Sex as Worldbuilding

A couple of days ago, I read Karin Kross’s recap of the Sex and Science Fiction panel that happened at SDCC. From Karin’s recap, it sounds like the panel was equal parts thoughtful1 and irritating2. In any case, the recap got me thinking about the role sex plays in my own writing.

Just narrowing the scope of this post to sex, the act itself, and how that has occurred in my fiction, I’ve tried to explore it in ways that mirror the way sex is used Ariah_FrontCoverOnlyin the real world. Which, yes, often sex is an expression of love. Or desire. But many times, sex is divorced from both of those things: it can be used as a weapon (either literallyy or figuratively). It can be used transactionally, economically. Sometimes these uses blend together, and you can’t separate one from another.

Sex for love and desire happens often in my writing; my characters tend to be sexually and romantically agentic people. Yay for them! That’s why Ariah was classified as a romance, after all3. But here are some other ways sex has appeared in my fiction:

Matters of Scale coverMatters of Scale” touches obliquely on the issue of sexual addiction. Both “Matters of Scale” and Ariah explore the intersection of sex and magic with regard to shapers, for whom sex is complicated—consent is tricky because they essentially black out4. Some shapers self-medicate with sex to escape the constant noise of their magical abilities, just like some real-life people use sex to keep anxiety or depression or other demons at bay.

Cargo is one of the very few places I’ve written about sexual violence. It’s a topic I write about infrequently, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s triggering and it’s often written about flippantly and inappropriately. But it does happen.

Cargo also introduced the Aerdh-pirate concept of tethers, or captain’s concubines. CargoMy current work-in-progress, The Search, is exploring the nuance and nature of tetherdom in greater detail. This is sex as transaction, or at the very least implied sex as transaction, but it’s not coercive. The Search is going further, too: what would a brothel that is not coercive and exploitative look like? What would a sex worker-run brothel look like?

All of these elements were as plot-driven and plot-driving as the romantic and lusty bits. All of these elements, I think, were also key to include from a worldbuilding perspective, as well. It’s false to think of sex one way. It has always been a flexible part of human nature, used and abused and traded in a hundred different ways. Hopefully one day we won’t abuse it anymore, but I think we’ll continue to trade it (hopefully ethically—because I think we can trade it ethically). At the very least, unless you’re writing in a utopia, your world needs to include all the permutations of how sex occurs.


1Wesley Chu

2Nick Cole

3Ariah was published by Love, Sex & Merlot, the Romance imprint of the Zharmae Publishing Press, not its fantasy imprint (Luthando Couer).

4I am coming to realize there is likely a whole separate post in this.

Advice for New Writers: Read Your Draft Out Loud

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click through for source

When I first began dabbling in fiction, I would read my pitiful drafts out loud to my partner, Jon. “Can I read you this line? I think something’s wonky here.” He would say sure, and I would start to read my draft, voice wavering, blush rising, and I would hear that wrong word, that errant grammar, the same second he did.

After awhile, it became habit for me to read him finished scenes aloud. I am a terrible copy editor left to my own devices, and I found reading the draft out loud to him helped me suss out nearly all the typos and grammar errors. It also helped me work out the flow of the scene: this sentence is too long and complicated; this sentence is too short and choppy. This paragraph drags on forever. The dialogue here flowed way better in theory than in practice. Reading the written words aloud–while always a touch awkward–helped highlight weak spots I missed just by reading through the draft on my own. Often Jon wasn’t even paying attention. He was watching court TV or folding laundry or cooking dinner and murmuring sweet, supportive words of encouragement at neat, repetitive intervals. But it was good practice. I still do it with final drafts of short stories*, or with particularly difficult scenes in novels, only this time alone in my bedroom in a whisper.

The reason this trick works is because written language and spoken language are tied together. When people read, they do this thing called subvocalization: because we associate words with sounds so strongly, we mentally “speak” the words as we read them. People vary along the degree to which they are aware of which they do this, and apparently a big part of speed reading is investing in techniques to minimize one’s reliance on subvocalization to comprehend and process what you’re reading. Anyway, the gist of it is that when we talk about a writer’s ‘voice’ we are, to some extent, talking about a literal voice–so reading a draft of your work out loud to work out the kinks and zero in on what your writerly voice is when you’re getting started is not as kooky as it sounds.

Also, then, when you make it big you’ll totally have it down for your book readings.

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*I’m not as confident with short fiction as I am with long form fiction, so I tend to run the final draft through every test I can before sending it out for submissions. I trust my gut a bit more by now with novels because I’ve written more of them and have a better sense of what works with them.

Measuring Success

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Thanks, Lithub. I know.* (click for article)

One thing that writers always get asked in interviews, and that I’ve now gotten asked myself, is why we write. Embedded in this question is a question of success: what are you trying to achieve with your writing? How will you know when you have achieved it?

I write because I like to write. And I still like to write–so I am successful on that front.

I write because we need diverse books. I want to contribute to a body of literature that gives voice and life to positive representations of queer characters, women characters, trans* and gender variant characters, characters with disabilities, characters of color, characters in poverty and characters who live at the intersections of all of these axes. I try my hardest to do this.

I publish in case the stories I create resonate with others. It’s not that literally no one will read my book. It’s that just a few people will read my books. Look, who reads book about queer elves? Queer nerds. My own people. I’m not writing for everyone. I’m a queer nerd writing books for other queer nerds. So it’s all right by my if almost literally no one reads my books, because for most people my books probably aren’t really going to resonate. Otherwise I would just write my books and let them hang out on my computer.

Am I successful with publishing these stories and books? There is definitely room to grow. Building a readership is a slow business. But it’s happening. Story by story, book by books it’s happening. Reviews trickle in, I get periodic emails from people I’ve never met who have stumbled across my work, who are moved enough to reach out to me because something I wrote resonated. Because they saw themselves in the queerness of my writing. Which is why I wrote it, and why I shoved it out there in the great glutted marketplace of stories all vying for attention in the first place: in case it made someone marginalized by society feel a little more validated.

I write to validate myself. I publish what I write to validate others like me.

Support diverse literature.
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*For further reading about the insularity and false-famousness of the literary world, read this fascinating interview with Nell Zink.

Advice to New Writers: First, You Have To Finish It

keep-calm-and-finish-it-5In my interview with Prism Book Alliance, I was asked to give new and aspiring writers a piece of advice. The advice I gave was this:

Finish things. When you’re starting to write, it’s really easy to get insecure and to hate your writing and to psych yourself out. It’s really easy to start things but not finish things. But you have to finish things. If you don’t finish the things you start, then you won’t learn how to craft a narrative. You won’t learn how to push through that crappy first draft and turn off that critical editor voice until the second draft. Remember, you can’t publish something that isn’t finished. You have to learn to finish things.

I thought I’d take today’s post to expand on this advice. The funny thing about the way I got into writing fiction is that I started writing to help someone else finish what they started. Basically everything set in the universe of Aerdh–from “The Other Side of Town” to Ariah–can be traced back to that. My partner, Jon, was dabbling in fiction, and I liked what he was writing, but he wasn’t finishing it. So I stepped in to help. I became the finisher. And over time, I ended up doing all the writing.

Not finishing what you start is a form of self-rejection. It’s a way of letting your fear that you’r not a good writer prevent you from doing the work that will actually make you a good writer. The truth of the matter is that when you’re just starting out it probably isn’t good. And that’s ok. The trick is to finish it anyway. You won’t ever get better unless you keep at it. It’s a matter of practice, of building skills. And one of the main skills you need to build is learning to craft a complete story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if you never finish anything, how will you learn to craft an ending?

Many of my friends who have dabbled in fiction but who have not really made a go of it suffer from starting-but-not-finishing syndrome. Either they start a handful of things when inspiration strikes and bail on the stories at the first sign of trouble, or they have been fastidiously tinkering with the same novel year in and year out.

In the first case, this won’t lead to growth as a writer because there’s no diligence. Writing is a craft, and should be treated as such. It’s a set of skills, and if you really want to grow as a writer, you should approach it as a set of tools you want to sharpen and hone. The myth of the muse dropping into your lap, hypnotizing you into feverishly churning out an opus is just that: a myth. This is a way of trying to avoid that there’s the actual work of writing in being a writer. Forcing yourself to finish things, even when it’s a slog, will give you the grit needed to get the work done.

In the second case, you’re not growing as a writer because you’re trying to write and edit at the same time. Do one, then the other. Stop trying to fine tune your first draft before you’ve finished writing it. But that can be hard to do when you’ve tinkered with it for years! By then, you’ve invested so much time and energy that finishing it feels huge and overwhelming. Take the finishing part in pieces. Maybe write the ending and work backwards. But finish it first, then start tweaking it again. Otherwise, you’re just stalling, which is another form of self-rejection. Better yet, finish it, send it to a beta reader, then tweak it per the beta reader’s feedback. But finishing it is key.

Dissecting ARIAH’s Opening Paragraph

Every couple of months, a new listicle pops up on my Facebook or Twitter feed rounding up the greatest opening lines in literature. Or there’s pitchmases. Or there are improve-your-writing articles about landing an agent by sharpening your opening sentences. Obviously the start of a story is important. I think, on that, we can all agree. Today I thought I’d walk you through the evolution of some of my opening lines.

This is the opening paragraph of my second novel, Ariah, which was released last week:

There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

In order to craft successful opening lines, you may need to take a step back and consider what you want them to do. This is your first interaction with your reader. These sentences have to set your tone, kick off your plot, introduce your setting and your characters—any number of things. Choose wisely. In the case of Ariah, I really needed to emphasize:

  • The story is told in retrospect
  • Ariah’s deep emotional sensitivity (he still has nightmares)
  • Ariah is an elf, which is an oppressed class in this world (there are slurs thrown at him when he arrives)
  • Create a sense of urgency and chaos in the reader

Ok, compare that to the opening of the first draft of Ariah*:

I honestly had no idea what to expect that day. I suppose that’s how most feel, though, when they first meet those who are supposed to take them on as apprentices. Then again, usually it’s already someone you know – someone from your town, someone that runs in the same circles with your parents. The kind of person whose children you played with growing up. So most probably at least knew what they were getting into. I didn’t. I was shipped off to the capital, a strange bustling city I’d never been to before, and told to go see someone whose name I’d only ever seen on the spines of books in my mother’s study. All I really knew was that I was terribly nervous. What if he didn’t like me? Would it be worse if he took me on as a pupil anyway or refused my parents’ request? What if I didn’t like him?

Clearly I rewrote this, which means I don’t think it’s that strong. I think this opening lacks urgency—it’s meandering where it should be gripping. It’s thoughtful where it should have some force to it. It’s more focused on Ariah’s unnamed mentor than on Ariah himself. It’s shot through with telling instead of showing: he says he’s nervous, but we, as readers, don’t feel that nervousness. We are not immersed in a situation that makes us feel nervous with him.

Most of my openings start like this in the first draft—bland, telling without the showing. They usually drastically improve in revisions. Often, simply because in the second draft I actually know the story I’m telling. For example, one reason the first draft opening is written about the mentor is because the story was originally supposed to be about the mentor. Ariah was only supposed to be a viewpoint character reflecting on the mentor, but then Ariah took on a life of his own and took over the narrative. He went rogue, and the opening lines became an artifact of a story that was never actually written.

In my writing, the opening lines of first drafts get written first—sloppily—simply because you have to write something. You have to start somewhere. The rest of the draft comes together, the writing tightens up as it does, you find your voice somewhere in the middle and get a cadence. By the end of the first draft you finally have figured out what the story is about. Then, you start rewriting. You fiddle with the first part, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, but those opening lines are actually the last thing to get seriously tweaked and polished precisely because they are the first thing everyone will actually see. Those lines are high-stakes, which makes them intimidating as shit, so you hold them off and perfect everything else, then you perfect them.

I am generally not a critical self-editor, except when it comes to the first paragraph and the last paragraph, these make-or-break-a-book lines. These are the ones that have to be just right. These are also the ones, though, that can be killed by too much fussing. You have to let them breathe; you have to resist the urge to over-write them. You have to trust your gut that you’ve finished them and done them as well as you have it in you to do them. You have to stop yourself from fiddling with them forever to stave off the terror of putting your work out there.

*Oh, man, showing you parts of a first draft is like showing you my messy bedroom. I know everyone has one, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

ARIAH Countdown: ARIAH and Overlapping Timelines in Aerdh

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click through to pre-order!

As I’ve mentioned in other posts , Ariah is set in the same secondary universe—Aerdh—as many of my other pieces of fiction. If curious to see where Ariah fits in chronologically to those other pieces of Aerdh-based fiction, check out this handy timeline I made below!

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The width of the boxes above corresponds to the timeline below: longer boxes mean the story covers more years. The height of the boxes corresponds to the word count of the piece: taller boxes mean the story took more words to tell.

The blue boxes are “canon” works—those which have been published or accepted for publication. I consider something canon when it’s accepted for publication because that’s the point at which I stop fiddling with it, and it becomes a fixed point in the world of Aerdh; these works serve as scaffolding, or the ‘bones’ of the other works.

The gray boxes are unpublished works that are ready or very nearly ready to be submitted for publication. They’re included to give you a sense of scope and the degree of overlap between my Aerdh-based fiction.

ARIAH Countdown: The Value of Magic

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click through to pre-order!

A defining trait of Ariah is the presence of magic. It’s a key element of the world of Aerdh, the book’s setting, and it’s a defining feature of the titular character. The fact that Ariah is, among other things, a magical creature, gets the narrative going—the book starts with him seeking out a mentor who will guide him to mastery over his magical gifts. Such training is traditional for Semadran elves like him, and his particular combination of gifts are rare enough that finding a suitable mentor takes him far from home. Ariah’s gifts are strong enough, formidable enough, that he eventually must take on a second mentor even farther from home to fully understand himself.

Writing fiction is an art defined by choice. So, what drove my choice to weave magic into this book, and to place it so prominently? What makes magic, as an idea, valuable to the reader? And what makes magic, as a fact in Ariah’s world, valuable to him and those around him?

The truth is that magic as an idea is only as valuable as I make it to the reader and to Ariah. It is a clear case of “show, don’t tell.” I can tell you it’s valuable—but unless I shore up that claim with worldbuilding and details and narrative tension then you, as the reader, won’t feel that value. It won’t add anything to your experience of the book.

For Ariah, the value of his magic is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it grants him great insight into those around him. It makes him prescient; it makes him astute. Given his social position as an elf in a Qin-led society, there is value in this. Anyone who has ever been marginalized knows that it pays to pay close attention to those in power. It’s always useful to be the most knowledgeable man in the room. Over the course of the book, his magic saves his life and others’ lives quite literally.

But there is a danger to his magic, too. As protective as his magic can be, the use of Ariah’s magic has the potential to get him arrested, impressed into military service against his will or rejected by friends and loved ones. The use of it sometimes comes at a steep cost for complex, layered reasons: issues of personal privacy, issues of cultural confusion and purity, issues of outright oppression. All of these things weigh on Ariah’s mind in the moments when he must decide when to use his magic and when not to.

For me, a recurrent theme in Ariah is the toll exploitation takes on marginalized people. This is best captured in the relationship the Qin Imperials have towards the Semadran elves’ magic—they use it, constantly, to improve the Empire, but berate it, constantly, as unclean and impure. Elves with a facility for what is called patternwork (something akin to real-world engineering) are assigned work in research laboratories and paid a pittance to design bigger, better factories and military machinery. Those elves continue to live in the ghettos while the Qin profit off their magically influenced creations. Ariah and his mentor, Dirva, get work as linguists, helping to translate in diplomatic parleys between far-flung ambassadors. That Ariah and Dirva know these languages and can learn them extremely quickly due to their magical biological wiring only seems to matter functionally insomuch as it means they can be paid very little.

The Qin have evolved religious reasons why magic is impure. Rationales always spring up to explain away injustices and support the status quo; this is a social fact. By the time Ariah tells his story, these rationales have been ensconced in law, codified and enshrined. His life is structured such that the Qin are able to get the maximum value out of his magic while he reaps the least amount of profit from it—because he is impure for having magic in the first place.

But magic, because it so totally shapes how Ariah perceives and relates to the world around him, also becomes a primary means of his small acts of resistance against the system exploiting him. In the doing, Ariah exists in that tension between the value and the danger of his magic for much of the book.

ARIAH Countdown: Fez and Rabatha

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click through to pre-order!

Much of Ariah is set in the capital city of the Qin Empire, Rabatha. This is where Ariah receives his training with his mentor Dirva. This is where Ariah inevitably returns—twice—after living elsewhere. This is, for a long time, where Ariah calls home.

Rabatha is a bustling city, a place of great political clout, nestled in the heart of the desert Empire. It is an urbane city: universities, libraries, art galleries, exotic markets, the very first clockwork train station. It is the jewel of the Empire. And it also has ghettos.

Ariah, because the Qin have deemed his skills useful to a point, is able to catch glimpses of both sides of Rabatha. He lives in the Semadran districts, but he works in the Qin areas, so he sees this contrast between how his people are forced to live compared to the Qin.

Ariah’s experience of Rabatha is very loosely based on my own experience living, for a

Fez New City (click through for source)

Fez New City
(click through for source)

short time, in Fez, Morocco. I spent time there as a study abroad student in a program focused on cultural psychology; half the time in the program was spent there, and the other half of the time was spent in Tartu, Estonia. It was an immersion program—we learned what we could of the languages (I was terrible at that) and had homestay placements. We took history courses and modern culture courses. We were mostly white college students, and we were cultural tourists, and we bore our immense privilege on our sleeves most of the time. I am exceedingly grateful for the experience.

Fez Medina (click through for source)

Fez Medina
(click through for source)

Morocco stuck with me. It has a deep and fascinating history—every place does. But something about it really stuck with me. My homestay placement was with a family who lived in the new part of the city, the part of the city that had been built by the colonial French. They lived in a beautiful modern apartment—top floor, overlooking the entire city, with a beautiful view of the mosques with their reaching minarets. I remember the building had a doorman. I remember feeling some class shock at that growing up the way I did in the States. I spent most of my time in the medinas, the old city, with its winding narrow streets with walls so high it seemed always in perpetual twilight. The medina was the original Fez, but when the French took the city they forced the Moroccans to move there—all of them. It became a ghetto. It still is a ghetto; the people there are uniformly poorer than the family I stayed with. Poorer and more traditional—the women there wore hijabs; the women in the family I stayed with did not.

Fez Mellah (click through for source)

Fez Mellah
(click through for source)

But it gets more complicated than that. If you dig further into the medina, you find the mellah. There was a period when Jews lived in Morocco, and at that time, they were forced into ghettos of their own, these small pockets of blue-washed walls where they were separated from the rest of the population. They are haunting places.

I think about these evolving relationships—new city, old city; new city, medina, mellah—quite frequently still, ten years later. It was this complexity I wanted to capture in the fictional city of Rabatha.

ARIAH Countdown: Building a Genderqueer Culture

Ariah_banner

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Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.

The above quote was written by Malinda Lo in regard to her novels Ash and Huntress. She writes about how in creating the secondary fantasy worlds in which her queer characters live she as the writer was presented with a choice—are these worlds homophobic, or are they not? Will her characters experience stigma for their queerness, or will their queerness simply be another kind of love?

I read Lo’s article just this week, but it got me thinking about why and how I created one of the cultures within Ariah. Towards the end of the book, in desperate straits, Ariah is forced to wander the eastern grasslands where the nomadic Droma elves live. The Droma elves are a hunted people—taken as slaves by both the Qin Empire where Ariah himself hails from and by the pirate colonies to the south of the Empire. The fact that they are hunted makes them necessarily wary of outsiders. The fact that they trickle into the Empire as slaves means that Ariah, who has a great facility for languages, has already learned to speak Droma by listening to the slaves at market.

One thing about the Droma language that has fascinated Ariah long before he ever meets the Droma in the grasslands (he keeps his distance from the slaves) is that they do not define gender as he himself does (or as most people in the real western world do):

And there was the question of gender, too. At first, it seemed binaristic like most other languages, like Qin and Semadran. There were terms for male and female, differentiations I heard the slaves use for those not of their culture and for animals. But I never heard them use such distinctions towards themselves. It took me some time to parse it, but it became increasingly clear that the Droma did not understand themselves as men or women, but simply as people. The slaves in the city, likely as a means of survival, acknowledged that we divided ourselves as such, and they must have understood that we divided them that way, too, but in the conversations I overheard they only ever used variations on the word voe—the Droma word for “person”—to refer to other Droma and themselves. It fascinated me—how could something so fundamental and so obvious as gender go unseen among them? And what did it mean? How could I be myself without being a man? I wanted very much to understand it, but it was elusive and exotic and always just out of my reach. I couldn’t help but gender them while listening: that one is a male person who is speaking to a female person went my thoughts.

Once Ariah is out in the grasslands, his only hope of survival is to be adopted by a Droma clan. When, by a stroke of luck, he is adopted by a Droma clan, he is confronted with this question of gender (or, rather, the lack of it) again:

I remembered the strangeness of Droma gender. I tried very hard to ignore all the signs of biological sex, to see the child as a person, as voe. If I was to encroach on their lands and ask for their help in survival, I felt the least I could do was get this one basic thing right. But it was hard. It took a very long time before it was easy, or natural, and even then it was hard.

So, here’s the thing about the Droma: to many of you out there they may seem strange. To me, they don’t. I’m genderqueer. I would fit right in. I didn’t set out to build a culture around that, one where I would fit right in—and actually I probably would only fit in in terms of gender because I really hate moving and am otherwise unsuited to a nomadic lifestyle. But the Droma evolved into an agender/genderqueer culture in my worldbuilding quite naturally. When it came time to decide, explicitly, whether they had genders it was easy for me to decide that they didn’t, largely for the reasons that Lo cited above.

Being trans* and/or gender-variant isn’t an issue. Transphobia and unexamined binarism is the issue.

Now this is already a long post, I know, but if you want to know more about what I mean by that, feel free to keep reading. I take a very materialistic approach to worldbuilding, especially as it regards to gender roles within a given culture. And, historically, cultures marred by a lack of resources—cultures characterized by lack and want—develop into very rigid gendered structures. Protection of lineage, parentage, and all that.

But the opposite often proves true as well. If the population is small, and if resources are abundant, then there’s no pressing need to pay strict attention to gender—note that paying strict attention to gender is code for controlling women’s bodies. But it could also mean literally just noticing and codifying gender period.

So, for the Droma, for whom the grasslands provide plentiful resources, and for whom roles in the clan are divvied up based on age and skill, gender literally doesn’t come up. Food and other resources are shared. Childrearing is communal, so lineages are not tied to inheritance or wealth or even parentage the same way they are in, say, the Qin Empire. It is a culture in which gender does not make sense. Even though the Droma have the same biological plumbing as Ariah (as you and I do), it’s still a culture where gender as a social construct does not make sense.

One wonders what kind of culture shock this means for the Droma who get taken as slaves—this is not yet something I’ve explored in my writing. Something I do know is that it has created a kind of minor reverse culture shock in some of my beta readers. At least one of the quotes above was added in edits due to feedback received because a reader thought Ariah adjusted to the Droma’s concept of gender too quickly.

I’ve said before that I like speculative fiction’s ability to pose radical ‘what ifs’. I think this is one of those for me. What if such a culture existed? What would it be like? For me, those are powerful questions worth asking.

ARIAH Countdown: A Short History of ARIAH

Today’s post is essentially a post-mortem. This is a short history of how Ariah the book came to be written, and then how it came to be published. I am always interested in that kind of contextual backstory, so I thought maybe some of you out there might be interested in it, too. Remember, you can pre-order Ariah here!

ARIAH_ShortHistory