Calling All Problem Daughters!

Hello, hello dear Reader! Happiest of New Years! It’s so good to see you again! What? Where have I been, you ask? Nowhere. Everywhere. I can’t say. There’s no time. Shut up!

Something wonderful has happened,  dear Reader! In the time since we last spoke, I have undergone a marvelous transformation. I have become… an EDITOR!!!

I’m pleased to announce that I will be co-editing (with Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad) Problem Daughtersa brand-spanking-new anthology of Feminist speculative fiction forthcoming from the Future Fire.

But this ain’t your mom’s Feminist speculative fiction anthology! (Or maybe it totally is.) Here’s our brief:

Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.

Sound cool? We think so, too. Female agency isn’t something invented by middle-class North Americans in the mid-to-late  20th century, after all.  Empowered women have always existed, across culture and across time. And they have lived millions and billions of lives, and carried entire communities on their backs.

Not all women choose to express their agency in the same way, and not all feminists share the same vision of the world. We want to bring you lots of sparkling new sci-fi and fantasy tales filled with bold, actively compelling heroines unlike any you’ve met before!

Help us bring them to you a little faster. Check out our freshly launched fundraiser here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/problem-daughters-fantasy-feminism/x/10044963#/

We’re up to our ears in kick-ass perks! Head on over and pick out something you like. There’s something for everyone:

You’ll be able to pre-order  Problem Daughters in whatever format you may desire (there’s even a super-limited edition hardcover with personalized insert, custom  crocheted bookmark and numbered bookplate, signed by the editors. How cool is that?! Only three of these  left in the whole wide world! Make one of them yours!)

We’ve got complete canon book bundles for all you Future Fire fans of all Future Fire titles (including  Accessing the Future, home of my space opera Pirate Songs). For you book collectors, we have a  signed and personalized hardcover of Sofia Samatar’ s new book The Winged  Histories , the story of four “problem daughters” seeking not just to survive war, but to be remembered by history.

For all of you  writers  wanting to give your short fiction that extra edge, we’ve got short story critiques and coaching sessions aplenty,  from acclaimed authors as well as editors, so you can see how this short fiction racket works from both sides of the slush pile (you can even get your story critiqued by one of the Problem Daughters editors, if you’re interested to know what kinds of  stories knock our socks off). And the television writer seeking an experienced set of eyes on her pilot or spec script can win herself a comprehensive script critique (not to mention usable and practical advice) from a 20- year industry veteran.

We’ve got some simply fucking adorable, very limited edition  and completely custom-made crocheted “Problem Daughter” dolls. Have one created for you in the likeness of any historical problem daughter you wish. Crocheted Lady Godiva doll, anyone? I wonder if she’ll come with her own little crocheted horse? Get ’em while they’re hot. Only two remain.

If you really feel like digging deep and helping this beautiful book get made, 5-time Bram Stoker winner Nancy Holder needs a name for a very complex and important character (well, a character, anyway) in her next book, and she wants to use yours! In the biz, we call it a Tuckerization.  Act quickly, and you could be a character in the next Teen Wolf. Or Buffy novel. Or something entirely new and equally cool!

I can’t tell you any of these awesome perks will go unclaimed for long, but there’s more perks to come, so stay tuned! I’ve heard rumblings of signed art prints, and super exclusive batches of a certain writer’s rare-breed grape jam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Storming the Podcastle, Why Kids Make Better Protagonists

On the morning after my mother’s memorial (a tearful, giggly. heartbroken whirl of homemade Halloween  costumes and butterfly wings)  I learned that my very YA-flavored  story “In the Woods Behind My House” had found a home in Podcastle, the world’s first audio fantasy magazine and one of my favorite pro-rate markets. Listen to it here: http://podcastle.org/2016/01/06/podcastle-397-in-the-woods-behind-my-house/

Truthfully, my story of a twelve year old boy and the secret animal companion who dwells in his backyard was not a story I ever felt I had much hope of selling. It was a story very dear to my writer’s heart. But I supposed that, because it centers around a young adult protagonist, and  because it relies on a  young adult’s impressions of the world without being a story especially for young adults,  that it  must be (sin of sins) Unmarketable.

Now that I have actually sold the thing, now that the gnawing, blinding fear of being found to be Unmarketable and (gulp!) Weird has passed, I am able to remember three very obvious and important things:

  1. Every story I have ever sold has featured at least one child or young adult protagonist, and the majority were not written for young adults.
  2. This is not something I invented. Youthful protagonists abound in speculative fiction, without apology. The fields of  science fiction and fantasy have always been home to young heroes in very big and serious  worlds, and the question of readership, of who those worlds are for, has always been fluid.

and

3. That fluidity is what  I’ve always loved about speculative fiction.

So why does so much of speculative fiction center around child or young adult protagonists? It’s a question that always seems to be of particular concern to those who don’t read or write genre fiction. Why do all these adult writers feel the need to write stories about children if they’re not intended to be for children? What’s the psychology behind  that? 

It’s a question that becomes about a hundred times more pointed if your protagonist is a young adult, and its a question I’ve never been able to get past the subtext of: Children?  Why would they matter?  Why are we talking about things that matter to them? We’re all  adults. What’s up with you that you’re so obsessed with depicting children as people? Is it because you’re not really an adult?

(Note: nobody has ever once said anything even approaching this to me. I apologize to the poor phantom non-fantasy reader to whom I am attributing so much callous self-absorption.)

A family member once posited (without any offense intended) that the reason behind fantasy’s predilection for young protagonists is the same reason for its widespread popularity. Because reading fantasy requires an intentional childishness, a purposeful transporting of oneself back to the unseasoned, immature mindset of a child. In other words, people  who read fantasy are doing so because they really want to be children, so it follows that many of the protagonists in fantasy  stories are going to be children.

This theory takes a pretty dim view of humanity, though, and not just the humanity of our present Harry Potter-loving culture. Historically, most stories across civilizations have been what we’d call fantasy. The story entirely without magic is a very new thing. Even in the thoroughly  disenchanting shadow of the Protestant reformation, some of the first and most popular novels were Gothic novels, rife with supernatural occurrences and- incidentally- teenage  protagonists.

Are we really prepared to entertain the suggestion that most of storytelling throughout human history has been one giant exercise in ignoring adulthood? (some people truly believe that this is all stories are for, but such people tend not to read very much of any sort of fiction.)  No, the child warriors and martyrs and revolutionaries of speculative fiction are not inviting us to be children, at least not in an indulgent, nostalgic sense.

I think the true reason that speculative fiction stories are so often populated by children is that they simply make better, more dynamic, more decisive protagonists than adults.

I am currently in the midst of writing yet another story with a child protagonist, a girl surviving  and thriving in the dilapidated  recession ghost-town of her childhood by  adhering to a mysterious, nonsensical barter system, the magical reasoning of which she does not understand.

She is absolutely a child. She is full of the immediate childish concerns of how to get most pleasantly from one day to the next. She prioritizes like a child.  She solves her problems like a child. And I am utterly in love with her for it.  Writing this girl and her friends as they scramble busily around  an empty boardwalk town that  would put despair into the hearts of most adults has been an eye-opening crash course in the shaping  of a protagonist.

Like any good dynamic protagonist, children have little time in their schedules for despair. They are natural adapters, natural solution-seekers. They lack the patience or the full-blown grownup narcissism to sit and wonder why something is happening to them. They are often over their tantrum, up off the floor,  and onto a next, more rewarding course of action before an adult is through scratching their ass, or pouring their first self-pitying glass of wine.

Because children understand that it doesn’t matter how unfair or outrageous or nonsensical a situation is. They know instinctively that the grownup world isn’t prepared to take their feelings  into consideration. Unfairness, strangeness, having to operate within a system of rules that don’t make any sense and often seem stacked against you, that’s all just part of being alive for a child.

A child doesn’t collapse into a puddle of rage and permanent inaction because the odds are against him and his world is spinning out of control. The odds are always against him. He was never in control.   He simply takes in the new rules governing his situation, assesses the courses of action that are open to him, and then chooses one. (“Will it change anything if I kick and scream like someone’s beating me? Nope. I better try something else. What if I told a lie?”

It’s that kind of active seeking, that kind of decisiveness, that causes a protagonist to be a  true mover of the action

Particularly in speculative fiction, where “the rules” of a world are often as strange and new to its central character as to the audience, child protagonists are a natural fit. You don’t want a protagonist who is going to be too bogged down by the irrationality of what is happening to them to properly drive the story. To have a protagonist take as long to adjust to his new circumstances as the average adult would be tedious in the extreme, and often is. Every seasoned reader of speculative fiction  has at one point or another found themselves in a story where a protagonist’s hard-headed refusal to accept what’s happening brings the action to a screeching halt. “I can’t be turning into a were-boar! There’s got to be some other, much less simple explanation. Were-boars do not exist. HOW COULD THIS BE HAPPENING TO ONE SUCH AS ME?! I have to think about this for four or five pages while I lie to my girlfriend and worry about keeping my  job at the bank.”

Simply choosing a child protagonist sidesteps a lot of the rage and stupified self-pity and CT scans and visits to the psychiatrist’s office that seem so natural in adults, but are so undesirable in most protagonists. When the child protagonist makes the discovery that she is turning into a were-boar, she can be relied upon to do something with that discovery. And it’s what a protagonist does with new information that most often makes a story.

Children understand the uselessness of inaction. Even if the actions they end up taking are not altogether well-informed, or well thought out, a child protagonist understands that only deliberate action leads to deliberate change in circumstance.  There is no way to change the rules of the world by negating them or by lamenting their unfairness. The story only really begins when you decide to accept the rules. The tale can only be spun from within, from betwixt and between. If a protagonist hopes to break free of the rules, he or she must do so from the inside.

 

 

Unlikely Academia, or Why We All Want to Go to Hogwarts

In a very splendid piece of writerly news, my novelette Follow Me Down will appear in Unlikely Story’s upcoming Journal of Unlikely Academia, a collection of stories devoted exclusively to strange and fantastical institutions of learning.

Yes, that means every wonderful thing you think it does: complicated lessons in magic, syllabaries of untranslatable runes and long-forgotten languages, tomes of alchemal wisdom, hidden passages to hidden libraries, sacred objects of divination…

As my third pro-rate sale, this qualifies me for full active membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (be sure to visit my snazzy new updated SFWA profile in the coming weeks!) and I truly do not think I could have conjured a better hat trick! Seriously, for a proud Ravenclaw, and long-time scholar at Jordan College, what could be finer?

(The answer is nothing could be finer. Check out Unlikely Story this August and discover how the experts navigate supernatural pregnancy at the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics!)     

So, this has me thinking. What is it that appeals to us about these magical schools? What exactly causes us to want to gallivant around Lyra’s Oxford with only our daemons as company? What’s so thrilling about finally having puzzled out, by long and scientifically rigorous processes, what Hogwarts house we empirically belong to? (before Pottermore, children, we did it the old-fashioned way, by the blood-tainted sweat of our fevered brows!).

The secret, powerful bastion of knowledge seems to be an ever-renewable story concept. There are always new school stories in speculative fiction, strange places to learn strange things. There were, of course, a rash of fantastical school stories trailing in the wake of Harry Potter, some of them entertainingly derivative, some beautiful, some painfully sloppy. But long before readers rushed to the post-Hogwarts succor of  Rick Riordan’s  The Lightning Thief,  or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there were books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea , and even Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to school us in things unusual.

Part of the reason the schoolroom remains such a wet well for telling speculative stories has to do with the nature of speculative fiction itself. Speculative Fiction is all about rules. It’s about acclimating the reader to a special set  of laws that govern the universe of the story.  Who becomes a ghost and why? How much blood to make a spell work? Which carefully selected fourteen year-olds will pilot our giant battle-robots?

School is a natural setting for learning new rules. In an almost literal sense, a writer can sit her reader down and say “Listen up! Pay attention! There’ll be a test on this!” School settings are an ideal place to dump exposition, install important plot devices, and world-build. The fantastical school is, in a lot of ways, specially formatted for a wide-eyed protagonist to uncover  and explore it.

But it’s not just the story opportunities they offer writers that make school stories appealing. Such stories always seem to find an effusive audience, no matter how many times writers write them.

I suspect that a larger part of the draw for readers-we bookish, we nerdy, we asthmatic few- is the bright, shimmering meritocracy that is school itself.  School is a place for learning the laws of the universe, but it’s also a place for learning new skills, for testing previously untested powers (magical or otherwise). It’s a place where, if you are clever enough and quick enough and skilled enough, and hard-working enough, the world will unfold like a paper fortune-teller and reveal to you its secrets.

The true nerd ever suspects that there is some radiant untold truth she has yet to set eyes on waiting just behind the curtain. In a small way, she really believes in great, powerful books she hasn’t read, and great powerful tables of elements with which she is not familiar, and great, powerful maps of places she has never heard of. Because the world is always full of strange new things to know.