I have been thinking about how to approach the torrent of revelations coming out of Twitter in recent days. Not because I am in any way close to any of the people involved, but rather because I felt I needed to. And I fully recognize that this situation is not about me, and my thoughts are unlikely to enrich it. But this blog is part therapy, and I hope I also don’t cause harm by speaking on the subject.
Several notable authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy have been dragged out for various forms of harassment of women, non-binary folks, and queer people they perceived as vulnerable. Those include Myke Cole, Sam Sykes, Mark Lawrence, Max Temkin, and Warren Ellis. Some of them I’ve met in person, others I know only through their writing or reputation. None has made any overtly bad impression on me.
And I don’t for a second struggle believing the accusations leveled against them.
It’s not even about believing the accusers in this case. Most of these men have freely admitted to their actions, with varying degrees of accepting responsibility. Some have ran away from Twitter, preferring to act like victims. Others are so far standing firm and accepting their punishment, whatever that’s worth to anyone.
It made me consider my own behavior. As a pretty firmly established gay man who hasn’t been on any kind of “prowl” in quite a few years now, I have never considered myself any kind of threat to women. More than that, in my few and limited interactions with female and queer authors, I’ve made it a point to be respectful and considerate.
But I have no way of knowing how successful I have been. I have witnessed autograph tables of accomplished, wonderfully talented women stay empty. Meanwhile, one lane over, a male author would have several lines struggling to fit into the allotted space. I have been in some of those big lines, rather than the empty ones. Of course, sometimes the reason was the particular names involved, rather than gender.
But this raises another question — if a not-inconsiderable number of the most successful writers in the field are men, do they not have an even bigger responsibility to make our shared spaces feel safer and more nurturing for women and queer folks? And what message does it send to these people, when they come to conventions and conferences, only to be met by crude jokes, belittling behavior, and other forms of often overt harassment? Because let me tell you, a super buff dude grabbing me in his lap while telling me he wants to pee on me, would NOT make me want to return to that space.
We are all capable of calling this out. And I believe we are responsible to do so. As fans, as hopeful writers — scary though that might be to our proto-careers — and as people who believe in human dignity and every person’s right to feel safe in any public space they enter. We can uplift underrepresented voices, so that these public spaces are not ran by drunken cops or writer dynasty legacies.
And in the mean time, it takes more than a Twitter repentance. Many of these dudes are fairly successful in their careers. So, put your money where your apologies are. Make meaningful steps to help women, POC, and queer authors. If you need an apology tour, go donate to a charity, or check yourself into rehab. It is high time that “taking responsibility” means more than 240 symbols on a social network.
At C2E2, I decided to look smart at one of the “Writers Talking About Writering” panels, and once the floor was open for questions, asked mine: “If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, how do you avoid solving problems too neatly for your characters?” (Let’s pretend I phrased it this way, rather than a mumbling shortness-of-breath situation.) Sam Sykes was one of the people who answered, and his answer, which I am paraphrasing here, was on the lines of “I think of everything that could go wrong in any given moment, and then explore where that takes the character.”
And OH BOY does he! Seven Blades in Black (first in the The Grave of Empires series) is a masterclass in Things Going Wrong, and I loved every. Single. Second. Of it.
Sal the Cacophony has an axe to grind. She was once a mage of the Imperium, whose power was stolen during a conspiracy to dethrone an Emperor. She has a list of the people responsible, and she is going through it. With a demon-possessed hand canon that shoots magical explosions.
The book takes place in a no-man’s-but-kinda-every-man’s-land called the Scar. Once a new frontier for the magicratic Imperium from across the sea, it has been ravaged by a generation-long war between Imperial forces and their former slaves, who have wrested freedom through mystical relics and a gun-powering substance found in the new land, and formed the no less bloodthirsty Revolution. Nobody cares about the little people, huddled in their freeholds and townships. Including Sal, who also doesn’t care about either side in the war.
Seven Blades in Black is an anti-heroic fantasy. Sal is a broken, broken woman, and the worst of the scar tissue isn’t even on the surface. She is cynical to a fault, a painful knot of dry wit and nihilism, placing little to no value on her own well-being, so long as she can kill everyone on her list. And when your enemies are some of the most powerful mages of your generation, things tend to get.. damaging. Sam Sykes somehow manages to throw every available kitchen sink at his protagonist, and yet the book never falls into gloom-and-doom territory. While the world and story are certainly grimdark, the narrative is so action-packed that at no point does it even consider dragging.
Another thing Sykes said in answer to my question at C2E2, was that characters who feel very strongly about something will always clash against the rest of the world. This is what drives much of Seven Blades in Black. Where Sal has a monomaniacal drive to kill those who wronged her once upon a time, the people around her do not. The few side characters of the book clash with Sal on a deeply intimate level, and for how action-driven the story is, I found myself genuinely entangled in the borderline toxic relationships she has with others nearly as much as I was with her quest.
So, if you have ever wondered what would happen if you mixed a techno-magical Final Fantasy style world with a classic revenge samurai story, added some serious emotional trauma and made your character somehow still read as the absolute coolest, then Seven Blades in Black is your book, as it was most certainly mine. And I am definitely vibrating on high frequency, waiting for the sequel in August!
Last year was the first time I actually went to a panel on
writing. Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo is a comic-con, rather
than a professional one, but they had acquired some impressive names, such as
Mary Robinette Kowal and Cory Doctorow, among others (both of whom are absolute
rock stars by the way). This time around the stable was even larger, with
people such as John Scalzi, Terry Brooks, and Sam Sykes, as well as a number of
first-time authors like K.M. Szpara and Chris Kluwe, and a serious presence of
the Horror and Young Adult variety, spearheaded by Joe Hill and Rainbow Rowell
I focused on the SFF panels, which took the biggest chunk of my convention weekend, and it was an energizing (and a tiny bit frustrating) experience. Despite the well thought out panel topics, the actual result seemed to always amount to “writers talking about writering”, which I totally loved. And listening to people you admire share their experiences in the field you ascribe to, helps tremendously to humanize and demystify said field.
On the other hand, having people talk about living your life’s dream when you sometimes feel so far away from achieving it, can be a bit depressing (beer helps with that, by the way). More than anything though, it paints in stark colors the simple fact that the steps to traditional publishing are very simple, very accessible, and each one requires tremendous amounts of work, patience, and determination. There are no short cuts. But in its own way, this is motivating as well.
K.M. Szpara and the importance of being earnest. Even among a group as diverse as the panels at C2E2 offered, Szpara stood out to me, and not only because I had practically just finished his book (or because, I was somehow the fanboy who got to be his first signee). He approached both of his appearances (“Tor Presents: Chaos and Cosmos” and “The Devil You Know”) with a mixture of thoughtfulness and passion that really resonated with me. An awareness of the current field, mixed with an impish attitude that I, in my rigid glory, can only admire from a distance. Plus, raising awareness of the important issue of whether Dolores Umbridge would make a good dom.
One thing that stuck with me was his advice on approaching fiction writing with the abandon of a fanfic writer. No fear of censorship, no need to worry about market or reception. It is a constant struggle and a subject of endless second-guessing for me, trying to determine whether I write a certain way because I want to, or because I think that’s how it’s “supposed” to be written. It was refreshing to hear someone who has achieved success vouch for the former. And though of course one can’t just ignore all external factors when pursuing traditional publishing, it is a nice reminder all the same that ultimately you write better when your primary drive isn’t worry about what the market might expect.
Zack Jordan and the value of showmanship. Zack appeared on only one panel – “Authors on ‘The Best Advice I Ever Got’” – which makes sense, considering his first book, The Last Human, is not even out yet (it is scheduled for late March). That particular panel quickly became a conversation about editing and author reaction thereof, and Jordan made the very important point that if you are trying to get published and sell your work for moneys, then you are no longer writing just “for yourself”. And the editor is the person whose job is to champion the book, not stifle the author, provided of course that the two are a good fit.
What was interesting to me about him though, was not the panel, but rather his booth on the main floor, glued to the Del Rey stand. Jordan, who has background in tech (one assumes) startups had set up a whole performance installation where he and a couple of other dudes in jumpsuits were “scanning” the crowd for potential humans, and issuing honest-to-Cthulhu, printed on the spot ID cards of your actual race, with picture and everything. Beyond the fourth wall, he was also handing out advance reading copies of The Last Human, and when I questioned him about the whole thing, he told me that Del Rey had provided the booth space, and he had set up everything else, from his helpers, to the card printers, the scanning app, all of it.
Moral of the story? For obvious market reasons, first time SFF writers are nobody’s budget priority. But if you are good at selling yourself, you can make a big impression with limited resources. Now if only I could in any way leverage classical violin training for PR…
John Scalzi and the JOHN FUCKING SCALZI!!! Perhaps a little context is necessary. I am sure I will end up writing about this in a bit more detail in the future, but suffice to say that The Collapsing Empire was the book that made me decide I was going to get off (on?) my ass and actually write a damn novel. Later that same year, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop To A Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing was the collection of blog posts that made me decide I was going to pursue a writing career like a real boy.
So, while I wouldn’t credit Scalzi’s work with the inspiration for my own writing, his personality has definitely been directly responsible for my believing I can do this. And meeting him in person was such an amazing experience. He is a smug dork in the best possible way, and despite having the second largest autograph line after Terry Brooks, he spent a lot of time chatting with everyone and being friendly as hell. In the end, he told me to “keep writing, and don’t dare stopping”, and in my head canon, he is greatly invested in my success.
This is by no means the extent of my impressions of the convention or the writers I met there, but most of my other experiences boil down to small anecdotes, reinforcements of personal feelings, and some truly encouraging advice and raw emotion from Sam Sykes, who I shamefully had not read a word by until the very morning of C2E2 — a mistake I am currently fixing with enthusiasm. Also worth mentioning is Chris Kluwe , who was insanely charming and showed me that just because I am a bigot who thinks sportsball is dumb, doesn’t mean sportsball people can’t be thoughtful or have meaningful contributions outside of hoops, or whatever it is you do in the NFL.
Overall, after nearly a decade of walking around booths of comic books, artwork, and toys, standing in lines for autographs and photo ops with cast members of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am discovering that my inner diligent student likes sitting in panels discussing the craft and business of writing more than pretty much anything else a con might offer. So I am definitely ready to test this theory at a professional lit-con. Hopefully, I get a chance later in the year.
C2E2 was very much a success (in the sense that I got to listen to people who are living out my life’s dream talk about living out my life’s dream, which is simultaneously its own punishment and its own reward), but my book acquisition rate continued its upward trajectory. There is a reality show somewhere, waiting to have me on an episode, and I do not know if I should be proud, or deeply ashamed. But either way, here is the boon — some of it purchased, some freely given, most of it autographed — for accountability purposes. Not featured — Chris Kluwe’s Otaku, which I forgot to put in the shot, and which gives me just the right kind of Ready Player One vibes.
Now if I can be strong enough to keep to my previously established reading plans…
It may have already become evident from the Reading Updates so far, that I tend to change plans mid-stride. My reading habits are not entirely chaotic, and if anything, the act of putting them down on this blog has helped tremendously in keeping me on track. But sometimes one encounters extenuating circumstances. Getting ARCs of books I’ve been anticipating, is one such. Another, are conventions. Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (or C2E2) is happening soon, and there are several panels with science fiction and fantasy writers. Some of them I have never heard of. A few have been on my to-read list for a while.
And a couple have changed my life and inspired me to pursue writing as a career.
But either way, this means catching up on some books I had not planned to read yet. Not that I am complaining, it’s always great to become acquainted with a new author. Now I only have to find the balance between excitement at specific titles, guilt from not not following my plans, and the urgency of reading books before the convention comes, so I am not a total idiot if I interact with people I admire.
In the end, I get to read a ton. So I still win ^_^