Women in SF&F Month Banner

Thank you so much to last week’s guests! There is another week of guest posts starting tomorrow, but before announcing the schedule, here’s how you can catch up on anything you’ve missed this month.

All of the guest posts from April 2020 can be found here, the first week in review can be found here, and in last week’s guest posts:

And the recommendation list project has been updated and opened for new recommendations! In 2013, Renay from Lady Business asked readers to submit some of their favorite science fiction and fantasy books written by women and we’ve been collecting submissions every year since. After updating it to include last year’s submissions, the list now includes 2,710 titles, many of which have been recommended multiple times. (There’s one book that’s been recommended 58 times!) It’s also possible to add more books to the list: you can add up to 10 of your favorites (or, if you’ve already done that, 10 of your favorites read over the last year).

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2020 continues with guest posts by:

Women in SF&F Month 2020 Schedule Graphic

April 20: Sangu Mandanna (The Lost Girl, Celestial Trilogy)
April 21: Shveta Thakrar (Star Daughter, “The Rainbow Flame”)
April 22: Jennifer Marie Brissett (Elysium, Destroyer of Light)
April 23: Andrea Stewart (The Bone Shard Daughter)
April 24: Robin Kirk (The Bond, The Hive Queen)

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Katharine Kerr! Her work includes the urban fantasy series Nola O’Grady and The Runemaster, the science fiction series Polar City, and of course, the epic fantasy books in her bestselling Celtic-inspired Deverry Cycle. Her latest novel, Sword of Fire, is the first book in The Justice War—a new trilogy set in the world of Deverry!

Sword of Fire by Katharine Kerr Book Cover

What is Good Prose, Anyway?
Katharine Kerr

Both writers and readers love to discuss, and argue about, what constitutes “good” prose. The conclusion I usually end up drawing from these discussions is that the definition really comes down to a matter of taste—from the reader’s point of view, that is. Some people enjoy complex sentences and unusual words. Some people hate them. Some people hate short sentences and basic vocabulary. Others like them. And so on. No one definition of “good” writing is ever going to please every reader.

On the other hand, we might look at the problem from the writer’s point of view. What constitutes good prose?  I submit these definitions: prose that has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended it to have is good. Prose that doesn’t, no matter how polished, is poorly done.

Does the writer want the reader to zip through the story and enjoy it as an entertainment? That will require one style of prose. Does the writer want the reader to experience the story as an immersion into a strange and foreign place and time? That will require another. Is an incident supposed to be funny? Humor demands a certain choice of words. Is the incident supposed to make the reader get all teary-eyed? Then the writer had better avoid that distanced, ironic humor.

We can define “bad” prose as words that fail to do what the writer wants them to do. Really bad prose is so muddled that we can’t even tell what the writer had in mind, but such rarely does get into print. Usually the examples are less extreme. A strict-genre entertainment might be written in such complex, rambling sentences that a reader looking for a few hours of escape decides to throw the book across the room. A thoughtful, serious near-future SF work that sounds like a middle grade adventure story is not going to get much respect.

Here’s an example of how bad prose can wreck a story, one I remember from a writing class of many years ago. I’ve forgotten the writer’s name, and I bet he’d be glad I have. Anyway, the story concerned a Sensitive, Poetic Young Man who yearned for a certain girl at a high school dance. He asks her to dance, she makes fun of him, his pain knows no bounds. The reader does feel his pain and feels sorry for him until he rushes out of the dance into the parking lot, where

“in the glare of floodlights the pale trunks of the eucalyptus trees looked like cottage cheese.”

That, folks, is story-shattering prose.

Katharine Kerr is the author of the Deverry series of epic fantasies, the Nola O’Grady series of light-hearted contemporary fantasy, the “Runemaster” duo, and a few science fiction works, mostly notably SNARE. Although she spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city, she became a confirmed Californian at age nine, when her family relocated there. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, his caregiver, and a cat.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fantasy author Devin Madson! Her work includes We Ride the Storm, a finalist in the 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off; In Shadows We Fall, winner of the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novella; and The Vengeance TrilogyWe Ride the Storm and the rest of The Reborn Empire series are being traditionally published with the trade paperback of the first book coming in June—but you can read the ebook edition of We Ride the Storm right now!

We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson Book Cover

Perfectly Shallow Characters

When we think of poorly written characters, it’s often the obvious things we focus on — senseless decisions, insufficient motivations, or in the case of female characters, boobing boobily down the stairs with their booby boobs. These issues are easy to see and often pull us out of a story, but sometimes characters feel flat despite having believable motivations and not boobing boobily around (no, I will never stop saying that), and it’s hard to put your finger on quite why that is. In my experience, the reason is almost always because of a subtle and insidious thing I’ll call social ideals. What that means is that, without even thinking about it, we have a tendency to create characters who conform to our society’s perceptions of perfection and purpose. BUT… as you are all probably well aware, many of our social expectations are far from realistic (see almost any magazine cover for examples of unrealistic beauty expectations).

I’m sure everyone can think of obvious ones — men shouldn’t cry, women must aspire to beauty, women shouldn’t be taller than men, women should be attractive but also sexually virtuous. In fact, female characters are particularly susceptible to being flattened in this way because our society puts a lot of pressure on women to be perfect. Not just perfect in looks (buy this cream and that makeup and you have no value unless you look like a cover model) but in behavior. Women have to be nice. Women have to smile. Women have to be helpful. Caring. They aren’t allowed to struggle. They have to have it all. Be it all. I could go on forever. But the point is, that this expectation for women to be perfect — whatever form that takes — often leads us to write female characters at the very extremes of any spectrum. Perhaps because to not do so risks the dreaded question ‘well why did it have to be a woman then? What was the purpose? The REASON it couldn’t have just been a man?’

(This is also why we so often hear the even more common question, but why are they gay/disabled/black, something something forced diversity something something, because for some people the social ideal they’ve absorbed from a lifetime of very white, very cis, very abled media is that those differences are just complications. To them, such a character has no place and would not exist in an ideal world thus can only be in the story if their identity has a clear narrative purpose.)

While that is, on its own, a whole other rant (and one I am nowhere near qualified enough to put into words), this concept affects the depth of all characters, not just in the potential lack of diversity, but in the lack of… let’s call it Messiness. Our society has no value for messy. Think about your Instagram or your Twitter feed. When you’re scrolling through your social media feeds and you see something pretty, most people are going to like it, while scrolling on past anything that doesn’t fit our social ideals — untidy houses, unattractive selfies, or even a miserable status update. BUT… if you consider the things you really click with on social media, it’s often the opposite. We may give our tick of approval to pretty pics and happy status updates, but they don’t touch us. Not the way someone’s all too real tweet about parenting might, or a friend’s emotional outpouring, or even the picture of a dirty house helping us feel better about our own lack of domestic perfection. We may not always hit like for these things (thank you social ideals), but they are the ones we feel more connected to because they are real.

Characters are like that. We have been socialized to a certain set of ideals and they have a sneaky way of making it into our writing even when we don’t want them to. Even when we think ourselves immune.

(As a side note, this concept is also why many characters get erroneously dubbed a Mary Sue/Marty Stu, even when they aren’t. Often those characters just have a very strong adherence to the prevailing social ideals.)

Most authors learn early that it’s unrealistic for their characters to be instantly good at everything, or for all of them to be remarkably beautiful, and that perfect paragons are a bit boring, but it can take a lot of honesty and self-awareness to truly embrace the Messy Character. The ones that wield the magic swords and fight the grand battles, but still have such complicated REALNESS that we can see ourselves in them, can really connect with their plights and their experiences. The characters who are capable of feeling two conflicting emotions over the one event, the ones who dither, who run out of spoons, who hit their ceiling on making decisions for the day and just want to lie down and sleep, the ones who know something is a really terrible idea but will do it anyway for a whole slew of complicated reasons, because objectivity is really only available to a detached reader, not someone living in the moment. These characters ugly cry, they get confused, they are sometimes impenetrable, and they experience the human condition in all the same complicated, inelegant and painful ways we do, and in being less ideal, less definitive, become more alive.

Most characters are written with flaws, but like when you’re asked about your flaws in a job interview, social expectations often lead us to state things like that we care too much and work too hard and that in fact our flaws are an excess of perfection rather than a lack of it. And in characters it’s often expected to be one obvious thing. But when I think about all the amazing characters I’ve read lately (Kalina and Jovan from Sam Hawke’s POISON WAR series, Dannarah in Kate Elliott’s BLACK WOLVES, and literally everyone in Tasha Suri’s forthcoming THE JASMINE THRONE, which is an absolute must read for messy, complex and painfully real characters) they all lack this single, easily definable flaw all heroes are meant to fight against and overcome, and instead have something far more valuable — muddy depths.

But of course, the ultimate struggle most authors have in writing these kinds of characters is reader expectations. Characters have to be active. Likeable. We have to cheer for them. We have to understand them. They have to be… perfectly formed and identifiable each in their own way. But the truth about real characters, as with real people, is that you don’t always like them, you don’t always agree with them, and you don’t always cheer for them, but they latch onto your heart in a way socially ideal characters don’t often do. These deep, messy humans in whom we see ourselves reflected are the ones, at the end of the day, we’d go into battle for.

Devin Madson Photo
Photo Credit: Leah Ladson
Devin Madson is an Aurealis Award-winning fantasy author from Australia. After some sucky teenage years, she gave up reality and is now a dual-wielding rogue who works through every tiny side-quest and always ends up too over-powered for the final boss. Anything but zen, Devin subsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fantasy author A.K. Larkwood! The Unspoken Name, her fantastic debut novel released earlier this year, primarily follows an orc woman serving the extraordinarily powerful (and power-hungry) mage who saved her from being sacrificed to a god. It has a wonderful narrative voice that captivated me immediately, world-hopping, a lovely f/f romance, and a highly entertaining dynamic between the main protagonist and one of the mage’s other servants—who often have to work together but hate having to work together!

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood Book Cover

So, why did you decide to write a non-human protagonist? Why do you love monsters so much?

I’ve been asked these questions pretty often since The Unspoken Name was published. I have a range of flippant answers, including “hey, I just love weird stuff”. And that’s basically true — I’ve always had a bit of a fixation with whatever is monstrous, villainous, bizarre.

But I wanted to think about it more seriously. For me, the whole point of fantasy is to look at our reality from another angle. I’m interested in the idea that there could be a way of experiencing the world that is far from “human”, that it might be possible to make a fantasy world which moves beyond the idea of humanity as normative.

A lot of classic speculative literature contains humanity within a very specific closed field and whatever lies outside that margin is monstrous by definition — gross, ugly, villainous, abnormal. Queer people, people of colour, disabled and mentally ill people have been treated especially badly by the genre, because so much of what we are interested in in fantasy and science fiction is strangeness.

A few years ago I read a lot of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith. There is a lot to enjoy — vividly weird imagery and concepts — and a lot of the dreary background sexism and racism you’d expect from the era. What interested me was how many of the stories, including probably his best, ‘The City of the Singing Flame’, follow the same pattern: Rational Man (of course white, probably straight) discovers an irrational space, a pocket of bizarrity and horror hidden behind the normal world. He is repelled by it, but also seduced. He loses himself there for a while, then tries to leave, to reassert normality. But whatever he does, strangeness continues to call to him. It has entered into his soul.

In story after story you see this fascination with what is other than normative, manifesting as horror and repulsion — peering over the walls just to reinforce them. Openness to the strange, to outside influences, is shown to be corrosive to the self.

I am interested in the kind of science fiction and fantasy which offers an alternative approach, where charting and transgressing the boundaries of normality is a kind of liberation.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation explores a very similar narrative arc — the protagonist is a scientist who enters a Weird Place, and loses herself there — but with a delightful subversion of established values — what is humanity? What is inside and what is out? It’s a horror novel but the protagonist’s alienation and dissolution of self are also sources of profound joy and serenity.

To take another example, Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist is a very early fantasy novel, dealing with a town on the borders of Fairyland. The townspeople struggle desperately to prevent the incursion of subversive fairy influences into their tidy, orderly society, but ultimately there’s nothing they can do, and the book culminates with a joyous merging of the two worlds:

First of all came the sounds of wild sweet music, then the tramp of a myriad feet, and then, like hosts of leaves blown on the wind, the invading army came pouring into the town. The accounts of what took place read more like legends than history. It would seem that the trees broke into leaf and the masts of all the ships in the bay into blossom; that day and night the cocks crowed without ceasing; that violets and anemones sprang up through the snow in the streets, and that mothers embraced their dead sons, and maids their sweethearts drowned at sea.

When my wife and I got married a few years ago, this was one of our wedding readings. I like the idea that opening up to strangeness and accepting it into yourself might let you overcome death itself.

The genre continues to move on from the tiresome prejudices of the early 20th century. Our understanding of what it is to be human continues to expand, as it should — as a queer woman I’m glad to be considered a human being. And of course we continue to need books in which marginalised people are normal, in which our concerns are treated as universal. There is an embracing warmth in seeing your experience treated as central to what it is to be human.

But I’m still interested in those margins. I’m interested in what it feels like to inhabit strangeness, in what lies outside our understanding.

You may now read my book and wish my protagonist was more alien. Her culture, the Oshaaru, is one among many and not especially marginalised. Csorwe’s outsider status is down to her personal history more than her cultural background. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write a fantasy world where humans were not the baseline, because I’m bored of seeing baseline humanity meaning a very specific thing.

Also, tusks are cool.

A. K. Larkwood Photo
Photo Credit: Vicki Bailey, VHB Photography
A.K. LARKWOOD studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge, and now lives in Oxford with her wife and a cat. The Unspoken Name is her debut. You can find her online at www.aklarkwood.com and on Twitter as @AKLarkwood.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is author and illustrator Isabel Ibañez! Woven in Moonlight, her YA fantasy debut novel, involves a revolution and magical weaving in a world inspired by Bolivian history, politics, and culture. It was just released earlier this year—with a gorgeous cover that she designed and created!

Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez Book Cover

When I sat down to write Woven in Moonlight, I knew, from the beginning, three things: this story would be about a revolution, and second, it would include plot points inspired by real events in the political landscape of Bolivia, and third, the main character was going to be a woman.

I’m a voracious reader of young adult fantasy and have read dozens of stories featuring incredible female characters. I loved this new trend of badass warrior girls who wielded swords and bows and arrows, who are resourceful and brave and displayed courage against seemingly insurmountable foes. These stories are incredibly important because it hasn’t been common—until recently—to read about females carrying the war on their backs and stepping in as the hero of the tale.

And yet there were moments that made me squirm. If I were a character in any of these worlds, I’d die in the first chapter. If I were in The Hunger Games, my face would appear in the sky after the first round. In these stories, many of the main characters were praised and believed in because of their literal tenacity and know-how around weapons. I still think it’s a wonderful thing—because again, readers need to see these characters as not just the damsel to be rescued or the prize to be won, but as the one capable of saving the people they care about.

But I did start to worry that we left behind other depictions of strength in storytelling. Courage and the will to survive can manifest itself in many different ways, not only in the hands of someone who can literally drop someone to the ground with a well-placed kick. It is Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who uses her creativity and art to keep the wolves at bay. I’ve always loved that Greek myth, and I kept it close while writing Woven in Moonlight.

I am a weaver, a trait that’s celebrated and widely taught in Bolivia. While bringing Ximena to life, I wanted her to possess an artistic passion while also the knowledge on how to defend herself. I wanted her to carry both a tough and soft side. And I wanted her to win the revolution with the help of her art, and her sword, because sometimes, a girl needs both.

I’ll never tire of reading about warrior female characters, not ever, but I also do want to read about heroines who display their strength off the battlefield, those who use their art to finagle a win, or their wit to counter arguments. For a long time, authors were advised to avoid writing a “Mary Sue” character, someone who is well versed in many things. I wonder if that’s why we’ve seen so many heroines who are skilled in fighting but aren’t allowed other talents. While I understand the advice (characters can’t be perfect after all), I can’t help feeling how misguided it is—after all, people are often multitalented. You’ve met them. An athlete who plays the piano, a baker who speaks three languages, an artist who can also sing. Just because someone is good at multiple things, doesn’t mean they are perfect beings, and they can still be written about.

The world needs characters, especially female ones, who can be several things at once, and not just a fighter.

Isabel Ibañez Photo Isabel Ibañez was born in Boca Raton, Florida and is the proud daughter of two Bolivian immigrants. A true word nerd, she received her degree in creative writing and has been a Pitch Wars mentor for three years. Isabel is an avid movie goer and loves hosting family and friends around the dinner table. She currently lives in Winter Park, Florida with her husband, their adorable dog, and a serious collection of books. Say hi on social media at @IsabelWriter09.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is science fiction author Emily Suvada! This Mortal Coil, her debut novel and the first book in a STEM-focused thriller trilogy of the same name, won the Oregon Spirit Book Award and was a finalist for the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the Readings Young Adult Book Prize. It was followed by This Cruel Design, and the series was completed with the release of This Vicious Cure earlier this year.

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada Book Cover This Cruel Design by Emily Suvada Book Cover This Vicious Cure by Emily Suvada Book Cover

On Heroes, Horror, and Hope

My background is in theoretical astrophysics, which is just as much fun to say as you might expect. That background, and my love of science, has fueled the stories I write, so when I was asked to contribute a post for this series a month ago, I planned to write an article about women in STEM. A month ago, I was reading about advances in genetics. I was watching my baby wrestle and kiss his friends, and meeting fellow writers for coffee. A month ago, the coronavirus pandemic was in its early days, with only a few US cases, and the danger seemed so very far away.

Today, my family is under stay-at-home orders in Oregon, and the article I’d drafted feels awkward and strange. Everything feels strange, right now. A global pandemic is killing people, dividing nations, and spreading chaos into every facet of our lives. My life feels worryingly close to the dystopian science fiction books I have written—books in which a young hacker races to release the vaccine to a horrifying plague which, in the absence of a cure, has driven humanity into airlocked bunkers. Far too close for comfort.

Through my writing research, I knew what to expect: panic, misinformation, and hoarding. I knew that the poorest and oldest people would be among those most at risk. I knew to brace myself for months of horrendous, error-laden data analysis used to gain pageviews. And yet, despite the parallels, one element of our current predicament has surprised me: the hijacking of hope.

I am, by nature, an optimist. While the virus we’re facing is terrifying, I have a deep faith in the endless ingenuity, generosity, and perseverance of people. I believe that we’ll solve and overcome whatever problems we’re faced with. This comes through in my fiction: while my characters might endure horrors, their guiding light is the hope that there is a better world ahead, and that we can work together to reach it. That light, while present in the coronavirus pandemic, has seemed frustratingly dim.

Some people I’ve spoken to have admitted they’re struggling to picture a hopeful future. Many feel sure we’ll spend over a year in quarantine and devastate our society. They worry their children will lose years of critical socialization periods, and that their family will fall prey to the virus itself. On the other side, I’ve seen people blatantly disregarding social distancing rules, shrugging off the threat of the virus with “if I die, I die, whatever.” That kind of numb, senseless attitude is even more worrying than the fear.

And through it all, I sometimes feel like the only genuinely optimistic voices I hear are the blustering, populist world leaders and their pundits spouting ridiculous claims about the economy being unharmed, or this virus disappearing overnight. Their baseless arguments, and their mishandling of this pandemic, have dramatically worsened the outbreak.

And therein lies the problem.

What happens when the loudest voices of optimism are false? What happens when hope comes in the form of wilful ignorance? From what I see in the news and my social feeds, the answer is that optimism itself becomes suspect. Hope is seen as dangerous or ignorant. For those of us railing against populist governments, it almost feels like optimism is the mark of a traitor.

This isn’t something I ever considered in my writing. Every science fiction rebellion, every character’s arc, every turn of three-act structure in the stories we tell is founded on the unshakeable bedrock of hope. I never predicted that it could be co-opted like this. Hope has been weaponized and turned into partisan echolalia. But while it’s true we need to ensure that we never lose sight of the seriousness, and the danger of the crisis we are faced with, it’s absolutely critical that we don’t turn away from hope.

Like the characters in my books, and in every YA dystopian book in existence, when we’re let down by our leaders we must turn to each other for support. The world we will inherit after this virus won’t be defined by our government—it will be defined by us, the people, and the ways we’re acting now. If our leaders don’t offer science or data, we must seek out trustworthy sources and amplify it ourselves—there are good people doing incredible work. We must ask what other countries have done that’s working, and make those strategies part of the conversation here—there are countries winning this war. We must search for creative strategies to protect one another in communal spaces, and to bridge the growing cracks of inequality that this virus is causing. While we practice social distancing, we must practice social attachment, too.

We’re being told that our only power is in powerlessness, that our only course of action is inaction, but this isn’t true, and we must desperately search for ways we can fight: making masks, shopping for the elderly, supporting small businesses, donating blood, and amplifying bright stars of hope as they blink on throughout our feeds. New drugs, new strategies, new data. For each other, for the future, and for those who are breaking under the strain, we must wrestle optimism back from our governments and make it our own. We must rage against this virus and the pain it’s causing, and lift each other up when we feel the slip of despair. We’re not helpless, and we’re not powerless, no matter what our leaders would have us believe. We are an unstoppable force of creativity, of genius and compassion, and we owe it to the world and to ourselves to fight desperately for hope.

The alternative isn’t something I can bear—not as a lover of science, not as a writer, and most certainly not as a mother. In the immortal words of Jyn Erso: Rebellions are built on hope. We can’t yield our brilliant minds and burning hearts to the crushing drudgery of doom. Now, more than ever, we need stories, fictional and real, that are filled with strength, with community, with love and generosity, and most of all, with hope.

Emily Suvada Photo
Photo Credit: Britt Q Hoover
Emily Suvada is the award-winning author of the Mortal Coil trilogy, a science fiction thriller series for young adults. Emily was born and raised in Australia, where she went on to study mathematics and astrophysics. She previously worked as a data scientist, and still spends hours writing algorithms to perform tasks which would only take minutes to complete on her own. When not writing, she can be found hiking, cycling, and conducting chemistry experiments in her kitchen. She currently lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and son.