, I couldn't name any living writers without inadvertently leaving others out, and as an editor I don't particularly want to alienate anyone I might want to buy stories from in the future! If I'm understanding the purpose of this question, living authors are most relevant here if new writers want to get a sense of the authors and stories that I love. The best way to do that is to look at issues of F&SF from the past two years or so. I've been really excited about the work we've been publishing lately, which I think are the best issues of my turn at the helm so far, and especially excited about some of the young, new writers who have been appearing in our pages with multiple stories.

Why do you think a contest like this is important in terms of supporting the growth and community of beginning writers?

Becoming a writer is frequently a long and often a disheartening apprenticeship, involving persistent hard work and so much delayed gratification. For beginning writers, this is a chance to take stock, to shine, to get some immediate gratification. From an editor's point-of-view—and, I suspect, an agent's, but you'll have to ask Lisa—it's really important to encourage new writers and help them develop. As the world changes rapidly around us, perhaps more so now than any other time in recent history, we need new voices, new perspectives, and new stories to join the existing voices, perspectives, and stories. New writers are essential to the community of readers, and they'll be the people who'll tell the essential stories in the decades ahead. A contest like this one, that helps beginning writers move toward becoming professional writers, has the chance to be an important part of the process that helps those writers develop, gain recognition, and have success.


I’ve Got A Question For You: Considering Portrayals Of LGBTQ People In Fiction

It’s common for queer authors like myself (really any authors who aren’t straight, white and male) to address the need for positive representations of characters who share their identities. I write science fiction and fantasy so it’s par for the course that I should address those genres. Ideally, I’d point out that science-fiction and fantasy are realms of possibility and imagination, that no other sector of fiction is more suited to representing the beauty and diversity of human identities and lives. And of course I would remind you that representation is incredibly important for all marginalized people.

And it is incredibly important.

Because when there are so few representations of queer identities, every single depiction of a queer character makes up a huge percentage of the way in which we are seen and how we see ourselves. Every portrayal of an LGBTQ+ person holds the potential to humanize or demonize us. A single trans dragon-rider, a gay magician, a bisexual starship commander, a lesbian demon-hunter or a gender-fluid druid can become the catalyst for the letters LGBTQ+ to come alive as real people with strengths and weaknesses.

The impact of that humanizing effect—or its absence—reaches far beyond the realms of fantasy and science-fiction, because in the real here-and–now LGBTQ+ people are still struggling against discrimination. We face hatred from entire political parties and religious groups; our rights, our relationships and our very identities are regularly attacked and misrepresented in the most distorted forms imaginable. Over a thousand LGBTQ+ people will be victims of hate-crimes in the US every year.

There are still nations in which homosexuality is punishable by death. (Just having to write that sentence is heartbreaking and I wish so much that I was talking about works of fiction.)

Dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people plays a huge roll in making abuse and oppression seem acceptable. It’s easy to condemn us when you only think of us as monsters and abominations. But seeing our humanity can change that; it may be easy to kill a ‘monster’ but it’s monstrous to murder another human being.

Yes, it is incredibly important that we be allowed to tell our stories and share our strength, love and humanity. Positive representation is crucial, not just in genre fiction but everywhere. And, honestly I think that we all know as much.

So, I’d like to take a moment and ponder the matter from the other side. Because the current framing of this question places all burden upon marginalized readers, writers, and our allies to justify our work, our voices and even our right to exist. But what if we considered this question instead: What is the need for hateful representation? (Because that’s what we’re actually fighting against when we talk about positive representation. We’re battling hate and erasure by holding up the truths of our lives and our love.)

So let’s instead ask: How does demonizing and degrading marginalized people enrich our literature? Does it improve our lives? Why should LGBTQ+ people—or any group of human beings, for that matter—have to see themselves maligned, stereotyped, abused and murdered in fiction as well as in the real world? What does it say about us all, as a people, if we embrace ignorance and hatred as defining values?

What harm is there in one human being sharing their humanity with another in the form of a story?

When I tell you that my wife and I have been together for thirty years, and that every day I fall in love with her all over again, does that deprive you of anything? Perhaps it takes a little bit of ignorance from you. Maybe it makes me just a little less of a faceless, capitol L at the beginning of that string of letters, LGBTQ+.

And if you were to tell me some of your story then you too would cease to be an invisible reader out there somewhere and become a human being for me. You might tell me about your upbringing, or perhaps your aspirations. I would encourage you. Perhaps you’ll confide that you’re worried about the future. I am too but I believe that we can make things better for each other. We human beings are resourceful and capable of great compassion. I would want to tell you a joke but I might mess it up on the first try. I’m not great at telling jokes; I do it automatically—clumsily—when faced with fear.

I’m telling you all this now, because I hope you’ll recognize that reading about someone else’s strengths and struggles deprives you of nothing. It simply offers you the chance to know and share in their battles and triumphs.

In the end it stops being a matter of my narrative or yours. We can share in one another’s experiences. Your joy can lift my spirit; my positive representation can fill you with pride. That’s what’s so powerful about stories and that’s why the ones we tell each other and ourselves should matter to us all.

Editor's Note: This is a reprint of an original essay that appeared on HuffPost.com.


6 Tips For Building a World

So, you want to build a fictional world. Great! Now what?

An over-articulated world can easily tempt you into taking frequent, tedious detours to tell your readers all about it instead of focusing on character and story, and a world that was built with hardly any guiding principles often leads to situations where your audience will constantly ask, “Wait a minute, if X exists, why didn’t they just do Y instead of Z?”

Of course, there is no One Right Way of doing it. But the following principles can serve as useful guides to help keep you on target.

1. Your world doesn’t need to make sense, but it does need to have rules.

Lightsabers, sonic screwdrivers, zombies: none of these things really make sense, but we know what they can and can’t do. Knowing with clarity how things work prompts people to think about what might happen, which pulls them into the story. And for the writer, these rules also define the paths a story can take, form obstacles to be overcome or assets to be cleverly exploited by your characters, and can help you create satisfying suspense, action, twists, and drama.

2. Your rules can be broken, but only rarely, and at the right moment.

Sometimes, a broken rule can create all sorts of lovely responses in your audience. If a villain does something that should not be possible, it can establish the extreme nature of their threat, enhancing the fear and tension. If a hero does the impossible after an emotional three-act journey of unlocking their potential, you’ve created a compelling Chosen One. But if you break your rules too often, they'll cease to mean anything and your audience will stop caring.

3. Only tell your audience what they need to know.

If it isn’t relevant to the plot, to the character, or to the theme, then your audience doesn’t need to know it, plain and simple. There’s no need to explain all the rules to a fictional card game, for example. As long as your audience understands if a character is cheating, taking a big gamble, or in a tight spot, that’s all that really matters. Don’t force your audience to study your lore just to understand what they’re supposed to feel.

Moreover, what your audience doesn’t know can open up your world in ways no amount of information ever could. If an audience knows what a monster can do, but not what it wants or where it came from, the mystery can be powerfully compelling. Imagination often soars more vividly when left in the dark.

4. Treat your cultures the way you treat your characters.

As with your characters, first impressions of your fictional societies are crucial. We learn the most important things about Harry Potter the moment we meet him waking up in a cupboard under the stairs, brushing spiders off his socks. The same is true of hobbits, Klingons, and the Capitol of Panem. The rest—what deities they believe in, what their legal system looks like, what political factions exist—can be elaborated as the need arises. It is far more important for your audience to know what a member of a certain race, nation, or religion is likely to think or do in a given moment than it is for them to be well-versed in the particulars right off the bat. Just remember not to keep putting off that nuance indefinitely, or you’ll end up writing caricatures instead of believable cultures.

5. Don’t have something explained to a character who should already know it.

Physicists don’t go around explaining black holes to other physicists in the real world, so why would they in fiction? If you need to explain something to your audience, that’s what a Fish Out of Water is for! Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins—their ignorance is wonderfully useful for world building. If you find yourself writing dialogue like “As you well know,” chances are you need to find another way to introduce or integrate the information.

6. Culture clash is your friend.

But what if your story has no room for a character who’s been living under a rock and needs everything explained to them? Well, if you put characters in situations where their worldviews are at odds, but they have to come to an agreement about what to do, having them argue about it is a convenient and natural way to get them to explain and defend their morals, traditions, or beliefs. Dramatic conflict can thus be used to develop story, character, theme, and world simultaneously.

And lastly, you can’t build a world without giving it a shot, so go and keep filling blank pages with words. Deliberate practice over time is the only way to become a better writer.


Talk the Talk: Making Your Characters Interact Like People

Recently, I chatted with a friend I’ve been out of touch with. We didn’t talk about anything in particular. A favorite actor of ours had recently passed away (R.I.P, Paul Darrow) and we caught up on life. It was a perfectly normal chat between friends.

But midway through the conversation, something struck me: I converse with this person differently from how I talk with literally everyone else. We’ve known each other for so long that we’ve developed a shorthand: certain words and phrases have shared meanings, there are mutually understood cues for segueing into jokes or stories, and to an outsider, easily three-quarters of any conversation would sound incomprehensible.

I’m not unique in this: all long-standing relationships, be they friendly or romantic or business, or hell, even adversarial, have a specific interpersonal dialect.

In writing advice books and blog posts, something I frequently see is: ‘Make sure your characters all have unique voices.’ Basically, make each character’s dialogue different enough so that the reader can keep them all separate. And that’s good advice! People don’t speak alike. We use a variety of words and sentence structures and speech patterns, depending on a wide range of factors (first language, upbringing, past trauma, subject matter, etc.).

What I have not seen as frequently in those same advice books and blogs is how to show characters’ personal and interpersonal dynamics.

The difference between the way one talks with, for example, a spouse, and the way one talks with family members or coworkers, can be used to great effect to deepen the reader's understanding of the various characters involved. The same holds true for how communication flows between friends, and between potential romantic interests, and between the hero and the villain of the piece (if those terms happen to apply).

What words does your main character use when they’re speaking to someone they trust, versus someone they’re not sure of, versus someone they hate? How do their speech patterns change? Do they become quiet when they’re with someone who scares them, or do they become annoyingly chatty?

This shorthand doesn’t have to be limited to the dialogue. Body language is part of this as well; physical tics and body movement, comfort levels regarding clothing and accessories, nicknames, inside jokes – all of these concepts can be part of a character’s personal language.

For example, in the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the demon Crowley frequently refers to his friend, the angel Aziraphale, as “angel.” It could be derogatory, but it reads more as a fond nickname or a pet name. In the miniseries adaptation of the same novel, Crowley – who prefers to wear sunglasses when he’s in company – willingly removes his glasses when he is drinking with Aziraphale. This is never stated explicitly, but it is notable, and significant, that it only happens once, communicating not only to the audience but to Aziraphale that Crowley feels safe enough in Aziraphale’s presence to remove a symbolic barrier.

The different styles and methods of communication can be put to good use in indicating the breadth and scope of characters’ levels of interpersonal familiarity and intimacy.

Making new characters and learning how they behave can be one of the most exciting facets of storytelling. To me, when trying to show the scope not only of a world but of a cast of people, discovering how they react when they come into contact with other characters and exploring the different styles and methods of communication between them is the most fascinating part of all.


The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Social Media Marketing for Authors

Editor's Note: Nicole Kimberling, as the editor at Blind Eye Books, discusses how brand-new authors should build out their internet presence. While many of the specific references are targeted at writers (such as Smashwords and Goodreads) within this article, the principals discussed in this article seem applicable to all creators within the speculative arts. A simple yet effective website, social media that dovetails with one's communication styles, and connection to the larger community are all ways of creating an internet presence that can be applied to many emerging creators. 

I decided to write this series because there has been a paradigm shift in the world of writing. Whereas before it was possible for a writer to remain outside the fracas of the online world and still have some sort of career (or even meaningful hobby), now having an active online presence is as much a requirement as wearing business attire to your office job. In other words: for a writer to be taken seriously by readers as well as publishers they must participate in social media and in their own online marketing.

Right now I'm seeing a lot of really good writers who should be in their prime whose voices are beginning to vanish due to a complete lack of understanding of how to promote themselves online. Hopefully, these tips will help at least some drowned-out voices to resurface as well as help completely new authors find and maintain connections to their ideal readers. This is not meant to be some kind of masterclass. In fact, it's a little more like kindergarten.

But by the end of it—with any luck—you too should be able to engage the new digital reality of life as an author.

How To Create An Online Presence

It’s finally happened: you’ve written a piece of fiction. You’ve either sold your masterpiece to a publisher or you’ve decided to go it alone on Smashwords. Either way, the one thing you need to do now is create an online presence.

I do not care who you are, or what you write, or what problems you have—philosophical or existential—with social media. If you hope to have success you need an active online presence. Full stop.

Why?

Because this is the way readers will discover you and share their love of your work with each other and with you. And it’s also where you will reassure them that you are still alive and beavering away at your next project. It’s where you will build excitement for your creations and where your readers will share their excitement with others.

Your work will be competing with thousands of other titles. Your active social media presence is what keeps your work from being subsumed by the massive tidal (title?) wave of other works and promotional campaigns.

Social media also allows you to build relationships with other writers. It’s no exaggeration to say that your relationships with other writers will dictate the course of your career. They will inspire you, teach you, introduce you to important industry professionals and, most importantly, introduce you to new readers via cross-promotion.

The First Steps

Before you build a website or attempt to take on Twitter—the Autobahn of the social media world—you need to decide whether you will use your actual name or a pen name. I use my real name. Here’s why: my real name came with existing contacts in the form of my real-life friends. Even if they’ve never read a single word I’ve written, my real-life friends have staunchly supported my career via likes, shares, retweets and general signal-boosting. Plus, I am not the sort of person who is likely to maintain two separate social media presences (one private, one personal). I’m naturally extroverted and impulsive and having to pause to remember who I am supposed to be online vs. in real life would drain all pleasure from the experience of interacting with people.

If you are like me, using your real name—or some variation of your real name, like your initials or your first and middle names—is the way to go.

For example, if your name is Angelica June Hardesty and you decide to publish under A.J. Hardesty you just change your Facebook profile to “Public” and the name listed to A.J. Hardesty and you’re already in business.

But many authors use a pen name. There are many reasons this might be the choice for you. They range from as personal as hiding your hobby from your coworkers to as calculated as the deliberate creation of an auctorial brand identity. So long as you will legitimately post as your online persona, having a pen name is great. But it does burden you with starting from zero in terms of contacts, so you’re going to have to go deliberately court followers.

Whether you use a variation of your real name or a pen name, it’s important to make sure the associated domain name is available for you to purchase: i.e. my name is Nicole Kimberling, so I own www.nicolekimberling.com. If your name is already taken you can either choose another name to write under or you can augment it with an applicable term like, “nicolekimberlingwriter” or “nicolekimberlingauthor.” You can check if your domain is taken by using the search function at sites like GoDaddy.

One note about pen names: be aware that nowadays most assumed identities are eventually discovered, especially if you become popular. Understand from the start that your nom de plume is not an impenetrable shield of anonymity. It’s more like a business name. So remember to use business etiquette when posting.

Build a Website

Take that domain you bought and just build one. There are plenty of platforms out there. Right now I recommend Squarespace, because it’s dead-easy and has a great help section. But probably in a couple of years there will be an even easier platform to build on. If website building is truly impossible for you to understand, find a kid to help you. Like a relative. Or a neighbor. Alternately, most college students will be able to assist. Hire one to sit beside you for a day and help you figure out what you're supposed to be doing. Do not let them build your website for you. They're just there to help you learn because you're going to have to update this thing for yourself eventually, right?

To begin with, all you need are four pages:

  1. A landing page with your author name on it, plus a picture or logo.
  2. A page that lists your publications. (With buy links.)
  3. A biography with links to your social media and contact information
  4. A blog, or news section where you can post announcements or free reads.

And viola! You have built your home base. You have created an exclusive venue to post your news, updates, free reads promotions, cat pictures… whatever. Now that you have a home, it’s time to expand.

Finding Your Social Media Platform

At the time of writing this essay, the three major social media platforms of most use to writers are Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Here is an easy way to figure out which one to start using first:

  1. If you like to write letters or talk on the phone, start with Facebook.
  2. If you prefer to send postcards or texts, join Twitter.
  3. If you send blank postcards with meaningful images, Instagram is the way.

You can set up each of these social media platforms to post to the other automatically, but you need one primary mode of interaction that you can perform easily from your phone.

Why My Phone?

Because you must engage with social media every single day for the month before and one month after your release. It helps to be able to just use dead time—like when you’re in your dentist’s waiting room—to keep engagement up without cutting into your writing time. (Cause you’re already working on your next project right? Of course you are.)

One Last Thing

Set up a profile on Goodreads and link the blog on your website to it. (If you can't figure out how to do this, invite that kid back. Buy her a pizza or something for her trouble.) Now everyone, including prospective editors, agents and publicists, can easily find out about your and your work.


Not Quite Superman

When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated with something, my parents would say, “It’s hard, but you can do it.”

Throughout life, I’ve taken this to heart; I powered through and did the things, even when there was a crushing amount of work to be done. Friends called it “superpowers,” and I found myself using it more and more often. Superpowers always have their cost--get the power of the Dark Side at the expense of your morality, get magic powers when you sacrifice the thing you love most, and so on. For me, I’d be exhausted the next day, a gibbering baboon who looked like they’d stayed awake for three days straight, but the feeling was always that it was worth it because that’s what you gotta do to get it done. It’s hard, but you can do it. 

Today I both write SFF and work in a high-powered slice of tech. In tech, superpowers are the norm. Superpowers are expected. Superpowers are your basic prerequisite, because of course you’re going to work-hard-play-hard, you’re going to go-go-go and get-shit-done. (You probably have a t-shirt or mug with at least one of these phrases, possibly handed out by your employer.) There is no place for weakness in this environment. 

There is no place for disability in this environment.  

In the past 5+ years, working with a wide variety of client companies, I haven’t seen a single person with a visible disability. Any invisible ones have been carefully hidden away.

Even without my disability, I’ve never been healthy. In the past five years alone, I’ve dealt with a bizarre constellation of medical issues: car accidents, emergency appendectomy, shingles… nothing connected, but many things. Some I can hide. Some I can’t, but there’s still an expectation to push through. A regular sick day usually means working from home, smiling and cogent on the video conference, trying to ignore the fever heating my cheeks. The last time I had a real sick day, I was two weeks after major surgery and on serious painkillers. The following week, still high as a kite on vicodin and barely able to shu ffle to the fridge and back, my then-client insisted that I get some work done and I’d been out long enough. But at least all of these issues were temporary and none actually disabling.

Which brings me to my actual, invisible disability. I’ve struggled with sometimes-crippling depression since high school. I’ve checked myself into two different hospital programs, one of which included a week of inpatient care. It’s hard enough to smile and pretend I’m stronger than I really am when recovering from a physical illness. It’s excruciating while depressed. In my field, depression is an unheard-of weakness. People acknowledge that I can’t help it if I was hit by a car, but depression is still seen as a personal failing. 

I am not “out” in tech because I would stop getting business. This piece is the first and only work I’ve ever written under a pseudonym: I can’t afford the risk. Who wants to work with someone who might one day just be too sad to come in? What’s the point? Just get over your bullshit and get this shit done. Superpower your way through and you’ll be fine. So I grit my teeth and smile, smile even when my cheeks feel like they each have a one-ton weight smuggled within them, smile when it’s all I can do to keep the tears from squeezing out and rolling down my unprofessional face and dripping onto my unprofessional laptop that would fizzle and sizz in the very reaction that I’m now suppressing in myself. 

(Superpower through it. It’s hard, but you can do it.) 

Depression feels like the opposite of superpowers. Instead of being able to burst through expectations and accomplish superhuman amounts of work, I’m saddled with some sort of superkryptonite. Not only can I not do things that are super, but I find it hard to do incredibly basic things. Showering is difficult. Dishes nigh impossible. Dragging myself to work is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy because the weight of the burden wants to crush me to the ground. And I want to let it, because it would be so much easier to let myself be pulverized into mush than fight for just one minute longer. 

(It’s hard, and you might not actually be able to do it. That’s a scary thought.)

In a scenario where I have to hide my disability for fear of losing my job, I feel like a backwards Clark Kent. Masquerading amongst the superheroes, ever afraid that someone would notice that I squint a bit and sometimes bump into things and really if I put on glasses I’d look just like that non-super reporter guy. Nobody needs to bring in that non-super reporter guy to get things done.

Which brings me to the SFF part of my life. There are many issues with disability in science fiction and fantasy. Evil people are disabled or disfigured almost by their nature: see Star Wars’ Snoke, Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison, Doctor Who’s Davros, and so on. Cons still don’t do enough for people with disabilities. I can’t count the number of times a panelist has decided they’re naturally loud enough to “not need a mic” so I can’t hear them (much less be heard by those with hearing limitations) or seen a panelist in a wheelchair struggle to get onto a ramp-free stage. There’s a lot that needs to be improved. 

But despite all this, the SFF world has been my disability salvation. This was the very first world where I was allowed to be “out” with no consequences, and met a number of folks with the same struggle. I could have depression and still be OK, a person worth working with. Hell, I could have depression because I’d been cooped up for too long dealing with yet another illness (my current situation) and still be OK. I was able to open up about my difficulties, my clashing needs to be productive and also practice self-care, in part because so many others were openly fighting the same battles. In the past few years, the SFF community taught me about the concept of spoons and saving your energy for the things that matter most. This is the community that lovingly yelled at me to stop being ridiculous while I was berating myself for taking too long to finish a novel draft. They told me to start taking better care of my mental health, which included taking breaks. 

Not only did I not need superpowers to be accepted in this community, it seemed like nobody did. The outpouring of empathy and love became one of my strongest sources of support, with the echo of “it’s hard, and sometimes you don’t need to do it. It’s OK if you don’t.” 

This contrast is startling. 

When I had a week-long crippling migraine, an editor sent me copy edits to review. I knew it would be OK to request a few more days, because I wasn’t able to concentrate very well with the pain, and they were fine with it. That same week, my tech job showed no such courtesy, and I had multiple skull-shattering, painfully loud video conferences. 

When I was depressed and struggling to make it through the day, I had another editor ask for a revise-and-resubmit for a story. I’d seen others do it, so I knew it would be OK to ask for another few weeks because I was too depressed to make progress. He told me to take care of myself. At the same time, not being “out” in my day job, I was juggling three very demanding clients with no way to get a reprieve. I dragged myself forward on each new project, each new request, whispering “it’s hard, but you can do it” as I trudged through. 

When I was extremely depressed and was in a hospital program, getting intense therapy for four hours every weekday, my corner of the SFF community sent me love and support. It was clear that all writing had to come to an indefinite halt. In fact it should’ve been clear that all work had to come to an indefinite halt. But instead I found myself dragging my wrung-out carcass directly from the hospital to a client planning session. Depression, which gives your frontal lobe a wallop and makes it hard to concentrate or think, had me scraping together my remaining neurons (already frazzled from the hospital session) to focus not on rest and my own health but on a soon-to-be-dead company’s plans for their next product launch. 

The SFF community still has a way to go towards eliminating ableism, both in its media and within its community. But for me, this has been the one place in my life where it’s completely OK that I’m not quite Superman. I can drop the fake smile and the veneer of hypercompetence, and have one less burden to lift. I can take care of myself and my health. Things are hard, and I’m OK whether I can do them or not. 

It’s good to be home.

 


Burnout, Guilt, and “Productivity”

This post is half explanation, half me yelling at myself.

After my book came out at the beginning of April, my
productivity levels plummeted to zero.

I kept trying to tell myself that it was okay, that it was
natural, that I’d been working almost continuously since November 2017 and I
needed a bit of a break. My husband and friends and editor all told me the same
thing.

And you know what? They were right. You know what
else? I knew they were right.

But I still felt incredibly guilty.

This is called “burnout,” kids.

And the last several weeks that I’ve been mostly AWOL from
writing have been me trying to work through that guilt for just being tired,
and why it exists.

I’ve identified two major reasons:

1) Recovering gifted child guilt

This particular guilt manifests in different ways for
different people, but for me, it’s the problem of “Well, I didn’t finish this
the first time I tried, so obviously it’s never going to work and I should move
on to something else.” Which is a terrible way of doing anything, but hey, it
worked in grade school, so obviously it should work in my adult life, right???

(No. No, the answer is “no.” And again, “no.”)

2) Capitalist / “gig economy” guilt

Productivity =/= worth as a human being

We’ve all been told the exact opposite by so many for so
long that this has to be repeated over and over and over again until hopefully
we can absorb it.

We’ve been taught to devalue the pursuits we enjoy if we’re
not getting something tangible in return.

But we need intangible things, too.

Doing other things besides earning money is not “a waste of
time.” Hobbies—non-money-producing hobbies—are not only important, they are
vital. They let you rest, and just enjoy things. It’s so important for your
mental health and your emotional well-being.

Writers and artists need rest. We need sleep, and non-creating
time. We need to kill the myth of the starving artist…with food. And we need to
do fun things for fun.

So in addition to identifying the guilt, I’ve also been
working on trying to let all of that guilt go, and instead of beating myself up
for not being superhuman, I’m trying very hard to just be kind to myself.

I try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, without worrying
about how many words I’ve written that day.

I spend more time in the kitchen, and pay more attention to
what I’m eating, instead of grabbing whatever’s quickest that I can shovel into
my mouth while I’m hunched over a keyboard. And I keep water around, to lessen
my temptation for caffeine.

When I do sit down to write, I set myself a limit as well as
a goal. I say, “Okay, I want to reach a thousand words tonight, but I’ve got
other things to do, so I’m only going to write for two hours, and then I’m
going to go do something else.” I find I work better with deadlines, so giving
myself a time limit means I have to get the words out—they don’t have to be
good words, but they have to be on the page before two hours are up. And
telling myself, “This time is set aside only for writing,” helps to free up my
brain from worrying about other things.

I do things that aren’t writing: I go bowling with my
husband. We have a weekly board game night where we try games we’ve never
played before. I knit baby blankets and watch Poirot. I stay busy and enjoy myself and get away from my desk for
a few hours. Sometimes the “You Should Be Writing” gremlin starts poking me,
and I have to remind myself, “No, this isn’t Writing Time, and I’m not going to
write until it is.”

And that’s where I am right now. I’ve had about six weeks of
doing more or less nothing except trying to build myself back up to get back to
work, and…it hasn’t exactly been fun, but I’ve learned a few things:

  • Sleep.
  • Eat food.
  • Remember to hydrate.
  • Set limits as well as goals.
  • Do fun things for fun.
  • Be kind to yourself.

You’re the only one of you, and you’re the only one who can make
the things you want to make.

Take care of yourself.

I’m trying to do the same. 


How do you combat burnout? Tell us on the forum post for this blog entry!


Science Fiction & Resistance

Science fiction has a thematic duality that has long
fascinated me. The core component of many works in the speculative field focus
on ways technology can and might be used against humankind. On the flip side,
many genre stories highlight the use of technology as a means of resistance.
Then there are the stories that feature both.

Technology is wonderful. Technology is dangerous. It’s this thematic duality that I (along with co-editor Lesley Conner) wanted to explore in our new anthology Do Not Go Quietly: Tales of Victory in Defiance. We selected writers with strong viewpoints (such as Brooke Bolander, Fran Wilde, and Sheree Renée Thomas) and challenged those writers to create stories with protagonists trapped in oppressive environments. Whether or not these protagonists overcome their oppressors was less an editorial concern. It was the spirit of defiance, of being heard, and creating change that we wanted to highlight. Revolution is never easy, nor does it always work. But the stories are always interesting (at least in our anthology, I like to think)!

The most memorable science fiction stories have a history of
challenging social dogma relevant to its times. It’s not surprising to me that
some of the genre’s most depressing and darkest works (from American writers)
occurred during times of extreme unrest and fear. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must
Scream” by Harlan Ellison is possibly one of the darkest parables to have been
written regarding the dangers of technology. Published in 1967, supercomputers built
by humans to better fight the Cold War become sentient and bad things happen.
George Orwell foretold the intrusiveness of a surveillance state in 1984
in response to the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s.

When you consider the last few years, cultural issues such as climate change, the rise of AI, and sovereignty of our bodies have been at the forefront of social concern. Examples of resistance fiction that tackle these issues can be found in Charlie Jane Anders’s excellent All the Birds in the Sky (ecology), Nexhuman by Francesco Verso (transhumanism), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (fluidity of sex and gender). What I like about these three novels is that they’re extremely dark, but in the end, they offer a glimmer of hope. Dystopia is interesting, but without hope there is little room for anything other than misery. The world is at a crossroads. I hope Do Not Go Quietly inspires you to take up a cause you believe in. There is victory in using your voice.


Do you use themes of resistance in your writing? What kinds of topics do you wish science fiction dealt more with? Let us know on the forum post for this blog entry.


Interview with Holly Heisey

We sat down recently with powerhouse creator Holly Heisey to talk about how they balance their various artistic pursuits, and their thoughts on freelancing, representation, and professionalism. Enjoy!


Dream Foundry: You're a creator who wears many, many different hats. Can you describe some of those hats for us?

Holly Heisey: Hats! So, honestly, as fashion statements and labels for creative pursuits, I’ve never been that good at wearing hats. 

I’m always trying to figure out what I want to be. Just one thing, like you’re supposed to do. But I have this driving need to make art and writing and music and at least ten different sub-interests for all the above. I want to do everything. All at once. All of it! I really want that instant-learning Matrix chair to be real. And possibly cloning. There are so many things to make!

I’m not sure I’ll ever face the reality that I can’t do everything I want to do in one lifetime, but I am trying to learn I don’t have to do it all at once. I try to limit how many projects I have on my plate at any given moment, but I always have my hands in at least a dozen front and back-burner projects and shift between them based on my current interest level, energy level, if my skills are up to what I want to do, and finances… in that order. 

My very first paying job was as a web designer, which led to work as an illustrator, which led to cover illustration and designs like I do today. Somewhere in there, I took a break and decided I would be a full-time fiction writer. I quickly decided I hated being a full-time writer when I also wanted to make art and music. And then I became an almost-full-time book cover designer because it was shiny and I got to illustrate glowing things and starships—and also got reliably paid, which is a nice bonus—but after a while I really wished I could spend more time on my own art projects and writing. I also have overlapping projects I want to work on, like comics and interactive fiction games. 

So my hats and interest in projects are always pulling me in different directions, and the challenge is to find some balance between them all. But I’m starting to think that the tension between my dual careers (and triple, if you add the distant third and mostly stalled career of making music) isn’t that I don’t have enough time to spend on each of them, but that I’m still looking at them as separate things. 

Like, I have a writing career, and I have an art career. Both are doing decently, sometimes one pulls ahead of the other, etc. But the reality is that they aren’t that separate. Things like when I illustrate my own stories or work on music I might use for an art tutorial video definitely shows the overlap. Sometimes I’ll make a project, like my ongoing passion project of making found-document-style alien poetry, and I’ll stand there for a long time thinking, “Okay, which career does this belong to? Art or writing?” I don’t want that tension. I don’t want to be just a writer, or an artist, or a musician, or any one of the above—I just want to be a creator that does all the above and lets it flow and overlap as needed.

So… hats. Yeah, I have a thing about hats!

DF: Do you feel a tension among your different creative pursuits? How do you choose what to work on at any given time?

HH: Definitely, and for a lot of the reasons I said above. Within specific projects, though, my biggest causes of tension are deadlines and money. Without those two things, I’d be pretty happily bouncing from project to project, adding a little more to each as the whim hit. That’s what I did when I was younger, before making my creative projects into careers. And, that’s what I’m searching for a way to get back to. That sort of world-innocent creative storm.

It’s hard balancing creativity—which is so dependent on what my soul wants to do and say—with outside influences, which are dependent on other factors and sometimes (often) take me farther from what I’m really longing to do at any given moment. 

I create because I have to, because if I don’t, it’s like a volcano building up inside me. It has to come out. But if I have, say, five projects on deck, I often end up choosing for any given day the one that can bring the most immediate income, or has the tightest deadline. 

Which is tough. I might desperately want to spend the next three days blazing through the end of writing my novel but have an art deadline I have to meet. Or, I might really want to finish making an epic space battle scene for a client, but I owe edits back for a story I sold. 

More often than not, writing takes a back seat for me to art, because art is what’s bringing 9/10 of my income. It can also be hard with the types of projects I’m working on. I might want to spend a solid month learning how to make better space art, but my next month of client projects are all character covers. I also deal with a chronic illness, which can wreck extra havoc with scheduling and then I get none of the projects on my plate done in the time I need to. All of the above can create a lot of angst, frustration, and strain, and over time, it starts sapping the joy out of making things if I’m not careful. 

I’m not saying freelance life isn’t worth it. It is so, so worth it. Everything I do (minus paperwork and, blah, taxes) is creative. I can set my own hours, shift schedules around, work in my pajamas, choose the projects I want to take on. And any one of these projects, given their own timing, I’d be jumping over. But falling out of balance—either with art and writing, or with doing too much client work and not enough of my own soul-work—can be so tempting and easy, justified by life stuff and expenses. More income in the present is worth little, though, if I burn out and my physical and mental health suffer, taking away my ability to do good work or work at all. Which has happened to me more than once, and it’s not a fun place to be. It’s a place that requires honesty of what I can and can’t do, and what my heart really wants to do, to get back to making meaningful creations again.

I’m working on that balance. Allowing myself more time to do personal work is a huge part of it. Learning to schedule less and know how to market spec projects like tutorials or illustrations that clients can license vs commission has helped.

I think somewhere in freelance work there needs to be a bit of mystical trust—kind of like the trust you put into creative work in the first place. It will, somehow, all work out. You give it your all. You pour your soul into it. And if it’s just not working, you adjust accordingly. 

Self-care is so important. And I’ve learned, especially dealing with a chronic illness that can greatly affect times of burnout and vice versa, that self-care might be the most important freelance skill you can have. You have to nurture your joy in creating your work above all else. 

DF: What are some ways one type of creative endeavor has informed and unexpectedly bolstered another?

HH: I study movies, TV, books, art, music, and comics I love obsessively. Sometimes from a story angle, sometimes from an art/composition angle, sometimes trying to pin an exact emotion so I can understand it. If anything has ended up making my creative pursuits overlap in crazy ways, it’s from this.

My study of cinematic visuals has led to dozens and dozens of movie still studies, which has led to getting a better grasp of cinematic techniques and framing in book covers. It’s also informed how I portray the descriptions of people and places in my writing, and my own internal visual sense of story. I have this weird sort of synesthesia when I’m writing that if I don’t like the “feel” of the colors and atmosphere I’m creating, the cinematic language in my head, I have to shift something. The characters, the mood, something. Once that cinematic language is playing in the right colors, then I can keep going. 

On the flip side, storytelling has greatly informed my art—as an illustrator, I’m always looking to tell a story. To catch a scene or character mid-motion. To convey a sense that there was a moment before this image and a moment after and letting the viewer fill in what those moments are. There’s almost always some sense of movement in my art, and I’m always trying to make that deeper.

And of course, in starting to move into comics and designing my own games and music, it’s basically all the above. Everything informs everything.

DF: You've engaged with issues of representation and professionalism on several fronts in your career. Are there common themes or shared issues across different areas you work in, or does each have its own issues?

HH: A common theme across all areas of creativity right now is the lack of portrayal of underrepresented groups—POC, LGBTQIA+, women, people with disabilities, different religions, neurodiversity, different body types, etc. And I think some creative fronts are better with this than others, and in different ways. 

The literary world seems more on top of representing these groups than, say, Hollywood. Comics, even big-publisher mainstream comics, are also making a lot of strides, and webcomics are often subversively wonderful and way ahead of the game here.

The world of illustration and commercial art, though, is behind the curve. If you go on Artstation.com, which is the largest portfolio site for artists working in the gaming, movies/tv, and illustration industries, you will see a lot of gorgeous art. You’ll also see a lot of art that objectifies women, almost no art that portrays queer people, and even less that portrays disabilities. Body shapes are idealized. And while there is a lot of wonderful art featuring people of color, as artists on Artstation are from around the world, it’s still less proportioned to art featuring white characters.

 I think part of the problem is that a lot of this commercial art is done for and informed by Hollywood and the gaming industry, which in turn informs the visual language and design of our movies and games, and so the cycle repeats. The same is true for book covers. The people putting out the big projects are more likely to keep doing what’s always been done, which is—unintentionally or not—minimizing representation of minority groups. Because it’s worked before. This is even pretty rampant in indie publishing, where authors tailor their branding to what other successful authors are doing.

In the indie book industry especially, there’s a large issue going on with the lack of diverse resources for photo manipulation artists and designers. Many large image resource companies have actively discriminatory policies against portraying LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities, and don’t have many good poses portraying POC and diverse body types, but there’s a grassroots movement to make these diverse resources available. Several current and former cover designers—like Dean Samed with NeoStock, Regina Wamba with The Stock Alchemist, and Rebecca Frank with Bewitching Book Stock—are forming their own stock image companies and releasing diverse images as fast as they can shoot them, which is a wonderful thing to see.

DF: What are examples of multi-media or multi-format projects that have inspired or impressed you?

HH: The moment I decided I wanted to be an illustrator was when I picked up Tales of King Arthur illustrated by Rodney Matthews. All of the sudden, the world opened up, and I realized the pictures didn’t just have to be in my head or on the cover. There could be whole worlds inside the pages, too. I think, from that early introduction to mixing story and art, I’ve always intertwined the two.

Really good cinematic trailers are also a huge inspiration for me—the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok is almost perfect. I’ve been over it so many times. So much artistry goes into good trailers, in the leading of dramatic tension in such a short time, the colors, composition and mood, and the music which pulls it all together. Every moment has to be evoking or leading you to an emotional response.

I love pouring through concept art for movies and games. The beauty of the art, attention to practical details, and storytelling that goes into creating these images is astounding. Some concept artists have made incredibly detailed worlds around their art, like Noah Bradley’s Sin of Man project—which started with art and expanded to include stories as well. And the popular YouTube artist Ross Tran with his Nima project. I also love when writers like Brandon Sanderson incorporate worldbuilding in symbols, maps, and art into the books themselves, like in the Stormlight Archive series.

And I can’t forget comics! I have an obsessive love of comics. I especially love the art of Christian Ward in the recent Black Bolt series written by Saladin Ahmed—art informed story informed art. It was mesmerizing.

DF: If you had to share the most important lesson you've learned about craft in any format, what would it be? How does or doesn't it apply to other formats?

HH: I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen. To not be set in any one way, or rigid in my ideas, but to flow with where I’m going and listen to whatever I’m creating has to say. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I need time to step back and listen. And this applies to writing, art, music, life, all the above.

It’s okay, and sometimes necessary to step back. Or set a project aside. I often set aside stuck art to dive into writing or vice versa, or go binge watch something, take a walk, or read to get my mind off the problem…but honestly, it’s just clearing the mental space so I can listen. If I’m trying to bring everything I know to the table, or trying to follow certain rules or a sure formula for success, it just doesn’t work for me. If I trust that the work itself will always bring something new, that’s when I know I’m listening. And that’s when the really cool stuff happens.

DF: When you're developing a new skill, how do you approach it? How does your breadth of experience inform that approach? (Or, does it?)

HH: I’m always learning, and always reaching for something more, and always analyzing every creative thing I take in. For me, it’s compulsory. So when I’m watching a movie, I’m taking in everything. And if it was particularly good, I’ll spend hours or days in my head analyzing it afterward from every possible creative and emotional angle. Same with books, art, music, etc.

I don’t approach skill building in a traditional way. I’ve never been very good with standard courses—I basically designed my curriculum in high school around what I loved and schooled myself (I was homeschooled), and never felt the need to go to college. I honestly don’t think I would have done well in that kind of learning environment. I find something shiny, something I want to learn, and I find a way to learn it. And I become obsessed with it and can’t think about anything else. Whether it’s analyzing why something works, or trying to recreate something myself, or using tutorials on YouTube, or courses targeted to certain skills, it’s always a compulsion for me. If the learning isn’t fun, or I don’t have a driving need to reach a goal… I just won’t do it.

This is how I’ve been learning 3D software (which is REALLY intensive)—I do make myself sit down and do some courses in there, but they’re courses that I want to do so much that it hurts more not to. And I give myself the freedom to move around in what I’m learning, not just focus on one thing, or on linear learning, or on getting the basics. (The basics are usually boring.) I dive right in!

I definitely have some gaps in my skill set from this approach. But then, I have some really broad areas of knowledge, too. Like my study of all things cinematic that’s informed almost all areas of my creativity.

But, this is my approach to learning. I know my brain is uniquely wired. And the best thing I’ve ever done to help myself learn is to let myself learn the way that works best for me. When I push, I often end up hating whatever I wanted to learn. Nurturing your own learning style is really important.


How do you learn new skills and methods for your art? What's your experience when it comes to balancing different aspects of your work? Let us know on the forum post for this blog entry!


The Art of Story Mechanics

Originally published on June 13, 2017, at sfwa.org. Reprinted with permission.


The late Robert M. Pirsig, in his famous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wrote with some anxiety about the split between “classic” culture (maintaining a motorcycle) and “romantic” culture (riding a motorcycle). He was wrong about some things, but it’s certainly true that many people are creative in one way and not in the other.

I come from a long line of mechanics and tinkerers, but I didn’t get the gene. Not for me the pleasures of making something work. As a kid, I did well enough in math class, but I always felt like I was cheating. I was very good at memorizing how to follow a process, but I never really understood the underlying truth of what I was doing.

I’ve always been a writer, but I’ve never been a tinkerer.

Until now.

In March, I started working on a contract for Choice of Games. I’ve never written interactive fiction before, and other than a bit of BASIC and HTML, I’ve never coded before. I’m having a lot of fun. And for the first time in my life, I’m learning how to tinker. It’s already having an effect – a beneficial one, I think – on all of my prose, including the non-interactive stories.

The day I signed the contract and sat down to begin telling my story, I felt adrift for a moment. Choicescript, the language I’m using, is easy to learn and there are many resources for the beginner. So I understood pretty quickly what each command would do, the function of each tool. But what were the rules for using those tools? Which ways of using those tools were wrong, and which ways were right?

That’s when I had an epiphany: When my code works, it works; when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There are more or less efficient or elegant ways of doing something, and there are many examples to follow, but when it came down to it, I had the freedom to kludge my scene together any way I wanted. Although my editor will appreciate it, nobody really cares how clever my code is. What matters is the story that emerges from it.

Or rather, stories.

That moment of freeing myself from rigid concepts of right and wrong was also a useful reminder about storytelling.

We writers often treat our works-in-progress like imperfect versions of Platonic ideals, as if the Story Council has the ur-copy of every novel in its big library in the sky and we’re just trying to make our version as close to that as possible. We polish, and refine, and all of that involves making choices. Is this better than that? Will putting the exposition in Chapter 2 work better for the character arc than putting it in Chapter 3? If only someone would give us the answer key!

George Saunders recently described his writing process as a series of instinctive decisions: he imagines a meter on his forehead with P for Positive on one side and N for negative on the other. In a binary conception, every change moves the needle one way or the other. Good or bad, right or wrong. Decisions are not value-neutral. Edits move the novel closer to its potential greatness, until it either achieves that greatness or the deadline arrives.

With interactive fiction, the writer is making choices, but based on what works rather than what’s right. It might seem like a fine distinction, but acknowledging that more than one possibility can work at any given plot point feels a little subversive.

It’s a good reminder that editor or beta-reader feedback is only useful insofar as it helps us make the story work in the way we want it to work. There’s no right way to build a motorcycle: there are more elegant ways and less elegant, more powerful and less powerful, less expensive, more expensive, bigger or smaller, quieter or louder.

Sometimes, the well-meaning person giving you feedback is trying to tell you how to turn your motorcycle into a helicopter.

There are examples to follow and tricks of the trade, but there’s no one right way to tell a story. Story structure, like any engine, is amenable to tinkering.


The game that Kate mentions being in process of writing for Choice of Games in this piece has now been published! You can find out more about The Road to Canterbury and play the first three chapters for free, or watch a trailer and read an interview with Kate. We hope you'll check it out!


Do you find that you can tinker in your creative arts, or do you get caught up in the idea of doing things “the right way?” Are you comfortable tinkering with your story structure, or are you more comfortable with a set path for your narrative? We want to hear from you on our forum!