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New story free on Daily Science Fiction: When a Bunch of People, Including Raymond, Got Superpowers

Luc's writing projects

My very short story about choosing superpowers wisely, When a Bunch of People, Including Raymond, Got Superpowers, is up today at Daily Science Fiction. Comments there or here are always welcome.


Analyzing the Living Tar out of Novel Beginnings



I’ve been researching and outlining my current novel for quite a while, but it was only this past week when I sat down to write the beginning of the book. Before doing that, I decided to try something intended to wake me up to what makes a good novel opening: I read through the beginnings of eight of the best novels I could think of–or more specifically, eight of the novels I was originally most engrossed by and continue to be most impressed by.

I didn’t worry about choosing my “eight favorites of all time,” and I strongly favored mainstream (that is, not romance, SF, Fantasy, mystery thriller, etc.) and adult over speculative and/or young adult (YA) because the novel I’m writing is a mainstream, adult novel. Otherwise I would have included The Lord of the RingsThe Golden CompassThe Amulet of SamarkandThe Hunger GamesHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, etc.

By the way, except for Life of Pi (which I can’t recommend because I haven’t read it all the way through), I highly recommend any and all of these novels. To whatever extent your reading preferences are close to mine, I think you’ll love them.

My goal was to look for any specific tactics I would want to use in the opening of my own novel. I believe that beginnings are crucial, even more crucial than endings, because they signal what kind of book it will be and because readers often judge whether or not to read on from the first few pages or chapters. A bad ending may make the reader throw the book across the room, but a bad beginning will prevent the book from entering the room in the first place.

Of course, you can go back and redo your beginning any number of times, but as long as it’s not going to bog you down, why not start with your best effort? With that said, if you think it is likely to bog you down, this approach is probably no good for you. Some of us need more drive while others of us need more thought. I’m in the second camp.

The books I chose may or may not have been ideal for my purposes, since these books tend toward the “literary,” whatever that means when we’re talking about novel that were also commercially successful, and I’m trying to write a novel that offers a huge amount of real-life information in the form of an engrossing story, which is a bit of  a different intention.

The results of my casual review were eye-opening for me. Here are the lessons I drew from the process, which may or may not be useful in your writing. I believe they apply in some measure not only to novels, but also to short fiction.

  • I do seem to love me some first person POV, which is too bad, considering the book I’m working on, after sober reflection, should be in third person. It surprised me, though, that most of the books I chose as favorites were written in first person.
  • All of the books gave a lot of information early on, but they varied enormously in what kind of information they gave and how pertinent it was to the story. Niffeneger gives a clear and understandable picture of a confusing and unusual condition (involuntary time travel) that is at the center of her story, for instance, whereas Martel drops a few vague hints of what his story is about and then starts spouting facts about tree sloths.
  • All of these books implied or stated that something significant and terrible was going to happen but (possibly with the exception of Niffeneger’s book) didn’t go into the details of what that thing was for at least a little while. This ranged from the subtle (beginning the chapter by quoting a poem dealing with blood and destruction) to the extremely blunt (“I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”).
  • All used sharp and unusual metaphors and/or similes
  • I hadn’t previously imagined this would be a key point, but all made highly opinionated observations and philosophical statements. Of course, this may be partly a product of the predominance of first person stories, but even so, I was struck by how outspoken the narration was.
  • Most seemed to labor energetically early on (though not necessarily immediately) to explain anything that might be confusing or unusual about the story, but to do so in a way that seemed like a natural part of a story rather than stop-and-lecture. For example, Niffeneger demonstrates the time travel situation, Adams reveals that we’ll be reading a story about talking rabbits, and Stockett clearly depicts the structure of relationships in a household where a white woman hires a black woman to take care of her child.
  • Something bad is happening or has already happened to the main character pretty much right away; we have a reason to sympathize and take that character’s side. This is different than the “significant and terrible” thing. It’s the difference between Harry being locked in a cupboard under the stairs (which wins our sympathy) and having to face Voldemort (which is the key conflict of the book).
  • The first person narratives very often felt like being taken wholly into the person’s confidence right away: Holden Caulfield and Aibileen and Delores and all the rest feel like they’re telling all of their secret thoughts to the reader, implying a relationship of utter trust and confidence.
  • All bring up large and meaningful issues right from the start
  • Some of the books started with observations, reflection, and summary rather than diving right into a scene

Here are the raw notes I jotted down about each book as I went, in case you’re interested in the details I noticed.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
· Immediately gives you reasons to both sympathize and be suspicious of the main characters
· Very “literary” in style, and first person, neither of which is well-suited to what I’m trying to do in my own book
· Surprising and gripping imagery
· Situation first, then explanation (not the other way around)
· Strong use of metaphor and vibrant description
· Brings up large issues (Africa, race, entitlement, guilt, privilege) in the first few pages
· Makes ethical/philosophical statements (“Most people have no earthly notion of the price of a snow-white conscience”) and controversial ones
· Strongly foreshadows
· Starts with reflection on everything (philosophy, metaphor, meaning, foreshadowing) and only then gets to the story of things

Audrey Niffeneger, The Time Traveler’s Wife
· Starts with personal reflection and immediate reference to danger and difficulty
· Ideas, philosophy, and generalization at beginning, not an immediate scene
· Startling premise given out in an incomplete way very soon
· Metaphor, simile
· First person again (still not applicable to what I’m doing, though)
· Second character introduced after only a few paragraphs, with vivid images of how time travel feels and specific examples that are half-summarized, half in-scene
· establish relationship immediately, in a meaningful way
· still a lot of reflection and summary in Henry’s part
· Beginning has an especially high proportion of effective poetics, sort of a demonstration of skill. Later in the book the descriptions and comparisons are still vivid, still lots of simile and metaphor, but the rest of the language is more transparent.
· The same is true in The Poisonwood Bible: later the story is still carried by metaphor and simile, but the intent is more narrative and less poetic and philosophical

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
· Starts with character, giving us an immediate and clear idea of who this guy is and how he sees the world. We also get a lot of detail about his life–where he goes to school, what he values, what his parents are like from his point of view (in general terms), his brother, etc. Long first paragraph that kind of runs on. Voice dominates.
· Then fragments of scenes, mostly told in summary, that continue to illuminate what his life is like.
· First person again, of course. That just kills me, all that first person.
· There’s a palpable warmth and feeling of trust: you immediately start feeling like a confidant, that Holden might not be very reliable to most people, but for some reason he’s chosen you as someone with whom he’s going to be absolutely, 100% candid. The same thing at the very beginning of The Poisonwood Bible.

Richard Adams, Watership Down
· Title of the first part is “The Journey,” which foreshadows, and then there’s a quote from a Greek play about death and the stench of blood, so before you read even a word of the actual story, some tension has been created.
· Starts with a traditional kind of “lay of the land” description, with specific plant names and object names, the layout of things, and so on. It paints a pretty fair picture and only gradually focuses our attention on the rabbits. Once it does that, it starts by showing them as we would see them, then implies some personality, then begins to refer to rabbit culture in a way that technically could maybe still be considered realistic if it were based on zoology rather than sociology, and then finally crosses the line into explicit talking rabbit territory.
· He gives a character sketch of each rabbit in kind of a static way, but the tension he has built up for us tides us over durng this uneventful (though pertinent) material.
· Story picks up with a scene fairly soon, with several more reminders of something dire to come (probably more necessary because the scene is only rabbits out nibbling, though there is conflict early on with the pushy Owsla members). There is even foreshadowing in the footnotes.
· He establishes the “rules” of his world very early on and imparts a surprising amount of rabbit cultural information quickly. The omniscient voice helps with this, as do the footnotes. The style is traditional or even antiquated by modern American standards, but not far out of expectations and very suitable for the book’s original time and place.

Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Disclaimer: I haven’t read this entire book: I picked it based on reputation and the movie.
· Begins with broad statements that suggest great troubles but say nothing about them, and instead focus on the narrator’s academic studies. Quickly focuses on sloths, with interesting comments
Some broad and philosophical statements that suggest a wide scope of meaning for the story
· Goes on for quite a while about the habits of sloths, then meanders onto religion and science in an apparently undirected way–still not revealing why there would be any great woe in store
· Gets even more poetic and philosophical as it proceeds
· Descriptions are vivid, surprising, and opinionated, and imply larger parts of the story that are not stated outright, e.g. “… but I love Canada. It is a great country much too cold for good sense, inhabited by commpassionate, intelligent people with bad hairdos.”
Continues with hints and hints … who is Richard Parker? Why were you in a hospital in Mexico? What brought you to Canada? What story did the other patients in the hospital come over to hear from you? etc.
Chapter 2 is a single paragraph, an outward character sketch of the narrator.
· Chapter 3 launches into the narrator’s personal history. Clearly we will have to wait a long time before finding out about Richard Parker and what the story was that the patients came to hear.

Wally Lamb, She’s Come Undone
· Starts with a memory full of personal details and clearly marked as having unreliable parts. Fills in family details, personality, and how she was raised and treated. One scene, then another. First person again.
· By the end of the second scene, a broad reference to something very bad coming. Earlier on, hints that signing on with Mrs. Masicotte was a bad decision that will cost the family. Lots of period detail.

Kathryn Stockett, The Help
· Rotating first person POV again. Yikes, all this 1P!
· Establishes voice and role immediately, and the delivery clarifies that racial issues will be central fromm the first paragraph without anything about that being explicit.
· By the second paragraph, a situation and a scene are forming, with the white lady employer unable and possibly unwilling to take care of her child
· Narrator immediately focuses on the child’s needs, even though a screaming child is hard to care about, and earns our trust and admiration–and then she is very quickly effective in her role and we come to attribute competence and intelligence to her as well
· Metaphor, simile, and voice. “Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week.”
· Some daring statements that begin sketching out the big issues the story will tackle. “I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns.”
· Then begins filling in a little of her personal tragedy (her dead son), laying out the details of his death with all the clarity and candor of everything else she’s said.
· We feel here too that we are getting the full, frank story in a way that none of the other characters in the book will get it.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
· A one-paragraph preamble that’s both sweet and ominous. We don’t know it, but it foreshadows the whole situation of the book.
· Once again first person and voice and the extreme frankness.
· She dispassionately describes her murder in the second sentence.
· A few paragraphs later, makes the first reference to “my heaven”
· Spends some time sketching out a character who will have zero role in the novel but does have emotional impact.
· Occasional sharp and well-observed metaphors and similes
· Very soon launches into the scene in which she is killed. Wastes no time.
· However, interrupts it with personal reflections and thoughts about her family–as is appropos, considering it’s a book about Susie’s relationship with her family.
· Still in the interruption of that murder scene, a fragment of a scene in heaven, observing a scene on earth in which the murderer talks to Susie’s mother.
· Family observations and fragments of scenes in Susie’s heaven continue to be interspersed with the murder scene, as well as reflections on what she did and should have done.

Photo by Let Ideas Compete


Free Historical Fantasy Novelette Wed-Thu: The Violin-Maker’s Wife

Luc's writing projects

Some time back, my friend Maya Lassiter and I participated in a Codex collaborative story contest and created a historical fantasy story about deadly lights plaguing a small family in post-Civil War Missouri. Even after the story won the contest, we revised and rewrote and rewrote and revised, finally settling on a version that satisfied us both.

Today and tomorrow (Wednesday through Thursday, November 7th and 8th), our e-novelette “The Violin Maker’s Wife” will be available free on click here to get it.

If you do get and read the story, we’d be very interested in hearing what you think! Comment here or post a review on Amazon.

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Leah Bobet on Literature as a Conversation

Society and culture

This is the sixth interview and the eighth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, we get to finish the discussion we started some time back with writer Leah Bobet.

LUC: In our first round of questions, you mentioned Poppy Z. Brite’s book Drawing Blood, saying “Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories,” and you went on to describe how that has affected how you see and understand many kinds of people in the world. Are you consciously trying to create “aha” moments like this for your own readers? Are your goals for inclusivity in your writing explicit and specific?

LEAH: I’m not, no – and I’m not sure if one deliberately can create that moment.  Every reader’s set of experiences and stories and, well, their brains are different.  The “aha” moment is when the story being told combines with the rest of your life and data and experiences in a way that tips over a realization you’ve been on the verge of making.  It’s so very rooted in the reader that I’m not sure crafting it is possible.

What you can do, I think, is present the world as you see it, or the questions you’re sitting up nights asking yourself.  And people will either agree or disagree with what you show them, or go off asking all new questions that you never could have predicted.

As for goals for inclusivity, mostly the goal for me is to have it — which could be read as extremely explicit and specific, or not at all!  But to be clearer:  I don’t write to a moral point, or to proselytize in any way.  It didn’t take more than five minutes’ experience as an editor to learn that there’s a difference between a story and a piece written To Make A Point ™, and that the latter is very difficult to make into an interesting or engaging read.

What I do try to write is the kinds of stories I want to read as a reader, and those are stories that challenge me; stories that can both sweep up my heart and make me really and truly think; stories that examine social values without trying to sell them to the reader.  The stories I write are populated by all kinds of people because I want to read stories like that, and because that’s the world on my block, in my neighbourhood, in my city.

LUC: When a writer tackles a story that includes someone from a group they’re not a part of, what tests or steps or touchstones should be used, in your opinion, to do the job right?

LEAH: Youch – I am not at all qualified in any fashion to say how one can do the job right.  You can do all sorts of recommended things and still drop the ball on this sort of thing, or do none of them and do a really productive job.  It’s all situational, and it depends, also, on what job you’re trying to do.

I think there are two main factors to look at when you’re writing characters from a marginalized group, however you choose to tackle them.  The first: What’s the existing social and literary conversation around how that group is portrayed?  What are the in-person stereotypes about them, and what are the fiction stereotypes?  Because even if you’re not aware of or writing out of that stereotype, literature’s a conversation, and your comment (to stretch that metaphor!) will be taken as part of the larger conversation.  If it’s just reinforcing that, or not acknowledging in certain ways that there is a conversation going on, then it’s very easy to do harm.

I’ve tripped on that one myself: Thinking I knew the ground around how a minority is treated in fiction, and not in fact knowing it at all.  That particular piece of work hurt readers, and I can tell you unambiguously that causing harm with your work – using the trust a reader grants you carelessly, or using it ill – is a horrible feeling.  It’s not one I personally care to repeat.

The second factor?  Remember that your characters are people.

This sounds small, but it’s actually pretty big.  Remembering someone’s a person can mean remembering that someone from group X will have things that make them laugh and cry and roll their eyes just like someone from group Y will.  It can mean that they’ll be more or less attached to the culture and religion and society they grew up in, or in different ways, depending on their personality and experiences.  It can mean looking at their reactions as not something opaque and Other and strange, but as reactions to people around them being kind or cruel, or what has been expected of them, or what success and failure were laid out to mean when they were young.  It also means that they have a personality, and that there isn’t a standard, textbook way for people of group X to react to those things: anyone who’s ever had an argument with their siblings can pretty much back that one up.

In short, you are writing a human being.  Treat them as such: as someone complete.

This means, a lot of the time, learning not just to watch, and to see, but to empathize.  Which doesn’t mean to feel bad for someone; it means to, to the best of your ability, shift your own perspective.  What might your street look like to someone with mobility issues?  What would a character who grew up on a farm notice when they walk into a city park, and what would one who grew up in Manhattan notice?

This isn’t just a tool for writing characters different than you; it’s a tool for writing any characters well.  And it’s a tool that ends up bleeding, like all the best ones do, into your life: Because real people are complete and complex humans too, and once you’ve gotten into practice in taking other perspectives and not assuming your own is the only perspective?  You’re seeing people.  And that will reflect in your interactions; in how you treat your neighbours in the small things; and in how they notice, and treat you in return.

LUC: We’ve talked a little about Drawing Blood. Are there other books or stories that, for you, stand out in this regard? If so, what did they do right?

LEAH: Actually, this might appear to come a bit out of left field?  But: Anything by Sean Stewart.  Specifically Galveston, or Nobody’s Son.

If you subscribe to the theory that every author has a couple themes or problems they keep returning to, picking at around the edges, then one of Stewart’s is about realizing that you’re actually a complete asshole, and then what you do after that realization hits.  This is useful to everyone, I think, because I have not yet met a person of any identity makeup who hasn’t been an asshole to somebody.  In activism or just in daily living, the skill of what you do after you’ve been hurtful to someone else is a very useful one to practice, no matter who you are.  They’re flawed books about flawed people, and I’m not put off by either the books or the protagonists being flawed, because they’re also clear-eyed and kind.

So, what did those books do right for me, as a reader?  Aside from being quite well-made in a lot of ways – Stewart has a real skill with subtlety and nuance, especially when it comes to his characterization – the thing that affected me about them was that they’re so non-judgmental.  They let you in close to people who are wounded and recognize those wounds as valid and real, and then show how the behaviour that woundedness causes hurts other people, and how that pain is valid, too.  And I think that’s the key: That pain is valid too, not instead.  There’s an immense compassion in recognizing that we’re all capable of simultaneously being the people dealing the hurt and receiving it, or acting out of old hurt while acting well or badly.  Rendering that into fiction is a very tricky thing – almost as tricky as practising that kind of compassion in life.  And it’s just as worthwhile, I think.

Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.

She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at


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Interview with Alex Shvartsman on Unidentified Funny Objects

eBooks and Publishing

Alex Shvartsman recently launched a Kickstarter project to aid in the creation of an anthology of science fiction humor from pro authors. It wasn’t until he mentioned his plan in a discussion that I realized I had never seen such a thing, and yet it’s a simple and appealing idea–an idea with legs, as they say.

So I made my first-ever Kickstarter contribution and asked Alex if I could interview him about the book. Here is that interview.

LUC: You’ve had some noticeable success both in writing (with sales to major markets like DSF and Nature) and in the gaming world. What made you venture into editing and publishing an anthology by pro writers?

ALEX: Although I really enjoy reading and writing speculative fiction, I’m a businessman at heart. I’ve launched several different companies over the years and it’s difficult for me to look at a business model without the question of “how would I do this differently” lingering at the back of my mind.

One of the first things I learned upon trying to get published is that content is way underpriced. Incredibly talented people work very hard to let someone publish their words for pennies per word. So why not put my business acumen to good use and let that someone be me? Even paying what’s considered pro rates I feel that I’m taking advantage of the authors, somehow. I hope to be able to pay even more, eventually, if UFO Publishing becomes a success.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I know better than anyone else, or that the way other publishers do things is somehow bad or wrong. Small publishers that make such claims come and go, and that sort of a statement is often a warning sign in itself. All I’m saying is that I’m willing to invest my time and money to put together the best book I possibly can, and see where that takes me.

LUC: Interesting. So with that in mind, why funny science fiction in particular?

ALEX: I love writing and reading light, humorous stories. Stuff that may be fun to read but won’t necessarily be considered by some of the SFWA markets. When trying to submit such stories for publication I’ve been frustrated at the lack of pro paying venues where they would fit, and realized that, surely, I’m not alone in this.

Can you think of an anthology of speculative humor published any time recently? A publisher that specializes in such material? I can’t. Yet Terry Pratchett books and, recently, “Redshirts” by John Scalzi are bestsellers. So why not short SF/F stories, too?  I believe there is a market for such books, and it may be a great niche for a fledgling company to fill.

LUC: How did you decide on a Kickstarter campaign for initial funding, and how did you address the perennial question “why is this book project worth supporting”?

ALEX: Kickstarter is a perfect platform for projects like this. It isn’t just about the money raised (though the money certainly helps!) – it’s about proof of concept. How many people will become excited enough about an anthology of humorous SF/F to support it by pre-ordering a copy, or even pledging extra money for other rewards? How many people will I be able to reach, make aware of the upcoming book, that might not have learned about it otherwise? This is marketing with an added benefit or raising money for a new venture rather than spending money. A godsend for any bootstrapping new publisher.

So far, I’m very pleased with the results. Over 125 individuals backed UFO in the first three weeks. Hundreds more learned about it through social media and are at least aware of the book, even if they didn’t elect to pre-order. By the time the crowdfunding campaign is over in September, the numbers it generates will give me a much better idea of how many physical copies of the book to print, how much to spend on advertising, etc. And, of course, an infusion of cash at this stage is supremely helpful.

As to the reasons to support the project, there are many. If you are a reader/fan who enjoys speculative humor then, I will repeat once again, UFO is the only anthology of this kind being released in the foreseeable future and supporting it helps promote light/humorous SF and support authors. If you’re a writer, you will find UFO’s systems and procedures to be very friendly — we respond to all submissions within 1-2 days, often provide personalized feedback, pay pro rates, don’t demand excessive rights, pay promptly upon contract … I can go on!

LUC: How have the submissions you’ve received so far–and especially the stories you’ve bought for the anthology–compared with what you expected? What exactly are we in for, here?

ALEX: Both the quantity and the quality of the submissions far exceeded my expectations. There have been over 750 submissions already and way more of them are excellent stories than what I can hope to squeeze into the book.

Let me tell you about just a few of the yarns that will appear in UFO. There’s a novelette by Mike Resnick about a spell-casting Albert Einstein battling the Nazis with some help from Eleanor Roosevelt. Ferrett Steinmetz writes about a wizard who powers his spells through tantric masturbation. This story is a lot more PG-13 than you might expect but still, it isn’t something you’re likely to read elsewhere.

There are also stoned computers, down on their luck vampires, omnivorous sex-maniac pandas and a zombear.

Not every story is over-the-top slapstick humor. Some are gentler, light tales, like Stephanie Burgis’ “Dreaming Harry” about a child whose dreams literally come true and the parents forced to deal the consequences of that. Or Nathaniel Lee’s “The Alchemist’s Children” about a scientifically-minded daughter’s quest to reconnect with her alchemist father. I am going for variety, but I try to avoid dark humor and humorous horror. I want the tone of the book to be very optimistic.

A great example of what’s to be found in the book is Jake Kerr’s story of an alien invasion told via Twitter. We posted it for everyone to read for free, and coded the page to look just like a Twitter stream. It can be found here: .

Let me leave you with that, because Kerr’s story is worth reading and probably a good litmus test for whether or not this book is for you. At the time of this writing, the Kickstarter project is more than 70% funded with a week to go (though less by the time you read this).

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: James Beamon on Elf-Bashing

Society and culture

This is the third interview and the fifth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

Today’s interview is with James Beamon, a writer of fantasy and science fiction short stories that often tackle questions of race and economic class in the midst of humor and wonders.

LUC: In a blog post of yours last year, you asked a question I’ve been hearing more and more about science fiction lately, in your case especially SF movies and TV series: Where are all the black people? You answer this question in part with some of your own stories, but your characters span not only a variety of races, but also social and economic classes and other groups that are often missing from fiction. Two examples that spring to mind are a convict and a young man with a severe stutter. Your characters sometimes struggle with questions like how they’re going to eat or how they can get around disabilities and prejudices to do things other people take for granted. How conscious is the way you choose your characters and the groups to which they belong, and do you have any specific hopes for how your work will affect readers and/or other writers?

JAMES:  Sometimes I choose a character with the active intent to highlight racial issues and prejudices.  Such was the case in “Orc Legal,” the second story in my 7 Realms series, which was always the writing outlet I used to deal with preconceived notions latent in high fantasy.  Honestly, I’m not sure if Tolkien understood what he was doing with Middle Earth, I’m not going to sit here speaking on his intent, but if anything comes close to a master race, it’s his damned elves.  They’re all tall and lithe and have 2% body fat and are acne free and will never ever age … what they wear is always in fashion, plus the clothes are enchanted with their elvish magic to glow at night and really highlight their angular sex appeal.  Meanwhile, the brownest dudes around are either the mud-covered orcs or the human mercenaries working for the greatest evil the world has ever known. Oh, and the elves are all white.  Sure, there are dark elves in high fantasy, but they stereotypically live in caves and plot murder and make poisons and other dastardly crap befitting a dark race.

I make it a point in the 7 Realms stories to see the world through the disenfranchised races … goblins and orcs and trolls.  And while I don’t profess to make them noble (after all, the orc in “Orc Legal” is a career criminal in prison) I make them engaging, believable entities, with goals and desires that make them transcend one dimension. More importantly, I strive to have my audience laugh at the absurdities inherent in racial disparity while destroying preconceived notions.  If I can break preconceived racist notions in high fantasy (e.g. … all orcs are dumb, all elves are beautifully perfect) then I believe it’s a step to realigning how people view the world around them.  That’s what stories do … highlight the human condition.  Besides, it’s extremely therapeutic for me to make fun of those stupid elves.

Again, sometimes I choose the character with my intent active and known.  Sometimes the character chooses me to tell the story.  That was the case with Mums in “The Homeless Man of Greater Zimbabwe.”  I was completely swept up with notions of this lost and rediscovered city in the highlands of Africa, I saw it as a trade hub, a multicultural place where anyone could come.  And while I wish I could claim genius or some sort of insight to why Mums came with a disability, he showed up at my door as he was … the homeless man.  Ironically, he always spoke to me with a severe stutter.  His problem arose out of that.  This story was a chance to show readers a forgotten world with characters they could invest in who are active members of this lost culture.  If the reader comes away feeling like it was possible, or with a deeper appreciation for what could have been, I will feel like I gave the place a decent tribute.

LUC: Come to think of it, that was one the things I found most startling and thought-provoking in “Orc Legal”: the elf-busting. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it before, but it’s true that elves seem to symbolize a version of white people that is especially pure and pretty and shiny. I know there are examples of stories and media that handle elves differently, but I’m talking mainly about the elf stereotype in and after The Lord of the Rings. In “Orc Legal,” you raise a topic that I haven’t come across so much in discussions of inclusivity and fiction, namely bringing some kinds of characters down out of the stratosphere. Inclusion is one thing, but how important is it to break down or redefine some of the groups that have tended to dominate Western, English-language fiction?

JAMES: Inclusivity really doesn’t mean much without equal footing.  Again, with Tolkien as an example, it doesn’t matter if there are a thousand black people in the novels if they’re all in dark armor working for the evil overlord.  Even if they chose different career options, in the Rings universe no matter what they strive for they will never attain the seemingly unassailable awesome inherent with being a fair elf.  Extending this to the real world, to people who like to imagine and cosplay, and to young readers, all a white person has to do to attain a seemingly ideal state is stick on some ears.  What’s that say for non-whites?  Because ears aren’t gonna cut it.  You get to be the orc or at best the dark elf.

That’s why I make it a point to elf bash, because it causes a re-evaluation.  Instead of seeing perfection you see human foibles … elvish disdain and discrimation towards other races, vanity, an empty pursuit of perfection, qualities that aren’t attractive.  If stories like Orc Legal, which makes an orc look smart and savvy and fun to be around while making elves petty and vain and pretentious, how much more does that idea of all races have something to offer permeate to the reader?

I think it’s a start if nothing else.  The alternative is the mono-race syndrome that’s prevalent in both fantasy and science fiction, where everyone in the culture is the exact same way.  When was the last time you saw a clean-shaven dwarf reading a book thoughtfully?  How about a Klingon holding a piece of chalk scratching out mathematical theorems on a chalkboard that left Data astounded? The problem with mono-culture is that eventually writers start associating known stereotypes onto their created races.

You remember Star Wars Episode I, and how the trading Neimoidians all talked with a funny accent, mispronounced their “l” and “r”, and wore Far Eastern inspired clothing … it wasn’t hard to associate them with a present day non-white culture based on stupid stereotypes.  I know I couldn’t stand that bastard Jar-Jar Binks … aka alien Stepinfetchit.  Again, including all races and cultures in fantasy and science fiction  is important, but not merely as extras, sword fodder for the white hero, thinly disguised stereotypes, or backup dancers.  Inclusivity means more than a medieval eurocentric experience in fantasy with the one black Moor or Eastern trader as a sidekick.  It means more than one non-white on the bridge of the starship.  It means the ability to see good things and bad in all races, even when those races aren’t human.

LUC: I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’m with you on the Jar-Jar thing especially. If only they would have left the stupid racial stereotypes out of those movies, we could have spent our attention in the more rewarding pursuit of deriding the terrible plot.

I guess that isn’t, properly speaking, a question, so let me change gears and ask you this: How do the issues change when we take up the issue of economic class? Poorer people are badly underrepresented in most fantasy and SF too–but not in your fiction. In some of your stories, getting something decent to eat not only shows up, but it’s central to the plot in the same way that it’s central to the lives of millions or billions of people in real life. Are the problems and solutions the same for economic class as they are for race?

JAMES:  I do believe racial and economic exclusion exists in fiction for some of the same reasons, predominately in that writers write what they relate to.  One of the reasons you see a huge glut of white protagonists having adventures in euro-centric worlds in science fiction and fantasy is because many of the writers of speculative fiction are white people with euro-centric upbringings.   I believe this same type of self-projection happens on an economic level as well … it’s kind of hard to write poverty when you’ve only seen it at a distance.  I’m like Steve Martin in The Jerk … I started life as a poor black child.  I know what government cheese tastes like.  I remember Christmases where the only presents came from Oasis (a kind of Salvation Army where richer people donated toys).  So while I can relate to the point where it appears convincingly in my writing, I don’t think this is a common thing for most writers.


Writing’s not necessarily expensive, like say golf or mountain biking, but it is an educated game.  I can’t speak for all poor kids, but I know I had to work against my conditions to become fairly proficient at writing.  A lot of it was self-education by reading voraciously and walking a lot to the library.  The rest was paying attention in school, wanting good grades and all.  People tend to flow like water and electricity … they take the path of least resistance, and in my hood this was definitely not a resistance free path …  There were a lot of single parents who was always away from home working where I grew up, either that or they weren’t very proactive in their kids’ lives, and few kids will pick up a book if left to their own devices unless parents spend those first formative years helping that child foster a love for books.  Luckily my mother helped foster that early love of fiction, so I was looking for books for an easy escape to places I couldn’t go.  That love of reading germinated and grew into a love of writing, something I think virtually all writers share.

So this long, auto-biographical answer relates to why you don’t see more poor folk in fiction, but that doesn’t provide any solutions, does it?   Given my stated cause for this lack of representation, a lack of author experience, I’m sure I don’t like the obvious answer… which seems to suggest having more writers who could relate to poverty.  I’d rather there’d be less poor people and writers in a post-modern world are forced to guess what it’s like to get that government ration of peanut butter that just has bold, black “PEANUT BUTTER” stamped across the packaging and loving that hard, poor-grade ration because you don’t really have any basis for comparison, this being the only peanut butter you’ve ever had.  Since quality fiction has a way of inspiring readers, and inspired readers grow to love writing themselves, I see a clever author who either had to unfortunately grow up poor or is awesome at extrapolating poverty being able to paint a realistic picture that inspires future writers to reach outside of their own experiences to write on both races they don’t belong to and socioeconomic conditions that they’ve never experienced.  That’s the ideal solution… because its not writing from experience unless that experience involves private jets and the playboy mansion.

LUC: Any comments, answers to questions I haven’t asked, or closing statements?

JAMES: I don’t have any particularly insightful parting words … no last inspired nuggets of profoundness for your readers.  Just like we all hail from different backgrounds and cultures to come together to live, work and play in today’s global village, I’m sure the issues you’ve put to all the writers you’ve interviewed will come together to make for a bigger, more profound understanding than I could ever state alone.  That’s what makes inclusion so awesome.

Wait … were those particularly insightful parting words?

James Beamon writes because he has to … and he can’t find anything worth watching on TV. But he doesn’t need TV when his wife is a muse and his son is amused by the stuff he makes up. And the cat–well, the cat’s not a fan of speculative fiction but has learned to attack on command. James calls Virginia home, but his IT work takes him all over the globe … Currently he’s in Afghanistan.  A quick peek into his mind and latest projects can be found at

Posts so far in this series



On Daily Science Fiction: “Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise”

Luc's writing projects

Daily Science Fiction, in case you don’t already know about it, posts one short speculative fiction story each weekday. E-mail subscribers get the stories first (subscriptions are free, by the way), and they appear on the Web site a week later. Editors Michele Barasso and Jonathan Laden showcase some major names and great talent among science fiction and fantasy writers. Often their stories are beautiful, poignant, and deeply meaningful. Today … not so much.

Fortunately for me, given that every once in a while I’m gripped with the need to write a story on some humorous (or at least intended-to-be-humorous) topic, they also publish some humor, like my story “Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise,” which appears on the site today. I wrote this story because I really wanted to send a submission that began “Dear Editor, enclosed please find my story ‘Dear Editor, Enclosed Please Find My Story About Your Unfortunate Demise.'” Why? That, my friends, is a question I am unlikely to understand any time soon.

I hope you enjoy the story and get a chance to dig into some of the marvelous work in the Daily SF archives.

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Vylar Kaftan


Last week I began posting a series of interviews about inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction–that is, what groups of people are conspicuously underrepresented in fiction based on their race, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, age, ethnicity, disability, or other factors; and why; and what can we do about it?

I started with this interview of Leah Bobet and followed up with a short post about the lack of female villains. Today’s post is an interview with Vylar Kaftan, who has described herself as a “queer white writer” and who has made inclusivity a particular mission in her work.

LUC: A few years ago, I gather you spent about 5 hours putting together statistics on the characters in your fiction in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, and class (readers: you can see Vylar’s results for all her characters and for her protagonists. Aliette de Bodard and Marshall Payne followed Vylar’s lead and reported their own results). I think it’s safe to say that in most categories, your numbers were much more diverse than the general run of English language fiction in North America and Europe. Were you satisfied with where you landed? Did anything change after you saw your results?

VYLAR: I thought the results were fascinating, and I’m sure glad I did it.  I was generally satisfied with where I landed.  What I found most interesting was that despite conscious efforts to diversify my characters, I still suffered from a touch of “me-ism” where my characters reflected my own experiences as a queer white woman.  After looking at my numbers, I made an extra effort to increase characters of color, both from my own culture and others around the world.  The results were very rewarding.  I have sold many of the new stories I wrote, and I feel like I learned more about the world as a result of the research I’ve done.  In fact, both the stories I’ve sold to Asimov’s stemmed in part from my desire to include more characters of color.  “Lion Dance,” which will be out in August 2012, has mainly Chinese-American characters; my forthcoming novella “The Weight of the Sunrise” is an alternate history with mostly Incan characters.  My diversity analysis directly contributed to my development of both stories.

LUC: What’s the difference for you, if any, between writing a character from a culture that no one living has experienced and writing a character from a contemporary culture or group that isn’t yours? Do you worry about “getting it wrong”?

VYLAR: The biggest difference is ease of research.  If there are living people in the culture, it’s my responsibility to be a good listener and learn everything I can.  If it’s historical research, I’m forced to rely more heavily on books–but it’s still crucial to read accounts from people who lived in and wrote about their own culture. This question is actually more about primary sources than about diversity; you need to find sources written by people in whatever culture you’re working with, whether that’s the Roman Empire, the New Orleansjazz scene in the 20s, or modern teenagers in Nagasaki.  It’s easier when there are living people to email, because they essentially write some primary sources for you.

Of course I worry about getting it wrong.  If I didn’t worry, I shouldn’t be writing it.  I’m sure I’ll get something wrong, or maybe I already have.  All I can do is try my best. If someone points out a mistake, I need to listen and learn gracefully (instead of getting defensive).

LUC: In addition to races and ethnicities, you identified and measured how many of your characters fell into some other often-disregarded groups, such as seniors, people with disabilities, and people in working class families. Does the issue of racial diversity in characters have a different kind of status or different challenges than some of these others? Do these other groups pose special challenges for writers?

VYLAR: Every kind of diversity has its own challenges.  Some are easier to show in text than in others, just by their nature.  I think many writers are more afraid of writing characters from different racial backgrounds than some of the other “isms,” and I’m not entirely sure why that barrier seems harder than other ones.  I do think that the book “Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl is a great way to learn how to explore these boundaries and diversify the characters in your fiction.  Sorry to have an incomplete answer here, but I think other writers have covered this topic far more eloquently than I.  The Carl Brandon Society is dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the speculative fiction community, and their set of resources will be very useful for a writer looking to learn about this topic.

LUC: How included do you yourself feel in the novels and stories you read? Is it a different experience from when you were young? Is inclusiveness in your writing ever a response to what you’re reading?

VYLAR:I generally prefer writers who make an effort to have diverse characters in their fiction, so this hasn’t been a huge problem for me.  Sometimes I find story ideas by asking myself, “Who’s not being written about?”  And the answer to that stems from what I’ve been reading and seeing in current sf/f stories and novels.

Vylar Kaftan is a Nebula-nominated author, about three dozen of whose stories have been published in places such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy.  She has new work coming out in Asimov’s this year.  She’s the founder of FOGcon, a new literary sf/f convention in the San Francisco area, and she blogs at

Audio Fiction: Luc Reid Reading Stories from Bam! at Readercon 23

Luc's writing projects

At Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts a couple of weeks back, I got the opportunity to do a reading of a few stories from my collection Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories, which is available in paperback and Kindle format (see the link for more information, if you’re interested). While the equipment I had available was fairly limited, I did manage to get an audio recording of most of the reading, except for about 10 seconds in the middle, which I dubbed in after returning home. The applause at the end also was cut off due to technological limitations (the audience was terrific, actually).

In the midst of the stories from Bam!, I was also able to include a very unusual kind of reading in the middle, one that quite possibly has not been done before–certainly not that I’ve ever heard of. I’ll leave that one a surprise for people who decide to listen or download this audio. Feel free to share it with friends if you’d like.

I apologize for the less-than-stellar quality of the audio and the jarring change for that 10 seconds in the middle, but what can you do? Next time I’ll try to bring some decent recording equipment of some description.

Many thanks to Grant Carrington, without whom I might well not have any recording at all.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Total time: 20:24

You can download this file at .

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Leah Bobet


Attending Readercon recently, I was struck by discussions I heard and took part in that brought up the problem of inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction: that is, what kinds of characters are conspicuously not present or very often stereotyped. This applies to race, but also to a lot of other categories: sexual preference, gender and gender identity, age, disability, mental health, social and economic class, and others.

The question I’m left with as a writer is this: what am I not doing and not seeing that’s contributing to the problem, and what can I do and understand that will contribute to making things better? So I’m doing a series of interviews with writers I admire who have things to say on the subject, starting with this one with Leah Bobet, whose novel Above (Arthur A. Levine, just out in April) tackles physical differences and marginalization in a novel and compelling way. Publisher’s Weekly gave it starred review: “Bobet effortlessly blends reality and fantasy, her characters are both gifted and broken—hers is a world that is simultaneously fantastic and painfully real.”

LUC: A lot of your fiction deals with characters that aren’t common in the books and stories we often see. From your point of view, is this tendency of most commercial fiction to prefer white, fairly young, straight, “non-ethnic”, monotheistic, neurotypical, non-disabled, and otherwise “normal” (perhaps I should say “as-though-normal”) characters a problem, or are you just taking a different path? If it’s a problem, what’s wrong with it?

LEAH: Hah – you’re asking me if this is a creative decision or a political one!  Well-played.  And, well, it’s both.  They’re inextricable.

I feel that it’s definitely a problem, yes – and it’s because of that word “normal”.  We’re none of us normal, and we’re all normal, and that’s not just the thing your parents tell you to make you feel better when some bigger kid pushed you around for whatever invented reason.  Calling one (fairly narrow!) kind of person “normal” makes people expect that their stories are the most important, and ultimately, that anyone who falls outside those lines doesn’t really have stories.  And they do.  We do.  You do.

Not only does that rob everyone of a whole lot of interesting stories, but it slowly and concretely gives us the idea that those people who aren’t “normal” don’t really matter.  They don’t have stories, so they don’t do interesting things; fight fights; reconcile; cry; learn; fail.  They don’t exist.

And telling most of the people in your society that they subtly don’t exist?  Just, well.  Seems like a bad idea to me.

LUC: So what happens when traditionally disregarded groups of people do make it into our novels and stories, especially as central characters? What kinds of impact can or do we have on readers when we write more inclusively?

LEAH: Well…just like with any work of fiction, a few things can happen.  It depends on who’s writing the work – are they in the group, or out of it? – and who’s reading it, and how well the portrayal is done.

The portrayal can be done sloppily or on the basis of the kind of harmful stereotypes that most people have about someone else without even realizing it, and then people are hurt and angry, and there are negative feelings all around.  Or, when it’s done thoughtfully, it can still sink like a stone: Books or stories fail to catch on all the time, for reasons I’m sure most of publishing would pay in body parts to figure out.  Or, well, there can be a benefit to readers, or to the community overall.

I think it’s probably hard to say where those social benefits begin and end.  Readers are people, and each person has a different and individual relationship with the various labels and roles that make up their identity (and that’s the first trap of all: thinking that just because someone is a member of a minority group, that that identity is their identity, or that all members of a given group have the same relationship to that part of their lives.  It’s not, and they don’t.)  So one reader might see themself in a character and feel like their existence, their stories, are being acknowledged by the larger community.  Another might start thinking about how their neighbour sees the world, and even if that’s not how their neighbour sees the world at all, learning to be considerate is, I think, a real plus.  Another might say, “That’s not what being X is like,” and then be clearer on what, for them, being X is actually like and why someone else might see it that way, whether that someone else is a member of the group or not.

Someone else might realize, in the back of their head, that there are more stories and ways of living out there than their own, and develop further the kind of open-mindedness that makes you not automatically reject someone living differently than yourself.

This happens.  This works.  Once upon a time when I was eleven years old, and didn’t even have much of a concept of gay people (yeah, it was a pretty isolated and homogenous suburb, and it was the early nineties.  I know.) I read Poppy Z. Brite’s Drawing Blood. Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories.  And although here and there I’ve struggled with the kind of ingrained prejudices you get when you grow up in a largely racially homogenous, economically homogenous, religiously homogenous isolated suburb, that has never been one of them.  Right story, right time, right reader.

So I guess what I’ve been groping towards here is that portraying characters and people who aren’t in that narrow band of traditional North American “normal” can, at its best, make people different from a reader not other.  It can make a reader go, “Oh, right, that person is still a person,” instead of seeing a role, a stereotype, an other.  It can make all the readers out there who don’t fit in that narrow slice of the population whose stories are always told – being, most of the population of North America right now – feel like yes, everyone else sees them; they are acknowledged as part of the community too.  That they have a voice and a place, and space to be more than the stereotypes that are frequently expected.  It gets writers who aren’t part of that narrow slice of the population out there, heard, and paid, which is really important, because having homogenous professions in a heterogenous community can be really toxic when it comes to things like public policy, and who needs what, and how it needs to be done in the everyday world.

And then?  Maybe we all treat each other better.

I’ll have more questions for Leah in a follow-up interview down the road.

Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.

She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at

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