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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Steve Bein on Alterity

Society and culture

This is the fourth interview and the sixth 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 brings in Steve Bein, an award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy whose new novel series from Roc, The Fated Blades, features a female police detective working in Tokyo.

LUC: In your novel Daughter of the Sword (due out from Roc October 2nd), your main character is a Japanese woman, and one who’s trying to make her way in what in her world is an extremely male-dominated profession. She’s hardly the first Japanese character to emerge from your pen, either. What brought you to write about a character so different from yourself? Was it something the story demanded, or did the story emerge from wanting to write about such a character?

STEVE: I’m very interested in questions of alterity and alienation, and so a lot of my protagonists don’t feel at home in their worlds.  Mariko is one such case.  I think one reason I’m so interested in this kind of character is that in many important respects I rarely feel at home myself.  Alienating and ostracizing my protagonists allows me to sympathize with them, and I think a lot of readers also sympathize with a character who feels out of place, especially when that character is cast out unfairly.

On the other question, the story demands a Mariko, or at least a protagonist that is Mariko-like.  She needs to be in a position to investigate crimes linked to a medieval sword (no spoiler there; the flap copy reveals as much) and she needs to be female (and to reveal why would be a spoiler, so I ain’t tellin’).  Once that much was clear, then I got to think a lot about how to sharpen her difficulties, to alienate her further, and what that would do to her character, and how that might initiate feedback loops (i.e. the ostracized reacts to being rejected and that reaction prompts greater rejection).  But of course the fact that she really had to be so different from me posed huge challenges in the writing itself.  She’s by far the hardest character for me to write.

LUC: What are the specific challenges of writing Mariko, and how did you try to address them?

STEVE: There are two big challenges with writing Mariko, the first having to do with story structure and the second having to do with the fact that she’s a Japanese woman and I’m not.

This novel follows three of the greatest swords ever forged as they exert their influence over about a thousand years of Japanese history.  Mariko gets about half of the book, and the other half takes us to different periods in Japanese history, where we see the swords in the hands of samurai warriors WWII officers (and ninja too, if you read the companion novella, Only a Shadow).  Each of those stories is a brick in the wall, and Mariko’s story is both brick and mortar: her story has to hold together on its own and it has to tie all the other stories together in one cohesive arc.  So one reason she’s tough to write is because her story has so much work to do.

The other big difficulty in writing her is the fact that she’s the only female protagonist in the book.   She’s the most important protagonist in the book, but all the rest are guys.  I’m sure the women in my life will be happy to tell you that I don’t really understand women.  Obviously it’s a mistake to speak of “women” as if they all think alike, feel alike, etc., but nevertheless I think male blindness is a reality and I think women perceive and react to and live with social realities that a lot of men never notice.  It takes a lot of thought, a lot of observation, and a lot of rewriting to get a female protagonist to feel female.

LUC: What are the dangers of getting a character of a different ethnicity, background, gender, and profession wrong?

STEVE: You don’t want to get Japanese culture wrong, out of respect for the culture and also because the anime rage is now twenty-odd years old, and that means there’s a huge number of Japanophiles out there who are very likely to catch any mistakes you make.  Japanese culture is easy to caricaturize–easier than most, I’d say–and so it’s all too easy to go from a thoughtful book to a chop-socky flick just by inattention to details and nuance.

I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve taken students there, and I’ve spent a lot of time indulging my fascination with Japanese culture, so all of that mitigates (and I say mitigates, not eliminates) the danger of getting the culture wrong.  Getting police culture wrong is a different story altogether.  The lingo is different, the attitudes are different, the political climate is different.  Of course you literally wrote the book on subculture slang, so you know about that aspect of it, but it’s more than language.  One of my closest friends became a cop, and it’s been very interesting to observe what it’s done to his psyche.  He just doesn’t look at society the same way anymore.  He’s seen the seamy underbelly, and I think trust and brotherly love just don’t come easily to a person after that.  I’ve interviewed a lot of cops for this book, especially female cops, to get other perspectives on the profession.  I think writers have to do that sort of thing if they really want to get the details right.

But that raises the other danger, which is getting so enmeshed in the details that no one but an expert can read your book.  I’m constantly thinking about the sorts of things you can say in English that you just can’t say in Japanese, and sometimes that can get in the way.  For example, in the next book I refer to a character’s face as “cherubic.”  Cherubs are of Mediterranean origin, so no Japanese guy in the 1500s could describe someone as cherubic.  But go too far down that road and you’ve got to write the book in Japanese.  Maybe I’ll change the cherub reference and maybe I won’t, but at the end of the day what flows best with the sentence is more important than what’s 100% authentic.

LUC: What approaches to inclusion and exclusion do you expect to take in your fiction going forward?

STEVE: I don’t really care for the language of “inclusion and exclusion.”  It’s not as if I deliberately exclude any particular category of people in my fiction.  There are lots of genres I have no interest in, but I can’t say the same of characters.

That said, I buy the old maxim that good fiction is interesting characters in difficulty, and the characters that interest me tend not to be straight white able-bodied men.  I have no idea why this is true.  I only look at my body of work so far, and my protagonists include a straight white cabbie, a straight white physics student, a Tibetan astronaut, a Kenyan astronaut, a Japanese secret agent, an intelligent computer, a teenager who lost her arm in an accident, a samurai boy born with a lame leg, a blind and elderly professor, and Mariko, a Japanese cop who spent a lot of her childhood in the States and is alienated because of it.

A couple of early readers of Daughter of the Sword have assumed Mariko is a lesbian.  I don’t give her a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the book — she’s far too busy to have a dating life — so I assume this must be people unconsciously applying the meme that tough female cops are lesbians.  You certainly see a lot of that in police stories, but I don’t like subscribing to tropes like that.  I would say that if I wanted to make Mariko a lesbian, I’d have to go through the manuscript again, examining all of her scenes, all of her internal monologue, and see what assumptions I should and shouldn’t be making about her view on the world.  I’d want to figure out what kind of women she’s attracted to, and revisit her relationship with her parents and her sister — all kinds of stuff.  The actual changes to the manuscript might be few and far between, but they’d be important

So going forward, I don’t anticipate much change in the types of characters I find interesting.  Whoever they are, I feel like the writer’s job is to get in their heads, figure out what they’re sensitive to, what they’re blind to, how the world looks different to them than it might have looked from another perspective.  It can be small stuff.  I’ve got two aging dogs and all of a sudden references to dying pets are cropping up all around me.  They were always there; I just wasn’t sensitive to them before.  Mariko has her own cues, her own pet peeves.  Every character will  have them if you explore deeply enough.

LUC: What kinds of inclusivity or alterity would you like to be able to find more of, as a reader?

STEVE: I like aliens that are actually alien.  I don’t mean anatomically, I mean psychologically, emotionally, relationally.   China Mieville’s Ariekei in Embassytown or the buggers in Card’s Ender’s Game novels are a lot more interesting to me than Star Trek aliens who are just like us apart from the little knobby things on their heads.

I’d like to see more fantasy stories that start from somewhere other than the generically European backdrop that’s almost universal these days.  (I shouldn’t even say “these days.”  I don’t know of a time when this wasn’t a basic assumption of the genre.)  As it is now, you’re almost required to write fantasy this way.  I had an editor reject a story because the protagonist had tan skin and a bow and wasn’t Native American.  She didn’t entertain the possibility that fantasy worlds could be populated with human beings that don’t fit neatly into any of our racial and cultural assumptions.  In fact, the opposite view is arguably the better one: those assumptions of ours are ours, and different histories would necessarily generate new sets of assumptions.


Steve Bein is a philosophy professor, martial artist, photographer, world traveler, and award-winning author.  His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sInterzoneWriters of the Future, and in international translation.  His first novel, Daughter of the Sword, comes out this October and you can pre-order it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  The companion novella, Only a Shadow, comes out this September, and you can pre-order it for your Kindle or Nook.
Steve will be giving out samplers of Daughter of the Sword via Facebook while supplies last.  You can like him at www.facebook.com/philosofiction to get yours, or get there by visiting his web site, www.philosofiction.com.


Posts so far in this series

 

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Concerns and Obstacles

Writing

I’ve been doing a series of interviews and posts on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction, beginning to look at the circumstances of and solutions for various groups of people not being well-represented in fiction based on race, ethnicity, age, sexual preference, gender, disability, neurology, social and economic class, and so on.  So far in the series, I’ve posted two interviews and one additional item:

7/27 – interview with Leah Bobet
7/29 – Where Are the Female Villains?
8/3 – interview with Vylar Kaftan

More interviews will appear here every Friday for some time to come.

For today’s post, I assembled responses from several Codex and SFWA members to a mini-interview I put together about concerns and obstacles to inclusivity in fiction. My main reason for doing this is that while there appears to be a lot of support for writing inclusively, there are sometimes real dangers involved, and these are sometimes dismissed as simple fear of making a mistake or looking bad. I think that there’s much more to it than that, and I was fortunate enough to get a variety of insightful and clear responses that explore the topic well.

Because there’s one respondent whom I didn’t explicitly make sure to get permission to mention by name as of publication time, I’ll use “Anonymous” for that author here.  You can find out a little about some of the authors who responded at the end of this post.

LUC: What concerns or anxieties do you have when it comes to writing characters who are very different from you, for instance in terms of gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, physical ability or disability, mental or neurological condition, background, or age?

MATTHEW JOHNSON: Getting it right! When I write about a character who’s substantially different from me I do as much research as I can in an effort to get not just the details but, as much as possible, the inner experience right. One of my most gratifying experiences was getting a shout-out from a Nigerian blogger for my story “Lagos,” which is set in near-future Nigeria and has a Yoruba woman as a main character — definitely a bit outside of my own experience, so I was very relieved to get such positive feedback!

ANON: From most important to least important my concerns are:

  1. That I am fundamentally incapable of comprehending people from said group in a way profound enough to accurately represent them.
  2. I may spread inaccurate information to uninformed readers who are also not of said group.
  3. I may discourage a reader who is of said group from reading more of my work, or more of the genre, or prevent them from enjoying the story in question.
  4. That by trying to acquire the necessary information to present said group accurately, that I will appear ignorant, racist, insensitive, or otherwise bigoted to the person(s) of that group whom I’m interviewing (and thereby damage the personal or professional relationship I had with said person).
  5. That even if I accurately represent said group to some degree, that an individual from that group will have had a different experience and publicly decry my story telling abilities in a way that will impact the success of the story in question.
  6. That the actual content of the story may be overlooked or under-appreciated because some of my characters are of a particular group and some/most readers are prejudiced against said group.
  7. That an error or perceived error may damage my writing career.

STEVE BEIN: Being PC doesn’t concern me.  Being authentic does.  Politically speaking, I’m not overly concerned with this sort of thing, but I’ve taught a lot of ethics courses in my time (I’m a philosophy professor by day), and I always include feminism and critical race theory in those courses.  The disability rights movement often comes up in my classes too, as does social and economic injustice.  Coupled with all of that, I’ve done some academic writing on diversity, so I feel I’ve indirectly put a lot of thought into how to approach characters who are very different from me.  That said, the primary problem for the writer is authenticity.  No caricatures or stereotypes allowed; the character has to be a lot better than that.  I feel I have to do a lot of research and pay very close attention to crafting the language.

ELIZABETH MOON: Very little. There’s a basic concern for getting things right, of course. But there’s no more concern or anxiety for “different from myself” on the axes you mentioned than I would have for accurate portrayal of a farmer, an auto mechanic, an investment banker, a soldier…the character has to feel real to the reader, someone who could emerge from the culture as shown, and become the person he or she is. One advantage of being older and from my background is a lot of experience with people very different from myself. So it comes naturally to include a variety (though certainly not every possible variation of every category–that would be a catalog, not a story.) There are cultures and occupations and backgrounds I’m more familiar with; the ones I’m less familiar with do require more research and care if they’re in the story. The advantage of writing SF and fantasy is that I’m not bound by existing cultures or existing situations and attitudes, and can move backward, forward, or sideways to change parameters and play the what-if game with more than technology. I don’t worry about “balance” according to any formula in any given book, because the books and stories are different, and overall I know there’s variety.

Presenting unexpected (to some readers) diversity often means they miss it entirely (not something I expected, starting out) and read characters as whatever that reader’s default is. I should have expected that; I did the same myself as a kid, automatically placing myself, a girl, in the heads of characters who were clearly boys or men. They did the interesting stuff. Since I myself could skate past the very clear signals that a book’s main character was male…I have quit worrying that my clear signals about skin color, age, background, etc. are not getting through to all readers. There’s only so much you can do without messing up the story.

M. BENNARDO: My feeling is that any fears or concerns I may have about writing characters who are different from me are really fears about appearing ignorant, or fears of being accused of ignorance. To a certain extent, those concerns are productive — I’ve certainly done a little extra research now and then in the hopes of looking less foolish.

But ultimately I have to accept that no amount of research will ever be “enough” and that I will always be exposing some amount of ignorance to people who are better informed than I am. (In this case, better informed about some set of life circumstances that I do not share.) My responsibility is to write the most compelling story I can today, and then to write an even better story tomorrow. Part of this is being informed and thoughtful, but another part of it is also taking the plunge and risking looking like a fool.

If I do get called a fool because of some act of ignorance or carelessness on my part — well, that just means I’ve become part of a conversation where I am not the smartest or most informed person around. I’d really be missing out if I let my fears get in the way of that.

LUC: Have these issues ever prevented you from writing something you otherwise would have pursued?

MATTHEW JOHNSON: No, but there have definitely been cases where I did a lot of research to make sure I got everything right. My story “The Face of the Waters” was probably the most nerve-wracking, but I can’t say why without spoiling the twist…

ANON: Yes, on more than one occasion.

STEVE BEIN: Not yet.

ELIZABETH MOON: No. But that’s largely because I wanted to write SF and fantasy, where I wasn’t constrained by current events. I wanted to change parameters and see what happened. Also, even when I realized some readers misread a character to their default…that’s their choice, or their problem, or their limitation. I give them the clues; they can use them or not. I have no control over that, any more than the authors of the books I read as a child could have stopped me from imagining myself into the male characters. There are, inevitably, some categories I’ve used less or even skipped–some I don’t know much about, others that–despite knowing something about–just aren’t that interesting to me in the story sense. Putting someone in just to be the poster child for his/her category, so I can claim more inclusivity is….in my view…a big fat fraud. The diversity that’s in the work is organic to the work. I didn’t write a book about an old woman to show off–but because that old woman, Ofelia, came into my head and pestered me. I didn’t write a book about an autistic man just because we have an autistic son, but because Lou showed up and said “I want to ask the questions.” (Having an autistic son, and having met other autists and parents along the way, certainly gave me plenty of background material–but the character snagged me.) The exploited children with various disabilities in the story “Combat Shopping” were there because the situation demanded them (and because Andi got into my head and said “Write me!”)


About Some of the Authors Above

Matthew Johnson‘s first novel, Fall From Earth, was published in 2009, and his short fiction has appeared in places such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Strange Horizons.

Steve Bein is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author whose newest work, the Fated Blades series, comes out soon. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. A full interview with him on inclusiveness–the preferred word in his case might be “alterity”–will appear here next week.

M. Bennardo‘s work has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other venues. He is co-editor of the 2010 anthology Machine of Death, and his Web site is http://www.mbennardo.com.

Photo by  tomswift46

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Writing and Martial Arts 2: Writing and Punching

States of mind

This is the second post in the “Writing and the Martial Arts” series, this post from Steve Bein. For more on this series and on Steve, see the first post: “Writing and Martial Arts 1: How Do You Like Your Chances?”


Bruce Lee said that before he started martial arts, he thought a punch was just a punch.  Then, having begun his training, he realized a punch was not just a punch.  Then, having mastered the art, he understood a punch was just a punch.

Now you may say this sounds like advice from Yoda.  You may say it’s as inscrutable as a Zen koan.  And if you said that, you wouldn’t be far wrong; Bruce cribbed this from Zen Buddhism (in the Buddhist version it’s a mountain, not a punch, that needs to be understood), and as it happens, Yoda was first conceived as a Buddhist and Daoist master (Dagobah, where he lives, is the name of a Tibetan style of pagoda, a sacred structure in both Buddhism and Daoism).   But what I want to take from it here is a comparison with writing.

Before I started writing, I thought writing was just writing.  That is, I thought all you did was sit down and type, and then you’d have a story.  There’s an episode of Californication where Hank Moody’s childhood friend voices this view on writing: “I can’t believe you get paid to just sit around and make stuff up.”  The uninitiated in the martial arts have a similar view on punching: just ball up your fist and whack somebody with it.

They’re wrong about that.  I’ve told my martial arts students many times that if you spent a year working on nothing but your jab, it wouldn’t be a wasted year.  People who don’t want to waste time studying the punch end up breaking their hands.  Their punches are slow, sloppy, and without power.  They punch from the shoulder, not from the toes, and worse yet, they can’t even understand what it means to punch from the toes.

In my opinion, the same goes for sitting down to write without any sense of the art.  It’s an old adage that stories amount to interesting characters with difficulties.  But how do you invent an interesting character?  How do you find the difficulty that is hardest for this specific character, yet one that this specific character is best suited to solve?  How do you make a reader care about solving this difficulty?  For that matter, how do you get readers to flip to the next page so they’ll even find out what the difficulty is?

None of that stuff comes naturally.  Every writer must go through a phase in which writing is not just writing.  If that weren’t true, little kids’ stories would be interesting.  But they’re not—at least not to anybody but their parents.  Little kids’ stories go, “This happened and then this happened and then this happened.”  Good stories go, “This happened because this happened, and because of those, this happened.”  And when they say, “this happened,” what that really means is, “this difficult thing happened to this interesting person, and it turned that person’s world upside down, and now all of us really want to know how this person is going to set things right.”

A good story generates both tension and a sense of inevitability.  There is a causal connection between act two and act one, and enough suspense generated in act one to leave readers no choice but to read act two.  And that’s something we need to learn, and practice, and practice again until we get it right.

My process for this is a lot like my martial arts training.  In jiujitsu, for example, you’ve got strategy and tactics, you’ve got practice in technique, and you’ve got actual sparring.  Anyone who lacks the patience for the first two gets dominated in the third one.  At 170 pounds, I’ve tapped 400-pounders because they didn’t have technique and they didn’t have a game plan.

In writing, the strategic and tactical phase—for me, anyway—is a lot of free-form scribbling just to figure out what story I want to tell.  In the practice phase I create an outline for the story.  Sometimes this is short; other times it’s quite elaborate.  (My longest outline to date was 41 pages.)  The sparring phase is the actual writing itself, and then the editing, and then editing again, doing it over and over again until I’ve got it right—exactly like jiujitsu, or kickboxing for that matter, or any other art I’ve ever trained in.

In jiujitsu, sometimes technique fails me and I have to come up with something on the fly.  In writing, sometimes the outline fails me and I need to take it in a different direction.  In jiujitsu, when I get into a jam where the technique I learned isn’t working, I always want to get a technique that will work better.  In writing, when I get into a jam where the story I outlined is losing tension, I always want to start a new outline that ratchets up the tension again.  And both in jiujitsu and in writing, the most important phase is the first: understanding exactly what I want to achieve, so that my practice and my execution lead to the kind of results I want.

I’m a better kickboxer than a jiujitsu player.  Part of that is due to body type—I’m tall and lanky, and at my best when I can keep an opponent at a distance—but most of it is due to the fact that in jiujitsu I’m still at a point where I have to memorize techniques and apply them.  That hasn’t been true for me in kickboxing for years.  The fight just flows.  I know what it takes to make an opponent open his guard, and I know what it takes to keep him from advancing.  For me, kickboxing is just kickboxing.  There’s no memorization.  Show me something new even once and I can do it.  Jiujitsu is not just jiujitsu for me; show me something new and I need to practice it a dozen times right now, and then again at the beginning of the next class, or else I’m certain to lose it.

I’m not at a phase where writing is just writing either.  I used to believe that no writer can get there.  Now I believe otherwise.  In On Writing, Stephen King says he doesn’t outline at all, nor does he formulate a game plan in advance.  He just thinks of interesting characters and then watches what they do.  Harlan Ellison says he writes the same way.  If we take them at their word, then for them writing is just writing.

I am still looking for the magic formula that will allow me to do what they do.  I don’t particularly enjoy laboring over every story.  I don’t like doing all that free-form scribbling in advance just to throw it away and start anew.  I don’t like following an outline only for it to lead me to a dead end.  I also don’t like the process of memorizing one jiujitsu technique after another, just to get tapped because the technique came to mind a tenth of a second too late.

Here’s the bitch of it: there is no magic formula.  There is only time served.  There is only doing it, and doing it again, and doing it again.  Sooner or later I will either make myself a good jiujitsu player or I will get so old that my body can’t do it anymore.  And sooner or later I will either keel over dead or I will discover how to spontaneously create interesting characters, line by line tension, three act structure, and all the rest of it.

I wish I could tell you how.  I can’t.  For me writing is not just writing.  Not yet.

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Writing and Martial Arts 1: How Do You Like Your Chances?

States of mind

I know a small but fascinating group of people who are both successful writers and accomplished martial artists, and as these are both areas of great interest to me that I practice on a regular basis, I was very curious to know what connections some of these friends drew between the two disciplines.

The first post in this series comes from my good friend Steve Bein, who is a martial artist with 20 years of training, a professor of Philosophy and History at SUNY Geneseo, and an award-winning fiction writer. His first novel (a thriller about modern crime and samurai history) comes out in 2012.

Steve has this question for you: How do you like your chances?


I was told as I entered my Master’s degree program of a plan to streamline graduate education.  We could dispose of the GRE, of long hours spent walled in by stacks of books, of area exams and dissertation proposals and all the rest.  We could weed out everyone who needs weeding out by collecting all of the applicants to a given grad program, lock them all in a concrete room, and tell them to bash their heads against the wall.  The last one to quit gets a PhD.

As education reform goes, this plan isn’t half bad..  I like my chances in this system.  It certainly would be easier to get a PhD in this system than to get one the way I did, with all that old-fashioned writing and test-taking and such.  But then, I’ve been in the martial arts for about 20 years.  I learned some things along the way, things about physical and mental punishment, about perseverance, about sheer mule-headed stubbornness when perseverance gives out, and most of all about extinguishing the desire to quit.

Most writers could use some lessons on these counts too.  Show me a successful writer and I’ll show you someone who has learned these lessons already.

Writing will bring its share of mental and emotional punishment.  Count on it.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m escaping the frustrations I’m having in working out the plot to my next novel.  (Don’t worry.  I’m only allowing myself 20 minutes of escape.  Then I’ll go back to that for 20 minutes, then come back to this.  My sensei taught me not to quit, but tactically speaking, he and I both recognize the merit of retreating in order to launch a new attack from a different angle.)

There is good reason for a writer to feel frustrated..  99% of people who submit work never get published.  Of the 1% who do, less than half get a second publication.  Of those, only a handful make enough money from writing to make protein a regular part of their diet, and even they tend to collect more rejection letters than acceptance letters.

We have a similar formula in martial arts.  For every 10 students who begin a martial arts class, only one still comes a month later.  For every 10 of those, only one is still training a year later.  For every 10 of those, only one earns a black belt, and for every 10 black belts, only one goes on to teach the art.  A sensei is one in 10,000.  A writer who doesn’t need to hold a day job is more like one in a million.

The more I write, the more I learn that the pains of this art go beyond the mental and emotional.  I’ve developed neck problems and chronic eyestrain headaches.  Writing cost me my 20/20 vision.  I now need yoga exercises to be able to write for any length of time.  As it happens, it was martial arts that led me to yoga, but that’s not the important part.  It was martial arts that instilled in me the discipline to actually show up to yoga classes, to actually do the stretches every day, and to actually keep on writing even when it’s uncomfortable.

Charles Brown, the former editor of Locus, once shared some grim but sagacious advice with me (well, me and everyone else in that year’s Writers of the Future class).  He said if you’re a writer, one of three things is going to happen to you: you quit, you die, or you get published.  I thought, I like my chances.  I’m not going to quit.  My sensei drilled the quitter out of me.  That only leaves death and publication.

You can read more posts by Steve Bein on the multi-writer blog It’s the Story at http://itsthestory.wordpress.com.

Photo by JimRiddle_Four

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Steve Bein on Handling Multiple Projects

Self-motivation examples

Steve in Antarctica in 2008

Here’s a response my friend and collaborator Dr. Steve Bein, a professor of philosophy, black belt, martial arts teacher, Writers of the Future winner, and adventurer whose first novel comes out (I believe) next year gave to a question about handling multiple projects at once.  The context was writing specifically, but the advice seems to apply much more broadly than that.

I’ll give the advice I followed when writing my dissertation: write whatever’s easiest that day. Writing a dissertation is a huge pain in the ass, but if you write whatever’s easiest on any given day, sooner or later you will get the hardest part written too. (Sooner or later today’s hardest part becomes easier than some future, harder part.)

The primary problem this solves is that of motivation. You always get to feel like you’re getting away with something, and you always get to feel like you’re making forward progress.

The above is actually the second-most important piece of advice I could give you, and it only works if you follow the most important advice, which is this: WRITE EVERY DAY. No exceptions, not even your birthday.

As Steve has successfully completed projects like short stories, novels, philosophy papers, and a PhD dissertation, I feel he knows whereof he speaks.

Steve in the desert in Namibia, 2010

Photos courtesy of Steve Bein

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