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Old Posts–Bias in Editorial Decisions

So, way back in 2011 I was on a panel at Wiscon called “Reading with a Squint.” It was about gender bias in editorial decisions. At the time I was still editing GigaNotoSaurus, and the issue was one I’d been chewing over for a while. I had lots of thinky thoughts about it, but in the way of panels, not all of my chewing or my thinky thoughts got expressed. So I came home and wrote a big honking long post, which I then divided into seven parts.

I was recently talking with a friend and realized they hadn’t read any of it, because they hadn’t known me then. I did have a WordPress blog at the time, but I didn’t always remember to crosspost (and didn’t have any widgets that would do it for me) and it was really an afterthought–I was mostly centered on LJ at the time. So these are all on LJ. I should probably import them over some time.

But for now, I’m going to link to them, because I still think there’s stuff worth chewing over.

Wiscon-Related Thoughts:

  • Part 1 Taste Is Culturally Constructed

     

    When I first heard about the infamous 4’33” I was in high school. The piece was described to me as “four and a half minutes of silence.” Another phrase that featured in the description was “total bullshit.”
     
    Which as it happens is also a pretty accurate way to describe calling 4’33” “silence.” Because that’s absolutely not what it is. But if you haven’t heard any of the conversation the piece is part of, don’t have any of the context, that’s certainly the way it seems.
     
    4’33” is (among other things) part of John Cage’s contribution to an ongoing discussion, a conversation that began with the question, “What is music?” It’s a question that seems incredibly simple and obvious when you first ask it, but then when you think about it your obvious answer falls apart. Music has this and that and the other characteristics–this other thing has those but you don’t call it music. Why not? Well, then, music also has….but this other thing also has, or this thing you say is obviously music doesn’t have something you just said was necessary…

  •  

  • Part 2 Slush
     

    So, at Wiscon, in the “Reading with a Squint” panel, I made the assertion (as I frequently do–regular readers of this LJ will have heard it before) that the gender ratio of slush shouldn’t actually be the same as the ratio of its corresponding ToC. That is, 70/30 male/female in slush might not actually translate to 70/30 in the ToC, all other things being equal.

  •  

  • Part 3 Ann Likes Red

     

    I also want to say something about representation. When I was a wee little Ann, I was dazzled by the color red. It was, in fact, my favorite color. And so, when I was given a copy of that enduring classic Ann Likes Red, I was thrilled. It was as though the author had seen into my very soul! And written a book about me.**
     
    I lucked out. My name was Ann, my favorite color was red. Maybe I still would have liked the book if those things weren’t true–the amazon reviews suggest that it was an excellent book for beginning readers and was beloved by more than just us Anns. Still, I had that extra joy, of seeing myself in the story.

  •  

  • Part 4 Bias Is Inherent in the System

     

    You all know this story, right? And Mary Anne Mohanraj mentioned it during the panel itself. But I’m going to tell it again.

    Symphony orchestras–the big ones, the world-class ones–have no percentage in excluding excellent musicians. They want the best, and that’s where their interests lie. No one was ever saying “Well, we’ll take Bill even though Jane is a little better, because Jane has girl cooties.”
     
    Still, for years and years, there were very few women in the big orchestras. The folks who made the decisions said–very honestly–that they weren’t trying to exclude women, it just turned out that women didn’t play quite as well as men. It was sad, but that was reality. They only wanted the very best.

  •  

  • Part 5 Women Write Different Stories From Men?

     

    Do women write different stories, or do we see them as different like hearing their music as thinner or lesser? I don’t know the answer. Certainly some women write different sorts of stories. Certainly many women’s lives are very, very different from most men’s. At Wiscon, in the bar, a male writer who had been the stay-at-home parent for his family said (I paraphrase), “I realized, things that were supposed to be how women are were really how it is when you’re the person home with the kids all day.” Yep. You get a very different view of the world like that.

  •  

  • Part 6 Fight for Your Right to Party

     

    You know, sometimes it seems like we’re all at the SFF party, all talking, moving from one bunch of friends to the next. There are a bunch of people over by the table with a tray full of apples–they call it “The Fruit Tray” actually, and if you ask them they’ll tell you this party is all about the great fruit you can have and they point to that tray full of apples–anyway, there are men and women hanging out by the apple tray. And whenever someone unfamiliar with the party asks, “So what’s that party like?” someone points to that tray of apples with the people crowded around it.

  •  

  • Part 7 Ending on Felicitous Seven

     

    It’s no use saying that an editor just wants good stories. Every editor wants good stories. Every editor has constraints on the kinds of good stories she wants–a stated mission or target for her zine, the tastes of an established audience, demands of advertisers or publishers, and so on. Every editor wants something much more specific than just “good stories.”

  • Ancestry

    The conversation that sparked this post is pretty old by now, and was not ever at any point directed to my attention–which I appreciate–and so I will not be linking to it. And honestly, it was a perfectly fine conversation that I had no objection to. But I just wanted to grouse a little bit, about one small thing.

    And I want to say up front, I have no problem with any reader having any opinion of my work that seems good to them. Even less problem with people discussing my work. If I run across such conversations I generally try not to get involved, unless I’m tagged in, or someone says something like “I really would love to hear Ann Leckie answer this question!” And even then I might not answer unless directly addressed. So, discuss away, I take no offense.

    But every now and then I get a little irk on. And in this conversation, it was asserted that in order to really understand Ancillary Justice it was important to understand its antecedents–the works it was descended from. So of course one had to know how it related to Iain Banks.

    Now, Banks was a great loss to the field. And I can see why people compare my work to his. But Banks’ work was not the direct ancestor of mine. Before I finished AJ I had only ever read Consider Phlebas, and that after a fair amount of foundational work had already been done for my own book. (I’ve now also read The Hydrogen Sonata, and want very much to read more of his work.) Banks was not someone I felt I was in conversation with while writing the Ancillary books.

    If you want a direct ancestor to AJ, you want to be looking at the work of C.J. Cherryh. And I can’t help but notice that though some folks have pointed this out, it doesn’t seem to stick.

    Maybe the people who keep not mentioning Cherryh haven’t read her. If that’s the case, I urge them to remedy that ASAP.

    Thank you for listening to my tiny moment of annoyance.

    My Query Letter for Ancillary Justice

    I had a lovely time last night hanging out with Writers Under the Arch. We had delicious muffins and talked about writing, and it was just a great evening all around.

    While we were chatting, the topic of query letters came up, and I said I thought they should be against the law, but really there’s no getting around them. And I was asked if I could share mine for Ancillary Justice. So I’m posting it here for anyone who’s interested.

    You’ll notice the book changed its title between the time I queried agents and the time it was published.

    Dear [Agent]:
     
    Once Breq had hundreds of bodies, her artificial intelligence animating a ship and thousands of ancillary units in the service of the Radch, the colonialist empire that built her.
     
    That’s all gone. Destroyed. Now she has only a single, limited human body. And she has only one goal–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal, ruler of the Radch.
     
    A long time ago, Seivarden had been a lieutenant on Justice of Toren, the ship Breq used to be. Now Seivarden is lying in the street on an icy backwater planet, naked and unconscious, battered into insensibility from months of too many drugs and too little food. Breq knows she should leave Seivarden to rot where she found her. Breq isn’t responsible for Seivarden, not anymore. Besides, Seivarden was never one of Breq’s favorite people.
     
    But Breq can’t walk away, can’t abandon a former officer. Even though she knows that it’s a possibly fatal distraction from her one, true aim. Even though she knows that in the complex politics of the Radch, Seivarden would side with the faction that Breq implacably opposes. The faction that has already destroyed her once.
     
    JUSTICE OF TOREN is a Cherryh-flavored space opera complete at 101,000 words.
     
    I am a graduate of Clarion West. My short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Subterranean Magazine, and three volumes of Rich Horton’s best of the year anthologies. I am also the editor of the webzine GigaNotoSaurus.
     
    I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your time, and your attention,
     
    Ann Leckie
    [contact information]

    So there you go. You’ll notice I didn’t get the entire plot in there–it really doesn’t go much further than the first chapter.

    For those of you about to embark on your own query letters–my sincere condolences. And I strongly recommend reading the entire Query Shark archive. It’ll help you get some kind of a handle on what sort of thing it is you’re trying to produce.

    Writing “Rules”: Show, Don’t Tell

    “Show, don’t tell” is one of my all time unfavorite of the commonly passed around “rules of writing.”

    It’s also one of the most poorly understood. A lot of the “rules” that get handed from writer to writer are just silly. At best they’re applicable to one sort of story, at worst they’re head-scratchingly ridiculous. But Show, Don’t Tell has that extra layer of “WTF that’s not even what that means.” I guess it’s the Passive Voice of writing rules.*

    First off. Every “rule” of writing is situational. That is, when a writer sits down to write, they have a particular set of aims for the work they’re doing. Some of the techniques available to our writer will be more or less appropriate to the project in hand. Some will be useless, or incredibly inappropriate. There is no one set of tools and techniques that will do the job right every time, not unless you’re knocking out more or less identical works every time. Which is fine, if that’s your thing, right? But it’s not the only way to do fiction. Thank Mithras.

    Second–styles and techniques go in and out of fashion all the time. Those “rules” are not Eternal Laws of Fiction, but a catalog of what’s “in.” And a superficial catalog, at that–hold that list up next to recently published, popular and/or critically well-regarded fiction and notice how often some “rules” are honored more in the breach than the observance.

    So. Show-don’t-tell. It’s complicated, situational advice that has been packed into such a tiny phrase that it’s become almost entirely useless for conveying the actual concept–unless you already understand it, of course. But it’s not (generally) being passed around by people who understand it.

    The thing is, it’s better to show, not tell, unless it’s better to tell. The trick, of course, is knowing when that is. By and large, it’s nearly always better to show, not tell when you’re trying to convey character and motivations, particularly when that character and their motivations affect the plot. So it’s not enough to tell us that Jane hates Jack because he stole her research and then won a Nobel Prize for it, and that she has in fact become horribly embittered by this. Not if you want the reader to really, truly believe that Jane would, as a consequence, devote the rest of her life to breeding an army of gigantic, ironic-dynamite-toting cyborg voles that, in the fullness of the plot, she will unleash on Jack and the Nobel committee.

    No, you’ll want to show us what sort of a person Jane is, demonstrate her character instead of just telling us she’s bitter and out for revenge.**

    But really, it’s all in what you’re going for, right? There are modes in which “look this king was the evilest ever and that’s why he’s imprisoned the hero” is a perfectly cromulent move. “Pride and envy grew in her heart like weeds,” the Grimms tell us, and move right along to the queen’s assassination attempts.

    So, to sum up–in matters of character and motivation, it’s (nearly always) better to show, to demonstrate, rather than merely assert.

    But show-don’t-tell often gets mixed up in questions of how to handle exposition. Non-characterization exposition, I mean. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, where often the world in which the story occurs is not a familiar one, and the reader needs a certain amount of information fed to her so that she’ll understand the story.

    Now, it’s true that “showing” a worldbuilding detail can be tremendously effective. You want that tool in your box. But it’s also true that you’ll need to summarize or narrate things–it’ll be easier on the reader that way, it’ll be quicker, whatever. What you want is a good balance–you want to show the things that need to be shown, and tell the things that need to be told. What the right choices are will depend on what you’re aiming at, and who your audience is. Telling yourself you need to “show” all the time will not help you.

    For the past several decades (I think?) there’s been some fetishizing of a kind of exposition that’s all “show” and no “tell.” A disdain for infodumps goes along with this. And well, sure, the incluing technique is really effective, and badly done, indigestible chunks of explanation or history that stop the pacing dead are no fun. But incluing has its limits, and a beautifully done paragraph of exposition can sometimes do the job better. In fact, I’d argue that well-written exposition of that sort is one of the distinctive pleasures of SF&F.

    The simplistic “Infodumps are bad, show don’t tell!” advice won’t help you do exposition better. It will, if you take it without any kind of thought or modification, give you unnecessary heartburn when you run into a situation that is really, truly best handled by just telling the reader what they need to know.

    And don’t tell me about how that kind of exposition is difficult to do well so newbies should avoid it. No. Do not avoid practicing the thing you want to learn to do, particularly if that thing is difficult and needs to be done really really well.*** That thing you want to do? Try to do that thing, not some second best, safe option.

    So, yeah, no, I’ve got no time for “show, don’t tell.”

    ___
    *IME a lot of folks who solemnly intone that passive voice is bad are, shall we say, under a misapprehension as to what it actually is, and often as not I find they misidentify passive constructions. And that’s leaving aside the question of actual passive voice having actual, legitimate uses.

    **You also probably want to show us those giant cyborg voles, because honestly that kind of story is all about the mutant creatures and the blowing stuff up, although that’s not really what “show don’t tell” is talking about.

    ***Your best source of helpful writing tips is always going to be the fiction that you love, or that does really really well the thing you’re trying to figure out how to do. Way, way better than some list of “rules” you don’t even know where it originally came from.

    I said this just now on Twitter, and I’ll say it here, too, for maximum reach.

    Word to the wise: when a venue changes editors, you want to double check the guidelines–do they still say what they said before? What are the changes?

    And double check contracts. If you’ve sold there before and think you know what’s in the contract, you might not.

    In my experience, nine times out of ten nothing changes in guidelines or contracts. Maybe tweaks to the guidelines, right? But that tenth time, you might see something that would give you pause. And never take that contract for granted.

    Rules

    So, the other day I was ranting to a friend about how much I’d hated the godsforsaken five paragraph essay torture they put high school and college students through (in the US, at least) over and over again. And then I clicked on some article or other where someone said something like “Oh, see, you have to know the rules in order to break them!” and I banged my head against the desk for ten or fifteen minutes because I hate that, too.

    And then it occurred to me that it’s that stupid E-comp class that made me so vehement about the whole “rules of writing” thing. (Spoiler: THERE ARE NONE. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.) I think it must have been.

    So, it’s like this: that five paragraph essay structure? It is never used outside the classroom. (Okay, once, a couple years out of college, I happened to pick up an issue of Student Life that was lying around (I worked at my alma mater’s faculty club for several years, right out of college. In a pinch I could probably still wait tables and tend bar) and saw a movie review that was, I shit you not, in five paragraph form. I actually laughed aloud at it.)

    So, aside from undergrads writing for school papers who have taken the form way too seriously, nobody except undergrads writing papers for class writes that sort of essay. It is useless for anything else.

    And if it were just a question of specificity, that wouldn’t bother me. There are a number of forms that are only used for one particular sort of thing, in one particular field. Query letters? I had to learn to write a query letter, and it’s a form that I will never use for anything else, ever. No sweat.

    No, the problem is, it’s presented as “this is how you write a good essay. This is how you write clearly.” And then you’re given things to read, that are meant to be models of clear writing, or good essays.

    That part, actually–the reading models and examples–I am a hundred percent behind. It’s how I learn to write things, to be honest. When I needed to write a query letter, I read the Query Shark archives from beginning to end. Not all of those examples are good ones, but Query Shark comments on every single one of them. Where they work, where they don’t. By the time I was done, I knew what sort of thing I needed to produce.

    When I decided to try my hand at short fiction, I went and got the most recent Dozois years best antho out of the library and read it cover to cover. Yes, I even scanned the honorable mentions. Then I went and got the one from the year before. And got some issues of Asimovs and F&SF. And…basically, I read short SF until my eyes bled.

    So hooray for giving students models! Except for one thing–those essays handed to us to read, to see how a good essay was written? Not one single one of them was in that ugly-ass five paragraph form. I could not learn to write an ecomp essay by reading them.

    Looking back, I’m sure there was nothing stopping me from just following the instructions (first do A, then do B, then C, type your name across the top and hand it in!). But the dissonance produced by the supposed examples that we were told to learn from and what we were actually specifically assigned to produce was distressing to me–I couldn’t resolve it. And I was given no access to my (I realize now) preferred method of learning how to write something–that is, I was not given a sheaf of grade A five paragraph essays to sit down and digest. The instructors all seemed to think they were doing this, though, with the reading assignments they were giving us.

    This didn’t matter to most of my classmates. They read and wrote as assigned, with no feelings of contradiction or distress. And I’m not sure why it bothered me in this class, where it didn’t bother me in others–it’s quite common, for instance, for the “rules” presented in elementary and high school grammar instruction to flat out not match actual well-written or well-spoken English, and this was something I’d noticed fairly early on, but had realized quickly that if I just kept my head down, replied as requested in class and on tests, and not worried about it otherwise, I’d be okay. Of course, I had the advantage of already speaking a prestige dialect of American English so the deviation wasn’t as large as it could have been, and I didn’t worry too much whether my English was “proper” or not.

    But when I first encountered that five paragraph essay, in high school? The huge mismatch between that and the actual examples of good writing presented to us was almost painful.

    I struggled on through, of course. I tried the “keep my head down and follow the instructions” course, but it never quite worked. I couldn’t feel the form in the way I wanted, and could not, as a result, produce very good examples of it. Then again, the occasional “just put some writing on the page” assignments always got high marks and prompted my high school English teachers to sigh sadly at my wasted potential, my obvious lack of application the rest of the time.

    I began to notice more and more, where people would say “Things work like X” but, in fact, they didn’t actually work much like X at all. And yet, somehow, no one seemed to notice, people just kept saying “Things work like X” even when it was not working anything like X right in front of their faces. This is really very common, actually.

    Anyway. Fast forward to my decision to try short fiction. I had two means by which to learn to write short fic–advice from various sources and the fiction itself. And just like freshman comp, there was a huge mismatch between what the advice said and what I was seeing in the actual fiction–fiction that was allegedly the best of all the short SFF produced in that year.

    So, if you’re a writer trying to get published, you already know what those rules are. You’ve heard them over and over again. Maybe you’re trying to follow them. Maybe you’ve got enough verve in your writing to have gotten somewhere by following them, but maybe you haven’t gotten quite as far as you wish you would. I’m going to suggest that you have been doing the equivalent of sending out five paragraph essays, or mild variations thereof.

    I have seen these, in slush. These are the subs that, sometimes, an editor or slushreader will say, “No, actually, most of the subs I get aren’t that bad. They’re well-written and all, they just don’t shine, they just aren’t quite there. That’s the majority of my slush.” It is. Yes, it is. It is sub after sub of the exact same form told in the same way with the same techniques following the same “rules” over and over and over again. Oh, there are minor variations. After all, if you know the rules well enough you can break them! And I know from conversations in various places that there’s a lot of concern about whether or how to break such rules. I cannot tell you how often I have privately headdesked after overhearing yet another conversation about whether it’s permissible or advisable to do a whole novel in first person, or how desperately someone is trying to avoid pure exposition, or the difficulty of omniscient POV and the inadvisability of trying it. I’ve seen writers lectured on how novels must be structured in a particular way, or particular things must be present in the first chapter.

    And rather like the elementary school “rules” of grammar, quite a few writers never actually follow those rules, but they carefully hand them on to new writers, insisting they’re useful and true, that if you know them well enough you can break them. That when you can’t actually map those rules onto more than maybe one or two (if any) of the stories in the year’s YB anthos, or the stories that you yourself love best, that’s because those writers “knew how to break the rules” and besides “the exception proves the rule.” Except, when most of the year’s best stories break the rule, how much of a rule is it? And “proves” in that proverb doesn’t mean “establish the truth of.” It means “tests.” After so many failed tests, how is it the rule still stands?

    I suspect that if I hadn’t been faced with that weird disconnect in high school and college I might not have noticed. I also suspect that if I’d had just a bit more confidence in school, I’d have just written whatever the hell I wanted and turned it in. To be entirely honest, I got much, much better grades on college papers in general than I did in freshman comp–there was no requirement I stick to that stupid form, and suddenly I started getting As on papers. From my vantage point now, I suspect I could have done that for most of freshman comp, too, and done much better. I wonder if the teachers would have even noticed I wasn’t following the template?

    I know that five paragraph essay form has a specific historical origin and context, and I don’t necessarily object to teaching the form itself. I just wish teachers were more up front about what its purpose and context is, or were more aware of it, and aware of the ways that to at least some students, that mismatch between examples and what’s being asked for in writing assignments is really difficult to navigate.

    And I wonder if being up front about that might not help more students learn the things that course is trying to teach? I suspect it would. I am not a teacher, though, and have no expertise there.

    Anyway. Because it was such a pain in the ass to me, I’ve ended up with a severe allergy to similar sorts of writing advice in the world of fiction. Or, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. So, you can blame all my “there are no rules!” rants on Sister Sheila (God rest her), and my college comp instructors.*

    ___

    *Instructors, not instructor. I failed my actual first attempt at Freshman Comp, and had to take it again the next year. I’d done it twice in high school and hated it. The second time would allegedly get me college credit–but my college flatly refused to let any student skip e comp. And I’d had more than I could stand already. I managed to pass the second time by the skin of my teeth. Like I said, in hindsight, I realize I probably could have winged it and gotten a decent grade. I didn’t have the confidence to do that, though, and ended up with a long-simmering repressed urge to burn freshman comp to the ground.

    **Yes, that means that I, who won multiple awards for my first novel, failed freshman comp in college. And got lackluster grades in high school English, for that matter. If it helps you to know that, I am, as always, happy to be of assistance.

    And since I’m on this thing anyway. As soon as I decided to take my twitter and blogging break, I immediately thought of (or ran across) half a dozen things I wished I’d linked to first. And since I’m breaking my break for just a bit today, I’ll link to them now.

    First of all, when I was listing things that came out this year that I really thought were fabulous, I forgot to mention Keffy Kehrli’s “This is a Ghost Story.”

    I heard him read this story last time I was at Wiscon, and I’ve been waiting for it to be published since then. I knew it would be, because it was so freaking good.

    Second. I’ve said before that every aspiring writer ought to read Hal Duncan’s posts on writing. There’s a new one and, guess what, it’s more required reading. This time it’s “How Not to Cut Adjectives.” Read. It. Do not speak to me again of never using adjectives. Better yet, don’t pass on that sort of bad advice.

    Third. The same goes for the thing about the evils of passive voice. Read this paper by Geoffrey Pullum (link is a pdf). Ponder it. Take it to heart.

    Fourth. The thing about self promotion. I find I’m with Amal on this. Yeah, the people with the biggest megaphone are going to be louder and get more out of it–forbid it, and the people with the biggest megaphones are going to be the only ones who get any promotion to speak of. It’s all very well to wish that attention just naturally fell on the most worthy work. The fact is, it does not, and rules about who may or may not speak properly, when, and about what, are by and large designed to benefit the people who are already in powerful positions. The fiction that worthy works will (or ought to) just naturally attract attention, and that pointing out the existence of your own work in the hope others will pay attention to it is some sort of perversion or corruption of this noble, beautiful process conceals the fact that actually, particular people, and particular works, tend to get more attention no matter what.

    Sometimes courtesy and propriety is just consideration for others. Sometimes it’s a weapon used to keep particular sorts of people in their place.

    So, a few days ago there was this conversation on Twitter. I’m not going to link or anything. “A few days” in twitter-time might as well be a few weeks or even months. And there’s no real reason to go back to it specifically.

    Just, it was asserted that a truly thoughtful writer ought to burn everything down and start new if they wanted to write great, original SFF.

    Now, as a statement of a particular writer’s methods (which this person clarified in another tweet that it was) I have no argument with this. But as general advice, I have problems with it.

    I’ll say up front that I have little patience for advice (or demands!) that involves telling writers what sort of thing they ought to be writing. I could go on and on about why I feel this way, but let’s just settle with the first, simplest thing that comes to mind–as Joanna Russ points out in a book I strongly recommend reading, it’s one of the easiest, most thoughtless ways to dismiss writing by writers you don’t want to acknowledge as, you know, real writers. “She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.” Sure, she’s a good writer, it’s just a shame she’s writing Romance. I mean, everyone knows Romance is trivial and not capable of being anything profound. Or, “Well, she would be a great writer, too bad she spends all her time on issues unimportant to most straight white cis men! Issues important to straight white cis men are profound and universal. Other issues are trivial, or identity politics, or political correctness, or just plain boring.”

    I could go on. Hopefully, though, you take my point here.

    A writer who attempts to sell stories to SFF prozines or semipros (or, for that matter, novels to the equivalent publishing houses) has, I think we can safely assume, a certain amount of ambition. I assume, myself, that part of that is an ambition to produce great work. (The other part is to be recognized for it, but that is its own whole can of worms.)

    But everyone’s “great” is their own. I don’t mean that everything boils down to personal taste. Personal taste is a part (sometimes a big part) of the equation, but it’s not all there is and it’s not what I’m talking about here. No, I mean, when you sit down to write something, you have a thing you’re aiming at. That thing you’re aiming at is particular to you, and/or particular to the project you’re working on. You succeed to the extent that you hit that.

    So what I mean when I say that I think all of us are trying to write great stories is that we are all trying to hit our targets, whatever those are, in the best way we can. Not that we are all attempting to be the next Shakespeare, or to write the Most Serious Fiction. Okay, maybe you are. That’s fine. Or maybe your ambition is to write the most perfect and delectable cotton candy fiction, some adventure, some romance, some explosions, a happy ending. No mean feat, actually. And good candy is not something to sneer at. Imagine if there were no candy in the world! It would be a much, much sadder place. And we all know there’s a difference between a Hershey’s kiss and, say, a sea-salt caramel from KaKao. There is such a thing as great candy. Or maybe the idea of turning out a dozen shiny, foil-wrapped kisses enchants you. The world needs those, too! I have no doubt you’re trying to make them the shiniest, kissiest kisses ever.

    So, I don’t think writers fall short because they’re not trying to do great work. They fall short, in my opinion, because of ability (none of us is as good as we wish we were) and because of failure of nerve. Or a failure to realize that a failure of nerve is possible. To realize that even “silly adventure story” requires a great deal of care. That all the “rules” and advice about what does and doesn’t sell and how stories ought to be is safety railings and nets that you think are helping you, except they’re actually keeping you from doing the thing you really need to do, which is to jump off the fucking cliff.*

    But what constitutes jumping off the cliff is something only you can decide. Partly because it’s your writing and you get to choose your target. But also partly because in the end, none of us can ever know if we’ve achieved any kind of “greatness.” Nearly every variety of “great” is beyond our deliberate reach, beyond our control to achieve, and not just for reasons of ability. Several of them can only become apparent after we’re long dead, and those are vulnerable to accidents of history. And no writer’s work is ever universally acclaimed. There are always dissenting voices, sometimes quite a few, depending on what sort of thing one has written and what’s fashionable or acceptable. You might as well do the work that you find deeply satisfying, write the stories you really, really want to write, about things that interest and concern you, in your voice. It’s the only satisfaction you can really depend on. It’s the only thing you have any kind of control over.**

    If SFF is a huge Lego castle that we’ve all been building on for decades, some of us might want to tear their part down and set it on fire and then build on the ruins. Fair enough. But some of us might want to renovate a particular wing that’s taken their fancy. Others of us might just want to add some filigree to a particular battlement.

    All of these approaches, and a zillion others, can produce great results. But if you insist that only the set it on fire approach is going to produce great work, you’ve erased the work of everyone else. Go a step farther (too much of what’s published didn’t radically transform the genre! Set it on fire!) and you’ve denied those other artists the right to even exist.

    And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing. Sure, we all probably could profit from looking at our assumptions and cultural baggage, and being aware of that as we write.*** But burning the whole castle down? When we’ve uncovered and rebuilt these parts here, so painstakingly? When we love the castle so much and want so badly to be there, even when others are trying to push us out? “Burn it all down and start over!” doesn’t sound terribly appealing. Quite the opposite.

    So, rather than burning it all down and starting new (unless, you know, that’s your thing, because if it is, you go! Have some matches!), decide what it is you’re trying to do. Decide what it is you want to do. And then do that in whatever way works best, in the best way you can. Do whatever it takes. Whatever that is. No matter what anyone tells you, nothing is off limits, nothing is forbidden. You can try any and everything that you think might work. Don’t worry if it’s allowable, or if someone might not like it (someone won’t like it. I can absolutely guarantee that), or if it breaks any rules, or if it has a large enough audience, or if it’s something rumor says “editors” don’t like, or if people tell you it’s not serious enough. Just do the thing you want to do as well as you possibly can. Because in the end, that’s the only thing you have any kind of control over. In the end, that’s all you really can do. And that’s okay, because whatever it is, you’ll know you did your absolute best, and it will be yours.

    ____

    *Practicing not falling off the cliff does not help you learn to jump off it well. Learn to do what you want to do by practicing what you want to do, not by telling yourself it’s too dangerous for you to even try just yet. What’s the worst that could happen? Some rejections and some trunked stories? You guys, that’s going to happen anyway. And I can’t help the sneaking suspicion that for some of us, keeping us on one particular path–keeping us from even thinking going off the path is possible–is part of the point. Just something to consider.

    **Do be willing to take criticism, sure. You have to be able to do that, to improve. But any version of “this thing you’re attempting is not important enough/ought to actually be what I want you to attempt” is not something you need to listen to.

    ***I’m pretty certain that’s how the person who said it meant it, actually. But. It sounds different, when you’re standing in a different place. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that there are people standing in different places.

    It’s not a real heart, it’s a real artificial heart.

    So, on the most recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan asked, was it possible to be so enthused and relieved about science fiction without (or with a great deal less of) the normal dose of racism and sexism that this might blind readers to the fact that the work was otherwise not all that significant?

    So. Disclaimer. I have no intention of attacking Jonathan Strahan, who it seems to me is genuinely interested in science fiction having less racism and sexism in it.

    Here’s the thing–it really, really matters who’s asking this question. It really, really matters whose criteria you’re going by when you try to determine if a work is “really” significant. I think that if Strahan had not been a white straight cis guy, he would not have asked this question in quite this way.

    I love analogies! Let’s have one.

    Imagine that you dearly love, absolutely crave, a particular kind of food. There are some places in town that do this particular cuisine just amazingly. Lots of people who are into this kind of food hold these restaurants in high regard. But let’s say, at every single one of these places, every now and then throughout the meal, at random moments, the waiter comes over and punches any women at the table right in the face. And people of color and/or LGBT folks as well! Now, most of the white straight cis guys who eat there, they have no problem–after all, the waiter isn’t punching them in the face, and the non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-guys who love this cuisine keep coming back so it can’t be that bad, can it? Hell, half the time the white straight cis guys don’t even see it, because it’s always been like that and it just seems like part of the dining experience. Granted, some white straight cis guys have noticed and will talk about how they don’t like it and they wish it would stop.

    Every now and then, you go through a meal without the waiter punching you in the face–they just give you a small slap, or come over and sort of make a feint and then tell you they could have messed you up bad. Which, you know, that’s better, right? Kind of?

    Now. Somebody gets the idea to open a restaurant where everything is exactly as delicious as the other places–but the waiters won’t punch you in the face. Not even once, not even a little bit. Women and POC and LGBT and various combinations thereof flock to this place, and praise it to the skies.

    And then some white, straight, cis dude–one of the ones who’s on record as publicly disapproving of punching diners in the face, who has expressed the wish that it would stop (maybe even been very indignant on this topic in a blog post or two*) says, “Sure, but it’s not anything really important or significant. It’s getting all blown out of proportion. The food is exactly the same! In fact, some of it is awfully retro. You’re just all relieved cause you’re not getting punched in the face, but it’s not really a significant development in this city’s culinary scene. Why couldn’t they have actually advanced the state of food preparation? Huh? Now that would have been worth getting excited about.”

    Think about that. Seriously, think. Let me tell you, being able to enjoy my delicious supper without being punched in the face is a pretty serious advancement. And only the folks who don’t get routinely assaulted when they try to eat could think otherwise.

    There isn’t only one axis on which something can be significant, or advance the genre. And declaring that only the axes that are important to you matter–particularly when the axes being dismissed are ones that matter a lot to women, LGBT, and POC–is a move straight out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

    __
    *No, I am not referring here to Strahan.

    Ada said to Charles, “You can take this a little further.”

    I just sent off a completed draft of Ancillary Sword to a few of my very patient first readers. It feels kind of weird, actually. There are still a few ships with names like Mercy of [ship] in the ms, and I don’t doubt there are continuity errors, and like everything I write, the last bits are the most unpolished and are probably kind of flabby and rough. But I can spend tomorrow with the ladies at the bead store, learning to do kumihimo, with nothing hanging over me!

    Well, nothing except then having to polish things up as fast as I can so my poor editors don’t get ulcers. But hey, I did the big part!

    To celebrate, I’ll earworm all of you with this song that Natalie Luhrs earwormed me with not long ago.

    It is doubly appropriate, since it was Ada Lovelace Day not long ago.