It’s a(nother) book!

So strange and amazing to be here at the publication of my sixth novel.

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, shows a stone wall and decoration embossed with flaking gold

I remember being a newbie writer and struggling just to imagine myself publishing one book. That was only… hmm, eight years ago? I got my agent in 2007, as I recall. I remember despairing, as it became clear that my first book wasn’t going to sell first, and giving serious consideration to quitting all this shit. Wow.

Confession: I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere. Fortunately, Devi had the sense to tell me to calm down and go think about it first, which I did. And more fortunately, friends helped talk me back from the (artistic) cliff. Now as the positive reviews roll in, all of them are giving me “I told you so” attitude, and that’s okay. They were right. I’m glad I listened. Thanks, guys.

Well, enough maundering. I’m currently about 90,000 words into the second book of the trilogy, which means it’s just about on schedule to be turned in at the end of this month. Going to be tough to make good progress this week, though, because I’ve got a crapton of Launch Week activities lined up — like a launch party tonight, if you happen to be in the Brooklyn area and want to drop by. The next sample chapter of The Fifth Season is up, if you needed another taste to help you decide. If not, and you’re sold, then links are in the sidebar. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but I can say we’re all in for a wild ride.

ETA: Yes, I’ve given up my foolish resistance to maps. Here is the Stillness, rendered beautifully by artist Tim Paul.

Worldbuilding 101

I did a recent talk for the Writers’ Digest Online Workshop and Annual Conference on worldbuilding, in which I basically explained how I do what I do, and led participants through an exercise in creating their own world. I’d hoped to actually do the exercise in realtime, using some poster paper and audience participation, but alas, ran out of time. There’s a good example in the Powerpoint, though. Note that if this doesn’t make sense in places, remember that it was meant to be shown alongside me talking and filling in conceptual gaps. But hopefully you can figure it out. PDF file for download.

The Fifth Season is coming!

And I’ve got some stuff lined up in the next few weeks. I will not be doing a book tour; I’m still in Deadline Hell on book 2 of the Broken Earth trilogy, which is due at the end of August. So this is it for big events… but I’m amenable to the occasional podcast appearance or phone interview. (No guestblogs or text interviews, sorry; those eat up too much writing time.)

Week of July 27th: Goodreads giveaway

Some lucky people will have a chance to win a free signed copy of any of my novels, including The Fifth Season. (Seriously, you guys, I’m drowning in author copies; gotta do something with ’em.) Unfortunately this will be US-only; I can’t afford to mail things to other countries right now. Sorry! Will post those on Twitter when the giveaways begin.

Saturday, August 1st: Growing Your Iceberg: Crafting a Secondary World that Feels Ancient at the Writers’ Digest Annual Conference, New York City

I did an online version of this talk a few months ago, but it’s much more fun in person. You have to join the conference to attend any of the sessions! Mine will be Saturday morning at 9 am.

Tuesday, August 4th: The Magical Seismology Launch Party at WORD Books

This will be open to the public, so if you’re in the Brooklyn area, feel free to drop by. Books will be available for sale and signing!

Thursday, August 6th: Big Idea blog post

As I’ve usually done when launching a new series, I’ll be talking about the ideas behind the Broken Earth over at John Scalzi’s blog.

Saturday, August 8th: Reading at Writers With Drinks, San Francisco

I’ve heard a lot about this reading/artist series, and am honored to be invited! Also, sounds like a whole lot of fun. Westcoasters, see you soon!

Wednesday, August 19th: Reading at KGB Fantastic Fiction, New York

Of course I’m going to show love to my home town, and my favorite reading series. (If you’ve never come, you should; it’s lots of fun!)

Might be more to come. Stay tuned!

The Apocalypse of Unfortunate Implications

Just saw a trailer for the Shannara TV series that’s soon to exist:

Very pretty. Don’t think I’m going to particularly go out of my way to see it, because at this point I’m a little tired of New Zealand landscapes, orcish hordes, and John Rhys-Davies. I like Tolkien, but I was never a fan of Tolkien clones in textual form, and the film medium doesn’t make them any more palatable. But those of you who are Shannara fans, yay! Enjoy.

I got distracted from the cool landscapes and glowing beads and so on, though, by the fact that once again this trailer depicts an apocalypse that makes no demographic or sociological sense. First off, why would a far-future magical America transform into anything remotely resembling medieval northern Europe, complete with British accents? But more importantly… This is specifically a far-future Pacific Northwest, or so the decrepit Space Needle would suggest, yet it appears to be populated entirely by white people and Manu Bennett. (Or at least I’m told Bennett is in the trailer. If so, he’s there so briefly that I didn’t see him despite viewing it twice.) Well, wait, some of the non-human characters appear to be played by actors of color; there’s one at 2:30 in the trailer for about half a second. Okay. So while it’s possible the show itself features more than this, the show is being advertised with an all white cast plus a token magical brown person, and literally dehumanized PoC. Well, alrighty then.

::sigh:: Let me note once again that choices like these are not neutral in any SFF. They are even less so in fantasies which — intentionally or unintentionally — evoke the real world and real historical erasures. Against the backdrop of systemic racism, every casting choice develops added meaning. This production doesn’t even have the excuse, weak as that one always is (summary and good discussion, for the un-Tumblr’d), that it’s set in some alterna-European country and therefore the exclusion of people of color is somehow justified. This is America, and one of the most diverse parts of Canada. These nations have never, except in the most fevered wish fulfillment fantasies of historical revisionists, been all white.

And that is precisely what we end up with, when this kind of fantastical exclusion gets layered onto the site of real historical exclusion: racist wish fulfillment fantasy. (Way to go, MTV.) Narratively, the exclusion suggests some Shit Went Down after the collapse or the plague or whatever it was that created this future world. What kind of shit? Genocide, apparently, on an epic scale. Eugenics, maybe, since apparently the orcish folks are some sort of mutant; that touches on the long, ugly history of medical experimentation in this country. So now I wonder why I should be particularly entranced by the stirring saga of a magical white supremacist utopia, or near enough to qualify. Don’t I have to deal with enough racist fantasy in real life?

(Note: I haven’t read the Shannara books, at least not past the first few chapters of the first one, so I have no idea if any of the characters are people of color. I’d be pleased — delighted — to know that this is only the doing of the TV show producers and not Brooks himself.)

But let me not single out Shannara; this isn’t the only recent post-apocalyptic story I’ve seen that suggested by the jangle of their appropriated trappings (or the ominous silence of their exclusions) genocides and internments and the Tuskeegee-ing of vast swaths of the human race. As I skim through future after future — some of which seem cool as hell at least on the surface — I begin to realize that most of them bear this creeping evidence of an entirely different apocalypse that happened before the cameras started to roll. And since it’s now 2015, and we have had these discussions again and again and again… now I’m starting to think it’s intentional. Now I’m wondering whether SFF creator after SFF creator is just so fucking horrified by the existence of people of color that they have to wipe us out again and again, without so much as a grave marker.

It probably isn’t intentional. Probably. But that’s the problem with tossing an unacknowledged race war into the background of your post-apocalypse, see. In these post-Charleston days, it’s become clear that plenty of people out there really do want a race war to happen — which means that fictional depictions of same become hard to wave off as simple carelessness. Especially not after the fifth, the tenth, the twenty-fifth, time.

Well. Maybe I’m just feeling especially salty about this because I’m writing my own post-apocalyptic fantasy right now.

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, coming August 4th 2015

The Fifth Season isn’t set on Earth. That’s not a spoiler. I don’t intend to ever write that kind of “but it was our world all along!” gotcha into any of my novels, because at this point it’s a badly overused trope. And as I’ve just shown, it’s usually used badly, without sufficient care for the complexity of real-world social science. Readers, I promise you: if I ever write Earth it will be recognizable as such, and it will be plausible — a future to which you can draw a line of reasonable extrapolation from our currently 52% female and 80% PoC planet. And by every god who doesn’t mind the oath, if I put an apocalypse in something, you will know it. None of this inferred, unintentional shit.

(This isn’t what the trilogy is about, BTW. It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someone’s going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.)

So the moral of the story, or the point of this post, is: SFF creators, keep track of your apocalypses. If you don’t actually believe that the survivors of that plague or that meteor would divert energy from survival to systematically exterminating millions of people, then don’t “accidentally” write futures where that obviously happened. Or at least if you do it, have the courage to go whole hog with it. Some of our bestand worst — SFF has come out of thoroughly brutal explorations of what can happen when human beings let their bigot flag fly. If you’re going to go there, then go there — consciously, thoughtfully, and respectfully of the real Middle Passages and Trails of Tears and Holocausts you’re using as inspiration. Some material deserves better than an afterthought.

And if you’re not prepared to go that far, then just stop. Your worldbuilding needs work; you can’t handle the apocalypse yet. Talk to a variety of futurists. Read some actual history so you won’t reinforce any more unexamined white supremacy, or at least not by accident. Read outside your comfort zone for awhile. Then, once you’ve learned more about the actual world, you can play with its future — or its end.

Remember, kids: apocalypse responsibly. Your readers/viewers will thank you for it.

Now it can be told!

I’ve been sitting on the news of this for a few months now, waiting for the cover, etc., so I could squee about it in the shiniest way. But in addition to writing “The Awakened Kingdom” as a palate-cleanser after The Fifth Season, I also wrote some shortier shorts. I’d intended them to just be fun stress relievers, a chance to play with style in a familiar milieu, but the result ended up being so good that I thought, “Readers should see this.” So now you can.

cover depicting a blue-tinted metal grate on black, with the title and author name superimposed

From the shadows of the greater stories, away from the bright light of Sky and wending ’round the sagas of the Arameri, come three quieter tales. A newborn god with an old, old soul struggles to find a reason to live. A powerful demon searches for her father, and answers. And in a prequel to the Inheritance Trilogy, a newly-enslaved Nahadoth forges a dark alliance with a mortal, for survival… and revenge.

So: ask me anything about these tales, here in the comments. And note that you can preorder this triptych now at Amazon, B&N, iTunes Books, and other major retailers! It launches July 28th, 2015.

An open letter to the WSFS about unintended consequences

ETA: I missed that there’s been a new development since I started writing this; the folks putting forward the proposal are dropping the novelette clause. Still not liking the “saga” portion of the proposal either, for the reasons I’ve said here and which Scalzi said in his post, but at least the proposal isn’t actively harmful anymore.

Whoa. Did you guys think this through?

No, seriously. Beyond whether “The Wheel of Time” could get a Hugo, or whether you, personally, like short fiction or not. Did you consider how proposal B.1.3 looks, both within and outside SFFdom? What message it sends about WSFS priorities?

Consider the context. In a year when there’s been intense mainstream-media coverage of an attempt to ideologically tarnish the Hugo Awards, effectively making them less representative of the genre’s current dynamism and way more representative of racist white guys’ vanity publishing, this proposal compounds that problem. Let me break down how this looks to people outside of the WSFS process.

The “sagas” proposal privileges not just established authors as John Scalzi notes, but established successful white male authors. Systemic bigotry being what it will, it’s tougher for people from underrepresented groups to survive in this area, let alone thrive in the way that a multipart series would indicate. We need rooms of our own, so to speak. We’re writing from perspectives that tend to break away from the “comfort food” factor that sagas satisfy, of sprawling, rugged power fantasies set in strangely Middle-Americanish futures and carefully cropped medieval Europes. When we do find publishers for (or self-pub) our works, they get less buzz — from professional reviews to the endless “Best SFF of the year” lists composed entirely of white male authors. It’s hard enough to start a career under these conditions, or to sell any single book, but selling well enough to manage a second, or a third, or however many books it takes to get up to 400,000 words, is something that happens only for writers who are very, very fortunate.

(And yeah, I’m well aware that I rank among the fortunate; the Inheritance Trilogy probably would qualify for this “sagas” category.* The Broken Earth might, though I’m only halfway through the second book now so it’s too soon to tell. But notice how few other women of color are successfully writing multipart epic fantasy. Trust me; that’s not because we’re incapable of imagining stories of epic struggle.)

And then there’s the novelettes clause. Scalzi covers a lot of reasons why this is an absolutely terrible idea, and I agree with all of those. But in addition, as C. C. Finlay has also pointed out, the novelette category has until lately been a good entry point for new and underrepresented writers to gain recognition. Why? For all the reasons “sagas” privileges established successful white guys, basically: short fiction must rely (usually) on quality rather than preexisting financial success to prove itself; it requires a much lower investment of free time to write; and short fiction in general is less about comfort food than challenging the reader with new ideas and perspectives. The competition is actually more fierce for short fiction than it would be for sagas; there are more markets willing to publish novelettes than there are publishers willing to grind out multiparters, and the short fiction markets pump out multiple stories, multiple times per year. It’s just that fewer of the barriers that make it hard for non-white non-men to compete exist here. Women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups usually do pretty well when they’re working with a level playing field.

So let’s review. In a year when misogynists, white supremacists, and homophobes have already managed to use the Hugos to advance their own interests, along comes this proposal making it easier for privileged white men to gain recognition, at the direct expense of the marginalized. I’m going to assume it’s an unintended consequence that this proposal effectively reinforces the Puppies’ efforts; there’s been no reason to think that anyone on the WSFS is anything other than professionally neutral on the matter. Until now.

So, c’mon ya’ll. Did you really think this through? Is this the best time for B.1.3? Are you really willing to throw short fiction under the bus just to give bestsellers another accolade? Do you mean to throw a level playing field under the bus, to give more affirmative action to successful white men?

Think about that again, please. Seriously. Think about it again.

* Some of my readers asked whether the Inheritance Trilogy could be nominated for a Hugo, same as the Wheel of Time, especially with a new novella published in 2014 making it “complete”. I told them no, because I thought it was wrong for the same work to be nominated again when parts had already been nominated for Best Novel in previous years. But I could have pushed the issue.

I’m unable to go to Sasquan this year, but I bought a voting membership. If you’re actually going, plan to attend the Business Meeting. Might want to bring popcorn.

New author photo, starred review

For those of you not be-Twittered or a-Facebooked, these are the new author photos I got recently, since my old one was a whopping 7 years old. (Time flies when you’re having fun.) And while that old photo was awesome — taken by fellow pro author and amateur photographer E. C. Myers, with a little touching-up by fellow pro author and graphic designer Kris Dikeman — it was time to retire it. Haven’t worn my hair that way in years, and also I’ve earned my “older and wiser”, and I wanted that to show.

So this time around I went full professional. On a recommendation from Orbit’s art director, Lauren Panepinto — who better to know awesome author photographers? — I contacted Laura Hanifin, who’s done some amazing work already. I wanted someone who knew how to photograph regular people, not just models and actors whose job it is to look good. I needed someone who could advise me on what to wear and what kind of lighting would be best, because dammit Jim I’m a writer not a visual person. And I wanted someone who could capture my “author face”.

See, as anyone who’s met me in person will know, I’m geeky and have a twelve-year-old’s sense of humor, and can be shy. But — like most authors, I think — I put on a different face when I’m writing. Then I’m focused, controlled, channeling the personae and worlds in my head. I used to think that I was “just” writing science fiction and fantasy, “just” fiction. Yet I’ve come to understand over the years of my pro career that there’s no “just” about it. Because of who I am, because of how small others want the world to be, even something so simple as having an imagination is a revolutionary act. My writing is an act of defiance; my very existence, a challenge. I didn’t ask for this. I just wanted to write good books… but after the first death threat, it was on.

So be it; I can handle it. And this is who I am, too:

head and shoulders portrait of N. K. Jemisin

I cannot stress how absolutely delighted I am with this pic. It was an intentional choice not to smile, if you’re wondering. Smiles have meaning for women who are authors, and that gets more complicated for women of color. So although I got a few other, “smilier” photos made, too, which I’ll toss into blog posts and give to interviewers and such… this is the one that will be going in my books from here forth. Given production schedules and so on, it’s too late for this to go into The Fifth Season, but you’ll see it after that.

And apropos of which, just found out TFS got a starred review from Library Journal!

Multiaward winner Jemisin breaks uncharted ground with this long-awaited title that introduces a fresh world and trilogy, creating a completely realized society inhabited by three varieties of humans and a nonhuman species that lives inside the earth. With Jemisin’s record of prestigious literary honors, plus her strong following, this is a must-buy for all speculative fiction collections and an excellent recommendation for fans of Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” trilogy.

Aww, yeah.

Not the affirmative action you meant, not the history you’re making

So many people have said so many good things about the Hugo Awards debacle in the past few days. I haven’t said much myself because a) I’ve got a book to write, and b) I don’t really care. I mean, I do care about the Hugos; this is a respectable award, which as George R. R. Martin wisely points out has value because the people of Worldcon over the decades have worked their asses off to build its value. Unlike GRRM I think the contributions to that value actually go beyond Worldcon; it’s also been built up by the librarians who buy extra copies of the Hugo nominees and winners for circulation (I definitely noticed a bump after my Hugo noms), and the bookstore staff who create Hugo displays, and the reviewers who rave or rant about them. This whole mess is a sad and ridiculous appropriation of all that work, by people who for the most part haven’t spent day one on a Worldcon committee, or done anything else of the like. But this isn’t exactly the first venerable SFF institution that Those People have attempted to shit all over, so at this point I’m inured to their “inflammatory” tactics. If a toddler throws enough red-faced tantrums, you eventually learn to just corral them somewhere so they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else, read a book ’til they’re done screaming, then pick up their mess and move on.

There’s really only one point that I feel like making here, specifically about Brad Torgersen’s little “Affirmative Action” whinge (located here, thanks to many others for reading his site so I didn’t have to):
Continue reading ›

A Tale of Two Characters

Awhile back I mentioned offhand in another post that readers seem to be harder on my female characters than my male characters. This was in the context of analyzing one-star reader reviews culled from Amazon and Goodreads, and a few folks in the comments asked me to explore that topic further. So here’s a (hopefully) interesting exercise. I’m going to compare reviewer comments on two of my protagonists: Oree Shoth from The Broken Kingdoms, and Gatherer Ehiru from The Killing Moon. (For those who haven’t read either book, remember, you can read the first few chapters here and here, respectively. That might be enough for you to get to know each character, a little.)

To keep this simple, I’m going to look only at Goodreads this time. I’m a little hampered by the fact that few of the one-star reviews for both books have text attached, so I’m going to look at one, two, and three-star reviews in this case. And I’m just going to list individual lines from each review, where they seem to reflect the reader’s opinion of each character. You’re welcome to go over to GR and see the actual reviews if you like, but remember — I think reviews are valuable, even the “bad” ones, because they help me understand stuff about how my potential audience thinks. Please don’t be obnoxious to people who are actually helping me out.

Some spoilers hereforth.
Continue reading ›

A world in which race matters

I’ve been thinking about this article for the last day or so. I posted a link to it on my Twitter feed yesterday, and saw a few reactions to it that seemed… confused. Part of the problem is that the article gets a little muddled at points, I think because it’s talking about a complicated concept: race as identity, versus race as socioeconomic marker within in the modern (racist) political structure. But part of the problem, IMO, is the misconceptions that readers were bringing to the article themselves. A couple even asked (paraphrase, since I didn’t ask them about posting their comment), does this person actually want racism added to their Dragon Age? Which is when I realized that, to a lot of people, race should only exist, or matter, where there is racism.

Which… yeah, OK, no. I mean, I get where this comes from, especially from folks who, like me, live in racist societies. When I say I’m proud to be a black American, it’s in spite of racism, while a white supremacist would declare themselves proud to be white because of racism. (Paraphrasing many people; not sure who originated this way of framing racial pride.) But I’m also proud to be black because blackness is fucking awesome. I am part of a people, and I revel in our collective uniqueness. Why wouldn’t I?

Continue reading ›