How Improv Comedy Helped My Writing

How Improv Comedy Helped My Writing

Like most who know about the artform, I was introduced to improv comedy from the famed TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Despite many of the references going over my young head at the time it first aired, I still found myself bursting at the seams with laughter at the off-the-cuff antics of the performers.

In high school, I was fortunate enough to participate in an improv club, where we not only played games, but also took field trips to performances and studied techniques from professionals.

While I was goofing off in a cloud of gawky adolescence, I was ignorant to the fact that improv was not only teaching me how to think on my feet, but also how to tell stories. And one day it clicked that the beauty of improv, as well as the core of storytelling, is all about engagement. Whether you are performing or observing in the audience, improv is a hands-on experience, much like the worlds you build in your narrative and the relationship you have with your readers.

It was only later in adulthood that I realized I was inadvertently applying these skills in my D&D gaming sessions. It started simple enough with my character creation (and giving my GMs headaches with grotesquely detailed backstories), then evolving further when I started DMing myself. Eventually, it got to the point where I chucked the rulebooks out the window and ran completely diceless campaigns.

After making this connection, I was able to apply my knowledge to large scale writing projects and develop the eyesight to become my own content editor. (NOTE: Don’t depend entirely on your own skills for content editing if you can help it. I am saying I was able to recognize enough to save work for someone else).

These skills not only helped with the writing aspect, but also the business side of being a “Competent Author™.”  Elevator pitches, networking and relationships, public speaking etc. All of this can be improved upon with a flight from the seat of the pants.

But performance, no matter how small the audience, is much easier said than done, especially if you have anxiety. With practice and a few quick, short-worded sentences tucked in your belt, you can excuse yourself from overwhelming situations:

“Hey, this was a great conversation, but I really need to be elsewhere right now.”

“Thanks for chatting! I’m headed to another appointment, but maybe we can continue later?”

Whether it’s true or not, it’s great to have some pre-fabricated exits. However, I am speaking through my personal experience, and not everyone can find this helpful.

If you want to start off with playing improv games, try it out with a few close friends just to get a feel of the mechanics. The more you practice in a safe environment, the easier it may become for you. Remember, your replies will NOT sound polished. In fact, they will be clumsy and awkward until you learn what bits of your personal conversation filter can be shut off at will.

And that’s okay! Improv is not supposed to be polished, it’s supposed to be messy and random. A lot of the most noteworthy moments can come from spouting off the first thing that comes to mind (in both good and bad contexts). Just like editing a draft, polish comes later with time and practice.

A good first-time game is called “One Word,” where participants take turns telling a story one word at a time. Put a little flair on it by adding a theme or setting to help keep everyone focused. Make a space adventure and tell the story of a first alien encounter. Perhaps an opposing kingdom is beating down the gates to your castle, what happens next?

A quick google search of “Improv Comedy Games” will bring you a slew of options, but here’s a pair of sites with great examples to get you started:

http://www.bringyourownimprov.com/games.htm

http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/

Many games can be tailored to fiction, adding genre spins to suit whichever you want to practice. Focus on setting and character creation, or even use the Question Game (make a conversation only using questions) to practice your dialogue development.

Introduce exercises in your next writing group meetings or convention mixers as an icebreaker. But please be mindful of those with social anxiety and be respectful to members not participating! Improv requires a certain level of trust, and some may not feel comfortable for whatever reason they may or may not feel like sharing. Do not take it personally if you get rejected but be sure to leave the door open for those who want to try.

And on that note, another vital skill learned through improv is the ability to read the room. Improv is not just about spouting off the first thing that comes to your head. It’s also about learning the dynamics and knowledge base of the participants as well as the audience.

For example, any games involving song titles or movies may leave some players out because they don’t partake in popular media. It is also advisable to stray away from politically charged topics in a new setting until everyone is familiar with each other. It will take some experimentation to determine everyone’s comfort levels, as well as what types of games everyone excels at. Play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, have fun with improv whether you apply it to your writing or not! It’s a fantastic way to practice interactions and storytelling while enjoying time with others both in and out of the industry. And most importantly, don’t be too serious when playing. It is comedy, after all.

I Am a Woman Learning to Roar

I Am a Woman Learning to Roar

As co-founder and female counterpart of the duo that started New England Speculative Writers (NESW), I have the pleasure of writing the final blog post for Women’s History Month. It’s only recently that I’ve really started to fully understand what being a woman in society means and how that impacts me as a human.

I’ve always tried to look at people as humans first, before applying the gender tag they identify with. I think that’s part of the storyteller in me – looking for commonalities first and building out from there. In many ways, I’ve applied that practice to how I view myself too. When I think of myself in a context, I don’t necessarily view myself as a female in the middle of a situation, I think of myself as a person in the situation, but unconsciously, I have come to realize, I have been applying certain gender rules that have affected the trajectory of my life. It’s not that I was unaware of the “traditional” roles women play in society, I just didn’t really think many applied to me. In some ways I thought of myself as a strong independent woman who blazed her own path in life and didn’t adhere to societal gender rules. I still think I am, but…

I’m an X-gener. I grew up in the era when traditional roles for women were in a great shift. My parents were the offspring of what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation”. I grew up in the 70’s when society was seeing and feeling the effects of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the battle cry of “I am woman, hear me roar (“I Am Woman”, co-written and performed by Helen Reddy, 1971, along with Ray Burton). More and more women were leaving to work outside the home, and the term “latch-key kid” became more prevalent. In addition to more women in the traditional workforce, there was a boom of companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Stanley Home Products that allowed women to have a foot on each side of the fence so to speak. They could work and earn money, but still have the flexibility to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother; keeping a home and raising children.

Combine what was happening in society with watching movies like 9 to 5 where a group of women are fighting “the man” and reading books written by both male and female authors who portrayed girls and women as smart, strong, independent or fighting against their society rules, like A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle or some of the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists Of Avalon, I grew up seeing the shift toward equality in action. I saw great strides, and have continued to see progress, but I also realize we have a ways to go still. Many of the women of my childhood were straddling old and new cultural rules and trying to make them both work, and in a lot of ways we still are today.

Like a lot of people, I’m in the process of a sort of awakening. I think we as humans are becoming more enlightened about inequalities at a faster pace than previous generations. A big reason for this is technology, social media and the internet. The world is a much smaller place than it was twenty years ago. News travels faster, cell phones with cameras are everywhere and people are really starting to realize that there is a lot of bad out there, but more importantly we are also realizing that we can do something about it, as seen in the myriad of hashtag causes, including many to continue the fight for equality for women.

I spent over twenty years in the working world, ten of those years were in the corporate world. Five years ago all of that changed. A series of events occurred – a long and boring story not worth telling, but all the same life changing. I found myself unemployed, burnt out, extremely unhappy with my life, and ready for change. I made the decision to get off the hamster wheel of “working to live” and change my perspective to finding a job that would allow me to “live to work”. I took time to start doing things I enjoyed and really learning what makes me as a person happy.

During my time off from the working world I started writing again. The more I wrote, the more my world and perspective blossomed. One of the first things about my writing I realized was that all my protagonists were women. Women of all different strengths and backgrounds, but strong, independent, adventurous, amazing women. The more I wrote about these strong women the more I realized I was writing about all the women I knew or read about and admired, and I started to see the differences between the life I had been living and them. That’s when I saw how inequalities of women had affected my life. The workplace is one example. For instance allowing the term “work wife” to be applied to me, even though I was a national account manager of a multimillion dollar account, allowing myself to be talked over during meetings, not voicing my opinions as loudly as the men were, all the while never really thinking about how wrong that was. I didn’t see it. It had been happening all along, and for so long, that I didn’t recognize it as anything but normal, nor did I recognize how unhappy I was trying to conform. I can now say, never again. My eyes are open. The “box” I had been trying to fit my wild and unconventional self into for the sake of fitting in, has been tossed in the trash!

I think we as people will always have struggle – either collectively or in groups against one injustice or another, but we, right now are lucky and unlucky enough to live in an era of technology and social media which has made the world a much smaller and more transparent place. It’s a double-edge sword, that we have quickly learned to use negatively, and are finally starting to use to our advantage. We humans, we women, have more power now to change the world than we ever did. And we’re doing it. We as writers have the unique power to reflect the changes we want in our writing.

I want to take a moment to thank our NESW community for being a wonderful, diverse, inclusive group. That was one of the visions Jeremy and I had in starting this group. Please continue to help us build that. We need more of “us” in this world. Let us lead by example.


Cristina currently lives in Massachusetts. She earned a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and spent many years on the West Coast living and working in Arizona and California. She moved back to New England in 2008, and began a journey that led to refocusing her life on the ‘want tos’ rather than the ‘have tos’, by making what she enjoys doing creatively a priority. In 2013 she participated in her first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a story called The Empire that a few years later would become her first completed novel. The Empire is currently available on Amazon.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

This celebratory month of women in speculative fiction has seen posts  on many topics all of which come back to a central important issue – inclusion. I write in an area of fantasy that is often relegated to the back burner in the sci-fi/fantasy community and among writers in general: romance. Yes, romance is frequently the red-headed step child at the family reunion, but I can’t help it. Love and relationships are always the focus of my writing.

Most of my published work would be classified as either paranormal romance or romantic fantasy with many of these being in the category of retold fairy tales. It’s a genre I’ve loved for decades and while it generally finds a lot of success with the reading public, many people I meet have an easier time believing in mermaids and magic than love or happy endings. (New England is especially known for this – romance sells the lowest in this part of the country).

And yet…

What can be more basic, more interesting, and more revealing than how we choose and treat our closest relationships?  When as writers we create worlds we need to ask ourselves about the mating, pairing and parental relationships that exist in this new world. When we read, if these things are left out or ignored, something about the world seems off, lacking.

Certainly the various movements including #metoo, #timesup and #ownvoices show that how we interact with one another, how we include those who identify differently from us, has a lasting impact on current and future generations. Speculative fiction gives writers and readers an amazing opportunity to look at the truth of these relationships – the problematic and the healthy – from new perspectives which can help us understand our own.  Look at the recent resurgence in popularity of The Handmaids Tale, science fiction which puts relationships at the core. No, it’s not a romance. This is a world where there is no place for romance – and look at the results of that.

I know that in my own writing, when I work in a paranormal world, I look at what rules I no longer have to adhere to, where I can get creative, and where can I build something completely new – something that reflects what I believe is the best a relationship can bring to an individual.

And yet…

We still have challenges when presenting these relationships either in books or film. From Sleeper to Demolition Man to Gattaca science fiction and fantasy movies show what might be different in the future when it comes to the challenges of love, sex and relationships on other worlds and in other futures. Many make it comical (when I asked about this on Facebook a friend reminded me of Barbarella), some eliminated it all together.  But at the end of the recent blockbuster hit Wonder Woman she extols the value of love and how this aspect of who we are is one of the things that make us worth saving.

Would you like some recommendations? My favorite fantasy author who looks at the importance and influence relationships have on our lives and our world is Anne Bishop. All of her books explore romantic relationships, but the Black Jewels trilogy (and beyond) is particularly amazing as is her Others series. And if in your fantasies you want vampires, then Joey W. Hill’s Vampire Queen series is one of the hottest series I’ve ever read.

I have come to believe that we brush love and all it stands for aside at our own peril. It deserves to be a priority, not a second thought, not something relegated to the silly or trivial. Certainly not something called “girly”. Anyone who has felt and expressed a wide range of emotions knows – emotions are not for the faint of heart. They require great strength and they show the strength of those who experience them.

As Diana says at the end of Wonder Woman, there is darkness and light in all of us and only love can truly save the world. I agree.

 


A Jersey Girl trapped without good diners or boardwalks in New England, Rachel Kenley is the author of eight romance novels, most recently the Melusine’s Daughters trilogy. Rachel started reading romances at 14 and credits them with her lifelong fascination with relationships and how they contribute to our ability to go for our dreams. When she is not writing she is homeschooling her sons, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with laundry, and laughing as much as possible.  She believes in shameless flirting, finding pleasure in the everyday, never missing the chance to watch The Wizard of Oz and the emotional and economic power of retail therapy. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and at www.rachelkenley.net where you can also sign up for her newsletter.

Tricks For Self-Editing

Tricks For Self-Editing

Like any craft, writing is a world of its own. There are rules that must be followed, and rules that may be broken. While being creative is esoteric, and may be something you are born with, learning the craft of writing is just like learning any other craft. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts information you need to absorb. Good grammar is the first one, but it takes much more than proper spelling and sentence structure to write a good story. Story structure, character development, pacing, building tension: these are all building blocks of our fictional creations. There are tricks and methods to all of these, but for this blog, I’m going to share a few tips on self-editing.

Read Aloud

So, okay, this one is not exactly a newsflash. It’s actually one of the most well-known bits of advice floating around the writing universe. This not only helps you find errors and clunky parts, it’s also a great way to find the rhythm of your words. The tip here? You don’t actually physically HAVE to speak out loud. An actual out-loud read should happen at some point, but as you are writing, just read the sentences in your head, and focus on what they will—or should—sound like when spoken out loud.

Read Backwards

I don’t mean to literally read every sentence backwards, word wise. Just read backwards on the page and, when possible, the paragraph. Why? Our minds like to play tricks on us. If we read quickly, we tend to skim, which makes it really easy to mistake what is actually on the page for what we think is on the page.

Spellcheck

Spellchecking programs should never be considered the be-all, end-all of editing. They won’t catch everything, and they will at times complain about things you did on purpose. That said, you’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping this step. Spellcheck may flag a sentence that’s perfectly fine, but when you look at it more closely, you may find a better way to word it. This is also a great way to find and kill passive voice.

Mark Your Spots

Ever get stuck on a phrase or plot point, or come across something that you may need to research more? Ever wonder if you already used that piece of dialogue? Don’t get bogged down in details on your first pass. Put a special word in that doesn’t appear often in your work. I use insert, but you can use monster or chocolate or pizza or phalanges whatever. Then, go back and search those words out to find the spots you wanted to work on.

Let It Simmer

When you’ve finished a first draft, back it up, walk away, and leave it alone. Like a good wine, the story needs to simmer. I don’t know if this happens with all writers, but my back brain tends to work on things even when I’m not paying attention. This is a good time to feed your head. Look at art, listen to different music, watch documentaries. I’ve often found a plot point strike me while I was working on a different WIP. Make a note, and move on.

Don’t Take The Easy Way Out

Jack White recently posted an interview where he said that ‘As an artist, your job is not to take the easy way out.’ You want a best-selling novel? You have to write a novel that is good enough to be a best seller. That means setting high standards for yourself. That means picturing your book as an excellent novel, and then stepping into that space. Always, always look for ways to improve your book and fill plot holes.

Don’t Be Afraid To Make Multiple Passes

Some stories are ‘born’ in more or less one shot. Others grow slowly. I tend to be a bit OCD about editing, and edit things at least 4 or 5 times. At least. I have one WIP that’s been edited probably 20-30 times. You don’t want to go overboard here, as you may find yourself editing the same thing over and over. The old saying about art never being finished, only abandoned, is true. That said, do one more pass than you think you need to.

Kill Your Darlings

I can’t take credit for this one, as it’s an old adage, originally attributed to Faulkner. I blew this one off for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I got it. Just because you can write a long, beautiful sentence, or a perfect paragraph describing someone’s car or clothes doesn’t mean you need to. If it serves the story, fine. But trim the fat. This also means boil down your sentences and paragraphs. Chop filler words and phrases, and let the story shine through. Go in with the intention of cutting.

Save The Bodies

Ever find yourself cutting a scene or chapter that doesn’t fit? It may work in another piece. Keep files for bigger cuts.

Have A Saving System

One rite of passage that many writers share is the pain of lost work. Computer crashes, missing thumb drives, whatever. I learned this lesson the hard way. I now have my auto-save settings set to two minutes. (I can deal with losing two minutes of work in a worst-case scenario.) I also save the file with the date in the name. This is because I used to save new versions by adding things like ‘Final’ into the name. That sounded like a good idea at first, until I ended up staring at multiple versions of a WIP with things like ‘Final,’ ‘ReallyFinal,’ ‘Final Copy,’ and even ‘UsethisFinal’ incorporated into the names. Don’t do this.

Fall Into The Story

Editing shouldn’t all be about nuts and bolts. At some point, you need to let your muse or your creative side play too. Make a playlist, light some candles, do whatever you need to do.

Listen To Yourself

If a scene or character isn’t capturing your attention, it probably won’t grab a reader, either. At the end of the day, some things just don’t work. Don’t kill a story trying to fix it. Let it sit, or walk away.


Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several places, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, and Endless Apocalypse. In 2013, she released Whispers From The Apocalypse, a horror poetry collection. Her first novel, Abode, was released from Bloodshot Books in July 2017 and is available on Amazon. She also writes for Antichrist Metalzine. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish.

Inclusion Riders and Vicarious Contact: Improving Representation and Inclusion in Media

Inclusion Riders and Vicarious Contact: Improving Representation and Inclusion in Media

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

At the Oscars this year, Frances McDormand (one of my all-time favorite actresses) gave a rousing speech about diversity in filmmaking, encouraging women nominees to stand and be recognized, and ending with two words most of us have never heard: inclusion riders.

An inclusion rider is a clause that A-list actors (well, presumably, any actor, but the A-list have the clout to pull it off) can add to their contracts requiring that the film they’re working on hire diverse people both on and off camera. Its intent is to level the playing field, to give all people, regardless of gender, race, culture, or sexual orientation, the same opportunity to work in film and to be represented in film.

I cannot stress enough the importance of representation in media, and the past few years have given us a remarkable shift in representation: black female mathematicians in Hidden Figures, black, Hispanic, and female protagonists in the recent Star Wars films, powerful superheroine Wonder Woman, and the magnificent, box-office-smashing Black Panther. For me, Rogue One was particularly powerful, in which the protagonist are a woman and a Hispanic man, possibly the first time since Spy Kids that I’ve seen a Hispanic person in a leadership role in film, and my reaction was not unique.

Note that every example I’ve given is a work of speculative fiction (with the possible exception of Hidden Figures, and that has sufficient geek points to be worthy of mention). That’s because speculative fiction has the room to imagine things as they could be, not as they are. Or even as they are but are not yet represented.

There’s been a recent trend to recast traditionally white, male roles with underrepresented minorities: the all-female Ghostbusters, Hamilton, and the recent bold casting for A Wrinkle in Time. While that helps improve representation, it would be even better if the representation were already there, in the source material. That’s our job, as writers and content creators. It’s up to us to create the world we want to live in.

Fortunately, we have a tool available to us that counteracts stereotyping, prejudice, and racism. It’s called vicarious contact.

“In a study investigating how kids respond to cross-racial depictions in picture books, [Krista Maywalt] Aronson and her colleagues randomly assigned children to two groups. The first group was read books that depicted children from different races playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with children from only one racial group.

“After six weeks, they found that children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children in the second group. Perhaps even more importantly, the first group reported that these positive attitudes remained three months after the study was completed.”

— Krista Maywalt Aronson and Anne Sibley O’Brien, “How Cross-Racial Scenes in Picture Books Build Acceptance,” School Library Journal, May 12, 2014

It turns out that when we see other people doing something, we become more comfortable doing it ourselves. When we see others acting with tolerance and acceptance, we are more inclined to act that way ourselves. And “seeing” includes viewing images of tolerance and reading stories that include tolerance. Of these, the best are stories in which inclusion is not the point of the story but rather a given, a backdrop against which the story plays out.

We’ve seen this in science fiction, from the original Star Trek series to James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. A diverse cast, with members representing many human races, ethnicities, and cultures, work together toward a common goal. Vicarious contact is less present in fantasy, particularly high fantasy, but urban fantasy such as Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper is gradually beginning to change that narrative as well. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The oldest, first purpose of storytelling is to instruct, to pass on tribal knowledge from generation to generation. As writers, we can instruct our readers. Those of us who live in large metropolitan areas probably have friends of many races, ethnicities, religions, and genders, but this may not be true in rural areas or in places with largely homogenous populations. I’m not just talking about Iowa or Sweden, I also mean segregated urban neighborhoods and gated communities. We can reach into these places and grant our readers vicarious contact, the experience of seeing a diverse group, not just tolerating each other, but working together, enjoying each other’s company, and accepting each other as ordinary human beings.

Children can perceive race as early as three months old. By three or four years old, children’s racial context is more or less set. But we can change that. We can give children and adults the experience and the context they lack. Here’s how:

  1. Show diverse characters in relationships between equals.
  2. The characters must be recognizably different.
  3. The characters must do something positive together. Children have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Older children go adventuring together. Adults work together to resolve problems for mutual benefit.
  4. Emphasize what the characters have in common, whether it’s a common interest such as dinosaurs or a common threat such as alien invasion.
  5. Point out the characters’ differences in ways that show how those differences combine to make the group stronger. For example, in the all-female Ghostbusters remake, Patty Tolan is the sole black member of the team. She’s poorly educated, a subway employee, but she brings to the team a deep understanding of the geography and culture of New York City (http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2858071065). It would have been even better to have a black female scientist on the team.
  6. Impress upon your readers the characters’ friendship, despite their differences. They should mutually respect and rely upon each other.

This being Women’s History Month, it’s important to point out that vicarious contact also works for showing the inclusion of women in traditionally male roles. I love the Avengers films, I truly do, but it galls me that every female Avenger’s primary role is as girlfriend to another Avenger (Black Widow and the Hulk, Scarlet Witch and the Vision). Compare this to Jessica Jones in the Defenders: she’s physically the strongest member, acerbic, no-nonsense, and a full, valued member of the team. Consider Wonder Woman in Justice League. Progress, yes.

And yet, only 25% of the Defenders are female, 20% of the Justice League. The Expanse? 20%. The Avengers? 20-25%, depending on the film (the ratio worsens over time as more male superheroes such as Spiderman, Ant-Man, and Black Panther join on). Really, it should not be harder to have equal representation in film than at MIT, where the overall undergraduate population is 46% female.

Among these, Black Panther stands out as a film with an astonishing number of powerful, confident women, making up 60% of the protagonists. We haven’t seen that level of strong, female representation since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Magicians also has a great ratio of male to female protagonists, and they are strong, complex female protagonists.

Again, it’s important not to just show women as protagonists. We need to show women interacting with men as equals, demonstrating leadership, solving mutual problems, and working towards common goals. And as with other underrepresented minorities, we need them proportionately represented, which means that half of the protagonists should be female.

Will vicarious contact in your fiction make a difference in our society? Well, let me put it this way: it can’t possibly make things worse, and it has the potential to do a lot of good.

Okay, folks. Go out and save the world.


Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI and NESW, and a former editor of New Myths magazine. Aside from 18 years as a technical/science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. A Latina geek originally from Albuquerque, NM, she now resides near Boston, MA with her husband and two daughters. You can find her short fiction in the 2017 and 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guides. A Pixie’s Promise, sequel to Her debut novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, is forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2018. Visit her website, www.diannasanchez.com or follow her on Facebook.

Identities and Intersections

Identities and Intersections

Intersections Can Be Confusing

Because I’m a woman and I write spec fic, I’m often put on panels at conventions dealing with “women’s issues” vis à vis writing. I enjoy those panels and enjoy meeting my fellow panelists and the conversations we have about what it’s like striding into what has been traditionally men’s spaces.

But the conversations don’t really go far enough for me and it feels like I’ve been participating in the “101” level discussions for some time now.

In some ways, I also feel awkward in those conversations. My female identity is only a part of who I am, and it’s limited me far less than some of my other identities.

While I’ve never deliberately hid my neuro-atypicality, I’ve also not been extremely public about it. Until recently, I really didn’t believe that my “aspie” nature was a hindrance to my current life. After all, I wasn’t identified as having Asperger’s until my 30s and by then I was a successful physical therapist, wife, and mother.

So what does it mean to be a woman who is also neuro-atypical?

For me, it meant that very little in the literature described me or pertained to me. Not in the women’s literature. Not in the autism literature.

When you live at an intersection, instead of doubling (or tripling, etc) your identity, it fractionates it. Try to find writing advice for women on the autism spectrum. Until very recently, it wasn’t even believed by the scientific establishment that many women were on the spectrum and nearly all the data, all the research, all the narratives focused on the male presentation.

The advice for women writers often didn’t speak to me. I’m not sure whether that’s because of my aspie nature or because of other experiences and identities I hold. I’ve never had a hard time finding my voice or feeling like what I had to say wasn’t “worthy”. What held me back was near-crippling anxiety and until I started to embrace my non neuro-typical identity, I had no tools to address it.

And still, 20 years after the psychiatrist I was meeting with reviewed my history and my educational records and told me I was on the spectrum, I have kept that part of my identity cloaked.

Not fully hidden, but certainly not a label I publicly claimed.

So why am I talking about it now?

I recently saw the call for the “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” anthology and thinking about submitting to it make me extremely uncomfortable. So I spent some time getting to why.

Part of it was I feel relatively privileged: I am in a situation in which I am supported to be a full time writer. My books are finding their readers. What “right” did I have to submit and potentially take a spot away from a writer who might deserve/need that break more than I did.

That was the surface reason.

Digging deeper, there were others.

Was I “disabled?” If so, was I disabled enough? Did I want my carefully crafted identity as a women writing SF&F to be conflated with the word disability?

These are heavy questions and I don’t have final answers to them.

In the end, I didn’t submit to the anthology.

And yet, I’m “outing” myself here.

(I never said I wasn’t a hot mess of contradictions.)

So who am I and how to my identities inform my work?

I would describe my novels as extremely character-centric. Most of what I write is in deep third-person point of view and I feature fully-realized female characters in everything I write.

I do the same for all my characters, regardless of gender.

In looking though my body of work, there are definite themes that emerge, many of which come from my various identities. Characters have different patterns of strengths and struggles. They have disabilities – some overt, some hidden. Those struggles inform each characters’ growth and arc, rather than simply function as surface traits.

Ultimately, that’s what I have come to understand about my own intersections: being female and being neuro-atypical (two of my myriad identities) shape the lens with which I view the world.

And they are foundational to how I chose to write new ones.


LJ Cohen’s fifth and final book of her Halcyone Space series – A STAR IN THE VOID – will be available Summer of 2018.

Queer Men In Speculative Fiction–Where are they?

Queer Men In Speculative Fiction–Where are they?

It’s weird that I have to ask this question. It’s the year 2018, and I can’t give you a list that is strictly male and doesn’t involve a romance as a focal plot point.

However, the why is answered fairly quickly the moment you walk into a SFF convention. If you haven’t, have no fear, there’s a scene from Brooklyn 99 that illustrates it perfectly: a panel on Diversity in SFF and its all straight middle-aged white guys in various states of dress. As always, one of them is wearing a leather bomber jacket. Cause he’s not like those other SFF authors, he’s a cool SFF author.

Spare me.

Do I have a personal problem with romance in SFF? Gods no, read what you want, write what you want. But it shouldn’t be the only place I can read about queer men. And it is the only place I can read about queer men. Every book I’ve come across involving a queer male character in a leading role–not a supplementary character–is romance. And what that translates into is, unless they’re falling in love with someone, queer male characters don’t have stories to tell.

Which is, ya know, bullshit. Obviously.

But this is what happens in a genre dominated by straight white men; they’re going to write either straight men or queer women. Because that is both what they know and what they view as attractive.

So how do we go about writing queer men in SFF? And why is it so hard for so many writers to wrap their minds around?

First, you take every trope you remember from the 90’s and you set them on fire. Never approach them again. Don’t even look at them. They don’t exist. Then you build that character, just as you would any other character, and add in but they’re gay as an afterthought. How minor you want it to be and how you present that will depend on the level of acceptance in your world setting, and the character’s age. Are they younger and naive, or are they older and have seen various laws and politics surrounding the LGBT community rise and fall? And how does that affect their worldview?

But if I don’t use tropes or make the effeminate, how will people know they’re gay?

Oh buddy ol’ pal, that’s the beauty of it–you can reveal that little tidbit whenever you want. You can add it into a conversation, slip it in casually, or make it a big statement. For example, I came out to my DnD group last week when someone asked if my character had a crush on a party member and I said “No its not like that, Malachi’s like me. He’s demisexual. He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to others without very intense romantic feelings and a deep level of trust.”

Or you can flashback to it. Have it brought up in a memory. That’s how I introduced Yulian as being gay in the Silver Bullet Affair. It’s barely one sentence. And for me, that’s all I needed. I wanted my readers to know that Yulian is gay, has always known he was gay, and is living in a country where being gay was accepted and legal for quite some time before rulers changed hands (he’s Russian, by the way).

But who’s allowed to write about queer male MCs?

Anyone whose willing to give it due diligence, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For example, if you’re doing an SFF in a previous known time and place in history, or even a current one, you need to do your research on how the LGBT culture functions. If it’s made up, you have to make a backstory for that culture. How has it stood the test of time? Have different regimes of rulers made it illegal or otherwise legal? Did it start out as being acceptable but became worse as the power to rule changed hands, or is it the opposite? A writer should always write what they know, and the the beauty of the modern world we live in today is that what you know can easily be remedied. We have at our fingertips access to first hand accounts and primary resources with which to utilize to write anything accurately, so long as you put the hours in.

Queer men can kick ass, and save the world, and not have a romance define their entire place in a story. They can be effeminate or masculine, have great taste or a terrible fashion sense, because a person’s sexuality isn’t a clothing style or a series of mannerisms that dictates how you present yourself. Queer men, like all human beings, are individuals first, sexuality second.

For a fine example of queer men kicking ass, check out the Silver Bullet Affair, book one in the Bulletproof Spy series, available now on Amazon.

Writer… with Children

Writer… with Children

I’ll never forget a particular conversation. It was several years ago at a sci-fi conference, and I was with a group of authors talking about writing. They all had more publishing credits that I did. Someone asked what was holding me back, and I stammered a bit and then mentioned my two school-aged children.

“I have kids,” said a male writer, “and I still find time to write.”

“Ugh…” (I literally did not know what to say.) “Do you have a spouse that has primary responsibility of your kids?”

“Yes, my wife… but… I’m very involved with my kids. And I find the time.”

This was consistent with the messages I received when I decided about eight years ago to seriously try and “be a writer.”  Other writers and well-intentioned people—most whom did not have primary responsibility of children, if they had them at all—kept telling me that I could make it happen through sheer will and through making the time. Many of these folks were male identifying, by not all. About six years ago I was reading another writer’s blog—a woman with young children—and her advice to other women writers with kids was to simply teach your family you’re unavailable when you’re writing. “They will come to respect your boundaries,” I remember reading, “if they demand your attention simply turn them away.” And right after reading that that my then 8-year old daughter came into my writing space because she wanted to tell me something.

I didn’t turn her away.

It’s not that the male writer was wrong about “making time.” It’s not that the blog author was wrong about “setting your boundaries.” It’s just that for many years, for me, these were not simple choices.

I carry the trauma of a horrific birth experience with my first-born and subsequent severe depression and episodes of anxiety. It took me a year after he was born before I had several days in a row where I felt connected to him, felt I might just survive this motherhood thing.

There was no bandwidth for writing. It took almost all of my strength to survive each day and try to maintain a relationship with my husband.

To escape the stifling, trapped feeling that being a stay-at-home mother engendered in me, I went back to work part-time. I slowly got better.

Then I became pregnant again.

I immediately fell back into an anxious depression. I called my doctor once I recognized that dark curtain descending. I begged for medication. By the time I began treatment, I was completely numb again. I had no feelings for anyone, no affect. The only emotion I could experience and name was “anxiety.”

Luckily, this cloud lifted much sooner, while I was still pregnant. The support of my family and friends along with medication and therapy helped bring me back.

Still, I was never quite the same. I spent the next six years in a semi-anxious, under-slept, moderately depressed haze. I despaired I would ever feel the same again. But during that time something amazing also happened—I grew to love being a mother to these little humans. But for almost a decade, I had no capacity for anything except getting through each day.

As I found myself again, I realized I wanted to write. It was who I was. It was a dream I’d had since childhood; it was what I noted I wanted to do in my high school yearbook.

It was time.

Although I made baby steps toward this goal, I found it was not so easy to just do it. To just “set my boundaries” with my family.

I’d brought these children into the world; they didn’t ask to be born, and I suffered to have them. I was going to do my best for them.

Even though my writing was a priority, the kids were the highest priority. As they grew, I realized I had limited time with them—to shape them, guide them, and let them know they mattered above all else. I wanted them to have the security and confidence they’d need to go out into the world and be happy, secure, accomplished adults.

They’re now 14 and 17. And they’re amazing people. Everything I suffered and everything I sacrificed was worth it. Now I can find more time to write.

I know this is not the choice every writer makes. I don’t believe there’s one “right choice” in such a situation. We must all make the correct choice for ourselves.

Even now, as I have the capacity and more bandwidth, I don’t write every day—another typical “must” you hear from successful writers. I have a family, a few part-time jobs, and a chronic illness which requires me to get a lot of sleep. There are only so many hours in the day.

Being a writer with children is more difficult than being a writer without. But it’s not impossible. You may need to wait several years, do your writing at midnight, or steal twenty minutes here and there while you’re watching a game or waiting for a class to get out. You may not be able to write every day, or even every week. Do it when you can. Be compassionate with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to everyone around you. Find people who support you as you make your own way.

You’ll get there.

Handle with Care – Author Inside

Handle with Care – Author Inside

When I began writing several years ago, the idea of pursuing my passion felt like an exciting adventure. But when it came time to share my work with the world, other emotions joined the party, including vulnerability who showed up as an unexpected, uninvited guest! Besides my husband, the first group I felt safe talking about this with was my female tribe, many of them artists and writers themselves. But recently, when I wrote about it in my newsletter, the overwhelming response came from male writer and artist friends. I think this theme of feeling vulnerable crosses gender, age, and orientation. I think as artists we often feel exposed. We all know the sting of rejection. We’ve all questioned our own talent. My experience with the writing  community, especially the sci-fi/fantasy crew, has been one of support and encouragement. I’m inspired by all of you who dare to bare your souls to the world and create your art. Even if we’ve never met, I feel like we are walking this path together. 

Something unusual has happened to me since I started writing. I find myself feeling rather vulnerable, and with some regularity. I had a different career before this – one where I was confident in my abilities and proficient in my day-to-day work. Of course I made mistakes, and I grew and learned from those mistakes, but this isn’t the same thing. This vulnerability is raw and unsettling.

And, to my great discomfort, it’s been creeping into other areas of my life. I’m more emotionally fragile with my husband. I’m less secure in a crowd of new people. I’m sometimes hesitant to talk about my work. I barely recognize myself. My own sense of identity has been completely challenged. And yet…

I can’t imagine doing anything else. The artist side of me is someone I haven’t recognized or honored in a long time. She feels like a different version of the person I knew so well and worked hard to cultivate – but she’s been in there all along. Now I have to acknowledge her, and I have to find a way to balance the discomfort of vulnerability with the joy of creativity.

During a recent yoga class, my teacher and friend played us a portion of a TED talk given by Brene Brown. It was titled: The Power of Vulnerability, and I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. The one piece that serendipitously resonated with me was about people Brene called “whole-hearted.” These were the people from her study who had a strong sense of worthiness, love, and belonging. And all of them had a few things in common – they had the courage to be imperfect, they had compassion for themselves and for others, they created connections by being authentic, and they fully embraced their own vulnerability. I’ve been really sitting with this last one for a while. The healthiest, most well adjusted people in the study were those who fully embraced their own vulnerability. Huh.

My older kids are choosing careers in the arts. One is pursuing film acting and the other screenwriting. We’re all storytellers in our own way I guess. We’ve had thoughtful conversations about what it means to be true to your voice, but appreciate constructive criticism; how to be confident in your talent, yet constantly seek to improve your craft. In some ways they have an advantage – they’ve been putting themselves out there all along. They’ve learned to deal with the critics, the naysayers, and the failures with good grace. They’ve learned to embrace their vulnerability.

My husband is a singer and songwriter. A while ago he said to me, “Honey, it’s time to stop singing in the basement and get booed on stage.” This was around the time I’d finished an exhausting round of edits for my first manuscript and needed to send my book-baby into the world. I was terrified. As a musician, he understood my fear right away, but that didn’t stop him from giving me a gentle shove. After all, he doesn’t sing in the shower or in the basement – he sings on a stage. He shares his love of music with anyone who wants to listen, and risks getting booed.

In the face of self-doubt, failure, and sometimes-callous criticism, why do we push on? Why do we continue to create? Perhaps because it is immensely satisfying to touch another person’s soul with something we’ve made. Perhaps because the world needs its painters, storytellers, sculptors, photographers, musicians, dancers, and actors. We need them not just to entertain us, but because the mere fact that they exist at all says something powerful about being human. Perhaps because it is uniquely human to create art, and we’re willing to open ourselves up to the world to do it.

Any artist in any field understands that to share our work is to be vulnerable. We’ve risked opening our hearts to strangers – with words, in images, with a paintbrush, on a stage. We’ve put something of our private selves out into the world. Even my stories, full of spaceships and evil villains, myths and magic, have some of the real “me” in them. People who know me well will recognize those pieces. But it’s worth it to tell the story. And, finally, I’m learning to make peace with the discomfort.

Broad Universe and Power in Numbers

Broad Universe and Power in Numbers

As I write my blog, I’m sitting at a long table set up in a living room, surrounded by women on laptops, with notebooks, reading books…and a loving doggy who inspires us with snuggling. We go between soft-clicking silence and conversation; we talk about the science of ceramics, what scares us, and mind-controlling fungus. We pause for “what’s that word for…” requests and brain farts. It’s our first New England Broads writer retreat of the year—but not the first we’ve organized either formally or informally.

There’s a certain energy in a room full of writers, and a slightly different energy if all the writers are women. After all, we can talk about periods, uteruses, and not being listened to by doctors; we talk about the specific horrors (and magic) we face as women. In a mixed crowd, certain members would run away or be uncomfortable with such topics; there’d be pressure to not offend anyone or avoid being judged. There is a particular trust and candid honesty that weaves into our writing and inspires us, comforts us, and gives us courage to submit our work out into the world.

I’m not saying there’s not magic in writing retreats of mixed gender; there is. Any good group of writers can make an awesome retreat. Sometimes, though, you want to be in a group where certain things are shared experiences.

Writing retreats aren’t the main draw to being a member of Broad Universe—in fact, that’s more closely related to the fact there are a lot of members who live close to each other in the New England region.  However, we found ourselves through Broad Universe.

Broad Universe is an international non-profit dedicated to promoting, celebrating, and honoring women’s contributions to science fiction, fantasy, horror and all the speculative crevices in between.  It started at Wiscon, a feminist SF convention in Wisconsin in 2000, on a panel about how women can get more recognized as authors (and artists). At that time, the gap in pay, advertising, reviews, recognition, etc. was still exceptionally massive. While that gap has shrunk some in the past eighteen years, it isn’t yet “small.” While we’re updating our website, we’ve collected quite a few statistics about who still gets more reviews, better advances, and better placement in bookshelves.

And we’re working to change that.

With message boards, email lists, Facebook groups, and other tools, we help women talk to each other, support each other, and share their collected knowledge so we all can do better. We work together at events selling each other’s books because we all know how hard it is to sell our own; we get the still-strong stigma of a woman selling her wares. In a group, we’re stronger. We also do this online, sharing our news and publications. If a member has ties to a convention, we try to get other Broads (yes, we have claimed that term proudly!) onto programming so more people can discover them.

Broad Universe certainly wasn’t the first women’s organization to do this. We designed a lot of our work based on what Sisters in Crime had already done—and is still doing—in the mystery genre. There are other local and regional women’s groups that are genre specific or general interest. Seek them out.

The world still isn’t an easy place for women to get recognition, pay, reviews, or awards for their writing. Working as a group, we are stronger and have a better ability to change that. Whether you find a local informal group or seek out a larger organization, consider the power in numbers and don’t go it alone.

Find out more about Broad Universe at www.broaduniverse.org.

Find out more about Sister in Crime at www.sistersincrime.org.


Trisha J. Wooldridge writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry—sometimes even winning awards! You can find her work in a variety of anthologies, magazines, and online markets. She’s also editor of over fifty novels and two anthologies.  As child-friendly T.J. Wooldridge, she’s published three kids’ novels and poetry. Find out more at www.anovelfriend.com.