Archive for the ‘The Business of Writing’ Category

Diversity in SFF – Why Aztec?

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Why Aztecs?Yesterday on Twitter, the hashtag #DiversityInSFF was trending and lots of people were saying a ton of really good things about the issue of diversity in SF/F, whether it be in books or publishing as an establishment. I did a lot of retweeting but not a whole lot of talking; other people were saying the things I might say much better than I ever could. Last year, at MileHiCon, someone asked me why I write about Aztecs, something I’d never been asked before, and I really struggled to give an answer; I felt the need to give a really compelling answer because the question was posed by a Chicano, but I managed only to mumble something completely stupid because I’d never really thought about why. I’m sure my flustered response probably left him considering that I was just another white person robbing his culture for the “oohs” and “aahs”. I can’t begrudge him the curiosity about my motivations though. And with my first novel coming out soon (which has zero white people in it), perhaps it’s time to really address that question in a serious, thoughtful way.

Why do I write specifically Aztec science fiction, fantasy and romance?

Well, I can’t imagine writing anything else; even if I never published again, the urge to write these stories would not go away. Hell, I left my agent because I thought that, to continue down the traditional publishing path, I would have to give up writing Aztec-influenced stories, and quite frankly, I would rather have no traditional publishing career than do that (and I think she knew this and so gave me no answer when I flat out asked her if that’s what I needed to do). I have no way of describing it other than “It’s where my heart lies.” When I try to think of anything else in my life that I’ve ever felt this passionate about, there is nothing. The only thing that kept me from pursuing a higher degree in Mesoamerican studies was my lack of Spanish-speaking skills (oh, if only I could go back to high school and insist on taking Spanish rather than French….)

Growing up, I had very narrow ideas about the Aztecs; all I knew was the human sacrifice stuff, and cities of gold. We never studied them in high school; there were far more important things to study, like European history and literature, because in American academics, that is the center of the world. No one talked about things like plague blankets or the Trail of Tears, or how disease massively depopulated Central America in the decade following the Spanish Conquest. Mexico was this mysterious, colorful place full of maracas and sombreros and burritos, filled with people my stepfather called all kinds of terrible names for no apparent reason I could ascertain.

Then, in college, I took an introductory history class on Native Americans, which covered the North American tribes, but also the Inca, Maya, and the Aztecs. My professor was Chicano, and he spent a great deal of time talking about Aztec culture, with a lot of passion, and he stripped away all of my childhood misconceptions and provided a glimpse of things I never knew, had never heard of. I was already quite interested in mythology in general by that time, so learning the basics about Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli lit a fire in me; I’d never heard of them, and I’d never read anything about them, in either fiction nor nonfiction. But I wanted to. This was back in the days before Amazon, so finding such work was no easy task; in fact, I never did find anything like that back then.

The following year, I got into Clarion West and they encouraged us to try new things with our writing; strive for greatness and not be afraid of failing while reaching for it. So I decided to write what I couldn’t find, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I took still more classes in Mesoamerican studies as part of my degree, and learned still more and more interesting things about the complexity of Aztec culture. There was so much to tell, so much that everyday people were mistaken about Aztec culture and religion, and this fact is really at the crux of why I write what I write.

I’ll pretty much try reading anything I can find that has to do with either Aztecs or the Maya, because there’s so little out there, and while there is some really good stuff–stuff that shows care and passion for the culture–there’s also a great deal of simplistic focus on the more “sensationalist” aspects, like blood sacrifice; and overwhelmingly, that focus is negative. The default setting for Aztecs in fantasy is as the bad guys, using human sacrifice and blood magic to do evil things, and this focus serves to demonize not just the Aztec culture, but Mexican culture by proxy. And not just in literature, but in real life; probably the most disturbing example I’ve seen was an article in an American police publication calling for Mexicans to forsake their native heritage and the Nahuatl language as evil because Mexican drug gangs embrace it–and implied that only criminals would embrace it. There’s a long tradition in Western culture of demonizing Mesoamerican culture, starting all the way back with the Spanish conquistadors and their exaggerations and outright lies to justify the wholesale slaughter of the native peoples, and it’s time we said enough–particularly white people.

Stop with the evil Aztec blood magic already!

It’s fucking lazy at best, but mostly complete ignorant bullshit. There is a ton more to Aztec culture and history than just human sacrifice (and our modern, Christanized view of it), and it’s all as important and worthy of attention and understanding as western history and literature. Everyone knows who King Arthur was, but how many of us know about Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl? How about why human sacrifice was practiced at all? How many people know what the Triple Alliance was, and about the politics of the Valley at the time Cortes landed? Anyone who claims that Mesoamerican culture contributed nothing noteworthy to western civilization is just stupid (and yes, I’ve seen this said in discussions of why Mesoamerican history is not taught with the same depth as European history in primary school). There are countless stories worth telling, history worth knowing, and that’s why I write what I write.

And as this is not my culture, I know I will get things wrong; it’s inevitable that my upbringing in white western culture will cloud my view and influence the way I tell stories, but that’s no excuse to not try. It’s no excuse to not keep learning and trying to do better with the next story/novel. It will be uncomfortable–sometimes even painful and embarrassing–facing my mistakes, but I will become a better writer–and human being–for doing so.

Authors to read:

Ernest Hogan

Sabrina Vourvoulias

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Aliette de Bodard

Zoe Saadia

Starting New Novel Projects (Writing)

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Starting new novel projects can be the hardest thing to do. I’m the kind of writer that needs downtime between projects to recharge the batteries, and to find the time and energy to read for pleasure (though I’m going to try to do some of that every night if I can from now on, because my to-be-read pile is really starting to grow out of control.). I usually spend that time doing things like playing video games, or, as already mentioned, reading, or watching Buffy or SVU on DVD. I also spend a lot of time staring at Facebook and Twitter, perhaps hoping something interesting will pop up, or I take lots of naps. Often during this time, I’m working out things in my head and psyching myself up for the work ahead, so in a way I’m still writing, just in my head. But eventually, one must stop the procrastination and start doing some actual work of putting down words to paper…or in most cases these days, to the computer screen. For me, that time is quickly approaching again.

Starting new novel projects

Very soon, I’ll start up work on The Bone Flower Queen, book 2 of the Bone Flower Trilogy. Probably seems pretty late, huh? Well, I have no contract holding me to a deadline under penalty of quartering and “you’ll never work in this town again!”; one of the advantages of working with a small, newer press. But again I’ve already written about half of the book, so the urgency isn’t quite so bad as it would be if I had nothing done. I originally wrote one huge book, and I took the first half and that became The Bone Flower Throne. So what about the second half? Why isn’t it just two books?

Well, there are several big chunks of story missing out of it–important chunks that I skipped over in my newbie eagerness to “get to the good stuff” I’d been building towards the whole time. Further plotting and outlining revealed that I had in fact committed trilogy, despite my efforts to keep it to two books; there’s just too much to fit into a duology.  So there it is. I have two middle sections that need to be written before I can call draft one of book 2 finished, so really, not too bad, but not really like starting a completely new project.

So how do I go about starting new novel projects?

Starting New Novel Projects

The White Page of Doom!

At one time, I was a pantser; I just started writing and let the story take me where it wanted; that’s still how I write short fiction, when I write it. It’s quite easy to keep the full plot arc focused and clear in my head at such short lengths. But when it came to novels, I found myself constantly writing myself into corners, or in some cases off of cliffs. It’s not much hassle to have to back up 500 to 1k words if you make a misstep in a short story, but making that same mistake in a novel could mean having to cut 50k and have to restart where you went wrong. I had to face the fact that when starting new novel projects, planning ahead was the most efficient way to go about it for me. Not that I don’t ever make a wrong turn when plotting out before hand; sometimes I take the easy choice rather then the best one and end up having to go back and rework, but at the early stage I don’t worry about that.

What should you worry about?

Everyone’s got their own way, and I’m not a prescriptivist, so I can only relay my own experience. Typically, I’ll have some specific scenes in mind, and of course characters–I’m not starting anything at all unless I have some characters at least somewhat fleshed out in my mind. But mostly I need an ending before I can start; a theme, characters, a setting, none of that is any good to me without an ending. I have novels that I’d like to write that have nifty ideas and the inklings of characters, but unless I know what I’m aiming for, I won’t even contemplate starting. I have to have something to work towards. Some people can write without a goal in mind; I’ve even heard some say that knowing what happens ahead of time makes them lose interest, but when I hear that, I suspect they’ve never gotten beyond the first draft stage of writing a novel, for how do they maintain interest in the work long enough to do the necessary rewriting and the numerous edits an editor will ask for if they “already know what’s going to happen”?

Once I have an ending in mind, I take the parts I’ve put together and write a rough outline. My friend Janice Hardy recommends writing your query letter at this stage, and having done this with the alternate history romance novel, I think it’s a good idea. It’s much easier to write without a ton of story and side-plots getting in the way of what’s important: the core of the story. The query I wrote during the outlining stage is pretty close to the one I decided to use once I started querying agents, with just some slight rewording. The query also serves to keep me focused on my theme and making sure that everything within the story serves it in some way.

I like a road map, but I don’t need–nor want–turn by turn directions to my ending. There are some things I like to discover along the way, things I like to be surprised about, but I feel most comfortable when I have some intermediate goals to aim for, little inns along the road where I can rest and reassess the road ahead if necessary. I leave the scene by scene for the actual writing stage.

Setting off on the journey.

For me, the hardest part of starting is…well, actually starting to write. Every time I sit down to write the first sentence of a new project, the anxiety mounts and the desire to procrastinate sets in; the doubts creep in, telling me that I suck and I can’t possibly do this, there’s so much work ahead, but the only thing that will quiet this is to actually just start writing. Once I’ve got that first sentence down, no matter how terrible it is, the rest comes easily. Like the old saying goes, it’s like riding a bicycle and next thing I know, I’m 3k deep into the new novel and the juices are flowing and I’m riding the wave of joy that writing gives me.

So how do you get started? Are you a pantser, or maybe you outline that sucker until all you got to do is fill in a few details and you’ve got a first draft? Or maybe you have some alien technology that strips the words directly from your brain while you sleep and transcribes it for you into Word (in which case, why haven’t you patented this tech yet? You could make lots of money selling it to writers like me.). Share what works–and doesn’t work–for you in comments.

Want to win a digital ARC of my forthcoming novel The Bone Flower Throne? Click here for details. Contest ends September 3rd.

And now for a little down-time

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I find myself unexpectedly without a book to work on today, so it’s going to be a day of playing some Grand Theft Auto, right? Right? Yeah, probably not. While edits for BFT haven’t reached me yet, my editor did send me a honey-do-list of things he’d like from me, namely a map of some kind (which I do have! Hooray!), a Dramatis Personae (which I might have somewhere in my files, to help me make sure I was spelling names right), and a royal family tree (which I don’t have). There’s also back cover work to be done, which I think I’m actually going to start that over from scratch because the one from my query is just blah. So there’s plenty to work on there.

On the other project, I’ve officially kicked off the agent hunt, but am taking it slowly and meticulously this time. The previous time I was flat-out set on getting an agent; this time, I’m feeling like it’s less imperative. I like the idea of having someone on my team who can not only poke an editor for an update but actually get a timely response to such things, not to mention that keen eye for contract slipperiness, but the romance genre does appear to be more open to unagented authors than SF/F, so I could go it alone if need be. So this time, I’m picking and choosing my queries carefully. There is a lot of research to be done, websites and blogs to read, Twitter feeds and interviews to peruse to help me solidify my small list of agents to approach.

In the end, I’m likely to do a little bit of all it. But mostly I’m going to be doing laundry. Lots and lots of laundry.

Where oh where have you been?

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Been quite a while since I’ve made an update, and I’ve been very busy but very productive. So a little update on matters:

The publication date for my first novel The Bone Flower Throne has been set for October 19, 2013, a really good date since that coincides with MileHiCon here in Denver, so I’m looking into possibly throwing a release party there. More details on that once I get reservations and pub dates more solidified.

Production on said novel is moving along. I expect to receive edits any day now, and Panverse has hired a wonderful artist to do the cover art: Zelda Devon, who–along with her partner Kurt Huggins–did the lovely web art for this very site. The initial concept sketches I’ve seen are very exciting. Arcs are scheduled for mid July, so if you’re interested in reading and reviewing the book on Goodreads or Amazon, drop me a message via the contact page and I’ll see what I can do. Word of mouth is very important with small press books, and the best way to spread it is with reviews.

As for promotion, I recently set up a Pinterst account and created boards for not only The Bone Flower Throne, but its sequels and another project I’ve been working on (more about that below). They are collections of art and photographs the relate to the books or remind me of things that happen in them (there are a few pieces that are original art related to the books and they are marked as such).

On the new writing front, I’ve been extremely busy. I’m in the final stages of finishing up work on my alternate history romance, which I’m calling Fugitives of Fate. I had a tremendously fun time writing this book, set very early in my One World series, and I have at least one more novel idea I’d like to pursue at some point, but for now it’s time to focus on seeing if I can sell this.

I’m about to test out the agent waters again, to help me decide if I’m still hanging out in the unsaleable pool and whether or not I should pursue this novel’s publication on my own. The good news is that I’ve found at least one major romance publisher with a new imprint that is looking for alternate history, so I’m more hopeful about the book’s chances than I was at the beginning of the year, but the whole “I’ve never read anything like this before” I’m hearing does make me worried (granted this statement is often followed by “Sounds really cool!” and “I want to read more!” but still…. I guess I’ve become a bit gun-shy.). I’ve signed up for my first ever pitches with an agent and an editor at the upcoming CRW minicon in August, so I’m getting my stuff prepared for that 20 minutes of terror.

And that’s where things stand right now. Lots going on, most of it probably not all that interesting to talk about on a daily basis. Writing is mostly just putting the words on paper and rearranging them over and over until they look the best, not the most exciting thing to read about.

Is Historical Romance Alternate History?

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When I became interested in writing romance, my reading predilections steered me directly into historical romance. I like a good relationship story, and I love history, so what’s not to like? But as I’ve started following the blogs of historical romance writers, I’ve started noticing something; writers referring to historical romance as “alternate history”. I’ve always shook my head at this, but I keep seeing it come up again and again, and it’s really started to feel like a burr in my boot every time I see. Do folks just not know what alternate history is? I cut my teeth in science fiction writing alternate history, and from what I’ve read of historical romance, nothing I’ve read is true alternate history.

So what is alternate history? At its core, AH is What if?. Further, Wikipedia defines it as looking “at ‘what if’ scenarios from some of history’s most pivotal turning points and present[ing] a completely different version, sometimes based on science and fact, but often based on conjecture. The exploration of how the world would look today if various changes occurred and what these alternate worlds would be like forms the basis of this vast subject matter.” So in AH, the world which we know has been changed and the resulting future is noticeably different than the one we live in.

The thing about historical romance is that, in my limited reading so far, there’s been no “what if?” and no significant altering of history. There’s a lot of taking liberties with historical figures, usually minor ones, or outright substitution of actual historical figures with made up ones, but in the end, history is not fundamentally different than we know it; the world is not changed so that Columbus never discovers the Americas or the Roman Empire survives into the modern era. History continues on in pretty much the same fashion it already did. All the historical romances I’ve read thus far miss this key benchmark of alternate history.

So, if they aren’t alternate history, then what are they? Taking a look at Uchronia’s definitions, I’d call them Secret Histories. Some aren’t even that; they’re just romance stories told in a historical setting.

But why is the distinction even important? Maybe it’s not, to anyone but me. See, I want to read actual alternate history romance, romances set within “what if” scenarios where the story is not confined by actual history, where unlikely relationship combinations occur thanks to history not unfolding the way it actually did. My own current WIP is exactly this kind of story; it takes place early in the timeline of my One World series, within a couple years of the point of divergence–the Mexica defeat and kill Cortes before the Spanish can start their march inland–and as a result, two historical figures who would have been enemies instead end up falling in love with each other. And the story is highly aware of its own alternate-ness and makes it a plot-point. These are the kinds of stories I’d really like to read more of.

Am I just missing the true alternate history romances out there? Have you read any/can recommend any? My impression is that there aren’t many–if any–out there.