How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer
In Part One, I wrote about some quick strategies on how to get started that are basically remixed from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing (which were repeated in Stephen King’s On Writing–another one of my favorite writing books) which boiled down: to read as much as you can so you develop a curator’s eye (and while you’re at it, use Pinterest to exercise that curation skill while mining images for inspiration) and then write as fast as you possibly can to get that shitty first draft out of your body.
Part Two was more about self-sabotage and forms of writing resistance as way to understand why you aren’t writing as fast as you possibly can. I shared some of my personal forms of self-sabotage that keep me from being as productive a writer as I can be–specifically, for me, worrying about money prevents me from writing most often. Thinking about writing as a long-term investment is my preferred method to distract myself away from the money issue. (I wish I could take ownership of the idea, but I was first exposed to this strategy at Readercon back in 2013.)
Hopefully, sharing some of these weaknesses encourages you to look inward and figure out what’s holding you back (if you find yourself stuck on similar issues).
Which leads to me to the final installment in this series: the gendered advice. Which, coming from me, means feminist strategies for being a female sci-fi writer. These are pieces of advice I wish I had known sooner, as well as issues that I have personally struggled with or issues I have seen my primarily female writer friends struggle with. Oh! And issues that members of The Brainery Workshop suggested be included.
1. Go to conventions.
Speaking as an introvert, meeting new people, specifically with the intention to make friends, is an expensive cost of energy. (This comic/poster does an excellent job of communicating what it’s like to be, and interact with, an introvert; thinking about energy as a form of currency does wonders for my Ferengi-like tendencies.)
As I have gotten more serious about committing to my geeky writing life, smaller conventions are where it’s at. The panels have been excellent. It’s a far more costly energy expenditure (as opposed to getting lost in the SDCC crowd), especially because I have had to attend by myself since, as a recovering academic, all of my friends have scattered across the country–plus, I have a small child and don’t live near any family who can babysit, so my husband cannot be my wingman.
Smaller conventions like Wiscon, Readercon, and Loscon provide more opportunities to meet and interact with your currently living writing heroes, plus there are lots of resources being shared amongst the attendees, and questions are generally encouraged (especially if you’re starting out). If you don’t live within driving distance of Madison, Wisconsin, Boston, or Los Angeles (or can’t afford to travel to one of these), then I urge you to find a smaller convention in your area.
Going to smaller conventions as a lone woman can be intimidating, but usually there are policies in place to help in case there is harassment (and, the latest Wiscon controversy notwithstanding, it seems as though rampant unchecked harassment is less of a problem at smaller conventions). Plus, these conventions can be a good way to connect with other women who are also fellow fan/creative types such as yourself.
I like to think of conventions as a fun way to continue my education–kind of like the way Tabatha is always making sure that the stylists at the hair salons she takes over get the continuing education they need.
2. Find a group to join: online, in person, through social media, or take a class.
As a writer, you need people to read your stuff. Inconvenient, but true.
Being part of a writing group can also remind you that publishing is not an elusive Old One cloaked in the unknowable unnameable secret language of the universe; plus, if your group is especially motivated and active with publishing, their successes will invigorate and embolden you to submit your work when maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Plus, you’ll build up your critical eye by critiquing your peer’s work, which only makes your own writing stronger.
There are lots of great classes or programs you can join, too. These include the super famous Clarion and Odyssey. Those are six weeks long, but there are others that are only a week long as well.
I suggest finding a class or program that specializes in speculative fiction, though. Now that I’m teaching The Brainery Workshops online, I am seeing that the peer feedback is far more interesting and relevant to the submissions because everyone is writing speculative fiction. It’s far more helpful than most of the feedback I got from peers during my grad school creative writing PhD experience (the professors always provided stellar feedback, but my fellow students hardly ever “got” my writing).
If you’re looking for a MFA or PhD program where you’ll be surrounded by writers interested in the same genres as you, the only one I know of is a low-residency program called Stone Coast. I have heard absolutely great things about that program.
But other than that particular program (which I have no affiliation with whatsoever), I do not really endorse going to grad school as a path for speculative fiction writers unless:
A) you can afford it; most MFAs provide no funding whatsoever, so that usually means loans.
B) you can afford it; no seriously, this is not a typo: you have to think about the amount of earnings you’ll be giving up to attend grad school in addition to the loans you’ll likely have to take on, not to mention having to chuck it all to move across the country to go to grad school (probably).
C) you want to work in higher education; just to let you know: you don’t get to choose where you live (you’re at the mercy of the job market that year), and typically there are 400-800 applications for a single creative writing assistant professor position; as a newly minted graduate: you will be pitted against assistant professors of creative writing who have five years of doing that job already–so you better be a rock star in order to be competitive.
D) you’re a rock star: grad school is not a place to find your voice as a writer, and treating it like a second round of undergraduate school to figure out what kind of writer you are is the wrong approach; calling yourself a grad student is a misnomer, you have to think of grad school as a form of professional training.
3. Don’t be afraid of including diversity in
MariNaomi wrote this amazing comic/article about ways for writers to write about the experiences of a wide range of characters that don’t necessarily mirror the writer’s own experience in terms of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or (dis)abilities. But the general takeaway is: Don’t be afraid to write about characters who don’t look like you. One of the helpful bits of advice that should never be underestimated: get people who are part of the cultures you’re writing about to read your stuff and give you feedback!
Sidenote: I think another conversation needs to start taking place about writers of color whose work is rejected for not being “ethnic” enough because this has been a complaint of several of my friends whose names do not “pass” for white when they submit. The feedback they get on their manuscript is that their work is amazing, but the editors were really looking for culturally related themes.
Not because my friends submitted to a writing contest that was looking for that kind of thing. Not because my friends submitted to a journal that primarily publishes that kind of thing.
Based solely on the writer’s name.
That’s fucked up.
So I’m changing this one to be “Don’t be afraid of including diversity in writing.” This goes for EVERYONE. Readers and writers. Editors and publishers. People should feel free to write the stories they want to tell. (Hopefully those stories are NOT full of casual misogyny disguised as feminism, or cultural appropriation disguised as representation.)
4. Don’t diminish your own worth or value.
Especially when you’re starting out and you don’t have any publications. Or very few publications. Or maybe not a
A tiger doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.
publication in a famous magazine. Or maybe you don’t have a book. Or just one book. Or your book is short stories instead of a novel. Or you only have a novel instead of series–everybody has their insecurities.
And regardless of your publication record, you have value.
There are varying opinions of query letters and writer’s bios. For instance, the Editor-In-Charge at NonBinary Review doesn’t really care. But I do. (I’m just an assistant editor, though.)
Did you see what I just did there?
I almost erased it and just rewrote it, but I think it’s an important illustration that it’s a daily struggle to not diminish my value (because I almost didn’t realize I did it!).
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, or if it’s because I was in academia in the United States, or because I grew up in abject poverty, all of which indoctrinates people to not believe in their own value. It goes beyond that, though, because all three obscure one’s value to the point where people do not even realize that they have value outside of very rigid categories or structures.
(This is why feminism still needs to be a thing.)
But anyway: don’t do what I did. Remind yourself that you are a tiger and don’t put “just” in front of your accomplishments.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you’re part of a community, it will be less scary to ask for help (and hopefully all ya’ll are taking turns giving each other help with feedback). But even if you’re not, ask a friend, or post it as a status on Facebook.
This shouldn’t be relegated to only writing. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes we just need to be pointed in the right direction for resources so we can help ourselves. And sometimes we don’t know where to get started.
Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know. Just ask. And know that asking can make other people brave enough to ask, too.
6. If you have a social life, don’t feel guilty for reserving time for writing.
This is important regardless of whether you’re married or not, have children or not. When my friends and I all still lived in Los Angeles, before anyone had any kids, it was really difficult to say no to hanging out because I loved them all so much. But I was working on my dissertation and fellowship applications and I had to say no. And it felt like I had to say no a lot–but maybe it just felt amplified because of being an introvert to begin with.
Now that I live 600 miles from the closest friends or family, I admit, in my dark moments, I regret ever saying no. But it’s important to carve out time for yourself for reading and writing–because reading is an important aspect of writing, too.
This is, perhaps, one of the good aspects of pursuing a MFA or PhD: you have to train yourself to protect your writing time in order to graduate. If you haven’t had to do this for school, you have to teach yourself, and it can be difficult.
Especially if you have kids. Especially if you LIKE your kids. Because my son is awesome and I love being around him. But if I wait to write until he goes to bed, I will not write. I just won’t. I will be way too tired and all I’ll want to do is watch Real Housewives.
7. It’s okay to say no.
Seriously. And not just about hanging out. Or carving time out for writing. It’s okay to turn down projects. For example, if a friend wants you to submit for an anthology that you don’t feel is the right fit. Or if a university wants you to be a writer-in-residence and you don’t want to move. Or if another friend wants you to co-edit an edited collection and you just don’t want to. Or if you’re not getting paid for your labor.
“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” –The Joker
8. You deserve to get paid.
This is somewhat related to not diminishing your value and knowing it’s okay to say no. There are lots of places that will publish your work. But you know what? There are also a lot of publications that will pay you for your writing. Sure, some of those publications may not pay professional rates, but they. Will. Pay. You.
I know I’ve posted this graphic before, but I seriously love The Joker, Harley Quinn, and Batman. So I’m not ashamed.
This isn’t necessarily relegated to only getting paid for your writing, either, but should be extended to any of your skills that you offer up for free deserves some kind of compensation. It’s been my experience that I have a harder time breaking free of this cultural indoctrination–again, I think it’s combo of being a former academic, poor, and also a woman.
Even if you’re helping out friends. If you’re doing something for free for your friends, at least barter with one another! (Maybe they can read/critique one of your stories!)
And likewise, your friends deserve to get paid. For example, I paid MANDEM for the right to use their painting, Cthulu Lies, as the main header image for my site. It wasn’t A LOT. Like maybe enough for four burritos with guacamole at Chipotle. But it was SOMETHING. Also, I paid a whole dollar for this cool image from Canva I associated with this blog post back at the top. There were free ones I could’ve used, but I loved that image so much and it felt perfect for the series that I wanted to support the artist in some small way.
This list is in no way exhaustive, and I’m always open to amendments. Are there any others that should be added to the list?