Archive for the ‘Ink & Feather’ Category

A few days ago, I went on a Twitter rant about female characterisation and Mad Max: Fury Road which ended up attracting rather more attention than I’d anticipated. As such, a few people replied to ask for advice about how to write good female characters, and while I answered in brief at the time, it’s something I’d like to address in a bit more detail.

Whenever the topic of how not to write women comes up, usually with reference to such narrative basics as avoiding objectification, lone Exceptional Girls and gender stereotypes, there’s a predictable sort of outrage from people who’ve missed the point. Are you saying we can’t write beautiful women? they ask, only semi-facetiously. Is there a quota for female characters per story we have to hit to avoid being called misogynists? Is romance allowed at all? Can women have any feminine interests, or is that sexist, too? And because we’ve already gone on at length about all these things, we’re usually too exhausted to reply.

The thing is, there’s no one “right” way to write women, just as there’s no one “right” way to write any type of person. In talking about common mistakes, and particularly when we’re talking about them in brief, we’re rarely saying “avoid this one, overly simplified Bad Thing in its entirety,” but are rather expressing frustration at how that particular element is overwhelmingly used in certain quarters, while emphasising how to do it well.

As writers, it behoves us to get into the mindset of our characters: to understand their personalities, backgrounds and motivations, whatever they might be. Bad characterisation is what happens when a writer fails to do this; and while that failure can occur for any number of reasons, one of the most common (and therefore most frustrating) permutations occurs when the writer has a reductive, inaccurate or otherwise stereotypical view of what certain types of people are like in real life, or when they fail to acknowledge that their own experience of the world can’t be universally applied to people from different backgrounds.

So: let’s talk beautiful women and the ostensible ban on writing them, which is one of my personal bugbears.

Culturally, women are expected to be beautiful. In the West, the mainstream concept of “beauty” is held to expire at a certain age while being inherently fetishised, diminished or inaccessible to anyone not white. This means that, in a large number of Western narratives, female characters skew conveniently young, even in contexts where you’d expect such a person to be older; are conveniently long-haired, fashionable and permanently made up, even when disdain for such trappings is ostensibly part of their characterisation; and are frequently written as though beauty is a personality trait instead of a personal judgement. What this means is that we’re all collectively conditioned to make female characters “beautiful” as a reflex, because if we’re going to invent a woman out of thin air, then why on Earth would we want to make her ugly?

But as even the type of misogynist prone to rating women’s looks has tangentially realised, not being beautiful isn’t the same as being ugly. Even given the massive cultural dominance of mainstream Western beauty standards – white, blonde-haired and light-eyed, slim but busty, of medium height, able-bodied, aged between sixteen and thirty, or thirty-five at the absolute most – most of us are generally able to acknowledge the attractiveness of women who differ from those parameters by virtue of more than their hair colour. And when it comes to the question of individual preference – well. The world, as they say, is our oyster. Beauty is not an absolute, but a personal judgement, and that’s before you get into the question of attractiveness as determined by personality rather than looks, which is a great deal more significant than many reductive persons care to admit.

All of which tells us a great deal about how female beauty is perceived, and which is therefore relevant to how female characters are viewed by the audience. But when you’re writing a story, the character has their own internality: you have to know them from the inside, too. When a story tells me in the raw narration, rather than from a character’s POV, that a woman is beautiful, it invariably feels forced, as though the author is imposing a false universal over any judgement I might prefer to make for myself. But in a narrative context where women have every reason to be aware of the value placed on their looks, a story that goes out of its way to tell me about a female character’s beauty from an external perspective only is doing her a disservice.

One of the great paradoxes of mainstream beauty culture is that, while women are expected to look good for men, the effort that goes into maintaining that beauty – physical, emotional, financial – is held to be of zero masculine interest. On TV, it’s common to see a hard-bitten female detective whose hair is worn long and sprayed into perfect coiffure, whose heels are high, whose face is permanently made up, and whose fashion choices visibly outstrip her salary, because we expect all TV characters to be exceptionally pretty. It’s just that, with women, by virtue of the extra accessories and effort “mainstream” beauty requires, making any and all characters strive to clear that bar can’t help but impinge on their characterisation in a way that it doesn’t for men. A flock of teenage boys all showing up to school in various dapper vest, suit and tie combinations would raise eyebrows on TV, but we’re inured to the sight of teenage girls in math class dressed like they’re off to a movie premiere. And what this means, whether intentionally or not, is that we void the prospect of women who, at the level of characterisation, have different approaches to beauty, not just in terms of individual style, but as a social expectation.

So: you tell me your character is beautiful in context, wildly attractive to the men around her. Great! But what does she think about that? Did she go through puberty so early that she was teased about having breasts for years before the same boys started to hit on her? Is she uncomfortable with the attention? Does she enjoy it? Does she deliberately “dress down” to avoid getting catcalled? Does she even like men? Is she confident in her looks? Does she feel insecure? Does she enjoy make up? If so, how much time, money and effort does she put into using it? If not, how sick is she of being cajoled into trying it? How does she dress? Does she actually enjoy shopping at all? What cultural norms have shaped her idea of beauty? Have you noticed how many of these questions are context-dependent on the modern world and our implicit association of beauty with makeup and fashion? If your setting is an invented one, have you given any thought to local beauty standards, or have you just unconsciously imported what’s familiar?

I’m not asking these questions to situate them as absolute must-haves in every narrative instance. I’m asking because I’m sick of “she was beautiful” being treated as a throw-away line that’s nonetheless meant to stand in lieu of further characterisation, as though there’s no internal narrative to beauty and no point in mentioning it unless to make clear that male readers should find the character fuckable.

This goes double for warrior women in SFF novels particularly, not because powerful, kickass ladies can’t be beautiful, but because there’s a base degree of grime and practicality inherent in fighting that’s often at odds with the way their looks are described. A skilled fighter who has no scars or bruises at any given time is as implausible as a swordswoman with baby-soft, uncalloused hands. Long, silky hair might look good, and it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility for a warrior to have it, but your girl is still going to need to tie it back when she’s in the field, and if she’s out on the road or in battle with no more bathing opportunities than her male comrades, it’s not going to fall out of her helmet looking like she’s a L’oreal model. If your armies are gender diverse and there’s no stated reason why women can’t hold rank, but the only women we ever see are young and hot, then yes, I’m going to assume you’ve prioritised beauty over competence at the expense of including other, more interesting characters. A woman’s looks are far from being the most salient thing about her, and if a subconscious need to find your female characters conventionally attractive (unless they’re villains) is influencing who you write about, believe me, it’s going to be noticeable.

I could address those other, early queries at similar length, but what it all boils down to is a marriage of context and internality. No, there’s no quota for female characters per book, but if you’re going to give me a POV perspective on a lone woman associating with an otherwise all-male cast, simply telling me “she’d always gotten along better with men than women” is not sufficient to explain the why of it, especially if her being there is contextually incongruous. By the same token, if you show me the POV of a woman who has every reason to associate primarily with other women but whose thoughts are only ever about men, I’m going to raise a disbelieving eyebrow. If you can’t imagine what women talk about when men aren’t in the room, or if you simply don’t think it’s likely to be interesting, then yes, it’s going to affect your ability to write female characters, because even if you only ever show them with men, those private judgements should still inform their internal characterisation.

One of the most dispiriting experiences I’ve ever had in a writing group was watching a man in late middle-age describe a young woman of his own invention. As an exercise, we’d all taken fifteen minutes or so to write out a detailed rundown of a particular character, either one we’d invented on the spot or who featured in our fiction, and to share that work with the group. This man produced an unattractive girl in her late teens who had no interests besides working in a dollar shop, who lived with her mother but didn’t really have any friends, who liked shopping and eating chips – and that was it. Every time a member of the group prompted him for more details, he just shrugged smugly and said she just liked being in the shop, and that was it. When pressed further, he insisted that he saw plenty of girls like this on the bus and around his area, that she was a realistic character, and that there was no need to develop her beyond this dim outline because she just wasn’t clever or interesting or curious, so why would she have opinions about anything else? It was maddening, depressing and so unbearably sexist I wanted to scream, because by his own admission, what he’d done was look at women in the real world and assume that his reductive judgement of their goals and interests, made on the basis of their appearance, was genuinely the be-all, end-all of who they were as people, such that even when it came to putting a woman like that in fiction, he didn’t feel moved to develop her any further.

Ultimately, if you want to write good female characters, there’s no one way to do it. But if I had to distil all this into a single piece of advice – a practical thing for writers to do, to try and better their skillsets – I’d say: as an exercise, try writing a story with only female characters, or in which men are the clear minority. When women only ever appear singly or in contexts where they never talk to each other, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting their gender and beauty stand in for characterisation, because you only need to distinguish them from men, not from each other. But try your hand at a story whose five characters are all women, and suddenly the balance shifts. You can’t just have The Feminine One and The Tomboy, or The Ultra Hot One and the Girl Next Door, and nor can you lapse into defining them as such in their own perspectives. You can certainly pick a narrative setting that explains why they’re all or mostly the same age (high school, for instance), but it’s harder to lump them together.

And if it’s never occurred to you to write women as a majority before? Then you might want to ask yourself why that is, and consider how your answer might be impacting your ability to write them as individuals.

 

 

 

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We appear to be halfway through 2017 already, which is surely some sort of cosmic accounting error. To compensate, here is some writing news.

I’m thrilled to have won the 2017 Ditmar Award for Best Fan Writer in my third year of nomination. I didn’t write as much last year as I would’ve liked, all things considered, but I was proud of what I did produce, and especially now that I’m back in Australia, I’m honoured to have something like this to show for it.

As of April this year, I’m now a semi-regular contributor to the awesome Geek Girl Riot podcast. My segment is called Foz Rants, which is fairly self-explanatory, and covers whatever I feel like yelling about at the time. The whole podcast is pretty spectacular, so give it a look!

I have a new essay out in The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Almanac: Volume 4. It’s on slipfic and the definition of genre, and contains some thinky-thoughts I’ve been trying to pin down for a while.

Finally, I’m extremely excited to have three short stories in Issue 3 of The Fantastist Magazine – ‘Letters Sweet as Honey,’ ‘Mnemosyne’ and ‘The Song of Savi’. Though different in terms of style and genre, they’re loosely thematically linked, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’re received both individually and as a sort of triptych.

And with that, back to the studio!

At long last, the sequel to An Accident of Stars is here!

atyrannyofqueens_144dpi

Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

I’m so immensely thrilled with this book, and I can’t wait to see what people think of it. Writing it was a labour of love: it felt like something I’d been working towards for a long time – for longer, perhaps, than I’d even had the idea of the series – and hopefully, at least a fraction of that comes out in the writing.

Read, review and be merry!

One of the perils of being an innately contrary, frequently combative person is that you sometimes find yourself backed into a corner entirely of your own making, attacking in defence for no better reason than that it doesn’t occur to you to do otherwise. My psyche is friable of late; that doesn’t excuse bad behaviour.

Yesterday evening, I put up a thread of tweets about my editorial experience with my forthcoming book, A Tyranny of Queens. My comments were made in response to a different thread about fellow genderqueer author JY Yang’s difficulties in having the singular they accepted in their work. The thread struck a powerful chord with me: I felt moved to reply, and did so, as I often do in such instances.

The issue itself is important; vitally so. But the approach I took in broaching it was not.

In writing the thread, I made an early factual error: the editor in question, Amanda Rutter, was my structural editor, not my CE. That distinction is an obvious and crucial one to other, more experienced writers and professionals, but I am still a journeyman in that respect; I apologise for the confusion. I also erred in assuming that, because I hadn’t named Amanda directly, I’d somehow left her out of it; that I was discussing her editing in, not exactly a vacuum, but a context where her identity was both ambiguous and beside the point. I thought – inasmuch as it occurred to me to think – that, even assuming someone did realise who I was talking about, it wouldn’t actually matter, because the actual issue was a wider one.

As a social media veteran, I should have known better. I should have thought better, and I’m very sorry that I didn’t.

In referencing Amanda as clearly as I did – in citing her comments without first giving her warning or recourse to response; in letting my personal upset colour my discussion of an issue that exists beyond me – I behaved both badly and unprofessionally. My sincere apologies to Amanda for doing this; she deserved better of me.

I would also like to apologise to my publisher, Angry Robot, and to all the amazing people there who’ve worked with me, especially Marc Gascoigne and Phil Jordan. A Tyranny of Queens is a book which I’m immensely proud to have written, and the final product would be nowhere near as strong without the feedback, help and encouragement I’ve received from the AR team. Though hindsight renders the conviction both naïve and ridiculous, I can say with utter sincerity that I never intended any criticism of Angry Robot, whom I’ve always felt honoured to work with, and I’m furious with myself for slighting them in any way. I’m deeply sorry for this.

I’m sorry for putting my agency, Red Sofa Literary, in a position where they had to deal with my unprofessionalism, and I’m sorry for letting my actions detract from a very serious and necessary conversation, one I should have had the sense to contribute to in a far more productive manner.

It has long been my position that deleting things you said on the internet as a belated form of takebacks is a bad idea. For one thing, screenshots and retweets exist: removing the originals doesn’t ever stop their circulation, but rather tends to increase it, as the act of retraction makes more people eager to see and preserve what was (intemperately or wrongly) said. For another, and with very few exceptions, it strikes me as a gross way of pretending that the conversation never actually took place, like a form of self-distancing. This is why I’m leaving the thread itself intact: other conversations more useful than the original have sprung up from it and within it, and in a forum like Twitter, deleting any retweeted content is rather akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. I said these things, and now I have apologised for them, and I hope that a more productive conversation will subsequently come from it.

I am sorry.

At long last, Speculative Fiction 2015 is here! I was lucky enough to co-edit this anthology of essays with the excellent Mark Oshiro, and it’s now out with Book Smugglers Publishing. This is a really wonderful collection of pieces from a range of fantastic authors, and while there’s something bittersweet in knowing it’s the last of the annual Speculative Fiction anthologies, I feel extremely proud of what we’ve produced.

SpecFic2015FrontCover4 (1)

In the same vein, I’m thrilled to share with you the cover for my forthcoming novel, A Tyranny of Queens, due out in May 2017 from Angry Robot. This book is the sequel to An Accident of Stars, and I’m really excited to see what people think of it. The official cover release is over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog, where ATOQ was also recently included in a list of 25 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Sequels We Can’t Wait to Read in 2017. (Which, I am honestly so fucking thrilled and flattered to be on that list with so many incredible books and authors, oh my actual god.)

Check out this gorgeous cover, with art by the always amazing Julie Dillon:

atyrannyofqueens_144dpi

Blurb:

Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

In other recent news, I have two podcast interviews available – one with Sherin Nicole and Day Al-Mohamed at Geek Girl Riot, and the other with Megan Leigh at Breaking the Glass Slipper. I had a great time recording both of these – I hope you enjoy listening to them, too!

An Accident of Stars is out today in the US! The UK release should follow on August 4th, and the Australian release sometime in the next two weeks, but as of today, it’s officially out in the wild. I really hope you enjoy it!

book blurb

So, remember that thing where Mark Oshiro and I are co-editing the Speculative Fiction 2015 anthology? The fabulous cover and even more fabulous TOC are here! Feast your eyes on the magnificence!

SpecFic2015FrontCover4 (1)

And here’s the TOC:

  • Aaron Bady
  • Abigail Nussbaum
  • Aidan Moher
  • Alex Dally MacFarlane
  • Aliette de Bodard
  • Amal El-Mohtar
  • Arkady Martine
  • Bárbara Morais
  • Bogi Takács
  • Carrie Sessarego
  • Cecilia Tan
  • Charles Tan
  • Chinelo Onwualu
  • Claire Light
  • Claire Spaulding
  • Daniel José Older
  • Erica McGillivray
  • Erin Horakova
  • Fabio Fernandes
  • Fran Wilde
  • Iona Sharma
  • Ira Gladkova
  • JA Micheline
  • JY Yang
  • James Whitbrook
  • Kari Sperring
  • Kate Elliott
  • Keguro Macharia
  • Lauren Smith
  • Leah Schnelbach
  • Leslie Light
  • Lincoln Michel
  • Liz Bourke
  • L. J. Vaughn
  • M. Sereno
  • Mary Anne Mohanraj
  • Mathilda Gregory
  • Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Miranda Dawson
  • N. K. Jemisin
  • Nalo Hopkinson
  • Octavia Cade
  • Phenderson Djeli Clarke
  • Renay Williams
  • Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
  • Rose Lemberg
  • S. L. Huang
  • Sady Doyle
  • Samantha Field
  • Sarah McCarry
  • Savannah Stoehr (honesteve)
  • Sofia Samatar
  • Sunil Patel
  • Tim Phipps
  • Troy L. Wiggins
  • Usman T. Malik
  • Vajra Chandrasekera
  • Veejane
  • Will Partin
  • Zen Cho

SpecFic’ 15 will be released in the summer and all profits from sales will be donated to Room to Read. We really hope you enjoy it!