A Little About My WIP

I recall seeing a presentation by Robert J. Sawyer about “Writing in the Zeitgeist” at Keycon one year, and I was really glad to hear his thoughts on the subject.

The dictionary definition of Zeitgeist is “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” In his presentation, Sawyer encouraged writers to write about things that are relevant in the here and now of modern day – things that people feel passionate about, have opinions about, etc, and that doing so would help them find an audience of people who will enjoy the book.

I got thinking about it and how I’ve tried to follow that advice in my current work-in-progress lately for two reasons.

First is the obvious political climate. The rise of hatred we’re seeing right now is frightening, and unlike many previous generations, we have enough global awareness and memory of the last big time it happened that it’s disturbingly familiar.

So I’d been wanting to make a point of writing something that had more diversity in it than what I’d written before, so I came up with a black main character. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be taking over black people’s stories and telling their stories for them, so it wasn’t going to be a story about what it was like to be black or anything like that. I still wanted to be saying something about my feelings about racism and discrimination and such, though, so I thought a while about what I, as a white woman, had to offer.

And sometime around when I was coming up with the world my story is set in, Folklorama was on again. I hadn’t always realized it, but Folklorama is apparently, quite literally, the biggest multicultural celebration in the world. And I stopped to think about that, realizing that I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, in a country that has an official policy of not just tolerance of multiculturalism but embracing and celebrating multiculturalism as something that makes the country stronger.

And at the same time, Winnipeg also holds the title of the most racist city in Canada.

So when I thought about that, then I knew exactly what I have to bring to this conversation – it’s my experience living, not in a utopia of multiculturalism, but in a place that’s at least trying. A country and a city where that utopia of Star Trek’s Star Fleet is kind of the goal, but it’s a work in progress.

So what I decided to portray was just that – a society with government policy supporting multiculturalism, but people who are still struggling with it. A government that inconsistently applies those policies, governing people who disagree on how and to what extent those policies should be applied.

Sometimes the utopia seems like it’s just hopelessly far off. But I hope there’s room someday on the shelf in between all those dystopian YA novels, for a utopia in progress.

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11 responses to “A Little About My WIP

  1. 1920s Berlin was the classic example of a paradoxical city. Liberal, urbane, and avant-garde, many thought it the last place in the world where totalitarianism might arise. How wrong they were!

    • Indeed – there’s been a video being passed around the last few days of some guy in manitoba, not far from here, verbally and racially attacking a muslim woman who stopped to ask for directions, calling himself a nazi. Like I said, Winnipeg may be one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, but it’s also really freaking racist at the same time. Throw economic hardships on people and give them an easily defined group of people to blame it on, and they’ll happily embrace racism.

  2. So when I thought about that, then I knew exactly what I have to bring to this conversation – it’s my experience living, not in a utopia of multiculturalism, but in a place that’s at least trying. A country and a city where that utopia of Star Trek’s Star Fleet is kind of the goal, but it’s a work in progress.

    Sounds interesting to me! Can’t wait to learn more about it. 😀

    “But at the same time, I didn’t want to be taking over black people’s stories and telling their stories for them.”

    Hey, it’s not our story; it’s yours! 😉 In all seriousness, though, I personally don’t mind writers writing outside of their races or ethnicities. I do it without thinking about it, tbh. Besides, I don’t think the privilege/burden of writing about characters of color rests on the shoulders of any one particular segment of society. That would be kind of boring, if it did! (It’s funny you bring up this topic because I wrote a blog post related to this not long ago, heh.)

    • Thanks 🙂 I remember that post you wrote, and I totally agree you shouldn’t feel obligated to write about the black experience; you should be able to write what you want to write, and not be relegated to special interests shelves just for being a black writer. It’s bullshit that writing by women ends up shuffled away onto the romance shelves, even if it’s fantasy (eg, Outlander) or black writers pushed off to the side because publishers don’t think they’ll appeal to mainstream fantasy and science fiction readers.

      That wasn’t really what I was talking about when I said I didn’t want to take over someone else’s narrative. I’ve been following a tumblr blog called “writing with color” that’s for writers to ask questions about how to be sensitive when writing people of ethnicities that they’re unfamiliar with, and they do encourage white writers to do their research and go ahead and write characters of other ethnicities to get some more diversity into their fiction, but they also explain that there are certain types of stories that we should leave to writers who can do it better justice, but who tend to be pushed off the shelves to make way for white authors writing those same types of stories. Mainly stories that focus on what it’s like to be someone of that ethnicity, which probably comes up a lot less writing fantasy and science fiction, so I’m not that likely to even have a desire to write something like that. What I have is a main character who happens to be black, but her being black isn’t the point of the story or anything, I just figured there needs to be more black girls on the covers of YA books 🙂

      • Ah…gotchya. Yeah, that makes sense. That’s interesting about Outlander; didn’t know that. (Only seen the TV show so far.)

        I was talking to a friend who’s had an idea for a novel for quite some time because he wanted his main character to be gay but wasn’t sure anyone would want to read about a gay protagonist. I’m like dude, people are begging for more stories with leading POC or LBGT characters right now. It’s kind of a thing. And then he’s like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to write a story like that knowing it’s a ‘thing’ now,” which I totally get–because one, you don’t want to come across as writing with an agenda, and two, because personally, I don’t like the idea of “following trends” for the sake of being trendy.

        I do feel that so long as the story comes from a good place in your heart, then it will come across that way. At the same time, I don’t like reading stories where it feels like these minority types of characters are just token plugs and aren’t really integrated into the story in a meaningful or realistic way. I read one of Cherie Priest’s books once, Ganymede, where I felt she did this with a transgender character she wrote in. Still liked the story overall, though I definitely thought she could have handled this character better.

      • Even beyond this, because people are so sensitive about topics like this these days, I find myself always questioning how I handle black character in my story–and I am black! LoL

        • Lol, no kidding; and you’d likely be far less likely to stumble blindly into something offensive than I am.

          I wrote one novel at one point set in a world that was coded middle eastern, and it set religion against science as the theme, and my first beta reader just *happened* to be a muslim. He opened his critique with that, and I was like, oh shit, I probably did something offensive and didn’t even know! But I hadn’t gone out to villify or discredit religion, and he said while he cringed at first, anticipating likely being offended, he said he ultimately wasn’t offended by what I’d done with the story. Years later now, I’ve learned a lot more about the sort of things white writers do that offend muslims in fiction, and I see some specific areas where I blundered straight by the potentially offensive things without doing them, but it was partly by luck, because of the type of story I was telling, and the fact that I wasn’t out to trash religion as the theme of the story. It was a really interesting experience.

          • No kidding 🙂 But I guess you’re right about when you’re story is coming from a good place in your heart, you’re likely to come out with something positive and not offensive.

            What I’m waffling about on my WIP right now, is what sort of background to give my main character – I know she’s going to be poor and disadvantaged, but originally I had her in a community of people who were basically wage-slaves – not technically owned by anyone, but paid such low wages that they can’t get ahead, housing and food and all other necessities provided by employer and taken out of their wages, etc. I was doing that to avoid the slavery thing, but I want the country she’s in to be signing onto a treaty that requires the government to make some major concession on how it treats her people. Having them be slaves at the opening of the story and that catalyst event be slavery being outlawed in the country would make it so simple, but I feel like that would be falling into a problematic narrative. My gut is telling me to come up with something better; more creative and less tired and obvious.

          • I say go with your gut. 🙂

            You know, there are people who will even be offended by anything that remotely mentions race or sexuality, and frankly, I can’t be bothered by those people.

          • Yeah, that’s why I’d been going with the wage-slave/debt-bondage idea, since it’s not a method of oppression that’s known for being used on a specific race to my knowledge (16 tons is probably the most famous reference and that’s involving whites). It just makes it annoyingly complex to explain at the opening of the story 😛 Maybe I just need to do more research into it and get some terminology down.

            And totally – people will even get upset if you explicitly state that a character is X race, because they’re happy being “colour blind” aka “imagining all characters in all stories being white.”

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