I’ve invited a group of transfeminine SFF authors to talk about craft and worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy, and it’s been amazing to hear how our panelists go about weaving the magic in their stories! In part one of this interview, we talked about worldbuilding, and you can read that here!
In part two, we focus on craft, and at the end of the interview you can read about the current and upcoming projects from all the panelists and get their recommendations for all the best transfeminine SFF books!
The panelists are:
Charlie Jane Anders
Worlds are built with words; give us a sense of what goes into your process when you’re fine-tuning your prose to make it fit the story you’re trying to tell.
Ela: Prose is like setting or more general worldbuilding. It should always be in service of story. Prose gives us a sense of place, but also of energy. The prose is the first thing the reader sees so it needs to inform how seriously they should take this work. Pratchett makes it very clear that his stories are playful by winking at the start, but then adds nuance by having the thing that is actually happening be quite serious. For a playful “don’t worry about it” setting I try to make sure I pepper in those sillier metaphors and similes, or a sense of comedy that elevates the narrator to its own character (like in Principles of Non-Euclidean Romance). More serious settings that are internally consistent with themselves, it’s important to maintain a sense of place by the narrator speaking as someone within the setting, though perhaps with a translator. Sayings, turns of phrase, references and comparisons all need to be internally consistent, which can be difficult but, ultimately, both necessary and rewarding. And it gives you the chance to do a lot of research into how idioms are formed, which is always a trip.
May: I agonize over prose! Maybe because I adore beautiful writing and the artistry of words, but also because I am, if nothing else, a dyed-in-the-wool neurotic. I find what helps my prose flow not only the most easily, but the most elegantly and naturally, is to find a place of relaxation inside myself so the energy of play and daydream can suffuse the process. Anxiety and perfectionism, my drugs of choice, can really get me rigid and tense about how good my words are going to feel to someone reading them, which ironically—and painfully—makes my writing feel clumsier than ever. But I will share a magical secret I’ve learned through observing this dance of tension and relaxation: it is a lot easier to be calm when revising and editing, and then the stiff bits of writing are also easy to smooth out. But some real sparkling gems of prose come out when I’m in a relaxed drafting flow, and that’s always so exciting to watch unfold.
Vyria: I think prose is far more important than people tend to think. I don’t care how revolutionary your concepts are, how wonderful your worldbuilding is, if you can’t convey that in a way that keeps me engaged and delighted. I’m a writer who leans heavily on exploration writing and often the words just flow for me, but I’ve trained that intuitive sense of wordflow by reading a lot, but also reading a lot of authors with strong prose. It’s important to read more than just a narrow niche of writing, whether that’s YA or mysteries or whatever other genre/category you can think of. Prose is not just about how you convey information either, it can set the tone and vibes of your story. Steve Brust is an author I admire and I love how the way he constructs prose in the Vlad Taltos books and in the Phoenix Guard series is so very different, that it changes how you read stories set in the exact same world. The Vlad books have a dry, witty noir vibe to them at times. Phoenix Guard, on the other hand, is meant to read like The Three Musketeers and is incredibly verbose and long-winded, but often in a way that is amusing, with a dash of chivalry and adventure coming through. Whenever I get stuck on prose, I always go back to reading more books until I feel like the words are flowing once more.
Abigail: I’ll spend so much time trying to make sentences flow well, like the rolling of the tide, ins and outs so they can be followed, with tide swells of meaning accentuated by the break of that flow, often in preparation for the next scene. I want the Pride, Pain & Petticoats series to sound like they’re a story being read *to* you, not that you’re reading them, with all the hitches and intuition of a storyteller.
Charlie Jane: I’ll spend an hour sometimes just tweaking a sentence to try and make it more musical-like. I’ll also do wack shit like write a poem that captures the mood I’m trying to get, and then I’ll sprinkle bits of the poem into my story wherever they can fit. I have so many ridiculous prose tricks.
Devi: For me, everything is secondary to cadence and flow: proper grammar is less important than achieving rhythm. Incidentally, I overuse em dashes and semicolons.
When it comes to plotting, how precisely do you lay out the map of your story before you write? How often does what emerges from your fingertips surprise you?
Ela: Really exactly. I have some pretty bad memory issues. It’s something I’ve learned to live with, but it also means I can’t do seat-of-my-pants writing the way some authors do. My process is as follows: First, the concept. Then I figure out the vibe of the story and what kind of tension and rising and falling action I want. Cut it into acts. Figure out how long I want the story to be. Then, write down every major story beat in a paragraph (usually about 3 or 4 paragraphs per act). Finally, create an excel file, summarize those story beats at the appropriate point in the story (so the act 2 finale would end up at about chapter 24 of 30, for example). Then, slot in everything in between. Figure out where the story needs space. Where it needs to go faster. Trim the fat and stuff the holes. Make it longer or shorter as needed. Then I start writing at the top and work my way to the bottom of the sheet, in chronological order.
May: I find here that stories, once again, have a characteristic of magic and enchantment to them—they both have a surprising natural order, and yet are completely untameable, wildly shifting shape or becoming exactly what you hoped in the space of eyeblinks—often both. I’ve experimented with many kinds of planning and structuring techniques. They all have a certain power to them that may help writers, but underneath them, storytelling still flows from the current of daydream. And it is daydreaming that I find, over and over again, to do the most to put flesh on the bones of stories I imagine. Nothing quite replaces giving myself time to explore the creative possibilities through feel, playing with the characters I’ve envisioned in an unstructured way. Often I go to sleep gently imagining those characters doing or feeling whatever comes to mind, in mini-dreams that sometimes become events in the book, and sometimes stay private moments that nonetheless enrich my connection to the story’s world. You can structure this process, somewhat (again, at least for me the unstructuredness of it is part of the power of it), with tools like freewriting, mind maps, impromptu pictures, brainstorm sessions, or even more traditional outlines and plot diagrams. The thing that makes any of those things effective is that they spark the imagination during a time in which there are no wrong or right answers.
Vyria: I try to plot the general arc of a story, but as I like to discovery write, that plot can shift heavily if I come up with something new. Lately I’ve found that instead of keeping clear, ordered notes, I benefit more from putting my ideas into a word chart of sorts and drawing lines of connection between important concepts. Taking a character name and putting little snippets about their past, their personality, etc, that all helps me keep things organized while staying loose enough that writing the notes themselves doesn’t detract from the story writing.
Abigail: It all exists up here, there’s nothing else going on in my mind. I have an idea of the general arc of the story, but I find that if I write them down I’ll forget, and so I portion it out little by little. I know where to start and where to end, what needs to be where for what I have planned, but I’ve never written it out or plotted, just discovery wrote throughout. I cannot *plan* poignant scenes, I must feel them, so my readers can, too. I think it’s worked well!
Charlie Jane: I always say that a good writing day is one where I’m surprised. I try to figure out a lot of stuff in advance, but I also try to let the characters make choices that come out of what they’re feeling and thinking — and I can’t usually predict that beforehand. There’s a huge event halfway through Victories Greater Than Death that totally blows up the story and changes everything going forward, and I had *no idea* that was going to happen. That’s when I feel like fucking magic.
Devi: Without fail, the entirety of the plot—and by that, I mean the major character beats, the clever turns that will harm and help our heroes, the emotionally resonant denouement—all of it comes to me in a single flash while I’m standing in the shower. Too many times, I’ve rushed to the computer in only a towel to message Benjanun that “I have it!” I am not bragging here: this is a terrible way to brainstorm! It really drives home the idea that I am some sort of black box of unknowable impulses, incapable of creating predictable output from routine input.
Another downside of this is that sometimes I don’t end up articulating what came to me, and Benjanun—as if receiving an infuriating phonecall in the middle of the night from Coop, that he knows who killed Laura Palmer—then has to patiently want for days or even weeks as I write out the details, trusting that I know what I’m doing with a particular scene.
When writing the conclusion of a story, what are your goals? What if anything do you owe the reader by the end of a book?
Ela: I don’t owe the reader a god damn thing! :p I’m only half joking, honestly. I think what a story needs is some kind of satisfaction, even if that satisfaction is just for me having written it. Usually, though, I try to finish it like an essay. Most books are trying to tell you something, even if that thing is “being in love is pretty good, actually” or “it’s nice to have friends.” By the end of the book, I try to pay off that sales pitch, then potentially set up a sequel or imply that the story continues, if not for us, then for the characters, letting them live on a little longer in the reader’s minds. Beyond that, it’s almost always a matter of genre and vibes.
May: This is going to sound absurdly narcissistic, but one of my most treasured goals is for the reader to come away from the book with a touch of my soul on theirs. For the essence of my heart, with whatever color or fragrance defined that particular story, to now have joined with the reader, imprinting onto them as they go about the rest of their lives. Obviously, this is a pretty big goal, and there is no way to make certain it will happen. Remember, magic is irrational! So this often means that my goal is to delve into whatever is most emotionally significant for me about the book I’m writing, trusting the magic to spring forth and carry that import from me to my readers in some way. Writing a book is a mix of exploration, performance, and spiritual thirst. I am, at my heart, looking for something without name or form, something I need to find at the depths of this experience, and even if I’m never sure I’ve found it, some of the tearstained glitter of my yearning will shape the story I create. If I want to touch my readers, I need to be touched in turn by what I write.
Vyria: I generally like to have an ending in mind before I begin a story, or at least a resolution of some kind. My first book didn’t have one and ending it was a huge pain in the ass, so from then on I’ve had rough ideas at the very least. I don’t really tend to think about what I owe the reader, because my goal is always to tell a story that I’m happy with and I expect that if I’m happy with it, others will be too. It helps that I serialize my work chapter by chapter, so I tend to have a good idea of whether readers are satisfied or not.
Abigail: I want to connect my book to the next book and so on. If it’s a series, as Pride, Pain & Petticoats is, that means closing the main hook of the story for that book, closing loose ends left in the previous book (as set up for this one), or following on to through-line B-plots. Each of the main girls in Marianne’s Academy has a character arc, but not all are shown at all times, and the political intrigue might take the entire series to shake out entirely! I want my books to feel like complete stories while each being part of something bigger.
Charlie Jane: I always think of the ending as being the characters arriving someplace on their journey. You don’t have to answer every question or resolve every last plot point, but I like the feeling that the characters are disembarking in some sense, and that they’ve been changed by their travels.
Devi: I want my readers to cry. I want them to put down my book and have felt something. I want the characters I have written to resonate with the reader: that the fantastic struggles of these fantastical fake people say something about their struggles, that in this beautiful lie they have heard an echo of their own losses and triumphs. I want them to have a better understanding of themself or their world. I want them to have a favorite; I want a turn-of-phrase to stay with them forever.
These are very big asks, and I don’t think everything I write is capable of achieving this; I am not so conceited. Perhaps the nature of goals is that they should always be unachievable.
But sometimes, once in a blue moon, a reader will send me a message and say, “You know that story you wrote, the one with the sexy weretiger? You know that utterly absurd premise, the one that had the really hot sex? Well, the way you wrote about the sexy weretiger’s struggle with forgiveness, that meant something to me. For one brief moment, I understood myself better, because I read your writing. Thank you. Also, the sex scenes were really hot.”
Writers are always working to improve on their craft; what’s one area you’ve improved the most on over the course of your career, and another area you’re working hard on right now because you know you could be better at it.
Ela: I have a hard time telling where I’ve improved, but there are a few. There are cultural insensitivities in my early work (Demon Queen suffers from some pretty bad white-saviorism) and the story’s structure was all over the place. I think I’ve definitely grown in my ability to tighten a narrative up to just how long it should be for the story I want to tell. That, and I’ve gotten better at more complex narratives with more moving parts.
May: I think for me the biggest areas have been focus and confidence. Writing is a sensitive thing, and I found it hugely painful in the beginning to pursue it. It’s hard to express why, but it just means so much to me, and the whole thing has always felt so personal, which has meant that the sense of vulnerability in doing the writing has at times been unbearable. Maybe for similar reasons, I’ve also tended to struggle to know what needed to be in the final story and what didn’t. The process is so personal that a lot of stuff comes out, but not every part of it is necessarily the best thing to show the reader, because stories need to have particularity and shape. Some of my earlier works ended up so long that no one would have realistically called them single books. Both the courage to keep telling the story and the wisdom to give it the right form have grown with time, and will keep growing. I still see myself as needing to develop when it comes to these things, perhaps especially confidence, which ironically I would also say is probably the area I need to grow the most even after all this. I still find myself terrified to write the stories that come from the deepest places of my heart, to the point that the more important a book is to me, the more I can find myself unconsciously resisting it.
Vyria: As Ela said, it’s a little hard sometimes to tell where you’ve improved, but I think I’ve definitely gotten better at pacing and especially dialogue. I challenged myself early on to never use dialogue tags and while I don’t do that anymore, I do think it helped me try to make character voice very distinct. As for what I’m working on now, it’s ability to tell a longer story. My works have been in the novella/short novel range and my current project has already surpassed those with the end not nearly in sight. So I’m learning as I go, trying to keep up the momentum without losing the plot and without new chapters feeling worse.
Abigail: I used to be far more meticulous in time use, such that I was digging through calendars for exact dates, looking up moon phases and other things. I almost finished my first book, Eventide, that way, and it was so bloated that it could truly never be all that good. While I still center meticulously on time/historical details now, it’s more constrained and focused. I’ll rewrite my first book sometime, and finally make it good to release! Maybe I’ll work on that alongside Volume 3…
Charlie Jane: I’ve been working really hard to get better at capturing emotion and making my characters feel more like living, breathing people — my fiction used to be just some weird ideas and funny hijinks, with mostly one-dimensional characters stumbling through it all. It’s really really hard to stay true to my characters and their feelings, but it’s so rewarding. I tried for a while to dial back the humor to make more space for emotion and interiority, and I think/hope it paid off.
Devi: My big success has been committing to long-form projects. When I first started writing under this penname about five years ago, I could only write in sprints: either I finished a short story in a few days or it would never be finished. And there’s a certain immaturity in that, an inability to put one foot in front of another and build something larger and more lasting. I still feel as if I haven’t succeeded, but I turn around and see my bibliography has five books in it, so I must be doing something right: one foot in front of another, walking toward something new. Also, I need to get better at editing. It doesn’t matter how good an idea you have—if you drop a critical word from the sentence, it’s not going to land. I’m very lucky that Benjanun is such a good co-writer and editor, but I need to pull my own weight more.
Tell us about any recent releases and upcoming projects we should be unreasonably excited about. And don’t be shy with the links!
Ela has 6 books on Amazon, which can be found here. Her story Clear Blue can be purchased in the Mermay Bundle on Itch.io here. She has many series on Scribblehub, including Nexus Alpha, an ongoing series about trans mecha pilots, here. You may notice that some of her published books started as Scribblehub series!
May: My Sacred Dark series is a few years old, but I still hope for people to enjoy and be touched by it! You can find buy links and more info about it on my website or from Harlequin. In particular, the third book, The Calyx Charm, meant a lot to me because it’s my first published novel with a transfeminine main character, and the first adult romance with a trans woman main character published by a Harlequin imprint (or any adult romance Big 5 imprint, I’ve been told, but it can be hard to be sure of that)! As for upcoming works from me, it’s too soon to have publishing info, but I can’t wait to share some of the stories that have been living inside me over the past several years.
Vyria: My most recent standalone book is Catnip. The response to it has been wonderful, especially as Catnip was meant to be a light-hearted queer story full of comfort and joy while still acknowledging that life is never purely sunshine and rainbows, because I wrote it after working on a much heavier fanfic. I also put out Wyrmheart since then, which is a short novella set in Maria Ying’s Chainverse setting (with the blessing of the writers) and it was fun to write something in a contemporary fantasy setting and feature a protagonist who is very different from my other works. As far as ongoing projects: right now my primary project is Forged in the Light of New Stars. This is a far future (think Nier to Nier Automata) sequel to The Hatchling, my first novella and is also my take on the isekai genre. It follows two trans women, one who is aware of herself but hasn’t been able to transition and another who has repressed her true self to the point of forgetting, as they get transported to Tellara, the fantasy world The Hatchling took place in. This is a Tellara that has undergone a great cataclysm and risen from those ashes to create a civilization of magitechnical wonders and a society of community and cooperation. I wanted to tackle a lot of fantasy tropes and isekai tropes that I have issues with or think are a little stale in this one, so it’s been exciting to explore that. I’m also working on a short story and a sequel to Catnip that I am excited about. Those are still early stages, but all can be found over on my Patreon and Scribblehub.
Abigail: I just released Pride, Pain & Petticoats Volume 2, and lowered the price of Volume 1 as well! I have so many different projects in the works, but I’m having a little trouble actually getting them done. I like to jump from one place to another rather than stick to any one thing, and I do also try not to eat all of my time up in writing, too. With a full time job, I will write into the early hours(by which I of course mean ‘agonize over how to put things’ most of the time), if I let myself! But don’t worry, I am working on many, many books, it’s just that I don’t have any quite ready to reveal more than the idea behind them!
Charlie Jane: Here’s the Unstoppable trilogy (from Tor Teen.) I’m so proud of these books, and especially how queer I managed to make them while still telling a crackerjack Star Wars-y story. I’d also be super grateful if more people read Escapade’s journey in Marvel Comics — it should all be on Marvel Unlimited at this point. Start with Marvel’s Voices: Pride (2022) #1 and then read New Mutants #31 through 33 (or New Mutants Vol. 04), and finally New Mutants: Lethal Legion (or you can pre-order the Lethal Legion collected edition!) Also, I’m reviewing SFF books every month in the Washington Post. Oh, and please subscribe to my newsletter!
Devi: Benjanun Sriduangkaew and I already started work on our next book, The Hades Calculus, a lesbian scifi retelling of Hades and Persephone coming in mid-2024, in which the gods of the besieged city state of Elysium choose human champions to pilot their deific mechs. I also have a Patreon where I will occasionally post new short stories.
I don’t see as much transfeminine representation in books as I would like, but I hope we are approaching a turning point. Please drop any recommendations you might have, whether SFF or not–and do go on at as much length as you like!
May: The authors on this panel already make up an excellent rec list in its own right, and there are many names we could add to it. But authors and titles I always like to shout out include Penny Aimes and her debut novel, For the Love of April French, which is the first contemporary romance featuring a trans woman lead printed by a Harlequin imprint (Carina press, same publisher as me!). I also adore Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom.
Vyria: Everything by the authors here is definitely worth your time. I would also like to recommend Sisters of Dorley by Alyson Greaves, To Own the Libs by Zoe Storm, Wrath Goddess Sing by Maya Deane, and also so many stories over on Scribblehub.com under the transgender tag. There are a host of new and amateur writers doing wonderful work over there and I’d encourage everyone to go take a look. I am eager to see more transfem representation in all forms of media and I think we are indeed on the precipice of an explosion in transfem stories, particularly by transfem authors.
Abigail: Please read everything by Maria Ying, the Those Who Break Chains series has a handful of trans representation, and of course, practically everything by Zoe Storm, Sisters of Dorley by Alyson Greaves, Wrath Goddess Sing is absolutely phenomenal, and when I get around to having a bookshelf, practically everything Vyria here writes is going on the shelf. I don’t have enough time to read as much as I like, but every snippet, every page, I’ve been able to consume? Wonderful. Truly, some of the best of us!
Charlie Jane: Umm… I just read Atoms Never Touch by micha cárdenas, which I highly recommend. Also recently: OK Psyche by Anya Johanna DeNiro, All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From by Izzy Wasserstein, Unity by Elly Bangs, and Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, off the top of my head. I also urge everyone to hunt down books by April Daniels, Roz Kaveney, and Rachel Pollack. Oh, and here’s a list I did a while back in my newsletter.
Devi: If you like my writing, then I can unequivocally state that you’ll like Rien Gray: a queer, nonbinary author who features a great many trans characters as heroines. In particular, their sapphic knights series—only available on itch.io because it’s too steamy for Amazon—is a unique, queer take on Arthuriana. There’s also Jemma Topaz, a favorite trans author of mine that has released several SFF books, including Pirates and Tyrants, a series that she’s characterized as “a high-heat lesbian space adventure with bondage, discipline, and submission.” Very above board, that one, very Foucauldian.
In addition to the recommendations listed above, I wanted to share an invaluable resource, May Peterson’s Twitter mega-thread of transfem authors and books. Despite the Hellsite it’s stored on, it’s one of the best lists I’ve come across.
And I’m linking my reviews of books by some of these fabulous authors below.
A huge thanks to all the authors for taking the time to share with us, and for the amazing stories they’re sharing with the world! On a personal note, these stories have made a huge difference to me as a reader, an author, and a human being, and I look forward to catching up on the ones I haven’t read yet!