Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Writing (page 2 of 9)

Avoiding Cultural Appropriation: They’re Doing It Right

Last week I talked about cultural appropriation, that offshoot of colonialism which gets thrust into everyday lives as well as literature.

This week, I wanted to address some texts made (at least in part) by people writing outside of their demographic that deal with cultural appropriation. These representative of a few strategies that one could take when writing outside of one’s own culture.

Research Like A Fiend

Michael Gruber: Tropic of Night

Cover to Tropic of Night by Michael GruberWhat is it about?

This is the first novel in a thriller series set in Miami, revolving around Cuban-American detective Jimmy Paz.

Jane Doe lives in the shadows under an assumed name. A once-promising anthropologist and an expert on shamanism, everyone thinks she’s dead. Or so she hopes.

Jimmy Paz is a Cuban-American police detective. Straddling two cultures, he understands things others cannot.

When the killings start — a series of ritualistic murders — all of Miami is terrified. Especially Jane. She knows the dark truth that Jimmy must desperately search to uncover. As their lives slowly interconnect, Jane and Paz are soon caught in a cataclysmic battle between good and an evil as unimaginable as it is terrifying . . .

How does it avoid cultural appropriation?

I think that the amount of research Gruber did to prepare for this book shows. There are several cultures drawn out in believable, delicious detail in this thriller: Cuban, Cuban-American, Yoruban (in Nigeria and Mali), Chenka (in Siberia). The main character (and only significant white character, if I recall correctly), the anthropologist known as Jane Doe, is well aware of her own anthropological/outsider lens on these cultures. At the same time, she has a visceral experience in Siberia that changes her forever. She doesn’t lose the outsider lens, but she’s got some strong feelings about shamanism…


Make a Parallel World

Leia Weathington: The Legend of Bold Riley

photo of the trade paperback of Legend of Bold RileyWhat is is about?

This comic from Northwest Press, published as a trade paperback and now with shiny new issues, follows the heroic journeys of Princess Rilavashana SanParite, called Bold Riley. She’s a swashbuckling, monster-fighting, lady-seducing hero, who uses both her brains and her brawn to solve problems. She gallivants around the fictional land of Prakkalore having adventures. The comic’s format is a selection of interconnected short stories with a rotating set of artists. All the stories are written by Leia Weathington.

How does it avoid cultural appropriation?

Prakkalore is not India. But it’s not India in the same way that Middle Earth is not Scandinavia. It’s a colorful fantasy world populated by monsters and heroes that come out of primarily Indian mythology. The name Bold Riley was given to Princess Rilavashana by an exotic Westerner with red hair who was one of her palace tutors. While the Western Dude Gives Name bit might be problematic in other contexts, he’s an outsider and an incidental character. Prakkalore is default. (This connects to next week’s topic, Othering.)


Deal with Cultural Appropriation as Part of the Text

Jeremy Hersh: Natives

What is it about?

In Hersh’s short film, a Manhattanite lesbian couple, Rachel and Anita, go on a trip to meet one of Anita’s sort of estranged parents. They haven’t come out to Anita’s parents, who are native and live on a reservation. Rachel is all kinds of awkward trying to connect with them. It’s a good film, and only 20 minutes long, so I’ll just post it here:

How does it deal with cultural appropriation?

From Hersh’s director’s statement:

Rachel, a young Manhattanite photographer and Anita’s girlfriend, is also guilty of appropriating her girlfriend, and in perhaps a more obvious way. Rachel is fascinated by Anita’s Native American roots.The journey that Rachel goes on in the film is analogous to my process in researching, writing and planning the film. Throughout, I’ve carefully tried to present my own fascination with Native American culture as genuine and respectful, hoping to keep my directorial eye reverential and not exploitative. Yet, I’ve also learned during the process that being constantly cautious about being offensive can easily lead to condescension. This is exactly what Rachel is guilty of in the film.


Preview of coming attractions: Othering! Books I’m reading that are written by people outside of my demographic!

Writing Outside Your Demographic: Cultural Appropriation

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when a work (a written work, an image, a film, a dance routine, a show, a Halloween costume) takes and displays some aspect from a culture without regard for the meaning and/or the context of that aspect within the culture.

From Sanaa Hamid's project, Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation

From Sanaa Hamid’s project, Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation

Some examples:

A lot of these examples interact with colonialism and oppression: People traditionally associated with colonizing forces are trying to put on and take off oppression like a costume. This is the difference a white person between dressing up as a naughty nun for Halloween and dressing up as “a Mexican” complete with serape, sombrero and large fake mustache is that the naughty nun is ingrained in Western white Catholic culture, who have often been oppressors, whereas folk that look like this hypothetical white person have traditionally oppressed people who look Hispanic, and moreover the shorthand for “Mexican” bears little relevance to actual Mexican people living in the world today.

Are there subtlety in this? Maybe. Consider the Washington, D.C. football team versus the Seattle Seahawks. Both use Native American imagery for their team logos. Considering that the Washington, D.C. football team uses a racist epithet that is associated with the slaughter of Native American people, the Seahawks logo is pretty darn respectful in comparison. And in general, I think it’s sort of fine. But it’s interesting to look at the history. It was originally designed by a Los Angeles-based artist in 1975, and even though Quinault artist Marvin Oliver offered the NFL a redesign that “depicted regional art principles in the design,” the logo remained.

Martin Oliver's Seahawk logo design and the final 1976 design

Notes from King County Arts Council, 1975

The Seahawks logo was later redesigned to bring it even further away from traditional forms, although once again, Coastal Salish artist Shaun Peterson has some suggestions about how to redesign it incorporating Coastal Salish design elements. There is some debate about whether Coastal Salish influences on Seahawks fan gear is beneficial or a quick road to cultural appropriation. It bears thinking about. The threads of oppression and colonialism run deep in this country, and it’s  important to look closely at how they interact with our daily lives, especially if you’re not being actively oppressed or colonized.

 Perhaps Everyday Feminism’s Jarune Uwujaren said it best:

People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.

So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

How does cultural appropriation show up in fiction?

Let’s stick with discussing Native Americans in fiction. I’d like to discuss one of the more culturally ubiquitous examples at the moment, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.

the-twilight-saga-new-moon-powerpoint-background-14In the Twilight books, Meyer chose to set them in Forks, Washington because it’s statistically the rainiest place in the US and vampires like avoiding direct sunlight. Logical enough. Also in the books, the local tribe, the Quileute, are secretly werewolves. Classic werewolf vs vampire action, right?

But…because the vampires are white and the werewolves are Native, there is an added dimension of a) vampires as civil and cultured and werewolves as animalistic thus b) white folks as civil and cultured and Native folks as animalistic, with a side of c) colonizing forces as civil and cultured and Native peoples as animalistic and also as closer to nature. Compare this to the Cullens fighting their own natures by trying to avoid murdering people; resisting the natural for the spiritual (which is the opposite, apparently) is seen as the high road.

The Burke museum in Seattle has a fantastic online exhibit called Truth vs Twilight. It calls attention to the tropes that Meyer, consciously or unconsciously, evokes in her portrayal of Quileute people in her books. The shirtless, jort-sporting Quileute boys manage to uphold the stereotype of sexualized, “hot” non-white people as a counterpoint to “classy” white people who won’t have sex until marriage. The exhibit also points out the often-repeated point that the Quileute tribe has not actually made any money off of Twilight, despite their name being (quite legally) plastered all over a bunch of merch. Some Quileute members have engaged with the publicity to further public education about the tribe. However, at its core the Twilight series does nothing to help the trope of the Imaginary Indian:

The most common representation of Native Americans in modern media suggests American Indians as vanishing or as an imaginary thing of the past. Though Twilight has garnered many fans for a contemporary, somewhat glamorized depiction of the living Quileute through the shirtless wolf-pack boys, the series still categorizes the Quileute as imaginary werewolves rather than as real people.

I found myself wondering about Stephenie Meyer’s thought processes when it came to world building. And thankfully, she’s written quite a bit about just that. Here she describes the genesis of Jacob (Quileute werewolf/secondary love interest):

Jacob’s development into a major character was a strange journey. Originally, Jacob was just a device. In Twilight, Bella needed a way to find out the truth about Edward, and the conveniently located Quileute Tribe, with all their fantastic legends, provided a cool option for that revelation. And so Jacob was born—born to tell Bella and Edward’s secret.

(emphasis mine)

One Meyer decided to develop Jacob, did she sink into the Quileute culture? Did she visit? Did she think about what it means to be a white Mormon woman writing about Native Americans? Here’s what she had to say about her process in drafting New Moon:

Lots of people give me more credit than I deserve; they think I knew Jacob was a werewolf from the very beginning. This is not the case. Twilight was supposed to be a stand alone novel, remember. There was no thought of werewolves in my mind as I wrote it. The Quileute (Quill-yoot) legends Jacob tells Bella in chapter six of Twilight are all genuine Quileute stories that I learned when I was researching the tribe (which is a real tribe with a truly fascinating and mystical history). All actual Quileute legends, except for the vampire myth about the ‘cold ones.’ I latched onto the wolf story (the actual Quileute legend claims that the tribe descended from wolves transformed by a sorcerer) because it fit with my sketchy knowledge of vampires and werewolves always being at each others’ throats (ha ha, pun intended).

(again, emphasis mine)

I’m not sure if Meyer understands how glib she sounds here. Legends don’t exist in a vacuum. Goodness knows I’m all about wild recombining of fairy tales from different cultures. But it seems as if she figured out the wolf connection to the Quileute, went “wheee!” and didn’t really bother to look much further.

How can I avoid cultural appropriation?

In a word, research.

Research, for the record, does not just equal endless Googling. It involves reading whole works that may only peripherally relate to yours. If you’re a writer who’s just sold a vampire novel for a huge advance, it might involve visiting the location of said novel and/or interviewing tribal elders of the tribe that you want to use in your novel, for example.

Writing research is not always different from scholarly research: you’re going to want a variety of sources including as many primary sources as you can find. Novelist Michael Gruber talks here about some of what he read in researching his novel, The Return:

I read The Old Gringo. I read a lot of Mexican poetry and a handful of novels and some general histories of Mexico and anthologies of Mexican writing. I pulled a lot of journalistic material from the web about the drug wars in Mexico. For the Vietnam stuff, I read a number of descriptive and first-person accounts of the war the US Special Forces fought in Laos and the standard ethnography of the Hmong people. Plus the usual research about the guns and equipment mentioned.

We call Wikipedia “a good jumping off point” or, when snarky, “home of the C- research paper.” When I was writing a short story set in Cuba in the mid 1500s, I ended up finding journal articles about family structure in Africans shipped to Cuba, the shipping manifests of slave ships to Cuba throughout the 1500s, and a rather comprehensive book about Cuban sociopolitical structure from 1400-1800, written by a female historian in 1910. This took more than a Wikipedia search. I actually used the library. I used Google maps. I looked at historical maps. I did a lot of reading about Santeria, from sites run by modern-day Santeros. Could I have done better? Yes. I wish I’d had time to read more Cuban literature, and I would have had this project been a longer process.

Look at examples art and writing from the culture you’re writing about. Also, look at examples of the culture you’re writing about being represented well or in a positive light. Here are some resources that the Burke museum has identified as good examples Native Americans being represented in popular culture.

If it’s possible, try visiting the places you’re writing about. Can you imagine what it might have been like had Stephenie Meyer gone up and spent some time with the Quinault? She did spend half a day at La Push after her novel had been released. If you can’t go yourself, maybe talk to people who have been (or better yet, who have lived there). This isn’t always possible, I know. But the closer that white people, for example, can get to looking at other cultures as they exist in the world and not the White Imagination*, the better literature we’ll have and the more we’ll be able to decolonize the literary world.

And that seems like a pretty darn worthy goal.


*which I will write about at some length later, but believe it or not I need to do some research first….

Avoiding Tokenism: They’re Doing It Right

So in this series of posts about writing outside of your demographic, I want to emphasize the positive stuff I see being written around me, not just yak about What Not To Do.

Last post I talked about tokenism: what it is and some questions to ask yourself in order to avoid it. With that in mind, I chose three works that I feel do a good job of avoiding or subverting tokenism. I am specifically looking at creators from one demographic writing about a demographic that they do not share: men writing about women, white folks writing about black folks, etc.

Television: CW’s The Flash

Danielle Panabaker (Caitlin Snow), Jesse L. Martin (Det. Joe West), Candice Patton (Iris West), Grant Guskin (Barry Allen), Tom Cavanagh (Dr. Harrison Wells)

Danielle Panabaker (Caitlin Snow), Jesse L. Martin (Det. Joe West), Candice Patton (Iris West), Grant Guskin (Barry Allen), Tom Cavanagh (Dr. Harrison Wells)

What is it about?

The CW’s 2014 show, The Flash, is a companion piece to their show Arrow, which are modern retellings of DC’s The Flash and Green Arrow respectively. Barry Allen fights evil (often in the form of ridiculous meta-humans) both as a forensic investigator and as his alter ego, The Flash, Fastest Man Alive.

Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon, looking much less derpy than usual. Cisco is basically a big happy puppy with a genius-level understanding of engineering.

Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon, looking much less derpy than usual. Cisco is basically a big happy puppy with a genius-level understanding of engineering.

How does it avoid tokenism?

The Flash is an ensemble show that has a white central character (Barry Allen), three significant recurring white characters (Caitlin Snow, Dr. Wells, Eddie Thawne), and three significant recurring characters of color (Detective Joe West, Iris West, Cisco Ramon). All of these characters matter; they are an integral part of Barry’s life. The Wests raised Barry through his teenage years, and now Joe is his contact on the police force who knows his secret identity as The Flash.

I didn’t include Arrow because although it has several characters of color, we really only see John Diggle on a regular basis. In the beginning of the show we saw quite a lot of Slade Wilson (played by Maori actor Manu Bennett), and now we are seeing more and more story about Nyssa al Ghul (Katrina Law), Ra’s al Ghul (an excitingly problematic character in the history of the comic, now played by white actor Matt Nable), and Yao Fei (Karl Yune), but all of those are characters that recur sometimes. Overall Dig is often pretty tokenized in the show.

A creator of the both series, Greg Berlanti, has also spoken about his commitment to representing GLBTQ folks.


Comics: Stumptown by Greg Rucka

stumptown-hcWhat is it about?

This gritty noir comic, set in modern-day Portland, follows P.I. Dex Parios as she works to solve a case involving missing persons and the local native casino, all the while battling her own gambling problem.


How does it avoid tokenism?

In the Noir genre, women often fall into very clear tropes: the femme fatale (if there’s one female character), the extremely badass woman-in-a-man’s-world (if there’s two). Part of how Stumptown resists stereotype is by defying tokenism. Significant female characters include the main character Dex, Sue-Lynne, the woman who hired her, and Charlotte Suppa, the woman who’s been kidnapped. Here’s Rucka talking about the series, including why he included so many female characters.


Fiction: Forests of the Heart by Charles deLint


What is it about?

This novel, set in the fictitious city of Newford, follows Bettina San Miguel as she is interrupted from her career as an artist by spirit creatures she knows as los lobos reaching out to her because she can see them. One of Bettina’s fellow artist has been comissioned to make a powerful magical artifact for the city’s resident Celtic/Irish fairies, the Gentry. Soon los lobos, the Gentry, and the Manitou, are being pulled into a supernatural battle royale that the humans are trying desperately to avert.

How does it avoid tokenism?

Not only is the main character a Mexican/Native woman, but there are several characters both human and supernatural who are Latino or Native, such as Tommy Raven and Chantal de Vega. Overall, Mexican, Native, and Celtic cultures are all represented. Here are some of deLint’s thoughts about this book and his Newford series.


Agree? Disagree? Have more examples? To the comment section, and beyond!

Things To Avoid: Tokenism

This past weekend, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who works in the game industry on the creative team for a well-known fantasy game. He was thinking about how, as a cisgendered, heterosexual white guy, for example, he can write and incorporate all that nifty non-Western/Celtic/Norse fantasy stuff in his work. “It’s something we talk about a lot,” he said.

This is a big conversation and worth more than one post. Today I wanted to carve out a little bit of the negative space around writing good characters outside your own demographic by looking at some things I seek to avoid.



Are they the only type of person with that race, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality in your entire fictional universe?

token-south-parkExample: Token, the only black kid in South Park Elementary is a satire of tokenism.

Sometimes being The Only One is relevant to the plot. That’s okay. But be aware of how often this comes up and who the dominant group is in these stories. Is it always the same?

cast of Angel

This show is set in Los Angeles. I love Joss Whedon. But there sure are a lot of white people happening here. No, the green demon doesn’t count as racial diversity. He’s played by a white actor.
(PS: J. August Richards please please play one of the superheros in my comic No Heroes Today when it gets somehow magically adapted for the screen. kthxbai)


 Did you make a character or pick a skin?

In games this is a mixed bag. In a fantasy game like Dragon Age: Origins where you are literally picking your character’s skin and appearance down to the smallest detail, then it’s vitally important to have a wide range of options.

dragon-age-origins-character-creator-39However, try not to include a character who’s a different color, say, just to have a character who’s a different color without thinking about how that different color would affect them, particularly if they are the only character of that color in your text.

An unfortunately classic trope in cartoons and games is the distaff character, which is the single female member of a team who is distinguishable because she is a girl.


Love you, Arcee. You and Ms. Pac Man and the Pink Power Ranger can form some kind of uberteam of pink.

How has their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality informed their life?

Talk to a black person who was The Only Black Kid at a predominantly white school. You’re damn right that stuff affects a person. Not only that, but everyone’s experience with this will be different. Gosh.

How to Avoid Tokenism

A simple antidote to tokenism is to have more than one (female, queer, black, etc) character in your work.

This can be in terms of significant characters, but also in terms of crowd scenes. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media did some research into crowd scenes on film. On average, they found, crowds consist of 17 percent women. Geena Davis advises actually writing in screenplays “a crowd of 50% women and 50% men” to avoid this.

Let your work form naturally, then look at it with a critical lens. Have you fallen into tokenism? How many of your characters share your demographics? What would it be like to switch things up on a character, write them differently? Think about it. You work won’t be some perfect balance of every single demographic being represented. It won’t. It shouldn’t be; it should contain characters specific to the story you’re telling and the world you’ve created. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about what kind of characters are in your work. Think about it.

Sarcasm, or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Genuine Communication

For two years of my life, I didn’t use sarcasm.

wow-sarcasm-thats-originalI didn’t use sarcasm for two years of my life because it was a job requirement. This was when I served in AmeriCorps; my particular team had two non-negotiable requirements:

  1. Get your time sheets in on time.
  2. No sarcasm.

We were working with vulnerable populations of kids: kids who had inconsistent or non-existent adults in their lives, kids who didn’t trust anyone because no one around them was worth trusting, kids who’d been betrayed by false promises or good intentions one time too many. It’s not that the adults around them were always terrible people or anything, just mostly broke and struggling and yes, sometimes a little terrible, too. But our antidote was to be incredibly consistent (which does not always look the same as “nice”), and sarcasm would have undermined that in a second. Classroom sarcasm is vicious and awful, a resort of tired teachers or jaded teachers, or of people who never learned another method of discourse.

i-hide-behind-sarcasmI still rarely use sarcasm. The articles here, Stock Photo Hell in particular, get snarky, but I try to avoid outright sarcasm. In Stock Photo Hell, for example, I really was describing the world that these stock photos were suggesting. And the photos and I meant it, as weird and awful as it often was.

I’m not wholly anti-sarcasm-ever. I think it has its place sometimes, particularly when used for great justice, or with compassionate intent. Some work situations require sarcasm as self-defense because they are fundamentally toxic environments. Nonetheless, I don’t use sarcasm in my personal relationships. My partner called me out on saying something sarcastic to him the other day; I apologized. I said it because I was hurting, and didn’t know how to express myself in the moment.

I think sarcasm is often held up as a sacred cow, in particular to nerdy communities, because of pain. Being genuine involves risk and hurt and pain. Being genuine, not hiding behind a shield of snark where you can take back anything you said at any moment if it seems to be going over poorly, that’s vulnerable as hell.

So does that mean that I’m descending on a cloud of genuine intent, sitting next to Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson and Agent Dale Cooper*, and staring at you disapprovingly whenever you use sarcasm?

Agent Dale Cooper approves of genuine communication. Even with Albert.

Agent Dale Cooper approves of genuine communication. Even with Albert.


Heck, a lot of sarcasm can be hilarious, fun, smooth. But think about the times you do use sarcasm and ask yourself: What kind of a tool is this? Is it a probe of inquiry? A punching-bag-in-the-box of humor? A shield from pain? A flailing eggbeater of social awkwardness? And are you using it that way on purpose? Some of the least sarcastic, most genuine people I know have been through and are recovering from some kind of addiction. I am still not sure what that means, but I continue to think about it.

So, what to do? Swear off sarcasm like some do with red meat or gluten?

I think there’s a subtler approach. One way to test out other sarcasm modalities is to write characters who use varying amounts of sarcasm. How does Agent Dale Cooper react to situations that’s different from how Gregory House reacts to situations? Look at a character in your favorite book or film. How do they use sarcasm? How often do their actions match their words? Do you always write genuine characters? Or sarcastic ones? Try writing the opposite. See how it feels.


*Captain from the Ankh Morpork City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and investigating agent in Twin Peaks, respectively, and two of my favorite incredibly genuine characters in literature.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fantasy

What qualifies as fantasy, in the modern genre sense?

Therese Neilsen, "Fact or Fiction" card art from Magic: The Gathering

Therese Neilsen, “Fact or Fiction” card art from Magic: The Gathering

It’s hard to define precisely. Perhaps we can look for elves, dwarves, knights, ghosts, the supernatural, monsters, gods, and magic. But not only do those things come up in other genres–ghosts, for example, are in everything from Hamlet to Beloved–but they do not entirely define the genre. There’s been plenty of argument about the minutiae of genre boundaries: science fiction vs fantasy vs science fantasy vs magical realism vs horror vs dark fantasy vs …

Scholar Michael Trout defines a division between science fiction and fantasy: Fantasy “could’ve happened, but didn’t” in an “imaginary past”; science fiction “hasn’t happened yet but could” (usually) in an “imaginary future.” Even these boundaries are fuzzy as all heck.

The modern fantasy genre has its roots in fairy tales; fairy tales have roots inexorably entwined with myth. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the father of the modern fantasy genre, thought a lot about what defines the fantasy genre. He says that the main thing about fantasy creating a compelling “Secondary World,” a world in which the reader can be completely immersed, a world in which the reader can invest their belief fully. He says, in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events.

So how can I make a fantasy world?

Trolls by Brian Froud

Trolls by Brian Froud

Sometimes I see people use a few of the outer markers of the fantasy genre, that being a sort of generic Northern European medieval pastiche: knights, princesses, dragons, fairies. This irritates me. First off, it does a disservice to the genre as a whole, limiting it to a small portion of what it is an cutting away at its history. Secondly, it flaunts a stunning lack of research and world-building. Even if you do want to invoke Northern European medieval fantasy, like Tolkien did, you can do so with research and care or you can sort of rip off Tolkien. Goodness knows both happen and are published.

Let’s look at Tolkien’s world and do a bit of reverse-engineering. Tolkien based his world heavily off of Norse mythology. Middle-Earth echoes Midgard; the One Ring echoes the Ring Cycle; Eowyn echoes the Valkyrie Brunhilda. Gandalf resembles the form of Odin takes when he wanders the world of men. Tolkien straight-up ripped the names of most of his dwarves from the Norse Edda Völuspá. So Tolkein researched an sourced his Middle-Earth world off of Norse myth; a few smatterings of other things were thrown in there, not to mention Tolkien’s more unique spins on fantasy creatures like Hobbits and Uruk-Hai.

J.R.R. Tolkien, illustration for The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, illustration for The Lord of the Rings

Other works of fantasy take off on other Northern European mythos: Lloyd Alexander’s stunning series The Chronicles of Prydain cherry-picks the most exciting bits out of the 9th-century Welsh epic The Mabinogion. Countless revamps of the King Arthur mythos from England have become classic, including T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

Of course, there are plenty of fantasy books that break of out what Rachel Pollack refers to as the “interminable Celtic bullshit” model of fantasy. J.K. Rowling incorporates elements of not only Celtic, but also Greek and Eastern European creatures and tales into her Harry Potter universe. Nigerian tales about twins and doubles figure heavily into Helen Oyeyemi’s deliciously frightening novel The Icarus Girl. The Arabian Nights and its associated Islamic fantasy mythos has influenced everything from Disney’s Aladdin to G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen to Saladin Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon. Thankfully anime and manga have become popular enough in the United States to expose Americans to Japanese fantasy, everything from ancient monsters (like Kappa and Oni) to classic fairy tale tropes (spirit possession, angry ghosts) to more modern tropes (Magical Girls).

Cover art for Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon

cover art for Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon

My point here is that any fantasy setting likely has some kind of cultural backdrop that comes with it. Orcs are Norse: they’re Dark Elves re-skinned. (Yes, with extra bonus racism. Fantasy deals with race, Othering, and imperialism, from The Tempest onwards. Deal with it.) Dragons are delightfully universal and appear in many different cultures, albeit with different appearances and abilities depending on the myths surrounding them. When you are writing fantasy, and building your worlds, consider which bits of Earth you may or may not be invoking.

For example, you could invoke Frank Frazetta's vision of Conan the Barbarian, and then I'd have to go quietly vomiting into the night.

For example, you could invoke Frank Frazetta’s vision of Conan the Barbarian, and then I’d have to remind you to read hero epics like the Greek Hercules or the Irish Cu Chulainn, and then go off quietly vomiting into the night.

In the 1970s, Gary Gygax and others created Dungeons & Dragons–two images that efficiently invoke the fantasy genre. One thing the game’s creators sought to do was to make up some brand-new monsters that weren’t based on existing myths. Thus we have Gelatinous Cubes, Beholders, and Displacer Beasts, among others. But was the D&D world completely original? Of course not: there are plenty of culturally specific references, monsters, and language. I think having a fantasy world completely separate from our own is not only impossible but not a particularly compelling goal. To me, a good fantasy world takes what’s happening in our own world on a mythological level and spins it or provides a fresh and compelling Secondary World.

Behold!  (It's a Beholder, from the Monster Manual.)

(It’s a Beholder, from the Monster Manual.)

Mostly what I’m challenging folks to do here is consider any fantasy worlds you’ve created, and do your own cultural math: What myths, fairy tales and/or ancient worlds are you using to build up your fantasy world? If you haven’t used any on purpose, I have a feeling something probably crept out subconsciously. Try and track it down and see what it is, and if that’s what you were going for. I’m not gonna say that world doesn’t need another Celtic-based fantasy novel. I love Celtic fantasy novels. Goodness knows I’m obsessed with Celtic changeling mythos and will for sure rewrite and polish my novel about that at some point. What I will say is that the world has a lot of damn interesting stories, and perhaps it would be worth your while to go forth and find them. And then, when you do find them, do some real damn research, write real characters, and don’t go totally off the rails like Stephenie Meyer did with her Quileute werewolves.

Now go forth and read this roundtable with a bunch of fantasy writers of color who have more coherent things to say about this than I do.

A few fantasy novels that are not based in Norse or Celtic or Greek or Roman mythos:

The Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin (never mind the whitewashed TV version)

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (also her novel Mr. Fox)

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Wild Seed (the Patternist series) by Octavia E. Butler

The Last Wish by Andrej Sapowski (which The Witcher videogames are based on)

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (which is the closest to Doing Its Own Damn Thing of any of these books)

Wild Seed cover illustration by Wayne Barlowe

Wild Seed cover illustration by Wayne Barlowe

What other fantasy novels should we be reading? Got any that aren’t Norse-Greek-Celtic-Roman? Post ’em in the comments, precioussss.

Revise That Novel

Last year I wrote a post with a big list of things to do with your newly minted NaNoWriMo manuscript, including doing manuscript exchanges, finding beta readers, and hiring awesome editors. (See red-hot editorial deal below.)

post_it_note_wallThis year, I wanted to give a few really specific thoughts on getting from that 50K wordpile into a respectable second draft:

  1. Write down summaries of what your scenes are, like a storyboard or an outline. You can do this on the computer, on Scrivener, or on note cards. You can make a wall of post-it notes, which is fairly satisfying. Write down what is actually happening in each scene, even if that’s “Character A and Character B talk about feelings for 3,000 words and I don’t think it actually matters oh gosh.” Yes, this process is a pain. Yes, it is important.
  2. Was there pointless stuff that you put in to pad your word count? Identify it. Cut it out unless you know it’s flax you can spin into gold.
  3. Check in with your characters’ motivations: does what they are doing make sense? If you were to explain your plot to another person, what would be the first “why did Character A do that?” question they would ask? Would you have a decent answer?
  4. Check for plot holes. Imagine a compassionate, yet confused reader is asking you to explain how your story goes. Where would they have a hard time?
  5. I am all for making up personas for my internal editors. As much as we were ignoring our editors during November, we’re gonna need to pay attention to them now. But pay attention to which editorial voices are helpful and which ones are not. I have an editorial persona, “Anton,” who is exactly helpful; he’s the voice of the literary community that eschews genre fiction, that scoffs when I haven’t read the entire literary canon, that tells me writing a comic script without an artist is foolish and superheroes aren’t literature. So why do I even have conversations with Anton? Because he’s a persona who I can shove all those negative thoughts onto. I sit down for an editorial session, and instead of despairing about the fact that I wrote six issues of superhero comics, I can think of Anton, set him aside, and then do the work. In terms of POSITIVE editorial voices, I think of my real-life writing mentors: Susan Kim, Rachel Pollack, and Corinne Manning, among others. I think of friends who are good beta readers, even before I actually give my manuscript to them to beta-read.

And finally, I want to go ahead and repeat my deal from last year:

Yes, I would love to talk to you about your NaNo! Yes, I would love to talk anything from “how does plot go” to “where can I sell this” to “how do you sentence.” Yes, you.

Yes, I will charge you money. I am a freelance wordsmith, and stuff like this is how I buy groceries. My NaNo Winner Special is $16.67 for a half-hour manuscript consultation, $33.33 for a one-hour manuscript consultation, and $166.70 if you want me to read your entire manuscript first (and then chat for an hour). That is stupidly cheap; even the editors at a print-on-demand service charge $200 or more to read through and give you basic editorial feedback. I’m happy to meet with you via chat or Skype (or in person if I know you and you’re local), whichever feels more comfy. I also offer proofreading services and line-editing. Even if money is an issue, contact me; let’s talk.

Study Questions, In Light of Recent Events

One of the things that makes fairy tales last is that they provide a dark mirror to the world. I invite you to examine this short Grimm tale. Please consider the study questions following the text.


Herr Korbes

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

translation by D.L. Ashliman

Once upon a time there were a rooster and a hen who wanted to take a journey together. So the rooster built a handsome carriage with four red wheels, and hitched four mice to it. The hen climbed aboard with the rooster, and they drove away together.

Not long afterward they met a cat, who said, “Where are you going?”

The rooster answered, “We’re on our way to Herr Korbes’s house.”

“Take me with you,” said the cat.

The rooster answered, “Gladly. Climb on behind, so you won’t fall off the front. Be careful not to get my red wheels dirty. Roll, wheels. Whistle, mice. We’re on our way to Herr Korbes’s house.”

Then a millstone came along, then an egg, then a duck, then a pin, and finally a needle. They all climbed aboard the carriage and rode with them.

But when they arrived at Herr Korbes’s house, he was not there. The mice pulled the carriage into the barn. The hen and the rooster flew onto a pole. The cat sat down in the fireplace and the duck in the water bucket. The egg rolled itself up in a towel. The pin stuck itself into a chair cushion. The needle jumped onto the bed in the middle of the pillow. The millstone lay down above the door.

Then Herr Korbes came home. He went to the fireplace, wanting to make a fire, and the cat threw ashes into his face. He ran quickly into the kitchen to wash himself, and the duck splashed water into his face. He wanted to dry himself off with the towel, but the egg rolled against him, broke, and glued his eyes shut. Wanting to rest, he sat down in the chair, and the pin pricked him. He fell into a rage and threw himself onto his bed, but when he laid his head on the pillow, the needle pricked him, causing him to scream and run out of the house. As he ran through the front door the millstone jumped down and struck him dead.

Herr Korbes must have been a very wicked man.

Study Questions

  1. What would have happened if the cat had never jumped on the bandwagon?
  2. Where were the rooster and the hen during the murder?
  3. What happens after the story? Were the rooster, the hen, the mice, the cart, the cat, the duck, the egg, the needle, the pin, the millstone, were they prosecuted?
  4. If a grand jury were to put the millstone on trial, would it be acquitted? If so, would that be because the millstone is a millstone, or Herr Korbes is Herr Korbes?
  5. If the whole incident was caught on video tape, would that make a difference?
  6. What did the egg say, later, on social media? Would it moan to its Facebook friends about how it, too, was broken during the incident?
  7. Why were the wheels of the cart red?
  8. What would have happened if Herr Korbes had been home? Would his life have been spared if he had known his place?
  9. The final line was added in the third edition of the Grimm tales, in 1837. How does that line change the story?
  10. Are you the hen, the rooster, the mice, the cart, the cat, the duck, the egg, the pin, the needle, Herr Korbes, or the Grimm brothers, adding the final line?
  11. What if you are a millstone, what then? What if are were a cat? What can you do differently next time?
  12. What if you look like Herr Korbes? What if your children and parents and aunties and uncles and cousins all look like Herr Korbes? How do you feel? How do you feel about millstones?
  13. Must Herr Korbes have been a very wicked man? Does that justify his death?

How I NaNo’d.

This is not so much a “what you should do” list as a “what I did” list.

1. Realize that you have become obsessed with not only superhero comics in general, but you’ve got a couple of your own superheroes in your head.

2. Write down a couple of random scenes. Realize that the overall shape of the thing is about teen superheroes who have a hard time with actual adult life.

3. Do some character sketches. Develop a team. Develop character arcs for each team member.

4. Ignore the project off and on for six months. Sometimes write a scene, sometimes read books that are relevant to what you’re writing, like Marvel’s Supreme Power  or Bryan J.L. Glass’ book Furious or books about the Golem of Prague.

5. Realize that this project is what you want to do for NaNoWriMo, even though it’s a comic book. Decide to do it anyway. Get Scrivener. Realize how good that is for writing comics.

6. Go for the 50K word count, realizing how ridiculous an idea that is even as you realize that 1,667 words is between 5 and 8 comic book pages.

7. Write three issues no problem, struggle through a further two. Shake your head as you juggle the now fourteen named characters plus surprise Nikola Tesla, and three separate time periods. And that you’re gonna have to do even more research than you have done on certain subjects (the kabbalah/qabalah, reading written Hebrew, neighborhoods of Brooklyn, how Interpol works, mach speed system, etc).

8. Increasingly freak out as you realize that 50K just isn’t happening.

9. Realize that there is actually a whole community of people like you, and they are called “NaNo Rebels.” They have alternate goals intended for scripts. There are even other people writing comics, and by the way, even though you only have barely 30K words, you already won by either the 100-page script goal or the 20K script goal. Also realize that a good NaNo script goal is to write a trade-paperback-worth of comics, i.e. 5 or 6 issues.

10. Decide to go to seven issues because you just figured out  a major plot arc and how it works.

11. Keep pressing on, even though you actually have no artist, and no idea the destiny of this project. Sometimes you have to just write a thing because it’s in you and needs to get out.


In case you were wondering what my actual comic book scripts look like, let me show you them.

First off, I outline. As I mentioned long ago in this link roundup, I really enjoy the Cullen Bunn plot-to-script method of first outlining the scenes, breaking them down into pages, and then writing the actual pages. Scrivener makes the outline pretty easy:

Outline for my first issue

It’s not a completely linear process. Sometimes I have a scene that I’ll retroactively add into the outline, sometimes I’ll change the outline a few times during the process of writing an issue.

Either way, each page of comic script has two main bits, just like a film script: a description of what you see, and dialogue/captions in lieu of a description of what you hear.

A page from Issue Two

A page from Issue Two

I’m still learning a lot about writing comics, particularly how much detail to put on each page, and which bits I need to repeat or tell differently for the sake of the artist (keeping in mind they don’t work in a linear fashion always, and some artists don’t like panel breakdowns). But by the end of the month, I’ll have  150ish pages of practice, so that’s a thing.

And isn’t practice of some kind what a good NaNoWriMo is all about?

Sparring Drills for your NaNo novel

I’m having a hard time with NaNoWriMo this year; I’m about 5K behind at this point in terms of my word count. This is still recoverable. I’ve been a bit distracted this weekend by things like my small press releasing the fantastic deck of shuffleable poetry, Shufflepoems by Lydia Swartz.

Also this weekend, I did the once-a-month fortifier to my martial arts training that is the Open Sparring that’s held at the Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu kwoon in Seattle. This is a gathering of martial artists of all genders and arts for a well-run sparring session. You start out the four-minute round by making agreements with your sparring partner (speed? level of contact? any off-limit targets? takedowns?). After  minute and a half you check-in briefly to make sure everything is ok and continue. Last Sunday there were three flavors of Kung Fu (origins in China), Tae Kwon Do (origins in Korea), Kajukembo (origins in many places incl China, Korea, and Japan), and my art, Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen (origins in Indonesia and China). There were about two dozen folks. I think I sparred someone from every one of those arts.

Two Women Sparring with a Speed Bag   credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two Women Sparring with a Speed Bag
credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sparring teaches very directly principles about the give and take of energy, hardness and softness. You can come in like a battering ram. That might work. Better with some body types than others. When I try hard, quick attacks, I often telegraph my movements and get blocked with bruise-inducing force. But that’s where I’m at right now in my training, and there are plenty of other approaches to try. You can sneak into your opponent’s guard. You can flow with their energy and try to turn some of it back on them. You can catch their strikes and counterattack. You can try working on different angles or levels or trying to throw something your partner’s way that they’re not sure how to deal with.

The great thing about sparring, and about multidisciplinary sparring in particular, is that there will be stuff you don’t expect. It’s not like learning a form, where you can practice on your own, where you know what’s coming next. It’s not like a planned drill. It’s a spontaneous dance with a partner. And the best sparring bouts I had yesterday were ones where I had no idea how to deal with what my partner was throwing my way. I had a conversation with one of the Tae Kwon Do guys afterwards, who was there for the first time. He was in a state of wonder about how Wing Chung Kung Fu actually works, and how all the things he was trying were so deeply ineffective. (Wing Chung. Yep. That’s a darn powerful art.) His world had been turned upside down by the things that he knew to be powerful in one context being irrelevant in another context.


Which is all a great metaphor for writing! Hooray! It’s good to shake up your context. With that being said, I offer you a few context-shaking-up writing prompts for helping/rescuing your word count:

  • Write a piece of in-world text: a newspaper article from your world about your characters, or a blog post by your character, or a letter, or a poem that one of them wrote.
  • Risk: What could happen to your characters that would be impossible to un-do? What are their personal points-of-no-return? (Examples of points-of-no-return in film: Luke’s aunt and uncle get crispy-crittered, Sarah decides to save her brother and enters the Labyrinth, Katniss volunteers as tribute)
  • Write a scene, in a separate word file, that feels to out-of-character or weird for your characters to actually do. Put them in higher-stakes circumstances than usual, or experiment with changing their usual reactions to stuff.
  • Interrupt the scene.
  • Mix up your routine, or a Ze Frank would say, Bust That Cycle. Try writing at a different time, under different circumstances, in a different Word file or on actual paper with a pen. Try varying your routine of how you take care of your home, prepare your meals, etc. (And that doesn’t mean take less care…) Figure out which times of day (and night) are electric for you.
  • Pretend you are James Franco, and therefore not only is everything you have to say already sort of hip and interesting, but the literary community is going to automatically pay attention to you. Then submit what you write to the James Franco Review.

What else y’all got? Particularly poets, memoirists, cartoonists…what would you tell someone writing a novel to try?


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