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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Dungeons and Representation: How a Podcast Did Good

Hello hello!

So anyone who follows me on Twitter - or anywhere, really - has probably noticed that I am majorly into podcasts. I've alluded to my love of tabletop RPGs on more than a few occasions, and as a fledgling DM (Dungeon Master - the non-BDSM kind, though there's a surprisingly large overlap between the two communities...) I like to take inspiration from the best.

Before I explore today's topic in detail, a few recommendations - in no particular order, Critical Hit, How We Roll, One Shot, Campaign, The Adventure Zone, and Dungeons and Randomness are all funny and wonderful programs that showcase both inclusive gaming (on and off the table, for the most part) and really, really good storytelling. Writers and geeks should check them out. Don't worry about the rules; these podcasts are almost all story-focused, so it doesn't get too mathy and crunchy.

With those recs out of the way, I'd like to focus on D&R in particular. Having recently completed its 200th episode, the four (!) groups sat down with the DM, Jason Massey to talk about their experiences.


What happened 


Now, two hundred episodes of anything is a trip, but I'm a binge-listener and a completionist, so it wasn't a big deal for me. However, the beginning of the series was pretty rocky. The first group to form, known as Group 1, was an all-male group of friends who'd met through the wrestling fandom. There are a lot of wrestling fans who also play D&D, for some reason, so that's not a problem - but the group dynamics were.

Beleagured DM Jason and hapless party leader Rob Wiesehan, playing tiefling warlock Malchus Grimnas, then spent about fifty episodes trying to rein in the murderous and careless shenanigans of this initial group. It's honestly a fascinating tour through toxic masculinity - players screw, rob, and murder their way across the land of Theria, and as Jason's worldbuilding becomes increasingly intricate and rich, most of the players enjoy being dicks more than they do abiding by the social contracts of D&D, to quote Rob.

What social contract? 


Here's the thing about Dungeons and Dragons and most other roleplaying games - it's pretty essential, as Rob explained, that the other members of your party are trustworthy enough to not murder you in your sleep, screw you out of things like healing potions, share resources, and fight on your side during battles - and not, say, engage in player vs player combat or act in needlessly antagonistic ways. Interestingly, a couple of the early players from the group seemed genuinely baffled about why it might be a bad idea to act like dicks and fight people who are supposed to be on their side.

Now, group dynamics are an inevitable part of human interaction. We're social animals, and that means we're liable to be jerks and conflict with each other, but it's totally possible to ride out those painful spasms and create a lasting D&D group. Sometimes people leave, which is why inviting a few more people than you think necessary is often prudent. But it's a very important and basic part of this system, and most systems, that you do not screw over the people who are on your side.

The fact that multiple players in Group 1 just didn't understand this is fascinating, and honestly, only seems to have happened because it was an all-dude group. Broish humour is fine, but ripping on each other, jockeying for leadership, and being unnecessarily and often destructively subversive often led to doom and disorganization.




Have some eye bleach: fan art of characters from the Adventure Zone, in Halloween costumes as *other* characters from The Adventure Zone - who are also lesbians. This picture has lesbians ^2. You're welcome. 



When it got better


Perhaps because of Jason's expert implementation of consequences in the storylines, to an extent that many traditional creators should follow, the actions of many Group 1 members caught up with them. It seems that murdering, betraying, and robbing people willy-nilly is kind of not great. While the other groups and players sometimes made ethically questionable choices in the storyline, they always weighed them carefully. Una Anhelada, a gutsy devil-may-care paladin played by Izzy Chadwick, often spearheaded these - but her seeming recklessness and impulsive nature still included concern, empathy, and care for both her party members and fellow players.

As time went on, the DM added more groups, each of which went through their own growing pains.  Holding auditions for new players meant screening and better integration of people, something important for a show, and interestingly, also brought a flood of lady players, as well as at least one non-binary and later trans male player. Not everyone there was white, either, which is a silent problem besetting many D&D games, but a welcome change here. Among the new blood was Brienne Marie, a delightful pixie of a person with a filthy sense of humour and a sparkling laugh. Quickly becoming Jason's platonic soulmate, her addition to the cast marks a sharp change in the show's style - very much for its benefit.

This isn't to say that GIRLS ARE ALWAYS BETTER, because a few of the new lady inductees were pretty irritating - and left quickly - but the most destructive players in the game were definitely all men. Their behaviour patterns had a lot in common, too - a determination to have their desires and goals met, often at the expense of the party; a refusal to accommodate others' needs and priorities, and toddler-like tantrums and antics when their requests were denied.

Back to Group 1 


Group 1 went from being the primary party in the setting to an exception.As the other two, then three, then four (! counting a bonus group made of existing players) groups quarreled and debated and resolved conflicts in satisfying and interesting ways, Group 1 remained somewhat stuck in the past. When party members finally began to murder each other, in a culmination of the rivalries and toxic dynamics, virtually only Malchus remained. Because the players either selfishly focused on their own gimmicks and jokes or sabotaged each other, often both, Malchus (and Rob, his player) were exceptional. As the group reformed once, then twice, it gained lady members and non-toxic male members - and underwent a drastic transformation.

Even as Malchus grappled with the impact of his actions, the group would discuss their decisions carefully and cautiously. Not exploiting others, picking up a dorky and endearing young NPC wizard-fighter (who subverts the trope of that combo brilliantly), and helping each other in heartwarming ways, Group 1 became radically different from its roots.


But Not All Men 


The thing is, men don't have to suck. Male and female players can both participate in toxic masculinity, but focusing on sharing the spotlight, resolving conflicts without in-character violence, not plotting and planning about other player characters behind their backs - and out of character - and above all, just not being awful dicks to each other, will all result in much better table experiences. It's fine to create evil or morally ambiguous, selfish characters. But it's vitally important and mandatory for people to keep their character personas and grudges separate from in-person dynamics, and to settle table conflicts as soon as they happen.

D&D is easy to get invested in. The shared storytelling, improv with dice, and creating a world are intoxicating and empowering. Add in the capacity to be something impossible or better than one is in the real world, and you have a heady brew - but it's easy to get emotionally invested in one's persona and the storyline. When everyone's invested, and at least somewhat working together, it's a hit of pure magic. But even if the characters are planning to double-cross each other, players at the table have to use boundaries and not harm each other.

Failing to do this results in Reservoir Dogs - like chains of revenge and can absolutely ruin friendships forever, because of the basic lack of respect they represent. But working with the other players and keeping in-character conflicts and rivalries separate from real life makes sure everyone at the table can walk away with a spring in their step and an easy mind.


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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 24 July 2017

Diversity Isn't Enough: The Importance of Radical Inclusion

Hello hello!

Well, a friend of mine has now been to 78 agents and gotten as many rejections. Surely, this indicates that the book is simply Not Good Enough, right?

That's the thing. I've read it, and the book is excellent. Featuring a character with PTSD, who is both gay and from a mixed heritage background, it's full of funny moments, intelligent thought experiments about robotic consciousness, and has a very solid mystery through the core. The cast is populated by well-rounded and differentiated characters - of mixed abilities, genders, ethnic heritages, and sexualities. And in this setting, their societal and work crew composition is pretty normal. So in addition to featuring a robot love story and a murder mystery, there are plenty of moments where the night crew assembles, and a deaf character sits at a table with a young hijabi clinic worker and her mechanic girlfriend, and two divorced people who remain friends, as well as the main character - all so they can play cards in the park, out of the sight of a nearly omniscient AI.

The thing is, while audio-visual projects - which often spring from book series these days - such as A Wrinkle in Time, American Horror Story, Sense-8, American Gods, The Adventure Zone, Welcome to Night Vale, Penumbra, Who Fears Death (Nnendi Okorafor), Steven Universe, Blackish, Dear White People, Master of None, Switched at Birth, Fresh off the Boat, Luke Cage, Dark Matter, The Expanse, and Westworld include cast members of many shades, there's still a focus on able, attractive, mostly straight people - not to mention that in more than a couple of these, white characters still end up dominating front and centre roles. Yes, this is getting better, but there seems to be a genuine fear of addressing the (surprisingly large) populations of trans and genderqueer, aromantic or asexual, Deaf, visually impaired/blind, and visibly and invisibly disabled people. Not to mention that a lot of these populations intersect. I personally know plenty of people who are people of colour, genderqueer, and disabled. I've read articles by a surprising number of genderqueer, mentally ill people of colour. Add present and former sex workers to the mix, and you have a pretty good sampling of humanity.

So what's the problem?


The problem is that these diverse shows, which are not radically inclusive yet, are only the tip of the iceburg. Producers and studios and publishing houses tend to hire just one or two people to demonstrate their wokeness, and keep the rest their content steaming along as though it's business as usual - teen YA love triangles, stubble-covered male power-fantasy thrillers, gritty sex murder mysteries, soft and juicy chick lit, spicy supernatural sex romps, and tooth-gritting fast ship space porn.  I've edited these books, read them, and enjoyed them - but the fact remains that the market's determiners keep orienting themselves to what they think is a safe bet, an easy seller. 

We still live in a world where an alternate history series where the South won was greenlit by HBO. So yeah, Nnedi Okorafor's series is getting a production deal, but so is a slavery fantasyland series. So is Ready Player One, too. A Minecraft book by Max Brooks is at the top of the bestsellers right now. So yes, diversity's making inroads, but The Problem Is Not Fixed. Radical inclusion, i.e. just treating people like people, and writing stories where non-white, non-able, non-cisgender, non-heterosexual, non-Christian people are allowed to exist and be in starring roles is absolutely revolutionary. 


Ready Player What, now? 


For those not familiar with RPO, it's basically a pop culture slurry of references; another Teenage White Boy Saves The World book, with virtual reality, and somehow he's the only one who knows Stuff About the Eighties - and Steven Spielberg is attached. You'd think he'd pick a more challenging project or have better taste, but no, fanboy fantasy it is.

The biggest problem is that people think Ready Player One is like, subversive somehow? Or self-aware? But it absolutely isn't. It's sincere. Max Brooks is one of the guys who launched the zombie craze--he's very good at commercial writing, to the extent that he's actually a Name, but yeah, he's not exactly known for challenging or artistically mold-breaking projects.

And all of this would be fine, except that it, and the dozens of imitators who crop up to try and skim that flavour, crowd out the more innovative and interesting projects.

Is this another Commerce vs Art rant? 


Absolutely not. It's not that Commerce and Art are Enemies. Heck, it's *fine* to monetize the daylights out of something. Art's relied on Commerce for basically all of modern history. If it wasn't Commerce, it was religion. But - the problem is *how* those selections are done, and the way people trust their preferences to be free of bias. Which just isn't the case.

It's OKAY to have biases. The problem is that we treat a certain kind of bias as objective, and it gets far, far more sway over the stories that get told than anything else. To the point where just including people is considered revolutionary and gamechanging. Simultaneously, there are so *few* of these inclusive stories that individual properties are often torn apart for being 'not good enough'. Yet meanwhile, mainstream stories with sparkling white casts somehow get a break.

But including people is how you GET different kinds of stories. Now, to be clear,  I LOVE the Hunger Games. A lot. But we have a market where agents are like, 'eh, this sold, let's get ten more that are basically variations of this flavour'. There's very little willingness to risk the core of the market, and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of, well, crap. 

Like, if you go to a corner store you can buy some chips. And chips are good, I like chips, but even if you put zesty spice or cool ranch or sour cream on them, they're *still* chips. they're not zucchini chips, or sweet potato crisps, or whatever, ya know? The problem is that the market tends to focus on chips, and assume nothing else will sell...

Wat do? 


The solution is simple. Readers have to step outside their comfort zones - unfortunately, the readers who might not even read this blog are the ones I'm addressing - and writers and publishers have to band together. There is definitely a need and an audience for diversity, and moreso, radical inclusion. People often talk about 'not seeing colour', which is an issue I won't even get into right now, and complain that they want stories that are 'normal', and aren't focused on 'identity politics'.

That's the most bitter irony of all - these stories exist, and they're fun and delightful. And yes, inequality issues do crop up in some of them, because of how those issues affect people's lived experiences - but a lot of the time, people across the ability, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality spectrum just want to have fun.

A transgender plus-sized psychic lady who talks with the dead to solve murder mysteries? Yes. A deaf Chinese-American engineer who discovers the secret to time travel and accidentally changes the course of history? Definitely. A love story featuring an asexual mobility-impaired Indian woman and a Zulu warrior king from an alternate world? Why not? 

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Monday, 17 July 2017

When to Say Goodbye: Finishing Things

Hello hello!

With recovery on the way and good changes starting to happen in my life, I managed to finish a draft of The Meaning Wars today (July 17th, as of the day I started working on this post). I'm sure some time will elapse before its publication, and the publication of the book, but it feels good to make forward momentum.

In my personal life, I recently finished a skirt pattern that's taken years - inspired by Katniss Everdeen's fire dress in The Hunger Games, making the triangular tiered fringe work was tricky as hell.




Of the Dungeons and Dragons and roleplay campaigns I'm currently playing, one is coming to a close, one is nearly done a major plot arc, with a character's death being very imminent, and yet another is about to begin.


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In the world of pop culture, the seventh season of Game of Thrones also started recently. I read spoilers, because George R.R. Martin seems to have no intention of finishing the books and I am curious about what happens to the characters. Meanwhile, The Doctor's 13th incarnation has been revealed as a Time Lady, and Ava DuVernay's vision of A Wrinkle in Time swept me off my feet. Just as importantly, The Adventure Zone podcast's final arc is in progress.

All of this is to say that I'm in a mood to finish things. With Instagram and fashion shoots putting me in a mood for summer adventures, I've been crafting and uploading beadwork for the first time in months and years.


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With that momentum, I had the courage to ask my readers how they felt about the change of monthly or biweekly blog posts rather than weekly blog posts (which haven't been happening, as astute readers may have noticed). I don't intend to end my blog, because I often have things to say and think about in public, but figuring out this admittedly more forgiving solution should make that easier.


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I am, however, thinking about new stories and new characters - which have only been alluded to in passing, and in private, with friends. Stories I have in my backburner files. My beadwork put me in a salvager mood, and made me want to work on my long-abandoned Nightmare Cycle. 


The Underlighters (The Nightmare Cycle Book 1) by [Browne, Michelle]


Now, I suppose there is a whole cycle of life thing one could go into here, but I'm still hoping that transhumanism will help me avoid having to die at all, so I'm going to dodge that particular topic. Regardless, a life has to be marked by periods of change and renewal, and it's impossible to get something new started without ending something else.

Maybe that means you, as a theoretical writer, gotta let go and write something inspired by a story rather than focused on the main characters of an arc. Maybe that means moving onto a new world and storyline altogether. But it's deeply important to let things end rather than sucking the joy and goodness out of them.

Even the deservedly maligned Supernatural is setting up a spin-off; the show is a living cautionary tale of how to ruin a story. While it can be scary to let go of characters, it's better than holding onto them forever, sucking out every drop of joy from them like a food dehydrator making meat into jerky, and wondering why the story is nothing but a dry, leathery husk of what it used to be.  It’s easy to hold onto a story past the completion of its plot arcs, resolutions, and conflicts, and introduce a million Complications and Plot McGuffins in order to stretch things out - but it’s easier still, in a way, to be honest and write ‘The End’ when the time comes.

So give yourself permission to finish that draft, writers. Give yourself permission to change something or re-schedule it if necessary, too. Don't worry about Making The Thing Good Enough. There are only so many revisions that can happen before a story goes from juicy grape to raisin of sadness. And the more you finish, the more you can do, and make, and be.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!



Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hey Queers, What the &$%#

Hello hello!

Well, it's Pride month, and I'm feeling a little feisty and punchy.

I'm a proud part of the Queer Sci Fi group on Facebook, and as many readers will know, I'm no stranger to writing about queer characters.

I was talking to a mentor of mine about something recently, and my dander's up. The problem is this. The lesbian stigma is absolutely real, and a problem. When seeking out books about queer characters, readers say they want f/f couples. But m/m books outsell f/f books handily, and so do stories with m/f 'straight' couples. (For those unacquainted, 'm/m' is 'male/male', 'f/f' is 'female/female', and yes, I realise that's very gender binary, but that's the industry right now.)

If a book has the most carefully designed and well-blurbed cover it can, and has all its marketing data lined up, at some point, this comes down to readers. It's no coincidence that m/m books on Queer Sci Fi make up the majority of titles.

As my mentor said,

#1. Go to teh LGBT subcat bestseller list- tally how many titles are which "branch" of LGBT. You can also just look at the LGBT subcats and note how many more MM titles there are than basically all the others combined.

I don't have an analytical article today - merely an admonishment and a call to arms. If you are a queer person who has publicly asked for f/f lit in the past, or even just privately wanted to read it - put your money where your mouth is! This year, seek out books about queer women. You can still buy m/m, I'm not going to tell anyone to stop doing something they like, but please support diversity within the LGBTIAPQ/QUILTPBAG community.

It's not that f/f books are 'too special' or 'too good' for mainstream readers. I know a lot of people - even people who have mainstream sexual and gender identities - who like stories about ladies in love. It would seem that although lesbians still get that ol 'pornographic' stigma, presentation of lady-lady or femme-femme love has not hit the mainstream.

So here's my request - whether you are an ally or a QUILTPBAG person, please share, talk about, and read f/f fiction this year. It will help those of us who love the stories get more of them, and push back against the unintentional but ingrained misogyny of the publishing industry.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Where did the Magpie Go?

Hello hello!

This has been an interesting year. And admittedly, my longest blog hiatus in three or four years of running this thing. What have I been doing, exactly?

  • Mostly working on editing projects. A lot of manuscripts. Like, a lot. 
  • Trying to fix my sleep schedule. (For a while, it was untenable and I felt awful. This happens regularly. Cross your fingers for my ability to keep the current track up.) 
  • Knitting and listening to podcasts on days off (or when focus eluded me). 
  • Helping my partner look for a job
  • Staring at my drafts folder and wondering if there's any point in posting, given the state of the world and the arts, and whether what I have to say still matters
  • Reading articles on Medium, especially from The Establishment, and cowering in fear at the state of American politics 
  • Resurrecting my editing site from the grave
  • Wrangling my biological family 


That about covers it. However, I'm working on a bunch of scheduled posts right now, so you can start checking on Sunday nights/Monday mornings for your usual dose of SciFiMagpie.

At least, that's the plan. In the meantime, reach out. Leave a comment, ask a question, let me know what you want to hear about. Let me know that you're reading! I've seen the page views, which have been surprisingly steady for years, so I know some of you are definitely having a look at my tiny blog.

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!
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