Monday, August 18, 2014

5 Things GenCon taught me about Writing

A friend of mine was kind enough to give me her ticket to GenCon Indy 2014, "the best four days in gaming," which I'd say earns it.  While I was there, I was reminded of what should be obvious, that these Sourcebooks have a unique publishing industry all their own, that the same writing skills you might need for that epic fantasy novel can apply just as well to the 3rd Edition of Mutants and Masterminds. I think it's a downfall of our creative writing education system that such opportunities never even get mentioned.  I only got a tiny glimpse into this world, and wish I'd had time for more.  I thought I'd share a few things I learned.

Some of what I learned was basic writerly things.  Don't overuse words2 or punctuation marks, and think about how they look when on the page.  Read your work aloud, especially if it's going to be read aloud in game.  And of course, get everything in on time.  Publishing
Pictured: Average Paizo, Inc. Freelancer
always has a lot of moving parts, a lot of people waiting on the one before them in the assembly line.  Getting your work to someone sooner makes it more likely they'll still be waiting next time.  After all, 

2. Publishing is a Relationship
An important part of a relationship is of course, communication.  It's important to be honest with your ability.  If you can't pump out 20,000 words in two weeks, your editors should know, rather than wait on you and shatter a schedule.3 Many writers will be afraid that by asking questions, seeking clarification or further instruction, they might be annoying, but, at least in Paizo, Inc.'s case, questions are good.  Far better to ask "How do people in the River Kingdoms feel about Cheliax?" early on than to structure a subplot around an incorrect assumption, and take advantage of the

3. "Distributed Memory"
At one of the panels James Sutter talked about how he's been spoiled working with the shared universe of Golarion.  With so many people building the world together, he doesn't have to keep track of all of it, he just has to keep track of who is best to ask about, say, Ustalav.4 This idea of "Distributed Memory," and the way fans will make wiki entries for everything, creates a safe, comfortable world to work in, but the gaps in the built world are all fertile, open territory.  However, the downside of "Distributed Memory" is that an editor might blindly trust that the writer did the fact-checking.  So,

4. Don't try to sneak anything past your editor.
If you want to write an epic chase across Molthune,5 but don't feel like bothering with the river?  Sure, you might be able to not mention it. Sure, maybe your editor won't notice, and it'll all get through.  But the fans will notice.  Fans can smell continuity errors like sharks can smell blood in the water, and that can ruin a writer.  It's the downside to "Distributed Memory."  If you forget something important, everyone will remember this horrible breach of trust.  Because, after all, 

5. Writing for Games is about Love and Trust
When I reviewed Adventures in Time and Space, I didn't talk nearly enough about how flawless the adventure paths that come with it are.  Because, well, they're flawless.  They're fun to read and fun to run. Full of personality and perfectly capturing the spirit6 of Doctor Who, they're probably some of the best adventure paths I've ever encountered.  I said as much to a man selling the books only to realize I was talking to Andrew Peregrine himself.7  It hit me that writing for games requires a full awareness of the way storytelling requires both writer and reader to create a world between them.  To write for an established universe, like Goalrion, the Whoniverse, etc, it's an invitation to the readers more than most books are, to enter a world of wonder and merriment.  It's a sacred duty, bound by trust and respect, to be the one to create these portals.  Which is a heavy task.

Many thanks to Christopher Carey, Judy Bauer, Ryan Macklin, Chris Jackson, Gabrielle Harbowy, Howard Andrew Jones and James Sutter for their excellent and informative panels. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Black Dragon of England, Red Dragon of Scandinavia

I've seen posts arguing that because Westeros isn't real, there's no need for it to conform to historical arrangements of race (or gender, sex, etc.), that because it's a fantasy there's no reason it couldn't have "Women and PoC equal to white men and stuff?" But here's the thing.  Many of these articles ignore the fact that we already have a universe where a Medieval European Inspired Epic can have racial diversity: Our own.

For whatever reason1 we like to envision Medieval Europe as an entirely White-Skinned Continent.  Our virtual pastCloud Atlas Quote portrays the whiteness of Europe, despite actual past being somewhat more complicated.  What I'm presenting here are a few reasons why it really is perfectly okay to have people of color in your Medieval Fantasy Epic.

1. Romans
Did you know the columns weren't white either?
At its height the Roman Empire covered over a million miles of conquered territory, many of whom would join2 the Roman Army in order to become proper roman citizens for all of the benefits that entailed.3  However, rebellions happen, and the last thing an Empire wants is to train soldiers only for them to rebel.  The solution?  Train soldiers and ship them off to the other end of the world.  A Romanized Citizen from Memphis might be tempted to fight for their people, but would be less excited about joining the rebels in Londinium.4

This means you're going to have people from Cypress shuttled up to southern Brittany and people from Assyria moved to the German lowlands.  Assuming my Londinium example, odds are Africans ad Middle Easterns were setting down roots in England before the Anglo-Saxons did.

There wouldn't necessarily be more than a couple dozen or a perhaps a hundred5 Romans of Color in the British Isles who would be phased out over the generations, but your big historical romance about the Celtic Woman and her Roman Lover torn apart by the war has no reason it couldn't be about a black couple.

2. Arabs
In all fairness, the Arabic world were pretty racist to Europe.
Another part of the "History no one talks about" is that while Europe turned into Chicago, the Middle-East and Asia carried on just fine without us, making great strides in culture, mathematics and technology, and anthropology too.  A number of accounts we have of Europe include Muslims travelling north to meet the Barbarians.  Ahmad ibn Fadlan6 and Ahmad ibn Rustah have told us just as much about the Vikings as the Vikings themselves did7.

While there weren't an excess of Arabs settling in what was basically a sprawling, continent-sized version of Detroit, it isn't at all strange to see an Arabic man wandering around with some Celts, especially in the 10th century when Europe was the place to be.  Of course, the Crusades also led to racial diversity, but people keep telling stories about the Crusades making crusaders into good people and it'd be great to scrap that genre altogether.

3. The Vikings
This is where it gets a little ridiculous.  We love the idea of the Big Blond Northman.  Sexy fair skinned people are a prominent Swedish Export.8 But it needn't be so.  There was a big stink when Heimdall was played by black actor Idris Elba, because as we know the Norse Gods can't be people of color, the Vikings hadn't heard of black people!  But the idea of a multi-racial Asgard isn't really that ridiculous.

"The Vikings were equal-opportunity invaders! We oppressed everyone!"
The Nordic Cosmology details a merger between two tribes, the Aesir and the Vanir.  Some historians have speculated a cultural merging between native Scandinavians and an Eastern Indo-European Pantheon, a racial diversity forgotten by gene pool but preserved in lore.

But you're not here for mythology, you're here for the raiders.  Vikings raiders saw the Capsian Sea, the Byzantine Empire and Newfoundland in their search for cattle, jewelry, gold, slaves, and women.  In the 9th to 11th century they established presence in four continents.  The reason Scandinavians are so attractive9 is because the most beautiful and strong people were the ones taken as slaves or concubines.  This means mongols, africans and arabs were all up for grabs, exoticism in a slave being an easy way to identify them as "The Other."  However, as slaves in Scandinavia could earn, buy, or be given their freedom over time or generations, you would likely see a number of free people of color tending farms or minding cattle on the slopes of the fjords.  So when you're getting around to adapting Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, would it really be so bad if Þornbjörg were played by Zoe Saldana?

I know it turned into #AbuserDynamics
by the later seasons, but Merlin was at
least pretty colorblind in its casting.
There are other examples of a racial diverse Medieval Europe, including a black woman buried with honors in Rome, an African Slave who became a Russian General, a Tunisian man buried in a 13th century priory, and this fascinating DNA study showing Indigenous American ancestry within viking populations.  And these are only the ones we know about.  While non-white folks may have faced some scrutiny for being outlanders10 and difficulty due to often starting at the bottom of the social ladder as slaves, racism wasn't as deeply ingrained as we like to imagine and a person could still be seen as an equal.

Am I saying you have to include people of color in your Historical Romance/Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Dystopia? Not necessarily.  There are times and places of racial homogeneity, and there were probably few places after the fall of Rome that were likely to have no more than a few token people of color.  A realistic Medieval Europe would probably not look like a 90's kid's show.  But the idea that you must not include people of color in your European Fantasy Epic is ludicrous, and romanticizes a period of history as a Whites Only zone, and allows us to perpetuate that never-extant norm into other fictions as well.  When we Europeans stop telling our own story as one devoid of racial diversity, maybe we'll stop thinking its acceptable to tell other stories in the same way.

Pictured: Not actually a thing.

Like, tell me you wouldn't watch "The Magic School Bus Raids Northumbria"

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older - Review

I think it’s fair to say that Daniel José Older was the Protagonist of Midwest Writers Workshop 2014. A lot1 of people responded positively to his presentations on the issues of Writing About the Other, especially in terms of his genre, Urban Fantasy.  His critiques of the genre and its relation to power are sharp, poignant and precise.

What?  You try to find a picture of a
Ghost of Color.  Source.
He asks why Gentrification isn't a bigger issue within the Urban Fantasy Genre, given that it's an actual urban issue, which is why it's a major theme in Salsa Nocturna.  It's marketed as an anthology of ghost stories, and the full title seems to be "Salsa Nocturna Stories" based off of the cover, but honestly it reads less like an anthology and more like a novel with an eclectic approach to narrators, a la Six-Gun Tarot.  I think this may have been a marketing fail, as Short Story collections don't sell nearly as well as Urban Fantasy.  Then again, Older has seen success with Long Hidden.2

Salsa Nocturna has two primary protagonists, Carlos, a withdrawn half-dead ghosthunter and Gordo, a laid-back old Cubano who writes music with the dead.  Their narratives slowly start to intertwine as they and the other characters deal with paranormal trouble in the streets of New York.  The cast is diverse, colourful, heartfelt and often hilarious.

I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed reading this book, how thoroughly attached I was to all the characters or their struggles, or how satisfying it was seeing a lot of characters of color managing to one-up their predominantly white bosses or antagonists.  That old idea3 that race and class power dynamics persist even into the afterlife says a lot about how pervasive these imbalances are in our world.

Which brings me to the thing about Salsa Nocturna that I want to talk about.

The Publisher's Weekly quote can be read two ways, given the dualistic nature of the word "Original." On the one hand, it means that this work is unlike others.  Ghost mammoths, burgundy hurricanes, shape-shifting slave sorcerers, this book is very new.  But Older's origins, as a musician, a paramedic, and a man of color are ever present in the narrative.  It is original in that it has clear origins. This history saturates the narrative, makes these stories about the dead come alive.  Salsa Nocturna isn't afraid of its blatant racial commentary,4 which is why it's very important.

Because here's the skinny: the publishing industry is full of a lot of deeply ingrained racism.5  Writers of color, trying to tell stories about people of color, have a harder time getting published, and when they do they're shelved in their own sections (African-American Lit as opposed to Sci-Fi).
Dealing with this massive problem that haunts the publishing industry is the reason #WeNeedDiverseBooks exists.  People reading, and publicaly talking about, books like Salsa Nocturna will help counter the ridiculous notion that "White people can't connect to the stories of People of Colour."  So when I say "Everyone, go read Salsa Nocturna", this time I'm not just recommending it as a moving, action-packed urban fantasy novel, I'm recommending it as an actual political act.

"Do not, under any circumstances, hurt the ghost pachyderm."

Oh, and watch out for Half-Resurection Blues when it comes out.

Look at that cover.

This cover is gorgeous.