Guidelines for Guest Blog Posts

IMG_3041Because I’ve run a number of guest posts on my blog and get offered additional ones from time to time, here’s the guidelines. I prefer they fall into one of the following areas but I’m open to interesting pitches:

  • Interesting and not much explored areas of writing
  • Writers or other individuals you have been inspired by
  • Your favorite kitchen and a recipe to cook in it
  • A recipe or description of a meal from your upcoming book
  • Women in the history of speculative fiction, ranging from very early figures such as Margaret Cavendish and Many Wollstonecraft up to the present day.

Please do send a pitch along with relevant dates (if, for example, you want to time things with a book release) to cat AT kittywumpus.net. If it sounds good, I’ll let you know. Length is 500 words on up. Please include 1-5 images that can be used with the piece and a 100 word bio that includes a pointer to your website and social media presences

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You Should Read This: Some Recent Reading

Image of bookshelves filled with books about writingPost-Nebulas, I’ve been going through and trying to clear away a lot from my shelves and TBR list, particularly given that I still had a substantial armload from the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts and its munificent book tables. Here’s some particular recent favorites.

  • The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente. Funny, fierce, and feminist. Valente gives a voice to some women who’ve got shrewd insight into and experience with the gender norms of the comic book world, including Phoenix, Harlequin, and Gwen Stacy. If you are a woman who loves comic books you should stop reading this and go find it. Fucking fantastic.
  • Deadwood by Pete Dexter. This historical novel is the one the HBO series was based on, and it’s terrific, particularly if you enjoyed that series and want to revisit some of those characters. The plain style of the writing combined with a sharp eye for historical detail is lovely, and it’s a book worth savoring. There are few things on earth more disappointing than reading a regular Western when you’re hoping for a weird one, so let me emphasize again that this is straightforward, non-fantastic fiction.
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells. Far future SF with one of the most engaging first person narratives I’ve ever have the pleasure of watching in action, Wells’ independent, wry and stubborn Murderbot. Snappy and funny and yet thoroughly engaging. Alas, all too short since it’s a Kindle Single, but luckily it’s billed as the first in a series.
  • The Greatcoats by Sebastian de Castell. Early on in the first book, I knew I’d be picking up the rest, and did so, quickly working my way through to the highly satisfying conclusion. Basically French musketeers and a cool magic system, with the snappy dialogue and fast-paced, high-stakes action you would expect. Very enjoyable. I should note I picked them up due a Kindle deal that’s no longer going; if your budget is limited you will find more bang for your buck elsewhere (IMO).
  • Super Extra Grande by Yoss. In some ways this read like a more modern version of Keith Laumer’s Retief series, with a lot of the things about them that I loved as a teen and less of the stuff I’m not so fond of as an adult. Fast-paced and funny, and Spanglish scattered throughout made it more fun for me, but the mileage for a non-Spanish speaker may vary, I’m not sure. I picked this up because I wanted to read some Cuban science fiction; Yoss is one of the people at the forefront of that.
  • Dreadnought: Nemesis by April Daniels. Superhero YA with a trans main character who is identifiable and fabulous. I’m looking forward to the next in the series. Along the same lines, I want to point to Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee, also snappy and fun. I’m so happy to see superhero fiction have become an established thing in fiction; I will happily read as much of it as our fine genre writers can produce.
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My Report: Pittsburgh 2017 Nebula Conference

Swag bags assembled and awaiting distribution.

Swag bags assembled and awaiting distribution.

I got back late last night, after a trip back that included a lost reservation, my luggage being overweight (how could that be? oh, look at all those books) so I had to repack a bit at the counter under the check-in agent’s impatient gaze, and the poor kid beside me throwing up steadily all the way from PIT to IAD. It’s always weird, the day after travel, because one feels as though you’ve been simultaneously on vacation and yet working harder than most days.

I cannot begin to enumerate all the ways that weekend was wonderful. It was a great joy to see months and months of planning finally bear fruit and now we can relax for at least a couple days before thinking about next year. The programming was, in my opinion, outstanding. My only quarrel would be that there was so much good stuff that I could not get to every panel I wanted to, and that I could not spend enough time with the fabulous SFWA events team of Kate Baker, Terra LeMay, and Steven H Silver, who are responsible for everything that was wonderful.

One of the challenges for the Programming Team, led by Mary Robinette Kowal, was making sure the programming had something for all writers, whether they were tradpub, small press, indie, or hybrid. There were so many terrific, in-depth panels, including a wealth of shadow programming additions and office hours with writers and other publishing professionals. It made me think back to a Nebula from several years when I was on a lackadaisical panel about writers block that was, I think, so much less useful than it could have been and realize just how far the Nebula Conference has come from the days of “let’s all get together in a hotel and hand out the awards and then drink a lot.”
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Cussin’ in Secondary Worlds

swearing-294391_1280Cussin’ in Secondary Worlds
Saturday, June 10, 9:30-11:30 AM Pacific Time

Cursewords, expletives, and more – those things your characters say when nothing else will do – tells you more about the world (including issues of class, cultural taboos, and more) than you might imagine. How cussing and worldbuilding interrelate. AKA the class where we say F*ck a lot.

Join Norton Award winning author Fran Wilde, author of Updraft, Cloudbound, and The Jewel and Her Lapidary for a workshop that will leave you ready to swear magnificently.

Classes are taught online via Google hangouts and require reliable Internet connection, although in the past participants have logged on from coffee shops, cafes, and even an airplane; a webcam is suggested but not required.

To register for this class, mail me with the following details:

  • The email address associated with your Google account
  • Which class or classes and the dates
  • Remind me if you have already taken a class with me so you can get the former student rate ($79). Otherwise the cost is $99.
  • Whether you would prefer to pay via Paypal, check, or some other means.

Upon receiving that, I will send you an invoice.

Important! Remember every class has at least one Plunkett scholarship for students who could not otherwise afford the cost. To apply for a Plunkett, mail me and tell me why you want to take the class in 100 words or less.

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Guest Post from Carrie Patel: Whose Story Is This, Anyway? – Character Craft for Novels and Games

Picture of carnival masksGrowing up, two of my favorite things were books and video games. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d grow up to write both, I probably would have choked on my Mountain Dew.

But over the past few years, I’ve been doing exactly that. I’ve written the Recoletta series, a science fantasy trilogy published by Angry Robot, and I’ve worked as a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment for three and a half years now, writing for the Pillars of Eternity games and expansions.

In both media, the principles of good storytelling—establishing a strong story arc; building a vivid, believable world; and populating it with complex, memorable characters—are the same.

But the user experience differs, and understanding that is key to knowing how to satisfy both audiences.

Readers generally pick up novels to immerse themselves in stories that they experience through the eyes of another character. Players generally sit down with games to immerse themselves in stories that they discover and define through their own actions.

A large chunk of storytelling in both media comes down to understanding the role your characters play and how to make them real.

Characters bring a fictional world to life. Their problems and dilemmas create the oft-sought tension and “stakes,” and their choices and conflicts drive the story. Most readers and gamers would be hard-pressed to discuss their favorite stories without also talking about the characters who populate it. We connect emotionally with the people in stories rather than the ideas and philosophies.

But who are those characters?

In a novel, the most important character is typically the protagonist. It’s not just because the action (mostly) follows her. It’s also because we experience the story through her perspective. We see what she sees and know what she feels, even if we don’t always agree with it. First-person and close third-person stories have become immensely popular because of the intimacy of the perspective they offer.

For the protagonist’s story to be engaging, she has to have challenges to overcome. Strengths and vulnerabilities that add variation to her journey. A deeply personal investment in the events of the plot. Writing a protagonist who meets these criteria is often a matter of architecture in the planning stages—figuring out who this person is and what it is about her that generates interest and tension—as well as retrofitting in the revision stages—finding ways to connect her more deeply to other characters and events and building momentum over the successes and setbacks she faces.

When it comes to games, protagonists may be a lot more varied. For the sake of simplicity (ha!), I’m mostly talking about Western-style RPGs, which are often characterized by protagonists who are defined by the player in some significant way and whose stories are often discovered over the course of (fairly) open-ended gameplay.

The degree to which players define their characters differs widely between games. In some games, you have a protagonist with an established identity and established personality whose significant choices are defined by the player. That includes Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher.

In other games, you have a character whose overall identity is set, but whose personality and outlook is determined by the player. For example, Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect series is always a human operative intent on saving the galaxy, but the player can cast her as an idealistic savior or a ruthless maverick.

Finally, there are other games, such as Pillars of Eternity, in which nearly everything about the protagonist, including personality, backstory, and race, is player-determined.

In these types of games, the task of the writer is to build everything around the player character as much as—or more than—defining the player character on his or her own. You develop a story that is just loose enough to fit whatever way the player might choose to define the protagonist according to the options you have given them. You create a world with enough freedom for the player to make choices and enough context to give meaning to those choices. You write side characters who establish the world as a living place and who frame the stakes for the player.

It’s a delicate balance, and it’s one that places a much greater burden on the writing that establishes the world around the protagonist.

That’s because you’re defining this character—or, to some extent, allowing your player to—through negative space rather than positive space. You’re creating a stage that will allow the player to shape a personal story, and one that doesn’t feel at odds with the choices you’ve given them.

TheSongOfTheDead_144dpi (1)Heroes of their own stories

And yet, protagonists aren’t the only characters on the page (or screen). A common piece of writing advice is to write villains as though they were the heroes of their own stories. It’s good advice, and it holds true for all characters—sidekicks, love interests, mentors, and spear carriers.

In many books, the most memorable and beloved characters are often secondary characters. Written well, they are typically less encumbered by the constraints of following the plot. Writers may feel freer to embody them with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that help them stand out. And the foil they frequently provide for the main character—whether as comic relief or as someone who pushes and challenges the protagonist—can create entertaining humor, conflict, and character development.

Put simply, these characters work because they have goals and interests that do not always line up with those of the protagonist.

Games may contain even more secondary characters—often called NPCs (non-player characters). Of course, if every character is the hero of her own story, you’ve still got to make them good stories. And “bring me five puffleberries” and “get my cat out of this tree” don’t quite cut it. We don’t like busywork in real life, so why does anyone assume we’d do it for fun? Yet “fetch quests”—formulaic tasks in which the player character is sent to handle a routine errand for someone else—are everywhere.

The problem isn’t just that they usually make for dull content. It’s also that they suggest a world in which other characters’ concerns go no deeper than grocery runs. In which they only exist to provide some degree of involvement for the player. And in which the protagonist only relates to them as an errand boy.

Every quest need not be epic. But it should mean something or reveal something, both with respect to the protagonist and the other characters involved.

In both games and novels, we rely on good characters to develop our stories and to hold our audience’s interest in them. Novelists and game writers merely need to understand how their readers and players will relate to them in order to deploy them most effectively.

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Bio: Carrie Patel is a novelist and a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment. She is the author of the Recoletta trilogy, which is published by Angry Robot. The final book in the series, The Song of the Dead, comes out on May 2. She works at Obsidian Entertainment as a narrative designer and writer. She has worked on the award-winning Pillars of Eternity and its expansions, The White March Parts I and II. She is currently working on Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. You can find her on Twitter as @Carrie_Patel as well as at http://www.electronicinkblog.com/.

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Reading Doc Savage: Land of Always-Night

FullSizeRender (49)In packing for a trip, I discovered I’d somehow bypassed some of the earlier Doc Savages, so we backtrack now to book 13: Land of Always-Night. On the cover, Doc, wearing torn shirt and steampunk goggles, looks back and away from a grove of giant mushrooms, not noticing the several odd figures vaguely resembling the Monarch from The Venture Brothers menacing him with raised hands.

This one has to be my favorite beginning yet:

It is somewhat ridiculous to say that a human hand can resemble a butterfly. Yet this particular hand did attain that similarity. Probably it was the way it moved, hovered, moved again, with something about it that was remindful of a slow-motion picture being shown on a screen.

The color had something to do with the impression. The hand was white, unnatural; it might have been fashioned of mother of pearl. There was something serpentine, hideous, about the way it strayed and hovered, yet was never still. It made one think of a venomous white moth.

It made Beery Hosmer think of death. Only the expression on Beery Hosmer’s face told that, for he was not saying anything. But he was trying to. His lips shaped word syllables and the muscle strings in his scrawny throat jerked, but no sounds came out.

The horrible white hand floated up toward Beery Hosmer’s face. The side street was gloomy, deserted except for Beery Hosmer and the man with the uncanny hand. The hand stood out in the Merck almost as if it were a thing of white paper with a light inside.

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Playlist for Female Leaders

Women in leadership positions face a lot of unwonted and unwanted bullshit. Self care’s important, both physically and mentally. Here, for your weekend, is some music. This is some of the playlist I listen to when walking.

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Nattering Social Justice Cook: Time to Fix the Missing Stair

AnitaThe following is my personal opinion and unconnected to any SFWA activity. I am speaking as a member of the speculative fiction community, one that has been involved in it for a decade and a half now, and one that has watched its internal workings with interest.

I met Monica Valentinelli in 2016 at GenCon. I don’t know her well, but I’m proud to count her as a friend and she is one of the people I have consulted with about issues gamewriters face and the gamewriting community overall. She has been a valued bridge-builder and I trust her judgment. For those who don’t know about the recent events prompting this essay, here is her account of the event as well as some reactions.

Monica is currently being punished for speaking out, with vitriol, suggested boycotts, and more, all for going public about her decision. Forces with an interest in women not speaking out have decided to make her a cautionary tale, particularly since she’s dared to lead to other people, including men, to follow her example.

One manifestation of that is a brief statement asking why she hates women, declaring that her example will make conventions reluctant to invite any women in the future. Let’s unpack that one a little because the underpinnings seem ill-constructed to me.

There are many kinds of humans in the world. That means there’re also many kinds of women. The logic of the above statement says two things: 1) that it is wrong for people speak out about conditions that are uncomfortable, unprofessional, or sometimes even dangerous and 2) that only people with the strength to survive a gauntlet that can include being groped onstage, being mocked publicly, having their work denigrated for no reason other than having been produced by a woman, and a multitude of other forms of harassment deserve careers and the rest are out of luck. Does that really need to be demanded for someone to have a career? Writers are notoriously unstable mentally as it is. Serial harassment is a professional matter.

This was underscored for me on a Norwescon (a con that does a great job with selecting programming and volunteers and understands the issues) panel that I moderated last Friday, Standing Up to the Mob, with panelists Minim Calibre, Arinn Dembo, Mickey Schulz, and Torrey Stenmark. The description was:

How do you support female creators who are being harassed online by the ravening hordes of the unenlightened? Tips for voicing your support in ways that mean something.

Here are Arinn Dembo’s excellent notes on the panel overall.

Harassment is not confined to female creators: anyone who is “othered” is particularly at risk for storms of online harassment. But women are more subject, on the average, to gender-specific slurs, accusations of sexual activity/inactivity (slut/frigid), and rape-threats. And, as with Monica and countless other women, it bleeds over into physical space with intimidation, unwelcome advances, stalkers, or attacks from random men just because they were the closest woman.

I can tell you from personal experience that women get made uncomfortable at conventions on a regular basis, that I have heard literally dozens of these stories, and read dozens more online. That online threats spill over into real life intimidation and more threats, sometimes outright attempts, to harm our health, our finances, and our loved ones — often children. The issue is real. It is time to stop pretending it is not.

What follows is an attempt to collect some notes from that panel and use them to explain why I think what Monica did was brave and inspiring, and why it should be a kick in the butt to do something.

The panel was specifically about online harassment. If you’re reading this online, you are part of that world as well, and you may have noticed instances of online harassment before. If you haven’t, I can assure you they’re there. The harassers’ agenda is to overwhelm the victim, to cut their productivity, and to punish them for some perceived slight while at the same time making an example of them so other creators will hesitate before speaking out.

How can you support an online creator that is under attack? Some methods listed during the panel:

  1. Buy their stuff. Spread word of it to other people that would enjoy it. Support them financially, particularly at a time when they’re worrying about being hit there.
  2. Believe them when they say, “This has been my experience.”
  3. Let them know you’re supporting them. Drop them a nice note, send them kitten pictures, do whatever you can to show you have their back. Provide something that counteracts the scores of nastygrams, death/rape threats, and other harassing messages they’re getting.
  4. Draw fire away, not towards. Untag them in conversations that are going to get heated. They’re catching plenty of it as ise. Don’t just fan flames and make things worse for them.
  5. If they want to take a break, encourage it. Facilitate it even. Offer to moderate their social media if they want to move away from it.
  6. Figure out what rewards the troll and try to remove it. Often the reward is attention or any kind of reaction.
  7. Hold people accountable for their toxic fans, particularly when they’re egging them on.

Our community should protect its own and behave like a healthy immune system, coming to the aid of parts under attack. But it is not enough to rely on the goodwill of individuals. That moves me to the metaphor of the missing stair, which came up frequently in the panel.

If you’re not familiar with it, the analogy deals with a serial harasser in a community. Everyone in the community knows about them, and the way its deal with is to warn people privately: Don’t get caught in an elevator alone with X, don’t accept invitations from Y. Watch out for Z, they pinched my butt so hard it left a bruise. It’s like a staircase with a missing stair, which everyone knows not to step on. Over and over, despite the fact that people keep tripping. Keep getting hurt: physically, mentally, economically.

It’s time to stop pretending the missing stair doesn’t need to be fixed. Relying on word-of-mouth means that the people who are new, who are just entering, are the ones most at risk of trying to step on it. Some conventions have tried to deal with it in one way or another; others plead ignorance, saying that each convention is organized by different people, so how can this knowledge be passed along? In my opinion the situation is unacceptable.

Monica has done the most important thing people can do against harassment: speak up. Odysseycon failed to do the second most important: believe someone when they say, “this is my experience.”

How can we repair the missing stairs so no one is hurt by them again? In my opinion, there needs to be some sort of way for conventions, conferences, and other organizations to compare notes in a systematic way, perhaps a database where, each time there is an incident, it gets documented. So a convention organizer could check: is the person I am considering using at my convention someone who has harassed people in the past? Because con organizers need to know what they are taking on.They need all the information there and findable so they cannot ignore it.

Such a system would depend on people coming forward and on people not being punished for speaking up. One objection that gets raised to such a system is: what if it gets used unfairly? What if someone targets a person and uses the system against them?

It is a valid question, though perhaps not quite as strong a possibility as some people might paint. However, having the database would let the convention organizer look at the incidents. Are they all coming from one person? Then they may want to investigate further. Are they coming from multiple people? Then there is a problem. A serial “blamer,” someone intent on weaponizing the system, would in fact be exposed by it.

One reason this idea of tracking incidents sometimes creates unease is the idea of a formal blacklist to replace the current web of gossip and tips passed along among con organizers, authors, and other publishing professionals. That is not the point. The point is to allow con organizers to be informed when making their decisions. If harassment is something they don’t want to worry about, they don’t need to consult the database. But for the ones who want to make sure every guest feels welcome, this would be a valuable source of information. And it would be more objective than that web of gossip, and let people know that they’re not the victim of some background campaigns that they don’t. Indeed, this system would act to prevent mislabelings.

The inevitable question, “Why doesn’t SFWA do it?” will be raised. The answer is this: This effort must come from a coalition of the people organizing conventions. They know best how something like this should be structured and administered, and it is not my place to tell them how to do it. SFWA has provided some useful resources for conventions; both the Accessibility Checklist for SFWA Spaces and the Policy and Procedure on Harassment in SFWA Venues statement are available online.

This is what I know. The missing stair is tripping up newcomers to our community. People are being hurt by it, even the ones who know how to navigate it well, by efforts to pretend it doesn’t exist. The fact that we, the fantasy and science fiction community at large, tacitly allow this situation – the enabling of serial harassers in a way that drives out new writers, fans, and publishing professionals — absolutely infuriates me. We need to start talking seriously about how something like this should be implemented in a way that is both as fair and is effective as possible. For Pete’s sake, people.

I welcome conversation here, particularly between people with actual experience organizing and running cons. Mine consists of going to a lot of conventions over the past decade or so and watching the SFWA events team put on an amazing conference each year without my assistance, while congratulating myself on having avoided all the work while being to reap the benefit of their hard work. However, I do have plenty of experience with comments, which will be moderated for obvious reasons.

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Nattering Social Justice Cook: Supporting The Next Generation

Ancient village with modern kids and bubbles.

Ancient village with modern kids and bubbles.

If you don’t know about DonorsChoose, it’s a great program that lets you support individual classroom projects. I sponsored one in honor of my aunt Nona. Here’s the lovely thank you note I just got.

Dear Cat Rambo,

Thank you so much for your donation to my classroom. Having copies of Persepolis: The Story Of A Childhood has had a dramatic impact on my students as they finish their eighth grade year.

When the students received copies of a book that they were actually interested in, they felt like they were the ones in charge of their learning experience. The decision to design a unit around Persepolis was student driven. Earlier this year I noticed that students were coming to class regularly asking questions about the Middle East and Islam. In student interest surveys, the class overwhelmingly expressed a desire to learn more about these topics. So when students got copies of Persepolis, they felt as if their voices were being heard. When I started the unit, I noticed a big increase in student engagement. “I felt lucky!” Eighth grader De’jean Williams said when the class received the books. “Adults hardly ever listen to us- it’s nice when they finally do.”

The Persepolis books have provided students with a window into life in the Middle East. Students are beginning to understand the complexity of the forces shaping the region. They are deeply engaging with questions about the role of government, culture and religion influencing a society. Middle school is the time when students are first beginning to shape their world-view. Reading Persepolis is helping students in this process. As the United States gets more and more involved in the region, I am so glad that my students understanding of the region is growing.

Thanks again for your generous donation! You are truly making a difference in the lives of young people!!

With gratitude,
Ms. Founds

Want to see students reading diverse, interesting, informative reading that features protagonists like them? Find programs doing just that and help them.

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Upping the Number of Plunkett Slots

Something I’m trying to do this year is pay things forward as much as possible. Recent technological upgrades means I can now fit more than 8-9 people in a class (can now handle up to twice that many, which is more suited to some classes than others), so I figured one way to do that is to make more class slots available to people who couldn’t otherwise afford the class.

So, each class now has three Plunkett scholarship slots, the third of which is specifically reserved for QUILTBAG and POC applicants. Everyone is encouraged to apply, but I want to make sure it’s getting to a diverse range. The only qualification for a Plunkett is this: you would not be able to afford the class otherwise. Just mail me with the name/date of the class and 1-3 sentences about why you want to take it.

I have had several classes lately with no Plunkett apps, so I want to stress this: please take advantage of them if you’re a writer working on your craft. You will be helping me by ensuring that I have interested people to teach to.

That said, here’s upcoming classes if you want to look them over:

Classes Offered April-June 2017

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