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Today’s guest is fantasy writer Tessa Gratton! She is the author of several young adult fantasy novels, including Strange Grace, the books in the Blood Journals series, and the books in the United States of Asgard series. She has also published short fiction, including the stories “Beast/Beast” and “This Was Ophelia,” and she’s a writer for Tremontaine, a collaborative serial prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series. Her first adult fantasy novel, The Queens of Innis Lear, was just released in paperback—and it will be followed by another Shakespeare-inspired companion novel, Lady Hotspur, early next year!

Lady Hotspur Cover The Queens of Innis Lear Paperback Cover

Death and the Fantasist

When my mom died last October, I tried to write a normal eulogy. The drafts were fine, but I’m a professional writer. I thought I should do better then fine for her. All my best work is fantasy, so I tried fantasy: I wrote little fairy tales about Mom, and even though she wasn’t really a dragon or a queen or a garden witch, the stories were still true.

Once upon a time, a ferocious dragon made herself into a beautiful, clever woman in order to live a mortal’s life. She was passionate and eager to learn everything about people, about the world, and still as ferocious as ever, always ready to argue her cause, stand firm for what she believed in, but willing to change, too, when faced with equally passionate argument and evidence. As you know, the only way to kill a dragon is to find its heart, and so as dragons often do, this woman took out her heart and divided it into pieces, hiding shards inside her children, her husband, her family, and friends. Weakened by human mortality, the dragon’s fire burned up, and she died. But her heart remained hidden inside a hundred other hearts, and no other dragon has ever found a better resting place.


This is a true story, too:

I had vivid nightmares as a kid, and Mom told me to imagine a hero to help me out when I was afraid. “They’re your dreams, your brain is doing it, so put your brain in charge.” She recommended Superman or Princess Leia as excellent fellow monster-slayers. It worked. I don’t know if I believed her so completely that I learned to lucid dream, or if I’d have been able to do it regardless. The result was I grew up remembering my dreams, and often was aware that I was dreaming. I could usually wake myself up from a nightmare, or change it if I was having a strong-willed night, or if I woke from a good dream I could slip right back into it. I taught myself to fly at least once a month.

Since Mom died, and for a few months beforehand, I’ve been too tired and sad for vivid dreams, or to remember them. My dreams lately are impressions and flashes and feelings, without storylines or the extravagant world-building I’m used to. Then early in March I dreamed about a murder mountain (don’t ask) and at one point I was in the car with Mom, strategizing how to save a bunch of people.

I suddenly realized I was dreaming and that when I woke up Mom would be dead.

I wanted to stay asleep forever. I wanted to talk to her about everything I’ve been trying to do since she died, I wanted to ask if she was ok. Of course I woke up almost immediately.

If this was a fairy tale, the story would go like this:

Once upon a time a beautiful, clever woman taught her only daughter a magic spell to transform dreams into reality. The daughter used her power for good (mostly), and became a great, wandering storyteller, until the day her mother died, and the power vanished. The daughter was afraid, grieving, and didn’t know who to be without her magic. But one night her mother came to her in a dream and handed the power back, saying, “It was yours all along, we only shared it.”

Jo Gratton Photo
Jo Gratton at the Army-Navy Game in 1979

Last year my debut adult fantasy novel was published. The Queens of Innis Lear is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and is about how a mother’s death can leave a wound raw enough to ruin families, kingdoms, and magic itself.

I wrote it because I’ve been frustrated with the play for twenty years. There’s no motherhood in the play whatsoever. Lear’s wife is never mentioned, and we don’t know if his three daughters have the same mother, different mothers, or ever knew her. The two eldest daughters are demonized by Lear for being childless themselves.

In writing Queens, I wanted to deconstruct how a lack of concern for motherhood and care-taking, and the devaluing of women’s relationships, directly creates toxic patriarchy. It’s a fantasy novel because magic is such a useful tool for metaphorically pointing at our society’s problems—I’ve always been a believer in reading and writing speculative fiction as one of our most important methods for asking the right questions of our world.

I wrote Queens before my mom even got sick. I cannot imagine what that book would be if I tried to write it now, or during her illness.


When people ask why I write what I write, I used to easily respond that I write to change the world. Stories, even—no especially—speculative stories, can deconstruct oppression and fight imperialist thinking, they can ask questions with language people don’t always have in the real world. Stories changed me and I’ve always found power there.

So I used to write to change the world.

I meant it, and still do I guess, except that when I think about changing the world, right now there is only one thing I’d use all my power to change: I’d make more time for my mom.

That’s impossible, and selfish, and Mom disapproved of selfishness more than anything else. But some days I don’t care about helping others, or compassion, or making the world better, because the world was fundamentally diminished when she died. I was diminished. Even if the world can get better, it will never get back what we lost when we lost her.

I wonder, why do I write in this lesser world?


Since 2011 I’ve had six young adult fantasy novels published. YA fantasy is where I laid the foundations of my career, and if you’re anywhere near it, you’ve probably heard people discussing the trouble with parents.

That trouble being: parents are frequently written out or killed in a lot of children’s literature. Both because of the traditions of Western fairy tales that so strongly inform the genre, and the practical necessity of getting Mom and Dad out of the way so kids can have adventures. Of course there are many amazing children’s and teen books with active parents, and authors frequently find ways to engage with living, active parental relationships—it’s just that the trouble with parents is something every author has to think about a lot.

Of my YA fantasies, there are ten main point of view characters. In four of the books one of the main characters’ mothers is dead before the book begins. In a fifth, one of the main characters’ moms dies before the end. There are three absent, though living, moms who abandoned their child for a variety of reasons (destiny, fear, shame). Only two of my ten main characters could possibly be said to have good moms, and of those, one is the aforementioned mom who dies by the end of the book. Taken as a pattern it’s not a good look, and I joked when I was writing Strange Grace that I wanted to put in the acknowledgement, “And hey, Mom, I finally managed a book where no moms die!” but it was not to be, alas.

That said, I never truly worried about it, focusing instead on individual books and characters and what that story alone needed.

Until my mom was dying.

Now I think about it all the time.

Mostly I think about what I got right and what I got wrong, and how different the experience of losing your mother must be at sixteen than it is at thirty-eight. I think about where to put motherhood, how to engage with mothering and care-taking through teenage relationships, and I realize again and again that even though mothers specifically are absent, most of my YA books engage with found families, with learning to make relationships, build communities, and fighting to make the world better. My mom, at least, has influenced my work in ways I had never considered before.

I still don’t know who to be without her, but I think I know what she’d want me to strive for.

Once upon a time, there was a daughter. When she was a child, her mother gave her a spell to let her control her dreams. But when her mother died, the power vanished. The daughter wandered, dreamless, powerless, because there was nothing to do except keep moving. Keep stumbling forward, keep acting, keep being. And as she explored the dark world, finding sharp edges, perils, and the new shape of the shadows, she slowly realized she was sad, but not afraid, because she remembered the sound of the spell and the curve of her mother’s smile. She thought maybe—maybe—she could rediscover her power simply by trying to use it.


When I started to work on my 2020 adult fantasy in 2017, Lady Hotspur, I knew it needed a lot of moms in it. It’s a companion novel to The Queens of Innis Lear and is based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part i, with the characters shifted heavily or completely toward women on the gender spectrum. The play itself is about a prince and his relationship with his father, the king, and with his mentor, a clownish old knight. It’s about reputation and who crafts such a thing, about how we tell stories about ourselves and our relationships, and how those things make us vulnerable or strong, because our enemies can tell stories, too, and we can lie to ourselves. Here are some amazing facts: At the start of Lady Hotspur, nearly everybody’s mom is alive! Nearly everybody’s mom is active in their lives! Better yet, a lot of moms survive the whole book! And it begins with a mother coming home from exile and making herself a queen.

I was about ten thousand words into the first draft when Mom was diagnosed with Stage IV uveal melanoma. This is a disease with a 85% attrition rate in five years. Mom made it about eighteen months.

My writing was given a terrible new urgency, because more than any other book, this one is about me and my mom. It describes and deconstructs our relationship, which has been amazing, terrible, easy, impossible—so many things, because like her I am strong-willed and opinionated. She taught me to fight for what I believe in, that science can lead us to God, that we are here to make the world better, and to marry my best friend. Sometimes, our ideas about what would make the world better clashed, and we argued heatedly. I stopped caring about God, which was traumatizing for both of us. She didn’t expect me to literally marry my best girl friend, so we fought about that, too, for a while. But because neither of us forgot that one of the things we believed in and therefore had to fight for was each other, we came through it and for the last fifteen years my mom was one of my best friends.

Lady Hotspur is about queens and lady knights, about generational trauma, about building a system that is better than the last, where maybe choosing love can literally reshape the landscape (because magic is real). It’s a fantasy with monsters and war and blood magic and wizards, because those are the tools I use to tell a true story.

The dedication has been there since the first draft.

I wanted to show her in a finished copy, but I didn’t finish in time. The week before she died, I was alone with her and Dad in her hospital room, and I knew I couldn’t wait. I pulled the manuscript up on my phone and showed her the dedication page, but she couldn’t really read anymore. So I read it to her, after a few shaky attempts.

For my mom: you didn’t need to be a queen to make the world better.

Outside, it might have been beautiful or storming, there might have been busses rushing past or crows yelling, and in the hallway the hospital moved along with its regular business, which can be surprisingly loud. But inside the room, we were quiet.

Mom managed to say, “I’m sorry I’ll never get to read it.”

I whispered back, “That’s ok, you’re already inside every page.”


Tessa Gratton Photo
Tessa Gratton is the author of Tor Books adult SFF The Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur, as well as several YA series and short stories, most recently the original fairy tale Strange Grace from McElderry Books. Though she’s lived all over the world, she’s returned to her prairie roots in Kansas with her wife. She is the associate director of Madcap Retreats and worked as the Lead Writer for Serial Box Publishing’s project Tremontaine. Visit her at tessagratton.com.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Before announcing the schedule for week three (which starts tomorrow!), here’s some information on where you can find anything you may have missed.

All of the guest posts from April 2019 can be found here, and in last week’s guest posts:

At the beginning of this month, Renay discussed history, SFF fandom, and lists—and introduced the latest version of the recommendations list of science fiction and fantasy books written by women. She also issued an invitation to add more books by women writers that you loved this month so the list continues to grow. (If you already added some favorites to the list last April, you can add up to 10 SFF books by women you discovered over the last year—and thank you so much to everyone who has recommended books for the list!)

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2019 continues with guest posts by:

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April 15: Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear, Lady Hotspur, Strange Grace)
April 16: Elizabeth Fitzgerald (Earl Grey Editing, Skiffy and Fanty)
April 17: SL Huang (Zero Sum Game, Null Set, “Hunting Monsters”)
April 18: Alix E. Harrow (The Ten Thousand Doors of January)
April 19: Sara (Fantasy Inn)

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Jenna Glass! She writes young adult speculative fiction (Nightstruck, Replica, Faeriewalker), urban fantasy (The Gifted, Nikki Glass, Morgan Kingsley), and paranormal romance (Guardians of the Night) as Jenna Black. Her newly released first epic fantasy novel, The Women’s War, is described as being set in a world in which “a revolutionary spell gives women the ability to control their own fertility—with consequences that rock their patriarchal society to its core.”


During Women’s History Month, I wrote this list of some of my favorite books with especially wonderful heroines. Each one is strong in her own way, even if she’s not the type to beat up the bad guys.

Mercy Thompson: Moon Called Cover Alpha and Omega: Cry Wolf Cover

I love both the Mercy Thompson and the Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. There are a lot of strong female protagonists in urban fantasy, but what I love best about Mercy and Anna is that they manage to be heroic despite being physically outgunned practically all the time. They triumph through wit and strategy and courage rather than through brute force.

Archangel Cover

Archangel by Sharon Shinn. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I love that the heroine, Rachel, is a deeply flawed and damaged human being. It’s a difficult proposition in our culture to create a truly likeable, angry heroine, but Shinn manages to do that with Rachel. So many romantic stories feature tortured and angry heroes, but this one successfully flips that trope on its ear.

The Cruel Prince Cover The Wicked King Cover

The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King by Holly Black.
This is another series that does a great job of creating a flawed heroine and making it easy to root for her anyway. Jude is ambitious, which is a trait that is often made to seem unattractive in girls and women. There are times her ambition—and sense of self-preservation—cause her to make questionable decisions, but I love her anyway and can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Host Cover

The Host by Stephenie Meyer. In this one, you get two epic fantasy heroines in one body! Both Melanie (the human) and Wanda (the alien who inhabits her body) are epic in their own, beautifully contrasting ways. Melanie is bold and brave and physically heroic, while Wanda is submissive and compassionate and self-sacrificing. Together, they make a great (if uncomfortable) team.

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The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin. I love all of Jemisin’s books, but Hanani is probably my favorite heroine. I love watching her journey from timid and uncertain apprentice to strong, self-assured woman. I also love how she continually defies the roles society attempts to impose on her.


Jenna Glass Photo Jenna Glass wrote her first book—an “autobiography”—when she was in the fifth grade. She began writing in earnest while in college and proceeded to collect a dizzying array of rejections for her first seventeen novels. Nevertheless, she persisted, and her eighteenth novel became her first commercial sale. Within a few years, Glass became a full-time writer, and she has never looked back. She has published more than twenty novels under various names. The Women’s War marks her first foray into epic fantasy.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Samantha Shannon! Her internationally bestselling debut novel, The Bone Season, is the first book in a series with the same name as its opening installment. Her latest book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, is a New York Times bestselling standalone epic fantasy novel with dragons and one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen (also featuring dragons!).

The Priory of the Orange Tree Cover

Epic fantasy is the genre where everything plays out on the grandest of scales. This is a realm of sprawling lands, of ancient feuds, of conflicts that could save or end the world. In this genre, a writer needs to think big.

Yet a paracosm—an invented world—is something like a tapestry. No matter how vast it is, it’s made up of a multitude of threads. It’s in these threads—in the fine details—that a picture, or a story, comes to life. Even as we think big, we must also think small. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my inspirations for some of the little details in my latest novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree.


The sinister bird

One detail that crops up in Priory is the eerietale of the sorrower—a bird that makes a sound like a baby just as it begins to cry. Disgraced alchemist Niclays views the sorrower as a symbol of his life in exile: ‘The whisper that never quite turned into a scream. The wait for a blow that never came.’ Many people on the island of Seiiki believe these dark-winged birds to be possessed by the spirits of stillborn children, and fear that their song can bring on a miscarriage. This has caused the sorrower to be sporadically hunted throughout Seiikinese history. The hic-hic-hic is rumoured to have driven one empress mad with frustration as she searched for a baby she could never find. It’s a chilling story that would never have occurred to me without a real-life inspiration.

In July 2017, I visited Japan to conduct some on-site research for Priory, since Seiiki is loosely based on Edo Japan during its period of sakoku (鎖国 ‘chained country’). On the day I arrived, I decided to shake off the jetlag right away and visit Ōsaka Castle. As I walked back to my hotel through the heat of the summer afternoon, I passed a line of trees and heard a sound. To this day it remains difficult to describe, but the closest I can get to a comparison is the sound of a grizzling baby.

There was no baby to be seen on that street. No one around at all, in fact. A moment later, a dark-coloured bird fluttered past, and the sound ceased. Every hair on my arms stood on end.

To this day, I have no idea what species of bird flew past me, or if the sound even came from a bird. I’ve wondered if I experienced an auditory hallucination—acoustic aura has occasionally been reported in people who suffer from migraines, as I do. Whatever I heard in Ōsaka that day, I remembered to scribble a description of the sound in the notebook I’d brought with me to Japan, and as soon as I got back to London, I spun that strange experience into the story of the sorrower.


The cruel mountains

In the acknowledgements of The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thank my mum for inspiring me to build the world as high as it was wide. It’s because of her that The Priory of the Orange Tree has mountains with names and distinct characters.

About six months before I finished editing Priory, my mum became fascinated by Mount Everest. She gobbled up documentaries, films and books about the highest mountain on Earth and the people who have lost their lives on it. Once she’d exhausted every resource on Everest, she was on to learning about K2, Dhaulagiri, and the other Himalayan peaks that spear into the so-called Death Zone. Past 25000 feet, in freezing conditions and with limited oxygen, the human body starts to die. The blood runs thick, the heart struggles, and the mind clouds.

My mum’s interests tend to be catching. Before long, I was just as curious about these snow-capped peaks and the impossible risks people take to reach their summits. They seem undaunted by the deep-frozen bodies that have lain for years in the snow—bodies that serve as warnings, as reminders of the danger. ‘The mountains are calling and I must go,’ as John Muir once said. All this inspired me to introduce an event in the backstory of Tané of Ampiki, one of the four narrators in Priory.

Mount Tego, which most closely resembles K2 in terms of appearance and difficulty, is the tallest of the Seiikinese mountains. Steep and brutal, it has shaped and claimed many lives over thousands of years. Apprentices like Tané, who hope to be dragonriders, are challenged to climb to its summit. Should they succeed, they are said to be rewarded by the spirit of Kwiriki, the Great Dragon Elder, who will descend from the celestial plane to meet them.

A mountain climb made perfect sense to me as a test of endurance and commitment for prospective riders. It prompted me to consider the toll of dragonriding on the human body. During one journey, Tané eats cuts of ginger root to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness and suffers from the ‘sun quake’ when her dragon crosses a desert, leaving her exposed to the elements for days. I use her successful ascent of Mount Tego to demonstrate her sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed in the face of incredible odds. Aged seventeen, Tané, ‘tattered and wind-torn’ and coughing up blood, places her hand on the summit. She is the only apprentice from the South House to do this. Despite being born in extreme poverty, orphaned as a child, and taunted for her background, she alone conquers the mountain.

My interest in the Death Zone also inspired me to create a mountain range called the Lords of Fallen Night, which marks the northern border of the Empire of the Twelve Lakes. Most of these mountains are at least as massive as Everest, and Brhazat—the queen of all mountains— is almost twice its size.


The witch’s lament

One of the characters in Priory is a mysterious enchantress named Kalyba, who originates in the mythos of Saint George and the Dragon. I re-imagine her as a more active and complicated figure in Priory, which approaches the legend from a feminist perspective. Around the middle of the book, Ead—another one of the narrators—pays a visit to the Bower of Eternity, where Kalyba resides, and hears the enchantress singing.

Min mayde of strore, I knut thu smal,
as lutil as mus in gul mede.
With thu in soyle, corn grewath tal.
In thu I hafde blowende sede.

In soyle I soweth mayde of strore
boute in belga bearn wil nat slepe.
Min wer is ut in wuda frore –
he huntath dama, nat for me.

The mayde of strore (‘maid of straw’) refers to the ancient practice of crafting corn mothers, or corn dollies. In pre-Christian Europe, these straw figures, which can take various shapes, were traditionally made from the last of the corn after a harvest. Once the crops had been reaped, the spirit of the corn, which was thought to reside in those crops, had nowhere to live for the winter. The corn dolly provided it with a home. This lovingly made idol would be kept safe until spring, when it would be returned to the soil.

In her song, Kalyba makes a corn dolly, but speaks of how a child will not sleep in her womb. Her backstory is deeply tied in to bloodlines, childbirth, and unrequited love. All of these themes appear in her lament.


Samantha Shannon Photo
Photo Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Samantha Shannon is the author of The Priory of the Orange Tree. She studied English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. The Bone Season, the first in a seven-book series, was a New York Times bestseller and the inaugural Today Book Club selection. Film and TV rights were acquired by the Imaginarium Studios. The Mime Order followed in 2015 and The Song Rising in 2017. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages. She lives in London.

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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer and Byzantine historian Arkady Martine! She has written short fiction and poetry for various publications such as Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer, and Mithila Review, including her stories “The Hydraulic Emperor,” “All the Colors You Thought Were Kings,” and “Ruin Marble.” And just a couple of weeks ago, her debut novel was released—A Memory Called Empire, a space opera and the first book in the Teixcalaan series!

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine Cover

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine—another woman with a debut science fiction novel coming out in the next year—spoke out on social media about the pernicious and awful reaction she’d had from some members in her community when she announced that she was pregnant: these people immediately asked her when she was planning on giving up her just-begun writing career. As if the very presence of a baby would automatically mean she wanted to stop writing. The righteous anger and the fear that I felt, when I read about her experience and her determination to be a mother and an author both, at the same time, has stuck with me. I keep thinking about how often women, especially creative women, especially creative women in a field which demands time commitment away from the realms of ‘day job’ and ‘housework’, are presented with this expectation that pregnancy and motherhood is a goal that wipes out all other goals. And about how that expectation both devalues creative work done by women—oh, it’s just a hobby, a little amusement before the proper work of being a mother begins—and devalues the work of motherhood, too. Because motherhood is work, and growing a human being inside a body is physical work of profound difficulty. The idea that all women are naturally—and please do imagine the scare-quotes around “naturally”—aspiring towards the ultimate state of pregnancy and motherhood, and that because it is ‘natural’ it is easy, is another kind of pernicious and awful.

I felt anger on my friend’s behalf, and on the behalf of every woman who decides to be a mother and a creator both: they deserve a better cultural narrative. And I also felt fear, because I am a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother…for many reasons, but amongst them is the terror of losing myself, my creative ability, my independence, and my physical health. This anger and this fear have been with me a long time. I found them as a young teenager, and I found them in science fiction, which is the genre I work in and the genre I read most often. Certainly, the genre that helped form my sense of narrative…including my narratives of motherhood. In my own recent debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, I found myself grappling with the problems of motherhood in science fiction, all despite my own intentions. I was writing a political thriller! My protagonist pretty much never thought about having a kid—she’s too busy trying to solve a murder and prevent the imperialist annexation of her home mining station! But so much of the novel turned on questions of inheritance—the inheritance of memory, of power, of culture, of genetics—that I quickly realized that I needed to think about parenthood. Of motherhood, specifically, because I was writing a culture where I wanted gender roles to be downplayed and mostly insignificant in terms of career paths and societal functioning.

And this meant I needed to think about pregnancy.

I think my first experience of motherhood narratives in science fiction was in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress—where I, age 12, was disturbed by how the heroine Wyoming Knott was so eager, at the end of the book, to have babies; as if she’d been waiting all along for the politics to be over so she could fulfil her deepest desires, hitherto mostly invisible to the reader, but somehow inevitable in the author’s imagination of How Women Worked. In general women in Heinlein novels have babies as often as they can, and they all like it, and they all find it easy, and they all want it as an end-state goal. Small me—queer, dubious about human beings, especially ones who you had to take care of all the time—found the whole concept profoundly alienating. If being one of Heinlein’s brilliant redheads meant desiring motherhood at a blood-deep level, then I wasn’t one, red hair and cleverness aside.

And then I found Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, and a whole different—if equally essentialist—conception of motherhood in science fiction. One which both made much more sense to me (of course if you could have a baby in an external womb you would! Pregnancy is hard, dangerous, and debilitating!) and kept bothering me…because, in the words of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, in the universe Bujold has constructed, all wealth is biological. Having children—continuing lines of genetics, which create lines of loyalty, networks of cousins and family that span planets and can, at times, stop wars—is a primary and necessary form of doing politics. And because women (in the Vorkosiverse—it’s far more complex in the world out here) are the ones who biologically produce children, even if they’re grown externally, there is an explicit linkage between being a woman and being involved in producing biological wealth. And this, too, I found alien. Not the politics of genetics and loyalty, those made sense to teenage me…but the idea that this was what women were for.

And yet, children are something that many women—and men, and nonbinary people—want. The project of children, the project of raising a human being, of making one. And even though I still don’t want one myself, I want the choice to produce one, to devote some of one’s power to the project of motherhood, to be a choice, and thus a choice which can be valued, held up as an achievement, a brave, fascinating, interesting thing to do.

So when I came to write my own science fictional universe, I found myself writing a character, Five Agate, who had a very powerful position—she’s the chief analyst on the staff of one of the Emperor’s closest advisors—and a young child, six or so years old, who she is raising while continuing to be on call nearly twenty-four hours a day. And because in the universe I had built, I had also chosen to decouple the growth of fetuses from the bodies of people with uteruses—my universe has ubiquitous artificial wombs, crèche-style childcare, and universal contraception for everyone, no matter their gender—I wanted Five Agate’s choice to have a child to not only be a choice about work but a choice about her body.

So I had her carry her son in her own womb. Which, on Teixcalaan, is like choosing to run a marathon. No one does it without physical training and profound preparation! It’s considered a real and amazing feat, to carry a child to term and give birth to it! Five Agate trained for two years to get ready, and she is so proud of herself, and of her son. And people who run into her are as amazed at her accomplishment as people here on Earth are amazed at ultramarathoners.

Teixcalaan’s no paradise of genetic legacy, and it is full of problems relating to succession, families, and inheritance. But Five Agate is one part of that world: and through her, I wanted to write someone who could make my friends who have made the fascinating, brave, and interesting choice of having a child feel recognized and valued.

Arkady Martine Photo Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, was released in March 2019 from Tor Books, and is available here. Find Arkady online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer Marina J. Lostetter! She’s the author of several short stories, including those in the Lifeboat collection, “A Debt Repaid,” and “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us.” Noumenon, which was selected as one of the Best Books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, was her first novel. In late 2018, it was followed by another science fiction adventure, Noumenon Infinity.

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J Lostetter Cover Noumenon by Marina J Lostetter Cover

Learning to Feel the Shape of Stories
By Marina J. Lostetter

When I first attempted to write fiction professionally, I was desperate for any and all information I could find on how to write effectively. I enjoyed telling stories and people had told me I was a good writer—but love of a thing doesn’t automatically mean you’re good at a thing.

I had so many questions that I was sure had concrete answers. How do you create strong characters? How do you convey a theme? What’s the quantifiable difference between a boring story and an immersive story? What are people actually looking for when they read? When do you know a story has ended? How do you know where to begin?

When I started to break a story down into all of its components, I realized a lot goes into them. I could identify the parts, but I didn’t know how to piece them all together. I mean, I could try. I knew stories had beginnings, middles, and ends. I’d been consuming stories all my life. I knew what a story was (or, I thought I did), and I was fairly sure I could write something that resembled a professionally-told tale, but I knew I needed advice on how to actually get all of those story parts to work together in a way other people could connect with.

How do you actually write a story? What’s the secret?

On my epic quest to discover “the way,” I found all sorts of books on publishing, joined forums, and tracked well-known authors on social media, looking for little straws of knowledge that I could pick up and spin into story gold.

I glommed on to the “rules of writing.” Things like: Don’t use too many adverbs. Don’t use flowery language. You must include three try-fail cycles. You must put the speculative element in the first two paragraphs. You must write every day.

Solid pointers.

One day I stumbled across a piece of advice that I thought was the most flippant and useless thing a professional could tell an aspirant (and I’m paraphrasing): “It doesn’t matter how you do it. Do whatever works for you.”

Well that’s just ridiculous, I thought. At that point I’d met plenty of other writers trying to break into the industry, some of who’d been going at it for ten years. I knew it did matter how you did it. There was a difference between the way I told a story and the way my favorite authors told stories. How did I know? Because they were published and I was not.

Spoiler alert: I was right. And I was wrong.

At that point I began looking to my cohort for advice—those writing short stories (one of those straws-o-knowledge I found said if you want to be a novelist you have to write short stories first) and trying to break in alongside me. Once in a while, someone would do it. They’d sell a short story to a professional paying market. They were in! So, how’d they do it?

Inevitably, this person would start to hand out all kinds of advice. They’d give a six-point breakdown of the main components in their story. They’d explain why the main character they’d created was so relatable. They’d talk about the uniqueness of their idea and the straightforwardness of their writing style, or the flowy-ness of their words, or lyrical-ity of their voice or some such.

Basically, they’d bullshit about it until the cows came home. Cuz here’s the truth—when you sell your first short story (and no, you don’t have to write short stories first if you want to be a novelist), you don’t know why that one worked and the one you submitted before that didn’t. But you think you do. You think you’ve cracked the code. You think you’ve found the magic bullet, the mystical formula, the thing that worked.

And you want everyone to know how you did it.

I myself fell into the trap of spewing advice on my process not long after my first couple of sales (no, you don’t have to write shorts first if you want to be a novelist, but here’s the catch: it did work for me). I gave advice as a novice partially because I was proud of what I’d done, and partially because I knew how desperately I’d looked for those straws of knowledge myself. Maybe I could provide a little bit of insight to someone just like me, I thought, and it would spark something that would help their storytelling improve.

At this point, I was still gobbling up whatever pointers I could get. But I also started noticing a trend. Generally speaking, the more someone had published and the longer they’d been in the industry, the more vague their advice became. There were fewer “Three Steps to Guarantee Relatable Characters” articles, and more “This is Kind of What I Noticed About the Types of Characters I Write” articles.

And the longer I stayed in the industry, the more stories I had published, the less sure I became that I’d cracked any kind of code. I was becoming better and better at breaking down any story I consumed into its basic parts and analyzing what worked and what didn’t. The more contradictory advice I integrated into my overall arsenal of understanding, the better I became at sensing the flow of stories, of feeling when all the parts were working in tandem. And eventually that carried over from my analysis of other’s work to my own. I became better at noticing when my stories were broken—when they didn’t feel right.

I started to think of stories as shapes. Kind of like your classic story-arc depiction, with a timeline showing where the climax is and the act-two low point and the denouement, etc. But the shapes in my mind’s eye are more specific, and don’t have any labels. I can feel what unique shape each story is supposed to take, and can feel when they’re bulging or sagging in the wrong place. Sometimes I can fix the shape, sometimes I can’t.

But one thing is for certain: there is no piece of advice I could have ever stumbled upon that would have effectively conveyed to me that the way to write professionally is by feeling a story’s shape. Because this is just what works for me.

But, ironically, I don’t think I ever would have come full circle, to realizing that the advice I thought was so flippant was actually the truest truth, if I hadn’t first climbed the mountain of conflicting Don’ts and You Musts, and if I hadn’t given advice myself while digging for the secret to my own success. I needed that direction as a new writer, and that space to analyze my own work. I never would have gotten to a point where I could feel my stories if I hadn’t tried to build them a hundred different ways. If I hadn’t tried to fit in the misshapen brick of advice labeled “eliminate all passive voice,” then I never would have honed in on when passive voice is most effective and when it’s fighting with the reader’s ability to be in the moment.

I couldn’t simply begin at the end: “Do whatever works for you.” No matter how good that advice is, no matter how important it is that a writer not get too caught up in what someone else thinks they have to do to write professionally, it is not a starting point.

So, my advice to the new writers out there is this: There is no one way. Do what works for you. And the only way you’re going to figure out what works for you is to try a hundred different ways, or a thousand different ways, or maybe just one or two ways. But what’s important is your willingness to learn, to take in all advice, good and bad, and apply it and discard it in turn until something clicks. Until you feel the story’s shape—or whatever it ends up being for you.


Marina J Lostetter Photo Marina J. Lostetter’s short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Uncanny Magazine. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. Her most recent novel, Noumenon Infinity, is an epic space adventure starring an empathetic AI, alien mega structures, and generations upon generations of clones. Marina tweets as @MarinaLostetter and her website can be found at www.lostetter.net.