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Today’s guest is novelist, poet, and short fiction writer Beth Cato! Three of the books in her steampunk fantasy series have received nominations for various awards: The Clockwork Dagger was a Locus finalist for Best First Novel, The Clockwork Crown was an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist, and the novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone is a 2015 Nebula nominee. Her third novel, Breath of Earth, will be released in August of this year (and it sounds fantastic!).

Breath of Earth by Beth Cato Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato

The Healer as a Fighter
By Beth Cato

If I’m asked what superpower I’d like to possess, I won’t hesitate with my answer: the power to heal. It’s been my fervent wish since I was eleven years old as my grandpa died from a prolonged, terminal illness.

His death left a gaping hole within my family. I coped by descending into fantasy role-playing video games. I suddenly had a new dream job: white wizard. I could cast curing spells, wield an awesome long bow, and take out evil dudes. I found fantasy novels and the glorious realms of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As I engaged in gaming campaigns with friends, I always played the high priestesses, the clerics, the ones who kept the party alive amidst rampant teenage-style stupidity.

I read and read more fantasy novels. They were my happiness, my escape, amid my very unhappy teen years. I always searched for strong women like the me I saw in my dreams: the capable healer who can hold her own in any fight. I didn’t find her in any existing literature. It took me years to realize why.

Fantasy books used healers as characters, sure, but they were almost always sidekicks. An accessory to keep the big, bold male heroes alive. They couldn’t be main characters—they weren’t “fighters.”

Just like in role-playing video games, the healers were stuck in the back row in a fight. Their physical attacks were puny. They wore robes while the main heroes wore plate armor. They were often women; they needed to be coddled to survive.

Well, phooey on that.

TheClockworkDagger The Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato

When I resolved to start writing again as an adult, I decided to write the kind of heroine I always hoped to find. I wanted to bust the trope of the weakling female healer. I looked at the real world as my example—World War I front line nurses. You think they were physically weak? Heck no. Doing the medical ward laundry alone would burn more calories than any P90X workout. You think they didn’t know how to fight? They looked Death in the eye most every single day.

Compassion is strength. A healer must be competent. They must keep their wits in a crisis. They need the strength to drag a comatose body off a battlefield. They need to think of strategy in terms of supplies and shelter and food—as battlefield commanders in their own little world.

Those are the traits of a lead character. That’s why I wrote Octavia Leander as I did in my Clockwork Dagger novels. She’s only twenty-two, but she has almost a decade of experience on the frontlines. She’s ignorant of the “real world,” sure, but she’s darn good at her job and can heal a person through magic or basic know-how.

In writing Octavia, I delved past my own Mary Sue healer fantasies to form a heroine who works miracles with a satchel of herbs and the power of faith. Octavia became a savvy fighter who doesn’t need plate mail and a big sword to take down the bad guys. She cares about people. She would save everyone, if she could. To me, that compassion is the greatest superpower anyone could wish for.

Beth Cato Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE is a Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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Today’s guest is io9.com editor-in-chief and award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders. Her recently released fantasy/science fiction novel All the Birds in the Sky has been garnering fantastic reviews, and I’m looking forward to reading it myself—especially after being completely enchanted by what I did read when I took a peek at the first chapter! She’s also written the Lambda Literary Award-winning fiction novel The Choir Boy and numerous short stories, including the compelling Hugo Award-winning novelette “Six Months, Three Days” (which can be read online!).

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders

Yoda Was Wrong: Anger Leads to EVERYTHING GOOD
By Charlie Jane Anders

Yoda

Yoda is my homie and he’s usually right about almost everything. I mean, he made some mistakes in the prequels and stuff, and he clearly has some major blindspots. The Jedi were more or less dismantled on his watch, going from a force to be reckoned with to two old guys, one of whom was a guy who had the cunning notion of disguising himself by changing his first name to “Ben.” Where was I? Oh yeah, Yoda—generally right about stuff, mostly.

But there’s one thing I especially disagree with, among Yoda’s teachings. And that’s when Yoda says that fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate and hate leads to the Dark Side—like there’s just one glide path of emotion. Like, fear can’t occasionally just lead to crushing up a xanax and sprinkling it on a gingerbread man, and then watching Bridezillas reruns until you pass out.

And as an author of speculative fiction, who is constantly groping towards emotional truth and story-telling inspiration, anger leads to everything good. If there’s a single emotion that can bring as much juicy goodness as anger, I don’t know what it is.

Dex-Starr
Dex-Starr knows what time it is.

The main benefits of anger are in story creation, character development, worldbuilding. But really, there are so many benefits, and we could be here all day listing them.

Like take story creation—the most interesting story ideas often start off with being pissed off about something. Like Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes, who was pissed about getting a big tax audit and ended up writing “The Sunmakers,” a whole story set in the future on Pluto, where people are literally taxed to death.

It’s kind of a cliche to say that the best comedy comes out of anger, but it’s totally true nonetheless. Just imagine if Yoda had said, “anger leads to hilarious stand-up.”

But then there’s the role of anger in creating memorable characters. A character who feels passionate about things is often way more interesting than someone who is totally mellow and lets everything slide. A hero (or villain) who is pissed off, and wants to do something about it, is almost always a recipe for an interesting time. And when you know what makes your hero angry, you also know what she loves and wants to protect, and what she really wants. Getting a handle on that anger is the first step towards opening up all the other emotions, from tenderness to sadness.

And then there’s worldbuilding. Any world with deep roots will have injustice and mistreatment in its past. You don’t build a great towering society without screwing someone over—usually, lots of people, in fact. Find out who’s angry at your fictional society, and you’re halfway to figuring out how things really work, and how they got that way.

You can fake all sorts of things in your writing. Handwavium is the most valuable substance in the universe. But you can’t fake passion—you have to make it real, on the page, and infuse your story and your characters with it, no matter what. You can’t count on joy, or sunshine and light, or kindness. But anger will always be your best friend.

Suck it, Yoda.

Charlie Jane Anders
Photo Credit: Tristan Crane
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, the extraordinarily popular Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was subsequently picked up for development into a NBC television series. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

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Today’s guest is Stephanie Burgis, author of a variety of speculative fiction short stories and the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy. Her first historical fantasy novel for adults, Masks and Shadows, will be published next week (and is one of this year’s book releases I’m most excited about—it sounds fantastic!). It will shortly be followed by her second historical fantasy novel for adults, Congress of Secrets, which also sounds wonderful and is scheduled for release later this year!

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis A Most Improper Magick by Stephanie Burgis

For Fantasy Café’s “Women in SF&F” month, I wanted to write a very important thank you note to the women who first showed me the way into this field.

Because here’s the thing: it never once occurred to me, as a teenaged girl, that I might not be able to write f/sf because of my gender. That would have sounded bizarre to me. I would have laughed if anyone had even suggested it.

But I’ve come to understand, as an adult, just how lucky that made me. Women in earlier generations didn’t have all those established examples to follow, and several of them have talked movingly in recent years about just how hard it felt to push forward with their dreams when every other name on the shelf seemed to be male–when there were no obvious examples to follow.

Representation matters to all of us. It matters hugely.

I grew up loving fantasy more than anything else, and yes, my first introduction to the genre came with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (which I still love) and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books…but by the time I was a teenager, male fantasy authors weren’t actually making up the bulk of my reading anymore. No, I was devouring Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Patricia McKillip’s The Changeling Sea, and every other book those two authors had writtenand I still remember the moment when I discovered Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, as a freshman in high school, and realized: Ohhhh. That’s what I want to write. I want to be a fantasy author!

Beauty by Robin McKinley The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip War for the Oaks by Emma Bull Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr

And why wouldn’t I be? My favorite authors were all writing fantasy, after all…and at that point in my life, my favorite authors all happened to be women. When I discovered Judith Tarr’s historical fantasy novels a year later, I even found wonderful examples of exactly the kind of fantasy I most wanted to write.

So it’s been interesting, during these last few years, to be witness to a lot of serious, important conversations behind the scenes among women fantasy authors, debating whether or not we ought to let our gender be guessed by our author names and the pronouns we use in our author bios.

The truth is, there are so many good reasons why it would be smarter and more sensible for women authors to disguise our gender with initials, even now. I’ve heard horror stories about long-time fantasy fans who won’t even pick up a book if they know that a woman wrote it. In terms of sales (which–let’s face it–means in terms of professional survival), a neutral gender–or a fake male name–is a smart decision for any woman author in this field. So I fully support every woman who chooses to make that decision. Solidarity!

But every time I hear another iteration of this debate, I can’t help remembering that feeling of being a teenaged girl, devouring all those female-authored fantasy books just when I was first deciding what to aim for as a writer…and I imagine how differently that would have gone, if so many of my favorite books hadn’t had female names on their covers and female pronouns in their author bios.

I imagine the extra emotional hurdles I would have had to jump, if those women hadn’t taken the risk before me of letting the world know their gender when they published their books.

So: thank you, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Emma Bull, and Judith Tarr. I loved your books then, I love them now, and I’m so grateful that you took that risk for me and every other fantasy-loving girl reader/writer out there.

Thank you.

Stephanie Burgis Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, but now lives in Wales with her husband and two sons, surrounded by mountains, castles and coffee shops. She has published over thirty short stories for adults and teens, as well as an MG Regency fantasy trilogy. Her first two historical fantasy novels for adults, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets, will be published by Pyr Books in April and November 2016. To find out more, please visit her website: www.stephanieburgis.com

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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author Fonda Lee! Her recently released debut novel Zeroboxer, a young adult science fiction book whose main protagonist is a zero gravity fighter, is a 2015 Andre Norton Award nominee and a Junior Library Guild selection for 2015. It will be joined by her second book (also science fiction!) in 2017.

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee

Yes, I Write “Boy Books.” No, I Don’t Have a Male Pen Name.

Let me begin by saying that I hold a special fury in my heart for the unrelenting gender assigning of books, media, and toys. In a myriad of insidious ways, young people are told that only certain types of characters and stories are for boys and others are for girls.

I resented it as a child, when I was that little girl who wanted Transformers and Ninja Turtles toys that society and my classmates told me in no kind terms were “for boys.” I resent it now, as a mother, when my daughter’s birthday present haul consists of half a dozen variations on “make your own jewelry” kits even though she loves science and Star Wars. And I resent it as an author, hearing about authors like Shannon Hale, who has had school visits in which only girls were allowed to come hear her talk about her books, which are “for girls.”

I write books that I’m told are “for boys.” Science fiction and fantasy with loads of fighting. Stories about prizefighters, soldiers, gangsters. Magic and weapons and martial arts. Romance is usually there as a sub plot, but come on, no one reads my books to get their romance kick. My novels published so far have had male protagonists. Zeroboxer featured combat sports in space. My next YA novel is about bio-enhanced soldiers fighting terrorists on an Earth governed by aliens. I worship prose that’s straightforward and crisp and delivers smart, propulsive action. If you were to open my creative brain, you’d see one continuous film festival playing movies like The Matrix and Minority Report and Mad Mad: Fury Road and Kill Bill. So yeah. “Boy books.”

Except that I’m not a boy. Never been one neither. I’m a grown woman, a mom, and a minority at that. And I’ve faced more than a few occasions when I’ve been questioned by others, or have secretly wondered myself, if I’ll be “allowed” to succeed in writing what I love to write.

The first questions came before my debut novel was published, when well meaning friends and a few fellow authors asked, “So are you going to use a male pen name?”

I hadn’t thought to use a male or gender neutral pen name. In all my dreams of becoming a published author, I’d always envisioned my own name on the cover of my books. They were my books, dammit. They’d have my name on the spine. But doubt crept in.

“JK Rowling used a gender neutral pseudonym,” people reminded me. Her publisher thought that boys would be less likely to want to read a book written by a woman. Here I was, writing young adult novels meant to appeal to teenage boys. (Not only them, of course, but they were a core demographic.) Would some of my target readers pick up my book, go, “Cool, futuristic zero gravity prizefighting,” but then think, perhaps unconsciously, “Yeah, but it’s written by a chick. Probably full of fluff and romance. No thanks,” and put it back down?

The idea nagged at me. Infuriated me. Boys tend to read books about boys, written by men—that’s what statistics told me was true. But was the societal prejudice so strong that I was shooting myself in the foot by not hiding my gender from my readers? Did boys read books written by male authors simply because more male authors tended to write the types of action adventure stories that appealed to them? (The exact same sorts of stories that I wanted to write?) Did they not believe a woman could write convincingly from a male point of view? Had the idea been so strongly engrained that women wrote for girls, and men for boys, that seeing a female author’s name or photo on a book automatically led to snap judgments at the point of purchase about the sort of stories and characters one could expect to find within the covers?

Should I try to change that perception, or give into it?

“You’re going to have a challenge,” a film producer told me at a writing conference. He’d read Zeroboxer. “You have a very masculine writing style. This’ll do great with teenage boys. But it’s published as YA. Boys don’t read YA.” I was told that more than once. Boys don’t read YA because YA is filled with female writers who write about female protagonists.

I didn’t know which assumption to be more discouraged by: the idea that boys aren’t interested in reading female writers or protagonists, or the idea that girls wouldn’t like a book about punching people in space just as much as boys would.

I didn’t take a male pen name.

Maybe I’m underestimating the force of gender prejudice. Maybe I’m losing sales. Who knows. Everyone knows JK Rowling is a woman and it hasn’t hurt the appeal of Harry Potter to people of all genders and ages. SE Hinton, who wrote the The Outsiders in 1967, probably wouldn’t have seen as much success if “Susan Hinton” was blazed across one of the most quintessential YA male coming of age novels of all time. Maybe we’re past that time now. Maybe we’re not.

In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to obscure my gender. I like the idea of teenage boys reading and enjoying my books and realizing that a woman can write “boy books”–whatever that means. And I like the idea of girls who are drawn to the sorts of things I was drawn to as a girl (killer robots! ninjas! superheroes! spaceships! more freaking ninjas!) to see me standing up in author presentations and know that they can love and write whatever the hell they want to.

And they’re my books, dammit. My name.

Fonda Lee Fonda Lee is the author of the Andre Norton nominated novel Zeroboxer (Flux/Llewellyn, April 2015). Her second book will be released by Scholastic in spring 2017. A recovering corporate strategist, when she is not writing, she can be found training in kung fu or searching out tasty breakfasts. Born and raised in Canada, Fonda now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.

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Just as Women in SF&F Month has become an annual tradition, so has beginning the month of guest posts with one written by Renay! She’s one of several editors of the excellent site Lady Business, which I highly recommend visiting if you’re interested in discussion of speculative fiction in a variety of forms (including books, television, movies, games, and fanwork). Renay also writes articles for Strange Horizons, co-hosts Fangirl Happy Hour, and co-edited Speculative Fiction 2014: The Year’s Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary—and she came up with the idea for the ongoing Favorite SF&F Books by Women Project that you’ve perhaps seen linked in the sidebar of this site!

Lady Business

Welcome back to Women in Science Fiction & Fantasy Month! Once again Kristen is taking time out of her schedule to run this event and bring us some great essay writing, cool giveaways, and lots of recommendations. Thanks again, Kristen! ♥ As always, I’m extremely excited for this year’s event, because it involves one of my favorite pastimes: making lists! But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

The genre community I knew when Kristen started this project has changed dramatically. Sometimes I look around and see the conversations about gender, gender identity, gender bias, and more, breaking the binary all over the place and go, “We’ve come so far. Wow. WOW.” Because I can’t imagine back in 2013 having a frank discussion about genderqueer or trans issues I see now in some of the spaces I do without it sinking like a stone or it becoming a sentient Don’t Read the Comments monster. So I’m proud of us because undoing decades of cultural biases is hard, slow, and constant work. We still have a long way to go, but we’re carving a new groove for ourselves and that’s excellent. Good work, team!

As the community matured in how we discuss gender, other issues have cropped up, too. The problem with focusing on women in genre is that it can entrench the idea of a binary: a genre often historically defined by men becomes defined by women (often white women). And then we lose our ability to see marginalized genders and they become silenced and erased, which is the opposite of what we want to accomplish as we boost women’s voices.

This all came to me in a big rush earlier this month when I sat down to plan what I was going to say during this opening post. This year I launched my most intense reading challenge yet. I was going to read 100 unique women writers who I had never read before, as long as the work was longer than 7500 words or collected in a trade comic/graphic novel. One week in, someone happened to ask me if I was only reading cisgender women, or if trans women counted and it brought me up short. I hadn’t really thought about it and in not thinking about it I had created a situation of accidental erasure. It brought up other questions about if people didn’t identify as women or men and then I went down a rabbit hole of gender that tangled me up for a few days.

I decided that as long as I was aware of what I was doing I would read women writers who identified as women as part of my challenge. I would be very careful to not misgender anyone and include them by mistake, to ask questions when I was confused instead of assuming, and to respect boundaries if authors didn’t wish to disclose on their social media or to me personally if I happened to ask. I decided to be mindful of chances I had to read other marginalized genders, even if they didn’t count toward the challenge. It became a bit like an unofficial sub-challenge and it’s been working out great so far. Now that I’m aware of the issue, I’m more likely to check and see if someone of a marginalized gender has work that looks up my alley because it’s on my mind. A little awareness goes a long way and it’s not that much work at all to fold them into my inclusive reading practices that already exist.

I came away from the examination of my project confident that women-only events are still worthwhile, especially in a noisy genre environment that can still and often does erase us. It’s okay to carve our space and time and energy for those of us who identify as women, love women writers, and are women writers. Focusing on our interests doesn’t necessarily mean having to accept a gender binary. Instead it gives us the opportunity to think about women and beyond, to challenge ourselves and our biases still caught up in binary thinking about gender, and to stay aware of the voices and perspectives we’re reading.

What I’ve learned from the communities of women I’ve grown up inside and surrounded myself with is that we’re good at celebrating ourselves, but we also have hella skills in celebrating each other. Which brings me back to my favorite pastime: lists! I love a good list. “She loved recommendation lists. A LOT.” — my tombstone, probably. For several years now Kristen and I have been asking readers to step up and recommend 10 SFF novels by women writers you love and this year is no different, with some slight adjustments and a challenge!

All the recommendations submitted last year are live on the 2015 List with the authors and books and the number of recommendations they received1. It’s a great list and we’re grateful to everyone who took the time to submit recs. To change the game up a bit, though, this year we’d like you to think back over the past year or so and the books by women writers you read. Choose the ten you loved best and submit those books specifically. They can be old or new. If you’re a busy or slow reader, it’s okay to go back a little further if you need to, but the more recent, the better. You can submit them at this link, with our thanks! And don’t worry if they’re already there; the fun of the project is watching the numbers grow year to year! 🙂

And as for the challenge: after you recommend the books you’ve loved recently by women writers, think about looking up some SFF by marginalized genders. Google for some rec lists, or if you know of authors, leave their names in the comments with some of their work (but don’t out anyone who isn’t ready!) so other readers can find them. There’s a quote that I see go around Twitter sometimes. It’s always unattributed but as far as I can tell it comes from Mary Church Terrell, and the version I see says, “Lift as you climb.” As women carve out a place in genre spaces formerly occupied and dominated by men to celebrate ourselves, I’m convinced we have to make this concept something we center as we move forward in order to clear a path to inclusiveness for all, along as many intersections as possible. Celebrate women and celebrate the marginalized genders who often are left out of projects where the binary could be engaged and the gender spectrum left behind, even in a positive way.

Lift as you climb. It’s a pretty cool concept.

So go forth and recommend the women writers who have most recently written amazing science fiction and fantasy flavored things that you loved! And be sure to discover new perspectives and new writers along the gender spectrum, too! It’s a big, literary world out there. Have fun making your list and enjoy all the amazing content about and from women writers that you’ll see over the next month!

1 Like previous years, we removed obvious duplicates, books by cisgender men, and other non-SFF titles from the received submissions before we uploaded the final list. Since we are tracking entries by IP address, there were some rare cases in which entries were removed due to brigade voting. As always, if you see errors, or if we’ve misgendered someone, feel free to let us know and we’ll fix it. 🙂

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Women in SF&F Month guest posts begin tomorrow, and I’m very excited about it! Without further ado, here is the schedule for the first full week of the month:

Women in SF&F Week 1

April 4: Renay (Lady Business)
April 5: Fonda Lee (Zeroboxer)
April 6: Stephanie Burgis (Masks and Shadows; Kat, Incorrigible Series)
April 7: Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky, “Six Months, Three Days”)
April 8: Beth Cato (Breath of Earth, Clockwork Dagger Series)
April 9: Book Giveaway