Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Listen. Learn. Write Better.

(Guest Blog Post by A.C. Wise.)

As authors, it’s natural to be protective of our work. We pour our hearts into our words, and when someone comes back with a critique – even a solicited one – it can sting. There’s often an urge to puff up, get defensive, and say: That’s not what I meant, or You’re reading it wrong, or even simply, You are wrong. However, there’s a stark difference between legitimate criticism and complaining for the sake of complaining, like those one-star Amazon reviews trashing a book because the customer didn’t like the box it came in, or the shipment arrived a day late. The best criticism is aimed at making a piece stronger, and it is worth listening to—especially when you are writing about a character (or characters) unlike yourself.

As a cisgender author writing about trans characters in The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, I am sharply aware of the need to listen. Trans stories aren’t necessarily mine to tell, but at the same time, I don’t believe that means I should only write about people exactly like me. What it does mean is that I need to tell the stories that aren’t mine with as much respect and care as possible, and I need to listen when someone tells me I got it wrong. This holds true for all authors writing someone whose experience is outside their own.

It isn’t easy. There is no universal experience, no one true way to be trans, or male, or neuro-atypical, or anything. We are all human beings; we all have our own backgrounds and baggage and things that will strike a nerve. Something that makes me sit up and say: Hey, that isn’t me, you’re doing it all wrong, may reflect another person’s experience perfectly. Or it may not. The trick is to listen to what the people who might share common experiences with your characters that you don’t are saying to you about how they’re written, and try to understand their perspective.

As authors, we know words matter; we know stories matter. The stories we choose to tell, and the words we use to tell them are important. They carry weight. They carry an extra weight when it comes to stories that are already under-represented—stories about queer people, people of color, stories that have historically been pushed to the margins and ignored. Even though the culture is changing, it’s a slow change. There are few enough positive stories out there that the ones perpetuating negative stereotypes and tropes, or further marginalizing already marginalized characters, hurt even more.

I can’t promise that I got everything right in The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again. However, I can promise that I did my best to write my characters from a place of respect. And I can promise to listen when you tell me I got it wrong, and to try to do better the next time.

Now, to seal my promise with a toast, I’ll leave you with a cocktail recipe designed especially for Uncanny Magazine by the Glitter Squadron’s own bartender supreme, Sapphire.

From Sapphire’s Little Black Book of Cocktails

The Uncanny Unicorn (Shot)

1/2 oz Chambord

1/2 oz Pinnacle Rainbow Sherbet Vodka

1/2 oz White Creme de Cacao

Edible Glitter Garnish


Using a spoon against the side of a shot glass, slowly pour Chambord, Creme de Cacao, and Rainbow Sherbet Vodka to create a layered effect. Top with a dusting of edible glitter.


I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t normally create shots; I prefer to sip and savor my cocktails. But some cases call for it. The Uncanny Unicorn is an uncannily sweet drink, best enjoyed as a short, sharp shock, or a shot, as the case may be. Even in small doses, the Uncanny Unicorn might be enough to make you think you’re in space, even when you’re standing on firm ground looking up at the stars. The Space Unicorn Ranger Corp and the Glitter Squadron have a lot in common. They both kick ass and save the world in their own way—whether it’s with art, poetry, stories, and essays that set the way you see things askew in the best possible way, or whether it’s with sequins and high heels, both set out to shake up the status quo. And that is a something worth toasting. Cheers!


(Editor’s Note: A.C. Wise’s collection The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again was released on October 20 and is now available from Lethe Press. For another marvelous A.C. Wise tale, please check out her Uncanny Magazine story “The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate.”)

You Can’t Write About THAT: Staying True to Your Writing Passion in the Age of the McBook

(Guest Blog Post by Kameron Hurley)

Selling my first novel – about a bisexual bounty hunter who chops off the heads of deserters in a world at perpetual war, with bonus bug magic and shapeshifters – wasn’t as easy as you might think. What I heard from publishers again and again was, “I don’t know how to market this,” even though it read like every great post-apocalypse movie I’d ever watched and many reviewers would later compare it to Herbert’s Dune.

I found the “I don’t know how to market this” thing to be a mind-boggling excuse, because I’d written the book I wanted to read. And if I wanted to read it, surely there were other people out there who wanted to read it too. What I would slowly come to realize over the years is that the people like me, who like the types of books I write – the wild, weird, punching and magic and genderbending books – were not the types of people who publishers were used to selling to. They had an Ideal Consumer in mind, and that Ideal Consumer seemed to be scared of women outside of prescribed roles, queer people who aren’t just sidekicks, and any setting weirder than something from Tolkien. Clearly, you know, the world is FULL of people who actually DO love to read books about and including all of those people and things. Full to bursting, in fact. But there was no marketing machine in place at bigger publishers to tap into this audience, or even to speak to existing readers about the unique hook my work offered (see: punching, genderbending). In fact, many of those things were aspects of the book that some publishers actively try to keep off the back cover of the books.

In one of my conversations with an editor who bought my first novel, they said that my work was going to be pretty niche. I would have a small but devoted readership, like the one Catherynne M. Valente was building at the time. I was never going to sell loads of books, they said. I should just be happy with that. But I didn’t want to be a niche writer. If I was a niche writer, then I would have niche ideas that few people would ever read. I didn’t want to write from the margins. I wanted to push to make the margins mainstream. Maybe I saw where things were headed. Maybe I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t just want to sit out here on the sidelines, being someone whose work was only discussed in academic circles, if at all.

The irony here, of course, is that Catherynne M. Valente herself went on to become a New York Times bestseller. We are all not nearly as niche as editors and publishers at first assume. The readers are there. They are hungry. Sometimes it’s up to us as writers to convince the machine of this.

What I learned pecking at the edges of the publishing industry, trying to get into bigger publishers, is that I wasn’t the sort of writer who was going to give up and write dudebro medieval fantasy or vampire erotica in order to make a career. If you love to write those things, that is great! You will make more money than I will right out the gate. But that just wasn’t what I wanted to write. My strategy, instead, was to build a small but fervent pool of core readers and fans who would help launch my work out of the margins and into the mainstream.

That is not an easy road. It’s not the fast way to make a living at this, or to build a readership. But it would allow me to write what I wanted to write without giving in to the appetite of the machine. Best of all, if I had “Kameron Hurley readers” instead of just “epic fantasy readers” or “science fiction readers” then it freed me to write Kameron Hurley novels, whatever those were, instead of being boxed in by the success of any one series. Nurturing a core audience means that you can always, reliably, sell a certain number of books. And then you work to break out from there.

I have had long conversations with other writers in the industry who purposefully write in clear, simple prose, with page-turning, formulaic plots that employ recognizable tropes and themes in approachable settings. We see these sorts of formulas applied to blockbuster movies all the time, and yes: they work. One of the things I’ve learned from these writers is to focus more on plot, and clarify my language. I’ve also learned that I can do this while still writing Kameron Hurley stories, and be true to who I am as a writer and what I want to achieve, without giving in and writing like they do.

How to do that?

It’s said (I believe by, again, Valente) that readers will forgive your work for including one of these three things: a wholly unrecognizable world, strange and dense prose, or a complex, convoluted structure. You can do any one of these three and still sell very well. Two of three, and yes, you’ll be a harder sell. Three of three, and you are probably writing a niche book.

So I choose one or two, and compromise on the third. Then I focus hard on the story itself, because that’s why readers are here, really – ideas and gender fluidity and polyamorous cultures are great, but if there’s no story driving the reader, none of it matters outside of academia.

The fact that your characters are transgender, pansexual, not white, and you deal with themes of genocide, identity, and betrayal? Readers care less about that than trolling internet comments might make you think. Readers are still, even now, most interested in a good story. Write a good story, and you can push up through the heap, nurturing your audience as you go. Create a mailing list where folks can subscribe and get links and news about your latest stories. Find a social platform you like – Facebook, Twitter, whatever – and have fun there talking about what it is you’re passionate about. I hear all the time from folks that being online doesn’t sell books, which is fine to say if you’ve got the support of a major publishing house, and you’re a major title with a major marketing budget. But if you’re writing at the margins, you aren’t going to start with that. This is where social media and online discourse work in favor of those without access to traditional budgets and channels.

Is it going to be difficult to convince people there’s an audience for what you write? Yes. Still. But it’s not impossible. And I feel that needs to be said out loud to new writers who feel their voices and subject matter are forever marginalized: it is not impossible. Please write what you want. We need your voice.

I get email and comments all the time from people thanking me for writing about genderqueer characters, about gay and bisexual characters, about polyamorous societies, about worlds they really have never seen before. Writing about things people have never seen before in mainstream-ish SF and epic fantasy books, all mashed up together into one gloriously brilliant ride, is what I got into the business to do.  I wanted stories about these sorts of people to no longer be niche books, and to do that I needed to make them not only protagonists, but heroes in the very epic sense of the word… and they needed to be driving powerful stories.

It’s true that sometimes I pitched my books as being something they weren’t, exactly. I chose the best of the bad fits. I said my weird bugpunk science fiction/fantasy noir novel was just science fiction.  I said that The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant – the genderbending, parallel universe swapping satellite magic fantasy – was just… epic fantasy. Sometimes you just pick the best of their boxes, and you parade around in front of the publishing industry as if they truly do fit, and you hope they don’t notice that you don’t. You hope they let you slip through so that your readers, the people you really wrote all this mad stuff for, can find you.

I won’t say that it isn’t still tough to keep in this wedge I’ve got in the door of the publishing machine right now. But the thing is, even if the door closes, I’ll have nurtured a core audience that I can always go back to, one that will always help me keep pushing in from the outside.

So in that sense, maybe, that editor was right, all those years ago. I’ve found the people who love my work. And the truth is that I’d never have found them if I was just trying to write the next McBook. I’d have made myself miserable writing more and more watered down books, trying to write just like everyone else, when what I really needed to do was learn how to tell a story, and learn how to talk to the readers who needed those stories most.


(Editor’s note: Kameron Hurley’s new novel Empire Ascendant, the second volume of her Worldbreaker Saga, was released on October 6 and is now available from all fine booksellers. For more of Kameron’s thoughts on writing, please check out her Uncanny Magazine essay “I Don’t Care About Your MFA: On Writing vs. Storytelling)

Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 Cover and Table of Contents!

All of the content will be available in the eBook version on the day of release.

The free online content will be released in 2 stages- half on day of release and half on October 6.

Don’t forget eBook Subscriptions to Uncanny Magazine are available from Weightless Books, and you can support us on our Patreon.

This is the FINAL ISSUE funded by our Uncanny Magazine Year One Kickstarter.

We are still running the Uncanny Magazine Year Two Kickstarter. Please consider supporting Uncanny so we can continue to bring you phenomenal stories, essays, poems, and interviews.


Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 Table of Contents

Cover Artist

Matthew Dow Smith


The Uncanny Valley

New Fiction

Paul Cornell- “Find a Way Home” (Our first Middle-Grade story!) (9/1)
Isabel Yap- “The Oiran’s Song” (A Novelette!) (9/1)

Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer- “The Sisters’ Line” (10/6)
Keffy R. M. Kehrli- “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” (A Novelette!) (10/6)


N. K. Jemisin- “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” (9/1)


Michi Trota- “Diversity Panels Are the Beginning, Not the End” (9/1)
Steven H Silver- “A Brief History of MidAmeriCon” (9/1)

Diana M. Pho – “Suspended Beliefs: Verisimilitude vs. Accuracy” (10/6)
David J. Schwartz – Masculinity Is an Anxiety Disorder: Breaking Down the Nerd Box (10/6)


Rose Lemberg- “A Riddler at Market” (9/1)
Dominik Parisien- “To A Dying Friend” (9/1)

Amal El-Mohtar- “Biting Tongues” (Reprint) (10/6)
Jennifer Crow- “The Book of Longing” (10/6)


Deborah Stanish Interviews Isabel Yap (9/1)

Deborah Stanish Interviews Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer (10/6)

Podcast 6A (9/1)

Paul Cornell- “Find a Way Home” as read by Erika Ensign
Rose Lemberg- “A Riddler at Market” as read by Amal El-Mohtar
Deborah Stanish Interviews Paul Cornell

Podcast 6B (10/6)
Keffy R. M. Kehrli- “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” as read by Amal El-Mohtar
Amal El-Mohtar- “Biting Tongues” (Reprint) as read by the author
Deborah Stanish Interviews Keffy R.M. Kehrli

Uncanny Mini Interview with Year Two Contributor Chris Kluwe!


Chris Kluwe is a former NFL punter, writer, one-time violin prodigy, rights advocate, and obsessive gamer. Kluwe graduated from UCLA with a double major in history and political science and played for the Minnesota Vikings for eight years. He is the author of the acclaimed essay collection Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football and Assorted Absurdities and has been profiled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Salon. Kluwe has appeared at TED, discussing the topic of the future of virtual reality technology and its connection to building a more empathetic society, and he regularly makes presentations at major corporations, universities, and human rights organizations.

Interview by Michi Trota

You can support the Uncanny Magazine Year Two Kickstarter here.

1) You co-wrote your recent novel Prime: A Genesis Series Event with Andrew Reiner. What are some of the challenges and advantages of collaborating with another writer to create a shared universe?

There were a couple obstacles we had to overcome, the main one of which was figuring out who was going to write the darn thing. Andy and I have very different writing styles, and when we tried alternating chapters at first, it was very obvious who had written which one. We felt that was a little jarring, so we decided to go with a system where I would write a first draft of a chapter, Andy would make suggestions/edits, and then I would go back through and make it all internally consistent. I think it ended up working really well for us, and we’re doing the same thing for book two.

One of the biggest advantages of collaborating with Andy was that we could push each other one when it felt like one of us was flagging. Probably the hardest part of writing a book is simply forcing yourself to get all the way to the end, a daunting task when you first put words to paper, but having a teammate makes it much easier. I would highly recommend, if not a co-writer, at least a cheerleader, someone who will help you get through the doldrums and remind you that the book won’t write itself.

2) You’ve played football in the NFL, authored essays and a science fiction novel, are an avid gamer, and you’re also a cook. You clearly enjoy challenging yourself and trying new things. Is there a hobby that you’re not interested in trying?

Ummm, none that spring immediately to mind. I enjoy trying new things, and the world is a vast and fascinating place. You’ll never know if you like something or not until you try it (a lesson I’m trying to teach my kids).

3) What is the most uncanny thing that’s ever happened to you?

Probably playing in the NFC Championship game in 2010. The atmosphere was surreal. I don’t think the noise in the stadium ever dropped below 100db the entire game. Even though we ended up losing, it was an incredible experience.


Uncanny Mini Interview with the Space Unicorn Submissions Editors!


We have an amazing team here at Uncanny Magazine. We receive thousands of submissions per year. Our wonderful Submissions Editors are the first readers of all of these stories. We thought it would be fun to ask them about their work here since a deluge of submissions will be heading their way as soon as the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter reaches 100% funded.

Interview by Michi Trota

(You can support the Uncanny Magazine Year Two Kickstarter here.)


What makes a story uncanny to you?


Liam Meilleur:

An Uncanny story cannot be trusted. It lures me in, perhaps with an intriguing voice or an interesting use of genre elements, and then it surprises me. It subverts my expectations. An Uncanny story doesn’t take the path less taken; it forges a whole new one that carries my imagination off into the uncharted frontier of new ideas. An Uncanny story reinvents the wheel, and then it inspires me to do the same.

Jennifer R. Albert:

Uncanny stories are many things. They are weird and wonderful, familiar and fresh. They dazzle, delight, unsettle, and affect us. Uncanny stories are the ones you love desperately when you don’t know why, the ones that worm their way into your middle and stick there.

K.E. Bergdoll:

Uncanny stories have something special, a little different, a little skewed. They’re often beautiful; above all else, thoughtful. They’ve heft and depth, even if their flight is delicate. They stay with you. The best come back again and again, resurrected by some small thing, raised up from the subconscious to provoke further digestion. They all possess a germ of importance, regardless of style or content.

Shannon Page:

To me, what makes a story Uncanny is closely related to what makes a story awesome. And it’s really hard to describe. It starts with the usual things, of course—I can’t stop reading it, even if I really need to go attend to something else urgent; I am surprised while reading, at last once if not more; I feel like I am reading about real people in real places and situations (even if they’re aliens or magical beings or sentient trees).

But an Uncanny story is even more than that. There’s that shiver of recognition, that “Ohhhhh…..” that happens when I recognize that I’m being given a glimpse into an amazing writer’s unique imagination. That glimpse that makes me laugh out loud, or creeps me out. (or both!) An Uncanny story is fun. It’s smart. It’s unique. It’s…well, to borrow an old phrase: “I know it when I see it.”

Cislyn Smith:

I have an abiding love for the surreal, the strange, and the beautiful. For me, an Uncanny story is all of those things and more. An Uncanny story is unforgettable. An Uncanny story is thoughtful, and touches on relevant issues creatively. Uncanny stories get my brain moving in unusual ways, and they’re the ones I can’t wait to tell all my friends to read.

Kay Taylor Rea:

Uncanny stories have the bones of SF/F fiction fleshed out with wondrous weirdness. They’re pleasantly odd tales that twist and reshape themselves. They slip past standard genre definitions if you try to pin them down. They turn tired tropes in on themselves and emerge as something shiny and new. They’re odd and clever, sad and sweet, grandly sweeping and breath-stealingly intimate, guilelessly optimistic and rough-edged with realism. Uncanny stories are exactly what you expect right up until they’re not. Uncanny stories make you think, make you dream, and make you flip through the pages to read that great bit one more time.

Jesse Lex:

In order of preference, a story is Uncanny when it’s:

1. Effortlessly takes me out of my day-to-day experience and/or makes me question my day-to-day experience
2. Tone creates a palpable atmosphere/mood but doesn’t hit me over head
3. Authentic characterization
4. Fresh, experimental and unique

Jessica Wolf:

To me, an Uncanny story is not any one kind of story; it’s a feeling. So many of my favorite stories in this magazine have had something to do with identity and perception. While the stories are always about other realities, there’s an aura of connectedness and belonging which is relatable to someone who reads speculative stories to understand themselves better. A beauty in the work itself is something I also find; whatever the mood or tone, it’s a short story, told well.

Arkady Martine:

For me, an Uncanny story has an emotional core that wounds or heals — or both at once. It employs the speculative to create that emotional effect. If speculative fiction is about exploring the conceptual possibilities of this and other worlds, Uncanny stories are those which explore sociological, emotional, and connective spaces. Those spaces can be as small as a pocket or as large as a planet; they are always intense.

Uncanny Mini Interview with Year Two Contributor Alyssa Wong!


Alyssa Wong is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Black Static, and Her story “The Fisher Queen” was nominated for the Nebula, Shirley Jackson, and World Fantasy Awards. Her poem “For the Gardener’s Daughter” appears in Uncanny Magazine #4.

Interview by Michi Trota

You can support the Uncanny Magazine Year Two Kickstarter here.

1) Your Nebula Award nominated story, “The Fisher Queen,” uses a lot of elements common in folk and fairy tales. Are there any particular folk tales or fairy tales that you’ve found inspiring?

There’s a Filipino folk tale about a lazy girl named Pina whose mother accidentally turns her into a pineapple. I always liked that one because it felt like something my own mom might do in a moment of exasperation.

I’ve loved fairy tales since I was little. When I was growing up, my favorite was “Little Red Riding Hood,” because I wanted to marry a wolf (this was a poor idea). My current favorites are “The Twelve Brothers and The Snow Queen”; both are about girls who embark on quests and who have to make intense personal sacrifices to complete them.

2) You’ve spoken before about your enthusiasm for fanfiction. How do you think fanfiction affects readers’ and creators’ relationship with the original source material?

I like fanfiction because it’s a way for fans to connect deeply with the source material and explore that connection in ways that aren’t given a lot of screen time in canon. Maybe you’re really into the xenobiology on a certain planet and you want to write about how that works. Maybe it’s the relationship between two, or three, or more characters that you want to focus on. I love that fanfiction gives fans and creators the opportunity to pick up underutilized threads in the source material and extrapolate those ideas into something new.

3) What is the most uncanny thing that’s ever happened to you?

Catch me in person sometime and I’ll tell you the story of Faceless Ghost Grandma. Other than that, my life hasn’t been terribly uncanny.


Uncanny Mini Interview with Year Two Contributor Mary Robinette Kowal!


Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series of fantasy novels. She has received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, and the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Her story “ Midnight Hour” appeared in Uncanny Magazine #5. Visit

Interview by Michi Trota

You can support the Uncanny Magazine Year Two Kickstarter here.

1) You recently completed your Glamourist History series. Each one is a little different in structure: you’ve done a romance, a spy story, a political thriller, a heist, and you’ve described the last book as your “grimdark” story. Looking back, did you have a favorite out of those different story types?

I really enjoyed the heist novel structure, but the one that I found most interesting was the grimdark. Why? Because my initial approach to the novel was thinking about Downton Abbey and how it is structured based on soap operas. What I discovered was that when you apply that structure to a fantasy novel, it naturally veers into grimdark. That was a little bit surprising, but made sense when I thought about it. In soap operas, things are heightened and always, always getting worse. There’s just not as much blood and dirt as in a fantasy novel.

2) You’re an experienced puppeteer and recently completed a several week-long puppetry workshop at the Jim Henson Studios. What was the most surprising experience you had at the workshop?

The workshop was heavily improv based. I haven’t done any formal improv since high school. What surprised me was how many exercises were like the POV exercises that I do when teaching writing. I suspect that a lot of writers would be well-served to take some character based improv classes.

3) Anyone who follows you on Twitter and Instagram knows that you love to make pies. What is your favorite pie – and which fictional character of yours would you most like to share it with and why?

I am a sucker for a pecan pie, which I almost never see and rarely make. If I could, I’d share it with Elma York, from “Lady Astronaut of Mars” because she’s based on my grandmother.

Writing the Margins from the Centre and Other Moral Geometries by Amal El-Mohtar


(This is mirrored from Amal El-Mohtar’s Blog)

This blog post is written in fulfillment of a Kickstarter reward claimed during Uncanny Magazine‘s Year One Kickstarter (with apologies for the delay, as the Year Two Kickstarter is presently underway, about which more later!)

I was asked to write about the following:

How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories? How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves? How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?

There are short and long answers to these questions. Here are the slightly discouraging short answers, in order:

a) carefully;
b) mostly by making mistakes and learning from them;
c) with difficulty.

Here are the longer answers.

How can writers represent people on the margins in their stories?

There’s been so much written on this subject, from so many perspectives, that part of me just wants to link to a lot of people who’ve said things better than I could. In this Racefail-era post, for instance, Nora Jemisin talks about how writers of colour, including herself, worry about representing race all the time; in this post, Cat Valente talks about how we’re all going to screw up at some point; in this post, Max Gladstone talks about how he, as an Apex Privilegedor, approaches writing people of different backgrounds with reference to getting chased by bees. And years ago in the heady days of now-locked LJ I wrote the following in a moment of helpless introspection:

I am wondering about stories and how to tell them.

I am a creature colonized by three languages, and the geopolitics of my inward self are complex. I have internalised certain societal structures, and am informed by my experiences within a family within a society that is itself shaped and coloured by its relationship with other societies. Even my questioning of those structures must necessarily be informed by them, to some degree. When I open my mouth or set pen to paper or hover my fingers over a keyboard, there’s a great deal of jostling over what will come out. And on the one hand everyone’s perspective is unique and no matter what you’re trying to say — be it a story about dragons or trees or dragon-trees or tree-dragons or music or race or bodies or talking narwhals — there is value to you saying it because we are all of us snowflakes and stories may contain the same elements without being the same.

But if you are aware of your limits, and your failings, and your inadequacies, do you strive to go beyond them all the same in order to break new ground, no matter how inexpertly, no matter how fumbling the result will be — or do you take your limits, and your failings, and your inadequacies, and try to build something out of them with the awareness of what they are?

In the original post I didn’t really arrive at an answer beyond “just try your best and learn from your mistakes.” I still think that’s a worthwhile answer. Because ultimately the “how” of the first question has to involve an attitude of approach rather than a sheet of instructions: accept that your work’s reception will have nothing to do with your intentions, swallow your pride and hurt feelings, and examine that reception for how to improve.

The thing is, that’s exactly the same attitude one should have to any critique. If I turn a story in to a workshop I fully expect that the responses I receive will range from “hated it for reasons that have nothing to do with the story” to “loved it for reasons that are unhelpful to my craft” with a lot of useful stuff in between. It’s my responsibility to not be hurt by the hatred and not be over-buoyed by the praise and to find the things that will help me grow as a writer, whether that’s accepting that Botany Doesn’t Work That Way or Let Me Tell You What a Stroke Feels Like or This is How to Pet an Owl.

It’s just that our sense of self, of our own goodness and morality, tends to be less bound up in how accurate our science is than in our portrayals of other human beings. It’s easier to come to terms with being bad at science than with being racist, but it’s a million times more important to confront the latter in ourselves as well as in others.

So, ultimately, my instruction here is less How Not to Screw Up Writing Marginalised People, but How to Accept That You’ll Screw It Up But Do Keep Doing It Anyway. But for more solid references I also recommend these resources: pick up Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (it’s on sale!), or, if it’s within your means, consider attending a workshop-retreat on the subject. There are also LOADS of blog posts on the matter; Lisa Bradley wrote a series of posts on writing [email protected] characters, Jim Hines gave his blog over to guest posts and collected them into this anthology, with all proceeds going to the Carl Brandon Society and Con or Bust. A little googling goes a long way. Which brings me to the answer for the next question.

How do writers know when they are being allies and when they are talking over people who could be speaking for themselves?

By listening. Seriously. Just listen and be quiet and think about your words and actions. A lot of the time people will tell you when you’re overstepping bounds. That said, accept that a lot of people won’t. If you accidentally step on someone’s foot, some people will shout at you in pain and others will quietly try to extract their foot from beneath your weight and decide to keep their distance from you, and in neither case does either owe you anything

But in terms of just governing your own behaviour, a good rule of thumb is to do two key things:

  1. Amplify the voices of marginalized people
  2. Take on the 101-level work of addressing other people privileged in the same ways you are.

Again, listening and cultivating patience in the face of frustration at having your unexamined beliefs challenged is deeply important — which brings me to the last question.

How can I tell, as a writer, when I’m telling a story that isn’t mine to tell?

I actually have a hard time answering this — my first, totally unhelpful response is that when I don’t feel a story is mine to tell I literally can’t write it. If I can’t find my way into a character’s head because the experience I’m trying to convey is too inaccessible to me after copious research, I just … Can’t write it, and ask myself the hard questions of why I’m seeking to do so, what it is I’m trying to say. It’s the sort of thing that really needs to dwell in specifics to be answered.

I guess one thing I could do is say: don’t think a story isn’t yours to tell only because it’s been experienced by a person different from you. To paraphrase something Nalo Hopkinson once said on a Readercon panel, we mostly all know what it’s like to bite into a piece of fruit, regardless of language, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality. To say we have a lot in common is not to say that we’re all the same — but, still, we have a lot in common. Finding our way into different stories through those commonalities is crucial, necessary work.

This is a superb essay by Kamila Shamsie that I can’t stop re-reading and thinking about, because my engagement with it is thorny and complicated, but necessary. In it, she examines in great depth the American reluctance to engage with the cultures of other countries, saying, among other immensely quotable things, “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She wants the white novelists to come.

I do too — but not if they come with the same sense of entitlement, attitude, and standard-bearing as the soldiers. Not if they come as tourists or ex-pats, for the sun, the food, the cheaper cost of living. Not if they come to exploit.

How different would it be if the novelists came as immigrants: bearing the burdened expectation of learning new languages, adapting to different customs, integrating. Imagine white novelists, singers, poets, approaching other people’s cultures and languages with the same gratitude and humility their own societies expect from immigrants*.

So, finally, to recap —

Write carefully. Accept you’ll make mistakes, and that those mistakes will hurt your pride, and that you’ll have to figure out how to go on. Try your best anyway and know that this isn’t an easy thing, and that you might fail.

But if you’re doing this work for the right reasons — to improve your craft, to lessen the harm in the world, to strengthen your relationship with it through your art — failing better is its own reward.

*My analogy’s imperfect because expecting gratitude and humility from immigrants makes me abjectly furious, especially when they’ve been displaced from their homes by the machinations of the countries into which they’re immigrating. The asymmetry’s horrible, I’ve read Veracini, this is not that post, but I just wanted to make my disgust with that attitude clear even as I’m trying to use that attitude to make a different point.

Ocean is a voyage

(Mirrored from Sonya Taaffe’s LiveJournal Blog or Dreamwidth Blog)

Belated rabbit, rabbit! My poem “Σειρήνοιϊν” is now online at Uncanny Magazine. It was written for Elise Matthesen. The title means “of the two Sirens” in Homeric Greek.

The number of Sirens in Greek myth is various. Most commonly there are three, although according to Homeric epic there are two of them: witness the use of the rare dual in Odyssey 12.52.

. . . ἀτὰρ αὐτὸς ἀκουέμεν αἴ κ᾽ ἐθέλῃσθα,
δησάντων σ᾽ ἐν νηῒ θοῇ χεῖράς τε πόδας τε
ὀρθὸν ἐν ἱστοπέδῃ, ἐκ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πείρατ᾽ ἀνήφθω,
ὄφρα κε τερπόμενος ὄπ᾽ ἀκούσῃς Σειρήνοιϊν.

. . . but if you yourself wish to hear,
let them bind you hand and foot in the swift ship
upright at the heel of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast to it,
so that you may hear and delight in the voice of the two Sirens.

(Classical Greek nouns have three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, plural. The genitive singular of Σειρήν is Σειρῆνος, one Siren; the genitive plural is Σειρήνων, an unspecified number of more than one Sirens. Most uses of the dual had already assimilated into the plural by the time of Homeric Greek; a noun declines in only two cases in the dual where the singular and plural get five cases to choose from and it’s not unusual in Attic Greek for a dual subject to take a plural verb because there are dual verb forms, but they are relatively restricted compared to the exploding tentacular tangle that is the classical Greek verb under normal circumstances. I have the impression that the dual is more common in Semitic languages, but I can’t verify this from experience: Akkadian confines its use of the dual mostly to body parts that come in pairs. Latin and related Italic languages dropped the concept like a hot rock except for one or two fossilized instances, like the number ambo, “both.” English has the same sort of vestiges, visible in the usage of both and the implied alternatives of either or neither. People who know other languages should totally chime in here.)

The mourning siren in the Museum of Fine Arts has been on my mind since I photographed it last November. I felt like a bad classicist for missing it until March, but it turns out that mourning sirens are a thing. Their first association with death is obvious, as Kirke warns Odysseus in Odyssey 12.41–46:

ὅς τις ἀιδρείῃ πελάσῃ καὶ φθόγγον ἀκούσῃ
Σειρήνων, τῷ δ᾽ οὔ τι γυνὴ καὶ νήπια τέκνα
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντι παρίσταται οὐδὲ γάνυνται,
ἀλλά τε Σειρῆνες λιγυρῇ θέλγουσιν ἀοιδῇ
ἥμεναι ἐν λειμῶνι, πολὺς δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ ὀστεόφιν θὶς
ἀνδρῶν πυθομένων, περὶ δὲ ῥινοὶ μινύθουσι.

Whoever draws near in ignorance and hears the voice
of the Sirens, never will his wife and little children
stand beside him when he has come home and be glad of him,
but the Sirens charm him with their clear-voiced song
as they lie in a meadow and all about them a great heap of bones
of men rotting and the flesh shrinking away.

But why then the actions of mourners? Why grieve over the human dead, instead of nesting happily among them? Since we find them all over funerarymonuments (and other associated material culture: memorial tablets, lots of lekythoi, even representations of tombs), they must possess some resonance beyond the merely monstrous or the generically chthonic. I like a cinerary urn decorated with Skylla as much as the next Etruscan, but I don’t see her repeated across the centuries.

Later traditions reconfigure the Sirens as devouring seductresses, but what they promise the hero in Odyssey 12.184–191 is not sex, but knowledge:

δεῦρ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἰών, πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν,
νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωιτέρην ὄπ ἀκούσῃς.
οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῇδε παρήλασε νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
πρίν γ᾽ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

Come here, much-famed Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
stay your ship so that you may hear the voice of the two of us.
For no one yet has passed this way in a black ship
before he heard the honey-sweet voice from our mouths,
but he goes on delighting and knowing more.
For we know all that in broad Troy
the Argives and the Trojans endured by the will of the gods
and we know all that comes to be on the nourishing earth.

Unless you feel like assuming that the Sirens have a different bait for every traveler (mostly this sentence provides me with an excuse to link this Roman relief of a Siren having sex with some dude), their lure is the storyteller’s: they know the truth of things. I’ve made use of this conceit already in my poem “Anthemoessa on the Main Line.” In a funerary context, then, it seems very obvious to me that what they do is remember the dead. Their voices are more beautiful than any human keening and the deceased is never unknown to them: they know all our life stories. They know what really happened. They tell the dead true.

So one of the impetus for this poem was thinking about mourning sirens, the singers of the dead, and how that function fits with the Sirens of epic, who will tell you the story of the world until you die of it. Another was being asked by Elise Matthesen for a poem. And the last was discovering this fifth-century bronze askos in the shape of a siren with a pomegranate in one hand and a syrinx—panpipes—in the other. She was in the Getty Museum when the picture was taken, though she has since been repatriated to Italy on account of being sold illegally. I know she is holding the two symbols of her mythos, music and the underworld. It still looked instantly like she was offering a choice to me.

As to the rest, I really don’t feel the need to explain the discrepancy between two or three Sirens; myth proliferates, it contradicts itself, and it’s healthiest when it’s told in at least two voices. I just found I rather liked the idea that originally there was one Siren on the fatal isle of Anthemoessa and any others chose to join her. Hence the dual in the title: Σειρήνοιϊν, of the two Sirens. Now, anyway.

Amal El-Mohtar reads the poem in the podcast. I am very pleased that this is where it found its home.