We can’t control the changes. But we can affect how things change.
What kind of future do you want? As creative people, we make art that comments on how things are and how things could be. If you think a more broadly representative world would be more fair and interesting, reflect that in your art.
Subverting the stereotypes
If you think harmful stereotypes should be questioned, treat them like the clichés they are. Turn them inside out. Subvert them. Transform them into something fresh and unexpected and better.
That’s just basic sound practice–but you’re also making a statement by the way you make the transformation.
She and I were friendly acquaintances when she lived in the Kansas City area. But ironically our friendship really took off after she moved away. We discovered how much fun it was to talk with each other on the phone, and the rest is history.
Although she and I haven’t lived in the same town in decades, today I count her as one of my dearest friends. We travel to places “partway between” to meet for the occasional face-to-face gabfest, and we’ve shared many adventures over the years.
Lucy’s been there since the beginning of the XK9s
Naturally, she reads drafts of my writing projects in their developmental stages. She offered insights and unflagging encouragement throughout the many, many, many, many early drafts of What’s Bred in the Bone (that’s why her name is on the dedication page).
But she had by then moved into other realms with her artwork, and expressed no interest in illustrating my stories, other than the occasional, small whimsical drawing. Ever creating a cover with Lucy seemed out of the question.
The novella depicts events that happened before the action in What’s Bred in the Bone, when the XK9s and their future partners met on the planet Chayko. The story’s action follows Shady’s eventual partner, Pamela Gómez, and her personal evolution. Lucy had been reading each draft, advising me on the development of the story . . . and cooking up visual ideas.
A creative collaboration
My favorite way to work with a cover artist is to have them read the manuscript, consider the story and how to visually express it, then tell me how they’d like to approach it.
I generally have my own ideas, but the artist knows his or her own vision and capabilities best. The folks I’ve worked with so far also understand the “postage-stamp poster” nature of a book cover. Creating a cover with Lucy or any other artist becomes a creative collaboration.
In this case, Lucy had a very clear idea. There are two pivotal scenes in the story that happen near a bonfire at night. She wanted to use the dramatic lighting at these important moments to create a dynamic cover.
What does an “ashasata” look like?
Most of the action in The Other Side of Feartakes place on Planet Chayko, under the watchful eyes of the XK9 Project’s trainers and officials. Chayko is an exo-Terrestrial planet that humans were allowed to colonize because repeated meteor bombardments had reduced the native life-forms to pre-sapient levels. But it still has a breathable atmosphere, a similar mass (thus, gravity), a G-type star, and many other Earth-like aspects that allow humans to flourish there.
The humans installed a shield to repel the meteor-strikes, then settled in. They brought Earth plants and animals, but never completely terraformed the planet. Instead, it’s a patchwork of native, more “primordial” organisms alongside the imports from Earth.
But what do they look like? The bonfire scenes take place in a rustic setting at the edge of an ashasata forest. We could’ve blurred the details back into the shadows and “faked it,” but Lucy wanted to explore the idea. Ashasatas, she suggested, would look more like the earlier treelike plants on earth. She led me on a journey through the paleobotany of conifers, to the Chilean Monkey Puzzle Tree (yes, this is how nerds have fun).
Pulling it all together
Once we figured out what ashasatas look like, Lucy was able to finish the cover painting in the correct proportions. Here’s a look at the painting without the words all over it.
She ultimately reduced the size of the crowd behind Shady. For those of you who’ve read What’s Bred in the Bone, can you guess which of them are Dr. Ordovich, Dr. Imre the Breeding Coordinator, and Chief Klein?
Other characters whom you’ll meet in The Other Side of Fear are Randy the Education Director and other partner-candidates. Lucy can tell you who everyone is.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the process of creating a cover with Lucy A. Synk. We’ve discussed a lot of other ideas and projects, so look for more artwork from her in the future!
All creative people should consider the issue of representation. Our creative products, be they songs, visuals, stories, or other things, send messages. I’ve considered aspects of these in two recent posts, Who gets represented, and Owning our “own voices.”
I mean the stock characters that always seem to come with an ethnic tag. The Muslim terrorist. For a long time (at least since 9/11) there’s hardly been any other kind in the US media. The undocumented Mexican. How about the inscrutable Asian? Or the hostile Indian (Native American). The list is seemingly endless, and it skews sharply negative.
Thank goodness, we’re becoming more aware that these are bad. No, I’m not just being “politically correct.” That’s a term invented by easily-frightened people who are afraid of losing their privilege, or at least their perceived “right” not to care how others feel. In an interconnected society like ours, lack of empathy is an insidious social poison.
Negative stereotypes and stock characters are bad because we tend to believe what we see. Even if we are confronted in our daily lives with examples to the contrary, repetition of a negative trope/message can interferewith our perceptions. And believing harmful things about others in our society weakens society as a whole.
The power of portrayal
It’s not “harmless,” just because it’s fiction. On the contrary, we craft fiction for a powerful emotional impact. Negative messages are actually more harmful when when clothed in popular fiction, because of their intensity and reach.
Who owns our voices? If you run in the circles I do, you’re aware of the “own voices” movement, which has been growing since 2015. It started in children’s books, but it’s reaching far beyond that now, because it’s a sound idea.
For so many, many years, marginalized voices went unheard. Drawing on Blue Crow’s explanation above, if, for example, you were a trans* person writing about a trans* main character in the past, you wouldn’t even be able to get published at all. The gatekeepers were all whitecis folkwho didn’t have a clue about the issues, drama, and authentic visions of trans* persons.
Heck, most of the traditional media still have a problem letting more marginalized voices speak up. Remember #Oscarssowhite? That was a few years ago (2015), but it seems the lessons keep on having to be re-learned.
Sorry to all the wishful thinkers. No, we are not yet “post-racial.“ We have a long, long, long way to go, before we get there.
I remain convinced that until the rise of indie publishing, and the success of niche markets such as gay erotica (which doesn’t even seem so “niche” any more), we would have seen the “own voices” movement rise even more slowly.
Likewise, intellectual communities are more adaptable, versatile, and robust when they accept many inputs. Our own individual world-views are deepened and enhanced by knowledge of wider ranges of possibility. When we pay attention to writers who tell their own stories and speak in their own voices, our understandings expand.
Who gets represented? In my opinion, that’s one of the most important questions any writer, visual artist, actor, or other creative individual can ask.
So who gets represented in your creative work?
Who wins the final battles? Which character earns their true love’s heart in the end? And how does that true love look? Who plays the villain’s role? Which characters die horribly and get cast into the outer darkness?
The stories we tell and the pictures we create matter. Because who gets represented is a vital question for all of us.
Art is essential to our understanding
There’s an essential reason why art matters, in whatever of its many forms and media. It matters because the stories and the visuals that surround us help us define ourselves and our world.
Representation helps people answer the question, “where do I fit in?” This is especially important for children. They understand the world in the way they see it explained to them, both verbally and visually. They respond to the representations they see.
But it really is a question for all of us throughout our lives. Just look at the assorted reactions to the recent “OK Boomer” fad. If people hadn’t cared how they were being represented, would they have reacted the same way?
Representation represents power
Now we’re getting to the base-level reason why representation is important. Why the question “Who gets represented?” is so urgent. Representation signals and is an outcome of power.
The power dynamics of representation are too big and important a topic to address in the final paragraphs of this blog post, so look for more on this topic in blog posts to come!
Emergency Room visits are a place for story-stuff gathering. Well, urgent other things too, many of them far less fun and diverting, such as the small but painful emergency in my family tonight.
But there’s definitely all kinds of story material just lying around there (or walking through, or yelling from another room). It’s all ripe for the capturing. So many writing prompts! So little time!
It’s a violation of privacy to go see what’s really happening, but nobody’s violating any HIPAA rules if they take that simple input, and make up a story from that and imagination alone.
Writing prompts, such as . . . ?
What’s the kid wailing about, three rooms down? You’d think they were exacting 93-and-a-half minutes of torture. How did s/he end up here? Did somebody say something about an X-ray?
Who’s the woman who keeps patiently telling someone, “No, you can’t get out of bed. No, you can’t stand up”? To whom is she talking? What’s that person’s problem? Why does she remain so patient and kind with them? What kind of person is she, and what is their relationship?
Why were those three police officers standing huddled to one side, talking intently in low tones? Who’s in the room nearby? What brought them there?
For whom did the black priest in the clerical collar arrive? Why is the family in matching sports jerseys crying and hugging in the waiting room? And what’s with Balloon-Woman?
Story-stuff-gathering in practice
Life happens. Writers make stories out of it.
Yes, I spent more time in the ER tonight than anybody ever wants to (unless they work there). The outcome was positive, and the problems are being dealt with. Thank God for the Emergency Room!
But the story-stuff was thick on the ground, and the story-stuff-gathering was awesome. I don’t know when or how or if these elements will show up in a future story, but they helped me deal with tonight, and I’m praying for all of the real people mentioned above (certainly including Balloon Woman).
Whenever life gets tough, I start story-stuff-gathering, and I know I’m not the only one. Because, at their heart, stories are about the tough times, the devastating events, the challenging obstacles that we don’t know how we’ll surmount–and surmounting them.
The role of Story
When our protagonists find a way, they blaze a trail, sometimes. They represent. They offer hope. That’s story-making at its most archetypal, doing its work in the world.
So thank you, God, for story-stuff-gathering opportunities, even when they test and dismay us. And here’s to the hope that we story-makers may be empowered do well by our role the world.