Contracts

29 Jul

There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.

Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.

The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.

I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!

Is It Racist?

12 Jun

Given her friendship with Gordon Brown and ties to New Labour, it is hardly surprising that JK Rowling has picked up the bad habit of accusing those who disagree with her of being racist. The casting of a black actress as Hermione in the new stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has caused dissatisfaction for many fans who have a clear image of the character, which is of a white, middle-class girl who will grow into a white, middle-class woman, for whom Emma Watson was a good fit. Fans (and I’ll include myself here) would be no happier if she were portrayed as American or a natural blonde. A similar reaction can be found in the portrayal of MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin as a blonde in the Sky 1 series – nobody has yet levelled accusations of racism against blondes there, at least.

Really, it’s a compliment to the authors that they’ve so vividly brought a character to life in millions of imaginations and lashing out with nasty accusations at fans having for the temerity to love the characters they’ve created is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem isn’t so much the dubious casting; it is, after all, fiction, but the fact that disagreeing with the decision should spark such an offensive and over-the-top reaction is ridiculous. Except that such overreaction makes perfect sense if we realise this isn’t about the fans or diversity, but about white liberal guilt. JK Rowling is reacting to her own failure to make the series more diverse by lashing out at anyone who reminds her of the fact.

If only she had access to a time turner, she could go back in time and make Hermione black. There is, after all, no reason why the character couldn’t have been – unlike Harry and Ron with their connection to ancient wizard families and a stereotypical middle class English family, there is nothing about Hermione that dictates the characters race. Unfortunately, rather than having an unknown character that could be altered without issue, as happened, for example, to the title character in the Angelina Jolie movie Salt (originally male), she waited till Hermione had been established across seven books and eight movies and her appearance had been solidified in fans’ minds.

As I’ve said before, there’s also something patronising about this trend for trying to make established white characters black, as if no black character could conceivably be popular without white actors to lay the groundwork.

There’s absolutely no reason why new lead characters, whether inspired by existing ones or wholly original, cannot be created who are non-white and not the usual crop of caricatures. Besides the presence of BAME populations in the UK and USA that would allow for non-white secret agents, wizards, etc, within a Western context, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a film or novel about a Kenyan agent in the mould of James Bond or a wizarding school in India (although, perhaps best left to writers from those cultures, especially given the recent accusations of ‘appropriation’ levelled against the oh-so-politically-correct Ms Rowling).

One might also wonder why JK Rowling didn’t just create a new lead character for the play or for a follow-up series who isn’t white? This would have assuaged her apparent unease at not doing so earlier, and encouraged fans to adopt such a character as a favourite, rather than creating unnecessary tension involving race.

Perhaps, cynically, the entire episode is no more than a publicity stunt, knowing that fans would object to significant changes of any sort, whilst allowing maximum controversy compared to Agatha Raisin’s hair colour. I hope not, as this would be both an insult to the actress and a particularly vile trivialisation of a genuine issue.

It really is time that those authors who wish to see greater diversity in fiction started introducing new BAME characters in their own right and not as some sort of lazy afterthought or in the form of racial caricatures. There is a place for such characters, but hijacking Hermione isn’t it.

For a magazine that is working to create just such diversity, visit Black Girl Magic.

Marked By Scorn: An Interview with Dominica Malcolm

1 Jun

Dominica Malcolm is a writer, editor, and publisher at Solarwyrm Press, where she consistently focus on trying to highlight the stories of more diverse characters. Her novel Adrift is about a bisexual female time-travelling pirate. Then she published her first anthology, Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Aurealis Award for Best Anthology, and focused primarily on racial diversity. Now she’s crowdfunding the release of her second anthology, Marked by Scorn: An Anthology Featuring Non-Traditional Relationships, which features a range of characters of different races, sexualities, genders, ages, and relationship structures.

Questions by DJ Tyrer.

Marked By ScornDJT: Marked By Scorn is an anthology of fiction and poetry about non-traditional relationships. What inspired you to choose this particular theme and what do you hope to achieve by releasing the book?

DM: Originally it was just going to focus on polyamory and other non-monogamous relationships, because I wanted to read more stories like that. The story I wrote for my previous anthology, Amok, was the only one that featured a polyamorous relationship. But then I became close to a guy who was in somewhat of a relationship with a polyamorous married woman, and they were different races & nationalities. I learned of their struggles, and how even the racial differences had become an issue, specifically in how he worried about how other people would judge them as an interracial couple. That made me think more about the difficulties that come from being in any kind of relationship that differs from the norm. I also identify as bisexual, and though I’ve not really personally struggled with relationships in the same way as other people in same-sex relationships, I’ve read enough and heard enough stories from friends to know how difficult it can be. I understand how hard it can be to have to hide a relationship with someone who means the world to you.

Though not every piece in Marked by Scorn explores this side of non-traditional relationships – some of them just demonstrate the joyful sides of them – I do feel like it’s important for people who haven’t been in those situations to understand the struggles, and maybe judge less. Then there’s also the importance of providing content that is more representative of people who aren’t often shown in mainstream media. For people to see that these other lives exist, and maybe they’ll feel less weird, less alone. When I was a teenager discovering my sexuality, the lack of bisexual characters in the media, and even to some extent the lack of lesbians, made it harder for me to understand what I was attracted to. What was okay. I thought I had to follow the monogamous heterosexual narrative because that’s what the media showed was expected.

At the end of the day, I believe love is love. Someone might love differently than another person, but that feeling is universal, and I think it’s something anyone can relate to, regardless of whether they have the same kind of relationship. So one of my other goals is for people to be able to have that kind of experience and awareness.

DJT: The contributions are set (and contributed by writers from) around the world. What was the most surprising or unexpected thing about relationships in other cultures that you discovered from them?

DM: Well, there wasn’t really anything I was particularly surprised by. I lived in Malaysia for five and a half years, and the way the government treated LGBT people there came up in the news frequently enough. Part of that was because sodomy is illegal there, and so in the strict political landscape, the opposition leader was often fighting sodomy charges. I travelled to other parts of South East Asia enough to know it wasn’t much different there. Malaysia is also a predominantly Muslim country, and I was aware of how that influence can affect people who are raised in that religion but identify as homosexual – I have a friend who talked to me about his experiences with that. So having a story in Marked by Scorn that highlights two Muslim men in Malaysia & Indonesia was great because it meant I could share that with other people, but it being written by a Muslim meant it could have more depth and detail to it than something I could write myself. The theme of the LGBT stories set in Asia all follow the thread of having to be secretive in different ways. The one set in the Philippines explores a relationship between an openly gay man and his partner who wants to be perceived as straight. The one in Cambodia is about two men who clearly care very deeply for each other, but can’t tell people exactly what their relationship is because of their culture. The list goes on.

DJT: And could you share why you chose some of the submissions you did and what they illustrate about non-traditional relationships?

DM: I already talked a bit about why I chose the Asian stories that I did. There were a few stories that ticked multiple boxes of the types of non-traditional relationships I was looking for. For example, Mirror Sunsets by Kelly Burke is about an interracial homosexual couple in South Africa. It’s an adorably sweet story about their romance. No Magical Vanilla by Jo Wu is about a bisexual Asian-American woman who is in polyamorous and interracial relationships, and also explores consensual BDSM. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was why I decided to open and close the book with those two stories. Though the majority of non-traditional relationships explore the QUILTBAG spectrum, there is plenty of diversity amongst them, across different age groups and levels of secrecy and location. One of my favourites was Roulez by GK Hansen because it discussed pronouns and the difficulties experienced in Louisiana between an intersex person and a transgender woman. Intersex characters are so very rarely seen in media, even less than transgender now, so it was great to be able to have that. The characters range in age from being in high school to the end of their life, so even though age diversity is not something I consciously think about as much as racial and sexuality diversity, I loved being able to read and include that variety.

Ultimately, what I did with my selections was show how much variety there is in relationship styles and difficulties even in relationships that fall under the same category of non-traditional relationship. Also how the level of acceptance you receive from others can vary immensely based on where you live and who you surround yourself with.

DJT: Diversity in fiction is clearly important to you. How would you encourage a reader to explore more diverse fiction and what books or other media would you recommend?

DM: I do think it’s important for people to seek out those stories to learn more about them, and find common ground to judge people with different backgrounds less. But it can be daunting to start out, knowing how many different types of people there are in the world who don’t live similarly to yourself.

I presume most people might find they’re more interested in understanding specific cultures or themes over others, though, so it’s easier to search when you can narrow it down like that. For example, I started out exploring various Asian media and culture simply because I lived in Malaysia and enjoyed stand-up comedy, so I learned a lot about what life was like for Malaysians through the local stand-up scene. Some of the comedians were also actors, so that led to me watching movies like Crayon and Relationship Status. If you can get ahold of either of those films, I would definitely recommend them.

If you wanted to understand more about why the Black Lives Matter movement came about, then it would be good to search for black writers who explore themes of oppression. As an Australian, I had little historical knowledge about racial tensions in the US, so after moving here, I watched movies like Fruitvale Station and Selma, which were both heartbreaking and stories that I could connect with even though I’m white. Of course, black people have as diverse experiences as white people, and Asians, and other races, so I think it’s important to not limit that narrative. I also recently read The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae, and there was so much I could relate to because we’re a similar age and grew up in families with similar incomes. Of course, these examples are all non-fiction, but I think non-fiction narratives are just as interesting as fiction ones.

Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series is great to see a couple of different Asian races and how their cultural background affects who they are, and also explores interracial relationships. Margaret Cho is another great comedian to check out, and she’s bisexual, I believe, so she explores sexuality as well as race. I recently watched her film Bam Bam & Celeste, which was a lot of fun. I’ve only seen a few episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, but I liked what I saw of that and was excited that someone greenlit a sitcom starring an Asian family for the first time in 20 years in the US.

Checking out film festivals and crowdfunding campaigns can be a great way to find more diversity, too. Last year I saw a brilliant Vietnamese dystopian film called Nuoc 2020 at CAAMFest in San Francisco, and I’ve backed projects like Someone Else, which is a Korean-American film that is now available to buy online.

In books, I know Crossed Genres is a publisher that focuses a lot on diversity much in the same way I like to do with Solarwyrm Press, so that’s a good place to start.

If you’re interested in learning more about types of non-monogamous relationships, Thorntree Press has a number of publications, mainly non-fiction, that explore this theme. More Than Two is a great book about different ways to structure ethical non-monogamous relationships, and Stories From the Polycule is an anthology that includes multiple authors of different ages and relationship stages who discuss their experiences with polyamorous relationships. I’d also recommend Home by Nicole Berman for polyamorous fiction.

Visit the crowdfunding page for Marked By Scorn.

All Just A Dream

20 May

The other day, I read a comment on Facebook about the annoyance of discovering that a significant chunk of a novel was nothing but a dream. Now, I quite like dream sequences, but I also agree with this assessment because, when we learn that “It was all just a dream,” it very often is nothing but a cop-out, a means of avoiding the fall-out from events.

Of course, handled well, such a discovery in a comedic story can be amusing, but done clumsily or used in more serious works, it is frequently a letdown, effectively either invalidating a storyline you’ve enjoyed or forcing you to wade through rubbish for nothing.

But, I don’t think that “It was all just a dream,” which is usually a sign of lazy writing, should be confused with dream sequences generally or narratives that call into doubt what is real.

A dream sequence, even if it misleads by not initially appearing to be a dream, isn’t a copout: it should further the plot, rather than merely seeing the ‘reset button’ being hit at the end. Of course, events may be ‘reset’ at the end of the dream if it seemingly altered things, but, unlike saying “It was all just a dream” (although the character, in the story, may echo just that sentiment), the dream should have an impact, such as containing a prophecy (or what they believe is a prophecy) or the dreamer gaining new insight or being forced to confront something as a result. A well-written dream sequence should have an effect on the story or, at least, tell us something new.

Then, there are those stories that, at first glance, seem no different to dreams, but which are actually calling into doubt what is and isn’t real. In a sense, they end with “It was all just a dream. Or, was it?” albeit, one hopes, more subtly than that! Although some readers may lump such narratives in with the former unsatisfying sort of story, most will come away questioning just what did and didn’t happen and, perhaps, will even ponder how we define reality. To offer an example, the movie Black Swan includes many scenes that may not have happened, or not as we see them occur on the screen, yet the doubtfulness of what we’ve just watched doesn’t invalidate the events of the movie as they convincingly demonstrate the mental breakdown of Natalie Portman’s character through her reactions to those, possibly nonexistent, events.

Thus, it should be summed up that it’s not the presence or absence of dreams that makes or breaks a story, but whether their presence actually effects the narrative or not, just as the inclusion of any element that doesn’t further the plot or develop its characters, no matter how brilliant, is ultimately a disappointment. What matters is that what is included matters…

Of Interest…

12 May

You may be interested in the following couple of blog posts…

Monster Librarian has a review of Dark Tales from Elder Regions: New York, an anthology to which I contributed, here.

Dominica Malcolm discusses the anthology Marked By Scorn (yes, you’ve guessed it, I’ve contributed to this one, as well) here.

In addition, you can find the Tigershark Publishing website here with details of the ten (to date) issues of the ezine and calls for submissions to future issues. You can request copies of the issues (for free) by emailing tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk

A Plea For Sanity (In Editing)

29 Apr

Even with very simple guidelines, there seem to be a set of people who will ignore them and submit unsuitable work in unsuitable formats, so you can’t really blame editors for creating a comprehensive list of guidelines in the hopes of steering people in the right direction. However, a small number go rather over the top.

One recently actually had a lengthy document, promising rejection to anyone who failed to adhere to every last point (I suspect I managed to miss at least one, despite my best intentions and repeated readings of the list). The solemnity of the document was somewhat marred by its statement that it had been laid out as per their guidelines, only for the guidelines to demand paragraphs be indented, while the guidelines themselves weren’t…

Even though they don’t entirely match the format I’m used to, the ‘standard’ layout advocated by William Shunn is a good place for editors to stop and, in my opinion, any variation shouldn’t be too significant.

Editors who insist upon substantially different formats for submissions not only make writers expend unnecessary additional time which for anyone who is short on time is an inconvenience, but actively discriminate against some writers. I have a condition that affects my short-term memory and, when I have to check off a list of changes to the usual format I use, it is very easy for me to lose track of what changes I’m making. I would suspect that writers with dyslexia or any form of learning disability, whilst capable, with the right preparation of producing an acceptable submission, will also have problems following complicated changes to layout.

As an editor, I also find it annoying when editors cite making their lives easier as the reason for their onerous variations from the established norm. For a start, it is easier for someone who has settled upon a layout to change all submissions received to that format through short cuts and templates than it is for others to make a variety changes (potentially to the same submission). But, when any deviation is used as an excuse for a rejection, I find it ridiculous that the editor can neither be bothered to ask for the work to be resubmitted correctly-formatted nor to read it ‘as is’ and, if they want to use it, ask for a reformatted version to be submitted. Seriously, if you would reject the best story you ever read because someone used the wrong font or forgot to indent a paragraph, you probably shouldn’t be an editor. And, if you wouldn’t, you’re a hypocrite using formatting as a figleaf for your laziness.

Yes, ask for submissions to be in a format you can access, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting them to laid out in a readable manner, but if you feel the need to slather on a long list of specific instructions, I would respectfully suggest that there’s something wrong with your approach and that cleaving closer to the norm of ‘standard’ formatting would be more productive for everyone involved.

Sourcing Inspiration

22 Apr

People often wonder where they can find inspiration. Other than the suggestion that they try certain discreet shops down dark side alleys, the obvious answers are from life, history and dreams. (Although as Neil Gaiman pointed out in an article on inspiration, dreams as a whole aren’t the best source of inspiration, given most follow ‘dream logic’ that makes little real sense and often only resonates with the dreamer, certain dreams hold within them the kernels, perhaps even the entire plots, of stories within them, while the stranger ones can still be a source for surreal and bizarre fiction.)

But, there is another source from which you can draw inspiration: fiction, poetry and song, even art.

Now, I’m not talking about fan fiction, but inspiration for your own stories. Fan fiction is when you play with someone else’s toys without their permission and, obviously, restricts what you can do with the finished story. Of course, there are intermediate levels involving shared worlds such as the Cthulhu Mythos and out-of-copyright works and humorous takes on in-copyright works.

Shared worlds are open to anyone to play with, although there may be restrictions on certain elements. Out-of-copyright works can (usually, unless trademarks are involved) be reproduced without restriction, meaning you can do things like rewrite endings, create sequels, change the format (such as from a play to a novel), add new characters, or recast the events in another era, genre or location, or add zombies to an existing work. Humorous takes, such as spoofs or using characters or a setting for satire, are generally acceptable.

But, what I’m most interested in here is the inspiration you can draw from in-copyright works. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from adapting a plot as you would an out-of-copyright one by moving it to another era, genre or location, given that you cannot copyright ideas, but it is a far riskier proposition as you may inadvertently infringe a trademark, plagiarise a scene or be accused of ‘passing off’. What is more practical is, as you read a novel or poem, listen to a song or watch a movie, to consider the ideas that it sparks.

For example, you may think characters make the wrong decision or ignored a better solution to the plot. Or, you might see a different approach to a setting. Or, you may wonder what the characters would be like in a different setting. Try to go for the less obvious. Elements from Harry Potter and the Fables comic inspired me to write an entirely mundane novel. George Lucas drew from samurai and cowboy films, amongst others, for aspects of Star Wars. Take elements from more than source and mix them up to make something original.

Even though they seldom suggest a whole story, poetry, songs and art can suggest characters and scenes. Anything can spark an idea and any idea can be sourced for a story. Keep notes and see what develops.

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