Sunday, April 29, 2018

#GIFcon18 - Fictional Identities and Real-World Protagonism

This is part three of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018.

Here is a question for the assembly. How many of you know your Meyers-Briggs personality type? ENFJ, INTP, all that? What about your Enneagram? Okay, what about your Hogwarts house? (Where my Hufflepuffs at?!)

So let’s think for a second about the last one – about fictional identities that we cleave to here in the real world. One of the first things that a human being does in unfamiliar surroundings is to look for their own type. When we travel, we hurry to find the ‘right’ part of town, where the people who are most like us are most likely to be. And in fantasy, whether we are traveling back in time or through the wardrobe or into a mirror universe where vampires are real, we do the same thing. Fantasy is *fantastic* at deliberately disorienting the reader, knocking us out of our existing prejudices and worldviews and leading us to fall in with strange bedfellows.

In a decent story, we find the good guys pretty quick. But in a great story, there is more than one kind of good guy. And, y’all, fantasy is SO GOOD at ensemble casts and sentai groups and adventuring parties and superhero teams – to me, this is half the genius of the genre. Fantasy says, “all right, here’s your map and your compass and your three magic coins. Now, do you want to be a wizard, or a fighter, or a cleric? Are you a Hufflepuff, or a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor? No, don’t just roll the die – let’s think about what you’re like and what you’re good at and decide what your heroic major should be.”

And I want to be clear. Anybody can do the A-Team. Anybody can tell a story about an unlikely band of lovable misfits, each with their own special talent. But what I see my favorite kind of fantasy doing is creating entire discrete categories of heroes, and explicitly inviting the reader to choose one for themselves. No kid reading Harry Potter has ever wondered whether they are a wizard. They wonder what kind of wizard they are.

And this is so important, y’all. This is SO VITAL. The magic of these categories, these self-chosen identities, is that they bypass the question of power and heroism entirely. You spend no time wondering whether you are good enough to be a hero in that world. Your power is *assumed*. Your potential is *a given* - and the only remaining question is what KIND of power you would have, what KIND of hero you would like to be.

More than that, these fantasy identities are safe and welcoming – because they are voluntary. I will never see a news story about how some other gnomish cleric went on a shooting spree and killed twelve people. I will never be passed up for a job or treated unkindly because of what some other Hufflepuff has done. I can’t say that about my fellow white people, my fellow fat people, my fellow Americans, my fellow women. I didn’t get to choose the identities that I was born with, and neither did any of you.

And this is where I would like the Western to help push fantasy one step farther.
So let’s think about what causes protagonism. Is it congenital? Is it genetic? Is it idiopathic? Is it contagious?

In fantasy, even in modern fantasy, it’s genetic. After all, in the Harry Potter books, the only way to get to be a Hufflepuff is to be born a wizard in the first place – and that is strictly a matter of birth. That’s where we see the roots of old-school fantasy, that says you’re either special or you’re not. And that really bothers me. Even in series I love, like the X-Men and the Incredibles, like Nickelodeon’s Avatar, like Steven Universe, the special people are orders of magnitude more powerful than the ordinary ones – and if you aren’t born into that club, there is no other way in. Not even if one of the special people bites you under a full moon. (Can we call the vampires-and-werewolves method ‘contagious’ protagonism? You can be a hero, but you have to wait for the plot to find you first.)

Conversely, Western protagonism tends to be an equal-opportunity gig. It says that who you are and where you come from doesn’t matter – it’s what you do that counts. (Even and especially if nobody else notices it.) I like that so much better. And I like the idea that even small, anonymous acts of heroism are hugely important and worthy.

Still, I don’t need to tell you that who you are DOES matter. I don’t need to tell you what it means to see girls and women in tears watching Wonder Woman. I don’t need to tell you what it means when black audiences are lining up around the block to see Black Panther for the sixth time. And I don’t want to belabor this point, because I suspect that you are already passionately, personally dedicated to the push for more diverse characters and stories. Can I get an amen? AMEN!!!

But I don’t want to leave it there in the fantasy world, y’all. I kind of want to take this big idea back through the wardrobe here into Mugglespace – and this is where you come in.

Today, there is a real momentum, a real push for everyone to own their identities – especially marginalized identities. Right? Back in the AOL days, the question was A/S/L – age, sex, location. Now our Twitter bios tend to include our gender and preferred pronouns, our sexuality, our race, faith, and so on. The discourse is very much about owning our identities, and pressing for better representation and improved opportunities for marginalized ones.

Now wade with me for a second into the real deep end of that pool. Have you ever heard of Otherkin? The folks who feel that they literally do have the spirit of a dragon, or an angel, or Sephiroth, or Goku. It’s pretty far out there, even by today’s standards – they are pretty far down on the hierarchy of nerds.

But I saw a post from a fellow once, which I thought was really profound. He said, “All right, so you have the soul of a dragon. Now, what I want to know is, what is it doing for you? Are you kinder, braver, more courageous, because you are a dragon? Because if so – batter on, buddy. I’m up for that.”

And so, once we have selected the labels that represent who we ARE, I want to develop vocabulary for labelling ourselves according to what we DO – and I’m not talking about what we get paid for. I'm talking about having words to communicate the flavor of the greatness inside us (whether we think of it as a dragon or a Ravenclaw or just the "Eye of the Tiger" montage from Rocky) - and to remind us to continually put that greatness out into the world.

This is really important to me, y’all. This is one reason I’ve left off writing for a bit and turned my attention toward mentoring other writers. *Everything* in our culture – well, my culture – encourages us to identify ourselves by how we vote, where we shop, which shows we watch, what brands we wear and eat and use. We’ve been asked to orient ourselves almost exclusively around the axis of consumption… but the axis of creation is beckoning.

I feel like we desperately need to go beyond identifying ourselves by what we consume, and also to go beyond identifying ourselves by the boxes we check on the census form – because I tell you what: whenever I see on the news how some hapless jack-ass has shot up a school, or driven a truck into a crowd, or blown up a bus or whatever, I KNOW that that person was profoundly disconnected. So often, they took one of their identities to a toxic extreme. And before you think “oh yes, men’s rights” or “oh yes, religious extremism”, or “oh yes, white supremacy” – don’t forget, you guys, that marginalized folks are not exempt from the ugly consequences of isolation and disconnection. The difference is that they tend to do violence to themselves, and it tends not to make the evening news. But I promise you that that violence is every bit as devastating to the people left in its wake.

So this is why I think we so badly need a new set of identities, ones that describe the kinds of goodness we have in us, the ways we like to contribute to the world. It’s good to be proud of who we are. It's great to find other people who enjoy some of the same games and books and TV shows we do. But as far as I can tell, the people who are excited about what they DO – about their writing, their art, their gardens, their kids, their church choir, their profession, their activism – those folks are much, much less likely to hurt themselves or other people.

And that’s where I want to see fantasy and Westerns team up to help us become our better selves. The Western is egalitarian – it says that anyone can be a hero, and that small acts matter tremendously – that you don’t need to wait for a wizard to come knocking on your door in order to find a problem and solve it. Fantasy adds to that by saying that there are different kinds of heroes, and gives us language to describe them. Fantasy says that you can be a Hufflepuff straight off the bat, before you’ve learned one single spell – but it’s not a passive attribute. Your Hufflepuffery hinges on your values, on your actions, the way you think and behave and solve problems – and at Hogwarts at least, the other students of your house are affected by what you do.

I like that idea a lot. And I want to take it farther. I want us to push the envelope even farther beyond Hogwarts houses, and Westeros houses, and My Little Pony cutie marks, and tell more stories that invite real people to find power and magic in the way they live their everyday lives. I want people to go out into the world thinking, “I’m a naturesmith, and that means I help animals and pick up trash wherever I see it.” “I’m a hospitologist, and that means I bring goodies and anticipate people’s needs and make sure everyone at the party is having a good time.” “I’m an enthusomancer, and that means I rally the troops whenever a person or a cause needs extra help.” (Big shout out to our chief enthusomancer here, Dr. Maslen.)

Those are good ways to see value in ourselves. But just as importantly, I want to help cultivate a language that invites us to see value in people who aren’t like us. If it turns out that I’m a liberal and you’re a conservative, then we might sort of bristle and get ready to argue. But if it turns out that you’re a hippie peacenik ecologist druid and I’m a survivalist doomsday-prepper druid, then we still have a means to relate to each other, because we have identity-words that emphasize our common ground (and invite us to bond over our shared contempt of idiotic wasteful city-slickers, of course.)

We do have that common ground. I believe that we do. What we don’t have are a lot of words to understand it with. We have a few, like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’. But we need so many more. We need words that describe who you are during a night out with your friends. Are you the ruckus-raiser who rounds up the crew and drags the introverts out of the house? Are you the logistician who chooses a place and arranges rides? Are you said introvert who REALLY doesn’t want to go but dutifully shows up and pours your drunk idiot mates carefully into a taxi at the end of the night?

There is a term in linguistics called ‘hypocognition’. Has anyone heard it? It basically proposes that when your language doesn’t have words to express a certain idea or feeling, it is much more difficult, or even impossible, to mentally process those ideas or feelings. And that is what I think our discourse is missing, y’all. We need a vocabulary of contribution, a set of identity-words that speak to our gifts and passions and the ways we like to help the people around us.

I believe that the more of those words we have, the better we will get at seeing ourselves as heroes in our own everyday lives – and the more readily we will be able to recognize value and heroism in people who are profoundly unlike us. This is what I want to see here in the real world, guys. I want protagonism to be CHRONIC. I want it to be contagious. I want it to be endemic!

So that is my proposition. That is the quest I would like to put to you – because I believe that you-all are the best possible people to undertake the task.

You-all here today are at the center of the Venn diagram of power and possibility. You are creative enough to envision a better world, and articulate enough to put that vision to the rest of us. You are old enough to know what’s important to you, and young enough to make it happen. You are smart enough to do this job, and dumb enough to take it. And guys, after hearing you this weekend, after seeing how brilliantly you analyze and draw from these fictional worlds, I cannot WAIT to see how you will transform this one.

<--Part 2: The Fantasy of the West

#GIFcon18 - The Fantasy of the West

This is part two of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018. 

So in the quest to write a truly American fantasy, I started looking at Westerns, because of course it's the quintessentially American genre.

Question for the assembly: what do you think of when you think of a Western?

There are guns, of course, and horses, and hats, and all those good things - but those are just the set props, the tropes - they are the "envelope" of the genre. Think about fantasy for a sec: the "envelope" includes swords, dragons, and elves, but what is the essence of fantasy? It's magic. It's adventure. Above all, it is 'what if'.

So let's talk about the essence of a Western for a minute. Setting all of the props and movie set backdrops aside for a moment (and speaking strictly in crass generalizations for the time being), here are the essential features of a Western that stood out to me.

What I noticed is that:

1) In a Western, who the hero is or where he is from is ultimately immaterial. He doesn’t turn out to be the son of a wizard or a king, and there’s no Hand of God aiming a prophecy square at his head saying “right, you – get on with it.”

Instead, 2) he becomes heroic by being the person who looks at the problem, hitches up his britches, and decides to go handle it. He's not the hero because he has a special power, a special object, or special knowledge. He's usually not the only person who CAN handle the problem. He's just the only person who WILL.

And 3) that problem is usually intensely small-scale. We’re often talking about one town under siege by bandits, or one rancher’s daughter about to lose her land to the bank, or think of Jack London’s To Build a Fire – the stakes are literally one fire, one person’s life.

And because the stakes are so small, 4) the hero’s deeds will go unnoticed and unrecorded by the outside world – what he does matters intensely to the people involved, but does not change the larger status quo.

And yet, 5) there is an incredibly intense moral code involved.

Let's talk about that last part. Have any of you ever seen HBO’s Deadwood? It’s a revisionist Western series from a few years back, and I’d like for us to look at the first scene together. (Fair warning: there's a hanging involved, and a healthy dose of swearing.)


1. Both the prisoner and the sheriff have the same understanding of the rules of their society: the prisoner was caught stealing horses, and that’s a hanging offense. Which may seem strange and cruel, but think about it with me.

Let’s say I’ve caught you stealing my horses. You don’t seem like a bad sort, really. I understand you were desperate. But out on the frontier, there’s no proper prison to put you in, and we couldn’t really afford to feed you and keep you even if we did, so ultimately I have to either kill you or let you go. In a kinder, more generous world, I would let you go. But in this one, letting you go means taking the risk that you will steal my neighbor’s horses next, and I will be liable and he will be ruined. And so what happens next is going to be hard for both of us, because we are the children of a hard place.

2. Because we have the same understanding of the rules, we can afford to be kind, even friendly to each other, despite our mutual sadness at what must happen next. Ultimately, the sheriff and the prisoner are on the same side - they have a common enemy.

3. When the outlaws show up, they threaten to wreck those rules. And even though it hardly seems to matter whether the prisoner dies by shooting or hanging, the moral stakes are tremendously high here: if we let the outlaws have their way, then we admit total powerlessness in the face of violence and anarchy. We lose order and society itself.

4. The sheriff does not push the prisoner. He beckons him, and waits for the man to step off the platform of his own accord. The sheriff’s kindness goes beyond what is strictly required (asking for last words and wishes) and grants the prisoner this tiny measure of agency in his own death. Again, a small, crucial measure of control as chaos threatens. (He does him a second kindness by jerking his body downwards to give him a quick, sudden death, so that he does not suffer.)

5. In this way, justice prevails – and anarchy loses its power. The outlaw leader has lost status in the eyes of his men, who see nothing else worth fighting over. Everyone leaves peacefully, without a shot fired. In the end, the result is just what it promised to be at the beginning of the scene – the sheriff and his deputy depart for Deadwood, as planned, and the prisoner has died lawfully, (almost) as planned, and the sleeping townsfolk have no idea that anything was ever out of the ordinary. But the WAY in which these things were accomplished feels tremendously weighty, as if we have fought and won the battle for civilization itself in the space of five minutes.

…and that’s what really enchants me about Westerns, y’all – that feeling of living at the edge of the firelight, as it were.

 Are any of you Firefly fans? Do you remember how many episodes were about survival? They were out of food, or out of money, or broke down and out of gas in space. That lack, that want, drove the plot forward (often without any need for a villain), and gave us so many great situations and stories that you can’t do in Star Trek, say, where there is plenty of everything. More than anything, the Western is a tale of scarcity.

So often, the virtues that the fantasy genre fights so valiantly for – charity, mercy, kindness, redemption – have to be painfully rationed in the Western. They are as rare and precious as water in the desert, more valuable for being so difficult to come by.

And to come back to the theme of our event, that to me is where we escape the escapism. A decent story of whatever kind might end with killing the bad guy and going home a hero. But a great story, to my mind, asks us to consider not just whether we CAN do the right thing, but what the right thing IS – and what it might cost. This is how Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter stuck the landing, as it were: there was no victory without cost.

And what is fascinating to me is that we seem to have an endless appetite for stories of any genre that indulge our fantasy of smallness. The ones that say, “remember when we were tiny helpless creatures – when we didn’t worry about crushing the planet with our carbon emissions – when we could be devoured by giant nameless creatures or disappear mysteriously in the night – when we huddled close by the campfire and prayed to survive until morning.”

And this is where it finally clicked for me, y’all. This is where I finally found the connection between the fantasy novels I read in the car and the Western vistas passing by through the window. They DO work well together, because they share a common origin. They are the children of a single timeless parent. Both fantasy and Westerns can trace their lineage back to the time of Beowulf, when the lone Geatish gunslinger first rode into town to liberate the Danes from the ravages of the outlaw Grendel.

At its heart, whether we are talking about outlaws or wilderness survival or the railroad coming through town, whether it is set in Arizona or the Yukon or Japan or outer space, a Western is fundamentally about the conflict between the world you know and the one you don’t… and fantasy is the one you don’t. Literally the only requirement for a fantasy story is that it takes place outside the world as we know it… and that gives it power like no other.

Examining fantasy and Westerns side-by-side is such a valuable way to understand our common past – and I believe that bringing them back together can help us chart a path to a better future. Here’s how.

Part 3: Fictional Identities and Real-World Protagonism --> 

<--Part 1: Building Droughtworld

#GIFcon18 - Building Droughtworld

This is part one of "Once Upon a Time in the West" - the keynote address I delivered for the Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations conference in April 2018.

Hi all! And thank you so much for having me out. Before we get started, I just wanna say… y’all got ALL the purdy words. Makes my skull-meats all tingly :)

It’s been such a rare treat to get to hear your work over these last couple of days, and I have to confess that I’m a little nervous – you are an awfully hard act to follow. But I’ll try to string my corn-fed gruntings and hillbilly ululations together into something entertaining, at least. I’d like us to have a thought about the fantasy and the Western genres, and what relationship they have – but after that, I have a proposition for you. A quest, if you will, to use your excellent words to take what we talk about in the next few minutes and do something new with it.

So this is me, and these are my books. I grew up in Texas, Dallas specifically, which you can see as the biggest bright spot just below dead-center of this map here.

Can you see the difference between the eastern and the western halves of the US? It's really something, isn’t it? So while I didn’t grow up in the West per se, I’ve lived in a place that’s sort of at the edge of the light – and as fantasy enthusiasts, you know very well how many exciting things can happen there.

Anyway, so I grew up in Dallas, but most of my extended family lived in Houston, which is about four hours drive, and in Albuquerque, which is about twelve. I am here to tell you that that is a looooong time in the car when you’re a little kid. And most of it looks like this.

I mean, it’s not all boring. There’s lots to see on the road...

...and those gas stations have all KINDS of fun treasures.

Anyway, so I got a lot of reading done on those car trips, and it was fantasy from top to bottom. By and by, around my junior year of high school, I had a great idea. “I’m gonna write me a book!”

And I did.

And it was ANIME.

But that was all right. I kept revising and refining, starting over, trying out new ideas, and had a great time. But even after I’d gotten fairly decent at things like characters and dialogue, I kept hitting this wall with the setting. I kept trying to write what I’d always read – which was to say, a vaguely European medieval nowhere – and it kept dissolving into a pile of generic mush. I wasn’t excited about it, but I didn’t know what else to do.

So it was around that time, after college, when my roommate brought home a copy of True Grit. Have any of you read or seen this?

Let me back up and say that I had never paid much attention to Westerns before. I thought they were all about stubbly-jawed white guys putting bullets in their problems, and since that was never going to be me, I never gave them a second look. Plus, you might have heard the stereotype about how Westerns are basically romances for men. I mean, think about it. They’re shamelessly unrealistic. The traditional gender roles are dialed up to 11. At the end, the guy gets the girl. And you know how you can tell they’re men’s books? Cuz at the end, he leaves :)

Anyway, but here was True Grit – the story of Mattie Ross, a14-year-old farm girl from Yell County, Arkansas, who’s going to risk everything to track down and bring to justice the hired man who murdered her father, because nobody else cares.

And y’all, that was a revelation for me. Look at her. This is not a spunky princess going out for an adventure. This is a squishy little hobbit-person who has NO business being out in the big wide world, and no way out but through. And that was when it hit me, y’all. That was when I realized that Westerns are for EVERYONE.

And I thought – hang on, why am I trying to write Europe? I’m not from Europe. I’m from Texas. For us, ‘Yurp’ is one syllable. Why don’t I write an American epic fantasy – one set in my own back yard? Hell yeah! That’ll be great! Let’s do it!

…guys. Have you LOOKED at American History? Oh my grits. That is some grim stuff. And it’s a hard thing to wrestle with, too. On the one hand, it’s so special to belong to a truly exceptional place, a country that was founded on an idea… but on the other hand, there is no part of my country that we didn’t take from somebody else. That is a hard circle to square. In some ways, it feels like we are both the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, and I wanted so much to bring that feeling front and center to my work.

So I started seriously looking at Westerns, because it’s the quintessentially ‘American’ genre. And I thought hard about what it meant to write about my country.

I didn’t feel it was responsible to write any so-called American story that did not include a representative variety of Americans, or failed to confront the violence and cultural warfare of our history head-on. But I also didn’t want to contribute to the volume of Dances With Wolves nonsense – “oh, and then the native people all quietly packed off to a reservation and disappeared, isn’t that sad.” It’s not good writing, and more importantly, it’s not true. There are over 500 federally-recognized tribes today! They are still here, despite what this jackass author would have you believe.

So, all right – we’ll have the war, but make it come out differently. Make it more of a stalemate, have the native people actually fight to a standstill and take some of their land back from the settlers.

Good, yes. But how? By what means? And the obvious answer that I reached for was the fantasy answer: well, the native peoples can fight back because they have magic, and the settlers don’t.

But that didn’t sit quite right, because it falls back into the old toxic stereotypes – that native people are either more or less than human, that they’re innately different from us ‘regular folks’, more connected to the earth, and so on and so forth. And so I really had to think hard and ask: what, historically, did indigenous Americans have that Europeans didn’t?

I found the answer in New Mexico, actually. Have any of you heard of the Acoma Sky City? It is a really special place – the longest continually inhabited settlement in North America. It’s a little town sitting on top of a mesa just west of the Sandia Mountains, and it has been there since the 1100s.

The Acoma people still live there, and on the land down at the foot of the mesa – unconquered, unmoved, unbroken. They have changed significantly since European contact, but much of that change has been on their own terms.

And that was it, y’all. That was when the light bulb went on… which was ironic, since there’s no electricity up there. In MY American fantasy land, magic power comes from cultural continuity. The more you eat the way your ancestors ate, live on their land, speak their language, and worship in their traditions, the more potent your magic is – and it is specific to your people. 

So over here are the Washchaw, the bear people, tremendously tall and strong and powerful – as long as they live according to their clan laws. If you belong to the Ant-Watching clan, you have a sacred obligation to protect the small and the weak, and you may not have any contact with the dead. And over here are the Ten-Maia, the people of the corn, the geomancers whose harvest-drums can actually crack open the earth… and over here working in the silver mine is Ah Che, who is losing his magic, because when you are Ten-Maia, you are not supposed to be burrowing into the ground like a greedy little parasite. And over here are the coyote people, who celebrate a variety of gender-fluid identities, and the crow people, who definitely do not. And here are the telepaths, and here are the necromancers, and here are the house-guards, and here is where the astronomers used to be, but we don’t like to talk about what happened to them.

All right, so. Magic power comes from cultural continuity. But there is more than one kind of cultural continuity, right? So actually, some of the settlers do have some of their old-world magic – the wealthy ones who have been living on the family estate or plantation for two hundred years, who know all their begats and can trace their genealogy back twenty generations and are tremendously proud of their magical pedigree. And even the ordinary folks who don’t have any of that might have just a little unexplainable spark of something – a little knack for mending, maybe, or a bit of a way with animals.

And finally, there is Día – a fire-bending science nun, and one of my favorite characters. She is the child of escaped slaves. She has no idea who her grandparents were, or where her parents came from. But she has taken the faith she was raised with to heart, and become a grave bride – a consecrated woman, who has dedicated her life to studying the mysteries of creation and burying the unclaimed dead. And through her faith, she is POWERFUL. At one point we see her walking barefoot through the desert, leaving smoking footprints behind her, knowing that she could start a wildfire that would burn the whole place to ash.

So, all right. Maybe your continuity comes from your family. Maybe it comes from your faith. Maybe it comes from your profession – you know, if a first-rate blacksmith takes you on as his apprentice, and it’s through studying with him that you begin to inherit his power and become a steelbender, or what-have-you.

And so in a world where power comes from continuity, we can use magic to look at the questions that we wrestle with today. How much continuity – how much orthodoxy – can you accumulate before it becomes stagnation, or oppression? If you’ve been cut off from your ancestral past, how and to what extent can you reconnect with it? If you were lucky enough to make it through the cataclysm, how much of your old ways can you afford to keep in this new world, and when is it heroic (not selfish) to willingly give up your own power in order to try or do something new? Those are the things that I really enjoy thinking about, and I find that fantasy provides a terrific medium for exploring them.

Part 2: The Fantasy of the West -->

Saturday, April 28, 2018

"Once Upon a Time in the West" - #GIFcon18

Hold my hat and sit me down, y'all. I think I may pass clean out.

Partly cuz it's 2AM and I'm watching the floor-wax zamboni at LaGuardia (and have been awake for pretty close to 24 hours), but mostly because it's been five time zones and 3,000 miles and I am STILL just over the moon about GIFcon (Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations) 2018. Will fill you in after I am sleep!

But before I have to shower and wash the rest of the magic off, here for posterity is baby's first keynote speech: "Once Upon a Time in the West - Fantasy and Identity on the Fictional Frontier" 

(and I'm going to break this up into multiple posts, cuz it's long as hell)

Part 1: the part about building Droughtworld

Part 2: the part about Westerns in general, and fantasy and Westerns in particular

Part 3: the part about fictional identities and cultivating real-world 'protagonism'

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

WFC 2017: This is How We Stop Failing

This is a post about hosting events, and more specifically about running genre conventions, and most-specifically about World Fantasy Con. It’s also about the ongoing problem of inclusivity we’ve been having over here in literary SFF fandom, and my worm’s-eye view of what we can do to improve it.

NB: I am fairly new to fandom (my first convention was in 2013), and among the younger set of traditionally-published SFF authors (I just turned 35). I am an instigator, organizer, presenter, and/or attendee for three-quarters of a shitload of events annually, most of them writing-related. I also had the singular honor of being the volunteer coordinator for the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio over this past weekend.

Like Mi Tierra, it was lit. (Shoutout to Sam Knight for the brilliant photo.)

There is a little story to tell first, and it goes like this:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl in third grade. (Not me.)

She came to school one day with a huge rat’s nest in her hair – and man, it was making her miserable. She could NOT sit still or pay attention or hardly even stand to be in her own skin.

The teacher, my beloved Auntie M, finally stopped class, pulled a hairbrush out of her purse, sat the girl down at the front of the room, and started to brush her hair. She carried on the class discussion while she brushed and brushed – gentle and carefully, a little at a time. It took the better part of the morning – but when it was done, the difference was night and day. The girl felt SO much better without that awful knotted wad of hair gnarled up on her head. After that, she third-graded happily ever after, for the whole rest of the day.

Y’all, we do have a huge rat’s nest in SFF fandom, and it is making us ALL miserable. It’s a whole horrible tangle of issues (a rat’s nest always is). It’s harassment, and discrimination, and invisibility, and lack of accessibility, and more besides.

The people on the receiving end of those things are sick and goddamn tired of dealing with them. The people deliberately perpetrating those things are assholes we badly need to get rid of. And the rest of the people, the ones who just want everybody else to chill out and have the same good time they’ve always had – well, a lot of them are anxious, defensive, and tired of getting yelled at for every problematic thing under the sun. And none of these feelings happen spontaneously or without reason: a little neglected tangle becomes a big angry knot becomes a huge event-wrecking snarl, and soon nobody involved is having any fun. Except maybe the assholes.

But short of whipping out the scissors, there’s only one way to untangle a rat’s nest. You have to start from the bottom and work your way up. And I mean from the BOTTOM.

Con-runners, event-organizers, fellow hosts of all stripes – you see this Maslow’s hierarchy chart here?

This is what I’m talking about. We have to start from the bottom of THIS. We have to start with meeting people’s basic physical needs.

Does your event have reasonable facilities, including accessible parking and clear signage? Are there restrooms and water available, and easily findable? Is the temperature comfortable? Can your attendees sit when they want to, stand and walk when they need to? Can *everyone* hear and see what’s going on? If it’s a long event, do you have food available (for purchase or for free), and is there enough for everyone? Does the menu provide adequately for people with common dietary restrictions? (Fact: humans require protein to live, and the joyless oil salad your hotel liaison is touting as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and halal satisfies nobody.)

This was our improv-directory for the mass autographing session: because letting authors sit where they want is a time-honored WFC tradition, but helping guests not have to hike up and down every single aisle and row to find their person is just plain thoughtfulness - whether they have limited mobility or not.
These considerations are not the last step in the event planning process, the mandatory-minimum meat-suit maintenance we have to do in order to get on with the important stuff. This IS the important stuff. Hospitality is a sacred duty so ancient we tell stories about the people who screwed it up. Traitors to guests are tortured in the deepest circle of Dante’s hell – worse than thieves, worse than murderers, worse than blasphemers and adulterers and people who leave trash in the airplane seat-pocket – and even if you aren’t feeding your attendees the roasted flesh of their own children, you absolutely cannot afford to fail on this front. Anything you are ignorant about you’d better learn. Anything you can’t do or provide had better be unmissably advertised beforehand, so that the people you aren’t equipped to serve know to plan accordingly or stay home. The instant they walk through your door, your guests are entrusting you with their one irreplaceable human body – and you MUST care for it faultlessly.

Sometimes it's the littlest stuff, y'all. Like pulling chairs away from the round serving table so that all feet and wheels can get the whole way around it without blocking traffic.
And that brings us to the second step on the pyramid. Guys, it is not enough to have staff on site. Their mere presence is not sufficient – because A) those people need to be equipped (advised, trained, directed, empowered) to spot problems in the making and help the guests who need it, and B) your guests need to be able to find them. I cannot overstate that second part. How do we KNOW who the helpers are in the crowd? Are they wearing matching T-shirts? Special hats? If “blue badge” means “staff”, how do attendees know that? Regardless of what insignia you use: if it can’t be spotted clear across the room, it isn’t visible enough. And if your guests don’t know that a staff member is present, he or she might as well not be.

The 'deputy sheriff' star badges I used for WFC were a step in the right direction, but not visible enough - you can barely see them here. (Fortunately, Team Domitz took the whole 'volunteer uniform' thing to a new, slightly frightening level of badass.)

Realness, y’all: I had a terrific time at World Fantasy Con in 2015, but it had conspicuous failures on both the physical needs and the security/safety steps of the pyramid. And it is FAR from the only major convention to do so.

If you’ve read this far, I trust it’s because you’ve recognized the bigger problems we have in our community – with passively excluding disabled people, with harassment and silencing of women in particular, with utterly failing to draw in minorities and then giving the “diversity panel” token treatment to those we do manage to attract. (And, I would add, with dogpiling on people who are more scapegoats for than active perpetrators of the issues listed above.)

All of the above are failures of inclusion, fault lines in our greater fan/writer community. They are conspicuous and highly-charged cracks in the “belonging” step of Maslow’s hierarchy. And we will NEVER be able to repair them until we fix those first two steps in the foundation. At a societal level, that means addressing poverty, violence, and institutionalized inequality. But in microcosm, at a convention or other event, it means ensuring that ALL our guests feel safe and well cared-for from start to finish.

All of us organizers want to put on a great show, and we are all apt to feel frustrated when the end result is criticized. Eventomancy is one of the most demanding of the extrovert sciences, and not for the faint of heart. But to my fellow party-planners: when you catch yourself feeling frustrated by criticism and sorely tempted to fire back or give up, please don’t. We need your passion and energy for big-tent human connection now more than ever. Instead, go back to the beginning. Start at the bottom, with the most basic and universal human needs, and work your way up. Ask yourself “how will they find the bathroom?” (And for a photo-annotated love-rant on what a ten-out-of-ten host-tacular convention looks like, click here.)

Unfortunately, we at World Fantasy 2017 were not able to unilaterally clear step three of the pyramid. But we have enjoyed a whole lot of post-con positive buzz, and I dare to hope that our stumbles were considerably smaller than in previous years. If that is true, it is because everyone on the back end put a hell of a lot of effort into getting those first two steps on absolute judo-grip lockdown. Watertight accessibility and harassment protocol. Killer hospitality suite with a 'conucopia' of dining options for nearly every appetite. Clear signage, abundant space, and visible volunteers everywhere. This weekend was Texas hospitality done right - and I could not be more proud to belong to a con-com and a culture that is synonymous with boisterous, big-hearted generosity.

Baltimore, the ball is in your court now. You know what to do.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Digging in the Spurs at the Paragraph Ranch

Y'know, it's always a strange experience coming back from a convention. Kind of feels like going home from Hogwarts for the summer. There was this magical place, full of fantastic people and all the most delightful conversations... and now I'm back here in the real world, belatedly plugging back into the news, the inbox, and the Face-feed, and y'all - I'm not sure who started what, but absolutely EVERYONE is pissed off about something. I swear this happens every time.

They call it a 'hard return' - and boy, is it ever.

There's a pattern to the readjustment, too. First you're annoyed that the 24/7 Internet slap-fight has made no allowances for your lingering literary wizard-buzz. Then you feel guilty for getting to run off to La-La Land in the first place, even and especially while things were getting real on the six o'clock news. Sometimes you just feel like everything you're doing with your life is some kind of first-world frivolous... or at least I do. It's hard to feel like writing daring new adventures for your story-barbies is all that important or helpful when the doomsday clock perpetually reads one minute to midnight.

But you know what else? We are sharing a planet with some incredibly sharp, talented, big-hearted ambitious doers - and if you put your own self out there often and enthusiastically enough, sometimes you can catch one of them on their way past, like the Little Prince netting a comet.

Sometimes, if you are really lucky, you can catch two.

I'm still not sure exactly how it happened, but I seem to have roped a pair of shooting stars called Kay Ellington and Barbara Brannon. You might already know Kay as the editor of Lone Star Literary Life, and Barbara as the director of the Texas Historical Commission's panhandle region. Writing plus Texas history. Hold that in your memory buffer - it's about to get radically relevant.

And so is this place right here.
Because guys. Kay and Barbara have cracked the code. They have figured out how to harness writing-energy and turn it into something that makes a positive, real-world impact before you ever publish a single word. Are you ready? Here's their secret.

Step 1: Find a historic West Texas town that has been losing population to the big cities - one that has modern infrastructure and conveniences, but needs a new economic engine to survive.

Step 2: Move there. Buy a big plot of land with a storied house and outbuildings. Work like a twenty-mule team to completely update and remodel it from top to toe.

Step 3. Invite scriveners of all stripes to come out for a writers retreat like no other - in a place where you can perfect your craft in perfect rustic splendor, while your presence helps keep small-town Texas living sustainable for generations to come.

It's called the Paragraph Ranch - in a little place called Spur, Texas. And if you are up for the adventure, I'll meet you there. Here's what we're doing:

WHEN: December 1st-3rd

WHERE: In Spur at the historic Back Door Inn (we are making our home base at this fantastic B&B for the first year, while Kay and Barbara finish their renovations).

WHAT: Come and write! And while you're there, let's talk about your work. Send me your current project - whether it's 800 words or 80,000 - by November 27th. (Yes, you can send me your entire novel. No, I'm not scared!) I'll read it and come ready to have a one-on-one conversation tailored to your specific goals and concerns. Kay and Barbara will also open up the treasure trove of their knowledge as successful working authors, and we'll have opportunities for you to share some of your writing with the group.

HOW MUCH: $250 for the weekend. That includes your room and board, and all of the expertise on offer - everything but your gas and road-trip snack supply!

We're keeping it simple this first time out, and giving it 100% - all you have to do is get there. Here is the thing, though: we have to make our minimum head count by November 1st in order to hold our space at the Back Door Inn. (I hope this won't be hard to do: we have eight beds, and two are already spoken for.)

So. If you like the idea of racking up good keyboard karma - if you want to get in one last big burst of word-slinging before the holidays eat your life - if you're willing to pack up your laptop and hit the road to help keep small-town living going strong - please sign up as soon as you can. (If you have questions about it, hit us up - lonestarliterary at , tex at - and we'll be happy to tell you more!)

Regardless: you know this isn't your only chance to catch a comet, y'all. You know you don't have to wait for a moonshot to make good things happen for yourself, or to put your goodness out into the world. I'm just saying: if you've been feeling a little short on light in your life, there is a twelve-gigawatt bright idea passing right overhead - and you never know where it might take you.